Is the superpower era coming to an end?
The United States’ global standing under President Donald Trump reached its nadir last week at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. There, he was openly mocked for his pronouncement that his administration had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
For Trump, who has long argued that other countries were laughing at the United States behind its back, this was a new twist: now these countries were laughing directly in his face. If it was embarrassing for Trump, it is doubly sad for the US, which has seen this administration potentially fritter away 70 years’ worth of effort building a stable and predictable classical-liberal world order.
Worse, if the current US-led international order goes away, what replaces it? And will it be “better”? In other words, will it be more stable, more just, less prone to interstate and intrastate conflict, more enabling of such positive things like economic development, trade, and international cooperation?
Loneliness of the sole remaining superpower
To be sure, the US did not play the role of superpower out of any great sense of altruism. Creating and underwriting international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization, and promoting values like free trade, democracy, human rights and freedom of navigation all benefited the United States economically and politically. Building a constellation of defensive alliances, including NATO, ANZUS, and the US-Japan Mutual Defense Pact, and in effect turning the United States into the global policeman advanced America’s power, prestige, and sway on a hitherto unseen global scale.
The US has benefitted greatly from being a superpower, and even more so after becoming the sole remaining superpower
The US has benefitted greatly from being a superpower, and even more so after becoming the sole remaining superpower. Like people said about the missionaries in Hawaii, whose offspring later took over the islands, they came to do good, and they did quite well.
But the US also pays a premium for being a hegemon. It picks up most of the checks for keeping the international order going, including paying the lion’s share of dues for global institutions like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. Militarily, it covers most of the bills and often the bulk of the manpower for US-led alliances and military operations, and it has to accept that many countries will free-ride on the US security guarantee.
Quite simply, a hegemon has to play the sucker sometimes, because it creates a public good: a stable international order. In other words, it’s a dirty, thankless job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
But what if the US doesn’t want to be the hegemon anymore? Who takes over?
One possible candidate is China. Certainly, Beijing has done almost everything it could over the past decade to weaken US power and influence, at least in Asia. Moreover, under the rubric of multidimensionalism, it is trying to dilute America’s global dominance.
OK, you might say, let the best man (or country) win. But does the world want China to replace the US?
In the US TV show, The Office, its protagonist Michael Scott once said, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Both: I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Well, China has few friends and even fewer allies. Even in Asia, there are grave concerns about the darker motives behind China’s activities in the region.
Look at China’s unilateral near-annexation of the South China Sea (SCS). Despite all international laws and rules laid down in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and despite the rulings of international tribunals, Beijing has illegally constructed artificial islands in the SCS, militarized them, and declared them sovereign parts of China. And it has pretty much gotten away with it, creating a de facto control and ownership affecting most of the SCS.
Is multilateralism the answer?
It is likely that few nations desire a China-centric (or Russia-centric, for that matter) international order. Is a multilateral new world order in the offing, therefore?
The problem with multilateralism is, it has not proven to be very effective in promoting and protecting international stability and tranquility. A European security structure built around six more or less equal regional powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Italy) didn’t prevent World War I. Nor did the League of Nations do much to avert World War II.
Multilateralism may work, under the right conditions. But it can also be shown empirically that, at least since 1945, a hegemonic-based international order does seem to function – imperfectly, to be sure, but better than most alternatives.
If not the US, then who?
As President Reagan once said of American power, “If not us, then who?” The US is not universally beloved, but it does seem to have more true partners and allies – and, admittedly, friends of convenience – than do most hegemons. More troubling is the unknown that faces the world should the current liberal international order falter. Trump’s contempt for this international order is not helping, nor is the rest of the world’s contemptuous laughter that he is inciting.