Opinion: The world′s superpower no more | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 15.07.2014
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Opinion: The world's superpower no more

The last few days have shown that the world is no longer prepared to tolerate all of America's whims. Countries like Germany and South Korea are freeing themselves from the US' grip, writes DW's Frank Sieren.

Barack Obama is always welcome in Austin, Texas. Together with his entourage, the US president was able to skip the line at the most famous barbecue restaurant in the city, known for its juicy ribs but also for its long waiting times. Nobody complained, and Obama paid for some of the patrons' meals with his presidential credit card.

Nearly all US media outlets publicized the event over the weekend (12-13.07.2014). Aside from that, there wasn't much to report that could bolster national pride. On the world stage, the US no longer functions like a barbecue restaurant in Austin.

Not caving in to US pressure

If it hadn't been Americans from Austin but German Chancellor Angela Merkel, South Korean President Park Geun-hye or Chinese President Xi Jinping, the scene would have been quite different. In light of recent world events, their response to Obama skipping the line probably have been, "Line up at the back, Obama! We're not letting you push us around anymore!"

The US has been made aware of its new limits by two continents at once. Even Merkel - until now the most reserved among Europe's prominent politicians about the US - has had enough. She was willing to forgive the NSA's tapping of her cell phone, despite being criticized for it at home, but now that a German mole has been uncovered working for the US - including the fact that the spy was on the US agency's payroll and was most likely attempting to leak documents about the German inquiry on US spying - Merkel has drawn a line and expelled the top CIA official in Germany.

Although it was already evident 10 years ago that the US is keen to spy on any country it can, its allies are no longer bearing it in silence.

Germany distances itself

Merkel has made it clear that the scandal wouldn't affect free-trade negotiations between the US and the EU, but it seems that both sides are now losing the will to compromise. Merkel hasn't been talking to Obama on the phone lately; instead, she has said that having to constantly ask her conversation partner if they are "maybe simultaneously working for the other side" is not a basis of trust.

The era of placidity is over, even though German politicians, especially from the center-right, have felt obliged to keep it up until now for the sake of maintaining good relations with the US. Germany's Social Democratic Party already distanced itself from the US in response to the invasion of Iraq, while the Greens did so in the 1980s with their "no" to NATO rearmament.

At the weekend, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the need to revive German-US relations. The fact that Europe is no longer prepared to accept everything the US throws its way was made clear by new EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was also first to jump to Merkel side in the NSA scandal.

Parallels in Asia

Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren

Interestingly, a similar situation is developing independently in Asia. Last week, Washington was sidelined there too.

First, South Korean President Park Geun-hye's cozied up to China: the two countries are planning to establish a free-trade zone before the year is up. In addition, Park announced that both countries are keen to conduct more business in yuan and won instead of US dollars - until now, 90 percent of Chinese-Korean business deals have been done in US dollars. This indicates that South Korea's economic ties with China are taking priority over the security-related connections with the US.

Then there was the sixth round of strategic and economic negotiations in Beijing, attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry and eight other US cabinet members, where more differences than common opinions surfaced. For example, Beijing suspended the activities of the task force set up by Obama and Xi not long ago for the purpose of combating cybercrime. And the US delegation was told that no double standards should be applied to US and Chinese interests. Kerry responded with a white lie, saying that the US and China weren't competing with each other.

China ahead in independent measures

While Europe's and South Korea's self-confidence is growing, China, a rising world power, is one step ahead. Its relationship with the US is not only marked by disgruntlement like Germany's, and it is not just attempting to make its own rules like the Europeans are in response to Google - it has been making them for some time already. An example of this is cyber espionage. Beijing is planning to ban Windows software on government computers, as well as IBM servers in Chinese banks. Last week, the Apple iPhone was named a risk to national security by Chinese media.

China is managing to create new global rules and institutions like no other country or region. This week, Xi Jinping flew to Rio de Janeiro to establish a bank together with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. This would function as a counterweight to the US-dominated World Bank. It is also certain that similar international institutions without US membership will follow.

All over the world, China is signing agreements that will allow it to trade without US dollars. In major international conflicts, like those with North Korea and Iran, China is advocating negotiation instead of isolation and sanctions. And in both cases its intentions are met with increasing approval. A new global competition of ideas, rules and institutions is being created, welcomed by all countries under American influence.

Obama's plight

With all this considered, Obama can be viewed as a tragic figure. There is little he can do about this unprecedented global rebellion. He became president at the wrong time. His predecessors were still able to send off fleets of aircraft carriers, trigger two wars and stir up economic chaos.

Now the money is gone and the wars have not generated any benefits. Meanwhile, Europe's and Asia's reservations are bigger than ever. For this reason, it is likely that Obama will not only go down in history as the first black president and founder of a new welfare system, but also as the first president forced to deal with the US' downgrading from biggest superpower to co-player on the world stage.

His performance on the latter hasn't been good. He should use the time he still has in office for more constructive things than publicity-generating appearances at a barbecue restaurant. Because Europe and Asia are sure to realize more and more that they are working on the same project: the abolishment of the global American monopoly.

DW correspondent Frank Sieren is a leading German expert on China. He has lived in Beijing for the past 20 years.

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