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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchHow Hegemony Ends: The Unraveling of American Power

How Hegemony Ends: The Unraveling of American Power

Authors: Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon 

Affiliation: Barnard College-Columbia University, and Georgetown University

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: July-August, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 16


Keywords: The US Power, The Rising Powers, The Exit From Hegemony, The Patronage Monopoly, and Global Civil Society


This study is based on the last book published by the two scholars in May 2020 entitled: “Exit From Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order.” A controversial book, in which the authors argue that the US hegemony and the liberal world is witnessing at this moment a permanent decline, that the US can no longer correct its course, contrary to all previous moments of crises that the US has experienced. Therefore, the world is heading towards the emergence of a less cooperative and more fragile international order. This unraveling is not related to the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis nor to the serious isolationist policies of Trump that undermine the global American leadership (such as his withdrawal from many international commitments and organizations, his devaluation of alliances, liberal values, and human rights, his support for the disintegration of the EU, his bias for despots,etc.). Rather, this permanent decline is linked to a shift in the factors that enabled the US to achieve hegemony in the past. These same factors today turn against the US and press it towards the unraveling of its hegemony and its global liberal order. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, the US did not face any global ideological project that could compete (the unipolar moment), and thus the US was the only alternative to developing and post-communist countries that provided economic, military and political support in this new environment. This international environment also enabled liberal activists and transnational movements (or the so-called global civil society) to operate comfortably across the world, penetrate countries through economic and cultural projects, engineer their new constitutions, and spread liberal values, strengthening the global liberal order. As for today, we are in the process of a total shift in this situation as the international scene has not remained empty for the US and its Western allies, with the rise of great competing powers, China and Russia in particular. Thus, many medium and small states have alternatives to resort to and patrons who provide them with all forms of generous support, without preconditions. Also, transnational movements and liberal activists have become limited in their influence of developing and post-communist countries, with the rise of nationalist and populist movements (some of which came to power), which care more about their local values and national sovereignty at the expense of the foreign alien liberal values. This is what makes the authors argue for the permanent decline of American hegemony and the disintegration of the global liberal order which has been supported during the past seventy years, considering the liberal unipolar period as a mere illusion. The authors go back to the beginning of the twenty-first century when Chinese and Russian leaders began to call for a multi-polarity and the establishment of a new international order, expressing this in their speeches and announcing joint projects. At the time, many Western analysts considered these calls merely as wishes, arguing that China is a primary beneficiary of the current order, and the Russians will never be able to mobilize prominent followers and allies merely to condemn some American behaviors. They also questioned Beijing and Moscow’s ability to overcome decades of mistrust and competition in order to unite efforts against the US. Today, China and Russia are presenting competing perceptions of the world order through economic and strategic projects that attract many leaders of countries, thereby breaking the Western monopoly of global leadership and patronage. Moreover, both Beijing and Moscow are working to jointly challenge the US in international institutions created by the West, for example, both voted in the UN General Assembly in the same way at a rate of 86% between 2006-2018, and often this coordination was against the will of American hegemony. At the same time, both are working to build an alternative order by creating new regional and international institutions and forums in which they enjoy greater influence, excluding the Western countries, and not imposing on the participating countries the necessity to abide by conditions related to human rights and liberal freedoms as the West does, which enables them to win many followers and allies. For example, China is patronizing the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), while Russia is patronizing the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), both of them have led the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since 2001, which is booming year after year. The result is the emergence of structures parallel to liberal global governance dominated by authoritarian states. Even if these institutions lack the necessary effectiveness or ability to solve the collective problems of their members, they generate more intense diplomatic relations, enhance trust and shared values among their members, and facilitate the building of military and political alliances. Moreover, China and Russia have begun playing in the US’ traditional spheres of influence. For example, China is enhancing cooperative relations with Central and Eastern European countries through the 17 + 1 group, and today it is even penetrating the US backyard itself through the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum in Latin America, challenging the cohesion of the traditional Western bloc, without forgetting the Chinese Century Project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which Russia cooperates with despite the fact that the initiative may penetrate its backyard (Central Asia). Russia is working to accommodate the BRI within the “Greater Eurasia” initiative and make it compatible with its investments there; the two powers are thereby leading efforts that will ultimately close the region before the Western influence. This enormous rise has enabled China and Russia to present themselves as new patrons and alternatives available to other countries to enhance economic and development cooperation as well as strategic solutions, without imposing “disturbing conditions” on the local specificities of these countries as the West does. For example, China provided more than $75 billion in loans to a group of Latin American and Central Asian countries after the 2008 financial crisis, and the total amount of Chinese foreign aid between 2000-2014 amounted to $354 billion (compared to $395 billion provided by the US). Today, China goes far beyond the US on this issue. According to the authors, the end of the Global Western monopoly of patronage coincides with the rise of populism, illiberal movements, and nationalist leaders even in countries that were firmly entrenched in Western orbit (such as Hungary-Orban, Turkey-Erdogan, and Philippines-Duterte) who made themselves the protectors of local sovereignty against liberal sabotage. They have tended to emphasize the growing importance of their economic and security ties with China and Russia. Furthermore, China and Russia, along with these countries, have become highly skilled in using local and transnational civil society movements and organizations to undermine and expel the influence of their liberal counterparts whose activities and influence are declining unprecedently in both liberal and illiberal states and societies alike (the authors provide many examples in this respect). Based on all of these facts, the exit from hegemony, patronage, and the US-Western institutions’, options have expanded for countries and governments have now a greater ability to maneuver and resort to alternative political models. Furthermore, the Coronavirus pandemic has accelerated this path further, where China and Russia have both the latitude to contest US hegemony, drive it to unravel, and lead a determined effort to construct alternative international orders. The authors conclude by providing a set of recommendations that may help the US to minimize the severity of this decline and its effects on its global status, then plan for the post-hegemony world.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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