After Hegemony: America’s Global Exit Strategy
Posted by mb50
14 Dec 2012 By Kenneth Weisbrode
What will America look like in a post-American world? The National Intelligence Council, with its just-released Global 2030 forecast, has become the latest voice to join the chorus of those who see U.S. hegemony giving way to a leading but less-dominant position. It is worth considering what the loss of hegemony is likely to mean for America in terms of its trade, influence, reach and voice in international forums. What impact will these and any other consequences have on the way America engages with the world, as well as on its ability to provide the kinds of leadership that make it a hegemon? And how will all this affect the ways Americans live?
Examinations of hegemonic decline have historically focused on the world beyond the imperial center. The barbarian invaders get most of the glory and attention, with the subjects of historical empires who lived in what is called the “metropole,” that is, the imperial center or “homeland,” as understudied as the nature of these places following a hegemonic collapse. In fact, the fate of some more-recent metropoles has been relatively positive over the long run. Austria, Turkey, Britain and even Russia continue to survive as viable countries. Some of them even thrive and may offer useful lessons. Austria, for example, is a small, prosperous, secure and mainly conservative imperial successor state. So is Japan. The question is how Americans will cope with such a changed condition.
A loss of hegemony generally means a loss of access to markets and resources. In the case of the U.S., that would include the loss of global reserve status for the dollar, with implications for trade, government borrowing and interest rates. It will cost Americans more to get what they want, and, at the same time, they will have less to spend. As a result, they will have to do much more to live within their means.
This will make it more difficult to influence or even inspire other societies to follow America’s lead, but it won’t be impossible. Elements of the American character — creativity, pragmatism, adaptability — may continue to serve the country and other nations well, if under different circumstances. Adjusting to those changed circumstances will require a more collaborative and empathetic approach to the way Americans interact with the world.
Speculating about the American future in these circumstances requires a more precise understanding of the effect that global hegemony has already had on the United States and the global system. From the country’s founding to the peak of the industrial era, some Americans went out of their way to abjure the idea and the reality of hegemony, deliberately eschewing international engagement in the name of what was later called exceptionalism. In the 20th century others did the reverse, also in the name of exceptionalism. Now, in the 21st century, Americans seem to be doing both at the same time, while coping with ever more serious challenges at home and abroad.
These challenges will likely be exacerbated by a loss of hegemony. At home, it is likely to be accompanied by a decline in prosperity, with potential implications for domestic civility. The proportion of Americans who now live in poverty, currently at 15 percent, will probably increase. National cohesiveness may deteriorate when Americans realize that the cultural, ideological and economic foundations of national “success” are actually much weaker than they imagined.
Abroad, it will further constrain the effectiveness of America’s military as a tool for advancing American interests. America’s relative decline has already nurtured the increasingly widespread perception that the use of American military power limits American influence over the long term. Whereas hard power underwrote soft power — and sometimes vice versa — during America’s hegemonic rise, during its fall the two appear to be at cross-purposes. This reversal is consistent with much of the history of imperial decline.
How will Americans respond to such a world, in which U.S. influence, already limited, is no longer advanced by its military dominance? And if it is true that, as Henry Kissinger said recently, America will remain powerful but not hegemonic, how do you preserve one while losing the other? Will Americans, and the rest of the world, be content with an Austrian or Japanese future for the U.S.? That is hard to imagine. But the alternatives, perpetual empire and national disintegration, are too awful to contemplate.
If today’s preoccupation with decline is any indication, some Americans are in search of something like a grand global exit strategy. It may be better to imagine instead a post-hegemonic condition that retains some of the fruits of American exceptionalism — namely the exportability of its culture and technology — while multiplying the incentives, both domestic and foreign, against the frequent use of military power and other heavy forms of coercion. Time may be running out to shape these two goals in unison.
It is difficult to say what this will mean in practice. Making the world safe for a hegemonic retreat has always been, to some extent, a fantasy: a pre-emptive concession that is too clever by half. Even America cannot dictate the world’s reaction, least of all that of its adversaries and challengers. There also is no fixed or predictable pattern of retreat. Sometimes imperial states, even hegemons, simply just disappear, leaving only the successor states behind.
Kenneth Weisbrode is a diplomatic historian at the European University Institute and author of “The Atlantic Century” (Da Capo).
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