US will take back seat in new world order, says think tank

Think tank says America is in transition between interventionist era and a new role, while China's leadership transition will change global politics


A series of political transitions led by the Arab spring uprisings are shifting the balance of world power with the United States set to play a less dominant role, a leading think tank said yesterday.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) warned that the optimism of the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East had been replaced by disillusionment at the pace of reform and fears that Islamist parties may fill the power vacuum.

Presenting its annual report in London, the IISS also noted upcoming elections in the US and leadership upheavals in China, North Korea and Russia as factors changing world politics.

"After a short burst of bewildering change, the year to mid-2012 was one in which people whose interests were threatened tried to apply the brakes," said the report, called "Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs".

"This was most obvious in the Arab world after the revolutionary wave of 2011 … But it was also occurring in a Europe struggling to work its own path to the future, in Russia after the re-election of Vladimir Putin, and in China where a leadership change was also under way.

"The United States remained in transition between an interventionist era and a new role, yet to take shape."

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi as Egyptian president following the removal of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak demonstrated the skill of the region's Islamist parties in exploiting political insecurity, the report said.

It also warned that the Islamist upsurge would have a marked effect on the area's geopolitics, making Israel increasingly nervous and threatening a fraught relationship at the complex heart of Arab relations.

The ongoing unrest in Syria threatens a showdown with Turkey and also promises to further complicate Iran's position in the region, reasoned the report.

"Heated rhetoric between Damascus and Ankara, Syrian incursions into Lebanon and questions about the posture of Hezbollah … all held the potential for military escalation," it cautioned.

The report suggested that the region's powers would be less inclined to look to Washington for guidance due to US budget cuts and lessons learned from Iraq.

"It may be a temporary phase, but much of the world now expects less of Washington and hangs on its actions to a much-reduced degree," it concluded.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are currently slugging it out in the presidential race, but whoever wins in November, the US will play more of a back-seat role.

"America is drawing its military horns, and cuts in defence spending are supported by a war-weary public across political lines," the report argued.

"For Obama or Romney, the key areas at issue during the next presidential term seem likely to be domestic, with economic and fiscal matters paramount."

It also predicted instability in Russia despite Putin's relatively smooth return to power. It said protests at his re-election "confirmed the country has reached a level of socio-economic development at which it was no longer possible for a single ruler to run the entire country".

The report was pessimistic about the prospects for North Korea following the appointment of Kim Jong-un in December.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: U.S. 'to take back seat in new world order'