There has never been global US hegemony, but there has been a US primacy, since approximately the end of the Cold War. However, the US’ position as the leading superpower is precarious and may no longer even exist. Using David Wilkinson’s definition, a hegemon is a state that is dominant in terms of its capability and also in its ability to exert this influence. Hegemony denotes ‘a unipolar structure of capability matched by a unipolar structure of influence’. This is distinctly different from a state of primacy or unipolarity in which the capability of the state is ‘not matched by a predominant influence’. The current world scenario is a non-hegemonic unipolarity with the US as the leading superpower.
Contrary to the beliefs of academics such as Anna Cornelia Beyer and Hubert Védrine, who believe that the US is a global hegemon, I claim that it is actually not. For the US to be the global hegemon, it must effectively ‘govern’ the world stage. There are three main aspects to ‘governance’; the maintenance of order and arbitration, the centrality of collection and distribution, of both tribute and subsidy, and the organisation and provision of legitimacy1. Critically, these aspects must be considered in relation to great powers, as these will be the most telling for US shortcomings. In terms of maintenance of order, although the US has been generally successful, there are blatant failures in the form of continued crisis in the Middle East and critical organisational failure in Somalia. There are also clear cases of nations that refuse to subscribe to US centrality, primarily, North Korea and Iran and to a lesser degree China. We can see these exact same states reject the US world order and renounce any component of their legitimacy that might be gained from the US. Finally, for the US to be a global hegemon, it must be the hegemon of all regions, so any example of resistance, a region where the US is not the hegemon would be sufficient to prove that the US is not the global hegemon. One primary example is East Asia, where the presence of Russia, China, North Korea, Vietnam and several others stand in relative defiance to the US and exert their own significant influence, as a result limiting the influence of the US. As such, the US fails to fulfil the three requirements and can’t be considered regional hegemon in all regions and thus can’t be the global hegemon. However, although the US is not the global hegemon, it was the leading superpower in the past and still is today.
US primacy is still in existence and has been in the past, but it is currently in decline. US primacy first became irrefutable after the collapse of the USSR and as such the end of bipolarity. The US is a superpower according to the definition put forward by Alice Lyman Miller. It was a state that ‘has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world’ and was unique in this capacity as the USSR had just collapsed. The US was structurally more powerful than every other country of the time, using Strange’s classification of structural power3. The US dollar constituted the majority of reserve currencies, today it is 61%, granting the US significant control. This is exacerbated by the level of US influence in global financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Their power of production was also superior to the extent that the US GDP comprised 24.08 % of global GDP in 2018(reference(World Bank)). In regards to knowledge, the US is also dominant, it has 58 out of top 100 universities and even the majority of Nobel laureates are from the US, 363 out of 850.
Finally, the US controls the security for many other countries, due to both the size of its military and in terms of its nuclear capabilities. The US makes up exactly 37% of total global military expenditure and as such can deploy superior forces to almost any location on the planet. Moreover, the US is one of the few countries with nuclear capabilities and has one of the largest stores of nuclear warheads and payload delivery systems, this allows the US to threaten the security of every nation. The US also grants access to its missile defence system to a whole range of NATO countries, thus having their security in its own hands. As it is dominant in all these aspects, the US can still be considered the leading superpower.
However, the US has been in decline and the continuation of a unipolar world order is no longer certain. This decline can be viewed first by a systemic approach. Ever since the fall of the USSR, the USA has begun to see resistance and opposition in the form of China, Russia and to an extent the rest of the BRICS. Taking the example of China, a state with the economic might to match the US, this state is able to resist the US as we can see from the burgeoning trade war between the US and China and even from Chinese foreign investment. The Belt and Road Initiative is a perfect illustration of this expansion of Chinese soft power, as well as Chinese investment and cultural exchange in Africa. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Centre, the majority of African people view China favourably.
Another significant contributor to the decline of US power, is its general lack of care and interaction with the rest of the world. After the end of the Cold War, general sentiment in the US was that they had done enough for the world and didn’t really feel an obligation to do much more. During the 1990s, US foreign aid dropped to 0.7% from fairly above 1%(congressional research centre), as a result of internal focus, deficit reduction, but more importantly, the end of the Cold War. The US provided less support to nations in difficulty, reverting to the policy of advice, as we can see by Congress’ rejection of a plan to address the financial crisis in Mexico.
Finally, with the advent of the Trump administration, and Trump’s view that the US is not a structurally advantaged hegemon and the rest of the world are leeches effectively, US foreign interaction has plummeted. The has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and estranged itself from Europe. Karl Kaiser claimed that ‘Two years of Mr. Trump, and a majority of French and Germans now trust Russia and China more than the United States’. As such, the US is in a steady decline away from its primacy, due to the rise of challengers, its lack of interaction with the rest of the world following the end of the cold war and Trumps isolationist and protectionist policies.
So, the US is not a global hegemon since it does not have the requisite power, in the form of complete regional hegemonies and related requirements. However, it is the leading superpower but this superiority has been in the decline ever since it begun, the moment when the Soviet Union collapsed. In the future, we will likely see a descent into bipolarity, a confrontation of US and China, a tripolarity with the EU thrown into the mix or finally a multipolarity, with no real superpowers.