Book review: “World Out of Balance” by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth

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Book review: World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, Princeton University Press, 2008. 248 pages, $18.70 (paperback, www.amazon.com)

In 2008, at the onset of the global financial crisis, Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth published World Out of Balance, which would become an influential contribution in the debate about the future of unipolarity. As the chorus of those predicting the swift end of US hegemony grew, analysts convinced of unipolarity's longevity and the need to defend it continuously pointed to the arguments by Brooks and Wohlforth. The authors boldly predicted that as the concentration of power increased beyond a certain threshold, systemic constraints on the leading state’s security policy became largely inoperative. Neither balance of power nor balance of threat theory applied in the new unipolar scenario. Seven years later, have their claims stood the test of time? 

According to Brooks and Wohlforth, all laws of balancing behavior (i.e., attempts to constrain the US hegemon) by other states had become irrelevant given the most extreme level of power concentration in the last three centuries. Under today's type of absolute  unipolarity, thus, both hard and soft balancing were too costly to arise as a systemic constraint on the United States security policy. The apparent lack of serious balancing behavior by rising powers was therefore not a temporary lull, but permanent and unlikely to change for years to come, given the degree of US dominance.

In a critique of neoliberalism and constructivism, the authors affirm that neither complex interdependence nor concerns about reputation and legitimacy generate tangible constraints on US security policy. After all, they say, even reputational disasters such as the Iraq War did not really affect the United States in any tangible way, e.g. altering other countries' economic policies vis-à-vis Washington.

Since the United States focuses far fewer systemic constraints that IR scholarship generally assumed, we should think more about how the United States could use its power in an assertive manner to reshape elements of the international system in its long-term interests, the authors suggest.

Even at the time of writing, many squarely disagreed with the claim that the United States faced no systemic constraints. Still, World Out of Balance provided an interesting attempt to explain the relatively low incidence of open balancing behavior.

Yet to many, the financial crisis symbolized the beginning of the end of unipolarity, and many instances since then raise question about the authors' assertions. Four in particular come to mind. First, Russia's annexation of Crimea, second, the BRICS countries' joint opposition to Western sanctions against Russia in 2014, thirdly the rise of a series of parallel multilateral structures without US involvement (ranging from the AIIB, NDB and CICA to the SCO and the BRICS' CRA) and, in 2015, Chinese island building in the South China Sea, openly defying the United States' closest allies. 

The first case can very much be regarded as balancing behavior: Russia intervened militarily in a neighboring country to rein in US influence in what Moscow perceived to be its sphere of influence.

The second case, symbolized by the BRICS' joint declaration in The Hague ("BRICS undermine Western attempt to isolate Russia"), can also be described as balancing behavior, and the BRICS countries specifically sought to reduce the United States' capacity to isolate and punish perceived wrongdoers. In Brazil's case, this involved violating one of the country's most cherished diplomatic principles (the respect for sovereignty) partly for a higher strategic goal, namely, to constrain the hegemon. Beijing's behavior could very much be explained by balance-of-threat theory: China's support for Russia partly emerged as a hedge, assuring Russian support if the US ever sought to isolate China.

The third case -- the creation of a large number of new multilateral initiatives -- is more ambiguous, and it cannot really be categorized as balancing behavior. Eluding the two facile and overly simplistic extremes of either opposing or embracing US-led order, the creation of several China-centric institutions will allow China to embrace its own type of competitive multilateralism, picking and choosing among flexible frameworks, in accordance with its national interests.

 
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The fourth case -- China's island-building in the South China Sea -- can probably be described as anti-hegemonic balancing behavior, directly influencing US security policy by undermining US authority in the region. 

Brooks' and Wohlforth's discussion is very useful, and pointed to the need to discuss the politics of unipolarity in detail -- a task taken further by Nuno Monteiro's The Politics of Unipolarity. Yet, in light of the multitude of direct challenges Washington faces (and the list above does not even include Russia's intervention in Syria), very few scholars today would argue that the United States faces no systemic constraints on its security policy, particularly considering China's growing role in the South China Sea. Brooks and Wohlforth's arguments about the lack of systemic constraints on the United States there seems premature. Systemic constraints are likely to be far more significant than the authors suggested.

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Photo credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko (AP)