America's Journey to Hegemony and Its Challenges

Koji Murata


"Hegemony" became a popular subject of discussion in the realm of international politics at the end of the 1970s, when the US hegemony began to waver. According to Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, a hegemonic system is a situation in which "one state is powerful enough to maintain the essential rules governing interstate relations, and willing to do so." 1 The United States did not always possess such power and will. At the end of the 19th century, the United States became the world's most powerful economy, but its military power was poor. It was not until the end of World War II that the United States acquired the military strength corresponding to its economic power and became determined to maintain international rules. With the end of the Cold War, the United States experienced the "unipolar moment." However, the dissolution of the "Cold War consensus" made it difficult for the country to remain committed to being the guardian of international rules and order. Thus, since the turn of the 21st century, the shaking of the liberal international order that the United States had taken the lead in developing has again come to the fore for earnest discussion. 2

Masataka Kosaka, an eminent political scientist from Japan, once argued that international politics is a complex of a system of power, a system of interests, and a system of values. 3 If values as the centerpiece are complemented by power and interests, we could exert what has been termed "soft power" in recent years. Furthermore, science and technology have recently come to have an immense impact on this "trinity" of international politics.

In this paper, we will first trace the history of the United States as a "hegemonic power" from the combined perspectives of the above-mentioned "trinity" of international politics and American domestic politics. Then, we will examine what changes are occurring to the "US hegemony" and what challenges the United States will face in the future, given that, with the ending of the post-Cold War era, many discuss inter-power competition.

The Cold War Era

At the end of World War II, the United States accounted for half of the world's GDP and 80% of currency holdings. In 1945-49, the country also monopolized nuclear weapons. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the United States rapidly increased its defense budget. It had many allies and military bases abroad. Furthermore, the United States founded and led the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

The war-torn Soviet Union, on the other hand, suffered 20 million deaths in World War II. Therefore, it had to exploit Eastern Europe that it occupied. This was made possible by the superiority of Soviet conventional forces in Europe. The ideology of communism, which had fought fascism, acquired legitimacy and support. Thus, comparing the United States and the Soviet Union, the former held an overwhelming advantage in the system of interests and a relative advantage in the systems of power and values.

Moreover, learning lessons from its isolationism in the interwar period, the United States was ready to use such advantages to maintain a favorable international environment for itself and its allies and friends. In this context, the title of Secretary of State Dean Atchison's memoir, Present at the Creation, is connotative. 4

But in due course, American dominance became relative. The US share of the world's GDP also declined from 40% in 1960 to 30% in 1970 due to the massive post-war reconstruction and development in Western Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, the Communist bloc expanded in geography and population. In 1960, the GDP of the Soviet Union was the same as that of West Germany, and that of China was comparable to France. In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Soviet Union embarked on a large-scale buildup of its nuclear forces. The United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence in the economically weaker but more populated Third World; part of the reason that the United States enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and set out to overcome racial discrimination at home was to improve its image in the Third World. However, the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War and was obliged to suspend the convertibility of the US dollar to gold in 1971. At the United Nations, US influence became relative due to the growing membership of developing countries. Assassinations, riots, and scandals at home undermined US democratic values. In terms of the "trinity" of international politics, the United States was exhausting its power. At that time, even a reputed scholar, Yonosuke Nagai, went so far as to discuss the "dismantling of America." 5

In the meantime, the Soviet Union also damaged its international profile due to its military intervention in the Prague Spring of 1968; its economy fell into a prolonged decline after reaching a peak, which accounted for 40% of the US GDP in 1970. On top of these, the Soviet Union was at odds with China, and in 1979, it undertook a military intervention in Afghanistan, falling into the same rut as the United States did in the Vietnam War.

