Decline and fall
Posted by Ron Coleman on May 4, 2008
[P]utting aside the bogus and irresponsible notion of “unipolarity”, I suppose it is fair to say, in a taxonomic rather than invidious way, that America is the global hegemon. It is the primary provider of security, it is the primary determiner of the rules of the international game, etc.
So let’s be charitable to Mr. Haass and say that he is really talking about the displacement of the USA as the global hegemon. He does mix up his terms and also refers to the end of U.S. “primacy” – a word he uses incorrectly as if were synonymous with “unipolarity”.
The last global hegemon, Britain, was superseded by a much bigger entity, the good old USA. That transition process was ugly. It involved two world wars and a global depression.
I see no entity that can fill the role of global hegemon in the place of the USA.
The EU cannot do it. China cannot yet do it.
Many players have a stake in the US-led world order, and whatever irritation American primacy may cause, they will prefer the devil they know and will not like to see the uncertainly and risk of a new one replacing it.
I remember hearing about the imminent decline of the “American Empire” since the early 1970’s. It grows tired, and it it premised incorrectly on the assumption that, just as previous hegemons have declined, so must all hegemony. Lexington Green explains why, as a local matter, that does not seem likely at the moment. But there are other reasons why it is possible, perhaps, that American dominance could in fact last much, much longer than predicted by two main types of people: Those antagonistic to it, mainly on the left, and those on the right who pretend to rue its inevitable collapse, but really use predictions of such collapse as a rhetorical device to urge (typically reactionary) policies that are “the only way” to save Old Glory. What are these possible reasons?
- Notwithstanding the serious flaws in our democracy and our constitutional order — mainly too much of the former, mainly as it affects fiscal matters, and two little respect for the latter — it is not too much to say that no previous hegemonic power has been premised on a fundamentally free social and political order. The result is a level of internal social and political dynamism that would seem to militate against the sort of long run “internal rot” phenomenon experienced by the Roman and Ottoman empires, for example, or the somewhat different process of ossification, leading to self-doubt and moral cowardice experienced by the British Empire.
- Related, but not necessarily guaranteed as a twin of the foregoing, is America’s fundamental commitment to the free market in economics. The supposed imperial project here, while surely interested in and committed to protection of its economic interests (i.e., petroleum and other supplies) by use of military and other strong projections of power, is not — unlike the mercantilism of the British Empire or the socialist fantasy / coercive reality of the Soviet empire — axiomatically, or even actually, driven by economic need. (This is true notwithstanding what the exact opposite assertion your Marxist professors teach you in college.) To the contrary, the free market is extraordinarily forgiving of foreign policy externalities that are predicted to have this or that catastrophic effect — when it is given half a chance actually to operate.
- The American social order, the Shining City on the Hill, is historically premised on sincere religious belief premised on wide-eyed religious idealism. It does not always live up to the ideals of that belief, but the strain of idealism that animates “Americanism” cannot be found in Anglicanism, a church whose roots were essentially in realpolitik, nor in the cynical metropolitan paganism of Rome. The Ottoman empire also was founded on a profound religious faith, true — but as history seems to demonstrate, Christianity is probably a better foundation for building a healthy political and economic system, especially under modern and modernizing conditions, than Islam.
- America is not an empire. The modern conception of hegemony allows for more shifts, realignments and tactical withdrawals than the traditional institution of empire could. This means America can, as a practical matter, control less in its sphere of domination than the Soviet or Roman emperors could in their time. But it probably also means it can, ultimate, control more that it needs to in order to maintain the level of dominance that suits its interests.
I could be wrong. It could all fold tomorrow. And it may not be all that terrible if it does. But considering that “they’ve” been predicting that tomorrow as frequently as Paul Krugman predicts imminent recession, and for even longer, thinking about these points could make your next cocktail party chat on this topic a little more interesting.
Cross-posted on Right-Wing News.