The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Obama and the end of Hegemonic Declinism


July 31, 2008

Its hard to miss the prevailing idea that American hegemony is in a precipitous decline. Earlier this year, Parag Khanna was “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” in a New York Times Magazine cover story. In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria recently argued that America needs fundamental reform if it is to avoid a precipitous fall from grace. There have been countless discussions of the “rise of China,” and a resurgent Europe and the loss of America’s edge—even NBA stars are crossing the pond for more lucrative deals in Euros!

In the current World Affairs, Robert Lieber attacks the current phase of “American Declinism,” tracing it to a general malaise about American politics. Declinism, he writes, has “a political subtext” and theories of America’s decline “function as ideology by other means,” with “much of today’s resurgent declinism… propelled not only by arguments over real-world events, but also by a fierce reaction against the Bush presidency.” There is no doubt about the underlying political subtext, with a vast majority of Americans dissatisfied with the direction of the country. In recent polls, over 80% of respondents say that the country is on the “wrong track,” a level of dissatisfaction not seen since the early 1990’s. Not coincidentally, Lieber identifies that as the previous period of rampant declinism.

Lieber boils down the declinist project to its essence:

With impressive detail and more than a hint of condescension, the new declinists mine this data to make the case for an America in jeopardy—watching helplessly as its global power crumbles away. The solution: a more “realistic” America that lowers its sights and shifts course at home and abroad in line with the new realities.

Zakaria is a case in point. He calls for the US to adapt its policies to accommodate the “rise of the rest” but laments that “The U.S. political system has lost the ability to accept some pain now for great gain later on.”

Lieber takes umbrage at such empty calls for reform, asserting that “In the end, then, this country’s structural advantages matter much more than economic cycles, trade imbalances, or surging and receding tides of anti-Americanism. These advantages include America’s size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political and economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, dynamism, and capacity for reinvention. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weaknesses seem likely to negate these advantages in ways the declinists anticipate…”

Perhaps. But, in concluding as such, I think Lieber undercuts the power of his own argument and the potential for producing a more profound understanding of the “fierce urgency of now.” Lieber is merely asking for the declinists to shed the scales from their eyes and appreciate the underlying realities of international politics, as any card-carrying realist would. However, this sort of analysis divorces the structural advantages any one nation enjoys from the actions that nation has taken to create that position. In other words, it eschews any notion of agency for the hegemon, and puts US power at the mercy of a longer term hegemonic cycle of military strength and economic power. What if the “dynamism and capacity for reinvention” of the United States were put front and center? This is a political act, part and parcel of the very politics that Lieber blames for the rampant declinism he decries in the first place.

This requires a different way to understand US hegemony, one that acknowledges the unique structural position of the US in world affairs, but one that is not anchored in material power, be it military (realism) or economic (neo-liberalism). Rather, consider hegemony a dominant ideational framework for organizing politics, with an agent of hegemony setting the social purpose for an international order. In this case, the US leads an international order based on liberalism. The legitimacy of the United States is vital to the reproduction of this order, for as the US compromises its social purpose, it undermines the rules and norms that constitute the hegemonic order. In this analysis, then, Lieber’s analysis of declinism as a product of the “wrong track” politics in the US is much more damaging. And, historically, the moments he cites as moments of declinism are moments when the US seemed to lose its way not only at home, but also abroad, opening a political space to question the legitimacy of the hegemonic order.

The renewal of America’s sense of social purpose—morning again in America, if you will—also serves to renew the hegemonic order. The dynamism of American politics allows a political movement to rise that has the capacity to reinvent and re-inscribe the social purpose of the American Hegemonic Order.

This moment of declinism, then, is not independent of the ongoing Presidential campaign. The current campaign narrative, with both candidates running away from the Bush Administration as either a Maverick or agent of Change, suggests a renewal of American social purpose.

Obama, however, seems uniquely poised to both capitalize on this moment politically, as well as renew American hegemony. His message of Hope and Change has stirred a deep sense of political awakening, especially among younger voters who were previously alienated from politics over the past 8 years. His world tour, culminating in a speech with a crowd exceeding 200,000 in Berlin, revealed the potential to reassert America’s social purpose as leader of the international order. Indeed, as a number of commentators pointed out, as President, the things that Obama will have to say to the Germans won’t differ all that much from what the Bush Administration is saying. But how he says it, how he presents it, will change. Rather than present an American mission, Obama looks to present a global mission of multilateralism in service of shared values. While the resulting actions may look similar (ie, more troops in Afghanistan), the social purpose those actions serve will be significantly different. The significant difference will be the upholding of the international order instead of the decaying of that order creating the political space for resistance and challenge.

Thus, Obama’s message of hope and change, of a renewal of American politics, offers more than just a pathway from the current “wrong track” malaise gripping the country. At its height, it offers a renewal of America’s sense of social purpose, both at home and globally, and it is that renewal of social purpose that can arrest the very real sense of decline in the present hegemonic order.

Update: Maybe I should have simply titled the post Obama: “The One”

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.