Is the US stepping back from its global superpower role?

I was interviewed on this topic by Kourosh Ziabari for the Teheran-based Iran Review. His questions and my responses are here and below.

Q: As you know, the unipolar, hegemonic system of global governance led by the United State constitutes the basis and structure of current international order. In this regard, some people believe that the signs of the decline of the United States and a consequent transformation in the international order have begun to emerge. A change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power. What’s your analysis of this change and the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony?

A: The United States remains the single most powerful state in the world, especially in the military sphere. But in recent decades the world has become more complex and interdependent, and power has been dispersed around the globe. The U.S. is not able to exercise effective leadership in many important areas, such as climate change.

It is not just that the U.S. state has become weaker, however. Just about all states around the world are facing similar challenges. The European Union is in crisis, and Russia and China both face political uncertainty and the problem of corruption. Power has shifted away from states and towards private business corporations and other non-state actors of all types, from religious groups and aid organizations to criminals and terrorists. This is the argument made by Philip Cerny in his book Rethinking World Politics (2010).

Q: So you believe that we have had the phenomenon of the plurality of the powers, with some considerations. Well, some political scientists believe that the United States is voluntarily retreating from its position as a global hegemon, as a result of a remarkable increase in the costs of the unipolar and hegemonic order and the considerable decrease in its utilities. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?

A: The United States is trying to reduce its global commitments, after the two costly and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “pivot to Asia” is mainly a pivot away from the Middle East. But the United States is not retreating from the world stage; it is not turning back into isolationism. Its military presence around the world, built up at great cost over the past century, is still in place.

The main risk for the future is of an escalating confrontation with China. The United States has no direct conflict of interest with China – on the contrary, the two countries benefit from their mutual trade and investment. But China’s territorial disputes with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam could conceivably drag the United States into a military confrontation. Both in China and the U.S. there seem to be elements in the military who are eager to prepare for such a conflict. Those very preparations, even if they have peaceful or at least defensive intentions, make conflict more likely. Clearly this would be a disaster for both sides.

Q: What I understand from your statements is that the U.S. is facing the danger of being entangled in a serious conflict with China. The global capitalistic economy is collapsing and its consequences for the uni-polar and hegemonic order are beginning to appear gradually. What do you think about the impact of the downfall of global economic recession and its effects on the compasses of the U.S. power?

A: The 2008 crash was a big blow to the U.S. economy, and the government debt problem remains a huge challenge. But the basic institutional structure of the United States is very strong and came through the economic crisis intact. In contrast the European Union faces more serious and unresolved challenges to its political and economic institutions.

There is still a lot of dynamism in the U.S. economy. It remains by far the world leader in the information revolution and technological change, attracting innovators from all around the world. It also has considerable natural resources – land, water and now thanks to new technology rapidly increasing oil and natural gas production.

Q: Right. My next question is about the challenges ahead of the U.S. socioeconomic establishment. It’s widely believed that based on the emergence and intensification of global resistance against capitalism and liberalism, especially resistance on the microphysical level of global power against the lifestyle of imperialist system, the political power and influence of the United States has been diminishing in the recent years. What’s your take on that?

A: The political power of the United States has diminished, but I think the cultural pull is still quite strong. Elements of the American model have been exported and adopted in places from South Korea to Brazil to South Africa. All those countries have preserved their own cultural distinctiveness and identity but they have basically adopted the institutions of free market capitalism and representative democracy which are associated with the American model, even if it is an idealized model that does not correspond to the daily reality. Even China, with the rise of consumerism, has been becoming more ‘American’ since the reforms launched by Deng Xiao Ping in 1978. Five of the nine Chinese Politburo members have children or grandchildren studying in US universities, including Vice President Xi Jingping, who has a daughter at Harvard. [See this Washington Post article for details.]

Q: According to some studies, the resistance and opposition of the United States’ domestic forces against the interventions of the U.S. government in the other countries and the imperialistic traits of the U.S. political system have been contributing to the weakening of the global position of the United States. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?

A: There are many serious problems in the U.S. domestic political system – over the budget, over health care. But foreign policy is quite insulated from domestic politics. National security issues were virtually absent from the competition between Obama and Romney for the presidency for example. So U.S. foreign policy is mainly made by insiders – the large national security bureaucracies, the experts, and the teams of lobbyists representing special interests.

It is true that growing popular dissatisfaction with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put pressure on both Democrats and Republicans to agree to quietly wind down those wars. Also fear of popular opposition might have been a factor in persuading Obama to avoid making more direct intervention in the civil war in Syria.
But the truth is that other controversial topics such as Guatanamo Bay or the reliance on drone strikes do not reach a broad section of the American public, nor do they have any impact on electoral politics.

Q: And finally, aside from these propositions which we’ve mentioned as the factors contributing to the decline of the U.S. socioeconomic and political power and the downfall of the imperialism, can you think of other possibilities which may in one way or another further and accelerate the demise of the U.S. Empire?

A: The United States is a very powerful country, but I would not agree that it is an “empire.” It is a different type of political entity, and to try to understand it in terms of a 19th century empire would be a mistake. The 19th century empires were based on direct control and so they could totally collapse when colonies demanded their independence. The U.S. does not have colonial possessions of that sort, so her influence is more indirect, harder to analyze, but still a strong presence.



1 thought on “Is the US stepping back from its global superpower role?

  1. Hi Peter —

    Very nice and, of course, thanks for the cite! I agree with nearly everything you say — except that I do think the U.S. has long been, especially throughout the 20th century, what Appleman Williams and others called an “informal empire,” and that that informal empire is gradually eroding because of all the other trends you mention such as interdependence. The greatest danger, in my view, is the popular expectation in the U.S. among elites and masses alike that “American exceptionalism” gives the U.S. the right and even duty to try to manage the world system in ways other countries and actors cannot. This, in my view, has been leading increasingly (since Vietnam …) to Paul Kennedy’s “imperial overstretch,” as in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US these days has a tendency to bite off more than it can chew, and the “pivot to Asia” may be even more of a flop. If there is an Obama Doctrine, as some say, of greater disengagement, I think it will be broadly a good thing, although there are some trouble spots where a positive American background role is very useful, as in Libya and Mali. But any intervention has to be not only multilateral but also led by states that are more closely involved with the areas concerned, for example European countries in their backyard in North Africa and the Middle East.

    The thing that astonishes me most about the interview, however, is the rhetoric of the questions, which are not merely hostile but seem to make some weird assumptions in their convoluted language!

    All the best, Phil

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