In my professional life Â I read as a matter of course the debates about so-called US “hegemony” and whether or its “liberal” view of its role in international affairs will continue for the forseeable future (in this context “liberal” refers to the American idealist tradition of trying to re-make the world in its preferred image, whatever that may be. It is an overarching view that supercedes neo-conservative, neo-realist, constructivist or institutionalist approaches to the international engineering project). I think that the issue is worth consideration by a broader audience.
Some believe that, as the sole military superpower and core economic cog in the global system of finance, production and exchange, the US, albeit over-extended by the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan and beset by its financial market melt-down, remains unassailable in its position of dominance in world affairs and will continue to be so for at least the next 30-50 years. If anything, the debacles of the W. Bush administration are seen to have taught US political elites the need for a more sophisticated, broad based approach to both foreign policy and state regulation of Â markets as well as domestic political representation, all of which have their crystalisation in the presidency of Barack Obama. For this view, the American capacity for self-renewal in the face of adversity is boundless, which is why it will continue to dominate world affairs in the 21st century.
Others think that the US century has past, and that the emergence of China, in particular, spells the end of its hegemonic position in the world. There is still a decade or more to run before it is eclipsed by the PRC, but in this contrary view the US’s days as the pre-eminent international actor are numbered, particularly given the emergence of other powers (India, Brazil, Russia, the EU, perhaps Australia, Iran and Turkey) and US inability to curb its consumption, dependence on fossil fuels and adherence to nationalist-conservative ideologies as the bulwark against the “socialist” tendencies of Obama and his purported ilk. Mired in arguments about gay marriage and abortion, viscerally fearful of (dark-skinned) immigration, beset by domestic “culture wars,” the US is seen as a self-absorbed, narcissistic giant about to be toppled by a global community sick and tired of its arrogance, ignorance, bullying and meddling.
I am of two minds on this. For all its military misadventures the US can still do what no other country or combination of countries can do when it comes to projecting force. Guerrilla wars may bog it down but will never threaten its core interests. Likewise, although its economy is stagnating, it still dwarfs any other regional, much less national market and still has a dramatic repercussive effect on all other markets in the global commodity chain. It may be somewhat bowed, but it is as of yet unbroken.
On the other hand, its cultural vacuousness, its myopia, its clear signs of decline on all fronts relative to a decade ago suggest that the US is, in fact, slipping from the position of superpower to that of just another major power amongst others, and that it can do nothing to prevent the international system moving from the the unipolar configuration of the immediate post-Cold War era to something that although as of yet unclear, will certainly be multi-polar in a decade or so.
Which leads me to ask three questions: 1) at the point that the US feels itself being eclipsed (should that occur), will it wage a last ditch war (or wars) to prevent that from happening, and if so, will these conflicts go nuclear (which is where the US arguably has its most decided military advantage in terms of delivery platforms as well as array of warheads)? 2) will the world be a better place in the event that it does cede its preeminent role to rising powers? 3) what is the “proper” class, environmental or otherwise “progressive” line to take on this?
The concept of having superpowers is itself becoming redundant, the latest Latin-Arab Summit is proof of that. We can only hope that more of these relationships will emerge throughout the world, leaving the so called ‘superpowers’ isolated and confused as their imperialism grinds to a halt before the righteous force of global multi-polarization.
The United States is the first global Empire that doesn’t see itself as an Empire and the first empire since Rome that doesn’t consciously consider itself to be the heir of Rome, making it most likely the first real successor to the Roman Empire. Since the Roman Empire took three centuries to die away, I doubt we have seen the end of US hegemony just yet. ïŠ
1). The world does seem to be re-living the 19th Century, as a period of uni-polar power shifted from 1870 onwards towards a period of many competing great powers. Instead of the British, French, German, Russian and Japanese Empires along with the United States, we now have the USA, Russia, Europe, India, China and Japan. But the problem with the idea of warring great power coalitions a la the Triple Entente vs. The Central Powers or the Pact of Steel/Tripartite Treaty vs. the United Nations is the idea itself predates ICBM’s and is today obsolete as a policy choice.
