Goodbye Hegemony, Hello Multiplex World?



In the midst of an election year, most aspiring decision-makers and policy makers in the United States merely differ in the specifics of how to prolong, defend or re-energize US hegemony in global affairs. While politics leaves little space for abstract debates about whether hegemony is necessary to sustain global order, the general expectation is that whoever wins the US presidential election will pursue a more assertive (and possibly more violent) foreign policy, after what most candidates regard as an overly aloof, cerebral and timid approach to US foreign policy under Barack Obama. As improbable as it may seem to outside observers, many powerful individuals in Washington believe the intervention in Iraq in 2003 did less damage to US foreign policy than the decision not to intervene in Syria a decade later.

From this view, an active and assertive US foreign policy is the only way to avoid a chaotic post-Western order. At the Chatham House’s 2015 London Conference, marked by worries about the UK's diminishing role in global affairs, the basic assumption made explicit in the first session and the keynote conversation was that the end of unipolarity would inevitably lead to a "leaderless" and dangerous world. "Can we expect . . . the rise of anarchy?" a discussion point for the opening debate asked.

Two notable books published over the past two years take a notably different stance at the future of US leadership in the world. Both question the often-used argument about the need for a hegemon to sustain international order. In Goodbye Hegemony!, Reich and Lebow argue that a hegemon is unnecessary for international stability. They go so far as to say that, in an increasingly multi-powered world, the idea of a hegemon is "inappropriate." In the same way, in The End of American World Order, Acharya writes that global order will be more decentered than before, providing regional powers with greater scope for local and regional approaches. The authors of both books reject predictions that multipolarity will be messy and unstable. Quite to the contrary, they say, a multiple-power system could lead to greater international cooperation. Given the many diverse perspectives that need to be taken into account when making decisions of global importance—for instance, regarding climate change—a bipolar or multipolar order may be far more adequate than a Western-centric order. Acharya argues that "no major Western analyst . . . accepts that the US decline might be good for international order either in general or in specific areas such as development, governance, and international justice.”

Yet what will replace unipolarity? Acharya calls for a fresh look at regionalism in the post-unipolar order, pointing out that most powers will be unable to project meaningful influence beyond their respective regions and that regional organizations such as ECOWAS and ASEAN have become more sophisticated, multipurpose organizations. NEPAD, the AU, ECOWAS, and UNASUR have begun to establish peer-review mechanisms that may have led to the punishment, suspension, and even intervention in member states that did not respect democracy or human rights. Even ASEAN, against all odds, has set up an intergovernmental human rights mechanism. The author argues that regionalism has remained "open" and supportive of multilateral regimes, so worries about competitive "bloc" formation are usually exaggerated. Rather, Acharya writes, the proliferation and broadening functions of regional institutions may "introduce a healthy diversity and leadership into the emerging world order instead of the singular dominance of American power or the EU's legalistic and centralized model of cooperation."

According to Reich and Lebow, the United States' foreign policy should no longer seek to pursue its position as the global hegemon, a position it lost long ago. Excessive military spending merely encourages interventions: For those who have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Using the example of the war against Iraq in 2003, the authors argue that reducing its military power could actually increase US global influence. In an interesting thought experiment, the authors ask the reader to imagine what the United States would look like today had it reduced military spending dramatically after the end of the Cold War and invested billions of dollars in education, research and infrastructure instead. They suggest that the United States would be far more influential than it is today. Similarly, they point out that the US provides $3 billion in military aid to Israel and $1.5 billion to Egypt per year and question what exactly the United States gets in return.

Anybody who agrees with these arguments (and I tend to include myself here) needs to grapple with a series of events over the past years that are frequently used by those who believe hegemony is needed to sustain international order -- namely, the crisis in Crimea, a growing resistance to China's regional leadership ambitions, Brazil's incapacity to solve the crisis in Venezuela, and the ISIS-driven turmoil in Syria and Iraq. All four situations, it is often argued, prove that the absence of a hegemon leads to instability. Russia and China felt emboldened by perceived US dithering and weakness, and the United States' hopes that regional mechanisms would sustain democratic order in South America on its own were dashed when a weakened and inward-looking Brazil allowed Venezuela's crisis to fester for years, producing a humanitarian crisis.


The Crimean Crisis is perhaps the most obvious example that the United States has lost the capacity to co-opt the rest of the world to support its own strategic vision and approach. Rather than falling in line with Washington, the BRICS countries' foreign ministers issued a statement in The Hague opposing restrictions on the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Australia, expressing "concern" over Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop’s comment that Putin could be barred from attending the G-20 Summit in November. “The custodianship of the G-20 belongs to all member-states equally and no one member-state can unilaterally determine its nature and character,” the BRICS said in a statement. Their criticism of Australia's threat to exclude Russia from the G20 was highly significant, as it was a sign that the West would not fully succeed in bringing the entire international community into line in its attempt to isolate Russia. BRICS countries, critics point out, could support Russia because they no longer feared the punishment of the former hegemon -- indeed, as a Brazilian policy maker remarked privately at the time, it may have even enhanced Brazil's visibility in policy debates in Washington at the time.

