Now, if the United States is in decline, who or what can replace it? The obvious contender is China given its power, heft and clout. But, there are obvious issues with China’s total dominance of the international system.
The United States’ time is up. The country is wading into the pits of absolute decline. But, there is a bit of an irony involved here, the country contra international relations theory and practice is not declining because of peer competitor(s), or hard balancing; it is in decline because of its own follies and an inexorable drift into torpor and turpitude.
These assertions might sound counterintuitive or even in the nature of a pious wish given that the country holds the balance in almost all domains of power and politics.
For instance, its defence spending is unmatched, its hard power peerless, power projection capabilities unmatched and the system of alliances that it presides over rather relatively unscathed. The question then arises is that is the United States is still at the apogee of its power, how can it be in decline? If it is in decline, should it be a cause of celebration? And, more importantly perhaps, who or what should replace the country?
First things first.
Power, a slippery and contested concept, is intimately linked with legitimacy. It is not the “number of tanks or battalions (to briefly paraphrase Joseph Stalin) that a country has that determines its “actual” power (or influence) but a combination of power and the fund of legitimacy it enjoys. The United States, despite its grave crimes like the Vietnam war, its egregious and bloody meddling in Latin America, its blatant and fraudulent use of power in the Second Gulf War and so on did enjoy legitimacy especially in the aftermath of the Second world war.
This legitimacy accrued from the country’s leadership in creating and instituting the liberal world order. Consequently, many countries not only acquiesced in its leadership but also accepted the country. But, with the concentration of power in the United States( also known as unipolarity), hubris became the predominant impulse of the United States. The country not only squandered its fund of power and legitimacy by opting for “wars of choice” in Afghanistan and Iraq but also became contemptuous of rules, regimes and norms that it had helped institute. The United States also lost the plot domestically as the country’s elite became so self-centred and self-absorbed that there was a massive disconnect between the masses and the governing classes of the country. This, in turn, corrupted the United States’ democracy and its institutions, in the process.
The chicken finally came to roost, so to speak, in the form of Donald Trump to the highest office of the country. Trump is not only disdainful of ( and in the process reconfiguring) United States institutional fabric in an insalubrious and deleterious way but also swaggering internationally in a cavalier way that he is destroying the fabric of world order, norms, laws and regimes thereof. His gratuitous assault on Iran, the contempt demonstrated by his administration toward the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, and the aggressive and bellicose approach adopted toward China illustrate the point. But, this is not all, the United States is being hollowed out from within by the corruption of its institutions, the ungainly and cruel treatment of refugees and immigrants, the arrogant and disdain demonstrated toward the rule of law and so on. Cumulatively, the gravamen of these omissions and commissions can only mean decline.
Now, if the United States is in decline, who or what can replace it? The obvious contender is China given its power, heft and clout. But, there are obvious issues with China’s total dominance of the international system. The country’s world view and its sense of self, along with issues of humanitarian concern would render China an inadequate globally preponderant power, among other things. The European Union is too mired in structural issues to actually even countenance global leadership. By elimination then, what the world is left with is international law and institutions of global governance like the United Nations.
In the absence of hegemony, only international law and institutions can actually fill the void in anarchic international relations. But, here too, issues arise, the major one being that states invariably act in and out of self-interest. However, given that there will be no more a hegemon to enforce peace, or hold the balance in a way that approximates global public goods, all the states of and in the international system must redefine their interests and conceive these in a way where , internationally and globally, international law, regimes and laws reign supreme.
This might even constitute raison d’etat given that if , in the past, the United States was looked toward as the provider of security and public goods, and that it is in decline and there would be no entity to do this in the future, states’ self-interest would lie in bandwagoning together and agglomerating their interests in and to some well-defined goals and peace. The most important of these goals would be the world order, global peace and stability, themes and ideas that would redound to the benefit of all. Moreover, this potential combination would also check and hem the worst instincts and impulses of states, especially powerful ones.
This potential state of affairs and the desired condition can only be reified if international institutions and laws are strengthened by a robust backing of states. Broken down, it means reviving the United Nations and making it more robust, not merely as a declamatory body or one whose USP lies only in “low politics” but making it an arbiter of high politics. It can happen when states delegate their power, not just rhetorically but substantively to the “Parliament of Man” and, among other things imbue the august body with hard power capabilities.
The United States is declining. There is no other state which can actually replace it, as of now. And, in and during its decline, the country can do something silly and odious, like going to war or rejigging the economic order in place drastically, so much so that the rest of the world suffers. Before the country, during the throes of decline, lashes out and before the world drifts into a more intense disorder, it is time to introspect and accord primacy to law and institutions which promote peace, stability and prosperity. The time to make haste slowly is now!
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)