American Power after Bin Laden

OXFORD – When one state is preponderant in power resources, observers often refer to the situation as hegemonic. Today, many pundits argue that other countries’ rising power and the loss of American influence in a revolutionary Middle East point to the decline of “American hegemony.” But the term is confusing. For one thing, possession of power resources does not always imply that one can get the outcomes one prefers. Even the recent death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of United States special forces does not indicate anything about American power one way or the other.

To see why, consider the situation after World War II. The US accounted for more than one-third of global product and had an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons. Many considered it a global hegemon. Nonetheless, the US was unable to prevent the “loss” of China, “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.

Even in the era of alleged American hegemony, studies show that only one-fifth of America’s efforts to compel change in other countries through military threats were successful, while economic sanctions worked in only half of all cases. Yet many believe that America’s current preponderance in power resources is hegemonic, and that it will decline, like that of Britain before it. Some Americans react emotionally to that prospect, though it would be ahistorical to believe that the US will have a preponderant share of power resources forever.

But the term “decline” conflates two different dimensions of power: absolute decline, in the sense of decay or loss of ability to use one’s resources effectively, and relative decline, in which the other states’ power resources become greater or are used more effectively. For example, in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands flourished domestically but declined in relative power as other states grew in strength. Conversely, the Western Roman Empire did not succumb to another state, but instead to internal decay and swarms of barbarians. Rome was an agrarian society with low economic productivity and a high level of internecine strife.