What Happens When the US No Longer Has Moral Authority?

Posted on 11/17/13
By Peter Van Ness | Via East Asia Forum
US Capitol building in Washington DC. (Photo by Tom Harris, Creative Commons License)
US Capitol building in Washington DC. (Photo by Tom Harris, Creative Commons License)

President Obama’s recent failure to attend the APEC meeting in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei was only symbolic of the US decline.

The reality is more profound. Over the past 30 years, the United States as the predominant power has provided a public good in East Asia, enjoyed by allies and adversaries alike — including China — by maintaining political stability in the region. Each of the different East Asian countries has had a fairly clear idea about what the United States would do with respect to the key strategic problems in the region: Taiwan, the DPRK and the South China Sea being three clear examples. They may agree or disagree with what the United States does, but they have all enjoyed the stability that the US role has provided.

From the US perspective, this role is founded on a claimed moral authority, often referred to as US exceptionalism, a claim that has been accepted or rejected in varying degrees by the other parties. But the United States’ exceptionalist claim to be a model of democracy for the world has increasingly rung hollow to many, as successive American administrations have violated the very values that they have so often proclaimed.

Does it matter? Should we care? Is it only a concern for those Americans, who, like former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, see the United States as ‘the indispensable nation’ of special people who ‘stand tall and … see further than other countries into the future’?

George W. Bush’s unauthorized invasion of Iraq, the US torture of prisoners, so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’, and the incarceration without due process in Guantanamo and elsewhere — these all violated America’s most hallowed civil and political rights. And then, the US failure to regulate its financial industry, which led to the global financial crisis, threatened the viability not just of the US economy but also the global financial system. Later, President Obama’s fascination with drones, and once again, the American exceptionalist claim that it had the right to seek out and murder anyone in the world who it claimed was a ‘terrorist’, even if that person was an American citizen, raised more doubts. Who gave the US government the authority to make life or death decisions for the citizens of any country if they may be seen as a threat to the United States?

Yet Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on allies and adversaries alike, including US citizens, may present the most damning evidence of the American moral collapse. The official documents that Snowden has made public show that the NSA implements a purposeful and continuing invasion of private electronic communications globally, including America’s friends and enemies, as well as the US public. Whether you are Russian, Chinese, French or American, the NSA aims to be able to access your bank account or health records — or even your electronic love letters. Even George Orwell could not have imagined such a comprehensive violation of citizens’ civil rights. Without an assurance of the privacy of personal communications how can any democratic polity thrive?

Finally, the world watched recently while America’s elected officials, senators and representatives, toyed with the future of the US economy, apparently oblivious to the broader, global implications of the government shutdown and a possible debt default. Posturing for the cameras in their various maneuvers, they demonstrated that, for them, the outcome of their childish games was more important than any price that the US public — or even the world — might have to pay for their folly. Such is the arrogance and the myopia of politics within the beltway in Washington, DC. Now, they have only agreed to a postponement of the hard decisions they will have to make, so next January and February we may have yet another episode in the fiasco of federal government paralysis.

The influence of moral authority on power relationships in international affairs is obviously very difficult to pin down. Intuitively we know that it has a significant impact, but we are unclear about exactly how. In East Asia today, the problem of a collapse of US moral authority is central to the future of the region. What impact will it have on the United States, its allies and its adversaries? Many people are asking this question.

Dr Peter Van Ness is a visiting fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.

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