Daniel W. Drezner

The costs of being the default superpower

Anne Applebaum points out an interesting conundrum for U.S. foreign policy:  [W]e are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower, and, in fact, America cannot ...

Anne Applebaum points out an interesting conundrum for U.S. foreign policy

[W]e are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower, and, in fact, America cannot even afford to be the sole superpower. Yet America has no obvious partner with which to share its superpowerdom, and if America were to cease being a superpower, nothing and no one would take its place.

This might not be the end of the world—there are quite a few trouble spots that could do with a long period of benign neglect—and it might not last forever. Europe, when counted as a single entity, is still the world’s largest economy. China, whatever else it might be, is still the world’s fastest-growing economy. Sooner or later, the simple need to defend their economic interests might persuade one or both to start taking the outside world more seriously.

This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work.

One could argue that this is the downside of path dependence.  The United States enjoys many perquisites of power because the U.S. has been the hegemonic power for so long that everyone else expects the U.S. to continue as the lone superpower.  

The plus side of this convergence in expectations is that U.S. leadership of the international system is by and large accepted.  Of course, leaders are useless without followers, so this is more about the appearance of power than power itself.

The down side of this arrangement is that the United States gets blamed when global public goods are not provided — even if the United States is largely blameless. 

Applebaum goes on to suggest that thw U.S. should reconsider the unilateralism of a few years ago.  Actually, I wonder if the U.S. shouldn’t go in the opposite direction.  The current problem is one of free-riding — rising powers assume the United States will shoulder a disproportionate burden in msnaging the international system.  If the U.S. was prepared to weather the effects of non-cooperation, a retrenchment strategy eliminates the "moral hazard" issue that blunts the incentive for rising powers to share the burden. 

Of course, I’m not convinced of this — I’m just wondering.  It is entirely possible that countries like China are perfectly prepared to shoulder a greater burden — they just have a different set of preferences than the United States.  Or, it could be both.

Question to readers:  do you think the Obama administration should follow Applebaum’s advice? 

Anne Applebaum points out an interesting conundrum for U.S. foreign policy

[W]e are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower, and, in fact, America cannot even afford to be the sole superpower. Yet America has no obvious partner with which to share its superpowerdom, and if America were to cease being a superpower, nothing and no one would take its place.

This might not be the end of the world—there are quite a few trouble spots that could do with a long period of benign neglect—and it might not last forever. Europe, when counted as a single entity, is still the world’s largest economy. China, whatever else it might be, is still the world’s fastest-growing economy. Sooner or later, the simple need to defend their economic interests might persuade one or both to start taking the outside world more seriously.

This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work.

One could argue that this is the downside of path dependence.  The United States enjoys many perquisites of power because the U.S. has been the hegemonic power for so long that everyone else expects the U.S. to continue as the lone superpower.  

The plus side of this convergence in expectations is that U.S. leadership of the international system is by and large accepted.  Of course, leaders are useless without followers, so this is more about the appearance of power than power itself.

The down side of this arrangement is that the United States gets blamed when global public goods are not provided — even if the United States is largely blameless. 

Applebaum goes on to suggest that thw U.S. should reconsider the unilateralism of a few years ago.  Actually, I wonder if the U.S. shouldn’t go in the opposite direction.  The current problem is one of free-riding — rising powers assume the United States will shoulder a disproportionate burden in msnaging the international system.  If the U.S. was prepared to weather the effects of non-cooperation, a retrenchment strategy eliminates the "moral hazard" issue that blunts the incentive for rising powers to share the burden. 

Of course, I’m not convinced of this — I’m just wondering.  It is entirely possible that countries like China are perfectly prepared to shoulder a greater burden — they just have a different set of preferences than the United States.  Or, it could be both.

Question to readers:  do you think the Obama administration should follow Applebaum’s advice? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner