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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:

  • AD/GP: "Untied States" - US falls apart internally, letting other states take lead;
  • RD/GP: "Last Among Equals" - US is slow on a key innovation (e.g., molecular nanotech), and other big states rise in power faster than the US can match;
  • RD/NSP: "The Linux Option" - Great power national structure becomes irrelevant, as non-state actors are able to out-compete by being more flexible and responsive, and nearly as mighty;
  • AD/NSP: "Hell" - US goes down to rampant "systempunkt" attacks by super-empowered non-state actors, likely including weapons of mass destruction. None of these are happy stories, but this is the least happy.

    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.

  • Comments

    The scenarios reflected in the article, although very accurate in the reflection of possibilities, I see as vastly understating the current world landscape. Mentioning the ever increasing publications calling attention to record breaking economic growth from China, the decreasing numbers in American PhD output, and horrible restrictions of research here in the United States while other countries seemingly become more progressive should say its just a matter of time before we're sunk. More explicitly, we already lost the battle barring some radical shift in the American Public.

    One thing that wasn't explored in length was American Religion, and however touchy the subject might be, it is imperative that secular people voice opinion and organize. For no other reason than however traditional and/or regressive the scientific/intellectual community thinks the religious institutions are, they incredibly organizied against us. Actively teaching fear as a means to counter critical thought about issues today. Although this might me heading away from the downfall of the last "SUPERPOWER," simply seeing that our president is at the head of an ever increasing institution that does not embrace innovation. If our population has no desire to further horizons in critical thought, that leaves advantage to all parties that do. So all scenarios, seem likely... its only a question of which one would come first?

    One side (relative decline) is certainly a hell of a lot better than the other ( absolute decline). So that leaves the choice to having a relative loss to China and/or India or a relative loss to something other than a nation state.
    I vote for the "something other than a nation state." I would like to see a relative loss to local independence.

    I would like to see a massive change in the way energy and materials flow in the world economy. The majority of the energy used in a locality should be produced locally and nearly all the energy should come from within the region. Using "Cradle to Cradle" type design most of the materials used locally should recirculate in that area and nearly all of the materials should recirculate on a regional basis. (Information flows on the other hand can be global.) By making every household, every neighborhood, every locality and every region more capable of meeting its own energy and material needs we will reduce the need for governments and allow us to potentially reduce the size, scope and power of all governments.

    Jamais, excellent article.

    I'd like to add two pieces of thinking to your analysis. First, the non-state actor category should include NGOs along with multinats and 4GW groups. Second, it's also conceivable -- in fact, probable, in my view -- that by 2030 some form of global governance will emerge that effectively replaces the nation-state as the key entity in geopolitics.

    Incidentally, the best book by far that I've read on this subject is America as Empire, by Jim Garrison. Highly recommended.

    Great comments, folks. This is a complex subject with which to wrestle, but I'm pleased that it's triggered such thoughtful observations.

    Alex, that's a great listing of some of the forces driving towards US hegemonic decline. While I see such decline as a historical inevitability, it has to have proximate causes -- and you've described 'em.

    Jim, my inclination is to agree that the relative/non-state future would be the most appealing, but a shift away from nation-state dominance would be the biggest structural change the international political system has ever seen, and I really can't imagine it happening peacefully.

    Mike, thank you. You're absolutely right about adding NGOs to the mix. I'm less sure about global governance, however, if only because state sovereignty is such a deeply-rooted institution. 25 years or less just doesn't seem like enough time for a global alternate to emerge and gain legitimacy.

    For China to overtake the United States due to China's "record breaking economic growth," the decreasing numbers in American PhD output, and horrible restrictions on research, one would have to establish how these factors can sustain themselves and/or how they would even contribute to dominance.

    1) Establish how "record breaking economic growth" can continue forever, and be great enough to overcome American economic growth. Since we're using appeals to history here, economic growth does not continue forever.

