Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hegemony, Decline and Normalcy

Hi Everyone,

Various of us have discussed the nature of American power in the world and the prospect of its decline. In the last two years, there has been an enormous amount of talk around (if not on this blog) about the supposed reality of American decline. This kind of talk is often combined with references to ascending new powers such as China. The usual contention is that China is replacing the United States as the world hegemon (i.e. the single greatest power on the planet). The purpose of this entry is not to discuss the validity of expectations of China's rise or to speculate about what sort of policies an ascendant Chinese government would pursue. Rather I would like to talk about something that has been on mind lately: namely that talk of China replacing the USA is rooted in the belief that a world dominated by a single great power is the normal state of affairs and that naturally, if the USA declines it must be replaced as "top country" by some other power and the most likely candidate is China. This view is badly mistaken.

A single power (or "unipolar") world, such as we have experienced since 1989, is not normal. Neither is the "bi-polar" world we lived in between 1945 and 1989. For most of human history different regions of the world were dominated by local powers sometimes with one power dominating a region, but more often with a small group of powers contesting for regional hegemony. For most of the time, these regions were only tenuously connected to each other and rival powers from different regions rarely came into direct contact let alone conflict. That began to change in the 17th century when a cluster of European powers began to transfer their previously regional conflicts to a global stage. That state of affairs held until after World War II with the additions of the United States and Japan to what otherwise had continued to be a European multi-lateral rivalry.

World War II changed all that for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, only the United States emerged from that war with a completely intact industrial base. Second, only the United States and the USSR emerged from the war with militaries capable of imposing their governments' wills in all regions of the world.

Between 1945 and 1989 two processes occurred that set up the unprecedented situation of a single global power. Those were Europe's and Japan's recovery from WWII on the one hand and the relatively rapid decay, within the span of a single human lifetime, of the USSR on the other.

Since 1989 we have seen processes that appear to indicate a decline of US power. These are the rapid industrialization of countries that until the 1940s and 50s were largely colonies of the great powers of the pre-WWII rivalry. This includes countries like China, India, S. Korea, Brazil, etc. Related to this is the ending of the post-WWII US monopoly on global economic power. Advantages that the US had briefly after WWII have disappeared. For example, no longer can American industrial laborer charge whatever they wish for their efforts without regard to what the industrial laborers of Europe, Asia, South America or even Africa are willing to charge.

But are these developments a valid pretext for declaring an end to American power? Far from it. The US remains the wealthiest, large country on the planet by far. It also remains by far the largest military power (many times more potent than China is really). At the same time, while the gap between US power and the rest of the world has narrowed somewhat of the world's ten largest military spenders, 7 are the US and its allies. China is one. Russia and India are the remaining two and while difficult to place squarely in the US camp, both have fought minor wars with China relatively recently and neither has much reason to support China's unrestricted rise. This suggests to me that while the gap between US and Chinese power narrows, the US still has a dominant advantage diplomatically. Chinese governments' positions on crises such as those involving North Korea or Iran do not help China's diplomatic status in the world.

What we are seeing is the return to the Pre-WWII multi-lateral arrangement but without the over representation of European powers that characterized the period from the 1600s to 1945. In my view what we have seen in the last 60 years is not so much the firm establishment of US hegemony as a transition from one 350 year period of multilateralism to the next period of multilateralism. What's more, this transition has been overseen by the US. In the grand scheme of things the advantage that the US realizes as a result of this position of dominance during the transition will prove a good thing both for Americans and the world.

Well, that's my two cents for now.


USWest said...

I wouldn't just limit the discussion to Military power or potency. There is economic potency as well. The U.S. still has the largest GDP in the world, $14.1 tril. to China’s $5 tril.

For many Americans, the standard of living has fallen since the 1970's. Wages have stagnated, and it is harder to "make it" as the gap between the top and bottom grow. And, as I've said, we no longer enjoy services. We do so much more ourselves- from our banking online, to checking ourselves into airline fights. Also, some of this defeatism, I think, is coming from many Baby Boomers who are finally recognizing that they don’t have as well as their parents in part because they just didn’t have to work as hard. And now they long for some perceived golden, bygone era. This creates the impression domestically that we are slipping. In reality, our global economic policies has greatly succeeded.

