A Post-Hegemonic Future
Here's a question to muse about while awaiting the results of Tuesday's election in the US: what happens after the United States is no longer the dominant global power?
This is a question that doesn't get asked often. Public figures who even mention some possible far-off future date when the US is no longer #1 are excoriated for their lack of patriotism. And when there are no obvious contenders for a new #1, it's easy to think that the status quo is how it shall ever be.
But anyone who has taken a world history class can tell you that no king of the mountain ever stays there. States that may once have led the world can later be relegated to geographic footnotes; even nations that might dominate for more than a century -- Pax Britannica, anyone? -- eventually fall by the wayside, becoming, in the words of Johnny Rotten, just another country.
Eventually, the US, too, will become just another country. This is not a partisan position, but a historical observation. And as fundamental changes to the international power structure rarely happen without major disruptions, it's wise to think through what might lead us to a world where the US is no longer king of the hill.
Falling or Just Rising Slowly?
The first issue to grapple with as we think about this future is the nature of the decline of the American hegemon. For this, we can learn a great deal from history. Very broadly speaking, a state loses its position of dominance in one of two ways: absolute decline or relative decline.
Absolute decline means losing enough territorial, population, military or economic power that the state is measurably worse off than it was in earlier years. The collapse of the Soviet Union could be described in this way; the Russia of 2000 was weaker in nearly every way than the Soviet Union of (say) 1980. Relative decline, conversely, means that the state continues to grow more powerful than it had been in past years, but does so at a pace that can't match the growth of its competitors. The post-World War II United Kingdom is an example here; in the early 1950s, the UK still had notions of imperial leadership, but the United States took a greater and greater role in the management of the West, pushing the UK aside. Few people would argue that the UK of today is weaker -- militarily, economically, culturally -- than the UK of fifty years ago, but the modern Great Britain has no pretence of global dominance, functioning more as America's sidekick.
Looking at the future of American hegemony, then, we must ask whether the US will suffer from an absolute decline -- where the America of (say) 2030 is measurably weaker than the America of (say) 2010 -- or from a relative decline, where the future America is more powerful than today, yet significantly less powerful than the other international actors that pushed the US aside.
The Few or The Many?
The second issue to consider is the nature of future global competition. In this case, the historical lessons are less clear. It's easy to assume that future competitors with the United States will be the same kinds of nation-states we have today -- after all, that's the way the international system has worked for centuries, why would it change? But the nation-state model is not a law of nature; we should ask, then, if there are any aspects of modern international power that suggest that a post-nation-state model is on the rise.
As it happens, there's a big one. The main political story of the current era is the rise of sub-national and transnational civil society actors with characteristics of national power -- that is, organizations without state size or authority that nonetheless behave like states on the international stage. A decade ago, this observation would focus on the global reach of multinational corporations; today, the focus is on fourth-generation warfare (4GW) groups, more popularly (if less usefully) called "terrorists."
The last five years have demonstrated quite convincingly that small groups with global ambitions can, by relying on the technologies, international communication networks and financial systems built by states, significantly alter the policies and behaviors of hegemonic nations. Decentralized, coordinated by ideology rather than by strategy, and heavily-networked, these 4GW organizations hit harder than their numbers might otherwise suggest, and are nearly impossible to destroy through traditional military means. The question for the American future, then, is whether the primary competitors the US will face when it's no longer the big kid on the block will be other major states (e.g., China, India, or a more unified EU) or distributed groups of guys with cell phones, nuclear bombs and an attitude.
Imagining the Unimaginable
If we think like futurists here, this gives us a traditional four-box set of scenarios: Absolute Decline/Great Powers; Relative Decline/Great Powers; Relative Decline/Non-State Powers; and Absolute Decline/Non-State Powers. Without going into far more detail than I have the energy for, my first blush "high concept" stories for each would be:
Add to each of these scenarios large-scale problems such as pandemic disease, the impact of global warming (as the Stern Report shows in graphic detail), and peak oil, along with the continued acceleration of technological change, and (to quote Tom Barnett) you got yourself a party.
In fact, it's easy to see how any of those issues could become a tipping point leading to these hegemonic decline scenarios. Their effects could be so damaging and disruptive to the American economy and society that the country slows or (effectively) collapses. Conversely, efforts to mitigate, adapt to or even take advantage of the challenges could come too slowly and too ineffectually in comparison to other actors, and the US simply gets left behind. Depending upon how other nation-states weather these same problems, the international system of Great Powers could be strengthened, or the door could be open to non-state actors becoming more dominant.
As scenarios go, these are not terribly satisfying. There are no obvious solutions arising from the set, nor are there clear points of influence to be strengthened or (at least) watched. This exploration, however, wasn't meant as a trigger for action; rather, it was my attempt to poke around at a subject that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves. Decline is the great taboo subject in American political discourse. This wasn't always the case, but past periods of self-examination were usually linked to an obvious challenger, most recently Japan.
The current inability of American political thinkers to imagine what might lead to a post-hegemonic US has unfortunate, even deadly results: arrogance; over-estimates of US power; belief in a kind of exceptionalism that puts the US above international laws, treaties or needs; and a belief that the US should be, must be, the global leader. While these attitudes are abundantly evident in the current American leadership, they infect both major parties.
I'm not calling on us to actively plan for decline, or to assume that the end is near. As the set of scenarios sketched out above shows, the range of possibilities is so diverse that there's not much we could do today to prepare for the end of hegemony. Rather, I think the lesson here is that we need to act in the world with the understanding that, eventually -- maybe not soon, but eventually -- the US will no longer be number one. Right now, we're setting a standard for hegemonic behavior that might not be in our best interests when we're no longer in charge. We might want to rethink that.