Do we need a hegemon?
The world systems theory, espoused by Immanuel Wallerstein, identified a number of hegemonic world powers, which had emerged one after the other since the 16th century, to dominate the international system for about a century, then declined and was replaced by another hegemon through a hegemonic war, that is a “world war.” According to exponents of this approach, the international system came under the influence of Spain in the 16th century, Portugal in the 17th, Britain in the 18 and 19th centuries, and the U.S. since the end of World War II. Wallerstein has also been arguing since the 1980s that the U.S. hegemony is in decline.
Then came the hegemonic stability theory, arguing that the existence of a hegemonic power was crucial to sustain stability in the international system. Accordingly, a hegemonic state would use its economic, political, military, and technological capabilities to enforce the norms and rules of the international system through coercion or mostly persuasion. The crucial part of the argument is other states would somewhat voluntarily accept the hegemony of the hegemonic power over the system, since it is perceived as beneficial, or at least useful for the security and stability of the whole system.
The U.S. has maintained its supremacy at least in two fields since the end of the Cold War. It is still the leading country in terms of power capabilities. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. made 37 percent of the world military expenditures in 2013, while its nearest rival China only reached to 11 percent. The International Monetary Fund figures show the U.S. was still the largest economy in the world in 2013, though soon to be overtaken by China. Finally, the U.S.’s soft power in terms of cultural permeation and voluntary acceptation of influence is much more widely spread than any other country in the world.
In terms of commitment, the U.S. has, until recently, continued to play a leadership role globally and provided security guarantees to its allies. Recently, President Barack Obama reassured allies about his commitment to the Asia-Pacific region by signing several agreements to expand U.S. military, economic and political relations with Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. He also reminded of the importance of the idea of “collective security” following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Yet, these are not enough to quell the suspicions about the U.S.’s credibility in world politics.
Clearly, the U.S. since Obama came to power has chosen to focus on domestic issues and slowly withdraw from its attempted world leadership role during the Bush Administration. First, it withdrew its troops from Iraq; and Afghanistan is on the way. The U.S. presence in the Middle East has been downsized. Even though it is still engaged in trying to find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cyprus problem, and Iranian nuclear program, it is clear the U.S. is refraining from using its military capabilities in the region.
Its intention to transfer its responsibilities in Europe to the Europeans is also known, as its aim to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where China is rising as a challenger to the U.S. hegemony. Under the circumstances and faced with backing down from Obama’s red line in Syria and showing weakness on the face of Russian aggression in Crimea, the Obama administration’s hands-off policy has sparked debates regarding the decline of the U.S. hegemony and more crucially its commitment to world security and stability.
Though some cherish the decline of U.S. global power, others remind us of the hegemonic stability theory and the days of the interwar period in the 1920s and 30s when there was no clear hegemon and the world was rushing toward another global war. While it is difficult to predict the future, it is certainly worthwhile to debate it.