There is a schizophrenia at the heart of debates about U.S. hegemony. On the one hand, the Trump administration has made it easy for critics to argue that America has ended. Long-term trends show that China is catching up to the United States on just about every conceivable capability metric. Short-term trends show the European Union is a more potent regulatory power and the United States has become more isolated on questions of, say, aviation regulation.
At the same time, serious international relations scholars have argued that U.S. hegemonic power has persisted. Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth made the case a few years ago that the United States remained the preeminent power in the world. My Tufts University colleague Michael Beckley made a similar argument last year. Andrea and Mauro Gilli have further argued that China will be unable to catch up in technological sophistication to the U.S. military.
The latest addition to the latter genre comes from Adam Tooze in the London Review of Books. Tooze does not dispute the low caliber of current American foreign policy. Rather, he asks whether it matters in the grand scheme of things. On the military front, for example, Tooze writes:
Never before in history has military power been as skewed as it is today. For better or worse, it is America’s preponderance that shapes whatever we call the international order. And given how freely that power has been used, to call it a Pax Americana seems inapposite. A generation of American soldiers has grown used to fighting wars on totally asymmetrical terms. That for them is what the American world order means.
Tooze makes similar points on the economic side of the power equation: “The hegemony of the dollar-Treasury nexus in global finance remains unchallenged. The dollar’s role in global finance didn’t just survive the crisis of 2008: it was reinforced by it. As the world’s banks gasped for dollar liquidity, the Federal Reserve transformed itself into a global lender of last resort.”
Tooze’s conclusion is that “two years into the Trump presidency, it is a gross exaggeration to talk of an end to the American world order. The two pillars of its global power — military and financial — are still firmly in place. What has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model.”
Is Tooze correct? He does hit upon the central paradox of the current state of world politics. Not even the incompetence of the Trump administration can necessarily dent U.S. structural power (though I am more worried about the dollar than Tooze).
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has noted repeatedly that the Trump administration has accomplished next to nothing in rewriting the deals that make the world go round. Its strategy of antagonizing allies at the same time that it antagonizes adversaries has been self-defeating. America’s soft power has been temporarily eviscerated. Despite all this, however, U.S. military and economic capabilities remain pretty formidable. The United States is at the center of most of the key networks that drive world politics and the global economy.
So has all of this talk about the end of the liberal international order been exaggerated? I’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but for now let me suggest three things.
First, it is downright eerie how much of the current conversation echoes the debates that were had in the late 1980s about whether U.S. hegemony was about to collapse.
Second, there are processes that are enervating U.S. structural power, but they are slow-acting. Saying the United States retains significant reservoirs of power right now does not mean there are not a whole bunch of concerning trends: demographic decline, mounting public debts, sagging productivity growth and declining influence in international institutions.
Third, there are reasons to believe that America’s self-sabotaging foreign policy will endure past the Trump administration. If that turns out to be true, then the greatest challengers to the existing order are not based in Moscow or Beijing. They reside in Washington, D.C.