Challenging Hegemony: America’s Role in 21st Century

Why is the triumph of a liberal world order after the collapse of communism still affecting the policies of the united states towards the world today?

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On December 25th, 1991 the Soviet flag flew for the last time over the Kremlin. And in that moment, the Cold War  had  ended. 45 years off  stand of  between Capitalism and Communism ended  essentially with the U.S. victorious. As the Cold War was a war of  ideology, this also meant that it was the American idea that prevailed, free market capitalism which was achieved through liberal democracy. Through the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, the U.S. grand strategy was to promote these values wherever possible. By pulling developing nations into the liberal fold, the U.S. was able to shape their economic as well as governmental policy. Using the allure of American wealth and  power, policy makers believed that they could attract other states to liberal democracies. Today, 26 years later, the U.S. still has a strategy that is based on curating and maintaining this order as they see it to be vital for the security and prosperity of the United States. Despite new challenges, the U.S. continues to be committed to upholding the liberal world order. This commitment is best shown through its involvement around the world, specifically in the Middle east, and with China.

To give us a base of what brought the idea of a liberal world order to the forefront we must look to Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama, a prominent figure within American political science who coined the term “End of History” believing that the end of the Cold War was the final decision concerning human development of societies. ‘As mankind approaches the end of the millennium, the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning have left only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy, the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty.’ (Fukuyama, 1992:42) From this point, Fukuyama saw liberal democracy as the only remaining path available for state societies. The resulting wave of democracy that spread in the 1990’s definitely supported his claim and helped create the idea of the liberal world order. Beyond simply the democratization of formerly authoritarian states, we also saw the massive expansion of free trade internationally under the guidance of the U.S.

Expanding The Liberal World Order in  the Middle East

For the U.S. expanding the world liberal order was twofold. First, opening new markets for trade allowed the U.S. to advance its economic interests and second, through bringing nations into its economic sphere, the U.S. has been able to influence their policy. ‘The United States helped expand the liberal economic trading system  to countries that did not share our values, in the hopes that these states would liberalize their economic and  political practices and provide commensurate benefits to the United States.’ (Trump, 2017:27) Therefore expanding the world liberal order has been central to U.S. policy for the past 26 years. The world we see today though is one that is very different from when the Berlin Wall fell. The challenges that U.S. foreign policy faces are also very different. When we look at the problems that the U.S. is fighting today we can see that they often revolve around continuing to uphold the idea of liberal democracy.

The first and possibly most glaring issue that has faced U.S. foreign policy has been the rise of Islamic extremism within the Middle East. Despite the attempts for reforms following the 2011 Arab Spring, the Middle east remains today to be one of the least open and free regions in the world. Freedom House, democracy and civil society focused think tank rates the region as “not free”.. As a result, the U.S. has long been committed to being involved within the region with the goals of liberalizing its members. Fukuyama even back in 1992 as he wrote of the successes of liberal democracy was aware of Islam as a competing ideology, although he would ultimately shrug off its importance. ‘Despite the power demonstrated by Islam in its current revival, however, it remains the case that this religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with.’ (Fukuyama, 1992: 46) While Fukuyama was right to consider Islam as a competing ideology, he was wrong in not seeing its possibility to of spreading outside of the region. Today we have seen its spread from the Middle East now to Europe as well through the Islamic diaspora that has been forced to leave the Middle East and attempt to live and assimilate within Europe. The causes of these events can be long debated but what is true is that the U.S has had and continues to stay committed to the region for promoting liberal institutions. One example is the involvement in Iraq. The official reasoning for invading Iraq was to find and destroy so called weapons of mass destruction. Linked with this initial mission was the ending of Iraq dictatorship under Saddam Hussain and creating a strong liberal democracy in the Middle East. This is how the Iraqi mission was described in the 2013 report on the reconstruction project within the country. ‘Securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow were the foundational rationales behind the massive U.S. assistance effort.’ (SIGIR, 2013: 10) And massive is not a hyperbole when describing the resources the U.S. put into the Iraqi project. ‘the Congressional Research Service has estimated the overall direct costs of the war at $806 billion, but that doesn’t include a whole series of war-related expenditures that probably make the actual bill much higher.’ (Caryl, 2013) The results of this massive expenditure is not the most important aspect. What is important is it shows the willingness for U.S. foreign policy to invest itself heavily in attempts to promote the ideas of liberalism abroad. And in spite of the arguable results of U.S. involvement, foreign policy today still looks to have a place in the conversation. ‘By revitalizing partnerships with reform-minded nations and encouraging cooperation among partners in the region, the United States can promote stability and a balance of power that favors U.S. interests.’ (Trump, 2017:49) Trump’s foreign policy looks to continue to work within the Middle East region in the promotion of U.S. interests which are lined up with the growth of the liberal world order. Trump may conduct his policy differently the Presidents before him, but he is still committed to the same goal in the region.

