U.S. Out, China In? Thoughts on Hegemonic Transitions

Why America’s Edge Will Probably Last

This semester I taught Causes of War and Peace for the first time in over ten years. I can’t remember if this happened the last time I taught the class but this semester we seemed to talk a lot about potential hegemonic war between the U.S. and China. I did assign Gilpin’s The Theory of Hegemonic War early in the semester so maybe that is the reason why.

I tell my students that I am a China skeptic. What I mean by that is I am doubtful that China will achieve global hegemony anytime soon (or ever). I have been more or less convinced by Michael Beckley’s argument that China will not over take the U.S. simply because the U.S. has a much bigger military and economic advantages than most people realize. The thing I like about Beckley’s book is it is centered on a point that power should be measured in net rather than gross terms. When this is applied to both the U.S. and China he notes that China’s large population is actually a drag on its power resources since all of those people require food, clothing, etc. In other words, almost all Chinese economic activity is devoted to providing for the basic needs of its population while much of U.S. economic activity (although maybe overall smaller than China’s) is essentially surplus that can be reinvested into technology that can continue to prolong America’s edge. By way of analyzing a possible hegemonic transition between the U.S. and China I find this argument by Beckley persuasive. Couple this argument with China’s closed political system, its internal problems, and its lack of international legitimacy Chinese hegemony does not seem likely in my opinion.

Recently, however, I’ve become a little less sanguine about American hegemony, even thought I have expressed such lack of sanguines before. This is purely from an analytical perspective I should say. From a normative view I don’t really think American hegemony is just or right but I will leave that aside for now. The reason for my slight downgrading of future American hegemony is two books I read recently (even though I started one of them last year). They are Exit From Hegemony by Daniel Nexon and Alexander Cooley and Leadership and the Rise of Great Power by Yan Xuetong

Why America’s Edge Will Probably Not Last

Exit From Hegemony is an improvement on many discussions of hegemony and possible hegemonic transitions in that it argues that U.S. hegemony is eroding not just because of great power rivalry with China (although they argue that is one of the reasons and include Russia in there as well), but also because the changing behavior of smaller or weaker states, and also because of new forms of transnationalism. These three factors together are eroding American hegemony. It’s the latter two factors – changing behavior of small and weak states and new forms of transnationalism – which are the most interesting innovations offered in the book. Cooley and Nexon argue smaller states are contributing to the erosion of American hegemony, maybe unintentionally, because they have other options now. They note:

“in the early 1990s the lack of any alternative providers of such goods [ed. public goods] made a Western-dominated international order – one with significant liberal components – effectively the only game in town. Obvious and sustained deviation from its principles and institutions of global governance usually marked a regime as an international outlier or ‘rouge state'” (11)

One of the hallmarks of hegemony according to Kindleberger is the provision of global public goods. What Cooley and Nexon have identified is that some of those public goods can be/are provided beyond the American hegemonic order. They state that:

“By the mid-2000s, the rise of alternative patrons in various areas of international governance started to mitigate the demands of Western patrons. The arrival of other providers of similar goods further diminished their vulnerability to the demands made by the United States and Europe – demands that often threatened recipient governments with political or economic disruption” (11)

Some of these alternative patrons include China and their development money alongside new institutions such as the AIIB and NDB. Additionally, they point to things like the Commonwealth of Independent States providing election monitors to countries to give them a stamp of approval for their obviously problematic elections.

New forms of transnationalism primarily means the rise of the illiberal right. For Cooley and Nexon these changes go far beyond just Trumpism in the U.S. They note that while right wing illiberalism has always been around two recent events have given it momentum: the financial crisis of 2008 and the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. Its not only that these networks of illiberalism are spreading outside the West but within as well. They note:

“Important changes also happened within the core advanced industrialized democracies. By the mid-2010s, the proliferation of illiberal networks challenged the mainstream political consensus within the West. These sometimes took the form of left-wing radical parties but more often of right-wing parties and movements.”(13)

Exit From Hegemony provides a lot of food for thought on American hegemony and international order and I especially like how it goes beyond simple great power rivalries to examine how orders can change or evolve. There articulation of the alternative goods providers for small states and the emergence of right wing illiberal transnationalism got me thinking quite a bit. I have tended to dismiss these types of challenges but I don’t think that can be justified anymore.

