International Le 12 décembre 2014

Yann Koby

Par Yann Koby

An orphan world?

An orphan world?


Ebola’s outbreak, Boko Haram’s abductions, the civil revolutions in Central African Republic and Burkina Faso. The tensions in Eastern Europe, the annexation of Crimea, the separatist votes of Donetsk and Lougansk. The frustrations of a missed Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the civil mass killings of Bachar al-Assad, the rise of the barbarian Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

A hundred years after the start of World War I, international affairs in 2014 look grim. In Asia, a coup d’état erupted in Thailand. Africa returned to its old problems: public health issues, and undemocratic leaders. In Europe, the ghost of the Cold War is haunting Ukraine. And the Middle East is more than ever like a powder keg, with rising tensions from Kobane to Jerusalem. Only Latin America has been relatively quiet these days.

The world has known much worse times, for sure. But what makes this moment particular is perhaps not the magnitude of violence – after all, the 90s had the Gulf and Balkan Wars, the 2000s Afghanistan and Iraq – but rather that the U.S., and perhaps the West1 in general, seem to have lost control of the current situation. Or perhaps it has lost interest in it? Indeed, to take the aforementioned examples, during Koweit’s invasion, it was the international coalition led by the U.S. that pushed Saddam Hussein back. Similarly, the alliance formed around NATO successfully saved Kosovo from Serbia. In Afghanistan, the Talibans were easily ruled out of the power they had conquered, Osama Ben Laden was killed ten years later, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, in turn, didn’t last long against the American pressure – even if in both cases, post-war stabilization ended up being the hard task.

This picture contrasts with the timid moves of the West against Putin’s expansionary views on Ukraine. The sanctions adopted, which came too late to be effective, didn’t move Putin’s strategies an inch – if anything, they convinced him of his moves. On another note, the U.S.’s handling of the current state of the Middle East has been hesitant to say the least. Bashar El-Assad did not encounter any serious opposition to his massive civilian killings. Worse, the crossing of the red line drawn by Obama, the use of chemical weapons, did not trigger any significant reactions. And today, the Islamic State, who openly declared a war against the occidental world, controls a region larger than Syria; despite that, the West has made clear that it will not launch ground troops to help the Iraqi and Kurdish armies.

Certainly, these non-interventions could reflect an acknowledgement by Westerners of their past failures: the Talibans, after all, were first trained by Americans during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State’s armies were nourished by the leftovers from the Iraqi war. Nevertheless, these facts comfort a theory that has been pushed by several observers of international affairs: the decline of the Western block’s direct influence on the world, and in particular, the loss of the hegemonic power the U.S. acquired after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. The present article first assesses this story in light of current affairs, and then explore, rather superficially, the implications of such a change.

The decline of the hegemon?

Power is a difficult and debated concept in International Relations2. Robert Dahl (1957)3, in a classic paper, defined it as one’s ability to force another to do something he wouldn’t do otherwise. How exactly is this achieved is left to interpretation, but this definition has the advantage of being easy to work with, empirically at least, as long as one can define what States4 (and State-like actors) want.

Now, it is true that U.S. hard power, roughly captured by its military and economic attributes, remain strong. The U.S. features, by far, the largest military spending, accounting by its own to 37% of the world’s total, and spending more than its six to ten followers (depending on the measure) together5. Moreover, it is still the largest economy in the world, twice as large as China in dollars. Relatively speaking, however, U.S. military spending fell in recent years, i.e. by 7.8% in 2013, a drop due to the reduction in its overseas operations.  Furthermore, the share of its economy in the world GDP has been continuously shrinking, and the crisis left some scars, as Christopher Layne (2011) puts it: “Hegemons are supposed to be the lender of last resort, not the borrower of first resort. Hegemons are supposed to lead the world economy out of crisis and back to prosperity—not have their own economies rescued by others.”6 Hence, one observes that the trends in these proxies indicate a relative decline – which may correlate with America’s inability to deal with international affairs: budgetary considerations, for example, were a main argument of Obama to withdraw as fast as possible from Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the decline of U.S. soft and systemic powers is probably more concrete. Its unpopular wars in the Middle East, its reluctant view on climate change7, and its continuous and quasi-unconditional support of Israel, among other things, undermined the U.S. external image on the foreign policy scene, especially in European countries. Probably as harmful is the loss of its status as an economic model: the 2007 financial crisis – which was felt by many as emanating from the U.S. – highlighted the excesses of its financial corporations, and ultimately, of its deregulation policies, which are associated with American capitalism. Next, the numerous political fiascos, particularly those related to the Congress, as well as the pestilent atmosphere that emanates from elections – think negative advertisement, for example –, cast doubt on the efficiency of Washington’s political machinery and, again, on its image as a model of democracy.

