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The Crisis of Confidence in US Hegemony

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The Debate

The Crisis of Confidence in US Hegemony

New constraints on US power create their own risks for the international community.

The Crisis of Confidence in US Hegemony
Credit: Secretary of Defense via Flickr

The 21st century is still young, but it has already presented the United States with a series of internal and external challenges. In the very first year, the U.S. faced a major security threat from non-state actors manifest in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which completely changed Americans’ traditional view of their homeland as a safe haven.

Following the attacks, the Bush administration launched its global war on terrorism. Rather than achieve its stated objective, however, the war placed the U.S. under fiscal pressure and damaged its international standing. Meanwhile, America now faces a new challenge: the rise of non-Western countries, a development likely to have a much more far-reaching impact on U.S. hegemony.

When U.S. President Barack Obama took office, he found that global power had subtly but irreversibly shifted in a way that reflected the new features of the international system. Thus, in the U.S. National Security Strategy (2010), the administration acknowledged that the international system needed to adjust to accommodate the interests of new centers of power.

Even as the United States was trapped in two wars, the U.S. domestic economy was  facing its own crisis: the meltdown that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Out of the recession that followed, new political and social movements emerged. The rise of Tea Party in 2010 produced a rupture in domestic politics. Late in September 2011, Occupy Wall Street targeted injustices in American society. Political squabbles on domestic issues such as health care, immigration reform, and the debt ceiling have had repercussions for U.S. diplomacy. For instance, Obama was absent from the APEC summit last year largely because of the government shut-down.

In the name of fiscal austerity, the U.S. Department of Defense was required to cut military spending by $487 billion over the next decade. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was prompted to complain: “these cuts are too fast, too much, too abrupt, and too irresponsible,” asserting that they would seriously restrict America’s readiness and ability to respond to challenges.

Indeed, the limits of U.S. military strength are already evident. One example could be found in the so-called “leading from behind” strategy in the Libyan war, which reflected constraints on U.S. forces. Washington’s Ukraine policy today is another example. Obama has made it clear that “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” At a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on March 27, he stressed that the U.S. would not make promises to Ukraine it could not keep.

In both cases, the embarrassment for the United States lay not only its “defensive” geostrategic posture, but also in the questions raised by its allies over its ability to fulfill the commitments. This distrust has implications for Washington’s ability to retain global leadership, given that the international order created and dominated by the United States depends heavily on the broad U.S. alliance and partner network. The elements that support this network are the comprehensive power of the U.S. and the confidence that it will provide protection at a critical moment.

How does the U.S. ask its allies and partners to retain confidence in those security commitments when it is in decline? There are two ways: one is to constantly stress that the U.S. has the ability and willingness to fulfill its obligations. This is what Washington is currently doing. For example, on March 20, 2014, Obama stressed that “America’s support for our NATO allies is unwavering” when delivering a speech on the Ukraine crisis. On March 26, he reiterated this point during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Before visiting Japan, Chuck Hagel told a press briefing that “another reason I’m here is to reassure our allies of our commitments to their security.”

Obama is currently visiting four Asia countries, including its major allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. One of the main aims of the trip is to tell the allies and partners that the U.S. is and will be a Pacific power whatever the international situation. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on April 18: “The President’s trip to Asia is an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia Pacific region…The President will reaffirm as well our steadfast commitment to our allies and partners, which allow us to deter threats and respond to disasters.”

The other approach is to demonstrate the effectiveness of U.S. security commitments through action. For example, the United States may take practical steps to support the interests demands of its allies or partners in international disputes, such as providing weapons to some countries, deploying advanced weapons systems to relevant areas, and conducting military exercises with its allies.

However, this latter approach is not without risk. First, the United States could find itself drawn into international disputes and forced to make clear its position on the issues. In the past, the United States has adopted a strategic ambiguity towards international disputes that did not involve its core interests. Second, the United States could face real strategic risks, such as conflict with another major power.

History tells us that when one hegemon is in decline, international relations become more complex and uncertainties increase the risks. We may be in such a period today. But if the declining hegemon is careful in its strategic choices, and if other powers take into account its real interests and need for prestige, history need not necessarily repeat.

Chen Jimin, Ph.D is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C. The views presented here are the author’s own.