The question of the United States’ role in the world, particularly with international institutions, has emerged as a common theme in this electoral cycle. And while this theme is a common discussion, this time is particularly unique because it highlights the intrinsic tensions between a hegemonic power exercising its influence and contributing to its own demise. Practically, this is quite terrifying, and deserves more serious discussion than we will most likely get from the election coverage, but theoretically it is also a quite interesting conundrum.
Liberal institutionalists draw the trajectory of a hegemon as follows: the hegemon, often under the protection of isolationism, grows in power, such as building up the military and developing the economy. After enough development, the hegemon needs to participate in the international community to demonstrate and continue building their military and economic power through alliances and trade, ultimately rising to hegemonic status. As a hegemon, the state faces new responsibilities as well as opportunities. For example, a hegemon can set up the international norms and institutions that will govern world order for decades to come by selectively curbing their own power for given scenarios. As another example, a hegemon can and should intervene in global affairs to tip the outcome to their preferred outcome. Even lack of success sends a rhetorical and normative message about world order, human rights, or other matters. However, these responsibilities and opportunities are costly, both politically and financially. As the hegemon grows in power, it spends more money and spreads more influence, continuing/creating/locking-in more norms, but it inevitably overspends and stretches itself too thin, and eventually leading to its decline back into a moderate or low-level global power. Classic examples that many people are familiar with is the rise and fall of the Roman or British empires.
Generally speaking, American politicians focus on the portion of the hegemonic trajectory where the state is growing and spreading influence, but not necessarily looking forward to where the growth leads to decline. This election is different because of Donald Trump, who argues that the hegemonic power is already in decline and the United States should reign in spending and influence in order to stop and reverse this decline. Returning to isolationism clearly does not actually stop or reverse the decline – if anything, it would accelerate it. But it leads to the interesting conundrum that international relations scholars deliberate.
This conundrum is perhaps most easily explained through an example, so let’s look at one of Trump’s favorite punching bags: NATO. NATO is largely seen as vital to maintaining the post-WWII and post-Cold War world order, and while in theory member states should make fair contributions to the cost of NATO, the United States continues to contribute 75% of the NATO military spending despite having only 45% of NATO’s collective GDP. True, this is not particularly fair, but, especially to a rising hegemon, it is more important to maintain the institution and the world order than to quibble about “fairness,” especially on the international public stage. If the United States took Trump’s approach and declared that it would only protect members that paid their share, then the United States would be undermining the international institution that it has already sunk so many resources into building and maintaining, as well as undermining the international norms that govern the way allies treat allies in the modern world (as well as a host of other international relations nightmares). Such isolationism would also be a way of signaling that the United States no longer lays claim to being a global hegemon, and therefore is no longer a global hegemon, which renders any cost-cutting measures to prolong the hegemonic status useless. In such a scenario, the hegemon would decline in power. If, however, the hegemon continued to shoulder the burden as before, it would also eventually decline in power, at least according to international relations theory.
So what is a hegemon in the United States’ position to do? International relations theory suggests that a hegemon is doomed if it continues to participate in hegemonic activities, and doomed if it withdraws from hegemonic activities. The practical implications of this are up for debate, but I would suggest that the best a hegemonic power can hope for is to delay decline by possibly slowing the spread and narrowing the extent of influence by focusing more directly on national interests. I think that the Obama administration understands this, but, as the last eight years have demonstrated, it is a tricky feat. Hopefully the next administration understands this as well, and can continue this effort.