With this loss of legitimacy, America has a harder time imposing its views – and its failure to handle the explosive situation in the Middle East is perhaps only an expression of this lack of (Dahl) power. This seems particularly true in a world where pure military capacities aren’t as effective as they used to be8 – and where State-building capacities may be as important, as Stephen Walt (2014)9 argues. This suggests a de facto end of what Charles Krauthammer, a leading columnist among America’s neoconservatives, called “Democratic Globalism”10, a term designed to capture a foreign policy agenda that consisted in promoting American values to the rest of the world, with the usage of force whenever deemed necessary.

Should we care?

Some may claim victory; after all, hasn’t most of the world had enough of the way America handled its international policy in the recent years?

Hans Rosling's visualization of development. Link to his TED talk here.

Hans Rosling’s visualization of development. Link to his TED talk here.

This is the occasion to step back and reflect on what the world has accomplished under what some have called the Pax Americana, which we can date as starting after World War II, although it shared part of its power for a time with the URSS. The U.S. back then had just saved Europe (for a second time) from perhaps the harshest attempt on human ideals ever to be seen: fascism. But the U.S. did not only save Europe from the latter; with the Marshall plan, it played a decisive role in pushing the Old Continent towards the longest period of peace it has ever experienced. Some might object (perhaps correctly) that their goal was mainly to stop the spread of communism, but nevertheless, the result remains.

Democracy under U.S. domination has flourished more than in any other period in History: from a mere dozen at the end of World War II, the number of democracies was up to about 60 countries in the late eighties, and jumped comfortably above 110 in the latest years. True, by trying to impose its ideals to the world, the U.S. didn’t always induce good outcomes, and sometimes even brought down democratic governments that were against its interests (notably in Latin America). Neverthless, the observed democratic achievement alone has been tremendous, and even more so because it implies less war (Dafoe et al. 201311).

Tremendous: so was economic growth during this period. I will take a stronger stand there and argue that, by promoting capitalism as a leading model of development, and fighting the USSR’s dictatorial interpretation of Marxist ideas, the U.S. helped to set the world in its most virtuous circle of prosperity. Many countries exited central planning and used market-based mechanisms to promote economic wellbeing – think about China, who raised more than five hundred million of its citizens out of poverty since Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms12 – with all its implications for civilians, from health to education. To take a few metrics, average life expectancy went up from 50 years in 1960 to 70 years in 201013; the average number of years of schooling raised from 6 in the developed world and 2 in the developing world in 1950 to respectively 11 and 7 in 201014. The human development index, a synthesis of human development, increased continuously in that period for all regions of the globe. Human rights, moreover, have advanced so much that the U.S. itself is seen as a one of the remaining black sheep.

Certainly, the U.S. didn’t contribute entirely and directly to each of its aspects, and one may argue that this is pure correlation, not causation. The world being observed only one time, it is obviously not possible to re-run an experiment to see what would have happened had the US not dominated the world over the period. Nevertheless, as suggested above, explanations exist. For example, some – such as Charles Kindleberger or Robert Keohane, fathers of the hegemonic stability theory – argue that the stability provided by the US leadership15 has provided the world a possibility to focus on more important aspects, such as economic reforms and eventually growth. Others argue that the world’s technological revolutions have, during this period, mainly emanated from the U.S. – and that Europeans’ welfare states would not have survived without those (Acemoglu et al., 201416).

