The Rise and Fall of Hegemons

America’s decline and China’s rise are perhaps the two most-cited trends in global power dynamics these days. Speaking at the Carnegie Council in New York on Monday, council Vice Chairman Dr. Charles Kegley used the historical context of previous hegemons and the trajectories they followed to argue that the two trends will indeed continue, representing a transfer of power from one hegemon to its successor. How that transfer of power is handled by both will determine global security in the near future.

The Fading Power. Based on America’s historically pendulum-like swings between internationalism and isolationism, Kegley says we are now approaching a shift toward a more isolationist tone, coinciding with the expected drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next three years. That coincides with a decline in U.S. power that Kegley said resembles that of past hegemons, such as Britain and France.

Among the traits the U.S. exhibits in common with its declining hegemon predecessors, Kegley identified the following:

Exorbitant military spending. The United States’ massive military budget, which accounts for roughly 40 percent of global military spending, has left the country heavily fortified. Should Washington continue to spend at this pace, Kegley argued, the U.S. will remained fortified, but with little left to protect.

Gap between resources and commitments. With two ongoing wars and more than 750 U.S. military stations in more than 100 countries worldwide, the United States continues to stretch its resources globally. As a result, it increasingly relies on allies to help fulfill large commitments (i.e., NATO forces in Afghanistan), forfeiting power in the process.

Preoccupation with non-threatening rival. China looms in the background of most of the United States’ strategic decisions today, though Beijing has not yet been formally defined as a rival. The preoccupation with China’s rise, which is unavoidable, represents energy better spent elsewhere.

Neglect of internal development. The world’s lone superpower now ranks 38th in the world in terms of life expectancy, just one of many ways that an excessively outward-looking posture creates a weaker state.

The Rising Hegemon. Kegley argued that as China continues to gain momentum in its rise, how it chooses to wield its hegemon status will largely determine global security. He sees three scenarios for how China’s future global leadership could play out.

1. Accept global responsibilities as a benevolent hegemon. This would represent the most stable scenario.

2. Follow the familiar path of a traditional hegemon. Because of China’s size and the scope of investment capabilities, this would be a much more dangerous reality than ever before seen.

3. Most dangerously, the J-curve scenario. Continuous growth halts, replaced by stagnation that would most likely to lead to domestic rebellion and external warfare, resulting in the crumbling of China’s newly established power and its investments.

To be sure, all of these scenarios remain speculative futures. But as this transition of global power occurs, Kegley says, few things will be more decisive than how the United States takes the news that it is no longer the nation of primary relevance. Times of contested power are extremely volatile, and according to Kegley, it will be imperative for the United States to gracefully step aside when the time comes to pass on the hegemon torch.