By Justin Logan Unipolarity is one of the hotter IR theory topics, and it’s virtually impossible to discuss the subject without reference to World Out Of Balance. A terrific book by Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, it provokes the reader to rethink his or her views, and engages seriously with realism, liberalism, and ...
By Justin Logan
Unipolarity is one of the hotter IR theory topics, and it’s virtually impossible to discuss the subject without reference to World Out Of Balance. A terrific book by Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, it provokes the reader to rethink his or her views, and engages seriously with realism, liberalism, and constructivism.
Their argument, in a nutshell, is that scholars from the above schools have underrated the United States’ ability to transcend structural constraints: realists overrate the impact of the balance of power; liberals overrate the impact of economic interdependence and international institutions, and constructivists overrate legitimacy constraints on the United States.
The authors conclude:
Our book provides the necessary analysis for concluding that the United States does, in fact, have an opportunity to revise the system — and, moreover, that this opportunity will long endure… Because their theories ignore or misunderstand the implications of the unipolar distribution of power, scholars have generally underestimated the U.S. potential to remake the post-1991 international system. More realistic theories with a clear-eyed appraisal of the workings of a unipolar system would lead them to see the systemic constraints they believe stand in the way of such a policy for what they are: artifacts of the scholarship of previous eras.
Now that’s an argument.
The topic of unipolarity has spawned two main debates: The first over how long unipolarity is likely to endure, and the second over whether unipolarity is peaceful. But to my mind, there is a third interesting question worth examining — the same one Gen. David Petraeus asked journalist Rick Atkinson on his way into Iraq: “Tell me how this ends?”
For many scholars, this is a moot question: Unipolarity is already ending. But even for those who think the end is further down the road, imperial overstretch — taking on a range of commitments beyond our means — is one way America might fall from being in a league of its own to being just first among equals.
In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Brooks and Wohlforth waved off dangers such as the long-term fiscal imbalances in the United States by observing that these problems “can be fixed.” Similarly, in a roundtable review of their book, the authors admitted that they “did not compose a theory of how unipolarity ends,” but they seem reasonably certain that overstretch is not a concern. Responding to criticism that power yields ambition and ambition can lead to overstretch, Brooks and Wohlforth fired back:
This is a bit like arguing that a person will dramatically increase his spending priorities if he garners a windfall — e.g. he goes from having $1 million in assets to having $10 million in assets — and will be more likely to become bankrupt as a result. Yet how much a consumer spends is not structurally determined by income, just as how much a state takes on its foreign policy is not structurally determined by how much power it has. A wealthy individual can go bankrupt, to be sure, but it requires poorer choices to do so than if they had fewer resources.
I’m not convinced. Long traditions in human history — and in international politics — suggest otherwise. Hubris has not been a common affliction of people of modest means. The pride that goeth before a fall is frequently spawned by possessions and power. Or, as Lord Acton wrote, “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Brooks and Wohlforth’s dismissal of the overstretch argument is that it was Wohlforth who argued (with two co-authors in an edited volume on the balance of power in ancient history and non-European contexts), that overstretch is a frequent cause of the demise of hegemonic systems. Summing up the findings, Wohlforth et al surmised that:
Not only is military expansion a well-nigh universal behavior, but … such expansion is frequently characterized by myopic advantage-seeking (boondoggling), rather than aimed at long-term system maintenance (balancing), even among rivals to potential hegemons… The pattern of boondoggling is a major reason why balanced systems routinely break down, and why systemic hegemons frequently squander their advantages.” (Emphasis mine.)
If unprofitable military expansion is a well-nigh universal behavior that explains the demise of systemic hegemons, it’s strange that Brooks and Wohlforth have been as dismissive of the concept as they have.
Maybe I’m just being a Nervous Nellie (or maybe I’ve fallen victim to the Pundit’s Fallacy, where a pundit assumes that the key to political success, international or otherwise, involves the adoption of the commentator’s own policy views). But I think the perils of the “systemic activism” Brooks and Wohlforth are urging, represent more cause for concern than they let on.
Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
David McNew/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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