American decline and global governance

At the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, Sam Roggeveen argues that American conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) should embrace international institutions for one powerful reason: they’re going to need them more in the future: The international environment is moving away from US hegemony and toward a balance of power, yet the tone of much right-wing ...

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

At the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog, Sam Roggeveen argues that American conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) should embrace international institutions for one powerful reason: they're going to need them more in the future:

At the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, Sam Roggeveen argues that American conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) should embrace international institutions for one powerful reason: they’re going to need them more in the future:

The international environment is moving away from US hegemony and toward a balance of power, yet the tone of much right-wing American commentary is that this change can be resisted through an act of sheer will on America’s part.

Not only is this unlikely, it would be undesirable for America to even try, because such a stance will face resistance from China, in particular, which wants to take a more prominent place in the Asia Pacific and on the international stage. It would be far preferable for the US to accommodate the rise of China and other powers in a way that suits America’s long-term interests. And that entails enmeshing these rising powers in a rules-based international order so that the inevitable competition between the great powers is tamed or sublimated.

When you’re a hegemon, you can afford to ignore international institutions which bring a degree of order and law to the anarchical international environment. When power is shared, it is far preferable that international relations are conducted within a framework laws, conventions and traditions to which all players grant a degree of authority.

A couple of thoughts. First, I’m not willing to concede that American conservatives are broadly hostile to the network of existing multilateral institutions. They have a particular beef with the United Nations (as I’ve argued here) and they have major qualms about the broad "global governance" project (as I hope to address soon).

Second, an argument for multilateralism that is premised on American relative decline is not going to win over American conservatives precisely because they hotly dispute the inevitability of that decline. And I’m not sure they don’t have the better of that argument. Given the frightful political, demographic, and institutional challenges facing China, Russia, and India, it may well be that America’s power remains essentially uncontested several decades from now.

None of this is to say that Roggeveen’s central point–that international institutions can be useful in buffering the rise of new powers–doesn’t have merit. But an approach to American conservatives premised on decline won’t be effective, and may not be right.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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