Any attempt by the USA to aggressively confront China would not just see China launching an emergency ICBM program, but also see China form an alliance with Russia, which would restore enough of the balance of terror at a stroke as to render meaningless any advantage in nuclear weapons the US might currently have. I do not think humans as a species are capable of launching an intercontinental, global nuclear Armageddon if they know the outcome is Mutually Assured Destruction. I am of the view that some sort of instinctive, fundamental self-preservation innate to our species checks our use of ICBM’s if we know the result is doomsday for us all. Practically, that means no great power coalition would risk nuclear annihilation by starting a war with another great power coalition, and therefore such wars have now been consigned by Mutually Assured Destruction to history (in fact, the lesson to be drawn from The Great War is even a conventional war between massive coalitions of roughly equal strength is unlikely to produce a positive long term outcome for even the nominal “winners”).
The answer to your first question to me, then, is it is a question based on an outdated mode of thinking about international relations between great powers armed with large numbers of ICBMâ€™s.
2) Like Britain in 1815, the USA in 1945 had no rival. The relative power of the United States was always going to slip backwards relative to other nations as it exhausted its own natural resources (oil in particular) and other nations re-industrialised or industrialised. The end of the Pax Americana will see a period of greater instability and the potential for more proxy wars and regional wars. Global industrialisation means these regional wars could be quite large in scope – Imagine just how well armed an ANZAC-led coalition could now be for example, and imagine how ferocious and general a war between it and an Indonesian led coalition might be. But apart from nuclear weapons there is one other post WWII game changer you (surprisingly) don’t mention. The United Nations, the general growth of international law, and in particular the outlawing of aggressive war since Nuremburg, has now placed significant constraints on state action in both purely regional and proxy wars. On the surface, the USA exposed this new international consensus with its reckless 2003 invasion of Iraq as toothless, but I am not so sure. The subsequent near-universal collapse in support for the U.S.A actually forcefully brought home even to the Americans that aggressive war will no longer be tolerated and, even for the USA, is no longer viable. The post American century (if it occurs) may be a more warlike and dangerous time, but I cautiously optimistic the Pax Americana might just be replaced by the Pax Sapiens.
3) To me, then, the “correct” progressive response is really the one any inheritor of our foreign policy traditions from Frazer to Clark would say – to work hard to shore up institutions of international law, like the war crimes court in the Hague, work towards Arms reduction treaties, reform and restore the United Nations, and the upholding of general principles of good behaviour between states.
But having said all that, I wouldn’t write off the USA just yet. It may just surprise us by showing that it can, indeed, enjoy a second explosion of economic and creative power. Certainly as a nation it is much less likely to break up under environmental and economic stress than its main rivals in China and Russia.
Please correct me if this answer seems ignorant. I am not a student of american dominance or politics. I have learned a very little on the internet thus this caution.
Is this hegemony American or an International Elite based in America using the American system through the privately owned Fed, the millitary industrial complex etc. It may be more like corporate hegemony based in America.
It would seem to me though that the entire west including America is threatened by the international bankers and industrialists who own and run the federal reserve and the corporations in America. I don’t know if these bankers have any other considerations than themselves and gaining even more control and money.
These bankers threaten us all. If NZ cannot borrow money and our economy crashes then they (the hidden elite) will be in like flynn buying up all our resources for a song. Resources that in a crash the people will need access to. They will be doing this everywhere. They have done this for eons to continents like Africa etc etc.
I am alarmed that National have freed up the rules on foreign investment. But what do you say to these people when you need to borrow their cash to stay a float and don’t want American missiles pointed at you.
So what does this have to do with American dominance. We are entering a new era of global surfdom for the people of western nations. We are all joining the third world I believe. There will be a few giant corporations and wealthy elite dominating us with the assistance of technology. This technology, its ability to track our every move and poverty will make it hard for us all to rise up.
American will remain on top if the elite want it to but I believe if it does we will see the inequalites increase exponentially. Big business seem insatable in their quest for ever cheaper labour and higher profits so they will be working globalisation into their plan.
I think if America is ruined we will all be in the same boat and thus America will still be at the top. China is still not a modern country. It doesnt have the infrastructure America has. Atleast in the west we have good infrastructure. Not like the poor Iraqis who’s major buildings are now American bases.
Sorry guys I hope this is fiction.
1) Nah. Wot tom said – MAD. At least half the US is sane, the rest only bullies while they’re biggest.
2) Almost definitely. Could it be much worse than now? Mother nature is raped to exhaustion, and millions gorge lethally as their siblings die horribly for want of crumbs. The colossal, cancerous insanity that colours and depresses every nano-second of every person’s existence.
3) Continue to fight for equity and justice. Celebrate achievement to date. Know that progress is right and inevitable. Extend a visible hand to the downtrodden. Never condone greed or a bully. Vote, march, speak and write. Have a nice day.
Golly I was bored last night.
Answering those questions depends of where you believe the US is currently at, not only internally but also with respect to her geopolitical relationships.
Re: the former, personally I look at the following factors:
The US has been declining as an export nation and the offshoring since the 90’s has merely accelerated that path. Main street retail has been decimated by Wal-Mart. If NAFTA is implemented many more Mexicans will take over most of the low-paid jobs across the entire country instead of just in the Border states as they do now. Not to mention the crime wave of kidnappings, rapes and murders.
Germany and Japan now dominate the auto-industry which is the US’ last major heavy industry apart from Oil and Defence. GM’s appalling decision to focus on SUVs and Trucks instead of the more in-demand hybrids has sealed the fate of that company and is probably why Obama’s asking for the resignation of the man who made that decision – the current CEO. He’s not asking that of any other big-three head.
The change of the accounting rules allowing mark-to-market accounting will further exacerbate the ability to recover quickly from the GFC since it allows the banks to value their toxic debts at a rate above that which the market is prepared to pay, thus hiding the problem and prolonging the pain.
The unemployment rate continues to soar with a further 600,000+ registering for the dole last month. 2009 could be a year of extreme civil unrest inside the US – what a “good” thing that Bush far-sightedly repealed posse comitatus, eh? (This prevented the US military acting against US citizens on US soil.)
Re: her geopolitical relationships.
Russia is not going to tolerate the ABM site in Europe, since it prevents her from launching against the US/UK. This is precisely why the US want to put it there, Iran has nothing to do with it. The question is how far will Obama push this. So far he’s not conceding. Russia’s military leadership are the best war fighters in the world and she has enough technology to degrade or destroy many of the systems that the US has come to rely upon. I would not rate the US in a conventional conflict against Russia and if I’m right this makes it more likely that the nuclear option will be used, but that heavily depends on the theatre(s) the conflict is fought in because as people have said, MAD is still alive and well.
China would love it if the US wasn’t there notwithstanding the US has until recently been the vehicle sustaining China’s rise and rise. However China’s issue right at the moment is Japan and I’ve been wondering on Kiwiblog whether something might happen between Japan and North Korea over this latest satellite launch.
Another worry is Israel’s stated intention to take out Iran’s nuclear program and if this happens it will mean serious issues for the US Iraq force and for Israel for it will mean a likely Arab invasion. It also brings the possibility that either or both Russia and China will stand in against Israel. At which point the US will need to decide if it will defend Israel against the Arab invasion and/or China and/or Russia. Personally I don’t think an attack will happen, but if it does, it’s a lose-lose for the US.
So to the questions:
1) No. If a war happens, it won’t be a Parthian shot from a dying superpower. The US is too great to do that out of hubris. But a war may happen, for any of the above reasons and the situation is currently very fluid.
2) No. The US for all its faults, has been a great benevolent power, at least from a Western perspective. This is because its heritage is based on eschewing cultural dominance in favour of individual freedom. By contrast, both China and Russia have the opposite heritage, and will be anything but benevolent to those nations that resist toeing their particular line. You just need to look at Tibet to understand what it will be like.
3) I have no idea, not being a progressive.
Thanks for some interesting comments. Just two points, one of clarification and one a correction.
