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Thomas Dell

Specialised Subjects

History, International Relations, International Studies, Journalism, Military

I am a recently graduated student with a First Class Honours Degree in Modern and International History. I am also well versed in writing on international relations, politics and some aspects of journalism. In addition, I am reading some key philosophy texts in order to expand my own personal understanding of the subject. I am planning to continue my studies with a Masters degree once I have secured funding and I am a prime candidate for a top ten university, having already secured an offer from Sheffield University. From there, I hope to pursue a PhD and become a university lecturer. Subjects I have previously written about include The Political History of the Olympic Games, Modern European History (1750 onwards), Modern Terrorism and International Power Structures. In my spare time, I play guitar and am currently teaching myself piano as well as undertaking winter training for my other passion, which is cycling.

In the 1980’s many claims were made about the decline of US hegemony. Are such claims appropriate today?

In the 1980s, it was said that the United States was in its ‘fifth zenith’ of decline[1]. Many scholars worried that the United States was in a stage of hegemonic decline that was irreversible, and much analysis was done to attempt to outline the possible consequences of this decline on both the international and domestic political front. Public and political discourse was highly influenced by the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, which charted the rise and fall of western empires and included an analysis of American decline in context with historical trends[2]. The ‘Kennedy Thesis’ was ‘hailed by many, [&] ignored by few’[3] and became a key text in the debate about American hegemonic decline. However, the debate was not one-sided by any means; Susan Strange spearheaded the revivalist argument, stating that talk of decline was a misleading myth and ‘a dangerous myth at that’[4]. As the debate raged on, history turned on the Declinists and America emerged as the victors of the Cold War in the wake of the collapse of the USSR. The 90s were by-and-large an American decade, and America swept into the 21st century as the leading world power; the hegemonic state. However, in the wake of 9/11 and two large-scale American military campaigns in the Middle East, scholars are beginning to raise similar concerns about American decline. But are these claims from over 20 years ago still appropriate to America today? An analysis of the original debate from the 1980s, and a comparison of the arguments made in the past five to eight years in relation to American decline, must be undertaken. From this, it will be shown that US hegemonic decline is, as Huntington argues, something that has to be believed to be invalidated[5]. In other words, US hegemony was not in decline in the 1980s and neither is it in decline in the 21st century despite realist interpretations to the contrary. However, modern American hegemonic leadership does suffer from different aspects of decline, which appear to be more crucial to American global power. The claims are appropriate, if only to prevent the decline it predicts by encouraging political reform to ‘reverse’ the perceived decline.

Before we move into the debate surrounding the decline of American hegemony, it is imperative that we outline the definitions of hegemony and outline both Hegemonic Stability Theory and Hegemonic Decline. Keohane states that ‘The theory of Hegemonic Stability…defines hegemony as the preponderance of material resources'[6], which would mean that the political hegemon is the country with the greatest control over raw materials and goods markets. But, in a world where there are clear differences between the exercising of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, there clearly is more to hegemonic power than the accruement of goods. Part of a hegemon’s duty is to take the lead in political affairs on a pan-global scale, and this requires a certain level of consent from other sovereign nations. Keohane again illustrates that ‘material predominance alone does not guarantee either stability or effective leadership'[7]. Hegemonic leadership requires a two-way relationship between the hegemon and other nations in order to work. If there is no conducive relationship, the hegemon can be seen to be unevenly domineering, which in turn curbs their political power because consent is curbed, and even withdrawn by other nations. The idea of hegemonic decline follows on from the ideas of consent and power. As Hart & Spero outline, America was the only superpower in the post-war world that was both able and willing to take the role of hegemon; a role it accepted with ease[8]. However, theorists such as Gilpin argue that America has been in relative decline since the shift in economic policies during the Vietnam War and highlights a further economic decline in the American share of Gross World Product[9]. However, as above, it is only Huntington who mentions the phases of decline that he dubs the ‘zenith’. The basic principles of hegemonic stability theory and hegemonic decline that have been outlined allow for further historical and political enquiry into the decline of American hegemony and whether such comments are appropriate either in the 1980s or to American hegemony today.

