Down to the final days of Donald Trump’s time in office, any attempt to measure the much-commented-upon decline of American power in the world had to contend with the unceasing abasement of the presidency itself. Under Trump, once-unimaginable shocks, outrages, and demolitions of norms and decorum were routinely eclipsed by even greater ones just a day or two later, and sometimes sooner. They became such a commonplace feature of life that many Americans experienced them as almost self-erasing. It wasn’t so much that they were forgiven or even easily forgotten, but rather that public outrage just could not keep up.
It seems likely that the outside world was less caught up in the endless reality TV aspect of the Trump presidency and its attendant emotional exhaustion. In a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, an American commentator living in France wrote that his friends there had adopted an attitude toward the United States that could be summed up as “perplexed and even pitying.”1 After their initial dismay over things like the unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in Trump’s term, people in many long-friendly countries settled in for an unfamiliar spectacle: the flagrant peacetime self-destruction of a superpower.
The list of actions that harmed America’s moral standing and weakened its global influence is long. It includes abandoning the nuclear agreement with Iran, the cartoonish presidential summitry with North Korea, Trump’s groveling public acceptance of Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian interference in American elections, and his reportedly telling Xi Jinping that he approved of China’s detaining its Muslim Uighur minority in concentration camps and that he would not object to Beijing’s measures to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. There was Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the World Health Organization in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. There was his repeated browbeating of leading members of NATO, and especially Germany, where he began unilaterally drawing down American troops. There was the fact that instead of condemning Saudi Arabia for the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and critic, Trump merely criticized Riyadh’s botched efforts to conceal its involvement in the murder, which occurred in a Saudi consulate, as “one of the worst cover-ups in history.”
There was the consistent racism in the president’s rhetoric, such as his praise of white-power militants in Charlottesville and his vilification of protesters demanding racial equality. There was the administration’s war against immigration, which began during Trump’s first campaign when he denounced Mexicans as criminals and rapists. And looming over the spectacle of US decline was the administration’s abject failure to manage America’s Covid-19 crisis, which it denied and downplayed throughout much of last year. The pandemic eventually cost the country more than half a million lives (and counting) and contributed to Trump’s defeat by Joe Biden. Then came the mob attack on the Capitol in the waning days of his presidency, which Trump all but cheered on as he fought to retain power unconstitutionally.
Taken together, developments like these did far more than confirm a temporary diminishment of America’s stature and authority under a uniquely delinquent leader. They seemed to portend an era of sharply heightened uncertainty, one haunted by fears of the possibly chaotic unraveling of a political, security, and economic architecture that has structured life for people in the West, and multitudes in the world beyond, for the past seventy or so years. As Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, put it in 2018, “The rules-based international order is being challenged, quite surprisingly, not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor, the US.” President Biden has strained to present a façade of American normality, predictability, and calm to the world, but given Trump’s enormous sway over the Republican Party, the country’s friends and foes alike have to already be asking themselves whether it is Biden, not Trump or Trumpism, who will prove to be the blip on history’s screen.
Three new books have undertaken serious examinations of this situation, each using somewhat different methods and coming to substantially different conclusions. Each of them attempts to assess the United States’ prospects as a world power in the near- to medium-term future. But beyond this large and vitally important question, each of them also examines how the present international system was substantially created and sustained by the US after World War II and the likelihood that it, or something at least comparably benign for American interests, will survive the next decade or two.
Two of the books stake out nearly opposite views on the immediate future. The most traditionalist of the three, An Open World by Rebecca Lissner of the US Naval War College and Mira Rapp-Hooper, now at the State Department, proffers policy advice for “the day after Trump” and is the most (cautiously) optimistic about America’s prospects. It claims, in effect, that if the US can only better harness emerging technologies, repair and reinvigorate its most important alliances, and “subdue its domestic demons,” it will retain enough of its fading preeminence to manage the continuing rise of China—which is the biggest challenge identified by all of these authors.
Exit from Hegemony by Alexander Cooley of Barnard and Daniel Nexon of Georgetown forswears predictions but nonetheless ends up finding that there is little chance of a strong comeback for the US as a world power. Few readers will be surprised by Cooley and Nexon’s argument that the era of unrivaled American dominance—or global unipolarity, as some then fancied it—in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union was an anomaly. But they go much further: they see little prospect of the US ever again being much more than a marginal first among global equals—a skeptical view of American prospects that has only just begun to edge into broad public discussion.
