US Decline? (No.2): William Wohlforth: The United States Lost Some Ground over the Past Decade

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Prof. William C. Wohlforth
By: Kourosh Ziabari

There’s no doubt that the signs of the decline of the U.S. Empire and the weakening of the bases of imperialism have begun to emerge. The United States, although it lawlessly continues to wage wars on the other countries and threaten independent nations with its aggressive war rhetoric, economic sanctions and media propaganda, is not as powerful and influential as it had been during the Vietnam War. 

The United States is now plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis and the people at the White House and Pentagon know well that it’s not too easy to convince the American public that more wars are needed to export the values of imperialism to the other world nations, especially now that the United States is grappling with unemployment, poverty and other socioeconomic crises.

Iran Review has begun to conduct a set of interviews with world’s great political scientists about the decline of the U.S. hegemony and global dominance and the downfall of the American Empire. Our first interview with Prof. Francis Shor was published on December 10.

What follows is our interview with Prof. William C. Wohlforth, political scientist and Daniel Webster Professor of Government at the Department of Government of the Dartmouth College. Prof. Wohlforth was chair of the Department of Government for three years and is the author of “Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions during the Cold War.” He is the co-author of the book “World Out of Balance: International Relations Theory and the Challenge of American Primacy” with Prof. Stephen Brooks.

Prof. Wohlforth has taken part in an exclusive interview with Iran Review and presented his viewpoints regarding the social, economic and political challenges the United States is facing and the future of America’s global hegemony as a supposedly-unrivaled superpower.

Q: As you know, the uni-polar, 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. What’s your viewpoint on that?

A: There is little doubt that after increasing its economic, technological and military dominance in the 1990s, the United States has lost some ground over the past ten years. While this trend may well continue, whether it really leads to a transformation depends on two things primarily: the speed and scale of U.S. decline, and the interests of other major players. A lot of ink has been spilled on the first of these, the so called “rise of the rest.” So much, in fact, that we’re now seeing something of   backlash, as analysts are starting to notice weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the rising powers’ economies, societies and politics. But the second issue is at least as important, if not more so.  Note that the attitude of the countries with most of the world’s largest and most advanced economies and militaries are generally favorable to the U.S.-led order: the EU, Japan, Canada, Mexico and many other American countries, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, etc. Given this huge preponderance of power lining up basically in favor of the status quo, even if the U.S. itself declines, there will still be very powerful support for the current arrangements.

That said, in international politics there is always the possibility for large-scale change, and some of the hypotheses you suggest might indeed be validated in the years ahead.

Q: 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: This is not in the cards. There is no evidence that countries have banded together in anti-American alliances or expanded their own militaries to match U.S capabilities—or that they will do so in the future. The United States is just not like past hegemons, against which the balancing coalitions of the past formed. It is geographically isolated, which means that it presents far less of a direct threat to the other major states. If you look at all the balancing coalitions of the past, they occurred among contiguous great-power rivals that could step up to the task of balancing. “Offshore” hegemons like the U.S. and Britain before it do not spark balancing coalitions.

The main alliance formation in the world is with not against the United States. America has some 69 allies—which include most of the world’s richest, technologically advanced, and militarily capable countries.  China has one ally—starving North Korea. When Uzbekistan withdrew from the CSTO earlier this year, Russia’s number of allies sank to five mostly poor and uniformly militarily weak former Soviet republics.

This makes it even harder for any competitor to match the U.S. military. The United States is far ahead militarily in both quantitative and qualitative terms, and its security alliances give it the leverage to prevent allies from giving military technology to potential U.S. rivals. Because the United States dominates the high-end defense industry, it can trade access to its defense market for allies’ agreement not to transfer key military technologies to its competitors. The embargo that the United States has convinced the EU to maintain on military sales to China since 1989 is a case in point.

Q: It seems 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: This is far more likely, as the U.S. confronts mounting budget pressures—which stem mainly from domestic programs for an aging population rather than military commitments. But the sorure of the budget pressure is not the issue: the effect may well be to place major pressure on Washington to come up with a cheaper foreign policy approach.  That said, at 4.5% of GDP and shrinking, the cost of US military primacy is low by historical standards. And it is set to sink further as Washington winds down the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense spending is projected to hit 3% of GDP by 2017. If the country can avoid getting itself into major counterinsurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs of leadership would appear to be sustainable. And, indeed, this is what President Obama and the overwhelming majority of the U.S. political establishment wants to do.

There is a precedent for this—after Vietnam, the United States carried on for the rest of the Cold War without undertaking a major war on that scale even though it maintained its basic grand strategy of containing Soviet power globally.  If the United States can repeat that feat of sustaining a global presence while avoiding “wars of choice” like Afghanistan and Iraq, the costs of its current approach should be sustainable.

But the United States might not be able to keep itself out of another costly war.  And even if it does, it still could choose to “come home” and disengage from the world. Because it is a powerful country that is geographically removed from the world’s power centers, the United States has a choice. And even though most politicians continue to speak in favor of the current approach, and even though the public for the most part, remains willing to go along, a growing cadre of experts and opinion leaders is arguing evermore insistently that the current grand strategy makes no sense for America.  They argue that the world takes advantage of the U.S., which is spilling blood and treasure for other peoples’ problems.  They claim that the current strategy of global engagement just creates more and more enemies, and threat the country would be much safer if it pull back from the world. Their argument gains plausibility as the budget problems of the U.S. get worse. If their argument wins the day, the U.S. could pull back. And that would be transformational.

Q: 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: This, too, is possible although—perhaps because I’m not an economist—I see this as less likely than No. 2.  Yes, the collapse of the economic order in the 1930s brought with it depression, war, genocide and the collapse of Britain’s world position.  But things seem sufficiently different today to be a bit more optimistic on this score. Not least are all the tools at the hands of governments to respond to crises.  Indeed, the crisis of 2008 was very, very bad—and we are still suffering from it—but thanks to swift action in many capitals a far worse crises was avoided.  In some scenarios, a crash might disproportionately hurt the economic prospects of the U.S. and its allies while propelling the rise of other states.  But again, this seems unlikely, as China, India and other rising powers are very deeply integrated into the global economy.  If it sinks, so will they.  

Q: 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: This seems most unlikely. The world’s largest and most important communist party, the Chinese Communist Party, is running the world’s second largest capitalist country.  I see no significant global force against capitalism.  Liberalism is a different matter. If by liberalism you mean democracy, liberty and the rule of law, then I see very little global resistance to this. Rather, most people seem to want these things. If by liberalism you mean an ideology of extreme faith in free markets that calls for reckless deregulation of finance, then there is an argument here. The fact that the U.S. pushed so hard in the 1990s and 2000s for financial openness and deregulation and the fact that this seemed to have contributed so strongly to the 2008 economic crises severely hurt U.S. credibility.  It provides incentives for countries to try to decouple themselves from the U.S. dollar as the key reserve currency. If this trend continues, it could have important effects down the road—probably subtler and implied by the word “transformation” but still significant. But it looks as if the U.S. is backing away from the extreme free-market ideology that animated Washington before 2008, in which case this destabilizing pressure will ease.

Q: 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: Serious domestic resistance and opposition to U.S. global engagement will occur if and only if the policy comes to be seen as imposing high costs. What will turn U.S. publics and elites against the country’s current role in the world is perceived high costs, not arguments about U.S. imperialism, which have very little resonance with Americans. So this question, to my mind, becomes identical to question No. 2.

Key Words: U.S. Empire, Decline, Weakening, Global Governance, Hegemonic System, International Order, Equations of Power, Capitalism and Liberalism, Wohlforth

US Decline? (No.1): Francis Shor: The Us Economy & Military Fading Gradually