Hegemony and After

Knowns and Unknowns in the Debate Over Decline

Playing a dominant role in world politics does not make for an easy life. Even very powerful states encounter problems they cannot solve and situations they would prefer to avoid. But as Macbeth remarks after seeing the witches, "Present fears are less than horrible imaginings." What really scares American foreign policy commentators is not any immediate frustration or danger but the prospect of longer-term decline.

Recently, the United States has been going through yet another bout of declinism -- the fifth wave in the last six decades, by the scholar Josef Joffe's count. This one has been caused by the juxtaposition of China's rising power and American economic, political, and military malaise. Just as in the past, however, the surge of pessimism has produced a countersurge of defensive optimism, with arguments put forward about the continued value and feasibility of U.S. global leadership. 

Two examples of such antideclinist forays are Robert Kagan's The World America Made and Robert Lieber's Power and Willpower in the American Future. Both make some cogent points in their analyses of the past, present, and future of the existing U.S.-sponsored global order. But their authors' refusal to accord due weight to multilateral institutions and material power in their assessments of that order, and their overconfidence in making assertions about the future, reduce the books' value as appraisals of contemporary world politics. 

IT TAKES AN INSTITUTION

Kagan's gracefully written essay notes that the United States has played an essential role in creating the international system of the last 60 years, one in which large-scale warfare has been relatively rare, the global economy has grown at unprecedented rates, and the number of democracies has quadrupled. Harking back to Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Kagan asks readers to imagine what the world would have been like during this period without American leadership and says the answer is clear: much less attractive. U.S. hegemony helped promote peace, prosperity, and political liberalization, and American power continues to be important in maintaining world order.

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