The end of US liberal hegemony

February 14, 2019 18:16
American liberal hegemony has become increasingly unsustainable as the world has moved to being multipolar from unipolar. Photo: Reuters

In his New Year speech for 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that "we’re facing a period of major change never seen in a century.”

So what is likely to come to an end and what is likely to emerge in this “period of major change”?

According to a number of prestigious international relations scholars in the United States, such as Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, Barry Posen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, among all the things that are likely to disappear in the future is American hegemony.

In his new book, "The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities", Mearsheimer has declared in no uncertain terms the end of the US “liberal hegemony”.

Mearsheimer noted that since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the US has been adopting a global strategy of facilitating its liberal hegemony in order to serve three goals: 1. to promote, around the globe, US democratic ideologies as a set of universal values; 2. to facilitate the integration of countries in the world into the global market and the free economic system, and 3. to establish supranational bodies to regulate other nations on American terms.

Mearsheimer contends that the reason why the US has been embracing this strategy over the past 30 years is that, subjectively speaking, both the Republican and Democratic elites in Washington are firm believers in a set of libertarian ideologies, and have acquired a sense of superiority.

As a result, these US elites would often attempt to shape the world based on America’s own facets.

Then, objectively speaking, under the unipolar world order following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the US has remained the world’s superpower which is basically free to do whatever it wants.

It is against such a unique historical background that the world has witnessed, over the past two decades, America’s active and successive military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, not to mention the suppression of Iran, the facilitation of the eastward expansion of NATO, as well as its roles in the “Color Revolutions” in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring.

Under the US liberal hegemony, the sovereignty of other nations is often pushed to the sidelines.

However, ironically, the fact that the US has been throwing its weight around on the world scene hasn’t made it stronger.

Moreover, according to the statistics of some independent institutions, the number of countries around the world that practice liberal democracy has actually gone into decline.

As Mearsheimer has put it, what happened over the last two decades around the world has indicated that nationalism and pragmatism have always been able to prevail over liberalism.

And the American liberal hegemony has become increasingly unsustainable as today’s world has changed from being unipolar to multipolar, looking from an objective perspective of the world situation.

In particular, the 2008 global financial tsunami has taken a heavy toll on the soft power of the US.

And since US President Donald Trump was voted into office in 2016 with a strong public mandate of making America great again, he has radically deviated from the policy approach adopted by the traditional political establishment in Washington, and subverted the original goals of the US liberal hegemony.

Under his “America First” policy, Trump has replaced free trade with protectionism, and pulled his country out of international organizations and treaties one after another.

Mearsheimer believes Trump’s rise to power has officially marked the end of the global strategy of promoting liberal hegemony adopted by the US over the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, as some American scholars have pointed out, the demise of the US liberal hegemony doesn’t necessarily mean Washington would totally give up pursuing global predominance in the days ahead. Nor does it mean the US would stop interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs.

The US will have to adjust its policy in order to stay relevant in global affairs.

As to how America should adjust its policy approach in order to adapt to a multipolar world, it is a complicated issue that involves intense partisan struggle in Washington.

The recent political drama over the proposed wall along the US-Mexico border can be seen as an example of the intensity of the political struggle in the US.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for Home Affairs