The Clarification: Here the term “hegemony” only refers to the notion of American liberal hegemony, that is, the political, economic, ideological and military bases of the so-called “Pax Americana.” It is much disputed in scholarly circles, particularly outside of the US. It does not refer to the purported behind the scenes control of an evil cabal of bankers–presumably Jewish, in the eyes of some conspiracy theorists. Although the financial system is part of the economic base for supposed American international hegemony, it is only one component part of the institutional latticework that is believed to sustain it. My reference is to broader view, and one can find this well enunciated at regular intervals in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the mouthpiece of the Council on Foreign Relations, the US blue-blood foreign policy think tank.
The Correction: Tom and Reid are mistaken in asserting that MAD still obtains as the US strategic nuclear doctrine. As targeting accuracies (Circular Error Probable or CEP) increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US strategy shifted from MAD to Flexible Response. FR proposes to provide a nuclear option, both as a deterrent and as a war-fighting capability, through the entire spectrum of force, from field artillery and underwater (mostly ASW) mines to MARVed ICBMS (MARV stands for maneuverable re-entry vehicles, which are the multiple warheads riding on a booster than can be independently guided to different targets). You may recall past mention of “neutron” bombs as a tactical nuclear option, and of the low yield nuclear “bunker busters” in the US arsenal (in fact, the Lancet published reports that radiation counts around Tora Bora suggest the possible use of low yield nuclear munitions other than depleted uranium shells in that theater). The point is that the US deploys an array of low-yield nuclear munitions in addition to its ICBM and SLBM fleet, and under current operating doctrine, is prepared to use them (including, most alarmingly, in a pre-emptive mode!).
Since the late 1970s FR has been the basis of US nuclear strategy, and both the configuration of the strategic triad (air, submarine and land) and the continuing development of high and low altitude defensive interceptor systems point to the US belief that it can fight and prevail in the event of a nuclear conflict. With lower CEPs obtained (now measured in a handful of meters) it no longer makes strategic sense to focus on counter-value targets such as cities as mere retaliation, leaving an enemy’s counter-force capabilities like hardened silos, fortified arsenals and C3 installations intact. That is why FR was developed, and it is why the 2008 DoD/DoE report on US nuclear strategy continues to emphasise its war-fighting as well as deterrent properties, now to include deterrence and defeat of non-state actors and rising nuclear armed states as well as large nuclear rivals like Russia and the PRC. A critical overview of the US approach can be found at http://www.7gen.com/blog-entry/nuclear/new-u-s-nuclear-strategy-brings-nukes-table-preemptive-war/695. (sorry, I am still trying to figure out the linking methodology). There is a voluminous literature on the subject so one should not confine his/her reading to the above source.
Thus, although I agree that most people are risk-averse and would prefer accommodation or even capitulation rather than annihilation, I fear that US war planners may not be so inclined. I believe that should a time come when the downward path of the US as a declining power intersects with the upward path of a rising power like the PRC, a re-emergent Russia or combination of rising powers, there will be a conflict. The question is whether it will be purely economic or will it be military, and it was with the latter option in mind that I posed the original question N.1.
“No. The US for all its faults, has been a great benevolent power, at least from a Western perspective. This is because its heritage is based on eschewing cultural dominance in favour of individual freedom.”
I am in agreement that Russia and China are a much scarier option certainly from a historical point of view but I do think this might be changing.
News corp owner Rupert Murdoch has said in a couple of years from now 3 corporations will control most of the worlds news. Our media is a wash with propaganda re the “War on Terror” as an excuse for the US to do anything they deem fit in their commerical and strategic interests.
There are electronic voting systems being put in place in America and the remaining Western democracies that will remove that freedom. These systems have already subverted the will of the people. Obama was backed by wall street bankers and was allowed to win. Bush never won an election.
America was a democracy. Now it is a fake democracy and as it heads futher down that track is becomming the same as the other powers. Its all happening with the aid of a silent media.
It looks like the National party will be continuing with the idea of kicking people off the net for illeged copyrite infringement. Will they also try to introduce electronic voting. Wouldn’t it be convienient if they had the power to be able to kick dissenters off the net without proof of any crime being needed.
Ballot scanners were introduced in Scotland last year and the BBC did a report into major discrepencies. At least someone covered it unlike the US.
The right wing Irish government spent billions of taxpayer money on touch screen voting machines from the US without consultation and were going use them in the last election but luckily their media spoke out and they were not used. They do intend to use them next time though. It has been an easy transition in the States. No war needed to turn a democracy into a fake democracy. Just a complicit silent corporate controlled media.
