Now that I read it, I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments made by Parag Khanna in his “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” article in The New York Times Magazine. However, in the interests of sobriety it’s worth flagging two important caveats. One is that one shouldn’t understate the extent to which the US/EU/China “big three” is still an unequal triad. The United States is a lot richer than China. We have a much larger and more competent military establishment. And while China is beginning to play a global role, we have much more deeply entrenched relationships with countries in every region of the world — including places like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan in China’s back yard.
Meanwhile the EU, were it a cohesive nation-state, would be an extremely mighty power. But it isn’t one. When Europe acts with common purpose, it’s a very influential player, and it’s every bit America’s equal in certain commerce-related aspects of international relations where this happens, but Europe simply has much less institutional capacity to act in this way than does the United States.
On top of that, the big thing to keep in mind when considering any particular “declinist” thesis about American hegemony is that we’ve actually been on the decline for a good long while. In 1945-46 the U.S. economy completely dominated the world, contributing some absurdly high share of total output. Every other significant country on earth had been completely destroyed by war, and we had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Over time, this dominant position unraveled and Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony, a study of America’s efforts to forge a diplomatic system to continue to get bye in this new world actually came out decades ago. The collapse of the Soviet Union created a kind of illusion of a return to hegemony since international politics had been organized as “USA or USSR” for so long, but all along throughout the postwar period other countries have been gaining in importance.
What happens, I think, is that whenever the United States makes policy blunders such as Vietnam or Iraq, the fact that hegemony has been slowly slipping through our fingertips for decades suddenly becomes apparent. But we’re still the most important country out there, our economy’s still growing in absolute terms, and when our country implements sound policies the whole issue fades into the background.
That said Khanna is fundamentally correct that the United States is not the be-all and end-all of world affairs and that it’s increasingly possible to imagine important diplomatic and commercial endeavors being undertaken that we’re not involved with. As Kevin Drum remarked “it’s a useful article if only because it’s so rare to see foreign policy pieces in the mainstream media that aren’t almost completely America-centric” and it’s fascinating and refreshing to see a take on world affairs that’s not dominated by a “pro-American reformer versus anti-American despot — go!” narrative.