Hegemonic Abdication Theory

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Steve Saideman recently wrote a blog post about “Hegemonic Abdication Theory.”  Driven to exasperation about the latest news on the gutting of the State Department, Saideman writes:

“Looks like we need to develop some new theory as Trump/Tillerson/Kushner/etc are now doing something that might unprecedented: simply giving up a country’s position as the main provider of public goods that stabilize much of the international system–the hegemon.  Putting aside whether hegemons are benign or not, the basic idea is that stability requires either one actor to provide some key contributions or a small group (but cooperation is hard)”

Kindleberger’s version of hegemonic stability theory focused on the stabilization a hegemonic state could provide in a crisis.  He argued there were five stabilizing functions a hegemonic state should fulfill: maintaining an open market for distressed goods, providing countercyclical lending, maintaining stable exchange rates, ensuring coordination of macroeconomic policies, and acting as lender of last resort.  In effect, Kindleberger argues, the hegemonic state is required to provide various global public goods in times of crisis to help maintain the stability of the global economy.  What Trump is doing is less an abdication of providing or maintaining global public goods in times of crisis and more an abdication of leadership and what Bukovansky et. al. describe as the  “special responsibilities” of the U.S. to manage global problems.  A general responsibility is one everyone in a social order holds but a special responsibility is only held by specific members of that social order.  An actor can gain special responsibilities on account of their capabilities and their position, or role, in the social order.  The U.S. with its tremendous material capabilities and role as “hegemon” or “sole superpower” arguably has significant special responsibilities in world politics.  Trump, however, has managed to stick a shiv in many of the special responsibilities of the U.S.  Three areas in particular standout – climate change, refugees/human rights, and nuclear nonproliferation.

Obviously, Trump’s penchant for coal and his ridiculous ideas about “energy dominance“, not to mention the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, damages U.S. leadership on climate change and leaves the U.S. literally alone on the issue.  A lesser known withdrawal from the Trump administration was the withdrawal of the U.S. from the global compact on migration.  The global compact on migration is a voluntary global effort to coordinate rules for safe and orderly migration and the protection of refugees.  The withdrawal of the U.S. also comes in the midst of a global refugee crisis and is on top of efforts by the Trump administration to drastically reduce the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. Finally, the Trump Administration is doing everything in its power to undermine the Iran nuclear deal and the incompetence and belligerence of this administration is setting us on a path to conflict with North Korea the consequences of which are absolutely horrifying.

The Trump administration is abdicating many of the U.S. responsibilities to help manage global problems, so what is driving this?  Saideman speculates that it is the “illiberalism” of Trump and his administration that is causing this.  I mostly agree with that but it also misses the larger context of American domestic politics and institutions and how they combine to inhibit the ability of the U.S. to fully live up to its global responsibilities as the hegemonic state.  Susan Strange made this point years ago when she wrote:

“A far more plausible explanation for the erosion of so-called international regimes than the decline in American hegemonic power lies within the American political system rather than in the role of the United States in the international system. Stability in these regimes requires, above all, some consistency on the part of the leading participant. The United States is ill- suited to sustaining this consistency in policymaking, partly by reason of its constitutional provisions, and partly thanks to the coalition-building practiced by its dominant political parties. The hallowed doctrine of the separation of powers has been an excellent safeguard against the abuse of executive power. But it has tended to make policymakers in Washington ever mindful of the capacity of powerful lobbies and interest groups operating upon or within Congress to distort, frustrate, or even reverse strategies adopted by the White House towards the outside world.”

The fact that the debate about lost American hegemony has been ongoing for thirty plus years indicates that changes in domestic politics, usually a change in Presidential administrations, brings about significant foreign policy changes that call into question America’s commitment to global leadership.  The George W. Bush administration, especially early in his first term, also abdicated many of the special responsibilities of the U.S. to manage global problems (Kyoto, ICC, Iraq War).  In contrast to Trump however, Bush and co. seemed to be driven more by some combination of intense American exceptionalism, militarism, and unilateralism rather than the contempt for democracy, rule of law, and diplomacy of the Trump administration.  This is also not to say that Democratic administrations have been 100% faithful in fulfilling the special responsibilities of the U.S. either.  Overall, IR scholars and commentators need to consider whether the domestic politics and institutions of the U.S. render it fundamentally incapable of providing the leadership required to fulfill its special responsibilities as the hegemonic state.  Patrick Cottrell claims that because of its fragmentary political system, and possibility for extreme views to influence U.S. foreign policy making, the U.S. operates in a permanent “legitimacy deficit” which waxes and wanes but is nevertheless a “fact of life” for international politics.

Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous President and the policies his administration is pursuing may have lasting negative effects for the U.S. and the world.  However, the ability of the U.S. to provide leadership and fulfill its special responsibilities in managing global problems is limited by not just who is President but also by the institutional constraints of U.S. domestic politics.




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