At the end of the Cold War and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the sole superpower. Because of its enormous economic and military power, the US loomed large like a colossus on the global geopolitical scene.
No other country in the world was even close to it in terms of economic and military strength. It was fashionable at that time to proclaim that in place of the bipolar world of the Cold War era, a unipolar world had dawned.
The period of unipolarity with the US as the dominant global power, however, did not last long. It was China’s phenomenal economic progress that effectively cut short America’s unipolar moment.
China under its paramount leader Deng Xiaoping embarked upon a programme of far-reaching economic reforms and opening to the outside world in 1979. These policies put China on the road to rapid economic progress and within a period of three decades catapulted it to the position of the second biggest economy of the world after overtaking the Japanese economy in 2010.
While America’s GDP ($16,333 billion) still remains ahead of that of China ($9,233 billion) in nominal dollar terms, China is catching up fast with the US economy because of its sustained high economic growth rates.
China’s rapid economic growth combined with fast-growing economies like those of India, Brazil, South Korea, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia is radically transforming the global geopolitical scene.
The centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting from the Atlantic region to Asia-Pacific region. No major decision affecting the world trade and economy can be taken now without the concurrence of the major Asia-Pacific countries. From the economic point of view, this transformation has already brought about a multipolar world.
It is inevitable that high growth rates of the emerging major economies will lead to increase in their military expenditures to protect their expanding global economic interests. By way of example, China is rapidly increasing its annual military budget, which in the current year would amount to $116 billion.
The same trend can be seen in the military budgets of other emerging major economies. American overwhelming superiority in the military field is likely to be challenged by the emerging great powers like China and Brazil after another two to three decades.
What are the policy implications of these trends for the rest of the world, particularly for Pakistan?
It is true that the US still remains by far the most powerful nation in the world, both economically and militarily. The US also has the advantages of advanced technology and “soft power” over its competitors. However, as noted earlier, the US economic and technological advantage over China and other rapidly growing economies is fast eroding. It is no longer in the position to dictate to the rest of the world in the economic field.
In fact, its vulnerabilities as the biggest indebted nation of the world will weaken its hand gradually in the management of international economic relations, despite the advantage that it enjoys of alliances with other advanced countries of Western Europe and Far East.
The relative decline of the US economic and military power will ultimately reflect itself in the structural changes to its disadvantage in international security, economic and commercial institutions like the United Nations Security Council, World Bank and IMF.
The US will also have to give up unilateralism and place increased reliance on multilateral cooperation, both within the framework of the United Nations and outside to realise its foreign policy objectives.
Moreover, it would have to bring its foreign policy objectives within the reach of its power by lowering its sights, by emphasising the use of political or diplomatic means over the use of military for their realisation and by carrying the international community with it, rather than working in defiance of its will.
Military adventures like those undertaken by it in Afghanistan and Iraq at enormous cost in blood and treasure would have to be rejected. The US failure to do so will generate avoidable tensions and crises in international relations.
As time passes, its ability to impose unilaterally effective economic sanctions against other nations will also decline. It will have to seek the cooperation of other economically-powerful nations to make those sanctions effective.
The effectiveness of unilateral US sanctions against other countries in pursuit of its strategic aims was questionable even in the past when it enjoyed overwhelming superiority in military and economic fields. Now when the relative US economic and military power is on the decline, its ability to impose its will on other nations through the use of its economic power will be weakened considerably.
It appears from the policy statements issued by the US leaders and representatives from time to time that the full implications of the relative decline of the US national power vis-à-vis its competitors have not fully sunk in their consciousness.
The way they continue to make threatening statements of military action against other nations in violation of international law and the UN Charter would lead one to conclude that the lessons of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been fully absorbed by the US foreign policy establishment.
In the case of Afghanistan, Washington should have learnt by now that its attempt to impose a government of its own choice on the Afghan people through the use of brute force has failed miserably. If it does not fundamentally and soon alter its approach, it is likely to leave a chaotic situation and a civil war after its military retreat from Afghanistan.
What the objective of durable peace in Afghanistan requires is national reconciliation and the establishment of a new political order in which different Afghan ethnic communities, including the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras and others, have their due share in power.
The Afghan Taliban, despite their obscurantism, are a political reality. They need to be engaged and brought into the mainstream of the Afghan politics. Washington must get rid of the inertia from which its Afghan policy currently suffers to engage the Taliban politically and set the stage for negotiations among the various Afghan parties.
Similarly, the US would have to change the course in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme. Threatening statements, which have now become a routine on the part of the US representatives, will not achieve the desired results.
The objective of keeping Iran away from the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons can be achieved instead by recognising its right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to enrich uranium, persuading it to keep the level of enrichment at low levels compatible with the peaceful use of enriched uranium, keeping all Iranian nuclear facilities under stringent IAEA safeguards and lifting all sanctions against Iran.
Pakistan must maintain and where possible even strengthen further friendly relations and cooperation with the US, keeping in view its current position as the most powerful economic and military power in the world. However, our policymakers should be cognisant of the future trend of the relative decline of the US economic and military power. The test of our policymakers would lie in achieving the right balance between the compulsions of the immediate and the demands of long-term trends.
Policies of self-reliance and diversification of our foreign policy options are a must for the management of Pak-US relations in our best national interests. Further, our friendship with the US should not be at the expense of our critically important friendly relations with China or Iran.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.  Email: