Is the world out of balance?
I just spent the morning on an unusually interesting panel at the first annual Williams College/H-Diplo conference focused on World Out of Balance, the recent book by Dartmouth University professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth. The other participants were Jeff Legro of the University of Virginia, Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, and Stacey ...
I just spent the morning on an unusually interesting panel at the first annual Williams College/H-Diplo conference focused on World Out of Balance, the recent book by Dartmouth University professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth. The other participants were Jeff Legro of the University of Virginia, Randall Schweller of Ohio State University, and Stacey Goddard of Wellesley College. And it was chaired by my old friend James McAllister of Williams College, who oversaw the whole conference. All of our reviews will eventually be published at H-Diplo, the vital diplomactic historians’ list-serve. But for now, I just wanted to highlight a few points which came up during the discussion which may be of interest to a wider audience.
The core of Brooks and Wohlforth’s argument is that American power since the end of the Cold War is so great that it can only be described as unipolarity — and that this unipolarity has a logic which is not captured by most existing theories of international relations. There is little reason to expect balancing (of “hard” or “soft” varieties), little incentive to push for alternative international orders, little possibility of the emergence of any peer competitor at the global level, and little reason to expect American primacy to face serious challenge any time soon. Above all, they argue, there is little evidence that the United States actually faces significant systemic constraints of any kind — with actual costs associated with balancing, overstretch, reputation, legitimacy or the rest difficult to find. You can get a taste of their argument here in the current Foreign Affairs.
The panelists raised a number of serious objections, methodological and theoretical, which you’ll see at the H-Diplo roundtable when it’s published. Schweller, for instance, noted that unipolarity is the only system where balancing is a revisionist rather than a status quo preserving strategy, and argued persuasively that challenges to U.S. primacy would likely involve an initial phase of delegitimation and the “practice and discourse of resistance.” Legro pointed to a number of mechanisms which might operate more efficiently than those on which Brooks and Wohlforth focus, including the domestic political impact of American unpopularity abroad and a wider institutionalist logic. Goddard asked whether balancing quite captured the various ways in which costs might be imposed, whether polarity quite captured the different possible distributions of power, and whether constructivist critiques might cut deeper than the book allows.
More than the others, perhaps, I started by noting simply that reading World Out of Balance in April 2009 was a disorienting experience. At a time of global economic crisis and the emergence of the G-20, the continuing drag of Iraq and the inability of the U.S. to deploy anywhere near the troops necessary for what it claims to want to do in Afghanistan, and the possibility of nuclear proliferation which would transform the importance of U.S. “command of the commons,” are the foundations of American material power primacy really so unassailable? Brooks and Wohlforth, I argued, mount an extremely sophisticated and impressive defense of the endurance of U.S. primacy — but one which does not seem to match the world in which we currently live. I suggested that World Out of Balance may face the fate of a masterpiece of IR theory published in 1988 explaining why bi-polarity could never end. The authors, I suggested, leave the impression of two crafty and battle-hardened knights defending the ramparts of an abandoned fortress.
But it’s an interesting question. Has American international primacy taken a shattering hit, or is this merely a minor downturn? After all, other potential competitors have been hurt just as badly and the relative balance of power might not be much affected at all. At the same time, conventional IR theory to the contrary, the absolute loss of capabilities and of leadership ability seems to matter more now than the relative balance.
What would happen if the U.S. could not longer play the role of unipolar power? Americans generally have a very difficult time imagining a world without American leadership. Others may have wider imaginations. I do not expect a return to multipolarity, as Realists generally focus upon — though it’s worth asking whether China, for instance, may lose interest in a system if it no longer benefits as disproportionately as it has for the last two decades. But what about a shift to non-polarity, in which neither the U.S. nor anyone else has the capability or the standing to play the role of leading power? What would such a world look like? Would it retreat to local balances of power and regional struggles, or would it spark more concerted and effective multilateral cooperation in the face of common problems?
All interesting to discuss. The full round-table (including the response by Brooks and Wohlforth) should be available soon for readers to judge the arguments on their merits. But certainly this is the kind of discussion of an issue of serious policy relevance relying on state of the art International Relations theories and methods which reportedly we don’t have any more…
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark
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