A hegemon in decline

Immanuel Wallerstein has argued since 1980 that the United States peaked as a hegemonic power around 1970. He says the decline was slow at first but became precipitate during the presidency of George W. Bush. At first

the reaction to this argument, from all political camps, was to reject it as absurd. In the 1990s, quite to the contrary, it was widely believed, again on all sides of the political spectrum, that the United States had reached the height of unipolar dominance.

However, after the burst bubble of 2008, opinion of politicians, pundits, and the general public began to change. Today, a large percentage of people (albeit not everyone) accepts the reality of at least some relative decline of U.S. power, prestige, and influence. In the United States this is accepted quite reluctantly. Politicians and pundits rival each other in recommending how this decline can still be reversed. I believe it is irreversible.

Wallerstein points out that the recent kerfuffle over spying on friendly leaders would have been hushed up during the 1950s. Now it is to the advantage of leaders in their local politics to tweak the nose of the US. Not one of the strong actors in the Middle East takes their cue from the United States any longer.

Finally, there are two real consequences of which we can be fairly sure in the decade to come. The first is the end of the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort. When this happens, the United States will have lost a major protection for its national budget and for the cost of its economic operations. The second is the decline, probably a serious decline, in the relative standard of living of U.S. citizens and residents. The political consequences of this latter development are hard to predict in detail but will not be insubstantial.

I recall that when Bush was shaping to invade Iraq in 2003 Wallerstein warned that if the US lost the war it would end up having no more influence in world affairs than Italy. Reality turned out to be rather messy, but there is little doubt that US power was feared more before it was used in this way.

At the time, Gerhard Schröder, then Chancellor of Germany, declined to support the US. This was seen by Perry Anderson (of New Left Review) as a temporary aberration, rather than a sign that US hegemony over Europe was in question. Now, indeed, the relationship is conceived more in terms of partnership, which is why spying on Merkel was seen as a serious breach of trust.

On the spying saga, the US and Germany have now patched a deal, as partners.

With Pakistan, and the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just as peace talks were said to begin, no-one can be sure what’s going on according to Tariq Ali on the BBC today. Apparently Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has just been in Washington where he was presumed to be asking Barack Obama to cease using drones in his country. There is a real chance that all is not as it seems.

More broadly, though, it will be interesting to see how history judges Obama’s use of drones to prosecute the ‘war on terror’. My guess is not too kindly.

16 thoughts on “A hegemon in decline”

  1. Politically, the United States started going into decline when they lost their last strong President, Richard Nixon; not nice or lovable or charismatic or honest but strong.
    When they stabbed President Jimmy Carter in the back, the decline became irreversible, despite the extraordinary efforts of Mr & Mrs Clinton and despite whatever “Barry” Obama might try.

    Militarily, the decline of the United States started much earlier, in Viet-Nam, of course …. but long before President Johnson’s advantage-wasting blunders there. It started over the jealousy against the successful bright young US Special Forces officers by the Pentagon’s armchair admirals, chocolate soldiers, colonel blimps and other assorted oxygen-wasters: the chair-polishing boofheads won – and the United States lost and lost and lost and keeps on losing.

    Technologically, the tipping point came with the unbelievably stupid decision to cancel the moon landing program at the moment ultimate victory in the field was within their grasp …. it is ironic that American astronauts now go into space on top of old-fashioned Russian rockets with borrowed Chinese money.

    Pity. The United States was a great country and – despite all its serious problems and its Christianist tallyban, its teaparty loonies and its life-savings plunderers – it has the potential to become great again.

  2. Graham – Americas huge social inequity is surely a stumbling block to a revival of world greatness.
    I think the depth of vested interest has such deep roots that any serious redistribution of income or wealth is unlikely to happen organically. I’m seeing a likelihood of considerable social discomfort in the next decade and beyond. Bottom-up attempts to change the equity balance are not likely to be happily embraced by those holding the money and influence. Perhaps the unrest will mask American perception of it’s change of status but I can’t see the US maintaining/regaining its leadership anytime soon.

  3. I heard a comment, perhaps from Anthony Giddens, that suggests that the US is ‘re-industrializing’. And we know that they have a burst of internal energy production.
    While I do not disagree with the proposition that the US role as single hegemon is diminishing, I do recognize the sheer power of its economy. And the US’s resilience.
    I wouldn’t write them off too soon. But perhaps a bit of sharing of hegemonic power would be beneficial (we could wish).

  4. Both China and the US will face problems matching performance with the expectations of their wage earners.

    I believe that China has more serious problems in the long run than the US. However, the short term problems of the US are more acute. The disaster that is OBAMACARE and looming deep cuts in the food stamp program could precipitate civil unrest. However, the US political system has proven itself to be ruthless, resilient and resourceful under similar past threats.

    At present the US military does not have an achievable mission in the world. The drone program is a tacit admission of defeat. With the decline of a perceivable use of the US military, erstwhile allies see no need to kowtow to the US.

    The question is whether the Chinese will have the patience to follow the gradualist path to hegemony that has served them so well for the past 15 years. The tide is running their way. It would be tempting to attempt to out run it.

  5. Chinese govt responses to internal inequities and problems are much more clear-headed than those of the USA. Comparison with Obamacare is instructive: they originally did some experimentation with different forms of insurance and health savings accounts, realized that they weren’t going to work, so rolled out a social insurance program that now covers about 90% of the country. It’s weak but they are now setting about making it more effective. All this without fanfare or unreasonable reactionary response. The USA may be a democracy but I have a strong suspicion that the Chinese elite are much more responsive to the demands of their citizens than are the US elite.

