New Delhi: The paradox is scarcely new. Despite winning the Cold War, the United States finds its power to be diffused. It is still the sole superpower with unprecedented military might. Although China, Japan, the ASEAN states, India, etc, have economically grown by leaps and bounds, and China fancies itself as being in a position to challenge US supremacy, America remains, for all those pretensions, a preponderant economic power as well. Nevertheless, its cumulative power has grown diffuse since the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

US foreign policy experts have pondered over this issue and advanced solutions that have not entirely fitted America’s self-image. American foreign policy has been largely driven by Wilsonian exceptionalism. Exceptionalism in the American understanding presupposes two things. One is that US power is exceptional and unlimited, which it is not the case anymore. The second is that US power must be employed to recreate a world in the image of the United States. Woodrow Wilson, the US President most identified with exceptionalism, strove for democracy. He set the precedent for American Presidents to shun European realism in foreign policy. All but one of his successors, Richard Nixon, followed his legacy in spirit and often too in letter.

The trouble with Wilsonian exceptionalism in the post-Cold War era arises from the United States not possessing unlimited power to prosecute its crusades and proselytize the world to democracy. In the interwar period, that was very much the case, and possibly right up to the end of the Cold War. But the collapse of Soviet Russia has also been accompanied by a diffusion of US power which has contributed to military stalemates in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Is there a way to preserve American exceptionalism while also safeguarding and expanding US power in a post-Cold War world?

This is possible if the United States enters into compacts with the major democracies of the world. Decolonization, the end of the Cold War and globalization have together considerably altered geopolitics. In key ways, the world has moved away from Halford John Mackinder’s Heartland Theory of the permanent centrality of Western Europe. In addition to its existing arrangement with NATO, the United States must consider binding alliances or partnerships with major/ significant non-European democracies like India, Japan and Australia to share the burdens of a free world. Foreign policy realists would advocate cohabitation among the United States, Russia and China but this would cut at the roots of Wilsonian exceptionalism. With all its flaws, Wilsonian exceptionalism propelled the world towards greater democratization. The United States cannot quit the democratization project midway and permit the post-Cold War world to assume any shape it will.

The forces of totalitarianism are on the march again. Despite being overextended and having no future in its present parlous state, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has vengefully returned to the obsessive expansionism of the Tsars and their communist successors. Having learnt nothing from its flawed intervention in Syria, it has commenced meddling in Afghanistan and taken the evil side of Pakistan and the Taliban. China, on the other hand, has signified the Indo-Pacific region as its sphere of interest and has come up against the opposition of India, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN states and Taiwan to its expansionism. Its one-belt-one-road (OBOR) project is designed to geopolitically legitimize its totalitarianism, draw other non-democracies to its fold, and subvert the extant democracies. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is racing to join the neo axis powers represented by Russia and China and the satellite states of North Korea and Pakistan. A second Cold War is in the offing and the United States will have more than one adversary to contend with unlike in the first. In the circumstances, America needs more Wilsonian exceptionalism and not less.

It is critically important for President Donald Trump to perceive the gathering storm. In office, Trump is following a more orthodox foreign policy than his campaign promised. US foreign policy orthodoxy has been proved historically and morally correct with its emphasis on democracy. The great blunder and aberration of the 1970s was to prop up one totalitarian power (China) to counter another (the Soviet Union). China has become a Frankenstein power which threatens the United States’ all told worthy pre-eminence. And Russia has returned to its centuries’ old imperial traditions.

Now is the time for the democracies of the world to unite and for the United States to assume their benign leadership to contain the new axis of evil.

Editor’s Note: Public opinion will not forgive the Narendra Modi government if it participates in the OBOR summit in Beijing. China has repeatedly stabbed this country in the back. It launched an aggression against India and is in illegal possession of its territories. There can be no geopolitical alliance with it. OBOR passes through Indian territory. That should effectively veto any Indian participation in the summit. India must have no truck with OBOR either in the east or in the west.