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong is an interesting book. I found the first half kind of a slog to get through as there was a lot of conceptual throat clearing. The second half of the book, however, was very interesting as Xuetong provides his analysis on possible future international transitions, U.S.-China rivalry, and cases of international transitions and non-transitions in the past. Xuetong’s model for international or hegemonic transitions is presented below

Xuetong puts the drivers of international system change on leadership changes in leading states and rising powers. The title of the book is Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers so the emphasis on leadership should not be a surprise but it does put the focus of international transitions primarily on what happens inside states. As the figure shows, Xuetong focuses on two types of leadership – domestic and international. For both types he describes four possibilities for leadership. For domestic leadership he identifies – inactive, conservative, proactive, or aggressive leadership as the four types of state leadership. Inactive leadership is simply noninterference, not trying to improve a states international position. Conservative leadership is leadership which advocates maintaining the international status quo. Proactive leadership is leadership which tries to improve a states international position through pursuing reforms. Finally, aggressive leadership is state leadership which is trying to increase a countries international position through military means. For international leadership, Xuetong identifies another four types of leadership. They are: humane authority which is leadership that “adopts foreign policies in accordance with international norms and is strategically trustworthy” (43), hegemonic leadership is double standards leadership, a great power that encourages other to follow the rules while they themselves often flout them. Anemocratic leadership is irresponsible leadership that is untrustworthy because they try to bully weaker states. Finally, tyrannical leadership is untrustworthy but consistent because it is exercised by states that bully both weak and powerful states.

Following the Figure posted above one can see that Xuetong argues that changes in domestic leadership type can lead to a redistribution of power in the international system. In other words, changes in domestic leadership can get a rising state to great power status and/or cause a great power to decline. This change in the distribution of power in the international system will lead to a change in international leadership because the rising power is now a great power or the great power is no longer a great power. Now that a new system leader has risen they can reconfigure the basic normative order of the international system and this will in essence constitute an international system, transformation. According to Xuetong (and backed up by the case studies he examines in the book) for a system transformation to occur at least two out of three changes have to happen – a change in actors (a rising power overtaking a current great power), a change in the distribution of power, and/or a change in the dominant norms of the international system.

After all of this, Xuetong in the conclusion engages in a bit of speculation about the future based on his model. He predicts a new bipolar world. Xuetong notes:

“China’s rise is highly likely to transfer the American-dominated unipolar configuration of the post-Cold War era into a bipolar one between China and the United States in the coming decade.” (198)

He goes on to say:

“Neither the United States nor China is able to provide a global leadership in the next decade. Global leadership requires leading states to provide security protection for lesser states, either individually or collectively. . . Meanwhile the structural conflict between rising states and dominant states means that the United States and China cannot provide the world with a joint leadership, such as ‘G-2’ or ‘Chimerica'” (199-200)

What Xuetong is predicting here is a system transformation because the dominant actors and international distribution of power has changed fulfilling his two out of three changes are necessary for system transformation criteria. China’s rise to a rough equality of the U.S. moves the system from one of U.S. hegemony to U.S.-China bipolarity. Xuetong is confident in China’s rise because he feels China is more capable than the U.S. in exercising the right leadership to sustain its rise (proactive leadership) while the U.S. is not capable of enough reforms to stave off China’s rise. Xuetong’s analysis depends a lot on the damage of the Trump administration continuing so it would be interesting to see what he thinks about the Biden’s administration ability to exercise effective leadership (proactive vs the inactive-aggressive leadership of the Trump administration). Finally, and interestingly, he does not predict a change in international norms:

“There is no ideology able to replace liberalism through establishing a set of new mainstream values to guide the international community over the coming decade. The competition between liberalism and anti-establishmentarianism disenables the United States from resuming its domination of liberalism and from providing a set of new values with global influence. The Chinese government also cannot advance a set of globally influential values abroad until it establishes a popular ideology shared by both the government and the governed at home.” (203)

What we get from both Exit From Hegemony and Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers are pretty thorough analyses of international system transformations and both point to a transformation in the near future away from American hegemony.

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