the statement, 'America's position as pre-eminent world power
will not last indefinitely' a truism? That is to say, is
this a statement too obviously true to be worth making? It was
not blindingly obvious to Nately, Catch-22's
embodiment of east coast rectitude and privilege. Whilst visiting
his whore he was taunted by an old Italian with the knowledge
that Italy was winning the war. After all, her soldiers were no
longer fighting, whereas Americans and Germans were still dying
every day. In consequence
will survive this war and still be in existence long after your
own country has been destroyed.'
could scarcely believe his ears. he had never heard such shocking
blasphemies before, and he wondered with instinctive logic why
G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. 'America
is not going to be destroyed!' he shouted passionately.
prodded the old man softly.
. . .' Nately faltered.
old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper more explosive
delight. His goading remained gentle. 'Rome was destroyed, Greece
was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All
great countries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer
do you really think your country will last? Forever?
they're still on top, and with no immediate end in sight, but
that day will come. Do Americans now know this, and if they don't
does it matter?
begin with, let's leave the American people out of this. They
no more think about abstruse matters of foreign policy than any
people anywhere else. Instead let's consider the leaders and the
thinkers. One of the latter, Prof. Kenneth Waltz, is sure that 'American leaders seem to believe that America's pre-eminent
position will last indefinitely'. Since any such conviction amongst
the governing class is likely to have at least been shaped by
what the thinkers have thought, it's instructive to listen.
Abrams considers the US's current position such as to render irrelevant traditional
notions such as the 'balance of power'. Implying a very
considerable degree of choice in the matter, the key question
facing America is, he suggests, 'whether to preserve this
dominance, or whether to view it as a danger to ourselves and
others'. Mr Abrams is all for preserving, because that, fortunately,
will also, 'preserve peace and promote the cause of democracy
and human rights'. Let's not forget that America has 'been
the greatest force for good among the nations of the earth'.
So America staying as top nation is not merely likely from this
viewpoint, but also, for each and every one of us, a thoroughly
still any dissenting voices Eliot Cohen assures us that 'there are, of course, a few first principles. No
one (probably not even some members of the Chinese Politburo)
would like to see the US lose its status in the international
system as the fundamental guarantor of an open trading order'.
Nor need we be worried that this vista of an endless horizon to
US power will intimidate Americans. As James Heilbrunn proclaims with almost Natelyesque confidence: 'the new realists have
it backward. America is not overcommitted. It is not committed
enough'. Thankfully American hegemony is not only buttressed by
rational foreign governments being aware of all these facts, foreign
people are also up to speed. Michael Ledeen points out, 'oppressed people everywhere know that if we fall, they
are doomed'. It is difficult to think of America at moments like
this without hearing the cadences of Star
Wars 'The purpose of power, Luke, is the opportunity to
short, America's on top, and she's staying on top. For confirmation
of that you have only to appreciate that even a bum like Clinton
wasn't able to dissolve American power. All of our quotations
are from conservative thinkers made during the Clinton era (when
US exercise of power was presumably less than congenial to them) to be found at home in journals such as The
National Interest, Commentary,
National Review and the Weekly Standard, and sufficiently distinguished
that not even their right wing beliefs can deny them a place in
more stolid, establishment publications like Foreign Affairs. Yet, despite being conservatives (or more often than
not, neo-cons) their watchword is sunny optimism, improving enthusiasm
even. For they all seem to share a common certainty of American
power, world without end.
most when the possibility of decline is considered it's in the
context of, 'well as long as we don't do this or that unutterably
foolish thing, we'll endure'. However there are very good
reasons for believing that, whatever the US does, decline happens.
come under four broad headings. First, are the faulty assumptions
which underlie much of the ugly talk of 'new paradigmatic
shifts' such as globalisation. Second, the power of the United
States, both in absolute terms today, and in comparison to previous
hegemons, is greatly overstated. Third, and perhaps least significantly,
there are the factors already at work which indicate ongoing US
decline. And fourth, there are the systemic problems inherent
in the idea of a perpetual hegemon.
we turn to each of these, there is one more thing to understand
about how hegemons understand themselves. Much like a baby boomer,
although they're likewise aware of the concept of death, they
simply don't believe it can apply to them. Psychologically this
manifests itself in the doctrine of exceptionalism. All hegemons,
whilst hegemonic, subscribe to this self-belief system. In circular
fashion they assume that because they're top, they deserve to
be top it being too absurd for words that they might have
got there by 'accident' or that hegemonic status is
devoid of moral meaning. From Philip II to Palmerston, the message
they tell themselves, and the rest of the world is the same: 'we
stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation
. . . our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other
nations'. Palmerston, as we know, was wrong, Britain was
simply powerful, not God's instrument on earth.
different, everything's better
start with faulty assumptions: these tend to revolve round notions
of the new. 'Globalisation' is a prime example. Always
an overdone concept given the superior credentials of the pre-Great
War international economy, globalisation is used by many proponents
of American ascendancy as proof positive of its likely long-lasting
nature. They point to the recent health of the US economy, forget
that their academic peers spent previous decades pointing to then
healthy economies (e.g. Germany or Japan) and drawing infallible
conclusions from them, and announce that, because of the crucial
importance economic strength plays in maintaining power, American
pre-eminence is locked in.
Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905
Aaron Friedberg self-consciously examined America's predecessor as hegemon with a
view to illuminating how power is kept or lost. Turning to the
debates which preoccupied Edwardian Britain would global
free trade, which was held to have made Britain top nation, keep
her that way, or to that end should protection be adopted?
Friedberg goes to the heart of the dispute, and the arguments
are just as valid of today as they were of 1900:
classical theory of free trade made no promises of permanent national
advantage. Unencumbered exchange meant optimum efficiency and
maximum global welfare, but it did not guarantee the lasting predominance
of any one political unit. The free play of economic forces would
undoubtedly result in shifts in comparative advantage in certain
crucial industries, and it might also cause one nation to displace
another as the leader in overall production and wealth.
last fear gripped the US as regards Japan for much of the late
70s and 80s. As Britain displayed in the twentieth century, after
economic mastery has departed, diplomatic leadership can linger
for some time. The globalist/free trade point remains this theory
guarantees no nation permanent retention of economic primacy.
Indeed, employing the stock reasoning about British economic decline the inevitable consequence of a prolonged head-start if the
United States has, or is enjoying a new information age climacteric,
what's to say that when others catch up they won't there and then
surpass a dinosaur?
fallacy of the new is the 'Revolution in Military Affairs'
(RMA). This is the belief that the United States has, or is about
to achieve 'full spectrum dominance'. That there has
been, or is fairly soon about to be, a qualitative shift in the
very nature of war-making, so that it will be impossible for any
military power to contest an issue with America and win. Very
crudely this means, 'we have better bombs than you, and we're
smarter at using them too'.
to taste, some believers in RMA hold that it is a permanent evolutionary
advantage, like opposable thumbs, and that in no meaningful timescale
is anyone else going to catch up with this undeniable advantage.
Others hold that the US merely enjoys a window of superiority,
similar in kind perhaps to that afforded to imperial Britain by
the invention of the dreadnought: she outclasses everyone else
thanks to her technological lead, but, unavoidably, mostly everyone
else catches up. This second, smaller, school is divided as to
whether the ultimate consequence of the RMA will be to denude
the US of her comparative military advantage (e.g. dreadnoughts
not only made Germany's pre-dreadnought battleships obsolete,
they also made the far larger number of British pre-dreadnoughts
obsolete when Germany started building her own dreadnoughts),
or, simply that competition will continue on this new, higher
plane of military achievement making it incumbent upon
future administrations to spend as vigorously as their predecessors
are held to have done.
though, remains only an idea. Its flaws are apparent from Britain
in eighteenth century America and nineteenth century Afghanistan,
to America in twentieth century Somalia and twenty first century
Afghanistan. In each war cited, whether the coacervation of loss
of will, and war with more important adversaries leading, by default,
to victory 'by' the technology-retarded over the advanced
military machine in the first example, to the shifting goals and
deficient war fighting capabilities exposed in the last (no Bin
Laden captured, no appetite for maintaining a victory with one's
own troops) of the last, wars are, were and always will be won by those who know what their goals
are, and are willing to see them met. Like globalisation, the
idea of an 'RMA' illuminates the willingness of a substantial
number of American intellectuals to believe in the prospect of
in-my-lifetime new rules. In this scenario these are invariably to the benefit of
the player currently leading the game. As I will discuss in the
final section, on systemic problems for unending American primacy,
there is very little to back up any of these notions that 'transformative
factors' have at all changed the basic rules of inter-state competition.
most powerful nation ever?
nothing miraculous has thus occurred which petrifies the present
level of American dominance, what is the nature of that power?
Is the United States quite as omnipotent as she is habitually
made out to be? Bluntly this boils down to: is, at her presumed
heyday, the US as powerful as preceding hegemons were during theirs?
Arguably not. Jacky Fisher, when forcefully communicating the
nature of Edwardian British world power, would have been able
to point to his 'five keys': Dover; Gibraltar; Singapore; Alexandria;
and the Cape. In their day these were the strategic prerequisites
to power, as they controlled the sea. And the Royal Navy controlled
them. As Britain's heir, America has inherited this same appreciation
that 'power projection' amounts to world power. Crucially, however,
the US controls very few of her strategic assets.
away bases granted to her by allies, in Britain, Turkey, Germany,
Australia or Japan, or in their dependencies e.g. Okinawa or Chagos Arch (the British Indian
Ocean territory where the bombers fly from to bomb Iraq or Serbia
or Afghanistan) and you substantially diminish American power.
Even today, the continental US is still a long way away from anywhere
interesting. Moreover, as this network of foreign bases indicates,
there is a fundamental difference between British hegemony and
American. The latter is at root conducted through the medium of
the former was, outside largescale warfare, unilateral in kind.
US leadership rests much more upon the consent of her 'western'
followers than is commonly allowed for. Subtract from the calculus
of American power the sheepish behaviour of say Britain, Germany
and Japan, and again, the equation is markedly different. These
(rather than basket cases like Iraq, China and Russia) are precisely
the countries which could
most plausibly 'compete' with the United States, being rich, militarily
capable, and most importantly, on the whole underexerted. If her
Western allies took repeated American advice and raised their
percentage of GDP allocated to defence to American levels, that
would have an astonishing effect on those tables which presently
show the US to be spending as much on defence as the next seven
the single currency zone, is already at a par with the US in terms
of resources. If this incipient power takes the decision to offer
a challenge to the global power of the US, then it, unlike China
and before that, the USSR, is more than capable of making one.
Imagine a European amount
of money spent in a British
fashion on defence. Which brings us to a most unusual ally: Britain.
it has something to do with the partially voluntary liquidation
of her power, but Britain has not, as previous hegemons have been
inclined to do, conducted a hate campaign against her replacement.
Commonplace wisdom has it that for centuries (long predating her
own occupation of the top spot) Britain coalesced with the weak
against the strong. From Catholic Spain, through revolutionary
France, to German Germany, the theme seems simple: resist the
top nation when you're not it. Yet today she is the most loyal
ally the strongest power can muster. And a very handy thing that
is too for American primacy. Apart from the obvious virtues already
discussed the bases, the manpower, and the intelligence and
technology relationship which Britain provides, she plays a
crucial role in terms of the alliance diplomacy through which the US is obliged to exercise her primacy.
to what the most self-avowedly self-interested American conservatives
believe, the United Nations is an extremely useful tool of American
foreign policy. Here, as elsewhere, Britain provides the US with
'cover' for her actions. This works in two ways. The first is
between other states, the second is in the context of the American
domestic viewing electorate having Britain always to hand
allows US politicians to point to at least one bunch of foreigners
being on side. Having Britain in her pocket further helps the
US in that Britain's peer-competitors (especially France and Germany) often join
in 'Western' ventures so as to prevent London from having sole
access to Washington. Lastly, Britain lined up behind America,
whatever else it means, means that there is one less power available
to be lined up against her.
crisis, but some decline?
American power is in fact somewhat less than it's usually made
out to be, let alone being at the 'post-balance, unprecedented
heights' some have claimed for it, are there signs of US decline
already in existence? Well . . . as you would expect, there are
difficult, often intangible factors to appreciate. If the form
and exact consequences of British decline are still debatable
a century later, we can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of vagueness
in assessing immediate and categorical American problems.
for a hegemon can cover a wide range of nuisances. Apart from
the near-theological questions of 'fundamentals' (and who, after
fifty thousand International Relations texts has any idea what
they are?), we have questions like: does the power wish to remain
a power? is she undergoing cultural changes inimical to the discharge
of great power status? is a rival rising? are competing pressure
groups (ethnic lobbies, humanitarian campaigns, unrelated political
activists) distorting US foreign policy? is the US making 'mistakes'
(e.g. by picking the wrong allies; sustaining client-liabilities
i.e. Israel, Taiwan; picking the wrong enemies etc.)?
I promised to leave them out of it, it's worth dragging 'the American
people' back in, given how often their sacerdotal embrace is invoked
by the academic avatars of American global engagement. China was
(remember) the policy
issue of the pre-bellum world. How many of the varied aspects
that make up the China question would be singled out by the famed
American people as 'important'? Taiwan? the fate of North Korea?
the alliance with Japan? Tibet? the American military presence
in East Asia? These are surely circular, bureaucratic issues.
They matter only because of the posture of global engagement the
US is already committed to. They are not matters which would,
unbidden, arouse great excitement in the hearts of the American
people. In short, do Americans actually wish to bear the financial
and moral burdens of empire to which their governors have long
ago indentured them?
is much discussed when considering Britain's fall from place,
the quality of 'the people', in a democracy, is moderately to quite important when assessing matters
of empire and world-power. Dispensing with the near-racism which
many progressive European commentators employ when opining on
the average American, is this in truth rather placid creature
up to the bloodthirsty business of keeping an empire? Just how
many foreigners can you afford to kill in front of CNN before
domestic support for imperial policing collapses? The most fanatical
prophets of American exceptionalism claim that 'the people' will
always endorse what they call 'engagement' (i.e. empire) because
of the moral component to American foreign policy. Even if for
a moment one accepts this dubious reasoning, the point at issue
is means not ends. Regardless of how good the cause a neo-Reaganite
foreign policy might have taken America to war for, will the public
support the gory details that such a war will entail? This leaves
entirely to one side the opposite but related matter of your own
casualties. Precisely how many of those are 'the people' prepared
to endure to fight foreign wars, whyever they're being fought?
As a mere six months on from September 11th shows,
for the people, striking back is one thing striking first, quite
from the led to the leaders, the foreign policy class upon which
this empire truly rests is hardly without flaw. Anatol Lieven wrote damningly (and well before the lunatic, and literally indefensible
central Asian overreach of post 9/11) of the self-conceived heirs
to the Great Game:
rhetoric of US engagement in central Asia has moved far ahead
of America's interests in the region, and the resources it is
willing to commit there. Present US strategy in the region is
not, as is frequently stated, 'dual containment' of Iraq and Iran.
It is quadruple containment, of those two states as well as Russia
and now Afghanistan (and one might even consider adding Pakistan
to that list). This is not diplomacy, it is strategy by autopilot,
with the course set a generation ago. It also commits the cardinal
sin of badly overstating the real power that the United States
is willing to commit to achieve its aims in the region.
still, 'the United States has neither reason, power, nor the will
to replace a largely vanished Russian hegemony in the Caspian
region with a hegemony of its own. This argument, of course, runs
flatly counter to the assumptions on which US policy in the region
has been based [in recent] years. These assumptions are false
in just about every particular. Some are indeed so historically
illiterate that it is difficult not to see their proponents as
blinded either by a truly pathological degree of Russophobia,
or by personal ambition'. Long before 9/11, central Asia was hardly
the only instance where policy had outrun resources and sanity.
danger that that most realistic of commentators, Owen Harries
(editor emeritus of The National Interest) has identified, and warned against, is hyperactivity.
In this case it is not so much the self-justifying sort that imperial
security bureaucrats always
engage in that he cautions against, but what in American terms
is known as 'neo-Reaganism'. The danger in this sub-Wilsonian,
derived from bogus exceptionalism, only-marginally-tempered-by-realism-when-spouted-by-conservatives
line, promoted in descending order of merit by William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Norman Podhoretz and Michael Ledeen, is that it can only but consume the finite physical
and moral capital of American power in pursuit of trifles. This,
when as Charles Krauthammer soundly observed (before
9/11 see if you can spot a theme here), there's very little
point in going out looking for trouble, because trouble will go
out of its way to find you, the hegemon. Most of all though, Harries
every dominant power in the last four centuries that has not practised
it that has been excessively intrusive and demanding has ultimately
been confronted by a hostile coalition of other powers. Americans
may believe that their country, being exceptional, need have no
worries in this respect. I do not agree. It is not what Americans
think of the United States but what others think of it that will
decide the matter.
of which at last brings us to whether the system in which the
United States finds itself will allow it to be perpetual hegemon.
not easy to rule the world
one sense this is an exceptional moment, and it would be misleading,
not to say cold blooded, to deny it. Ever since the United States
rose to being the most powerful nation on the planet it was consistently
dogged by a competitor: first Britain, and then the Soviet Union.
Today she is without peer, and that of course is the direct cause
of this essay. She's not the 'first universal nation' (that was
of course us here in the mother country), but she is now, for
the first time in her history, clearly on a different plane to all the other current
powers. However, this state of affairs is arguably the norm in
diplomatic history. You have several powers, but one always seems
to be in a different league to the others. This power is constantly
beset by the temptation of hubris. But whatever it believes about
itself (and, mostly Americans are realistically modest) it doesn't,
because it can't, render the other actors irrelevant.
the practical consequences of classical realism that the United
States will be 'balanced' come what may; that she lacks the power
to surmount the current order by which inter-national affairs
are organised; that, for the US, there's not the reason, the will
or the means even to attempt genuine global domination argue
that the position of America vis-à-vis
other powers will retract rather than improve. The only way that
it could possibly hope to do otherwise would be if that wily provocateur
Edward Luttwak's take on the Clinton era continue holds good. That is, a shambolic
external policy disguises American strength and thereby disinclines
others to coalesce against her. To put it mildly, the modesty
some of us saw inherent in Dubya's likely approach to foreign
policy has been a trifle difficult to maintain after 9/11.
for Mr Luttwak, his kinsmen on the right are, as we have seen,
all too willing to proclaim America uber alles. This noise
carries. American 'conservatives' are (I ambitiously guess) near
certain to be the principal solvent of US power. America will
decline more, then fall, largely because neo-conservatives will
spend vast, unnecessary sums on defence; boast about American
power, thereby provoking determined opposition; and, make significant
strategic errors principally regarding China as a preordained
foe, and, overcommitting resources on Wilsonian fancies due to
pursuit of neo-Reaganite goals. Perhaps the neocons know this
they're very smart perhaps the reason they'll destroy
the thing they claim they love most, American pre-eminence, is
because they realise at some level of consciousness its basic
incompatibility with their creed's fundamentally moral raison d'être (liberty, freedom, all that
jazz). Maybe neocons are secretly yearning to scream out too,
'A republic, not an empire'. Of course the opposite might be true
if we look to the under considered field of geopol-psychology
for an answer perhaps neo-cons are so loudly triumphalist
because of deep-rooted anxiety, perhaps they're simply screaming
at the night?
to America's fall, the most important factor since every exit
requires an entrance is that she potentially faces a genuinely
capable rival, which, in Euroland, she now does. This is an entity
that will come into being for the delicious reason that Britain
is no longer able to prevent it from doing so. And whose fault