Western political actors — the United States, in particular – are becoming increasingly unpopular in the international political community, having gained a reputation of being untrustworthy. They have become known as “defaulters,” not afraid to break promises if those promises no longer suit their own interests.
While the West did not gain this reputation overnight, several recent events have contributed to the feeling that the US and the entire Western bloc are unreliable partners. Last week, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave an interview with a German newspaper, Die Zeit, in which she suggested that the primary motive behind the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 – officially agreed upon to stop the war between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine – was to buy time for Ukraine to better prepare for future hostilities. Merkel’s remarks have been interpreted as an indirect admission that Ukraine and its Western allies never truly intended to bring a halt to the fighting in the Donbas. The former Chancellor has been criticized, in response, not least by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stated that Merkel’s remarks were “completely unexpected and disappointing.” He added, “There is a question of trust on the agenda and it is already close to zero.”
The European Union’s blocking of Russian assets is a further action that has sparked controversy. Financial institutions in the EU and the G7 hold €300 billion of Russian Central Bank and €19 billion of private Russian assets, which have been immobilized and cannot be accessed. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has pledged to seize those assets and use them to support the reconstruction of Ukraine. However, there is currently no legal mechanism to confiscate Russian assets. Stephan Schill, a Professor of international and economic law and governance at the University of Amsterdam, suggests that, “From an international law perspective, it’s pretty clear that without Russia’s consent you can’t use Russian central bank assets.” He added that seizing assets from private Russian individuals is also legally difficult, stating, “The EU and member states are trying to introduce new criminal law.” In illegally blocking and attempting to seize the assets of a sovereign state, the EU and its allies have shown that they will only respect the law, when it suits their interests. Furthermore, they are signaling that foreign assets are only safe in their institutions, if relations between the two respective parties are good. If relations turn sour, as they have between Russia and the EU, the latter will not be afraid to unilaterally immobilize assets, even without legal backing. Foreign actors should, therefore, think twice before moving their assets into institutions based in the West.
The Global Times, an English-language news outlet tied to the Chinese Communist Party, also recently published a damning article about the lack of trust left in the West. The US, specifically, was singled out for criticism, “The agreement the US wants is never about credibility; it is all about interests. An agreement is seen as useful by the US when it can advance the country’s interests; otherwise, Washington is always ready to deny it. This is exemplified by US’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”
In the unipolar world order of the 1990s and the 2000s, with the US as the undisputed global hegemon, Western actors could still afford to break others’ trust. They were, in essence, protected by collective Western hegemony, too influential and powerful to be punished for going back on their word. However, this is no longer the case. The US remains a strong and important country, but the rise of China and the re-emergence of Russia as a global power have weakened the US’s position. The fact that Moscow and Beijing are actively working to establish an alternative to the globally dominant Western-backed SWIFT payment networking system is a further sign of the US’s decline. States around the world can now afford to loosen ties with the West, knowing that they can ally with a genuinely competitive political bloc, led by Russia and China.
Saudi Arabia, a long-standing US-ally, is doing precisely that, clearly re-positioning itself as part of the BRICS-bloc, while slowly easing away from its commitments to the West. This is exemplified by the stark contrast in which US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping were greeted, upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia, for meetings with Saudi officials, including Crown Prince and de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman. Biden was received by bin Salman with a casual fist bump, whereas Saudi Arabia rolled out a purple carpet for Xi Jinping. Even Saudi Arabia’s King, Salman bin Abdulaziz – 86 years of age and suffering from illness – greeted Xi. The two heads of state then went on to sign the most comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between the two countries, to date. The striking difference between the reception of Biden and Xi, respectively, has been interpreted as a clear message from the Saudis that its alliances are shifting. Two decades ago, relations between China and Saudi Arabia were non-existent, and the US was the biggest consumer of Saudi oil. Today, China is the Kingdom’s biggest trading partner, having imported an excess of $50 billion in 2021, more than 18% of all of Saudi Arabia’s exports. On this matter, Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst, remarked: “Saudi is, of course, not indifferent to the US which continues to be a key partner. But the Kingdom has learned the hard way that the US cannot be relied on consistently for support.” He added, “The Kingdom has to work around that reality and develop multiple key relations in an increasingly multipolar world. That is a process that began a few years ago and is irreversible.” Given that Saudi Arabia is one of the founders of the petrodollar – a vital source of America’s global power – their political shift is all the more significant.
Exemplified by Saudi Arabia’s realignment, the US is becoming increasingly isolated. The US’s allies, namely NATO countries, Japan, and South Korea, are – from a population standpoint – heavily outnumbered by the opposing bloc, which consists of BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, and much of Africa. While many countries around the world are yet to fully commit themselves to one side, instead opting to keep one foot in each camp, the manpower of a swiftly industrializing Asia, in combination with Russia’s supply of raw materials, is sure to threaten the US’s global dominance. With the US being deemed untrustworthy by an increasing number of political actors around the globe, causing support for China and Russia to steadily rise, the era of global US hegemony has come to an end. It is time to face reality; we are now living in a multipolar world.
[Photo by Prime Minister’s official, Japan via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
John Horstmann obtained a Master’s Degree in Political Economy from the University of Amsterdam in 2022. He writes on all things politics, with a particular interest in analyzing global power dynamics and geopolitics.