Before the ‘Fifth Zenith’ of decline was identified, political scientists had already identified that America was in relative decline. After World War Two, America was in a position of both economic and political power. It possessed 50% of total economic output and was to become the central political decision-maker in the western world. However, upon the start of the Cold War, America seemingly set about to destroy the very systems it had fought to set up, such as the Bretton Woods economic system. Gilpin talks about how the Triffin Dilemma, related to the liquidity of the dollar, came to reality during the Vietnam war when America lost control of its ‘balance of payments’ and sparked a run on the dollar[10]. This run caused the dollar to fall against other currencies and put American trade on a path of decline. Amongst other reasons for the destruction of the Bretton Woods system, such as the Smithsonian agreement and the oil price rise caused by OPEC in 1973, Gilpin says that the failure was a ‘political problem of inadequate economic and political leadership’[11]. But the reason for its downfall, Gowa argues, was actually because of American hegemony, as the destruction of the Bretton Woods system benefited American political and economic freedom[12]. However, Gilpin argues that this was a trend of international economic neglect by America that signalled the relative decline of American power and was accosted by suggestions in favour of collective leadership[13]. This does, conversely, dichotomise the state of American politics at this time. America is still one of two world Superpowers, and there were very few nations or powers that had the right qualities to effectively challenge American hegemony. However, growing panic about the domestic hegemony that America held, or indeed was losing grip of, led realist theorists to believe that its overall grip on power was slipping and that rising economic forces, such as Japan and the EEC, would take the role of global hegemon. Huntington refutes this, demonstrating how Japan has suffered a greater economic decline than America between 1961 and 1987[14], during which American GNP had levelled out to between 20 – 25%. Susan Strange also points to the insularity of American academia, saying that US academic circles see ‘the disorders of the world economy…mainly the result of a loss of American hegemonic power’[15]. American power wasn’t in decline so much as world markets were evening out in the period after WW2, but the realist position continued to point to decline despite relative economic stability and the fact that American power still had no real challengers aside from the USSR.

Paul Kennedy entered into the US hegemonic decline debate very late into the 1980s. Prominent political scientists such as Robert Gilpin and Robert Keohane had already published their works in 1981 and 1985 respectively, adding to the depth of this ongoing debate that began to pick up pace in the late 1960s[16] and ran through into the late 1980s. It influenced policy at the highest level during the Reagan years, who himself believed it to be ‘a whole lot of nonsense in the first place’[17]. But the fact remains that it did influence political discourse in the United States, and there was a school of thought that stated heavily that America was in massive hegemonic decline. The ‘realists’, as they were known, argued for American decline on several key areas of political apparatus including military, political and economic power. They did encounter academic resistance, however, in the form of the ‘revivalists’, who argued against American hegemonic decline on many fronts but with one core agreement: That ‘the USA remained a very special type of power and that to suggest otherwise was to misunderstand something very fundamental about the postwar world’[18]. The debate on this side was multi-faceted, but this core realisation shaped the defence of American political power. It also illuminated the major realist fault that it did not apply enough weight to the traditional power structures and in turn viewed the international political order as a set of similarly ranked or sized nation states rather than being representative of the reality of the global political economy.

However, soon after the Kennedy thesis was established, the whole debate faced a game-changer in the collapse of the Soviet Union. America had emerged as the victors of the Cold War, and was now the sole superpower left in International Politics. Kennedy had somewhat foreseen this, but could only speculate what would happen in the next decade or so[19]. In fact, the US began immediately to fulfil the role of global hegemon in a way that cemented its position as the top military power. Golub argues that the 1991 Gulf War was ‘merely a step in the revival of the militarist establishment’[20] of American power. Further in the course of the 1990s, America was sure to make the 20th Century the American Century by doing everything it could to exercise its power by refusing to ratify international treaties and by congressional refusal to bow to pressure from the UN in the form of concerted Republican attack from within Congress[21]. Several politicians hailed the rediscovered American supremacy throughout the 1990s, supporting Cox’s statement that ‘a unipolar world without serious opposition…to the United States laid the basis for American self-confidence in the 1990s’[22]. What this effectively did was trounce the realist theories of decline penned in the late ‘80s by showing that America could not be in decline because it was able to exercise military, political and economic power. America’s only serious economic threat, Japan, had entered recession after a period of considerable boom. Japan was considered as the threat to American economic interests, with Johnson saying there was a ‘perceptible sigh of relief’ after the Tokyo FIRE[23] sector bubble burst[24]. With Japan in economic decline, Europe in relative economic stagnation and China still being somewhat micromanaged by the United States, America rose to the centre of international economics. Politically, there was now no rival to American power. Bell argues that Russia could have constituted a possible threat, but was ‘racked by internal disorder and immense economic difficulties’ and could not compare to the Soviet Union in terms of relative power[25]. Hobsbawm argues that the European powers were either purely regional or lacked the military backing to their economic stature[26]. The ‘90s were America’s decade, and the rise to power out of the fear of relative decline was a blow to the credibility of the realists. It seemed that the Revivalists had won the debate with a little help from history.

