US Decline? John Owen: The United States Not completely Controlling its Allies
Iran Review Exclusive Interview with John Owen By: Kourosh Ziabari
Today even the most optimistic advocates of the U.S. foreign policy are confessing that the aggressive attitude of the consecutive U.S. administrations in the recent decades have contributed to the weakening and undermining of the American Empire, portraying a detestable image of the cultural hallmarks, lifestyle and socioeconomic values of the United States.
In Iran Review, we have started a project to discuss the issue of the future of U.S. Empire and the survival of imperialism with the world’s renowned political scientists and public intellectuals. We reflect the viewpoints and ideas of world’s academics regarding the decline of the U.S. Empire, and whether they agree or disagree with these propositions, we publish what they say so that you can impartially and objectively judge by yourself about their opinions and statements.
This time, we have talked to John M. Owen, Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. He teaches in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, and is a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC). He is also the chief editor of Security Studies, currently housed at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His recent book “The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change 1510-2010” has won the 2010’s Joseph Lepgold Prize for Best Book on International Relations which was awarded to him by the Georgetown University. In 2011, he published his second book titled “Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order.”
What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Prof. John M. Owen to whom we have talked about the future of U.S. Empire, the impact of the U.S. military expeditions on its public image of the especially in the Muslim world, and the socio-cultural dominance and hegemony of the United States as the world’s number one economic power.
Q: As you know, the unipolar, hegemonic system of global governance led by the United State constitutes the basis and structure of current international order. In this regard, some people believe that the signs of the decline of the United States and a consequent transformation in the international order have begun to emerge. A change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power. What’s your analysis of this change and the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony?
A: I agree that U.S. power helps to maintain the current system of global governance. It also is clear that America’s economy is losing its position as the world’s biggest, barring an unlikely collapse of the Chinese economy. But I do not believe that the international order is going to change abruptly or radically.
First, U.S. hegemony rests also on America’s military, which is still by far the world’s most powerful and whose lead may actually be increasing. Although the United States must be careful in how it deploys its military assets, it will likely maintain its forward presence in East Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf for many more years. The last — the Persian Gulf — means that American hegemony over oil markets will probably continue.
Second, U.S. power is not the only factor in the durability of the international order: other countries have a stake in the continuation of at least some international rules and institutions. It is useful to analyze or decompose “international order” into different aspects. For example, the biggest challenger to American hegemony, China, is a challenger because since 1978, when it shifted its national strategy sharply, it has benefited from the global free-trade system that the United States helped set up after World War II and has sustained ever since. The same is true of India and Brazil, two other rising powers. Why would these countries try to alter the global rules on trade, investment, and so forth? These countries may welcome a reduction in American domination, but even if that reduction takes place, international economic rules may not change.
On the other hand, there are international rules that at least some of the rising powers would no doubt like to change. Some of these rules have to do with human rights. Many governments have never liked the Western emphasis on human rights; they note that it is not applied consistently, and they consider it meddling and a clever way to keep other countries from rising.
Q: So you believe that some rising powers are contending the U.S. power in the global level. Some political scientists believe that the United States is voluntarily retreating from its position as a global hegemon, as a result of a remarkable increase in the costs of the unipolar and hegemonic order and the considerable decrease in its utilities. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
A: I think a better term than “retreating” is “retrenching” — that is, a movement or redeployment of resources based upon new challenges. America withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but most U.S. leaders never wanted their country’s troops to stay there for very long in any case. U.S. troops will eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, but for the same reason. The United States also left Vietnam in 1973, and although many at the time thought that that withdrawal was a sign of American decline, by the 1980s it was clear that America was not declining after all. Withdrawal from difficult, expensive wars may be a sign of rational retrenchment rather than serious decline. The Obama Administration has “pivoted toward Asia,” meaning East, Southeast, and South Asia. The 2,500 U.S. Marines that are being deployed in Australia are a symbol of a larger longterm U.S. commitment to that region of the world. So are the persistence of the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea, ongoing security relationships with Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and others, and new relationships with India and even Vietnam.
Q: I think what you’re trying to say is that the U.S. has not retreated from its position. So, let’s move on to the next question. The global capitalistic economy is collapsing and its consequences for the uni-polar and hegemonic order are beginning to appear gradually. What do you think about the impact of the downfall of global economic recession and its effects on the compasses of the U.S. power?
