A lot of noise (mostly a simplistic narrative) is currently surrounding the subject of U.S declining hegemony. With turbulent times ahead, we have seen manipulative initiatives taking on the subject with twisted undertones. But, how much of it is real and how much of it is mere propaganda? This article is not intended to fully answer that question, but to give insight about it in the light of what some of the most relevant scholars on the subject have written in the past decades.
The scholarly debate in U.S foreign policy and international relations theory about the imminent decline of American hegemony has been an ever-returning one since the late 1970’s, and even before .
Perhaps the most influential piece of academic work about the subject written between the post-World War II’s Pax Americana and the end of the cold war has been a chapter on Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers ; although the essence of the same arguments could be traced before that, and even more keenly developed , in the writings of the prominent American scholar Robert Gilpin .
Kennedy’s work, based on deep historical analysis, outlined the patterns and processes of imperial decline in former great powers and argued for the same fate to possibly occur in the case of the current dominant superpower: the United States. In his view, the U.S could be utterly over-stretched by its military campaigns and foreign involvement deployed beyond its economic capacity to sustain it, which could lead to the deterioration of its power and subsequent decline . Originally published in 1988, Kennedy’s declinist thesis generated a big wave of interest, both from supporters and critics. A couple of years later, while the Berlin wall fell down and the U.S economy experienced serious improvement, the hegemonic declinist argument experienced ̶ we may suggest ̶ inversely proportional popularity.
However, after more than two decades of dominant American hegemonic optimism, changing internal and external conditions have set the ground for a revival of the debate on the course of the hegemonic role of the United States within the international structure. The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2007-2008 financial crisis, along with the rise of new great powers in the international arena have shed some light into the potential fissures of the unipolar structure of world power than until then did not seem to exist.
This time the prospect of decline that for many proved to be out of place in past years “is for real” , in Gideon Rachman words. Especially now that the vastly discussed rise of China does not seem to be far in the horizon but arriving at shore. Past unsatisfied paranoia related to the Soviet and Japanese threats may make Americans see the Chinese challenge as ‘just another case of the boy who cried wolf. But (Rachman warns) a frequently overlooked fact about the fable is that the boy was eventually proved right. The wolf did arrive ̶ and China is the wolf’ . Although that allegory can easily become material for populist purposes, its usefulness relies on its explanatory power to describe some very real phenomenon in recent times.
‘A power that can measure strength against all its rivals combined’ . We frame here our definition of hegemony within an international structure of power primarily observed in realist terms. For this, we shall understand structure in waltzian terminology as an anarchic self-help system ‘defined by the arrangement of its parts’ and ‘by the distribution of capabilities across units’ , therefore a unipolar structure of world power is that in which the most powerful agent-unit (state) faces no challenge in its relative material power and therefore, exercises a hegemonic role.
Then, we must understand hegemony as originally hard power, the first component of it been an economic preponderance in which, as defined by Keohane, ‘four sets of resources are especially important. Hegemonic powers must have control over raw materials, control over sources of capital, control over markets, and competitive advantages in the production of highly valued goods’ . This control over material resources is what enables to sustain the primacy on military capabilities (second component) that defines the relative power of the hegemon within the international structure and that shapes the unipolar character of the latter.
United States’ Hegemonic time frame
The analysis of U.S hegemony departs from the fall of the Soviet Union and with it, the end of the bipolar structure of world politics that reigned during the cold war. During the 1990’s decade the United States experienced an unprecedented moment of economic, military and political primacy in the global affairs. The spread of open market economies and more or less liberal-democratic political institutions throughout the world, especially in former Warsaw pact countries, helped bolstering U.S position as a hegemonic power; even more, after its potential economic rivals were facing economic difficulties and growth stagnation, such as Japan. Now, in the middle of the second decade of the XXI century, the rise of new great powers in Asia is presenting itself as a potential source of new poles in world power while the hegemon still sores after two costly wars and a deep financial crisis with colossal consequences for the economy, the question is: can the U.S sustain its position, and if so, for how long?
As mentioned before, the U.S was coming from a decade of economic bloom and fiscal health during the 1990’s, in Altman and Hass’ description, ‘national debt (defined as federal debt held by the public) was in line with the long-term historical average, around 35 percent of GDP. The U.S. government’s budget was in surplus, meaning that the total amount of debt was shrinking. Federal Reserve officials even publicly discussed the possibility that all of the debt might be paid off’ .The hegemonic position was at its peak. That has somehow changed now, not perhaps in immediate shifts of global power, but in trends, as suggested in the introduction.
First of all, the events of 9/11 triggered a reaction in government that ended up in two costly military interventions, the Iraq war alone costing around $3 trillion (the two wars combined representing 10-15 per cent of the country’s annual deficit ), causing great harm both to the country’s image (soft power) and foremost to its fiscal health, although regarding fiscal sanity, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Agreeing with Quinn’s statement that ‘the central ingredient feeding the prospect of decline is dire fiscal outlook’.
After a massive governmental bailout to the financial system that barely avoided a full recession of the economy, the prospect of recovery has been walking slowly, so has growth. But deficit and federal debt have experienced quite a different result. According to estimations by the Congressional Budget Office, cumulative deficits through 2020 will be around $9.5 trillion. Federal debt, that in 2010 represented 62 per cent of GDP, is likely to be 90 per cent of it in 2020, 110 per cent in 2025 and 180 per cent in 2035 .
