Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

America’s decline VI

If global power is no longer vertical, but horizontal, and the important thing is to be at the centre of a web of connections, does this guarantee US hegemony for the decades to come

Returning to the January/February 2009 issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs, I reviewed in a previous article in Al-Ahram Weekly the essay by US commentator Roger Altman and started reviewing a further article by commentator Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The first article claimed that the financial crisis that started in 2008 would have geopolitical consequences. The West would be unable to undertake new projects for many years as a result, Altman said, and China would doubtless seize the opportunity to increase its influence in world affairs. The second article said that there were now two world systems. There was an older one, in which states collided with one another and in which military and economic power mattered. In this system the US was experiencing a “relative decline”. However, in the second system, the newer, interconnected one, the US had a crucial, probably decisive, edge, Slaughter said.

I cautiously avoided an assessment of Altman’s predictions at the time, but I feel now that some indications might be in order. He has proved to be right when he said that the financial crisis would impede the West’s capacities and self-confidence. And as he also pointed out, China and Russia have tried to seize the opportunity to hugely improve their standing and to maximise their gains. Yet, in doing so they may have overreached. These two revisionist countries now face severe problems and may have opened up too many fronts. In contrast, the outlook for the US does not look too bad, provided that its political leadership does not mess things up.

However, the assertion that “the financial crisis has had geopolitical consequences,” plausible as it looks, deserves further critical scrutiny. Let us assume that the main consequences of the financial crisis have included the premature US retreat from Iraq and its failure to properly handle the situation in Afghanistan. In order to prove Altman correct, we would need to be able to plausibly claim that: the brusque US withdrawal from Iraq was either necessary or by far the best option; the Syrian revolution, the internationalisation of the Syrian question, and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group are the direct and inescapable consequences of this withdrawal; once this had happened the massive exodus of Syrian and Iraqi people to the European countries was unescapable; and this exodus will necessarily lead to the demise of the European Union and to a general decline of the Old Continent.

It is clear that this causal chain is fragile. All its elements are debatable, to say the least. Of course, we could improve the argument by saying that a decline in capacity led to the withdrawal, which in turn led to a decline in US leverage. Washington no longer had either the means or the prestige to dissuade regional actors from trying to fill the resulting vacuum, with their subsequent “collision” leading to a disastrous collapse in the Middle East. The blunders were committed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, among others, in this reading, including the Iranian leaders in Tehran.

In other words, the link between declining capacity and geopolitical decline is not straightforward. The US retreats, the regional actors blunder, the US can no longer prevent unfortunate things happening, and the outcome is “geopolitical decline”. But questions remain: did the US really no longer have that leverage? Did it ever have the kind of leverage needed to handle a crisis of the current magnitude?

There are no clear answers to these questions. However, my own answer, though I might change my opinion, is that former US president Barack Obama was too slow and wasted precious months in his response to the crisis in the Middle East as he did not realise the seriousness of the situation and the destructive dynamics of the ongoing conflicts.

Acting more quickly would have been less costly. Of course, a final assessment is premature. We still do not know, for instance, whether the final outcome will strengthen Russia or weaken it.

Returning to Slaughter’s article, in this she analyses the changing patterns of global business. This is not just about outsourcing, she says, as today there is a new “globally connected system” in which hierarchy and control lose out to community, collaboration and self-organisation, with no central command distributing tasks and missions. To be more accurate (her formulation is vague), the central command plays a much smaller role in the new system.

“A company can be quite small, often no more than a central node of leaders and manager-integrators. But with the right networks it can reach anywhere innovators, factories, and service providers can be found,” Slaughter comments, adding that only the well-connected will survive in such a world. Today’s NGOs are well-connected, building coalitions that keep growing and gaining in clout and lobbying ability. Bankers, governments, international organisations and terrorists, she says, are following the same path and are trying to be “connected” to varying and multiple partners, to have access to multiple sources of knowledge, and to gain flexibility and power.

She adds that “the power that flows from this type of connectivity is not the power to impose outcomes […]. Networked power flows from the ability to make the maximum number of valuable connections. The next requirement is to have the knowledge and skills to harness that power to achieve a common purpose.” She concludes that “if, in a networked world, the issue is no longer relative power but centrality in an increasingly dense global web, then the explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship occurring today will provide many more points of possible connection.”

I might be unable to understand the subtlety of her argument. It seems to me that she is saying two different things that could be summed up by saying that power is no longer vertical, but is horizontal, and the important thing is to be at “the centre” of the web with the greatest numbers of connections. It is also important to understand that the ability to (unilaterally) impose outcomes is declining and that now the main issue is to build coalitions sharing the same goal. In this new game, the US has the best resources and is most likely to win, Slaughter says.

I tend to agree with the conclusion, while adding that the US commentator Robert Kagan, the most brilliant of the US neo-conservatives, would likely disagree with her on one point: that the US is also the strongest power in the older world system and thus remains the most relevant. My questions would also be different ones, however. Is the connected world really horizontal? Does “common purpose” hide or overlook power relations? And does power presuppose hierarchy and verticality?

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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