Power Down

Is this the twilight’s last gleaming?

A history of United States ­hegemony — a term that international relations scholars use to describe consent-based world leadership — is a chronicle of a decline foretold. Consider the original Sputnik moment, in 1957; the breakup of the Bretton Woods system, in the early 1970s; the ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, in 1975; and all those anxieties about an “emerging Japanese superstate” and “imperial overstretch.” Predictions of a “post-American world” have suffered few shortages, even as the United States has actually gone from strength to strength. The “unipolar moment” that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall certainly halted the prognostications of declinism, but only for a while.

In December 2004, amid daily footage of American soldiers fighting and dying in the streets of Fallujah, the U.S. federal government’s own National Intelligence Council foresaw “the rise of new powers, new challenges to governance, and a more pervasive sense of insecurity” by 2020. Four years later, just as the Barack Obama administration was moving into the White House, the same organization reported on the emergence of a “global multipolar system” by 2025, with “the newer players bringing new rules of the game” and the United States going into relative decline, “even in the military realm.”

Of course, declarations of America’s decline are as old as claims of its predominance — and need to be treated with some caution. But in Exit from Hegemony, Columbia’s Alexander Cooley and Georgetown’s Daniel Nexon argue that this moment is indeed quite different. Yes, the COVID‑19 pandemic’s economic, geo­strategic, political, and social consequences will take decades to play themselves out, and, yes, Washington might still have an ace or two up its sleeve, but the underlying dynamics are all pointing to the end of U.S. supremacy. “We readily admit that we can only guess at just what type of international system the United States will seek to promote in the future, let alone how its aims will interact with the preferences of other great powers,” the authors write. “What we can say with greater confidence is that the United States will no longer be able to exercise global hegemony, and that it will need to accommodate other powers to a much greater extent than it is used to.” And while there are many unanswered questions about America’s role in the future, Cooley and Nexon are confident on one point: “At the very least, it will be one of, at most, a small handful of first-tier great powers.”

Simultaneously pitched to international relations theorists, to assorted analysts, and to the educated, media-savvy general reader, Exit from Hegemony is a major achievement. The first reason is its conceptual clarity. “International order,” we learn, is but a convenient shorthand. Rather than a discrete, bounded, and differentiated “thing,” the phrase can refer only to ­relative stabilities in state interactions and related goings‑on. This is why Cooley and Nexon conceptualize international ordering — their preferred term — as an ecosystem (“ecology”) constituted by rules, norms, and values, on the one hand, and everyday routines, flows, and practices on the other. Such are the “architecture” (or content) and “infrastructures” (or forms) of global politics. This framework helps us understand how “the American hegemonic system” and the broader international order co-emerged over time and space, and across institutional settings, and why attempts to revise that system are not necessarily anti-American in character.

The “liberal” international order, we also learn, is likewise a shorthand notion that conflates very different configurations of liberalism. The “neoliberal” theory of state design, which emerged in Anglo-American politics and policies during the 1980s, dovetailed with the “liberal intergovernmentalist” architecture of the 1990s — think of NAFTA, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization — but it did not fit as nicely with liberal democratic politics at the national level. Ask any number of “populist” politicians about their problem with globalization, and they will likely point their fingers at the “liberal managerialism” of a transnational, cosmopolitan elite bent on stamping out “traditional” social orders and “real” people. The more sensitive we are to these different dimensions of liberalism, the less likely we are to conflate the “democratic backsliding” of today with the end of liberal international ordering as such.

So the proper benchmark for evaluating the “liberalness” of U.S. hegemony lies not in political philosophy but in history. The Pax Americana that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was generally more liberal than its Cold War iteration — to say nothing of whatever pax existed before. In that spirit, Cooley and Nexon present both a conceptual overview of hegemony and a series of brief histories covering the Roman Empire, the Spanish Habsburgs, Bourbon France, Ming China, and the British East India Company, among other polities. Though short, these sections go a long way in substantiating the authors’ contention that hegemony can, in fact, illuminate multiple logics of political organization, not just empires but also confederations and federations.

The backbone of Exit from Hegemony consists of the four chapters with the word “exit” in their titles. The first two, “Exit from Above” and “Exit from Below,” explore the supply-and-demand side of alternative-order building. As relative economic power shifted toward “the Rest” (especially China), “the West” saw its “monopoly patronage” melt away. Today, neither Washington nor Brussels can impose sanctions for human rights violations without worrying about driving targeted governments into the hands of “new providers of economic, security, and cultural goods”— the likes of Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran. Arguably, the pandemic has only increased the ability and willingness of countries to leverage non-Western assets and “exit options.”

The next chapter, “Exit from Within,” focuses on the changing nature of contemporary transnational advocacy, namely the shift from the promotion of liberal peace, order, and good governance that characterized the 1990s to a “counter-order transnational mobilization.” An impressive network of far-right outfits — study groups, conferences, front organizations, and online platforms that promote the “traditional family”— help illustrate this transition. The fact that the Kremlin underwrites some of these activities is a reminder that different pressures working against the liberal ordering tend to support one another. The same point emerges in “Exit Made in America,” a chapter devoted to the radical presidency of Donald Trump, which the authors rightly portray not as the cause of exit but rather as its morbid symptom and accelerant.