The lack of contender

Hence, given the (associative) evidence, a conservative thinker might be worried to leave what one could – in comparison to what happened before – truly call a golden era for humanity, and the recent burst of troubles around the world perhaps only justify these worries. Now, that the U.S. (and the West in general) is on the decline is still a matter of intense debate (see for example Christopher Layne (2012)17 and Sean Starrs (2013)18), but if one accepts it, is there someone to replace it?

The answer to that question is what makes this time so exciting for analysts of international affairs: nobody. China is still a developing country, and its hard powers are still far below those of the U.S.: its economy is only half the size, and its military spending fourfold smaller than the US’s – not even mentioning that it lacks a proper navy. And that was a comparison with the U.S. alone: China will arguably never surpass the West as a whole. Although these indicators may improve in the future for China, the country mostly lacks a mission: it has regional agenda19, but it definitely lacks a view of the world it wants to impose or at least inspire.  This absence of projection, in fact, may be intrinsic to Chinese culture20. To say it in other words, it seems hardly believable that it could ever play the role of a model as the U.S. could have done.

In terms of size and influence, the EU is probably the only contemporary contender. It has tried to develop a European diplomacy, with the creation of a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Some recent events, such as Sweden’s move to recognize a Palestinian State, suggest that the EU is willing to take some distance from Uncle Sam. However, we have seen with the Crimean crisis that a concrete EU foreign policy was far from being in place. Moreover, the EU is seriously contested from the inside by rising populist views, and unless a crisis affects directly and violently one of its core members, it seems unlikely that the EU will be given more power by its constituent states – especially in a time of budget constraints. To conclude, the EU seems far from being able to take the lead, at least alone.

The rest of the world – notably Russia, Brazil, and India – do not have the hard power necessary to claim a hegemon status by their own, and are too different to unite. Which leaves the U.S. as probably the most serious contender to itself, perhaps this time with a tighter connection with the EU, as the negotiations of the massive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) suggest. Moreover, with elections forthcoming in 2016 and impressive economic growth numbers recently, a major shift in U.S. foreign policy could occur. But as discussed, it is unlikely that it will be able to enjoy the same level of hegemony that it enjoyed between the nineties and today.

An Orphan world, or a liberal order?

Left: Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1674. Right: John Locke, 1632-1704.

Left: Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1674. Right: John Locke, 1632-1704.

A world without a dominating force has not been seen since a long time, as the British ruled before the Americans, the Spaniards before the British. Different theories, or perspectives, offer different predictions for what may happen – which, as said, is why current affairs are so exciting for theorists of International Relations. Discussing all such views could be the topic of a thesis, and I will not pursue it here. Rather, I will present two prevalent ones, one of which I favor.

A neoconservative would take a view close to the realist tradition, where the world is viewed as a Hobbesian anarchy in which States compete in a zero-sum game – and where the decline of the hegemon, who plays the role of an enforcer otherwise absent, is seen as a potential pathway to chaos, or at least important structural changes (Gunistsky, 2014)21. Proponents of this view argue for example that the increasing power of States without a democratic structure, such as China and Russia, will lead the world to new international crises, and that the current troubles in Ukraine only reflect that. Even if stability may be preserved as long as regional hegemons emerge (Kupchan, 199822), the decline of the U.S. and the West is seen as leading to what I call in this article an orphan world. “Militarily, the hegemon is responsible for stabilizing key regions and for guarding the global commons. Economically, the hegemon provides public goods by opening its domestic market to other States, supplying liquidity for the global economy, and providing a reserve currency” (Layne, 2011)23. An orphan world, without the stabilizing forces that deterred non-liberal States from perturbing the current order, an order that promoted democracy and market-based economies as the main model of development.

This view is utterly pessimistic, I believe, and other schools of thought have less grim predictions about what will happen. Advocates of the liberal24 school, such as John Ikenberry, predict instead the long-awaited emergence of a liberal world order. In The Future of the Liberal World Order (Foreign Affairs, 2011)25, he argues that “today’s power transition represents not the defeat of the liberal order but its ultimate ascendance”26. Because of the long period of relative peace and the build-up of large economic and social inter-connections, it has become much more costly for contending countries to break the international order so as to promote their ideas, as opposed to live and expand within the liberal world order, with its rules and institutions27. As Ikenberry notes, this desire to stay within the current order may not only be the result of economic motivations, but also because internationalist-oriented elites around the world grew in influence over the decades – an argument that follows from the very liberal idea that state preferences matters in shaping international politics (Moravcsik, 199728).