Thus, as the United States and the Soviet Union exhausted their national power, the hegemonic stability theory began to be discussed, as if out of nostalgia for what had vanished. The nuclear capabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union had almost reached parity. Soviet expansionism led to the collapse of détente, and a new Cold War began. The strategic triangle of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union was in flux. However, as its "command" ebbed, the United States sought to procure the consent of its allies by utilizing the developed countries summit (today's G7) and the private-sector Trilateral Commission.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan came to power, advocating a "strong America" and a "shining city on a hill." He aimed to restore the United States, focusing on the systems of power and values. In terms of the system of interests, however, America's trade and budget "twin deficits" ballooned. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev appeared in 1985 and boldly promoted perestroika and glasnost. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union, which spent 5-6% of its GNP on defense, could not win the arms race with the United States. Its economy was exhausted, and the appeal of socialism faded as reforms proceeded. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall began to fall. With the collapse of East Germany, the Cold War came to an end. At the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, its GDP had shrunk to 13% of that of the United States. The "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century" (Vladimir Putin) had been predestined.

The United States' successful implementation of the "containment" strategy over an extended period is widely credited for the end of the Cold War. Fundamentally, however, it was caused by the Soviet Union's self-made blunder. Both countries lost much in terms of the "trinity" of international politics, but the Soviets lost more. In the first half of the Cold War era, the United States had behaved in a manner worthy of a hegemon, but not so in the latter half. Eventually, the challenge from the Soviet Union united the will of the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union's failure saved the United States from the depletion of its power. Will anything like that occur in future US-China relations?

The Post-Cold War Period

A large-scale regional conflict that occurred toward the end of the Cold War era was the Gulf War. When Iraq's Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed neighboring Kuwait, the G. H. Bush administration orchestrated UN Security Council Resolution 678 and led coalition forces to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Bush administration had obtained a congressional resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. In the end, the coalition forces suffered only 500 casualties in the war. On diplomatic, military, and domestic fronts, the Bush administration won a complete victory. President Bush proposed a "New World Order" based on three major principles: the prevention of aggression, cooperation among major powers, and emphasis on the United Nations.

But because of this complete victory, the United States in the 1990s abhorred war casualties, and "zero casualties" became its obsession.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States lost its partner in great power cooperation and became the sole superpower. Shortly afterward, Japan's bubble economy collapsed. The United States faced many new challenges. First, the Cold War consensus eroded in the ally countries and even within the United States. Second, the disappearance of the Soviet bloc led to the globalization of the economy and information, and, as a result, the disparity between the rich and the poor widened in many countries, including the United States. Third, the influx of immigrants and the development of communications and information technology were conducive to the fragmentation of American society and political polarization. Fourth, there was a generational shift in American leadership, as represented by the advent of President Bill Clinton (born 1946). Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Donald Trump are the same age; Joe Biden is four years senior to them. None of them served in Vietnam. These "Baby Boomers" were not "present at the creation" of the postwar order.

Because of these changes, the United States failed to deal effectively with many post-Cold War regional conflicts. Meanwhile, the United States pursued a policy of aggressive engagement with an economically rising China while expanding NATO eastward to Russia's anxiety.

At the turn of the 21st century, the US GDP decreased to account for about 25% of the world economy but was still more than twice that of second-place Japan, five times that of third-place Germany, nearly eight times that of China, and 32 times that of Russia. In addition, US military technology was outstanding, and US military expenditures surpassed those of the top ten countries after the United States combined. However, because of its superiority in power, the United States was provoking strong opposition, especially from developing countries.

The divide within the United States also deepened, and in the 2000 presidential election, G. W. Bush became a "minority president." He lost the national popular vote but won the electoral vote. American society diversified, and the percentage of whites in the total population dropped from 83% in 1980 to 75% in 2000.

Consequently, the new Bush administration advocated "compassionate conservatism" at home and a "compassionate nation" as a diplomatic appeal. However, encountering the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush's America pushed forward with the "war on terror." After the attack on Afghanistan, President Bush called Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil" and planned to attack Iraq, accusing it for the production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. Anxiety about the rise of American unilateralism grew even among major allies. The United Kingdom was in favor of the campaign, whereas France and Germany were opposed to it. Their interpretations of UN Security Council Resolution 1441 were not alike.

