By Mahmood Monshipouri

The post-hegemonic era: Greater uncertainty or sustainable security?

August 28, 2017 - 11:7

Two contrasting scenarios paint radically different visions in a world after hegemony.  Richard N. Haass (“World Order 2.0”) notes that at the global level, the international community is no longer heavily influenced by a sole superpower and/or hegemonic power.  

 There is overall less consensus among the major world powers concerning governance and the new order. The fall of trade agreements, or as some would like to say the demise of the Transpacific Partnership (TTP), points to several convergent trends with potentially uncertain consequences. The decentralization of decision-making at the global level since the post-Cold War period has created a different balance of economic and political powers. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has thrown the Middle East into a region festering sectarian tensions. 

Subsequently, the Arab Spring uprisings, which led to a significant authority void in Libya and civil war in Syria, indicated that an emerging new regional disarray that often spills over into other countries.  The rise of populism and the resiliency of authoritarian in the Middle East are likely to shape its political climate in the coming years.  The spread of oligarchic rule and/or power throughout different regions will produce an alarming order for those interested in the persistence of human rights and liberal governance.

While Asia has come to dominate the global scene in terms of population and trade size, the European Union has encountered new challenges, some of which undermine its promise of unity, prosperity, and security.   The old glue that held Europe together has weakened if not totally faded away.  What is striking at this stage of world history is the absence of a hegemonic power capable of sustaining an order upon which world security can steadily balance.  

Absent a hegemonic power, multilateralism has become axiomatic or even inevitable. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and cybersecurity have revealed the dark side of globalization, producing both political tension and economic stagnation.  The United States has lost its economic hegemonic status to China, yet still remains active in advancing its naval dominance and power across the globe.  Absent a global consensus on rules, norms, laws, and sovereign obligations, the dangers of regional wars and the spread of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism would necessitate the active participation of U.S. leadership, only this time in a totally new context and with massive costs and unpredictable consequences.  The United States may or may not be ready to fully take that mantle of leadership in large part because it can no longer afford to be in the business of nation-building and regime change, if for no other reason than the fact that those tasks have proven to be daunting, costly, and untenable over time. 

     Given these realities, several questions are raised: Who will then punish international criminal and terrorists? Who will intervene in the case of genocide or ethnic cleansing?  Who will prevent the rise of another terrorist group such as ISIS?  The alternative to the previous order or the status quo may be worse or better; however it is difficult to predict future trends at this juncture.  

     A different view of the rapidly changing international system is provided by Michael J. Mazarr (“The One and Future Order”) who argues that the post-hegemonic order requires taking a more pluralistic approach to international relations and its institution, rules, and norms. In this new, multipolar order, U.S. leadership will still be critical to global stability.  

     Some of the proponents of this view regard the post-hegemonic world as one in which countries coalesced around key regional actors and blocs, namely China, Russia, India, the EU, Brazil, Japan, and the United States.  China’s “One Belt, One Road,” project, which promises more than $1 trillion in infrastructure, in over 60 countries across Europe, Asia, and Africa, and which connects Iran to Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, is the prime example. Still others such as Joseph Nye, Jr. (“Will the Liberal Order Survive?”) argue that China is unlikely to exclude the United States from the western Pacific, much less exercise global military supremacy. U.S. security guarantees in Asia and Europe continue to provide critical reassurance for the stability essential to upholding the liberal order.

     The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO will prove to be crucial to the maintenance of the regional order.  Global issues of climate change, poverty, pandemics, refugee crises, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the campaign against terrorism render global cooperation between/among different regions all the more inevitable.  Regional cooperation is imperative to prevent economic stagnation and the unraveling of the international system.  Multilateralism becomes integral to sustainable security, economic development, and the rule of law.  Cooperation is possible even when there is no hegemonic power.  Under such circumstances, Robert O. Keohane (After Hegemony, 2005) claims that international “regimes” can work to foster cooperation between nations, even though there is no dominant power to enforce any agreements.  Increased cooperation, Keohane goes on to argue, does not necessarily cultivate democratic or liberal values in contemporary world affairs.  Different regional actors and blocs, therefore, will have to work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict.  No major shift in international relations is conceivable beyond the general diffusion of power away from governments toward non-state actors. I tend to concur with such a vision, in part because the alternative would be far worse.

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, teaches Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley.