The Year of Living Hegemonically

How can the world be getting so much better when U.S. power is waning?


As 2013 draws to a close, it is not hard to find epitaphs for American hegemony. Perhaps the most recent and most articulate was Walter Russell Mead’s claim that the "Central Powers" — China, Iran, and Russia — were acting like an "Axis of Weevils," burrowing in and hollowing out the U.S.-created order that has been in place for decades.

Mead is not drawing this kind of conclusion from thin air. What he’s saying matches what many Americans and non-Americans believe. All of the public polling in 2013 confirms the trend: more people think the United States is less powerful than it used to be. More than ever, Americans want to focus on domestic problems and leave the rest of the world alone.

A quick glance at the 2013 headlines suggests that the Obama administration has been leading U.S. public opinion from behind. On Syria, for example, President Obama first came out in favor of using force against the Assad regime. As the American public made clear their strong aversion to that policy, the administration switched course twice, first seeking a congressional resolution and then accepting a deal that preserved the Bashar al-Assad regime. A single NSA contractor has wreaked havoc on U.S. intelligence capabilities, badly strained relations with Germany and Brazil, and tarnished America’s image abroad. And allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim have grown exasperated with the Obama administration’s mangled foreign policy process. Everywhere, the United States seemed to be in retreat.

Meanwhile, America’s rivals have had an industrious 2013. China is busy buying access to the Caribbean, bullying its ASEAN neighbors, and expanding its air defense zones in the East China Sea. Vladimir Putin has done his darnedest to be a thorn in America’s side. He granted Edward Snowden asylum, bolstered Assad’s regime in Syria, and most importantly, coerced its allies in the near abroad to stay in Russia’s economic orbit. Meanwhile, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has launched a public relations blitz designed to re-ingratiate the Islamic republic back into the good graces of the international community. At the same time, Tehran is ruthlessly prosecuting the war in Syria while launching cyberattacks in Saudi Arabia.

These sorts of trends tend to give U.S. strategists the heebie-jeebies. A staple of international relations thinking for decades has been that U.S. hegemony is the mainstay of global order. According to this "theory of hegemonic stability," peace and prosperity are only likely to persist when a liberal superpower is prepared to act to keep markets open and stamp out brewing conflict. If Mead or Robert Kagan are correct, then a United States that is both unwilling and unable to stabilize the rest of the world really should be a source of concern.

Here’s the thing, though: at the same time that commentators were bemoaning U.S. decline, the world was looking up. I suspect that ThinkProgress and Britain’s Spectator magazine would agree on very little in politics, but this month they both ran features pointing out something important: 2013 was "the best year in human history." Their data is incontrovertible. If you look at human development indicators, all of the key metrics — infant mortality, infectious diseases, per capital income — are trending in the right direction. By the end of 2013, the smallest fraction of the world’s population will be living in poverty. Both traditional and human security measures reveal the same trend. Whether it’s violent crime, discrimination, civil or interstate war, the aggregate data shows a more peaceable world. Or, as the Spectator put it: "Every day in every way, the world grows richer, safer and smarter." If you don’t believe political partisans, then buy Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape and you’ll discover the same message. Despite the post-2008 trend of predicting that the global order is crumbling and the world is going to hell, the opposite is transpiring.

How and why can this be happening when American power is on the wane? Those fearful of disorder have made two fundamental errors in judgment. First, they assume that China, Iran, and others want to rewrite the global rules of the game. Not so. To be sure, these countries want to preserve their sovereignty and expand their sphere of influence — and on these issues, they will clash with the United States. On the other hand, contra Mead, they will also clash with each other as well. Furthermore, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran very much want to participate in the global economy. Indeed, the reason Rouhani is trying to negotiate a nuclear deal is to get Iran out from under the dead weight of crippling economic sanctions. And contra what everyone expected in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, emerging markets are not eager to topple the existing global order. Indeed, the recent trade deal in Bali suggests that, if anything, they want to reinforce the existing rules of the game.

The bigger error, however, has come from analysts confusing a U.S. reluctance to use military force in the Middle East with a decline in American power and influence. The truth is that the United States still wields considerable power, which is one reason why 2013 turned out to be such a good year. Whether one looks at global capital flows or the use of the dollar as a reserve currency, the data point in the same direction: the resilience of American economic power. And even as the sequester hits, the United States also continues to possess an unparalleled edge in military capabilities. It is true that Syria continues to hemorrhage lives and livelihoods. Even there, however, it was the threat of American force that triggered an agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. U.S. military power has also helped to tamp down conflict in the Central African Republic, as well as deliver massive humanitarian relief to the Philippines.

Indeed, given the depths of its domestic political dysfunction, one can only imagine what
America’s rivals must think. In 2013 alone, the federal government couldn’t evade a stupid, counterproductive budget sequester, a government shutdown, and brinksmanship with the debt ceiling. There was no agreement on immigration reform, much less on policies such as climate change, education, or infrastructure. Despite mounting gridlock and policy own goals, however, the United States ends 2013 with a rapidly declining federal budget deficit, a surging energy sector, and accelerating growth in the economy and employment. President Obama was justified in noting that 2014 could be a breakthrough year for the United States. The most brilliant strategists living in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran can’t displace the structural strengths of the United States. Which means that for those capitals, 2014 will prove to be a very frustrating year.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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