    I also think that redistribution of wealth isn’t going to happen organically in the US. But I think that this means there simply won’t be any significant redistribution. India has managed to get along for the past 50 years in the face of huge inequality, why should we expect the US to be any different?

  6. “India has managed to get along for the past 50 years in the face of huge inequality, why should we expect the US to be any different?”

    Because during this period India has been building a middle class, while the Americans have been destroying theirs?

    Just one example – student debt is over a trillion $$ in the U.S. – fine if there are good jobs to go to, but what kind of anger will come from the frustrated middle-class sense of entitlement if those debts can’t ever be paid off from casual, part-time, contract, temporary, uncertain and low-paid work?

  7. I’m really uncertain about the longterm trend theories RE fall of the American empire.

    No, what is most obvious is the newfound inability, or at least credible threat of inability, to react to sudden financial market panics; that is way out of context when it comes ‘who incubated the virus that is slowly killing America?’ arguments.

    If Obama has to suddenly pass a new TARP, even one that’s considerably smaller than the last one, there really is no chance he’d get such an act from this congress.

    Game set match for imperial demise right there. Nothing incremental about negative 15%+ growth in a single quarter.

  8. Brian – “More broadly, though, it will be interesting to see how history judges Obama’s use of drones to prosecute the ‘war on terror’. My guess is not too kindly.” Depends who writes it surely 😉 The US use of drones is likely to be just a prelude to an expansion of unmanned military capabilities and will end up part of a confusing and emotionally wrenching discourse that will include IEDs, suicide bombers, massive population movements, blowback and missed oppertunities.

    I think that the role of the hegemon has changed, sure the US cannot boss the Europeans around and invade central and sth america like they did in the 50s and 60s. The power and freedom to act unrestrained that the US and the USSR had was dependent on the existence of the other and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. It is interesting that Wallenstein picks 1970, as it is close to the USSR’s hegemonic high water mark too. (I noted that a few of the tinpot libs were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the invasion of Grenada the other day, representing it as the moment the tide turned, how I laughed).

    I dont doubt that our dipole world is headed for a multi polar future, but India and China are not in the position that the US was in in the early part of the 20th C with exhausted ‘parent’ empires tearing each other to bits and plenty of space between them and those who could do them harm. India and China are surrounded by neighbours that could and have hurt them before, including each other and “the Prussians of South East Asia”. They have some delicate tightropes to tiptoe across yet.

  9. Geoff Henderson @ 2:
    Heartily agree with you there.

    faustusnotes @ 5:
    Agree with your first part: about the responsiveness of the Chinese government to internal matters nowadays.
    Disagree with your second part. Huge inequalities of wealth may be fairly easily tolerated in Indian society because of the hope that some of that wealth may trickle down. Not so American society because there, the huge inequalities of wealth caused frustrated ambitions …. and frustrated ambition, not poverty itself, is the root cause of most revolutions.

  10. Mahaut1329 @ 3, I’ve also heard about American re-industrialisation. Apart from the falling currency I believe some manufacturers are finding it preferable to have the operation where they can best control the process. Also there is a bit of a trend towards varied output to meet specific customer needs. Local operations can be more responsive.

  11. The early seventies was the time when the world started moving towards free trade. The yanks with their Kennedy round of free trade talks were in favour of it because they thought free trade would open up markets for US goods. The reality is that free trade has not been good for the US worker or the US balance of payments. One of the key drivers in the growth of inequality has been the loss of manufacturing industries that provided good paying jobs for ordinary workers.
    Free trade has also allowed countries such as China to grow their economy on the basis of sales to the US that were paid for by growing US debt.
    Interesting to ask what happens if the US says enough is enough and starts controlling imports again. Not sure that the point has been reached where the loss of the US market would have little effect on the rest of the world.

  12. Thanks Brian for this summary and for citing Wallerstein who has good form on the long view of modern history. The hegemon is in the shoals and liable to beach somewhere near us; beware the damaged beast. So terrific that we now have US forces based in the NT, makes me feel so much safer, so more like I’m living on my knees.

  13. On a word for word basis, notwithstanding the complexities of Monbiot’s politics, I couldn’t agree more with him or Dr Matt Mitchell. This is for a closer view, a cellular view, of the death of the hegemon.

  14. Well, Folks, what are we going to do when Uncle Sam ceases to be our omnipotent, avuncular protector against everything and everyone.

    We Australians have had three whole generations of hanging onto someone else’s big strong hand. We have forgotten how to have an independent foreign policy. We are now like babes in the woods in the cut-throat world of international trade. We emasculated our armed forces and deprived ourselves the ability to manufacture our own war materiel. Our intelligence guardians are utterly dependent on the benevolence of a foreign government (and that was shown up by the David Hicks farce). We have neglected to build up our own links in nearby countries (for example: all the hard work we put into the Colombo Plan was allowed to rust away). We started well in the space game then got lazy and bludged on the United States; maybe the Indians will let us play with their space craft if we ask them nicely.

    I know what our decision-makers will do – the same as they have always done. First, they’ll pretend that it isn’t happening and that the United States is, and always will be, the biggest and the bestest and that they will rush to our aid as they did in 1942. Then, when reality starts mauling them, they will rush around trying to latch onto another “big uncle”, any one will do. Does Botswana want a really truly loyal ally? How about Andorra or Belize, they need Australia as a buddy-pal, don’t they?

    Independence? Self-reliance? Good Lord, no! That would mean raising a sweat and taking responsibility along with calculated risks. We couldn’t have any of that funny stuff going on here, could we?

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