Lack of Leadership is Hindering the West in Asia

cc The White House, modified,

Two recent blunders of Western leaders are signposts of the critical lack of visionary, cleareyed and competent leadership: US President Joe Biden’s absence at Zelensky’s ‘peace summit’ in Switzerland and British Prime Minister Sunak’s early exit from D-Day commemorations. The former chose to attend a Hollywood campaign fundraising event where he raised a record $30 million. The latter chose to skip out early on commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day to get back on the campaign trail and interviews ahead of early elections.

Centrists status quo parties took a beating in European Union elections early in the month with critical voices gaining ground. This prompted France’s Macron to call snap parliamentary elections in order to save face. Even EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen is facing resistance in her bid for a second term, a position once considered a shoe in for incumbent candidates. German Chancellor Scholz noted after the EU elections that “no one is well advised to simply go back to business as usual,” yet this is what Western leaders have done.

During periods of relative stability where mundane issues of domestic politics consume executives attention, distracted leadership is not exceedingly important and missteps can be overlooked. However, in periods of tumult, where foreign policy issues are taking center stage and overshadowing domestic politics, executive leadership is essential to steer the ship of state, reinsure allies, and keep those sitting on the fence leaning toward your side.

In Western capitals none of the above appear present. The war raging in Eastern Europe is threatening to consume and fragment NATO while the war in Gaza is destroying Western moral standing in the eyes of the Global South. All the while, Western leadership appears indecisive with foreign policy stances that lack the quality of clear strategic thinking.


The Ukraine War

Biden and Sunak’s blunders couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time with Russia clearly taking the upper hand in its war in Ukraine and Sino-Russo cooperation on display for the world to see at the BRICS Foreign Ministers Meeting.

Regarding Ukraine, the US-led West has continued to double down in support of Kyiv. Rather than support Ukraine to the hilt, however, Western support has come in bits and bobsm first with sanctions, then money and arms, then HIMARS, then Western battle tanks, now ATACMS for use on Russian soil, with F-16s soon to appear.

There are only three possible readings of this 2+ years of escalation. One, Western leaders planned on a quick, sanctions-induced victory. When this did not happen as planned it would appear that they have been making it up as they go ever since. Two, Western leaders are slow rolling the world into World War III, fearing dramatic escalation in favor of trickles of support so as not to spook their publics. Three, Western leaders are slowly recognizing their gamble in Eastern Europe and are now cooling their support for their Ukrainian proxy. None of these views inspire confidence.

It is unclear which of the scenario’s is correct but it does not bode well for the Western world on any of the above. If Russia is victorious in Ukraine, the results could be catastrophic for Western institutions and prestige. The loss could bring into question the viability and existence of NATO but more importantly ‘Western hegemony and dominance’ will be forever shattered. Estonian PM Kaja Kallas has starkly noted that “we have no Plan B for a Russian victory.” The all-or-nothing gambit is a game of the highest stakes which requires exceptional leadership.

The Western war against Russia in Ukraine coupled with massive trade tensions and tariffs have pushed China and Russia into a ‘friendship without limits nor areas of cooperation.’ Something American strategic planners warned of for decades. The tariff war which began under President Trump has only escalated with advanced semiconductors, chips, and EV’s the latest casualties in the trade row.

The foreign policy view from Asia sees intransigence, with Western capitals and leaders digging in their heals on security matters while resorting to protectionism and rolling back globalization on the economic front. This contradicts with the previous five decades of Western policies. The view from afar is one of confusion and perception of instability.


The View from Asia

America is distracted by the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. This is taking valuable geopolitical bandwidth which has implications for the Asia-Pacific region, the driver of future economic growth and prosperity. China as the local power is set to take over the mantle of leadership if the United States does not get its act together, and soon. China is the world’s number one manufacturing country, outstripping manufacturing in the United States and EU combined. Over the previous decade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has invested trillions of dollars in infrastructure to regions thirsty for investment and connectivity. China’s vision is clear, tangible, and delivering benefits, and this is drawing more and more countries into its sphere of influence.

The State of Southeast Asia Survey revealed that among ASEAN states, China’s influence has far outdistanced the United States. In economic influence, China came in at nearly 60% favorability while the USA at 14%. This is counterbalanced, however, by 67% being worried about Chinese economic influence and 65% welcoming America’s influence. In terms of political influence, China is viewed as the most influential by 44%, and the USA by 26%. Respondents with a negative view stood at 73% for China while welcoming American political influence at 41%. When asked which country is best to align with strategically respondents chose China at 50.5%, USA at 49.5%. This is in stark contrast to 2023 when China was at 38.9%, USA at 61.1%. This is reflective the erratic and unstable security policy coming from Washington during the Biden administration in its war with Russia in Ukraine and seemingly contradictory policy on trade with China. The trends cited above are stark and clear. US influence economically and politically is eroding fast and the last vestige of strong US power and influence, security, is on the same track.

The United States still has a strong base of cultural, economic, and societal support throughout East Asia. To back this up are a string of treaty alliances that string across the first and second island chains. In Southeast Asia the Philippines has welcomed the reestablishment of US military bases. America is a naval and aerospace military power which still has a good degree of support, but this is waning fast.

All the above is to say that while American and Western power and influence may be waning in parts of the world, there is a base to rebuild and reinvigorate. However, leadership is essential to stake a vision with clear and tangible deliverables to the ‘global common good’ which was a hallmark of US leadership in the 20th century.

Former Obama official Ben Rhodes recently penned an article in Foreign Policy echoing these sentiments. He called for a recalibration of foreign policy based on a post-unipolar world where America and the West writ large have to learn to build bridges, leverage partnerships, strengthen alliances and relearn the art of diplomacy. In essence to abandon unilateralism, maximalist agenda’s and to stop trying to make the world as you would like it; instead, act within the bounds as it is. Wise words indeed.

President Trump signaled to the world the seeming end of US support for global free trade when he withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership upon taking office and subsequently undermined the WTO. There have no grand strategic visions present since. All the while China continues to invest massively in its Belt and Road Initiative, which is funneling trade and growth back to Beijing. All this is to say there is a lack of supply of ideas and vision with tangible benefits to sell to Asia, which remains open to American ideas and leadership.

The United States is the only Western country and incumbent regional power with the capability to support and push back on China’s growing power. However, a clear, coherent and credible strategy must be present by leaders that are up to the task. National interests not short term political goals must come to the fore among Western leaders. Sadly, this is not currently the case.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

Back to Top


Lost your password?