A World Safe for Democracy by G. John Ikenberry of Princeton says a great deal about American power, past, present, and future, but at its heart lies a far broader concern: the preservation of what its author calls the liberal world order, whose roots, he argues, go back to Britain’s rise to preeminence in the early nineteenth century, or even all the way back to the Enlightenment. Ikenberry is confident in the persistence of what are sometimes called Western values, even if he is not specifically hopeful about the future of American power. Some version of a liberal international order will survive and perhaps thrive, he believes—in what verges on a leap of faith—because any alternative would be too terrible for the world’s large community of democracies to tolerate.
Before describing these books in greater detail, it seems important to say how each of them has been overtaken to some extent by recent events. On the positive side, a wave of progressive social activism in the US last year revealed an almost forgotten capacity for self-renewal and illuminated other paths for American global influence that have little to do with the classic measures of power considered by these authors, whether economic or military, or even with the plans and policy initiatives of the government. In particular, the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and prompted the most stirring reexamination of race, justice, and national history in the US in at least a generation have had the remarkable secondary effect of inspiring social and racial justice movements in an extraordinary number of countries on several continents.
Another, less heralded effect is that it is now impossible to read a great deal of writing on international relations published in the US, including new books like these, without noting the prevalence of a bland indifference toward—if not total neglect of—questions of race, social justice, and hierarchy. This absence comes across most powerfully in Lissner and Rapp-Hooper’s brief discussion of what kinds of social and political renewal might be required in the US. The domestic demons whose taming they call for are limited mostly to what they see as a deepening partisan political divide between left and right, Democrats and Republicans. They seem nostalgic for an era when public attitudes toward world affairs were shaped by a small intellectual elite that held forth in Washington, in mostly East Coast think tanks, and on the opinion pages of two or three leading newspapers:
The rise of new media [has] created a new class of media elites whose knowledge and insight do not correlate with the virality of their opinion content. These new cognoscenti have at least partially displaced expert analysts and traditional media sources as the source of “elite cues” Americans use to interpret current events.
As someone who made a career at The New York Times in this fondly remembered bygone time, I know that it was one of appalling narrowness in diversity, as conventionally defined, as well as in the range of permissible opinions.
In early June, after Floyd’s death ignited the national introspection over race, Rapp-Hooper tweeted:
The call for racial justice and equality before the law that is reverberating through our streets and around the world is the most important message I have seen and heard in my lifetime. Whether or not we rise to it will help to determine the future of our role in the world. Compared to this moment, everything else feels small. It should.
A statement like this from a mainstream foreign policy expert is remarkable enough in itself, but it is all the more striking because there is no hint of such concerns in either of Rapp-Hooper’s two recent books on America’s place in the world.2
To differing degrees, the other books under review share this shortcoming, as well as another that falls more obviously under the rubric of international affairs: a neglect of Africa. Exit from Hegemony speaks briefly and interestingly about the Chinese presence on the continent and about how Beijing has recently built its first foreign military base in the tiny country of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, against the strong objections of the US, which, like France, has long maintained a base there. The authors’ explanation of how China achieved this, by offering more economic aid and business opportunities, comes as part of a discussion of the declining ability of the US, and of the West generally, to compete with China in the provision of what are called public goods, and therefore its diminished ability to secure the cooperation and obeisance of a large cohort of countries in what is sometimes called the developing world.
Otherwise, Africa is largely absent from these books and many others like them that claim to discuss the future of the world. This is both deeply characteristic of much mainstream writing on international relations and a reflection of a real lack of diversity in the field. It is also a major problem. With its huge, centuries-long supply of both natural resources and labor to a number of Atlantic powers, Africa necessarily constitutes a very large piece of any accounting of how the world arrived at its present state, which is at issue in all three of these books.
Even more urgent and evident, though, is the potential impact that Africa will have on the global future. According to the United Nations Population Division, the continent’s population is growing more quickly than it ever has. Today there are approximately 1.4 billion Africans. By 2050 that number will nearly double to 2.5 billion. And by century’s end, according to the UN’s median projection, there will be 4.4 billion Africans—well more than the combined populations of China and India today.
To a degree few foreign policy thinkers seem focused on, this will have an impact on the environment and climate change, migration, conflict, global demand for goods and services, and the contest between democracy and authoritarianism. This all arguably makes Africa’s political and economic course the central human story of the century, and one that the US has a profound and all but unrecognized interest in.
In considering the future of American influence over global affairs, Lissner and Rapp-Hooper sometimes strike definitive-sounding notes that echo somewhat Cooley and Nexon’s skepticism about the country’s staying power. “Washington has lost global military primacy and will face revisionist, great-power competitors with dramatically different domestic models,” Lissner and Rapp-Hooper write early on. In the main, though, their argument is conventional. In the emerging new world order, China will enjoy a steadily larger economy and greatly increased military capacity. Through mostly nonmilitary means, such as the extensive intrusion into American Internet networks late last year, a revanchist Russia will seek to undermine American influence and weaken the European Union.
In the face of such realities, they argue, the United States’ best foreign policy option is to enhance cooperation with both traditional allies and other friendly countries, most notably India, and to work for the maintenance or renovation of what they call an open international system. By this they mean an order in which no power enjoys a zone of exclusive influence over trade and information flows—both classic liberal concerns, and both areas in which they clearly have China in mind.
Late in their book, however, they come close to contradicting this, as when, after having already conceded that American primacy is a thing of the past, they speak of America leading the world into the future: “But to pursue a strategy of openness, the United States must retain its position as the world’s mightiest nation, even if its margin of power diminishes in relative terms.” They then suggest this can be achieved by improving education, rallying the American corporate sector to the country’s security needs, and greatly boosting national investment in research in order to “harness innovation for national advantage.” Indeed, it is domestic needs like these that they describe as “the greatest challenges to the United States.” In American national politics and in high security circles, as Stephen Wertheim has argued in Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy (2020), it evidently remains difficult to publicly relinquish certain shibboleths, especially the idea of America as forever the strongest nation.
Well beyond ideological debates, though, the limits of this obsession with preeminence can be gleaned in the South China Sea. This is a vast maritime region where, since late in the Obama administration, Beijing has moved aggressively to claim sovereignty over islets disputed with several neighbors, in contravention of international tribunal rulings, and to build artificial islands for use as military installations. China has lately stepped up its warnings to American naval vessels to steer clear of them. Although the Pentagon recently sent two aircraft carriers into the area to demonstrate American “resolve,” many analysts think the days when the US could prevail outright in a conflict with China in the far western Pacific are waning, in the face of that country’s rapid naval expansion and missile development.3
Many of Cooley and Nexon’s assessments are refreshingly blunt, and none more so than their view of America’s diminished position in East Asia:
Washington needs to recognize that its two decades as a global hegemon are likely over. Certainly, no amount of military spending will bring those back—because, in no small part, the most important sources of hegemonic unraveling are non-military in character, driven by alternative-order building and contention over liberal norms and governance.
There are significant problems in other parts of the world that further help to strongly distinguish Cooley and Nexon’s views from Lissner and Rapp-Hooper’s, despite what might sometimes seem like a superficial convergence. When the Trump administration abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, Japan, which had been heavily involved in promoting the commercial zone, struggled mightily, and ultimately successfully, to keep the idea of a broad regional pact alive, even without Washington’s participation. The successor entity was named the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which the US abstained. Lissner and Rapp-Hooper applaud Japan’s efforts “to reinforce the regional economic order as Beijing continues to ascend and Washington stumbles.” They also take comfort in Germany’s use of its power as a stabilizing force in Europe to “preserve the status quo both regionally and globally,” even in the face of many recent slights from Washington.
Cooley and Nexon look at these two countries and see very different processes unfolding, neither very beneficial to America’s position in the world, though Germany and Japan may still hope for a return to a semblance of the pre-Trump normal in relations with the US:
Traditional American allies have moved forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Japan and the EU have created a major free-trade agreement. Note that such alternative-order building reinforces liberal aspects of international order, but at the potential cost of the strength of the American system.
It has recently become a commonplace among foreign affairs writers to assert that the unraveling of the American-led international order did not begin under Trump but was merely accelerated by his policies. Nexon and Cooley, however, take this argument further than most. They agree in situating the origins of American decline more than a decade before Trump, while also describing him as unique in the country’s history for his apparent commitment to unraveling the US-led world order and even placing the country on the path to what they call “geopolitical suicide.”
But they also warn that the decay of this order will continue well beyond Trump, virtually regardless of the policies of Biden. This does not amount to a prediction that China, much less Russia, will be able to build an order that can even come close to replacing it, only that the world is entering a state of increased messiness and unpredictability, or what political scientists call entropy. This, they say, could lead to a division into two spheres dominated by the US and China, which then settle into a new cold war. Alternatively, the present drift might lead toward a multipolar world that not only is not liberal but also has far less order. Or finally, they conjecture, we could be entering an era of globalized oligarchy and kleptocracy, in which Washington loses either the power or the will to limit corruption and money laundering on a vast scale, and small groups of collusive elites increasingly pull the strings worldwide.
