The End of American Hegemony

This article is part of the “Turning Points 2003” year-end package from The New York Times Syndicate. c.2003 Karel Van Wolferen (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

     Amid the appearance of a resurgent, newly aggressive America, the really significant international development of 2003 was the destruction of the conditions that until now had made American hegemony possible. The almost universally accepted dominance of the United States had been the pivot of a relatively stable and peaceful world order, but that order now stands on the verge of disintegration.
     Hegemony implies consent on the part of weaker powers, which enables the dominant power to avoid overt coercion _ the mark of imperialism, from which it must clearly be differentiated. It reveals itself in the dominant country’s influence over other countries’ world views, particularly in regard to international political and economic relations.
     While the United States has often been accused of arrogance and has not always been accepted as a model of good governance, generally American hegemony enjoyed a global welcome. The United States was understood to constitute the world’s primary force for order, an order initiated in the cauldron of World War II, built in the shadow of superpower rivalry and gradually consolidated in the warmer, more hospitable setting of detente with the Soviet Union. It became the fundamental reality for any government with an eye for international affairs.
     For all its defects, this world order came closer to a tolerably stable society of states than anything that the world has seen for at least three centuries. The United States was recognized as its main architect, and few doubted that its dominance was crucial to sustaining that order.
     China, Russia and indeed all major countries had felt relatively comfortable within this geopolitical system. There had been no signs that any of them would prefer its demise, fantasies about rogue states notwithstanding. After the upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century this geopolitical system had greatly reduced fear and made good neighborliness an international norm. In spite of cynical governance and tyranny dotted around the world, and much local slaughter, notions of democracy and human rights had gradually seeped into governing bodies, opposition groups and media systems in countries which previously had lacked even the terminology with which to formulate them.
     This widespread acceptance of American hegemony was predicated both on a belief in American strength and on trust in American intentions and reasonableness. More specifically, European and most Asian governments believed that Washington would always consider its own long-term interests to be interwoven with the continuation of the world order which it dominated. In other words, they trusted the United States not to lose its head.
This trust came to an end in 2003, with the current administration’s decision to engage in “preventive war” _ and, in the process, to break with America’s own traditional principles and to violate valued international agreements, including the United Nations Charter. Governments worldwide cannot fathom how this action could serve any conceivable American national interest, since its consequences have only endangered American security.
     Perhaps driven by a psychological need to reject craziness as a motive force and to find reason in all things, some commentators have pointed to supposed national interests such as oil supplies, troop withdrawal from Saudi Arabia or simple war profiteering. None of those stands scrutiny as an ultimate reason, and none begins to match in importance what the United States has lost.
     In fact if not in name, the Atlantic Alliance has been abolished. The former Cold War allies now find themselves offered only a system of vassalage, with the consultation stipulated in the North Atlantic Treaty now replaced by command. The Middle East, now even more unstable, has become a rich recruiting ground for terrorists, and nuclear proliferation is once again a global threat. With its dire limitations now manifest, Washington is steadily losing the informal control it once possessed over various international agencies. The international faith in America’s strength has suffered much as a result of the occupation of Iraq, since its political authority never lay in its mere muscle power.
So far the response of Europe’s elite circles to the end of American hegemony have been ambivalent, with many confirmed Atlanticists as much in a state of denial as is the majority of the American public.
     But in the past few months the European general public has become well-nigh unanimous in its distrust of the United States. Asian governments, elites and populations alike have become fearful of what they see as destructive American capriciousness. In South Korea, once a staunch ally with an emotionally pro-American populace, it would be hard to find even a handful of people who still trust Washington. Like France, Germany and Russia, along with Brazil and other less influential nations, Asian governments have been forced to rethink their long-term diplomatic and strategic goals.
     The vast majority of Americans, including the political elite, never realized the extent to which Asians and Europeans had come to see each other, and to see world events, through American filters. Even as they decry the Bush administration’s unilateralist tendencies, most of its American opponents appear not to have grasped the damage being done to the world system.
This is due to the age-old triumph of theory over experience. Ingrained assumptions derived from “realist” and “neorealist” doctrines that have informed academic studies of international relations, simply block the view of the authors of preventive war policy as well as their critics. These doctrines were rooted in a world that passed out of existence with the Second World War, however, and since then have been accepted on faith rather than on any clear-minded assessment of recent world conditions.
     The balance-of-power metaphor which is central to the “realism” legacy, and which was relevant to Cold War containment policies, appears to have been the spur for the current American policy-makers who seek to establish the United States as an unchallengeable military power in perpetuity. Heirs to a tradition of American exceptionalism, they reject the inevitability of an emerging challenge of counter power — the core of realist doctrine — and have focused on creating the conditions that will prevent the theory from becoming fact.
     The received wisdom around the world is that there has never been a country as powerful as the United States is today. This is true; but because of a misreading of global realities, national paranoia, and party political exploitation accompanying a reaction to terrorism mislabelled as an actual war, the United States has rapidly moved beyond its peak and has already begun to shrivel as a world power.
     The creation of a genuine empire to substitute for hegemony is beyond its grasp. It does not have the material or bureaucratic wherewithal to maintain one, its ruling elite does not have the intellectual capacity to run one and the American public will put a stop to it the moment it realizes that the current administration is trying to build one.
     Contrary to accusations by Bush supporters, very few Europeans engage in self-righteous finger-pointing or see recent developments as an opportunity for schadenfreude. Many have tried to suppress their dawning realization of catastrophe by talking up America’s capacity for self-repair, while continuing to hope that in the international arena things will somehow go back to normal.
     But the betrayal of a trust creates irreparable breaks, and it is very unlikely that a stable world order founded on American hegemony can ever return, even if Washington resumes a multilateral foreign policy.
     We are all in a fix because of the American plight. It means not only the regression of a great political culture, but also the onset of chronic global insecurity the likes of which we have not seen since 1945.