These forecasts suggest that U.S capacity to keep funding and upgrading its military may deteriorate in the future, whether it will be due to forcefully applied austerity (for fiscal discipline) in the event of an indebtedness led crisis or due to public pressure to reduce government expenditure, or both. Thus, the second component of its hegemony may experience some constraints due to the weakening of the first. ‘It is fiscal, economic, and political failures at home that are threatening the ability of the United States to exert the global influence that it could’ . In Stephen Walt’s terms ‘the biggest challenge the United States faces today is not a looming great-power rival; it is the triple whammy of accumulated debt, eroding infrastructure and a sluggish economy. The only way to have the world’s most capable military forces both now and into the future is to have the world’s most advanced economy’ .
Walt is almost completely right about that, except there is also a looming great-power rival in the picture and thus the two processes through which American hegemony could be eroding, both the deterioration of its own strength and the rise of another power (internal and external conditions), seem to be converging to generate a solid trend of power-balancing capabilities in the future. China (just to give a random example) is supposedly behind the construction of a massive interoceanic canal in Nicaragua (my country), a project that would give them not only a huge leverage on commercial routes but foremost a military-geostrategic stronghold in the Americas’ neighborhood.
Great powers are on the rise. By far the most important one is the widely discussed case of China (in fact it is one of the most discussed topics of the XXI century ). It is no secret to anyone that China’s rising economy will overtake the U.S’ sometime in the next two decades, at least in its full size (Nominal GDP). Different forecasts situate this happening around 2021 , 2028 , or sometime around the 2030’s . This is easily explained by Chinese astonishing growth rates, during the past decade its real GDP has been growing at an average pace of 10.5 per cent annually, while the United States saw only 1.7 per cent in average growth . This gap is expected to experience some narrowing in the coming decade but it will still be big enough to fulfil the projections, according to publications made by The Economist, average real GDP growth for China will remain somewhere between 7 to 7.75 percent and U.S’ around 2.5 per cent .
However, primacists see no real threat to American Hegemony in those numbers. By arguing that the U.S still has ‘the continued structural advantages’ that define economic and therefore military supremacy. Among those would be: major influence in the international system, corporate strength, the Dollar as the benchmark currency of the world, and some suggest the American soft power’s legitimacy or even the idea of the “benevolent hegemon” as a cushion to prevent the fall of hegemonic influence. Another point made by this side of the literature is that economic preponderance must be analysed more in qualitative than in quantitative terms by assessing its competitiveness rather the size of the economy, taking into account the overwhelming advantage that the U.S continue to have relative to China regarding its globally best ranked universities , technological development, patents , and China’s difficulties for innovation due to its structural deficiencies and its educational system . Last but not least, it is also highlighted that the U.S living standards and GDP per capita are a more valuable features than nominal figures because it is there where surplus value lies.
The arguments above make some strong points against the declinist case and yet many of them can be effectively disputed. First, regarding the influence in the international system and the primacy of the currency, some power strains can be not too far ahead. Backed by the ever rising influential size of its export led economy and its trade balance surpluses with expanding partners, China has gained some major weight in international arenas such as the G20, the ASEAN community and other forums and may in the medium term put some pressure against the dollar’s position as the global reserve currency . It is important to remember that ‘approximately 50 per cent of U.S. Treasury debt is now held abroad. 22 per cent of it by China alone’ and that ‘Chinese central bankers could prove more dangerous than Chinese admirals. A simple announcement that China was cutting back its dollar holdings could put huge pressure on the U.S. dollar and/or interest rates.’ Although this does not seem convenient for China to do at the moment, since its economy is mainly sited on exports and therefore is interdependent with the U.S economy itself; this could, nevertheless, represent a harmful tool for the U.S in the Chinese offensive inventory during future hypothetical great-power confrontation; this kind of resources could seriously prove to be even more effective than military deterrence for power-balancing purposes (especially because of the unlikeliness of great-power confrontation in a nuclear age).
In the case of corporate strength, while is true that the U.S holds an advantage in general, a worthy fact to remember is that some rankings recognize that among the top ten global corporations there are four Americans and the same amount of Chinese .
U.S hegemony, defined as the relative power it occupies in the international structure, has been eroding and a tendency of decline has been set. Yet that tendency refers to a slow process that may not lead to drastic power shifts in the short or even medium term. Foremost, there is no certainty that that process is not reversible in a long term due to the advantages that the U.S possess. This process of decline will have transformational consequences in the current unipolar structure of the international system, yet, to project the future is always to enter the tricky realm of speculation even when that speculation is a well-informed one. While bipolarity or multi-polarity as suggested by Walt are serious possibilities (even Haass’ non-polarity), we may have to wait a couple of decades or more to see that happening and even then the U.S is very likely to be the strongest pole in a multipolar system, in which China would be the second followed by other great powers. Meanwhile, the international structure will continue to have a cautious and harassed hegemonic rule increasingly forced to multilateralist strategies by the pressure of rising powers outside, combined to political gridlocks and economic hardship domestically.
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