[Overseas view]Is there any escaping U.S. dominance?If not the United States as world hegemon, who? What is the alternative?
That question dumbfounded my students, a mixed class of Koreans and several other nationalities. It had never occurred to them that there could be an alternative. For them, the U.S. is a fact of life ― too often, an unpleasant fact of life. Like death and taxes, there is no escaping the U.S. ― is there? The students could no more imagine a world without U.S. dominance than a world lit by some other star than the sun. (What, the moon?)
The reading assignment for the class had been “The Case for Goliath,” by the American scholar Michael Mandelbaum. The book’s subtitle is “How America acts as the world’s government in the 21st century.”
No empire of the past, Mandelbaum notes, had the total global influence that the U.S. has today.
Even more striking, he writes, no serious opposition has emerged to American preeminence.
Whatever they may say in cocktail parties or letters to the editor about particular American policies (like global warming or the Iraq war), those outside the empire do not feel sufficiently threatened by American power to organize coalitions to overthrow it.
Mandelbaum says this is because the U.S. is not the lion of the global bestiary ― “terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals” ― but the elephant, “which supports a wide variety of other creatures (smaller mammals, birds and insects) by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself.”
What nourishment does the American elephant provide? First on Mandelbaum’s list is security reassurance.
The “world’s policeman” is widely resented, but through its military presence in Europe and Asia, the U.S. has reassured potentially nervous neighbors (such as Korea and Japan or, more recently, Poland and Germany) and coped with some of the most oppressive or aggressive regimes.
It also took the lead in creating the institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Money Fund and the World Trade Organization, that regulate the international economy. It maintains the world’s reserve currency, the dollar, and its nearly inexhaustible appetite for imported goods promotes global prosperity.
Mandelbaum likens these services to those that governments provide for their citizens. There is no world government, he notes, but there is still a world-level demand for government services.
The U.S. often does not do a good job as de facto world government, Mandelbaum allows, but no other state or organization is capable of filling the role.
Nor is the U.S. motivated by altruism, any more than the elephant is. It looks after its own interests, but its activities provide a net benefit to others.
My students were not so sure. “If the U.S. gets to be the world government,” said a Canadian, “I think I should have been allowed to vote on the matter.”
Canada is a fine country, with beautiful scenery, peaceful people and a pleasant lifestyle. But Canada is not going to hunt down Al Qaeda, stop nuclear proliferation, keep the Korean Peninsula stable or stop the genocide in Rwanda.
Hey, wait ― the U.S. failed to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Yes, but so did Canada. Only the U.S. gets blamed for it.
But while American global dominance confers benefits on the U.S., it also imposes costs on American taxpayers. Enormous military expenditures are the most obvious example.
It would be pleasant to think the world could do without resorting to military coercion.
The unpopularity of the American war in Iraq obscures the issue of whether coercive power must sometimes be available ― to stop piracy on the high seas, for example.
Pursuing Mandelbaum’s government analogy, can a country or a city function without a police force? Governments have the power to coerce their citizens because otherwise, no one would pay taxes, little old ladies would cower indoors and drunks would cruise the highways. What makes a government effective is its power to coerce; what makes a government legitimate is the consent of the governed, expressed in elections.
But let’s return to the original question: What is the alternative to the U.S. as world hegemon?
Mandelbaum thinks the question may present itself quite soon. Noting the costs associated with the aging of the American population he suggests that the greatest threat to American hegemony is not China, Russia, the European Union or a coalition of all three, but Medicare ― the ever-rising cost of providing healthcare to the ever-rising number of elderly Americans.
Unlike Canadians (or Koreans), Americans do get a vote on whether America will be a hegemon, and Mandelbaum suggests they are more likely to vote for reducing their overseas commitments than their domestic entitlements.
Then who will take over? The first choice among my students is the United Nations.
But there is a reason the UN has been more effective on public health and care of refugees than on stopping wars.
It is because its 192 member states do not want to yield authority to a global cop. Think about it. Korea is deeply split over a free trade agreement that its sovereign government negotiated freely with the United States.
Is Korea ready to turn its sovereignty over to the UN? Remember, Ban Ki-moon won’t be secretary general forever.
There was zero support in class for China becoming the world hegemon. Perhaps this was because this particular class has no Chinese students.
But more likely it is because the students notice ― perhaps gratefully ― that China, at least for now, is more interested in becoming rich than running the world.
Several students think the world can safely be entrusted to NGOs ― nongovernment organizations. They associate NGOs, albeit unelected, with virtuous causes like saving the whales or the environment. It comes as a shock to them when I point out that the Federation of Korean Industries, the National Rifle Association and Islamic Jihad are all NGOs whose members honestly believe in their various causes. So how do we decide which NGOs will rule? Like my Canadian student, I’d like to have a vote on that.
The world simply cannot get along without the services America provides. But does it follow that there must be a hegemon to provide these services?
Can the services be provided by, in a Bush administration phrase, a “coalition of the willing?” Just in Asia, there are many international agencies with partial mandates: Asean, Asean+1, Asean+3, APEC and so on, including the six-party talks in Beijing whose ostensible function is to deal with North Korea, but which may yet evolve into a regional security grouping.
This is the age of Internet decentralization; hierarchies are smashed. The amorphous Wikipedia, much derided by serious scholars, actually has an error rate no worse than the peerless, centrally directed Encyclopedia Britannica. Can it be possible that lots of ad hoc coalitions working on particular problems can cover the ground now patrolled by the American hegemon? Can they provide trade arbitration, currency stability, security assurance, tsunami relief and so on?
We’d better hope so, for Mandelbaum suggests that Americans may soon be unwilling to underwrite American dominance with their taxes.
Until then, Mandelbaum issues three predictions about the world’s attitude toward American hegemony: “They will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone.”
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a former professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper