What Happens When the Hegemon Abdicates?

There’s a lot of speculation about what the incoming Trump administration will or won’t do in the realm of international relations and foreign policy. My friend Steve Saideman had an interesting piece on his blog recently suggesting – as most experts in the field are at this point – that if trajectories are left unaltered, things won’t go well.

Part of the discussion of any new Presidency is, of course, an analysis of the broader situation itĀ finds itself in. While the newspapers are focused on the micro, we should remind ourselves as IR scholars that our work ranges from micro to macro levels, and that we should probably step back to look at the bigger picture. Structural realists have argued that individual leaders don’t matter very much; this is a good opportunity to test that hypothesis. So what kind of world isĀ President Trump faced with?

Here I take issue with one of Saideman’s suggestions. He argues that, unlike the Cold War, we no longer face a bipolar situation against a superpower USSR/ Russia. That is true. Rather than multipolarity, however, I would suggest (a la Robert Gilpin) that the US remains in a largely unipolar world, still in position as the dominant player.

This is absolutely true militarily, which makes Trump’s “peace through strength” policy tweets as silly as most of the rest of his utterances. The United States, in conventional military terms, outspends and outclasses most of the rest of the world put together. Even Putin has conceded that the US is, on a global scale, far beyond Russia’s capabilities. The recent gains Russia has been able to make have either been in areas of the “Near Abroad” were we should expect them to dominate, or in strategically less-than-critical areas (yes, I’m looking at you, Syria). If this were still the Cold War, we wouldn’t think twice about recent Russian “advances”.

China’s recent buildup of strength in the South China Sea has a similar ring to it – we should expect the Chinese to dominate a body of water with their own name in it. Talk to me when the Chinese navy can reach the Persian Gulf with enough force to matter.

But the military balance isn’t the most important thing here. Gilpin pointed out nearly 35 years ago that the point of being Hegemon is so you can write the rules of the international system. The point of challenging the Hegemon is so you can throw out those rules and impose new ones. In this vein, the Cold War made sense – the USSR despised the US-made post-WWII order on ideological grounds.

Neither Russia nor China has any serious problem with the current set of global rules run by the US. China has done quite well under those rules, once it moved beyond the ideology of Mao, and while it has interests in its region that may differ from US interests, it has no real desire to upend the world order as a whole. Russia has no coherent ideology or vision at all beyond Putinism, which has always been opportunistic.

The net effect of all of this is that, while either China or Russia may be adversaries to the United States at various points – and we should take them seriously as such – neither poses the kind of challenges that the USSR did. Neither wants to replace the US as global hegemon. And therefore neither has any interest in the destruction of the US, even if they could find the means, because right now the US is bearing the lion’s share of the costs of maintaining the system from which everybody else benefits.

Into this situation, enter Donald Trump. It’s not clear that he or any of his advisors understand any of this, or indeed anything at all about what used to be called Grand Strategy. The foreign policy challenges they identify or that are being thrust onto their plate – terrorism, Syria, ISIS, immigration – are, from a Grand Strategy point of view, secondary concerns. If Trump claims to want “peace through strength”, he’s already got it. Indeed, short of picking an unnecessary fight with either China or Russia, there’s not much he can do to screw that up.

What is concerning about his campaign rhetoric is his ignorance of the role of the US in maintaining the broader world order, and his apparent willingness to flirt with the idea of abdicating our responsibilities. Pulling back from NATO, withdrawing from the UN, renegotiating various alliance arrangements, encouraging Japan to defend itself – all of these would essentially withdraw the US from its position as chief leader of the world’s rules and chief balancer of the world’s power. Yes, those rules are messy and incomplete, and they don’t always work. But they’re a far sight better than REAL multilateral competition and Hobbes’ war of all against all.

So what happens when a Hegemon abdicates? Nobody knows, because we don’t have a lot of good historical parallels. At the moment neither Russia nor China is a serious Challenger – would either start to think about assuming the US role? Would Europe, cut loose by a feckless Trump administration, go its own way, perhaps taking over the institutions the US developed? Would the Euro become the new world currency?

With a little luck, we won’t find out the answers to any of these questions. The US foreign policy bureaucracy is filled with thousands of smart people who, whatever their tactical differences and favored turns of phrase, understand US hegemony and its importance both to Americans and to the wider world. Trump can’t fire these people, and he can’t appoint enough people who “think” as he does to override them. I expect to see an awful lot of bureaucratic infighting both between and within US agencies, and some damage will be done along the way. But in the end, I expect that the US foreign policy system developed over 75 years will be stronger than any one President, no matter how brazen his tweets.