    2) How does PhD output contribute to state hegemony? As an aside, this doesn't even begin to address the actual quality of those PhDs.

    3) Describe what you mean by "horrible research restrictions," and how those restrictions prevent a state from maintaining hegemony.

    Furthermore, China's population is composed of 900 million peasant farmers. Religious and/or superstitious belief are much more prevalent in China than in the West from an absolute standpoint. Corruption and inept financial institutions don't help their situation either.

    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.
    That's the view from the outside, perhaps, but there are still plenty of people over here who resent the good old might-makes-right days of the British Empire, not to mention politicians and tabloid media only too willing to exploit their blinkered attitudes. Wilful ignorance seems to be the one thing that the entire world shares as common ground...

    Regional gripes aside, though, a very interesting (and brave) piece of writing - politics and economics are not spheres of knowledge I would claim any expertise in, but I can at least tell when someone is saying things that chime with my own (admittedly underinformed) opinions. Nation-states surely can't last much longer, if only for the fact that there are so many other ways for people to affiliate themselves which have nothing to do with the rather arbitrary fact of geographical location.

    I'm very sympathetic to Jim's comments, as it happens. Generalities should be centralised, but details and specifics should be localised as far as is practically possible. Only when people are given the chance to feel personally involved in policies will they be encouraged to start thinking for themselves and stop blaming every wrong in the world on their governments. They've only ever had as much power as we've allowed them, and complacency is the lamest (though easiest) excuse of all.

    The rivalry between China and India will be fierce in the wake of American decline. Russia and the EU may also be contenders in some areas and Brazil will probably be a dark horse as well.

    I've raised the idea of global guerrillas for good, a kind of much less swashbuckling Global Frequency, in John Robb's comments and a few other places. Worldchanging may be one of the nodes that will develop into such an enterprise, the Viridian Greens may be another, and OLPC (if it can survive the moment when the guts of a $100 laptop becomes an IED) may be a third. Ad hoc, open source networks of transnational linked groups working on solutions for common problems around the world all at once.

    The US is more likely to lag in biotech due to religious fundamentalist foot-dragging than in nanotech. Wild cards will almost certainly be peak oil coupled with climate change and modern terrorism. Screw Barnett, we already have a party. He's just too self-absorbed to notice.

    Hi Jamais,

    Interesting article. Rather than entering into a post-hegemonic future after America's place in the limelight, it could just as easily shift to a new hegemon, such as a nano-equipped country or a global government.

    There is a problem with using history as an argument for the eventual loss of prominence of a country. It's too much like using the average lifetime of a mammalian species to predict the expected future lifetime of humanity. In both cases, the past cannot be used to predict the future accurately, because fundamentally new variables come into play.

    For example, today we use tools to build better tools which allow for exponentially increasing economic growth. Perhaps there is a 'breakaway point' - a point of sufficient technological momentum, such that once you've reached it, growth continues at such an accelerated rate that comparing that hegemonic entity to secondary entities becomes impossible, and the hegemon retains dominance indefinitely.

    My guess is that this 'point of technological no returns' would be marked by nanofactories. Once a nation has nanofactories, no one can compete with it, unless they give their technology away or it is reinvented only weeks or months after the initial event.

    Your four scenarios are interesting talking points regarding the possible future dissolution of America's #1 position. Each one is quite plausible.

    Sorry, Michael, I should have been more clear: the "post-hegemonic" was a reference to the US position in the world, not to the concept of hegemony itelf (although, arguably, the non-state-actor dominance scenarios would be post-hegemony).

    I can see both pro- and con- arguments for the comparison of history as a guide to future politics and mammalian biology as a guide to future lifespans. The importance difference, it seems to me, is the amenability of the underlying drivers to manipulation -- that is, can we change broad human social behavior in the same way that we can change physiology? We know a lot more about the nuts & bolts of how the body works than we do about how societies work, oddly enough. This wasn't always true, of course, but we've reached a point where the body is more malleable than the body politic.

