Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Atypicality of U.S. Power and Influence, Again

. Saturday, July 9, 2011

Can you guess the source?

I shall argue that it is high time indeed that we pay much more attention to the sociology of international studies, and especially to the reasons why one particular myth -- that of America's lost hegemony -- took root so strongly in the United States academic community about fifteen years ago and why it has been so generally and unquestioningly accepted since-so much so that it has even gained credence in the world beyond North America. ...

In its extreme form, the myth that the United States today is just a little old country much like any other and has, in some sudden and miraculous way, lost its hegemonic power may seem more plausible than do some of these other myths. But when it is subjected to close and searching scrutiny, it is just as far from truth. And unless cool and rational analysis undermines its power to move minds and shape attitudes, it can be every bit as dangerous. In living memory, the optimism of the United States gave Americans and others a vision of a new, better and attainable future for the world; today, the myth of lost hegemony is apt to induce in everybody only pessimism, despair, and the conviction that, in these inauspicious circumstances, the only thing to do is to ignore everyone else and look after your own individual or national interest. Thus, some of the same American contributors to International Organization who are personally persuaded of the benefits of more international cooperation and conflict resolution, may paradoxically be contributing to a less cooperative environment by subscribing to and perpetuating the myth of lost American power.

That is Susan Strange, in her 1987 IO article "The Persistent Myth of Lost Hegemony" (ungated), which I just read for the first time. It's very good, and certainly still relevant twenty-five years on.

She argued (contra Krasner, Keohane, and others) that the U.S. in the mid-1980s was still a hegemonic state, because it controlled the four elements of structural power (which she distinguishes from relational power):

1. The ability to deny or increase other peoples' security from violence.

2. The ability to control the system of production of goods and services.

3. The ability to determine the structure of finance and credit, and therefore acquire purchasing power without producing or trading for it.

4. The ability to influence knowledge creation, whether technical or ideological, and the ability to acquire, communicate, and store that knowledge and information.

Strange argued that by those four metrics, the US was clearly a hegemonic power in the mid-1980s. Here's what she wrote about the US's persistent current account deficit:

Indeed, to run a persistent deficit for a quarter of a century with impunity indicates not American weakness, but rather American power in the system. To decide one August morning that dollars can no longer be converted into gold was a progression from exorbitant privilege to super-exorbitant privilege; the U.S. government was exercising the unconstrained right to print money that others could not (save at unacceptable cost) refuse to accept in payment.

How much of this remains true? Arguably the US is at a greater security advantage now than in 1987, and still controls quite a lot of the globe's system of production. The ability to determine the structure of finance and credit is certainly still in the US's hands, and the US is still a global leader in knowledge creation and dissemination. While some countries have narrowed the gap in one or two of these categories, none can challenge across all of them.

Has the subprime crisis changed any of this? It's certainly illustrated aspects of it. It remains to be seen whether the crisis was a transformative event.

But, as Strange noted, previous "transformative events" (such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and 1970s economic malaise) ended up not being nearly so transformative as many thought they would be. According to Strange, that's because the structural conditions didn't change.

Strange also argues, prefiguring folks like Zakaria, that international disorder stems from US political instability rather than a decline in capability, which itself is a result of constitutional design (separation of powers, checks and balances), the role of interest groups in coalition-building, and a tendency to suddenly reverse course mid-stream. As Strange put it: "It is not easy for [American academics and policymakers] to admit that the conduct of American policy towards the rest of the world has been inconsistent, fickle, and unpredictable, and that United States administrations have often acted in flat contradiction to their own rhetoric."

It's a very good article.


LFC said...

Don't worry, I haven't started a commenting campaign here, but I can't let this pass.

Strange's 2nd element -- control over the global system of production. You say the US arguably still has that. I don't think it did even in '87 and definitely not now. To be meaningful in context of a discussion of US decline, this has to refer, I think, to the US state or gov't wielding influence over the system of production, not to corps. which happen to be based in some way in the US. And if the US govt really did wield significant influence on the global system of production, the US would not have suffered the massive deindustrialization it experienced in the past 35-40 years as corps. sent mfg. ops. to lower-cost areas.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Haha, I'm fine with commenting campaign.

Strange is referring to corporations. She specifically mentions pharma and tech firms at the forefront of innovation, but also manufacturing etc. I understand your point that that is not perfectly correlated with *state* power, but otoh economic strength provides states with the material basis to project power.

I'm sure you know this, but manufacturing output has not declined in the US in raw terms. Even the US's share of global manufacturing has been remarkably stable (~ 21-22% now, down a touch from ~ 25% at the beginning of the 2000s). We don't employ as many people in manufacturing as we used to, because we can produce much more with less labor input, but that isn't necessarily a sign of weakness.

Meanwhile, the fact that the global production system reacts to both US industry and the US consumer market gets at some of the structural power that Strange was talking about. US industry is dependent on the US market. Chinese industry is dependent on... the US market, not the Chinese market.

Strange isn't saying this is absolute dominance. She's just saying that if you were to try to identify the country that most controlled the system of production in the global economy, that country (in 1987) would be the US. And I think that's still basically the case, despite the global division of labor that has happened in the past 30-40 years.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Also, manufacturing obviously isn't the whole story. There are huge global industries in which China (e.g.) doesn't even participate and the US unquestionably leads. Like pharma, some kinds of tech, and high-end services (finance, entertainment, etc.). These are generally high value-added, internationalized products, and the US still does very well in those.

More importantly, no other country does very well at more than one or two of these things; the US competes at or near the top in all of them.

LFC said...

I take your point on pharma, some tech and services.

But on US mfg not having declined in raw terms: are you saying e.g. that roughly as much steel is produced today in Youngstown, Pittsburgh, etc. as was produced in, say, 1968, just with many fewer workers and fewer plants? That would surprise me.

Kindred Winecoff said...

The Atypicality of U.S. Power and Influence, Again




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