The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

4.2 The future of the liberal world reconsidered

The three-point outline of the prospects for US power in a post-Cold-War world, given above, now looks somewhat different.

First, the very success of the USA in fashioning this order and hence the steady expansion of its membership – as measured by the numbers of states that have joined its key institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or by the share of world output and trade accounted for by its members – is certainly undermining the economic dominance of the USA in the world economy. The latest entrants – China, India, South Korea, Mexico and Brazil (and perhaps, before long, Russia) – are reshaping it in new ways, further eroding the US economic dominance over the system as a whole. However, we can now see that this is in part at least a product of US strategy as well as a collective product of the group of leading liberal capitalist states.

Second, because important parts of this order have been based on mutual interests and collective power, and not only on the balance of distributive power, the decline of US leadership in the economic field may not lead directly to the increase in geopolitical competition foreseen by realists and Leninist analysis.

Third, the remaining military dominance of the USA may not be necessary or even sufficient to maintain cooperation within the transatlantic area. Indeed, it is arguable that the kind of collective power underlying the institutions of global economic governance rests on something very different. This implies on the one hand that the USA may not be able to translate military leadership into political leadership in the way that realists suppose, but it also means that it may not have to.

This is not to say that the conflicts within the liberal core are not important, but it does require that they be seen in context. Among the developed capitalist countries, the power of the USA in the international system and that of Americanism can be thought of in largely positive sum terms. Most of the power generated in this arena depends on cooperation, mutually advancing the interests of all.

While there will still be hard bargaining to determine the distribution of the gains from that cooperation, these should not perhaps be taken as signs of Leninist-type rivalry. The EU remains an almost entirely civilian power, and some of the disagreements over the use of force by the USA reflect this. But the reproduction of Americanism within Europe, and Europe’s own historical experience and political development, has served to ensure that the evolution of the EU has been along broadly liberal lines. Shared interests in coordination and the exercise of collective power remain a major force determining relations within the liberal core. Distributive conflicts (over the response to economic crisis or agricultural trade disputes within the WTO, for example) occur within a much broader and deeper framework of collective power. The collective production of power generated through acting as a pole of attraction and coordinating US military and economic policies with those of its capitalist allies mostly overrides distributive conflicts. Gramsci and Kautsky rather than Lenin are the better guides to intercapitalist relations here. Looking forward, however, the danger for America is that these two underlying aspects of American power begin to erode. As noted in Section 1, the fact that the economic crisis is seen to be largely an American creation undermines the attractiveness of the American model and hence one of the foundations of collective power. Shoring up collective power and reassuring allies of America’s ability to coordinate on other issues for Western states’ mutual gains (including the use of force in the rest of the world) will be one of the key challenges for Obama. However, as the next two sections will explore, the world outside the liberal core presents even more difficult problems for the USA.

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