The United States started the war and won an overwhelming victory. But it was by no means a complete victory. First, even though the United States occupied all of Iraq, it failed to discover any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the number of US troops killed and wounded amounted to 4,600 and 32,000, respectively, much worse than in the Gulf War.

The period between the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989) and the September 11 terrorist attacks (September 11, 2001) and the period between the end of the Gulf War (1991) and the outbreak of the Iraq War (2003) were, so to speak, an "overlapping interwar period." 6 This period would have constituted an opportunity for the United States to be "present at the creation" of a "new world order" and to become a hegemonic power as was in the first half of the Cold War era. However, its leadership was too inexperienced to take advantage of that opportunity and was dragged down by domestic politics. Some point out that "there was only a unipolar structure and the illusion of harmony (euphoria) predicated on market fundamentalism but not a strategy for cooperation." 7 The "war on terror" also made it impossible for the United States to be fully vigilant against China and Russia. The United States, China, and Russia each contributed to upheavals in the postwar liberal international order. Afterward, the UK's contribution followed suit in the form of Brexit.

Furthermore, on September 15, 2008, the Bush administration resigned following the Lehman crisis. Once again, the United States decreased its power in the "trinity" of international politics. The advent of Barack Obama, the first black president in history, seemed to promise changes in the United States. Externally, the Obama administration staged a shift from unilateralism under the Bush administration to a course of international cooperation. However, Obama's advent provoked conservatives at home, furthering political polarization. Although President Obama contributed to improving the US image in the system of values, he was busy extinguishing the Lehman crisis in the system of interests while exhibiting much restraint in the use of military force in the system of power. He declared that America is not the world's policeman, implying inward-looking unilateralism.

In 2010, China overtook Japan in GDP to become the world's second-largest economy. Contrary to US expectations, China did not democratize nor behave as a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community. In 2012, Xi Jinping came to power and began adopting expansionist policies under the slogan "the great revival of the Chinese nation." In the same year, Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency. In 2014, the Obama administration proposed an "Asian rebalance strategy" in response to the rapid rise of China. In the meantime, Russia abandoned its cooperative stance toward the United States and Europe and annexed Crimea, exploiting the US strategy's focus on Asia. Here, a new configuration of international politics emerged in which China and Russia are hostile to the United States.

The American people's reaction to this situation was the election of Donald Trump. Trump ridiculed the liberal international order, was indifferent to alliances and the balance of power, and held fast to "America First-ism." He skillfully used social networking services (SNS) to promote domestic political polarization. Although Trump dismissed Obama's politics, they were alike in adopting an inward-looking stance associated with intervention fatigue. Trump reacted shrewdly to secure short-term economic gains and, as a consequence, harbored hostility toward China. He sided with the logic of the balance of power. Moreover, as the coronavirus pandemic spread and his reelection loomed, Trump's stance toward China became increasingly harsh.

In the 2020 presidential election, Biden defeated Trump by a narrow margin. Trump supporters, upset with the election result, attacked the Capitol. President Biden resumed an alliance-oriented diplomacy, but his hard-line stance toward China is not different from that of the Trump administration. In other words, the United States is facing simultaneously a civil war and a Cold War crisis. Biden took over the inward-looking stance from Obama and Trump; the 2021 poor withdrawal from Afghanistan testifies to this. In the following February, the skilled and well-informed Putin invaded Ukraine. 8

The Era of Great Power Competition—The Future of the "Hegemonic Powers"

The post-Cold War era was over, and the period of great power competition began, involving the United States, China, Russia, and the emerging India.