Nexon and Cooley depict the Europeans as having been profoundly shocked and dismayed by the abrupt way the US threw itself into war in Iraq on contrived premises, without clear and realistic goals, and with contempt for the counsel of its allies:
Iraq and the Bush doctrine produced a severe crisis in transatlantic relations; the war killed an estimated 400,000 people. For some of those critics, it suggests that there really is no daylight between liberal internationalists and neoconservatives,
with people in both of these camps overly enamored of the use of force and of attempts to change other societies.
In addition to the enormous loss of life resulting from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US in those conflicts squandered an estimated $4 trillion, or much of its post–cold war dividend—funds that might have helped address badly neglected domestic problems, reinvigorate the economy, and perhaps even extend the country’s preponderant power. Such waste was promptly followed in 2008 by a worldwide financial crisis with roots in the US. This crisis, Nexon and Cooley say—and Lissner and Rapp-Hooper seem to agree—not only further sapped American credibility in the eyes of the Europeans but helped convince other countries, including potential challengers, China foremost among them, that the US was badly mismanaged politically and its vaunted economic model no longer a pillar of strength but rather a paper tiger.
Nexon and Cooley note that the US has traversed several periods in the postwar era when its decline or demise as a world power seemed imminent. These include 1973, when the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, costly failure in the Vietnam War, and the oil shock brought about by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries prompted many scholars to predict the collapse of American hegemony. Another wave of pessimism followed in the late 1980s, amid “newfound concerns about the unsustainability of American overseas military commitments and mounting fiscal deficits.”
This period saw the publication of Paul Kennedy’s widely discussed book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), which argued that throughout history, countries that appear to be at the peak of their power are almost always already far along in their decline, which they accelerate by overinvesting in military force and neglecting economic and political renewal. The US in this period was experiencing unprecedented self-doubt about its ability to compete with Japan, an ally whose economic model, based on industrial policy and cross-shareholding among large conglomerates, was often seen as superior to the American model, which focused on supposed free-market competition and corporate behavior driven by short-term stock market returns.
This time is different for two main reasons, Nexon and Cooley claim. American hegemony now faces two powerful and determined rivals, China and Russia, which are cumulatively richer and much more formidable than the politically inept Soviet Union and the mostly insular China were decades ago. Those two countries, moreover, were usually at each other’s throats after the early 1960s, whereas nowadays, even though their tactics differ, Chinese and Russian interests frequently converge. Other things have changed as well. Perhaps most important, as in the example of Djibouti and many others, scores of countries around the world now have options they never had before to selectively ignore American preferences or even to opt out of the US-led order altogether. China has been the leader by far in rolling out new institutions and initiatives that offer alternatives to an American-led global economic order, for example through its rapid development of economic ties with Africa over the past twenty years and its vast, if still loosely defined, Belt and Road Initiative, a grand scheme to link Eurasia and much of the world beyond to China through infrastructure projects and Chinese-led finance.4
But China is not alone in this pursuit. Countries as diverse as Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco have recently become influential creditors and investors in developing countries in ways that dilute the power of the West and of the institutions it has created and led, such as the World Bank. Cooley and Nexon are firm in stating that because of processes like these, as well as the country’s own failed management, American hegemony is not coming back, and Washington will “need to accommodate other powers to a much greater extent than it is used to.”
In A World Safe for Democracy Ikenberry takes a substantially longer view of history than the other authors, attributing the liberal world order to “the rise of Western nation-states, liberal democracy, and Anglo-American hegemony.” “Liberal” and “democracy” are terms that tend to conjure positive, even noble associations for Western readers, and Ikenberry is no different. In fact, it is Lissner and Rapp-Hooper who give the most efficiently concise version of what Ikenberry’s book seeks to convey about the recent era of this liberal international order, calling it “a shorthand for a fairly benign form of US hegemony.”
First and foremost the product of Britain, the liberal international order arose initially as a response to the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, and then greatly expanded as the great wars of the twentieth century and the ensuing power transitions created opportunities, or “ordering moments,” for Britain and then the US to drive the restructuring of international relations. These efforts led to the creation of the League of Nations, the defeat of fascism in Europe, and the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, which included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They also laid the groundwork for the International Trade Organization and subsequent World Trade Organization, and finally set the stage for the creation of the European Community.
Ikenberry quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr. saying that as a result of actions like these, “democracy has survived the twentieth century by the skin of its teeth.” He goes on to write that democratic states, both Western and non-Western, thereby “found themselves at the center of the global system. This liberal ascendancy is one of the most consequential transformations of our time.” Part of the beauty of liberal internationalism, Ikenberry contends, is that it is not about imposing its values and systems on others so much as it is about democracies together securing enough space to trade freely and preserve freedom in their own open societies.
A variety of problems arise from Ikenberry’s argument, some of which he acknowledges but never reckons with adequately, and others that seem to escape his consideration altogether. In the first category lies the possibility that the Western prosperity and freedom many enjoy was made possible and indeed has been sustained by a starkly hierarchical ordering of the world that has been a feature of the liberal international scheme from the outset.
Ikenberry dips his toe into this topic when he writes about how the benefits of this new order were initially reserved, by design, for peoples whom the British (and subsequently the Americans) deigned to recognize as “civilized”:
Late nineteenth-century British thinkers…debated various schemes for recasting the British Empire into a federal system that connected colonial and white settler communities in new forms of hierarchical union,
he acknowledges at one point. The League of Nations would be used for tutelage, to “legitimate their imperial relations with colonies making their transitions to independence,” he writes on the following page. Later, he allows that “Wilson-era liberal internationalism was conservative in the sense that it did not frontally challenge European empire [or] racial or cultural hierarchies.” In fact, it embraced them. As Ikenberry relates later in the book, for example, Woodrow Wilson struck down a proposed Japanese resolution on racial equality at Versailles for fear of offending Britain as it pursued its preferential “white policy” on immigration to Australia.
A more thorough and up-to-date discussion of hierarchical relations promoted or sustained by the present international liberal order would necessarily bring us back to Africa and other regions of the Global South and consider how anti-immigration policies in the US, Western Europe, and Japan inhibit human development and favor the rationing of global opportunity on a vast scale. It is much the same with restrictive trade policies by which the rich countries of the world force poor ones to open their economies as widely as possible, while keeping their own closed or heavily protected from the primary products of the so-called developing nations.
But it is with Ikenberry’s characterization of the liberal ascendancy as “one of the most consequential transformations of our time” that perhaps the most urgent questions arise. This assessment derives from his sense of the core ideals of liberal democracy, which he lists as civil rights; equality before the law; freedom of religion, speech, and press; representative government; constitutional limits on state power; the separation of powers; and an independent judiciary.
These are all values that I cherish, and yet as someone who has lived in China and continues to write about that country, I am acutely aware of how the Chinese Communist Party, and indeed a great many Chinese people, feel that their nation’s rise is the most important transformation of the age, and that it has occurred despite the fact that China did not adopt those values, and for some even because it did not. It is possible that this explains the Chinese state’s recent crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms. A rich, capable, and confident China, Beijing seems to be saying, can easily dispense with a transitional arrangement for Hong Kong that made concessions to Western notions about the value of independent civil society and the rule of law.
Some of the most engaging passages in Ikenberry’s book relate how the West responded to the rise of an illiberal, militaristic Germany a century ago; the parallels to the challenges of dealing with a rising, illiberal China today are obvious. Wilson, he writes, made the mistake of seeing Germany as “a dangerous manifestation of [the] premodern.” In fact, as Ikenberry says later, fascism and totalitarianism in the last century arose as “grand ideological alternatives to Western liberalism,” and the problem with them “was not that they were insufficiently modern but that they were all too modern.” As a state that wields surveillance, data, censorship, and artificial intelligence on a scale and with a sophistication never seen before—what Lissner and Rapp-Hooper call its “techno-authoritarianism”—China presents this challenge today.
A question at the heart of all of these books, and answered differently by each, is, as Ikenberry puts it, whether the US, instead of turning inward, can once again summon the wherewithal to help “solve common problems that face all states.” The answer is uncertain. What is clear, though, is that an international transition of some ill-defined sort is well underway. As Nexon and Cooley ask, will the US, at the very least one of “a small handful of first-tier great powers,” continue to cling to “a mystical American exceptionalism” or instead devise a “pragmatic, responsible, and publicly articulated strategy” for dealing with the profound changes that are already afoot?
—April 1, 2021
Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Beyond Black History Month,” The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2021. ↩
The other is Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances (Harvard University Press, 2020). ↩
See my Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (Knopf, 2017). ↩
On China’s dramatic push into Africa, see my China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (Knopf, 2014). ↩