    One thing I wouldn't want to see is a drastic decline in America's university R + D output. Building good university institutions is something that takes time and I don't know if any other nations would be ready to take up the task were America's schools to falter suddenly. I have a differing opinion regarding whether America's military interventions in world affairs have been so beneficial in recent decades. Economically, I don't think the world cares whether Chinese consumers or American consumers drive the world's engine.

    About China, a demographer said "they're going to be old before they get rich" (following the birt-control policy they started 40 years ago) —most of the thinking in these areas vastly underestimates the demographic factor : there will be a 200 million 'girls deficit' in China in the coming years; and India hasn't yet really begun birth control... will we have demographic wars?

    gmoke: "The rivalry between China and India will be fierce in the wake of American decline. Russia and the EU may also be contenders in some areas and Brazil will probably be a dark horse as well."

    i find it continually frustrating and lame that progressives like gmoke resort to an antiquated cold war-esque mentality in discussions like this. its really important that we brightgreenfuture worldchangers detach from our bitterness with the Bush Administration with the potential role of the US government. Bush is irrelevant and everyone knows it, so what are we gonna do about that? what will it take to make this country one that we're proud of again?

    the key point here, imho, is that the future (of international relations) is not a zero sum game. the rising BRIC (Brazil Russia India China) nations will continue to rise, just like the US rose relative to the UK-- that doesnt mean we stop being important. Just as England didnt fall, but was just overshadowed, but continues to play a really important global leadership role in many sectors (including, increasingly, climate).

    what gets me inspired is thinking about the guidance/leadership role the US could play with these rising stars with respect to establishing transparent, functional institutions, basic social and environmental regs and safety nets, human rights and freedom, and entrepeneurship. we (the US) could obvisouly learn a lot in the process as well, and meanwhile secure the BRICs as longterm friends and allies. a la UK vis a vis the rising US during the 19th and 20th centuries.

    a US foreign policy that actively seeks to increase interconnection and interdependence with the rising stars means the US stays relevent and its non-governmental leaders (e.g. biz, academia, and non-profits) are increasingly facilitated in constructively cross-pollinating with their counterparts in BrazilRussiaIndiaChinaIndo etc.

    I think we are already in a combination scenario. America is in relative decline now when compared to other states. Further, non-state actors are already gaining strength and causing us losses. I see no current reasons why either of those two trends will reverse. Therefore the only question is whether we will experience absolute decline. There are risks here including our debt bubble (government ie, government to other states and future tax payers to future beneficiaries, and personal debt ie, mortgage and credit card debt). Other risks include a potentially shrinking workforce due to the retirement of the baby-boomers. If we try to halt immigration, we will have difficulty using productivity gains to offset the retirement effect on GDP.

    Reading this article a year later, the most relevant point that resonates now is, "why does the US have to be the world leader?" I think more and more small countries are asking themselves this questions and have begun to route around the US.

    Seems to me all man-made institutions ... government , religion etc are fruit of our "nature" ... our innate characteristics.

    The relevant characteristic here is our need to dominate ... individual and collective.

    History is replete with manifestations of this innate characteristic ... the popularity and sheer size of the Olympic events also point to this.

    The difference today is only the scope of dominance ... we have progressed to a global scope ... facilitated largely by technology.

    Communication has always been perhaps the most significant barrier ... in both conquering and retaining control/power.

    Today we have overcome so many earlier barriers regarding communication ... speed, distance ... language etc

    The stage is set for the players in this next round of this ageless game ... I don't see the players as nation states ... simply a handful of very small groups of people.

    Blah... I see no signs that the hegemonic orders of the various regimes that pollute this world with monkey capitalism are going to let up.

    Maybe those capitalists, socialists, communists, liberatarians, etc., who do not want to associate with the various strangleholds and leashes that such vile creatures represent should start appealing to entities that have access to land, nature, and resources and who are in no way affiliated with those who actually think it is a joke to play with human life like it is their stupid DAL or some schit.


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