Today, people talk about upheavals in the liberal international order; the current juncture may resemble the 1970s when the hegemonic stability theory drew wide attention. 9

First, in the 1970s, the United States was decreasing its power in the "trinity" of international politics and was no longer a hegemonic power in the sense that it had been in the first half of the Cold War era but a limited "hegemon." The United States today has also missed an opportunity to recapture hegemony during the "overlapping interwar period" and is no more than an extremely limited "hegemon" in terms of capability and will. Now, as in those days, the United States is suffering intervention fatigue from a long series of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In addition, in the 1970s, the strategic triangle of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union drastically changed, and the provocative policies adopted by the Soviet Union resulted in a new Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The current strategic triangle of the United States, China, and Russia is undergoing changes—changes in a direction unfavorable to the United States. If the US-China confrontation continues to intensify, a situation similar to the Cold War will emerge. China's GDP is more than 70% of the US GDP; China is much more formidable than the Soviet Union. Today, science and technology have a significant impact on the "trinity" of international politics; China may go so far as to exploit this situation to gain an advantage over the United States. At least in the field of nuclear forces, the bipolar structure of power between the United States and Russia will shift to a tripolar structure of power between the United States, China, and Russia. However, unlike the Soviet Union, today's China stands at the forefront of the global economy, which imposes limitations to the US-China confrontation. China is not attempting to export a particular ideology or way of life to the rest of the world. Americans are more ideology-oriented.

Moreover, now, as in those days, the American public's distrust of the government and elites is growing, and political polarization is increasing. Richard Nixon resigned before facing impeachment. Trump was impeached twice and has faced many lawsuits. Political leaders who followed the two men likewise called for reconciliation but failed to show strong leadership. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s were short-lived, weak presidents. Nobody could deny that Joe Biden is likely to follow the same fate.

What, then, should the United States do to maintain its limited "hegemony" and to ease the US-China Cold War?

First, it must endeavor to procure formal and informal consent from its allies and extend this to the Global South. The Global South countries have much greater economic power and more potential than the developing countries had during the Cold War era. Developing countries' share of the global economy is 40% today, compared to 20% in 1990. China may seem like a more convenient partner for them. But they must be persuaded that the United States and its allies are a more dependable and consistent partner to address global challenges in cooperation. The multipolar structure of power that China and Russia recommend is a world where the law of the jungle prevails while the United States and its allies seek to share power, interests, and values. To persuade the Global South countries of this, the United States and its allies must listen to the diverse voices of the Global South. Japan has a major role to play to this end.

The United States must maintain constant communication channels with China and Russia. It could become a "dismal détente." The Soviet empire collapsed abruptly in 1991 as if the Soviet threat theory in the 1970s had been an illusion. China's economic growth has recently slowed, and its total fertility rate has fallen to 1.3. On the contrary, the US population is expected to reach 400 million by 2100. We must analyze and prepare for not only the threat of a "strong China" but also the threat of a "fragile China."

We must also find ways to link these diplomatic efforts to domestic politics. Domestic unity and stability are essential to survive the long period of "dismal détente" and great power competition. Without it, there would be no restoring the system of values. International cooperation on Ukraine's postwar reconstruction is a new opportunity to be "present at the creation," or such experience may have a "rehabilitation" effect on American democracy.

Political polarization in the United States is serious, but we should not be excessively pessimistic. How will the political landscape change once Trump, a particular political personality, is gone, or the Baby Boomer generation to which he belongs exits? The percentage of whites in the US population has now dropped to 61%. Will the day ever come when white Christian males will accept being the "majority minority"? Is it possible to find a stable relationship between SNS and politics, as was once the case between politics and newspapers, radio, and television?

To address these challenges, international competitiveness, area studies, and the development of the next generation of human resources are paramount, and universities have a significant role to play in these domains.

Throughout history, the decline of the United States has repeatedly become a subject of discussion. Each time, however, the United States made a comeback in some way or another. People alternately said, "America will return this time, too," or "it will be otherwise this time." Many periods of American history have been marked by things like the rise of populists similar to Trump and the failure of interventions such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars. "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes." Does this adage by Mark Twain remain true?

Professor Masataka Kosaka, who I quoted at the outset of this article, concludes his book with the following sentence: "We cannot help being skeptical, but we must not despair. It is the duty of a doctor, a diplomat, and humans." 10 This is particularly relevant to scholars of American studies as they ponder the future of the United States.

(Professor, Doshisha University)

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