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America’s decline: A harbinger of conflict and rivalry

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In Brief

Paul Kennedy was probably right: the US will go the way of all great powers — down. The individual dramas of the past decade — the September 2001 terrorist attacks, prolonged wars in the Middle East and the financial crisis — have delivered the world a message: US primacy is in decline.

This does not necessarily mean that the US is in systemic decline, but it encompasses a trend that appears to be negative and perhaps alarming. Although the US still possesses incomparable military prowess and its economy remains the world’s largest, the once seemingly indomitable chasm that separated America from anyone else is narrowing.


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Thus, the global distribution of power is shifting, and the inevitable result will be a world that is less peaceful, liberal and prosperous, burdened by a dearth of effective conflict regulation.

Over the past two decades, no other state has had the ability to seriously challenge the US military. Under these circumstances, motivated by both opportunity and fear, many actors have bandwagoned with US hegemony and accepted a subordinate role. Canada, most of Western Europe, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines have all joined the US, creating a status quo that has tended to mute great power conflicts.

However, as the hegemony that drew these powers together withers, so will the pulling power behind the US alliance. The result will be an international order where power is more diffuse, American interests and influence can be more readily challenged, and conflicts or wars may be harder to avoid.

As history attests, power decline and redistribution result in military confrontation. For example, in the late 19th century America’s emergence as a regional power saw it launch its first overseas war of conquest towards Spain. By the turn of the 20th century, accompanying the increase in US power and waning of British power, the American Navy had begun to challenge the notion that Britain ‘rules the waves.’ Such a notion would eventually see the US attain the status of sole guardians of the Western Hemisphere’s security to become the order-creating Leviathan shaping the international system with democracy and rule of law.

Defining this US-centred system are three key characteristics: enforcement of property rights, constraints on the actions of powerful individuals and groups and some degree of equal opportunities for broad segments of society. As a result of such political stability, free markets, liberal trade and flexible financial mechanisms have appeared. And, with this, many countries have sought opportunities to enter this system, proliferating stable and cooperative relations.

However, what will happen to these advances as America’s influence declines? Given that America’s authority, although sullied at times, has benefited people across much of Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, as well as parts of Africa and, quite extensively, Asia, the answer to this question could affect global society in a profoundly detrimental way.

Public imagination and academia have anticipated that a post-hegemonic world would return to the problems of the 1930s: regional blocs, trade conflicts and strategic rivalry. Furthermore, multilateral institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank or the WTO might give way to regional organisations.

For example, Europe and East Asia would each step forward to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s withering leadership to pursue their own visions of regional political and economic orders. Free markets would become more politicised — and, well, less free — and major powers would compete for supremacy.

Additionally, such power plays have historically possessed a zero-sum element. In the late 1960s and 1970s, US economic power declined relative to the rise of the Japanese and Western European economies, with the US dollar also becoming less attractive. And, as American power eroded, so did international regimes (such as the Bretton Woods System in 1973).

A world without American hegemony is one where great power wars re-emerge, the liberal international system is supplanted by an authoritarian one, and trade protectionism devolves into restrictive, anti-globalisation barriers. This, at least, is one possibility we can forecast in a future that will inevitably be devoid of unrivalled US primacy.

Yuhan Zhang is a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, D.C.

Lin Shi is from Columbia University. She also serves as an independent consultant for the Eurasia Group and a consultant for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

2 responses to “America’s decline: A harbinger of conflict and rivalry”

  1. Yuhan Zhang suggests declining US hegemonic power results from internal rot reversed formerwidespread distribution of wealth and political power to broad sections of society.
    Washington rot drove US hegemonic decline enabling China to rise and helped create today’s multi-polar world that is susceptible to great power conflicts.

    ….Paul Kennedy was probably right: the US will go the way of all great powers — down….
    …This does not necessarily mean that the US is in systemic decline, but it encompasses a trend that appears to be negative and perhaps alarming….
    …Defining this US-centered system are three key characteristics: enforcement of property rights, constraints on the actions of powerful individuals and groups and some degree of equal opportunities for broad segments of society….

    Yuhan Zhang’s observation is a subset of symptoms best explained by Niall Ferguson’s hypothesis that Empires are embodiments of complex symptoms compliant to a cycle from birth to demise in which US horrendous private and public debts incurred will be the final straw ending in an imminent collapse.

    I suggest that China’s rise was possible because it brilliantly used opportunities available with the US imposed hegemonic system whilst retaining sovereign independence and created a socialist democracy and market system tailored to their needs.

    US decline is self imposed.

    From this perspective, the challenge for the US and Australia is to match China’s economic prowess by also becoming creditor nation with wealth creating industries.
    Australia and the US have relied on economic booms driven by wealth distributing real estate that is debt funded.
    We have the potential to be less reliant on offshore debt should the mining, banking and farm sector endorse this aim in the nation’s interest.
    Why are economic experts that predicted the financial crisis such as our Steve Keen and US experts such as Paul Volcker and Michael Hudson ignored?

    US soft power decline was helped because its models became hypocritical thru abuse of human rights, arbitrary use of military and economic power at the expense on people in countries they deem to be, for example, “terrorists” became apparent to the world at large.
    Public awareness such as the David Hick story of incarceration and torture at Guantanamo contrasted to public statements in Australia and the US; US current treatment of Palestinian rights and drone attacks in sovereign Pakistan killing innocent civilians as collateral damage etc are some examples.

    President Eisenhower’s famous warning on the dangers of a huge military-industrial complex comes to mind.
    Now the US military-industrial complex is a powerful voice in Washington.

    Chinese history records many rise and falls and its present ascent to great power status is not assured.
    Their process is messy because this civilizational nation state remains a chaotic mix of internal tensions such as conflicting provincial power centres, economic stage of development, dysfunctional legal systems and class injustice etc.

    The challenge for this forum is to arrive at a new paradigm enabling prescription of alternative strategies to halt and replace the present military dominated US foreign policy whilst protecting Asian region country interests with the co-operation of China.

    In my mind, the US empire, as well as nation states, are embodiments of dissipative unstable and adaptive complex systems seeking continuous near equilibrium thru a maze of feedback loops which when impacted by sufficient distortions undergo phase changes resulting in the system morphing into another equilibrium state. The dissipative inputs being human actions and its virtual and physical environment as well as interactions with other peer systems.

    The world is complex but our reasoning remains straight line confined to specific academic disciplines and the nearest mathematical tools we posses to describe such systems are power law equations.

  2. Does it mean that European and Asian people cannot think on their own and that they need a ‘master’ to control them for ever ? That they are unable to develop business and social systems that fit better to their socio-economic and cultural fabric than the American system ? Is the US system so great, based on such high level of wisdom that it has to be imitated by all means ? Trade should be reasonably free, of course, but ‘free trade’ should never become a kind of ideology that cannot be questioned under the sacro-sanct principle of the ‘market’ supremacy. Yes, it means that the debates becomes ‘politicized’, in Japan as in China, France or Germany. In real democracies, i.e., where citizens discuss freely and participate actively to the city life, arguments become ‘politicized’, of course, and it leads to compromises that do not respect the textbook principles of ‘free trade’ but bring more sensitive solutions to problems ! I do not see anything wrong with it, quite the contrary.

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