How many recent developments in international politics can be attributed to US hegemony as opposed to structural shifts in the international economy, technology, or other factors that might be considered at least partially autonomous from American primacy? The answer to this question matters a great deal, because no one expects US primacy to last much more than a few additional decades.1

Dan Drezner weighs in on the question in his review of a recent article by Gregg Easterbook. Easterbrook reports the relatively well-known (at least among international-relations scholars) finding that intrastate warfare is less frequent now than it was during most of the Cold War. He suggests a number of reasons for this, but Dan argues that he misses the big one: the current unipolar distribution of power in the international system.

In 2001, Patrick Jackson and I wrote:

Against these claims are the arguments of those scholars who see little that is distinctive about globalization. international relations “realists” are among the most skeptical of the importance of globalization. They dispute the claim that “the world is increasingly ruled by markets” and that globalization significantly alters the nature of world politics. For them, the current international system simply displays characteristics associated with a unipolar distribution of power. Until a state or coalition of states effectively balances against the hegemony of the United States, major international conflict is unlikely. Thus, it is not surprising that non-traditional security threats are at the forefront of international concern, that international organizations and regional integration are relatively robust and that challengers to the international order rely upon terrorism and other strategies that avoid direct military confrontation with the United States. Contemporary developments either bear out core realist assumptions or represent a temporary lull before a return to balance-of-power and realpolitik.

If some set of factors associated with “globalization” explain the current relatively peaceful international environment, then we can safely say that global politics are entering a “new era.” But if US hegemony is, in fact, the precondition for a lot of what we associate with globalization, then we really are in a kind of “lull” between the normal storms of international politics.

It is, in fact, very difficult to disentangle what’s going on in the current international system. Both US hegemony and globalization plausibly account for current developments in world politics. It is also not entirely clear what the causal relationship between US hegemony and globalization is.

On the one hand, the really serious changes in global production that we associate with globalization – such as high levels of foreign direct investment and trade interdependence at a level surpassing pre-World War I Europe – track back to the early 1990s and correlate roughly with the end of the Cold War. The longer-term trends go back to around 1945, when the US accounted for around half of the global economy. Again, US primacy may explain why we live in an increasingly globalized world.

On the other hand, one can also argue that globalization has helped maintain US primacy. This is the classic argument that hegemonic orders depend not only on one state having a preponderance of power, but also on other states reaping benefits from that state of affairs. Economic gains from open trade and from having to spend less on defense are two of the “goodies” other states may derive from a hegemonic order.2

The upshot is that we really don’t have a good handle on the fundamental forces that are driving the kinds of trends Easterbrook (and others) have popularized. We can hope that they reflect fundamental changes in world politics, but I tend to agree with Dan that at least some of the broader “effects” of globalization probably have more to do with American primacy than other putative changes in the nature of world politics.3

1China’s economic growth. European integration. The spread of more advanced weapons technology to potential rivals. Whatever your explanation, neither historical evidence nor current trends suggest a thousand-year Pax Americana.
2The best recent statement of this argument is G. John Ikenberry’s After Victory. John and I presented a paper at last year’s APSA which develops the conceptual argument that interdependence is not only a result of hegemony, but also works to maintain hegemony by creating an interest among states in maintaining an international division of labor in which one state (the hegemon) specializes in providing global security.
3Why should we hope that current trends persist? Consider our current fears about international terrorism. Contemporary terrorism, for all its perils, is much less destructive than either conventional great-power wars or civil wars. Take, for example, the current death count in the Congo. I bet a lot of us would put up with some occasional terrorism to avoid forty or fifty Congos.

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