We had better keep our wits about us believe me or western democracy will crumble without a shot being fired and then we become just like the Cinese and the Russians.
Pablo, it’s certainly concerning stuff.
What do you think a US response would be to losing an aircraft carrier? That to me seems to be the sort of thing that would likely trigger a limited nuclear response, and it is probably the sort of thing that any moderately capable opponent would be focussing on in a conflict.
Say for example the PRC got adventurous re Taiwan or in the South China Sea. The US’s obvious response would be to move some carriers in.
There hasn’t really been any conflict for decades in which a US carrier was actually threatened, but they would be in such a scenario.
Assuming the above article is correct, that’s a game changer no? Or is it likely that it is just an example the navy lobbying for more defensive systems/spending?
Should the US lose a carrier in any future conflict, I’d be worried at what the shock would do in terms of the demands from the US citizenry.
Thanks Pablo, most informative, as usual.
FYI, if I wanted to make your site work as a link, I would type as follows, except use carots, not square brackets. (Carots are the left and right arrow characters – they are on the same keys that hold the comma and period characters)
To make it easier to see, the bare version is:
Spaces are important so note there is a space between the “a” and the “href”
reid: much thanks, I shall try that method.
PB: good comment. As a choke point the Taiwan Straits are considered to be a potential shatter zone in the event the PRC makes an aggressive move on Taipei/Taiwan. Any USN presence in the Straits would be hemmed in and thus vulnerable to high intensity conventional attack such as a Dong Feng 21 barrage. That immediately would ratchet up the level of a US response into a tactical nuke option scenario. On the other hand, the question is whether the US will continue to provide a security guarantee to Taiwan as its relative power declines. Some believe that it will not. Put another way: would the US risk an all-out strategic nuclear exchange with the PRC over Taiwan? Fortunately for everyone, the PRC appears to be more interested in conquest by closer economic integration than by military force, akin to its approach to Hong Kong.
Today’s North Korea missile launch is possibly an early indication of near term future trends along such lines in the NE Asian theater (allowing for the specific differences of the case relative to the PRC/Taiwan standoff). It is going to be interesting to see how the US responds to what is clearly a NK test of Obama’s mettle.
How do you make people buy your stuff by waging war on them? It might have worked in 1890 (British imperial preference) but it hasn’t since. Germany and Japan went from utter destruction to economic pre-eminence while effectively banned from possesing substantial military forces.
It’s interesting whether we’ll get to a situation where India and China are on an economic par with the present developed world without social turmoil. Unless this growth happens very slowly, one could see a collapse in western middle class living standards as skilled work shifts to emerging economies. This might impact the US more than it does states with a more developed sense of social responsibility, like Western Europe.
Pablo. You make some bold statements about US being relatively weaker than 10 years ago. It has vastly extended its technology of warfighting and cemented its lead in that sphere. Think drones and laser defence.
By enriching Chinese manufacturers through Walmart the US has drawn China into the prospect of mutually assured economic destruction.
whereas under clinton the US cut and ran from somalia and rwanda it was difficult for anyone not to take bush seriously. Obama has screwed up the anti missile shield in Poland by giving in to Russia. Obama has engaged with Iran. In neither case has the US gained anything despite giving away strong negotiating positions.
you seem to suffer from american cultural cringe. How does the US learning from Afghanistan compare with the continuing mistakes from the Brits? On what basis do any of the european nations show any signs of global leadership? Other than smug denigration of americans how do they demonstrate any superiority? the french burning 10,000 cars per week? America is like democracy. The worst of all apart from all the alternatives.
“Mired in arguments about gay marriage and abortion, viscerally fearful of (dark-skinned) immigration”
This is for the obvious politically inconvenient fact that the Latino migrants are overrepresented in the negative social stats, such as high school drop outs, joining gangs, health problems etc. If you bother to read about this, you might see that immigration restriction isn’t simply based on dislike of other races. It’s based on concerns about an emerging underclass. Ironically, you probably are also unaware that African Americans are those who are largely undercut in the labour market by latino migration (legal & illegal).