So the 20th century closed with America as the global hegemonic power, and America had exercised that power to great extent. However, after 9/11 and the Bush Administration provided a surge of realist critique that accompanied the swift change in American foreign policy. The Bush Administration used 9/11 to justify a huge increase in the execution of military power, adding to nationalist fervour that was geared towards the case for an American 21st century. Golub argues that the America under George W. Bush has chosen to ‘revolutionize world affairs by abandoning successful forms of hegemonic governance…in favour of militarism, or the pursuit of global domination through force’[27]. This new militaristic display of hegemonic power was to have drastic new consequences to American political power and would spark a neo-realist critique of what some considered a decline in American hegemony. America sees the rising strength of China as the primary threat to its global position, and although Carothers doesn’t see much difference in the overall state of relations which exists as economically mutually beneficial[28], its rise has panicked the neo-realists. Neo-realism, in relation to American Decline, details the move towards Power Politics and how attempts to unify America ‘behind a power political group’ have led to failures in domestic hegemony consolidation[29], and this is compounded by the loss of the soft power component that Arrighi argues is essential for any hegemonic power to retain both consent and credibility in its aims and power growth[30]. America, especially during the cold war, would entice smaller states by offering incentives for support; trading short-term gains for long-term gains. Now, it exercises pure power politics with little appreciation of traditional hegemonic concepts that guided American political hegemony during the Cold War. The primary backlash of this change of political tact has been a loss of face; America is viewed as ‘an angry and unpredictable great power practising torture while talking democracy’[31]. This lack of international credibility combined with its overt militarism makes for an unattractive hegemonic leader, and in turn it incurs a backlash in terms of a search for a ‘successor’ to American hegemony. The rise of China as an economic power seems to be the most popular choice for political commentators[32], which looks set to end American hegemonic unipolarism, and with both Cox and Golub arguing that the ‘New American Century’ could be hastened by America’s ‘imperial overreach’ and failing international legitimacy[33], it appears that American decline would turn the 21st century into the ‘New Chinese Century’ rather than ‘The American 21st Century’.

It is important to analyse the differences in the debates surrounding American Hegemony in the 1980s and the critique of American Hegemony today. There are some epochal differences, meaning that the evidence used is indicative of the times in which the theories were put forward. The examples from the late 1980s, for example, could clearly not take into account the collapse of the Soviet Union because, quite simply, it hadn’t happened yet; although Kennedy did make an educated guess about its possible fate. Also, the declinists of the 1980s put a significant amount of emphasis on declining economic power as the leading factor in the decline of American hegemony. This differs from current declinist theory, as the emphasis is currently more on the over-extension of military power and the subversion of soft power in the nexus of American hegemony. Indeed, Golub points out that the Bush Administration has been able to make attempts to ‘reconfigure world affairs through the force of arms’[34], which is markedly different to Huntington’s interpretation of 1980s decline which focuses on the economic decline of America and how ‘imperial overstretch’ is symptomatic of the root cause; that cause being economic decline[35]. There are, though, similarities with both these strands of decline theory. Both do focus on the importance of consent in hegemonic leadership. They accept that, in order for a hegemonic power to exercise its power convincingly, it needs to be reciprocal in its political dealings. One of Golub’s major critiques with the Bush Administration is that it has become so focused on military power that it can no longer gain the consent it requires to remain as the dominant hegemon, and consequently will open itself to competition from both Europe and Chinese hegemonic challenges. However, despite the epochal nature of the debates of both 1980s decline and current decline, they both carry the trend that America is in decline for one reason or another and there is a counter-argument that refutes that claim for one reason or another. The key difference is in the relevancy of the claims in their respective historical epoch.

The relevancy of decline theory appears to change with both sets of challenges and the change in historicism. The answer to whether claims to American decline in the 1980s were correct is somewhat complex; they could be considered relevant if you then discount the factor of ‘what happened next’, i.e. the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also if Huntington’s view that decline has to be believed to be invalidated is accepted. Huntington is in fact correct to say that 1980s decline is something to be believed if it is to be invalidated, as to fault political theorists such as Gilpin and Keohane for a lack of historical foresight would be somewhat overly critical, but also because the declinists spurred governments to actively engage and tackle the perceived decline and therefore actually prevent American hegemony from slipping away. However, a view of modern American hegemonic decline is somewhat distinctly harder to define. America is not less powerful militarily or economically, but it has broken the old rules of hegemonic leadership and this has panicked other nations. This panic has been damaging to American hegemony as it has meant that the consent that America requires for it to act as the world’s hegemonic power is indeed decreasing because of the disproportionate weight that the United States puts on military power and the exercising of that power in the wake of 9/11. The debates and the subsequent claims about decline, therefore, are not appropriate to describe the decline of the 1980s. The America of the 1980s was never in decline and was subsequently to get a further boost in global power in the form of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a military threat and Japan as an economic threat, which left America as the only remaining superpower. However, claims about decline of America are appropriate because of the loss of hegemonic consent in the wake of the armed campaigns waged in the name of the ‘War on Terror’ and the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, Europe. America is not a down-and-out superpower, and the rate of decline is not exactly worrying, but it is a decline in one of the most crucial areas of hegemonic command and one that could seriously derail its aims to lay claim to the 21st century as ‘the American Century’.