To conclude, under that optimistic view, the peace granted by the U.S. domination has allowed the world to solve in a deep way “the problems of Hobbes, that is, anarchy and power insecurities”29, and therefore “to take advantage of the opportunities of Locke, that is, the construction of open and rule-based relations”30, which hopefully will keep the world in a virtuous circle despite the decline of U.S. and Western hegemony.

A question would therefore remain: is the orphan world ready?


1 The concept of “The West” will encompass in this text Western States, and will not necessarily be representative of the Western civilian society.  Western States include, roughly, the EU countries plus the U.S., Canada and Australia.

2 See for example David A. Baldwin, “Power and International Relations”, Handbook of International Relations 2013

3 Robert Dahl, “The concept of power” Behavioral Science 2:3

4 This article takes the position that a main component of what one calls “International Relations” is the relation between the States, and in particular, the power relations that encapsulate those relations. This means that it ignores other issues and/or point of views of the international sphere. For one critical discussion of this perspective, see Wendt’s 1992 classical article « Anarchy is What States Make of It: the Social Construction of Power Politics”.

5 Trends in world military expenditures, SIPRI, 2013.

6 Chrisopher Layne, “The unipolar exit: beyond the Pax Americana”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24:2

7 Barack Obama’s environmental policy has been more ambitious than its predecessors’, but needless to say that results have been scarce, especially given the Congress’ opposition to tough environmental policies.

8 For example, some argue that America’s counter-terrorist policy may be fundamentally ineffective: see for example Jenna Jordan, “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist groups Survive Decapitation Strikes” International security 38:4


10 Not to be confounded with Democratic Realism, which is a realist version of Democratic Globalism, and which was Krauthammer’s main concept for the new U.S. foreign policy.

11 Dafoe, Oneal and Russett,  “The Democratic Peace: Weighing the Evidence and Cautious Inference”, International Studies Quarterly 57

12 China’s dictatorial state increasingly made use of market-based mechanisms, a movement initiated most notably by Deng Xiaoping – for a more deep analysis, see for example Chang-Tai Hsieh and Pete Klenow (2009), “Misallocation and Manufacturing TFP in China and India”:

13 Source: World Bank


15 Competing explanations obviously exist, such as the spread of nuclear weapons during the same period.

16 Acemoglu, Robinson, and Verdier (2014) “Asymmetric Growth and Institutions in an Interdependent

world” For a discussion, see

17 Chriostpher Layne, “This Time It’s Real: The End of Unipolarity and the Pax Americana”, International Studies Quarterly 56

18 Sean Starrs, “American Economic Power Hasn’t Declined—It Globalized! Summoning the Data and Taking Globalization Seriously”, International Studies Quarterly 57

19 See for example Yuen Foong Khong “Primacy or world Order?”, International Security 38:3

20 As was reported to me by a colleague, some argue that China perceive itself as a country surrounded by “barbaric” nations with whom it wants nothing to do with, and the construction of the Great Wall is a projection of that idea. This may explain why a concept like “foreign policy” is not necessarily natural for Chinese leaders. A good reference on the subject is On China, by Henry Kissinger.

21 Seva Gunisky, “From Shocks to Waves: Hegemonic Transitions and Democratization in the Twentieth Century” International Organization 68:3

22 Charles Kupchan “After pax Americana: benign power, regional integration, and the sources of a stable multipolarity”, International Security 23:2

23 Chrisopher Layne, “The unipolar exit: beyond the Pax Americana”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 24:2

24 Liberal stands here in its classical, Kantian sense, as opposed to neoliberalism.

25 . I realized after writing the core of the present article that some of his development are fairly similar to what are presented here, which happens to be a pure coincidence, or rather illustrates the fact that I probably share some of the same analytical lenses with which he views the world.

26 Ibid.

27 Even if we mock them, we often forget how important the UN, the IMF and the world Bank have become.

28 Andrew Moravcsik “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics”, International Organization 51


30 Ibid.

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