Since WWII, we have adopted, for better and for worse, policies that were meant to open markets with the belief that free markets would create wealth and lead to democracy. This was a logical conclusion drawn from the lessons of WWI and WWII and the Nazis. Creating economic interdependency was supposed to usher in peace and prosperity because nations that trade with each other don't fight wars. At is seems to have worked.

In the Cold War, we rigged elections, forced underdeveloped nations to take huge development loans, exploited the lands of indigenous people, etc. But we used the economic influence that such ventures provided to effect political change, open export/import markets that have provided jobs and bread to many. Just this morning, NPR reported that Cuba has dropped the 10% tax on remission payments from the United States. This is part of Cuba’s effort to open itself a bit more to private enterprise. Talk about a serious admission: the island nation survives because Cuban Americans send American dollars earned in America to Cuba. Can you say "IRONY"?

It has become clear to many nations in the world that some form of capitalism is key to development and enrichment. China is illustrative of this. Turkey, Europe's Third World albatross, has grown and now is home to major American firms, like Ford, who produce goods for the European market. Chile, Brazil, even Argentina have stabilized and are economically much better off than before. All of these places experienced US sponsored coups during the Cold War and are now democracies in their own right. Whether you agree with US policies or not, you can’t deny that they contributed to the present day situation of these nations.

So the American consumer, with his ravenous buying power and hunger for oil and natural gas, has succeeded in raising all boats. Now the same American has to work harder and smarter to compete. The problems we see domestically — aging infrastructure, poor primary education, etc — are really just atrophy that we must now correct. We've had a nice, long run of success. But we've gotten lazy. So it's time to get off our laurels and get to work. It's a new era and we have to start gearing up for it.

The Obama Administration gets this. And if Obama manages to work with Congress, if you manages to prevent the Republicans from robbing the public coffers, I think we will begin to see positive changes. Don't count us out as a nation. If Wikileaks showed us anything, it was we are well-represented by our State Department and are diplomats are still highly sought after. We shouldn't need to tell our own people what the rest of the world already knows: American matters.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Question for the panel: What role do you believe nuclear weapons will play in shaping the polar-ness or lateralism for the years to come?

At first blush, it would seem that great wars between the great powers--as dominated the last several centuries--are now infeasible. And while proxy wars have occurred, I don't believe the balance of power has been affected by any of them (though I welcome any counter-examples).

So does this mean that "soft power" will be the arena in which the contest takes shape--as in intelligence gathering, cyber-dominance, diplomacy, and economic clout? I have no answers... I'm just wondering. It just seems to me that nuclear weapons have fundamentally altered how the game can be played--even if the game itself remains familiar.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Hegemony, as the British, French, and Dutch discovered before us, is terribly expensive to maintain. In usually means the assumption by one nation of the financial cost of maintaining worldwide normalcy, both military and economic, in return for a relatively small rent that usually turns out not to be worth it. The Chinese benefit mightily from US hegemony. They invest their excess wealth in US dollars as a storehouse. We have nowhere else to put our money for safekeeping.

The USA was a reluctant hegemonist and has been trying since Nixon to move towards sharing the burdens. Nixon dumped Bretton Woods and such. Reagan told Gorbachev he would not exploit Soviet withdrawal from eastern europe, and he did not. Clinton and now Obama have been trying to create intenrational institutions to share in world governance in this limited way. Bush II was a weird throwback who probably set the cause back 20 years, though.

USWest said...

That was the point of the whole development effort of the US, to get these nations up and running so they wouldn't be dependent on US support. In the end, all we really want is to be a nation among equals- or just plain left alone. Of course, "the nation among equals" takes some getting used to, and being left alone is impossible in today's world.

As for the nuclear point: Nations who are now proliferating, North Korean, Iran, Pakistan, India- isn't that more for the "show-off" effect- keeping up with the Jones',a marker of having arrived, a shot at a permanent seat at the Security Council?

I doubt India has any intention of using a nuke against Pakistan. But having it makes them feel like a real player. For Iran, it is the principle that since the Israelis have a bomb,and the American's have a bomb, the Muslim's have to have their bomb. And for North Korea, it really is for the attention. The danger is that these nations won't remain secure and you get the loose nukes issue. And you can fire off a nuke that doesn't destroy the world- they do have more control over the payload now. Paying for these unnecessary nuke programs takes food out of the mouths of some very needy and poor people, thus contributing to localized instability. So the way to address this, as I see it, is soft power. The cyber attack on Iran's system showed us what the future will bring, I think.

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