To get an idea of what’s going on, you might want to ask why California is virtually bankrupt.
Also, note while you refer to dark skinned, no one is complaining about Indian migration. In fact there was a recent article in Forbes about how successful Indian migration has been.
“On the other hand, its cultural vacuousness”
Compared to who? Have you ever visited the US?
Haha! You do know who Pablo is?
“Have you ever visited the US?
Haha! You do know who Pablo is?”
Classic, I assumed he was just spouting something he’d read (I do find a lot of people adopt a reflexive anti-us view). I still would like to know who he’s comparing the US to when he says it is culturally vacuous. Maybe he’s right, but if the US is then it seems you could say that about loads of countries.
in Japans case this was purely semantic. The defence forces were substantial military forces in every aspect except foreign deployment.
just as an aside
Both Japan and Germany had forces adequate for ultimate national defence (though possibly not against a full-on attack by Russia or China). They didn’t have the ability (legal or structural) to intervene overseas and my argument is that this had no negative impact on their economic re-development.
The 20th Century was about the relationship of a fading super power and its successor. Each had an economic hegemony – the US dollar reserve currency status of today.
The issue of the 21st Century is about the relationship between the USA and its own successor. It either builds multi-lateral institutions successfully (and is in relationship to these as its own power fades) or the world devolves, as it did prior to WW1 in Europe, into two competing groups of powers (for the sake of simplicity the bi-polar era of the Cold War is ignored).
That describes the last 40 years of the 20th Century, not the full hundred. The first 60 years of the century were about the decline of the last empires and the emergence of the first superpower.
Whenever you find yourself having to ignore one of the two most significant geopolitical phenomena of a century for the sake of your argument, you need to check your premises.
1. the Hamericans coming into WW1 AND WW2, to ensure the British remained victorious, was part of the first half of the century, thus this relationship was a constant throughout the whole century.
2. The Cold War exaggerated the role of Russia in the second half of the 20th Century, just as the war against terorism seems likely to exaggerate the role of the Muslim anti-secular militant in the first half of this century.
The constant was the transition from the British to the Hamericans in the last century and their relationship during that process, now its the transition from Hamerica as decisive super power to its successor (the theme of the starter by Pablo).
There would appear to be two scenarios. The US is replaced by multi-lateral global institutions or two power blocks, one democratic and one otherwise (informally allying to each other to prevent any democratic polity hegemony as they do in the Human Rights Council to prevent any criticism of each other).
I’m going to take a punt and say ‘no.’ At the moment the American economy is still vastly bigger than its nearest individual competitors, and it would take literally decades of sustained economic growth (at a much faster clip than America’s) for, say, China or India to even rival the American economy in scale, let alone eclipse it, and ultimately, as in the past, political and military might will still stem from economic clout.
Notwithstanding the fact that America, as one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world, would probably suffer disproportionately in any peak oil energy crisis, America also still has some of the most extensive natural resources of any country, everything from coal and iron ore to renewable resources such as Great Plains wind and Southwestern sunlight, and is certainly better-endowed in all those regards than the European continent.
America possesses crucial advantages over all its competitors, both individual nation-states and any current or future blocs of nation states, and I really don’t see anything other than continued American preeminence this century. I don’t make any claims as to whether this is a good thing or not.
I must say though that my knowledge of American nuclear strategy must be severely deficient, and that it came as rather a shock to learn that large and influential portions of the American defence and foreign policy establishments are even more insane than I had thought, if that were possible!
The US economic supremacy is predicated on both a continuance of the dollar as reserve currency and a continuing support from the USA public for bearing the economic cost of the role of super power.
And relative to the rest of the world – the USA share of the global economy is declining in any case, its capacity to play the role unilaterally will diminish. It becomes more dependent on either support from others, or lack of resistance from others.
How do Google, Microsoft, Boeing or HP (to name four of the USA’s more successful firms) benefit from having the dollar as a reserve currency?
Lower taxes, lower borrowing costs and easier access to capital.
Quite apart from advantages from the greater capability of other US corporate and public consumers to purchase their products/services resulting from the greater wealth arising from the reserve currency status.