Mar 10th 2015

American Hegemony or American Primacy?

by Joseph S. Nye

Joseph S. Nye is aprofessor at Harvard University and the author of the forthcoming book Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.

CAMBRIDGE – No country in modern history has possessed as much global military power as the United States. Yet some analysts now argue that the US is following in the footsteps of the United Kingdom, the last global hegemon to decline. This historical analogy, though increasingly popular, is misleading.

Britain was never as dominant as the US is today. To be sure, it maintained a navy equal in size to the next two fleets combined, and its empire, on which the sun never set, ruled over a quarter of humankind. But there were major differences in the relative power resources of imperial Britain and contemporary America. By the outbreak of World War I, Britain ranked only fourth among the great powers in terms of military personnel, fourth in terms of GDP, and third in military spending.

The British Empire was ruled in large part through reliance on local troops. Of the 8.6 million British forces in WWI, nearly a third came from the overseas empire. That made it increasingly difficult for the government in London to declare war on behalf of the empire when nationalist sentiments began to intensify.

By World War II, protecting the empire had become more of a burden than an asset. The fact that the UK was situated so close to powers like Germany and Russia made matters even more challenging.

For all the loose talk of an “American empire,” the fact is that the US does not have colonies that it must administer, and thus has more freedom to maneuver than the UK did. And, surrounded by unthreatening countries and two oceans, it finds it far easier to protect itself.

That brings us to another problem with the global hegemon analogy: the confusion over what “hegemony” actually means. Some observers conflate the concept with imperialism; but the US is clear evidence that a hegemon does not have to have a formal empire. Others define hegemony as the ability to set the rules of the international system; but precisely how much influence over this process a hegemon must have, relative to other powers, remains unclear.

Still others consider hegemony to be synonymous with control of the most power resources. But, by this definition, nineteenth-century Britain – which at the height of its power in 1870 ranked third (behind the US and Russia) in GDP and third (behind Russia and France) in military expenditures – could not be considered hegemonic, despite its naval dominance.

Similarly, those who speak of American hegemony after 1945 fail to note that the Soviet Union balanced US military power for more than four decades. Though the US had disproportionate economic clout, its room for political and military maneuver was constrained by Soviet power.

Some analysts describe the post-1945 period as a US-led hierarchical order with liberal characteristics, in which the US provided public goods while operating within a loose system of multilateral rules and institutions that gave weaker states a say. They point out that it may be rational for many countries to preserve this institutional framework, even if American power resources decline. In this sense, the US-led international order could outlive America’s primacy in power resources, though many others argue that the emergence of new powers portends this order’s demise.

But, when it comes to the era of supposed US hegemony, there has always been a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. It was less a global order than a group of like-minded countries, largely in the Americas and Western Europe, which comprised less than half of the world. And its effects on non-members – including significant powers like China, India, Indonesia, and the Soviet bloc – were not always benign. Given this, the US position in the world could more accurately be called a “half-hegemony.”

Of course, America did maintain economic dominance after 1945: the devastation of WWII in so many countries meant that the US produced nearly half of global GDP. That position lasted until 1970, when the US share of global GDP fell to its pre-war level of one-quarter. But, from a political or military standpoint, the world was bipolar, with the Soviet Union balancing America’s power. Indeed, during this period, the US often could not defend its interests: the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons; communist takeovers occurred in China, Cuba, and half of Vietnam; the Korean War ended in a stalemate; and revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were repressed.

Against this background, “primacy” seems like a more accurate description of a country’s disproportionate (and measurable) share of all three kinds of power resources: military, economic, and soft. The question now is whether the era of US primacy is coming to an end.

Given the unpredictability of global developments, it is, of course, impossible to answer this question definitively. The rise of transnational forces and non-state actors, not to mention emerging powers like China, suggests that there are big changes on the horizon. But there is still reason to believe that, at least in the first half of this century, the US will retain its primacy in power resources and continue to play the central role in the global balance of power.

In short, while the era of US primacy is not over, it is set to change in important ways. Whether or not these changes will bolster global security and prosperity remains to be seen.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "