Is a declining Hegemon bad?

In the recent article Hegemony and After, Robert O. Keohane offers a scathing rebuke to the recent works of Robert Kagan and Robert Liebers (too many Robert’s I know) which discuss the gradual decline in U.S. hegemony. According to Keohane, both authors claim that U.S. hegemony is desirable (the alternative of no hegemon being a “more disorderly and dangerous world) and has existed for the past 60 years not as a result of multilateralism and the creation of institutions which the U.S. led, but because other states “approve of American values and goals and believe they may need American power down the road”.

To this Keohane claims their arguments do not engage in any serious analysis of what the U.S. would need to do in order to ensure hegemony, and that their critique of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations do not account for the successes of peacekeeping, trade, etc. Keohane argues that their books fail “to distinguish between what is known and what is unknowable” (a claim that would ultimately bring me completely off topic if I broke down) and that there are six things we do know which somewhat discredit Kagan and Lieber.

They are as follows: (1) with absence of leadership world politics suffers, without alliances or other institutions helping provide reassurance, uncertainty generates security dilemmas. (2) Leadership is exercised most effectively by creating multilateral institutions that enable the sharing of responsibilities and burdens. (3) Leadership is costly and other states have incentives to shirk their responsibilities (or cheat as we called it in class). (4) In democracies such as the U.S. people pay little attention to domestic policy and less to foreign. (5) Autocracies are less stable than democracies. (6) Among those democracies in the world today, only the U.S. has the material capacity (here I assume he means military) and political unity to exercise consistent global leadership (which is needed due to (1)).

I feel as if points (1), (2), and (3) are reiterations of those arguments we discussed in class, even if (1) is a put more strongly than we ever discussed, and that the other points are Keohane’s extrapolations of real world consequences.

Overall I found Keohane’s piece an interesting argument, which gives me no desire to read the works of Kagan or Lieber (making this an unbalanced assessment of their work). I did however find there is one argument he left unaddressed (perhaps as it was not the aim of his article) in that he does not mention whether he is a declinist (pessimist) or antideclinist (optimist) of American hegemony. Personally I would assume that a liberal institutionalist could easily fathom a decline in U.S. hegemony despite its apparent need to guide a multilateral world. Surely a state would recognise that creating international institutions centred on spreading equal rights and the rule of law would lead to ceding sovereignty to the institution and empowering others? Thus a decline in U.S. hegemony is more than expected, and perhaps in no way not desirable, as the tools for the World to continue to cooperate have been established, and assuming that states continue to use them (unlike certain neocons within the U.S.) they can continue to develop and be shaped by ideas by their members. Thus a decline in U.S. hegemony does not necessarily mean a rise in Chinese hegemony, rather it could mean that institutions such as the UN now have the chance to be influenced by other cultures and take on a slightly less Western-centric flavour.



2 comments on “Is a declining Hegemon bad?

  1. aidangnoth says:

    sorry about the random letters and things that occured when I first posted… They weren’t in the preview so no idea what wen’t on there.

  2. roblaurs says:

    This is an interesting one Aidan and I wonder if the objectivity of some of these IR theorists is clouded a bit by national allegiance at times eg. American IR thinkers – particularly from the class’ favourite brand of IR theory, realism, seem to be more enthusiastic proponents of US hegemony than others. Or if this is too much of a generalisation – US realists do seem to have more to say about the effects of polarity/balance of power in IR.

    The decline of the US has been trumpeted with differing degrees of confidence since the Vietnam War/oil shocks of the 1970s (see Modelski). Japan and (West) Germany were supposed to be the new challengers to US primacy – and we all know how that has panned out with an aging Japan lapsing into terminal stagflation and Germany (despite its own ‘Wirtschaftswunder’) lumbered with the task of being Europe’s ‘Atlas’ – propping up the region’s enfeebled economies.

    The Scottish economic historian, Niall Ferguson, specialises in stirring up controversy and propagating Western-centric world-views. In Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire, he examines the corroding innards of American imperialism and concludes that despite the superpower’s apparent decline the world needs a ‘liberal empire’ led by the US. Ferguson’s prescription has come under attack from both the MSM and non-Western commentators. According to Sundeep Waslekar, Ferguson advances a series of ‘indecent proposals’ – the recruitment of prisoners and foreigners into the US military, colonisation of failed states like Liberia and Iraq, the reduction of Medicare/Social Security – to help set it on the path to imperium. Waslekar is critical of Ferguson’s approach and laments that: “it is unfortunate that the current Western scholarship is producing end of history [Fukuyama], clash of civilizations [Huntington] and a case for imperialism [Ferguson]”.

    While Ferguson’s outlook resembles that of the neocons (in favour of power politics, dismissive of liberal institutions like the UN, regional blocs like the EU and international law – there’s no mention of Gitmo in Colossus) G. John Ikenberry, from a liberal standpoint, has also argued that the US-led liberal order (‘America Inc.’ as the owner/operator of the post-war hegemonic order) is in crisis. In Ikenberry’s view, this crisis can be remedied if the ‘liberal Leviathan’ adopts a ‘grand strategy’ that sees it regain authority and respect as a liberal order builder that shares power and relies on others for security in a bi- or multipolar world: “…even if the global system transitions away from America Inc. to a publicly owned and operated company, the United States will inevitably be a major shareholder, even in an era of slowly declining unipolarity”.

    All the metrics generally point to the US holding on to its material (ie. military – if not economic) supremacy for the foreseeable future even in the face of China’s rise. The question then remains, what role does the US adopt in terms of global leadership? This, of course, largely depends on the leanings of the presiding administration – the Obama doctrine has sought to emphasise negotiation and collaboration rather than confrontation and unilateralism (cf. Dubya’s foreign policy).

    Under Obama’s watch, the US have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-Il and Gaddafi have been removed from power – but there are still numerous challenges for the US as the global hegemon. How it shares this load (eg. how should the US tackle the Syrian situation and Chinese/Russian opposition to action?) will go a long way towards defining the quality/longevity of US leadership.

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