The NY Times Magazine: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Turn on the TV today, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999. Democrats and Republicans are bickering about where and how to intervene, whether to do it alone or with allies and what kind of world America should lead. Democrats believe they can hit a reset button, and Republicans believe muscular moralism is the way to go. It’s as if the first decade of the 21st century didn’t happen — and almost as if history itself doesn’t happen. But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush, both because of his policies and, more significant, despite them. Maybe the best way to understand how quickly history happens is to look just a bit ahead.

It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from North Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.

Why? Weren’t we supposed to reconnect with the United Nations and reaffirm to the world that America can, and should, lead it to collective security and prosperity? Indeed, improvements to America’s image may or may not occur, but either way, they mean little. Condoleezza Rice has said America has no “permanent enemies,” but it has no permanent friends either. Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and “asymmetric” weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived, and there is precious little Clinton or McCain or Obama could do to resist its growth.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchGlobalization

Posted January 27, 2008 at 7:42 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Philip Bowers wrote:

This reminds me of the numerous articles in the 1980’s that predicted the fall of the US as an economic power house as the S and L crisis and rampant inflation hit us hard, with the prediction that the Asian Tigers—Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India—would take the lead on the world economic stage.  Then the Asian decline set in the early nineties and the American economy had among its longest and steepest sustained period of growth.  I think these guys underestimate the resilience of this economy and the overestimate the power and flexibility of the EU and Asia, and yes, even China, which I suspect has some very deep growing pains to endure before it overtakes the US.

January 27, 9:03 pm | [comment link]
2. Tom Roberts wrote:

Actually, this editorial reminds me of British editorials of a century ago (1918-1938 to be precise) pointing out the costs of empire, and never quite coming up with a reasonable explanation for what ought to be different and why. The NYT’s

The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership.

could easily be replaced by

The post-armistice “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under British leadership.

in 1933.

January 27, 10:33 pm | [comment link]
3. Wilfred wrote:

#1- You are right.  I read this same article 20 years ago, except that the names were different, & the author blamed everything bad on Ronald Reagan.

The only thing certain about the future is that there are going to be fewer Episcopalians.

January 27, 10:57 pm | [comment link]
4. Andrew717 wrote:

#1 is spot on, the author dusted off his copy of Paul Kennedy from the 80’s.  The Left keeps hoping for American decline, and we keep not cooperating.

January 28, 12:52 am | [comment link]
5. TACit wrote:

Quite a screed.  It sounds a bit like the writer took a cue from this fellow:

January 28, 1:24 am | [comment link]
6. yohanelejos wrote:

And yet, we should remember—nowhere is it written in Scripture that the United States is supposed to run the world. It’s only the Lord Jesus who will reign forever.

January 28, 5:37 am | [comment link]
7. Katherine wrote:

#6, of course, but it is reasonable for us to try to understand who will fill the power vacuum if the U.S. declines.  Some of the answers are decidedly worse than the present situation, and the idea that all nations will live together in peace and harmony is nice, but not likely.

January 28, 8:02 am | [comment link]
8. Tom Roberts wrote:

7 et al- The analytical concept of superpowers post WW II is certainly due for an overhaul, given that one of them disappeared in its political form with the dissolution of the USSR. Note that superpowers in their day had analytically replaced the former concert of Great Powers and grand alliance schemes of 1900-1945. In turn, that diplomatic concept had replace Metternich’s Concert of Europe and its basis in Balance of Power alliances which dated all the way back to wars fought to restrain the Hapsburgs or France.

What you might see from this trend is that diplomatic matters not only abhor vacuums, they also abhor stasis and monopolies of power. The fact that the US cannot maintain an omnipresent dominance is a given, if you even assume that it had one in the first instance (as does this article) circa 1990. We should not confuse the velocity of change in the past two decades with an assumption that the world’s balance is actually changing in any fundamental way. Instead, we might consider how basic realities are manifesting themselves in changing manners and contexts. An example of the latter is your doubts on world peace in the near term.

Consequently, we should really try to pin down what our national goals are, and how we should acheive these. “Winning the War in Iraq” is not one of these goals, but rather might be a way to acheive these goals (or might not, but that is a tactical digression). Walter Russell Mead used to have on the web (unfortunately the website dropped the essay) a useful analytical framework for looking at some of these goals, in which he included:
1. Jefferson’s concept of Creating the Shining City on the Hill
2. Hamilton’s concept of the Commerical Good Neighbor
3. Jackson’s concept of Retributive Justice (like unto Roosevelt’s ‘carry a big stick’)
4. Wilson’s ‘a world safe for democracy’

You might argue that list, but that is precisely the point. Great nations are great due to great ideas, not due to brigades in Baghdad. Those brigades may or may not be manifestations of those ideas, and the clarity by which we can associate discrete foreign or military policies with these ideal motivations should be a prime goal of policy formation and execution. Which is why I found this essay to be largely a mess. Simply saying that the US is and will be diminished says nothing to me. Saying that the US should cooperate with allies is boringly trivial.

January 28, 8:46 am | [comment link]
9. Steven in Falls Church wrote:

The excerpted passage reads strikingly like the introduction to a book that came out almost 20 years ago called The End of the American Century by Steven Schlossstein, where the reader was teleported into the late 1990s to reflect on assumed negative developments that would occur.  One projected development in that book was the decline of GM versus Japanese competition, including the sale or one or two of the GM brand names to Toyota.  Schlossstein could never have seen the explosive growth fueled by computer technology and the internet; indeed Chrysler has been sold (twice now) without anyone really lamenting that the sale signals a structural decline of the country.  At any rate I agree with Tom Roberts’ comment 8—the U.S. “hegemonic” position in the world is impossible to maintain, nor should we really want to maintain it.  Some parts of the world in fact could use a “refresher” course in what it means to be outside the oppressive U.S. sphere of influence and under the security umbrella of another power (i.e., Russia or China).

January 28, 10:25 am | [comment link]
10. Bob G+ wrote:

Nice political critique, Tom.  wink

January 28, 3:49 pm | [comment link]
11. Tom Roberts wrote:

Glad I had at least one moment of clarity yesterday, the rest of the day was a blur.

January 29, 8:35 am | [comment link]
12. Tom Roberts wrote:
is a copy of the original Mead article in TNI, btw

January 29, 9:01 am | [comment link]
13. Andrew717 wrote:

If anyone is interested, Mead also wrote a full book on the same topic a few years back (I think I read it it 02 or 03) that I highly recommend.

January 29, 1:43 pm | [comment link]
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