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Zombie hegemony: Will America’s post-World War II liberal international order remain intact?

Christopher Layne | 2014-05-21
Chinese Social Sciences Today
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Bomb and military attacks continued in Libya since NATO officially took over the US command of military operation in Libya since March 31, 2011. 
 
In today’s world, the prevailing international order—institutions, rules, and norms—continues to be the Pax Americana that emerged in World War II’s wake. What are the Pax Americana’s future prospects? How will the rise of China (and the rest) and America’s decline affect the international order in coming years? The surprising answer according to top U.S. foreign policy scholars is “not much.” Fareed Zakaria, G. John Ikenberry, and Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth have articulated what can best be thought of as a theory of painless American decline, or, in other words, zombie U.S. hegemony. 
 
US’s lock-in strategy, a doubtful claim
Zakaria, Ikenberry, and Brooks and Wohlforth all argue that for the moment, the U.S. remains dominant in international politics. But, of course, the important issue is not the distribution of power in the interna-tional system today but what it will be in 2025, 2030, or 2035. Here how¬ever, Zakaria, Ikenberry, and Brooks & Wohlforth all believe that the Pax Americana’s key features—its institu¬tions, rules, and norms—can survive intact even as the material foundations of American hegemony wither. How can the U.S. pull off this neat trick? By leveraging the primacy, it enjoys today to hedge against tomorrow’s decline by “locking-in” the Pax Americana. The underlying assump¬tion of this lock-in strategy is that “by involving new powers in the current structure and making them responsible stakeholders, the U.S. can bind those new powers to the current architecture, thus securing its own influence.” 
 
What Zakaria, Ikenberry, and Brooks & Wohlforth are claiming is that the United States can be a zombie hegemony: even if the material foundations of U.S. hegemony atrophy during the next decade or two. In other words, institutions and ideas will trump hard power. This is a very doubtful proposition. Indeed, it is a form of magical thinking. By unpacking the lock-in strategy, we can see how deeply flawed and internally contradictory it is. 
 
So what happens over the next decade or two as today’s American military and economic advantages wither? 
 
For their part, Brooks Wohlforth try to extricate themselves from this logical cul-de-sac (dead end) by claiming that U.S. hegemony “will long endure.” But really, it won’t. And they know it. Brooks and Wohlforth admit that it will only last for another twenty years (they were writing this in 2008). 
 
Emerging powers share different sets of values
This is where the lock-in strategy comes into play. Brooks & Wohlforth claim that the U.S. still has a preponderance of power in international politics that it should use to revise the international order and “to reshape legitimacy standards, and economic globalization.” As they see it, the United States should take advantage of what they call the “twenty years’ opportunity” it now has. Zakaria suggests that the U.S. can remain at the apex of international politics for a long time to come by strengthening and reforming international institutions. The common thread in these arguments is that, by reforming or revising the inter-national system, the U.S. can ensure the liberal international order like a zombie.
 
The argument that the U.S. should reform or revise the international order has two objectives. One is to maintain as much residual U.S. influence over international outcomes as possible. The other is to make it attractive for other states—especially rising powers like China—to embed themselves willingly in the liberal international order. This can be done by altering the international order’s institutions, rules, and norms enough to co-opt the rising powers and integrate them into the system. While foreign policy analysts like Brooks, Ikenberry, Wohlforth, and Zakaria talk the talk about reform of the international order, it is far from evident that they—or more importantly, U.S. policymakers—are ready to walk the walk with respect to reform because that would mean accepting a smaller American role. 
 
There is little reason to believe that the United States actually would champion the kind of reforms that would be needed to embed rising powers like China into the current international order. The U.S. has long been accustomed to being top dog in the international order. While there certainly have been occasional major frictions with Western Europe and Japan since World War II, they have never seriously challenged America’s leadership role in the international system. Moreover, Western Europe and Japan—or so it is assertedshare common values with the U.S. They also are on a level plane with the United States in economic, political and social development. These states have every reason to buttress American leadership and validate its legitimacy. It is very different with the rising powers, however. States like China and India simply lack the kind of connections to the U.S. that Europe and Japan have forged. China’s political and economic systems differ greatly from the United States.’ And, as might be expected from states that have been on the receiving end of American hegemony, and European and Japanese imperialism, China, India, and the emerging powers in the developing world ascribe to a different set of norms and values. 
 
Great powers never decline painlessly
American scholars and policy makers believe lock-in can work because they have imbued the concept of rules-based, institutionalized, liberal international with a talismanic quality. As they see it, rules and institutions are politically neutral and, beneficial for all. What lock-in’s proponents are claiming is that rules and norms can be an effective substitute for declining hard power. There is historical evidence that suggests this is wishful thinking of the worst sort. Despite having the dramatic weakening of its economic basethe cumulative effect of the exertions of the two World Wars—after 1945, British leaders believed that the United Kingdom could remain one of three major world powers. Even the loss of India, the 1956 Suez debacle, a chronically feeble economy, and the onset of decolonization (“the winds of change,” as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put it), did not undermine this conviction. As the historian John Darwin puts it, officials in London believed that by transforming the Common wealth, Britain could transition “from an empire of rule to an empire of influence.” The reasons British policy makers bought into this vision sound an awful lot like the reasons why the present day American proponents of lock-in think it will work to preserve the United States’ global leadership even as its hard power declines. 
 
As E. H. Carr observed, a rules based international order “cannot be understood independently of the political foundation on which it rests and the political interests which it serves.” The post-World War II international order is an “American order” that privileges the United States’ interests. Even the discourse of “liberal order” cannot conceal this fact. What the proponents of lock-in really mean when they say that China should be a “responsible stakeholder” is that an increasingly powerful China will continue to happily accept the role of playing second fiddle to the United States. Here is where the lock-in argument goes off the rails. Its proponents have constructed a geopolitically antiseptic world—an international political system uncontaminated by clashing national interests. In this world, great power competition and conflict are transcended by international institutions, rules and norms. This is not how the real world works, how-ever. Great power politics is about “power”. Rules and institutions do not exist in vacuum. Rather, they reflect the distribution of power in the international system. In international politics, who rules makes the rules. The American proponents of the lock-in strategy believe that the United States’ can experience a painless decline. This belief, however, is folly and self-delusion. In the real world, great powers never de-cline painlessly. Whether the United States can adjust strategically over the next several decades to its diminishing relative power—and whether it can accommodate the corresponding rise of China (and the rest)—is the geopolitical issue of our time.
 
Christopher Layne is a Distinguished Professor from the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
 
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 570, March 12, 2014