Thirdly, it is not just power itself that matters, but the right sorts of power are of fundamental importance. The past year has, for some, brought the importance of military power back into the picture: not just the size of the military and of spending, but also of RMA and technology. It has equally been argued by many that the US has the capacity to reengage the state in the reassertion of control over the globalising state-eroding processes e.g. over borders, financial flows and citizens.
The hegemonial stability theory says that in stable regimes, particularly in economic international relations, there is a dependence on the hegemon establishing rules and norms which superintends their functioning by use of its capability to use positive sanctions so other members benefit and stay in the system. This enlightened hegemony will eventually cause the downfall of the regime because revisionist interests will challenge the hegemon and destabilise the system.
An example of this is the fact that the US post 1945 hegemonial control was short-lived. US hegemony was seriously starting to wane in the 1970s when the fixed gold-dollar exchange rate system collapsed and OPEC successfully challenged that post-war international petroleum regime. Following this many argue, there was never the resurgence in US hegemony. The current arguments as to why this is the case now are discussed below.
Declinism’s hypothesis is that the relative position of the US is waning. The main text promoting the declinist theory is Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which speaks of the corroding effects of ‘imperial overstretch’ upon the Pax Americana (which was inevitable and deterministic). At the height of its pre-eminence, America undertook commitments and responsibilities which proved too onerous to sustain resulting in a gap between commitments and power. Sprouts (1968) talked of the ‘dilemma’ of balancing rising demands with available power being endemic in any political community.
Defendants of no or little hegemony argue that effective and sustainable hegemony requires the acceptance by others of the hegemon’s leadership and authority. Martin Wight says, “The principal problem of power is the legitimation of it and the capacity to turn power into authority”. Legitimacy matters especially with the use of force. It matters at present particularly because so much of fighting terrorism requires deep intervention and intrusion on the ground cooperation. This is why liberals such as Nye and Ikenberry argue that there is ultimately no alternative but multilateralism.
Secondly, if hegemony is not just about deploying power but also about actually achieving desired outcomes, then there are grounds for doubt that the US is a hegemon. Translating putative power into durable success is extremely difficult. This is illustrated by the near-total failure of US policy in relation to the war on drugs in Latin America – a region where its relative power is greater than anywhere else in the world. Of course there are also difficulties stemming from domestic circumstances of using state power to counter transnational terrorism. How in Latin America could the US control the war on drugs when firstly their internal governments could not and secondly when the US had little control of its own domestic demand of drugs?
It appears however, that the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communist regimes and the Persian Gulf War all drove declinism underground resulting in renewalism gaining centre stage. Renewalism argues that the ability to renew itself is the litmus test of a great and hegemonic power. Huntingdon (1988) saw the US as possessing three sources of self-renewal: competition, mobility and immigration. Further, the US is hegemonic due to its multi-dimensional power.
Renewalism is based on two axioms: the Declinists misunderstand the nature of power in International Relations and because of this, they misperceive the essence of US power in particular. These themes are developed by Nye (1990) in Bound to Lead. Arguing for an expansion of the concept of power to include ‘soft power’, Nye asserts that in cultural and ideological terms, the US has more power than any of its putative rivals. Echoing Huntingdon, he views power in structural as well as relational terms.
However, this seems to be undermined by the fact that power in International Relations has changed. Military power is not fungible and complex interdependence has enhanced other types of capability. Of course, it may be argued that the US is at least primus inter pores, but this does not mean it is the hegemon. E.g., the Persian Gulf War, far from confirming US leadership and hegemony, actually seems to proximate closer to the declinist paradigm because US ‘leadership’ was not the cement that held together its coalition partners. The collapse of the US’ role as ‘world policeman’ had actually already been institutionalised following US foreign policy in Vietnam.
It seems as if the degree to which hegemony exists varies in different areas under surveillance, although the forces of globalisation are increasingly undermining all hegemony. At least in the political economy, there is tripolarity. With this phenomenon of globalisation, it appears that there is currently hegemony via trilateralism (the EU, US and Japan). This is not a problem ideationally, for all three subscribe to the same ideas about the nature of economic and political systems. This however is a major departure from the past definition of a hegemon: that a hegemon is a single state actor. However, even if this is accepted, in the military-security issue area, tripolarity is less discernable, although on the other hand, the world is not acquiescing in a benign American hegemon.
Simply because the US is the only superpower, it does not mean that the hegemonic conclusion follows. Dominance of a powerful state is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of hegemony. There are many important security, economic and political goals that the US cannot achieve by itself. Since the end of the Cold War, apart from the world becoming more economically multipolar, there is the trend of increasing diffusion of power as nationalism grows, interdependencies increases and as transnational actors become more important. The world we live in today is not one of US global hegemony, but of multilevel interdependence.