Whilst the extent of America’s influence was debatable, its global hegemony, or overarching dominance and leadership now and in the near future is clear. The important questions here are: How does the US exercise and maintain its hegemonic power and how will this change in the future? What are the internal and external threats to US hegemony and what is the capacity of its government to respond? If the days of American hegemony are numbered, over what kind of time frame and along which metrics will this power decline? Answering these will require taking a close look into current the geopolitical situation as well as past examples of hegemonic powers. I conclude that the US is in decline as the global hegemon.
Is America a hegemon, and what does American hegemony mean for the world today? The US derives its position of dominance not from its direct control over large swathes of territory but through its ability to exert overwhelming influence on most states in the world as the head of a multilateral group of similarly aligned nations, usually liberal capitalist countries. I would like to differentiate between hegemony, being dominance, and mere superiority. A country may be ahead of its competitors economically, technologically and militarily, but unless it successfully takes a guiding role in determining international relations and local policy, it is not in a position of hegemony. The Greek historian Thucydides first used the word to describe Athens in the 5th Century BC. Whilst America has powerful rivals, most notably China, who to some extent resist its influence, it dominates global seas and skies as well as the intellectual world.
Threats of military invasion (usually launched with the assistance of a nearby America-friendly country) and economic isolation to a great extent either coerce countries into keeping in line with American dictum or prevent them from aggressively expanding their territory or their ideology. There have been many cases where the US has decided to exercise its power. An example of this was crucial American support for Operation Condor, a series of coups in South America designed to eradicate Marxist governments and Soviet influence. The sanctions imposed by an American-led group of liberal countries and organisations on Russia following its invasion of the Crimea cost it €170 billion. According to the President of Ukraine these sanctions (along with the heroism of Ukrainian warriors) was one of the ‘key elements of deterring Russian aggression.’ America has not always been successful, but broadly it can still exert influence on every corner of the globe. We note the alliance and economic ties beginning to form between America and its former enemy Vietnam, as well as a favourable view of America in its people’s eyes.
Indeed, we can generally summarise the source of US hegemony by stating that US policy for most countries makes the cost of defiance of American will far greater than the benefits. One important reason for the liberalisation of the Chinese economy carried out by Deng Xiaoping was the need for China to follow to a certain extent American market principles in order to attract American investment and trade. The allure of American support and investment, often through intermediary organisations such as the IMF, who are controlled by America and her allies, incentivises countries to make liberal reforms when aid is made explicitly dependent on certain economic conditions. When Colombia’s economy was in a desperate state during the 1990s, the IMF’s $2.7 billion dollars of support as well as American military support against Marxist insurgencies went with a mandate to downsize the public sector and liberalise the economy, opening it to foreign, particularly American, investors.
Culturally this has placed America in a position of hegemony, with institutions such as Hollywood, dominating the global marketplace of ideas. Propaganda organisations directly or partially controlled by the US government such as Radio Free Asia also have a role in spreading liberal views. By making the American brand of politics attractive, other nations gravitate towards this ideal. The recent Hong Kong protests appear to have drawn some inspiration from American ideas, with thousands of protesters documented carrying the American flag.
Given this, what would a decline in American hegemony look like? Firstly, the US would be less able and less willing to intervene abroad in order to protect its hegemonic status. Countries which act against American economic interests or aggressively sponsor illiberal beliefs in their own country and in other countries will no longer be punished. More of them will begin to take this path, choosing other allies either within their sphere of influence or as a global bloc of nations, probably led by China. American businesses and cultural products will be rejected; the monopoly that the dollar has over international transactions will be eroded.
Militarily it seems that for the foreseeable future America will possess global superiority. Its defence spending, at $581 billion, exceeds the combined expenditures of the next nine countries. China’s defence spending on the other hand has substantially increased, roughly quintupling between 2000 and 2012, and therefore poses the greatest threat to American military superiority. However, there are several reasons why we might believe that whilst China may approach America’s military capabilities, it will not threaten America’s dominance in this respect for decades.