 

Bibliography

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Cox, M. (2001) Whatever Happened to American Decline? International Relation and the New United States Hegemony, New Political Economy, 2001; 6: 3, pp.311 – 340

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[1] Huntington, S.P. (1988) The U.S. – Decline or Renewal?, Foreign affairs, 1988; 67: 2, p.76

[2] Kennedy, P. (1988) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.) pp.438 – 535

[3] Cox, M. (2001) Whatever Happened to American Decline? International Relation and the New United States Hegemony, New Political Economy, 2001; 6: 3, pp.323

[4] Ibid, p.325

[5] Huntington, S.P. (1988) The U.S. – Decline or Renewal?, Foreign affairs, 1988; 67: 2, p.96

[6] Keohane, R.O. (1984) After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press) p.32

[7] Ibid, p.46

[8] Hart, J.S. & Spero, J.E. (eds.) (1997) The Politics of International Relations (5th ed.) (London: Routledge) p.3

[9] Gilpin, R. (1987) The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press) pp.343 – 352

[10] Gilpin, R. (1987) The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p.135

[11] Ibid, p.139

[12] Gowa, J. (1983) Closing the Window: Domestic Politics and the end of Bretton Woods (Ithica: Cornell University Press), in: Gilpin, R. (1987) The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press) p.140

[13] Gilpin, R. (1987) The Political Economy of International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press) p.142

[14] Huntington, S.P. (1988) The U.S. – Decline or Renewal?, Foreign affairs, 1988; 67: 2, p.83

[15] Strange, S. (1994) States and Markets (London: Pinter) p.235

[16] Tetreault, M.A. (1987) The Declining Hegemony Thesis, The Journal of Politics, 1987; 49, pp.282

[17] Ibid, p.288

[18] Cox, M. (2001) Whatever Happened to American Decline? International Relation and the New United States Hegemony, New Political Economy, 2001; 6: 3, pp.324

[19] ‘This does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse…[however]…the prospects of an escape from the contradictions which the USSR face are not good’: Kennedy, P. (1988) The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd.) p.513

[20] Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.774

[21] Ibid, p.775; Schlesinger Jr., A.M. (2000) ‘‘Unilateralism in Historical Perspective’ in US Foreign Policy’, in: Gwyn, P. (Ed.) (2000) Understanding Unilateralism in American Foreign Relations (London: RIIA) p.26

[22] Cox, M. (2001) Whatever Happened to American Decline? International Relation and the New United States Hegemony, New Political Economy, 2001; 6: 3, pp.329

[23] FIRE = Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.

[24] Johnson, C. (2000) Blowback: The costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metroplitan Books), in: Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.769

[25] Bell, P.M.H. (2001) The World since 1945: An International History (London: Arnold Publishers) p.391

[26] Hobsbawm, E. (1994) Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914 – 1991 (London: Penguin Books Ltd.) p.559

[27] Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.763

[28] Carothers, T. (2003) Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror, in: Hoge Jr., J.F. & Rose, G. (Eds.) (2003) Understanding the War on Terror (New York: W.W. Norton) p.254

[29] Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.777

[30] Arrighi, G. (1994) The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times (London: Verso), in: Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.779

[31] Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.780

[32] Ikenberry, J.G. (2008) The Rise of China and The Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?, Foreign affairs, 2008; 87: 1, p.23

[33] See: Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.782; Hendrickson, D.C. (2005) The Curious Case of American Hegemony: Imperial Aspirations and National Decline, World Policy Journal, 2005; 78, pp.18; Cox, M. (2001) Whatever Happened to American Decline? International Relation and the New United States Hegemony, New Political Economy, 2001; 6: 3, pp.334

[34] Golub, P.S. (2004) Imperial Politics, Imperial Will and the Crisis of US Hegemony, Review of International Political Economy, 2004; 11: 4, p.763

[35] Huntington, S.P. (1988) The U.S. – Decline or Renewal?, Foreign affairs, 1988; 67: 2, p.76