A: I am not so sure that “the global capitalistic economy is collapsing”! The 2008 recession was severe, especially in the West, and the Eurozone continues to have problems. But most economies in Asia and Latin America were not hit as hard as those of the rich countries, and these — particularly China — continue to participate in and propel the global economy. As for the United States, it has recovered — slowly and only partially — from the recession. The U.S. economy has never depended very much on exports, since its home market is so large. It does depend upon foreign lending, but that has continued with hardly any disruption.
The U.S. economy will be surpassed by the Chinese in a few years, but that would have been the case even without the 2008-10 recession. And there are signs that the longterm future of the U.S. economy is bright. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has lowered natural gas prices significantly and may eventually lower American dependency on foreign energy sources. There is some anecdotal and statistical evidence that manufacturing is beginning to return from Asia to the United States.
Q: Right. It’s widely believed that based on the emergence and intensification of global resistance against capitalism and liberalism, especially resistance on the microphysical level of global power against the lifestyle of imperialist system, the political power and influence of the United States has been diminishing in the recent years. What’s your take on that?
A: I do believe that this is true. I believe that especially in Muslim countries people resist the lifestyles that America and the West more generally exhibit and promote. Some of us in the West actually agree with some of the criticisms coming from these countries: some of our movies, television programs, music, video games, etc. can be harmful to public and private morality, and the family structure continues to weaken. The American political scientist Joseph Nye rightly believes that “soft power” — a country’s cultural and ideological appeal — is important to its foreign policy. And I do think that America’s soft power is weaker in some parts of the world than it has been in the past. At the same time, America’s way of life and its cultural exports or “brands” continue to have broad appeal in many parts of the world. I continue to think that America’s greatest advantage is its domestic institutions — its democracy, constitutional liberties, and free-market capitalism — which are by no means universally admired but still attractive to many.
Q: Great. So you somehow agree that the American lifestyle sounds harmful and unacceptable to some cultures and countries. The next point is that, according to some studies, the resistance and opposition of the United States’ domestic forces against the interventions of the U.S. government in the other countries and the imperialistic traits of the U.S. political system have been contributing to the weakening of the global position of the United States. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?
A: There is certainly a point of diminishing returns for a hegemon’s extension of its power — that is, the point beyond which it should not extend its military. It is clear to most of us that America went beyond that point when it was fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The resistance it encountered in those countries, in other Muslim countries, and even from some of America’s old friends were costly, and decreased the average American’s appetite for foreign intervention. I should add that, like most Americans, I believe that the war in Afghanistan was necessary. But the most important questions are: does a country recognize when it has passed the point of diminishing returns, and is it willing to pull back and redeploy its forces more rationally? The United States has shown during the Obama administration, and even back in G. W. Bush’s second administration — that the answer to those questions is “yes”.
Q: And finally, aside from these propositions which we’ve mentioned as the factors contributing to the decline of the U.S. socioeconomic and political power and the downfall of the imperialism, can you think of other possibilities which may in one way or another further and accelerate the demise of the U.S. Empire?
A: I think that the greatest threats to American hegemony are:
(1) America’s persistent inability to balance its economy. Our politicians and other elites are highly polarized by ideology (big government versus small government) and, for a variety of reasons, are unwilling or unable to compromise. One party wants to raise taxes and not reduce entitlements; the other wants the opposite. America needs both and if we cannot get it our decline will accelerate. As I said, I believe America’s greatest asset is its domestic institutions. The country has had the same constitution since 1787. Today those institutions are being tested as they were in the 1860s and 1930s. I think that they will eventually pass the test, but many of us are frustrated that it is taking so long.
(2) A large war. The most likely places would be Israel and some of its neighbors (perhaps Iran), and China and some of its neighbors (perhaps Japan). If they did take place, the United States might be compelled to get involved; and because the U.S. government does not want these wars, and has significant influence over some of these countries, I think that they are unlikely to happen. But the United States does not completely control its allies. Even if a major war happened and America did not get involved, the consequences for the global economy and hence the U.S. economy could be catastrophic.