The positive feedback effects among all these exits have set the world on a path toward three possible (and mutually inclusive) scenarios. The first is a Sino-American rivalry, which must not be confused with the notion of a “new Cold War.” Cooley and Nexon italicize their reasoning: a cold war is “an existential struggle between political systems,” in which “nearly every possible field of competition — visual arts, music, sports, scientific achievements, chess, and so on — becomes, or is one step away from turning into, a zero-sum struggle.” Say what you will about aggressive Chinese posturing, but this existential struggle is decidedly not happening today.

The second, more likely scenario is multipolarity, a strategic goal of the Chinese and Russian states since at least 1997 and now the wish of populist leaders everywhere. A multipolar world could manifest itself in several ways. Anchoring one end of the continuum would be an ongoing à la carte liberal intergovernmentalism characterized by vigorous but peaceful contestations between Washington, Beijing, and Brussels. On the other end, we might see a more fragmented, neo-mercantilist, and ruthless international order, not unlike the one imagined in the television series Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller about the “silk glove” invasion of a small nation by its much larger neighbour.

Cooley and Nexon name their third scenario “globalized oligarchy and kleptocracy.” Indeed, the prevailing patterns of extraction and expatriation of wealth (by individuals as well as corporations), of corporate influence (on political campaigns, regulations, and so on), and of the general misuse of public power for private benefit (see Trump’s attempts to defend himself in a civil case using the full weight of the Department of Justice) suggest that “grand corruption on an unprecedented global scale” is part and parcel of the ecology of the liberal ordering. And things are likely to get worse before they get better.

As Trump’s America demonstrates, liberal democracies do not have strong defence mechanisms against a globalized symbiosis between kleptocrats and the far right. This argument can be pushed further as we near the November 3 election: What if the American hegemonic system continually creates the conditions for exploitation “at home”? The liberalisms that promote such an abiding state irresponsibility in health care, education, and social services seem to perfectly align with the liberalisms that justify the pursuit of all-time hegemonic records — the deployment of troops to over 150 countries and their permanent basing in at least seventy. These cannot be pinned solely on one president or one political party.

A made-in-America pandemic economy has put this exploitative relationship into sharp relief: police, prisons, and the Pentagon receive ample taxpayer money, while “essential workers,” who are disproportionately female and people of colour, receive another reminder that it is only their work that is essential, not they themselves. (To be sure, similar systemic inequities are at play here in Canada.) Maintain the status quo through the next crisis — the worst of climate change is yet to come — and soon enough illiberal autocrats will have no trouble convincing the rest of the world that their idea of a social contract is better.

Cooley and Nexon note that the future of the American hegemonic system also depends on the dollar’s dominance in the global monetary and financial systems — an aspect of U.S. power that the British international relations scholar Susan Strange once dubbed the “super-exorbitant privilege.” Accordingly, they invite readers to pay close attention to the changing politics of money: for example, how China is challenging SWIFT, the Brussels-based wire-transfer system that many of us use and that American authorities sometimes pressure to exclude certain foreign banks and firms from global financial flows. What remains under-explored in Exit from Hegemony, however, is the conditions under which the United States loses its position as the go‑to provider of global liquidity, or how the euro or the yuan can achieve parity with the dollar as the go‑to reserve currency. Could a “coalition of the willing” emerge to establish the financial institutions necessary to subvert U.S. monetary power?

Cooley and Nexon’s book deserves the widest possible readership because it gives convincing answers and provokes the right questions at the right time. No matter who wins the upcoming election, the global hegemony of the United States is almost certainly ending, but the work to explain and understand that end will continue for years to come.

As we consider America’s diminishment on the global stage, we should remember the work of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, particularly his concept of “cultural hegemony,” which reminds us that the most effective expressions of influence are often found in educational, artistic, and intellectual institutions — not simply the marble halls of Washington. To defeat the hegemonic power of the ruling class, Gramsci argued, Marxists had to learn how to wage a “war of position,” a protracted, subtle struggle for academic and cultural clout. One of the ironies of the present political moment is that it is the right — not the left — that is most closely following Gramsci’s revolutionary theory. Indeed, the counter-order transnational mobilization of the “new” New Right is waging a type of war through fearmongering over the “cultural Marxism” and “cancel culture” of our universities and mainstream media.

Sparked by York University’s Robert Cox in the 1980s, a neo-Gramscian school of international relations departed from the then-reigning models of hegemony, which emphasized the centrality of the state, by theorizing Pax Americana as a particular type of capitalist power — an interlocked, reciprocal, and dynamic relationship that combined the economic and military might of the United States with a transnational network of institutions working to disseminate liberal ideology across regions and issues. Though Cooley and Nexon disengage from this brand of thought, it remains worthy of consideration as we ponder the many different expressions of American power today and tomorrow.