Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has unambiguously been the most powerful state in the international system. At two points in the last 60 years, the period immediately following the end of the Second World War and the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire, the United States stood not just first among equals but unambiguously as the dominant power in the world.
The United States has been the indispensable power. International regimes, the norms, rules, and decision making procedures that have more or less governed transactions in the international system have reflected the power, preferences, and values of the United States. Most of these regimes claimed universal application even if the Soviet Union and its imperial possessions were excluded from some until the 1990s. The United States took the lead in establishing the Bretton Woods Institutions in 1944, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When domestic opposition prevented the creation of the International Trade Organization in 1948, the President used an executive agreement to establish the GATT.
In the mid 1990s the US took the lead in creating the World Trade Organization, which bundled together a number of treaties, not only the GATT, which dealt with tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, but also treaties addressing other trade related issues such as intellectual property rights and investments. The United States successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union a number of universal treaties governing space exploration and exploitation, most notably the 1967 International Space Treaty. The U.S. was one of twelve countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which, among other things, suspended sovereign territorial claims in Antarctica. Although the United States has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea it has been a major beneficiary of the new rules and concepts embodied in that agreement.
The United States has the largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world, an area within which the littoral state controls commercial activity. The United States also has the world’s largest blue water navy and a treaty guaranteeing freedom of movement not only in the international sea but also in the EEZ. (China is, however, contesting some US Navy activities in China EEZ.) Despite positive recommendations from several administrations, the Senate has refused to ratify the Treaty largely because of hostility toward the International Seabed Authority that has, under the terms of the Treaty, the right to govern mineral exploitation in the international seabed.
During the 60 plus years of American dominance and active American international engagement, the outcome for many people, in many countries, in many ways has been positive, sometimes spectacularly so. Since 1945 there have been no wars among major powers, the longest period in human history. The most obvious explanation is some combination of nuclear weapons, which have made war unambiguously costly, and American policies that focused after the 1950s on deterrence, which reduced the probability of inadvertent nuclear exchanges. The chances for most people in most places of dying through violence are much less than they have been in the past.
From 1960 to 2010 life expectancy for the world increased from 52 years to 73 years. Life expectancy for low-income countries increased from 42 to 61 years. Growth in per capita income, however, was more uneven. For the world, per capita GDP increased from $4232 in 1970 in constant 2005 US$ to 7637 in 2010. For poor countries, however per capita GDP increased only from $319 in 1970 to $406 in 2010. World Bank data on literacy rates for large groups of countries is only available since 1990 but rates for poor countries have increased from 51 to 60 percent.
Obviously not all the good in the world (and not all the bad either) has been the result of the global order established by the United States. Nevertheless it is not hard to imagine the counter-factual, a global order dominated by Nazi Germany and Japan if World War II had turned out differently, or one dominated by the Soviet Union if, for instance, with all of Europe under Soviet rule after 1945. Surely things would have been worse for most people in most places—and in some places for some people, they would have been very much worse.
The success of the American world order, both for the United States and for many other countries, is the foundation for the claim that the United States should continue to be deeply engaged in the world; that it should continue to use its power and resources not only to enhance the security of the U.S. but also to enhance global prosperity by expanding a liberal international order, and by supporting institutions that facilitate inter-state cooperation.
Successful outcomes in many different issue areas and for many different sets of people has not, however, created any kind of general acceptance of American deep engagement or global leadership. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, perceptions of the United States were damaged by the outcomes of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the financial crisis that began in 2008, which was attributed to American regulatory failures, by Snowden’s revelations of NSA information gathering around the globe including monitoring the cell phone of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, and also, revealingly, by the use of drones. In 39 out of 44 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center in July 2014, majorities or pluralities opposed the use of drones.
Suspicion of the United States is nothing new. For many reasons, some good and some bad, political leaders saw American free market capitalism and its manifestation in international regimes as a threat to their values and political positions. In the 1960s, the French journalist and politician Servan Schreiber’s The American Challenge, which elaborated on the threat to Europe posed by American capitalism, especially its multinationals, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In the winter of 2015, the leading German weekly news magazine’s cover story elaborated on how a few hundred entrepreneurs in Silicon valley were on a path—capitalist, anti-regulatory, beyond government control—to create a new world order. Der Spiegel’s title for that cover story was, “The World Government: How Silicon Valley Controls Our Future.”
The Vietnam War precipitated widespread anti-American demonstrations in Europe. For social democratic Europe, Ronald Reagan’s abhorrence of the state was atavistic. Discontent with American policies, goals, and values was reflected in the non-aligned movement and the G-77, which actively opposed American liberalism and tried, but failed, to create a new international economic order in the 1980s that would have constrained the market far more than the United States desired. The countries of the developing world, however, had limited economic resources, limited markets, and limited military capacity and their challenge to American norms and values ultimately failed.
While the success that accompanied the post-war American-led world never led to a universal embrace of the United States, American power in all its manifestations allowed the United States to frame and sustain the international order.
The conditions confronting American policymakers are more challenging than they have been in the past. There is less consensus about threats. China could be a peer competitor.
The security issues facing the United States are more contested now than they were at earlier points of American hegemony. In the late 1940s, there was a consensus among western leaders about the threat posed by the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union suggested to many that the end of history was really upon us, including an end to major security challenges. Liberal democracy and market oriented capitalism were the only legitimated ways to order political and economic life.
In the contemporary world there is less consensus within the United States and among the other major industrialized countries that have supported the American project about the nature of contemporary security threats, notably China and transnational terrorism. For perhaps the first 20 or 25 years following World War II, rapid growth and technological successes such as Sputnik suggested that the communist system might pose a serious challenge to the market oriented democracy championed by the United States. But by the late 1960s the Soviet Union was already faltering, a fact most dramatically indicated by falling life expectancy.
The future trajectory for China is not yet clear. China may continue to grow at a rapid pace and transition to a democratic regime in which case it would accept many of the principles and institutions that were created and supported by the United States. China might continue as an autocratic state but its economic growth might falter. Chinese power would be formidable but it would not eclipse that of the United States. Finally China might become rich and remain autocratic, a conjuncture not yet seen in any large country. If this happens the norms and institutions that have reflected and sustained America’s position would be fundamentally transformed.
It is not clear which path China will follow. The United States has both engaged China and hedged against its growing power. China has signed on to key international institutions, such as the WTO, and benefitted from membership but not embraced core norms. The regime of Xi Jinping has unambiguously rejected democracy, at least democracy as Americans understand it. China is beginning to create alternative institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. There is no international consensus about how the challenge presented by China should be addressed in large part because there is no consensus about how severe that challenge will ultimately be. Unlike the past, the United States will not be able to continue to rely on support from other major industrialized market economy countries. And this absence of support will make deep engagement much more problematic.
Moreover, while China may be the only peer competitor confronting the United States, but there are other countries whose resources are growing. Brazil, Russia, and India are among the top ten GDPs in the world. These countries, along with China, are much less sympathetic to American norms and values than were America’s NATO and East Asian allies who formed the core of support for American deep engagement into the 1990s.
There is even less consensus on the second security issue confronting the United States, the threat of transnational terrorism. Both within and across countries there is disagreement about whether transnational terrorism poses an existential threat or simply should be treated as a crime. The United States was able to secure widespread support, including from the UN Security Council, for the invasion of Afghanistan. Forty-two countries ultimately participated in ISAF, the security force created under NATO auspices. In Iraq, however, the United States failed to get Security Council support and went ahead with a more limited coalition of the willing.
Finally, while the American led international order of the post–World War II world has led to unprecedented growth and prosperity in many parts of the world, it has not benefitted everyone. The losers, including some in the United States, are not enchanted by America’s market-oriented globalizing vision. Income disparities have grown in many countries. A 2011 OECD study reported that from the mid 1980s to the late 2000s income had grown more quickly for the top ten percent than the bottom ten percent in 19 out of 27 OECD countries. For the OECD as a whole the growth rate in incomes was 1.9 percent annually for the top 10 percent and 1.3 percent for the bottom 10 percent.
According to the US Census, the median household income in the United States declined by 6.6 percent from 2000-2012. There are two standard explanations for these developments: globalization and technological change. Both explain why the less highly skilled are faltering: the first because of cheaper labor in other countries (and sometimes cheaper domestic labor because of immigration) and the second because technology is replacing human labor in richer countries. Regardless of the cause, disaffection is apparent.
In sum, there is less consensus among America’s traditional allies about how to respond to security threats, even less consensus on what those threats actually are; China may be a peer competitor; other developing countries are becoming relatively more powerful; and not everyone is benefitting from the market openness supported by the United States. All of these factors preclude a continued policy of deep engagement.
Global negotiations in a number of arenas have stalled. The Doha round of trade under the auspices of the WTO was launched in 2001. It is still ongoing. In the meantime the United States has concluded bilateral trade agreements with Australia, Central America, Chile, Colombia, Jordan, Korea, Morocco, Oman, Panama, Peru, and Singapore. And it has proposed regional trade agreements with Asia and Europe. China has pursued an ambitious set of bilateral trade agreements of its own. It has championed new international institutions most notably the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Germany, Italy, and France have indicted that they will join despite opposition from the United States.
The United States has benefitted from the Law of the Seas Treaty, which was concluded twenty years ago, but there is no indication that the Senate will ratify the agreement. In the meantime that United States has passed legislation that directly challenges the International Seabed Authority’s right to govern mineral exploitation beneath the international sea. Efforts to reach an international agreement on climate change have come to naught, even though individual countries including the United States, have made significant progress. The relatively clear and coherent eight Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) are scheduled to be replaced by a much less coherent set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which in a spring 2015 experts’ report for the UN numbered 17 goals with 169 specific targets.
The United States is deeply engaged in almost every dimension of the international system. Its ability to achieve its goals across a wide range of issue areas—economic, security, cultural—depends on support that it might get from others. In a technologically dynamic environment there will inevitably be new challenges, such as cyber-security and the control of dual use biologicals. Many older issues will present new challenges, such as intellectual property rights, macro-economic policy coordination, exchange rates, and bank capital requirements. How these issues are resolved, both new and old will affect the security, prosperity, and values of the United States as well as the rest of the world.
In the contemporary environment, the United States will not have the luxury of withdrawing. It has and will, however, be more effective operating through coalitions of the willing rather than striving for deep engagement involving all issues areas and all countries. The Proliferation Security Initiative, which has been signed on to by about 70 countries and which addresses proliferation issues primarily by relying on national legislation, is a much better model for the future than say the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009 which was a fiasco. The G-20 and the Bank for International Settlements have been more effective vehicles for addressing some macro-economic issues, especially bank capital requirements, than any universal organization (many of whose members would be irrelevant for global macro-economic stability) could possibly be. Bilateral and regional trade agreements will be more effective than new rounds under the WTO. There will be no universal consensus on greenhouse gas emissions but individual countries, or groups of countries can be successful in devising their own policies. The United States has not joined two of China’s major initiatives in Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia Infrastructure Development Bank; but some of its closest allies will reject this stance.
The United States, because of its capabilities and history, will be more willing to use force against transnational terrorist targets than any of its allies. An international order that continues to favor American interests and values will be more effectively sustained through coalitions of the willing than through continued deep engagement which, in the presence era of uncertainty and changing power configurations, will inevitably falter.