Phil Arena also commented on John Quiggin's post that I remarked on yesterday. Quiggin showed up in comments here and there, and raised a few issues that I want to address in a second. I'm putting them into a new post rather than a comment for three reasons: first, I think the points I'm addressing will be interesting to some who might miss them if buried in comments; second, because I want to post some graphs; and third, because I don't have anything else to blog about today. In general I think this conversation has taken a productive turn, partially because we're starting to talk in terms of hypotheses rather than normative impressions. Phil, for example, built a toy model to tease out whether Quiggin or I was making any sense. Please check that out first.
In comments here Quiggin wrote:
I agree with your observations on the fact that the US was never omnipotent, but would say (in agreement with Phil) that the US was relatively more powerful at the beginning of the Cold War than it is now, which implies a gradual decline over time on this measure.
By contrast, at the end of the Cold War and continuing until the Iraq War went sour, there was a great deal of talk of the US as a hyperpower, empire, a Pax Americana and so on. I've been reacting against that ever since I started blogging...
If we are in agreement on the wrongness of these claims, we can narrow the discussion to a more precise focus on hegemony.
We are in partial agreement. I agree that the US was relatively more powerful at the beginning of the Cold War than it is now in many ways. Those were obviously extraordinary circumstances, in which nearly every other industrialized country had been decimated by war, and the US was the only nuclear power. So in terms of relative hard power gap there's no question that the gap is narrower now than then. In terms of global politics I'm not so sure. In 1946 there was no WTO to regulate trade in ways beneficial to the US. There was no IMF that extended American influence into the periphery. There was no UN disseminating norms of self-determination. Indeed, the empire structure that dominated global politics up until that point had not been entirely disassembled yet. Europe was imperiled by Soviet expansionism, the deterrence of which cost the US quite a lot of resources. The US did not yet have powerful regional allies like Japan and Saudi Arabia to further economic interests globally. The US did not have major military bases on every continent. Yes, the US had larger military advantages then than now, but it had far fewer institutional and structural advantages in place to secure major interests.
How about 1972? The US was in the middle of a much larger military quagmire then than now, the Soviet Union had solidified its control over Eastern Europe and parts of Central Asia throughout the 1960s, the nuclear advantage was long gone, and the US economy was in rough shape. Nixon imposed price controls and tariffs in the face of high inflation, and the Bretton Woods monetary system had just collapsed. The country was emerging from a decade of high internal turmoil (race riots, anti-war protest movements, domestic terrorists, and political assassinations), was in the beginnings of the Watergate scandal, and the legitimacy of the government and indeed superiority of the capitalist system was being questioned in many corners.
Fast forward to today. The US has no major rivals in security. Its major economic rivals are interdependent in (mostly) mutually beneficial ways. Market openness is not only a strong international norm, but is embedded in law and governance by the WTO on terms broadly favorable to the US. Democracy has continued to diffuse throughout the system, and the old imperial structure shows no signs of returning. The US still controls much of the international monetary system, or at least is not constrained by others in this regard. All of the world's major powers are US allies in some form or fashion, or at least are not antagonistic. The largest security threat to the US appears to be a few dozen outcasts hiding out in caves in Pakistan, trying to avoid the US's robot bombs. The largest state threat to American interests is probably Iran, which is in the middle of trying to suppress domestic civil unrest and is watching its only allies -- Syria and Lebanon -- perhaps descend into chaos. Its only other real security rival -- N. Korea -- is isolated to the point that it is derisively referred to as the "Hermit Kingdom".
In both political and economic terms, the world is much more to the US's liking now than in 1946 or 1972. Maybe that's not power as Quiggin means it, but it's got to count for something.
In terms of Quiggin's claim about a post-Cold War Pax Americana, well that strikes me as a hypothesis, so let's look at some data. First the number of battle deaths -- including civilian deaths such as those in Iraq, and intrastate conflicts -- over time:
Graph taken from here. According to two different data sets (for part of the series) it looks to me like a fairly strong drop-off from the height of the Cold War to post-Cold War. The difference is more stark comparing now to immediately following WWII. If these figures were adjusted as population shares there would be an even greater disparity, since overall world population has more than doubled over that time period.
Or we could look at trends in global conflicts since WWII:
Graph taken from here. "Societal warfare" is intrastate wars. Again, we see that in the post-Cold War era there has been a steep drop off in war overall, and there have been almost no interstate conflicts at all during that period.
Maybe that doesn't count as a "Pax Americana", but again, it's gotta count for something.
These leave out other major instances of international cooperation, such as the re-integration of Central and Eastern Europe into strong relationships with the West, the institutionalization of European cooperation more generally, the rise of ASEAN and other regional cooperative institutions, the expansion of the WTO, etc. All of which have happened since the end of the Cold War. It leaves out the large increases in global GDP/capita, trade, and technology.
That doesn't prove anything about the U.S.'s causal role in all of this, but if Kindleberger is right that the international system requires a hegemon in order to be stable, and the world has gotten more stable since the end of the Cold War, then what does that tell you? Maybe this has nothing at all to do with the fact that there has only been one superpower during this time, but then that would be some coincidence wouldn't it. In fact, if we look at the reverse we see much the same pattern: the biggest instabilities in the system over the past twenty years have hinged on US actions -- the military interventions in the Middle East and removal of support for authoritarian regimes, and the subprime crisis -- or inactions where the US has the least global reach -- sub-Saharan Africa, mostly. This is not to say that other actors or factors aren't important. Just that the US plays a much greater role in global developments than any other state, and it's not even particularly close.
(Another IPE scholar is working on a paper suggesting that US monetary policy led somewhat-directly to the revolutions in N. Africa. Basically, the argument is that QE1 and QE2 led to depreciations in US real interest rates, which drove up commodity prices, which are in turn highly correlated with civil unrest. The timing of QE2 in particular maps onto the N. Africa unrest pretty well. Not sure how it will hold up to strong scrutiny, but he has some suggestive early results.)
None of this is to suggest that America is omnipotent; far from it. It's just to say that it isn't as obvious as it might appear that America is, or has been, in steep decline.