Friday,26 May, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,26 May, 2017
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

America’s decline VII

In an interconnected world could less really count for more even for the United States

In my previous article in Al-Ahram Weekly, I started to discuss commentator Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the January/February 2009 issue of the influential US journal Foreign Affairs. Her main argument is that we are witnessing the birth of a new world order in which connections are a decisive asset. In this new world America’s edge is and will remain decisive, even if this world is also very different from the old one in which America is experiencing a relative decline.

I expressed my view on the second half of the last sentence by saying that I thought that even in “the old world” the US retained a solid lead. We may today be witnessing the end of a unipolar world, but this should not be worrying for Washington. The post-1989 situation was exceptional, with the sudden collapse of the former Soviet Empire, but exceptional situations seldom last. With China’s more recent rise, this situation has come to an end, but even so the US remains by far the best poised state for global leadership.

Regarding the new world system, I would tend to concur with Slaughter in considering America’s edge to be unmatchable. But I have problems with some of the points she makes. She draws a picture which is too rosy and one which could lead us to believe that power will disappear, or will drastically change. And she tries to convince her readers that this new world system is ideal for the US. All America’s distinctive features are assets, and not a single one could turn out to be a handicap, she says, for instance.

Consider this statement, already quoted last week, for example, that “power [in the new world] 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… in a networked world, the issue is no longer relative power, but centrality.”

This assumes that there is a new form of power that is horizontal (between equals) and not vertical (from top to bottom). This new form of power, we are told, is less binding and less restrictive than the old. While the first sentence above is probably correct, with the caveat that horizontal power or authority is not a new phenomenon, but is at least as old as Tocqueville, the second one is definitely wrong. Horizontal power can impose outcomes, even if it disguises them as “common purposes”.

Moreover, “common purposes” are not a distinctive feature of horizontal power. Vertical authority does not preclude them. I think Slaughter would accept the following assertion: that the new world system is probably a mixture of vertical and horizontal power.

Last but not least, there is the question of why centrality matters. It matters because those in the centre become the “rule-makers”, while those not in the centre become the “rules-takers”.

This discussion is not as Byzantine as it may look. Slaughter seems to believe that American leadership will be easily accepted in the new world she describes, as it will rest on horizontal power and common purposes. This is possible, but not probable. However, her main point might be different from this: she might want to say that in the new world breaking the “rules” will be costlier, opting for an “exit” will be dangerous, and accepting the “rules” would be the better option. But if this is what she means, she should have been more explicit.

This new world is full of opportunities, but it is also full of expected and unexpected threats. Let us reconsider the problem from the start of Slaughter’s article. Her dichotomy opposes an old world where countries look like billiard balls colliding with probable wins for the mightiest among them with a new one in which all of them are “connected” and in which collisions are rarer, the reigning pattern being one of horizontal collaboration.

It is easy to see that you can have collaboration in the billiard-ball world and collision in the networked one, except if you opt for the unsatisfactory tautology that when there is a collision, we are in the old world, and when we have cooperation, we are in the new one.

Then there are other questions: does being connected alter the nature of power? Does it change the nature and the numbers of those connected? Do the billiard balls simply disappear in the new world? Slaughter seems to answer the first two questions by a resounding yes, and to say that the billiard balls do not disappear, but that they are no longer impervious to their environment and learn how to work together.

I do not think being connected alters the nature of power. Power is the capacity to impose behaviours and/or outcomes. Being connected enhances the prospects for cooperation, but it also carries the risk of conflicts that can be devastating. The change in the nature of the billiard balls brings both opportunities and threats.

That said, let us consider Slaughter’s second proposition — that the US is guaranteed by its specific features to have a decisive edge in the new world. For her, the US has the “right” demography. It is not too big and not too small, and it is young and dynamic. Yet, she destroys this argument by saying that “the West’s demography is declining, and so is its hegemony and its stature.” We are no longer in the 19th century, she says.

Traditionally, territory and population translated into military and economic power. She writes that “military power depended on the number of soldiers a state could put into the field, the amount of territory an enemy had to cross to conquer it, and the economy’s ability to supply the state’s army.” States also needed a large domestic market for manufacturers and merchants to thrive. At some point trade changed this and allowed small mercantile nations to punch above their weight. Today, the richest countries in the world are not necessarily the largest: in 2007 the ten countries that had the highest GDP per capita all had populations smaller than that of New York City, with one exception — the USA.

Slaughter draws the sweeping conclusion that in this new century less is more. Beyond a necessary minimum, size will be more of a burden than a benefit for states in the new world. Now, markets and production are global, and productive members of every society generate income across multiple societies. Less-productive members are a burden on their societies, and governments have to take care of them, she says.


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

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