Firstly, China’s long-term strategic military focus is concentrated on its own sphere of influence- the East Asia region. As one of the founding members of the American Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute put it: ‘China, for its part, lacks aspiration or capability to dominate the Far Seas for the foreseeable future.’ According to Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, of The Diplomat: ‘there are no reliable indications at this time that China desires a truly-global blue water navy akin to that of the US today.’ Without a blue-water navy, projection of force far from home is almost impossible to sustain, as interventions abroad are easily cut off from resupply and reinforcement. The US has 10 aircraft carriers, as well as another 9 ships that would be referred to ‘as aircraft carriers if they served in any other navy.’ China currently only has one, and is projected to have 5 or 6 by the 2030s. Even if China succeeds in carving out a limited region in which China itself can dominate, something that is still unlikely, for the next few decades the US will have the capacity to place overwhelming military pressure around the rest of the world. We note America’s successful invasion of its Iraq and its successful intervention in the Libyan Civil War. America is also in a good position to prevent the Chinese consolidation of its near seas, with a number of concerned allies in the region and a large carrier fleet to support any operations there.
However, whilst America may be unrivalled in military superiority, what is debatable is its desire to project power abroad. The current Trump Administration is committed to reducing foreign interventions only when the US has a ‘clear national interest’ in pursuing such an intervention. Trump wants an ‘America first’ foreign policy as opposed to a world in which America simply acts to maintain its power. An example of this was the allowing of a Turkish attack on America’s wartime ally the Kurdish rebels. Whilst Donald Trump’s foreign policy has low approval ratings,massive bipartisan public opposition has risen against foreign interventions, with 78% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans supporting ‘restraining military action overseas’. The massive costs of America’s Middle Eastern interventions, the massive American debt and increased support for large, expensive public welfare institutions in aspects such as healthcare have created a political climate in which America is less likely to use force to defend its hegemony or pre-emptively attack an aggressive, ideologically opposed power. To this date America has mustered little to no military response after China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. Whilst America is perfectly capable of constraining the expansion of rivals such as China, militarily it lacks the will to do so.
Economically America faces a large challenge from China. China already surpasses America in manufacturing, with 20% of the global share as opposed to America’s 18%. Current extrapolations of growth statistics estimate that Chinese GDP will surpass America as soon as next year. Even if this turns out to be unrealistic, the fact that their economies will converge as time progresses is undeniable. Not only will China be less reliant on its trade with the United States as its domestic consumption increases, but other countries are less reliant on the US as the sole source of investment. China’s Belt and Road initiative, investing in infrastructure in 152 countries, breaks the monopoly institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have on sources of investment and credit for developing countries. Especially in Africa, where most individuals now view China favourably, states are more likely to turn to China for aid especially when such aid is not dependent on certain conditions, usually liberalisation, being met. This significantly reduces the extent to which America can pressure smaller countries to adopting a US system and joining the ranks of US allies.
The policies of protectionism initiated by Donald Trump, such as for example the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reduce American soft power when countries are less reliant on their good relationship with America. However, ultimately Trump is open to confronting China’s economic aggression, initiating waves of tariffs in response to its alleged unfair currency manipulation and its theft of intellectual property, among other things. Whilst this has damaged the Chinese economy, resulting in a 26-year low of quarterly growth, not only is this trade war not guaranteed to continue for a prolonged period of time (most Democratic candidates have condemned Trump’s strategy), but importantly even a weakened China is still capable of building economic relationships with other countries when the US is unwilling to compete. We note the decline in US foreign aid 0.5% of GDP in 1960 to 0.2% in 2010. In 2014 China was by far Africa’s biggest trading partner, with $160 billion of trade between the two regions, as opposed to America’s mere $60 billion of trade with Africa. What this means is that over time, especially in Africa, countries will begin gravitating towards China economically, forming political and trade relationships that may result in full-on military alliances. America will lose its dominance over entire spheres of influence when the benefit of submitting to American will no longer exceeds the cost. Whilst the yuan has only made marginal statistical progress against the US dollar as the global currency, steps are being made to break its effective monopoly, with non-dollar transactions in the oil industry- something previously unheard of- have already begun to take place.
Finally, in the wake of signs that the US wishes to retreat from a leadership role under the Trump Administration, China is intent on improving its image abroad, creating the impression that it intends to be the vanguard of global co-operation and integration. It has opened over five hundred ‘Confucius Institutes’ around the world, designed to spread China’s culture through teaching of Mandarin and Chinese traditions. It in 2017 ranked third among the world’s most popular study destinations, and now has 170 foreign media bureaus. China is now viewed favourably in Latin American and African countries, as well as many Asian nations, although it has made little progress in North America and Europe.
America is currently the global hegemon. However, it is extremely likely that
as time passes more and more countries will reject a position in America’s
multilateral liberal order in order to pursue greater friendship and mutually
beneficial partnership with China. Whilst America remains in a position of
superiority economically and militarily, it is both less willing and less
effective in projecting this power overseas.