Tuesday, 24 November 2009

'Rethinking Terms?' re: Drezner/Applebaum

Reply to: http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/24/the_costs_of_being_the_default_superpower

Of course this is all premised on the argument, with a logic so twisted it is surely only possible in IR theory, that the leader by leading is, all things considered, somehow disadvantaged and 'put upon'. The leader is the leader because of an overwhelming advantage, not the inverse. This is especially true in what (despite the pessimism displayed here) is still a resolutely unipolar state system (albeit fraying around the edges in the form of increasing regionalism, perhaps). The U.S. remains spectacularly advantaged in more or less every respect, despite its undoubtedly spectacular recent fall. In fact, isn't it indicative of the U.S.'s extreme advantage that it has fallen as far as it has and still remains so overwhelmingly dominant? The vaguely multilateral moves made by the current administration would hardly be considered multilateralist if conducted by any other country - only by the U.S.'s existing standards could they be judged so.

That the U.S. (seemingly) feels so put upon is interesting in itself - is it not logical that an actor that makes the world in its own image (such as the U.S. has undoubtedly done to a large extent), after a time, will become blind to the extent to which that world has become similar to it (because, like one's own accent, one always takes for granted what is most familiar) and see only the differences, which in this context happens to be the disadvantages of its empowered leadership. Not every aspect of the world-made-in-it's-image will benefit the U.S. - perhaps, for instance, if the global financial system had been a little less to the U.S.'s liking previously then the financial crisis would not have been so severe - but a world-made-in-it's-image is surely preferable to the alternative - try asking people from any other country.

Of course, another way of looking at this would be to say 'leadership? what leadership?' - it can only be in a very narrow, realpolitik sense that one can say that the U.S. has provided international leadership in any positive sense recently. Witness the failures in Copenhagen, how little the U.S. position vis-à-vis climate change has actually moved - in fact, how little the U.S. position has actually changed on a whole swathe of issues.

Now, this should not suggest that I am dismissing the negatives of leadership out of hand. Clearly free-riding and such are problems for the actor concerned; however, I would strongly suggest that the negatives are vastly over-represented in public discourse and indeed in American IR theory generally.

The practical consequence of this thought would be that to move 'back' to unilateralism, as has been suggested, grossly underestimates the extent to which the U.S. remains the predominant power and, consequently, grossly overestimates the extent to which the U.S. has moved towards multilateralism at all. The choice, therefore, is not so much between uni- and multi-lateral politics as between (a:) a productive unilateral hegemony that is willing to - in part and with limitations - negotiate with lesser powers and make limited compromises for the common good and (b:) an unproductive unilateral hegemony that rules by diktat and consequently fails to reach agreements on the important issues of the day. Perhaps I am taking the distinction between uni- and multi-lateral a little too far, but I think the point stands. Multilateralism certainly implies an actor existing on at least a similar plane of existence other actors with regard to negotiating power.

The U.S., judged by the standards of any other state, remains overwhelmingly powerful. Personally, as a non-U.S. citizen, I welcome this and look forward to more of it. The usual reaction to such an attitude ('oh p**s off and live in China then') aside, I would welcome any further moves to multilateralism. I simply doubt whether the U.S.'s decline is such that this will become a possibility any time soon.

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