China's regional ambitions

Many in Washington argue that Beijing's overtures in the South China Sea are only possible because policy makers in China no longer fear a swift response by the United States. Over the coming months and years, China will consistently increase its presence and begin to bully its neighbors, a strategy that has led to considerable resistance and instability in the neighborhood. Most US-foreign policy analysts would respond to the arguments used in both books that Tokyo, Taipei, Manila and Hanoi strongly prefer US support than to live under a Chinese security umbrella.

Venezuela's struggle

For many outside observers, the ongoing instability in Venezuela -- which has already produced a stream of economic migrants and which has considerable potential to lead to internal armed confrontation -- is the product of the failure of regional organizations to provide tangible solutions. Many argue that, while the Organization of American States (OAS) successfully dealt with the aftermath of the coup against Chavez in 2002, UNASUR and Mercosur have not been able to promote a dialogue between the government and the opposition. The takeaway for many observers: Regions often struggle to take care of themselves.

The rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq

With direct reference to the growing turmoil in the Middle East, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) asked its leading international affairs experts: "Every day seems to bring more bad news as global instability rages on. But is the level of turmoil really unique? Or does it just feel like it?" In his response, Carnegie's Thomas Carothers argued that the multitude of ongoing conflicts, including those in Syria and Iraq, seem to:
Underline the continued diffusion of power away from the United States to other actors, whether to different regional powers or to non-state actors. They remind us that such diffusion will multiply the sources of violent conflict in the world.

Finally, mainstream thinkers in the United States ask what China has done over the past years to provide global public goods, arguing that a US military retreat from Asia would cause several of China's neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons. Who will secure global sea lanes? In the same way, they will point out that, without US military power, the world would have been unable to stop genocide in Kosovo.

How to respond to these important points? Most importantly, it is far from clear whether any of the ongoing conflicts would be less acute if we still lived under uncontested US-led unipolarity. Amitav Acharya, for example, accuses liberals for often falsely assuming a simple equation between US-American preponderance and peace. After all, the international community witnessed considerable violence and conflict in the 1990s (Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Caucasus and the DRC, etc.) despite global US leadership. Unipolarity certainly makes systemic wars less likely than multipolarity, but the question of polarity seems to have little influence on second order conflicts such as the ones we are witnessing today. In this context, it is important to point out that several leading scholars -- such as Nuno Monteiro -- actually believe that unipolarity has not ended at all. This lack of consensus about whether unipolarity is still a reality weakens the argument that today's multitude of conflicts can be explained by the absence of a global hegemon.

Indeed, when speaking about the provision of global public goods in the security realm, contributions by non-Western powers are often overlooked. For example, China has become the largest single military contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations of the P5 in the last decade. China is setting up a permanent peacekeeping force of 8,000 soldiers, pledged to donate $100 million over the next five years to the African Union for the creation of an emergency response force, and will contribute $1 billion over the next ten years for the establishment of a China-UN “peace and development fund.”

In 2015, about one-fifth of all UN peacekeepers came from China. India provides even more troops. In the field of antipiracy in the Indian Ocean, China is making a significant contribution with its naval forces. Unlike the United States, China has not accumulated any debt with the UN over the past years. More recently, the Chinese government has sent a battalion to South Sudan, and there is a presence of Chinese military advisers in Iraq to help stabilize the country. While there is no consensus about exact figures, China has provided significant amounts of development and humanitarian aid for decades, and it has recently launched a series of initiatives to strengthen infrastructure links in its region, such as the “One Belt One Road” strategy, which will be described in detail in chapter 5. In the same way, India is a so-called “emerging donor” with a growing number of aid projects both in its neighborhood and in Africa. Finally, for the first time, China nominated its peaking year—2030—for carbon emissions. This does not mean that China’s (or India’s) global engagement is flawless or even positive from an overall perspective, yet it serves as a reminder that the world’s second-largest economy, along with other emerging powers, can no longer easily be categorized as a “free-rider,” “shirker,” or “rising spoiler,” as so many Western analysts suggest to sustain the specter of post-Western chaos.

Read also:

Book review: “The Great Convergence” by Kishore Mahbubani (International Affairs)

Book review: “The End of Power” by Moisés Naím

Book review: Power, Order and Change in World Politics (edited by J. Ikenberry)