The Duck of Minerva

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The British Analogy – Again

September 5, 2005

John Ikenberry has a new post responding to Timothy Garton Ash’s comparison between Britain c. 1905 and contemporary America. John goes much further than I have in my own posts on the subject, but his conclusion is similar:

The problem with this analogy is that Britain really was overstretched and on the way down, whereas the United States is not. The United States is vastly more powerful than fin de siecle Britain – and its opportunities to shape the global system are much greater than Britain’s ever were. Bush and the Iraq war have made America weaker and smaller but this is not “imperial overstretch” – this is just awful leadership.

The best piece comparing US hegemony to past cases remains Bill Wohlforth’s “The Stability of a Unipolar World”, which was published a few years back in International Security. Wohlforth compares the relative position of the US to past hegemons, including Britain, and concludes that the “power gap” enjoyed by the US is way beyond those of such historical cases.

There are some real questions here beyond simple comparisons of economic and military capacity. We’ve seen enormous qualitative changes in the nature of international relations over the past fifty years, such as the advent of nuclear weapons, a massive expansion in the amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade interdependence between many of the world’s states, concurrent growth in the number of international institutions, changes in communications and the availability of information at a global level, and a growing power shift away from Europe and towards Asia.

Do these changes obviate the old, primarily realist, accounts of hegemonic cycles and the balance of power, or do they shift the way these processes work in important ways? There are a number of potential answers.

Many argue that increasing interdependence and information flows make it easier for states to create stable, cooperative arrangements. Others argue that they create strong incentives for many states to “buy into” the current international order, including allowing the US to bear the costs of security provision in the international system. Still others think that the net effect of these changes will be to shift power away from the United States over the next few decades.

Some maintain that we’re seeing the emergence of new forms of domination – including a form of hegemony that isn’t so much based on US dominance but rooted in the institutionalization of neoliberal trading arrangements and the like. Other scholars point to the rise of non-state actors – whether terrorists or human-rights movements – as where much of the “action” in international politics is shifting towards. The list goes on.

A lot of these issues were batted around at prominent panels at APSA, and they’ve been appearing in journals and past conferences for some time. My sense is that right now we still don’t have a very good handle on how permanent and significant these changes are. Regardless, they certainly complicate cross-historical comparisons of the type proposed by Ash and rejected, in this instance, by Ikenberry.

Near the start of his post, Ikenberry writes, “My reaction to [Ash’s op-ed] is to recall Walt Rostow’s old line: ‘Beware of historians bearing false analogies.'” The danger may be that we have very few good analogies, and that we’re far more in the dark than we’d like to be. As someone who does work on historical empires and historical international change, this issue is always somewhere in the forefront of my mind.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.