The day I started binging, the tiny former Yugoslav republic of North Macedonia became the 30th member of NATO, and it made me wonder if American citizens would really think that an attack there was — in the old principle of the alliance — an attack on them as well. Probably not
And so there’s an appropriate cover on the new study Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order by the political scientists Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon. We see Donald Trump turning his back under a buffeted American flag.
Cooley and Nexon spend a fair bit of time discussing past hegemonic orders, including important but now wonderfully obscure particulars like the Second Schmalkaldic War of 1552–1555, and defining various related theories and idioms, starting with “hegemony,” which is meant as a technical term without sinister connotation. There are also helpful reminders that the phrase “international order” itself is problematic, as the order it describes is not static but constantly shifting, and that both internationalism and nationalism, the latter expressed as national self-determination, have historically both been seen as liberal concepts.
The authors come to the unsurprising conclusion that Trump has callously undermined an already-weakened liberal international order. At the core of their analysis is the notion of the United States’s hegemonic order being built on an architecture of rules, values, and norms; and an infrastructure of relationships and practices — and being challenged from above (by large rivals) and below (by smaller actors).
The academic-crossover approach has some baked-in tradeoffs, and at times I was thinking longingly about veteran Harvard scholar Graham Allison’s more approachable Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Allison’s 2017 book, which looked at the Sino-American relationship in the context of 16 similar cases of “rising powers” confronting “ruling powers” — 12 of which ended in war — was largely shorn of international relations lingo, and otherwise tailored for general audiences.
Perhaps this is why, according to Cooley and Nexon, that analysis ended up becoming a “a minor obsession in foreign-policy circles.” Still, it is refreshing in 2020 to see any discussion involving Donald Trump largely designed in a way to exchange heat for light.
Unfortunately, the trappings of scientific exactness tend to highlight the inevitable stumbles, including a few stray factual errors. The book claims that in 2004 “NATO and the EU both admitted ten new members each, mostly post-Communist states” when in reality NATO grew by seven members that year, and also says that Trump bashed American allies for relying on US military protection while running up trade deficits, when in reality he complains most about surpluses. The authors also indulge in acrimonious digressions on relatively immaterial topics, such as Republican efforts at electoral gerrymandering. Their choice of language also seems designed to turn off anyone who doesn’t bleed blue. Putting phrases like “traditional values” and “religious freedom” into scare quotes but not the center-left equivalents is a statement, witting or not, and reinforces the image of a foreign policy elite increasingly trapped in political monoculture.
More substantively, I question what seems to be a disproportionate focus on Russia and populist nationalism in the West, as opposed to China and other, potentially more powerful “counter-order” forces, though given the lead author’s background, this is understandable (Cooley is a well-known scholar on ex-Soviet Central Asia, and has provided me with insights on the region for an unrelated project). Likewise, I think the authors significantly overstate the importance of some of the “infrastructure” of the liberal international order, such as the World Bank and other international financial institutions, which I spent several years covering closely as a journalist.
Most jarringly, the authors take as a given that the United States would be more likely to maintain its global position if it adopted a more European-style social market economy, which would seem to be falsified by Europe’s ongoing geopolitical marginalization, as well as the vast “soft power” the United States derives from Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and America’s other furnaces of murderously effective late capitalism. The notion of a “progressive hegemony” is also challenged by the fact that China’s meteoric rise has involved, or resulted from, the breaking of every rule of contemporary Western progressivism.
The authors cheerfully decline to use their laboriously constructed rubrics and models to make any specific predictions about the ultimate disposition of the American-led hegemonic order. “What happens once we pass through the exit?” they write. “We tend to be wary of predictions. They usually make the prognosticators look foolish.”
As the son of a laboratory scientist who spent a long career sweating reproducible experiments into minute predictions, I am tempted to respond to this by forever putting “political science” into scare quotes. But in making this admission, Cooley and Nexon are helpfully reminding the reader that, no matter how ordered or dispassionate our examination of politics, futures are often subject to the most uncontrollable of variables: a lone gunman; a few tens of thousand of votes spread across a handful of states; a sudden commodity price war; a slight mutation in a microscopic virus particle halfway around the world.
Moreover, it’s often hard to tell what the political futures are likely to look like even after they have begun to play out. Many highly credentialed folks assumed that Trump’s flailing performance in facing novel coronavirus would lead to a further diminution of Washington’s influence, yet one of the most visible real-world consequences has been an unprecedented rush around the world to the US dollar, and pledges to explore “reshoring” of production from China. And historians still argue over whether the most famous of hegemonic exits concluded in Rome in 476, or a millennium later in Constantinople. At the same time, we shouldn’t need any charts or graphs to remind us that there is one iron law of politics: all empires and great powers eventually retreat or collapse, and usually in ways that are unkind to their inheritors.
Yet clearly we do need to be constantly reminded of this immutable rule of history, and given the tools to better understand and prepare for the reckoning it makes inevitable. America may survive Thucydides’s Trap — we may become the rare ruling power that learns to peacefully coexist with a rising power — but there is no escape from a larger Hegemony Trap. And judging from history, we will be lucky to extricate ourselves from it with our current governing order and borders intact.
Exit from Hegemony should therefore be seen as a companion to what by all rights should be a constant stream of general interest and academic books and long-form essays addressing the various questions associated with the twilight of America’s “unipolar” moment. Is it possible that, just as the New Deal saved capitalism from socialism, a spell of “America First” might save liberal internationalism from its own excesses? Does the durability of the US dollar as the world’s preeminent reserve currency suggest a larger resilience in American global power? Without the kind of financial backstop the United States provided after the unwinding of the British, French, and even Soviet empires, how would a collapse of the global economic order look?
Political science or economics may have limited or no predictive value, and an inherent bias toward the status quo. But especially given today’s environment, there is an urgent need for analytical guardrails that can help restrain priors and passions when trying to better understand, and plan for, the new world of America’s post-hegemonic future. To paraphrase Trotsky’s maxim about war, we may not be interested in hegemony, but hegemony is interested in us. Especially when it’s ours, and it looks like it’s about to end.
Erik D’Amato is a New York–based corporate intelligence operative and journalist, and the author of The Little Book of Left-Right Equivalence: 350 Mutual Blind Spots, Dueling Hypocrisies, Double Flip-Flops and Other Uncanny Parallels Between the Two Tribes of Today’s America. He is on Twitter @erikdamato.