Attempts to Expand Liberal World Order  in China

The Chinese government is one of the last remaining powerful authoritarian governments remaining in the world, and also one of the U.S.’s greatest trading partners. Despite its history as a great civilization of history, China until recently has not been a major international power. But as we head further into the 21st century, we can now see China as one of the most important state actors in the international system. As China continues to grow and have the ability to spread its influence, what does this mean for the U.S. and the world liberal order? This is what makes China so important in that it is not committed to the same liberal ideas as the U.S., Europe and much of the world that has been shaped over the past 70 years since WWII. It could be argued that with China’s rise, the entire international system could be altered, going against what Fukuyama earlier said that the liberal order has won. ‘And as the world’s largest country emerges not from within but outside the established post World War II international order, it is a drama that will end with the grand ascendance of China and the onset of an Asian-centered world order.’ (Ikenberry, 2008) Therefore, U.S. strategy towards China is very much centered on pushing against the authoritarian country not just as a matter of geopolitical grand strategy but also in a move to preserve the liberal world order as a whole. The U.S.’s best strategy in this has been to bring China into the liberal world order, hoping to shape its policies and thinking much like what was done in the Middle East. In China though this has been done specifically through trade. ‘China is already deeply enmeshed in the global trading system, with a remarkable 40 percent of its GNP composed of exports — 25 percent of which go to the United States.’ (Ikenberry, 2011) The U.S. strategy has been to pull China further into the system  rather than attempting to isolate it. The logic being  that by integrated China into international liberal systems like the World Trade Organization (WTO), it will be forced to change its policies, making China more liberal in the process. And in some areas like trade, the strategy has indeed worked. In 2013, Xi Jinping announced the plan for a New Silk Road spanning from China through Eurasia towards Europe. The plan is expected to cost China $900 billion, showing a massive investment for trading in its future. The goals that China sees is the ability to reach new and developing markets and is in some ways similar to how the U.S. expanded  to developing markets in the 20th century. More recently, speaking at the Davos summit in 2017, Xi Jinping supported the need for continued free trade. ‘We must remain committed to developing free trade and investment,” Xi said, “Promote trade and  investment liberalization… and say no to protectionism.”’(Lowe 2017) While these moves by Beijing are being done in order to become a major global player who is trying to unseat U.S. hegemony, they are still following the rules of the world liberal order. And by following these rules, the U.S. is still able to benefit in protecting the U.S. as the crafter of this liberal order. The continued push to liberalize China insures that if the U.S. is to lose its status as hegemon, the world will still follow the U.S. liberal template. ‘So even as China and other rising states try to contest U.S. leadership — and there is indeed a struggle over the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the leading states within the system — the deeper international order remains intact.’ (Ikenberry, 2011) The U.S. then has been able to make sure that through the liberal world order that despite who is the most powerful, the system will remain the same.

Conclusion

When we try and grade the success of strategies and systems, we often see how well it is able to stand up to challenges and for the liberal world order this is no different. The U.S. has since taking the role as hegemon following the Cold War has made its grand strategy the promotion of this liberal world order. Today we see the continued devotion by U.S. foreign policy to the promotion of liberal institutions internationally. The strategies that the U.S. employs to face the challengers of the modern geopolitical system are still influenced by this order. In the Middle East, the U.S. has fought for the creation of a liberal system reflecting its own, and despite serious setbacks there is no signs of changing their devotion. In its dealings with China, the U.S. has always attempted to promote the liberal world order by pulling China into liberal institutions through economic incentive. The United States, following the tenants of liberalism has made its grand strategy following and promoting a world liberal order. Almost 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism, we have yet to see the U.S. change its commitment to the liberal world order. Furthermore, we do not see this policy changing in the near future as the U.S. is forced to adapt to a changing international community. As we move forward into the 21st century the U.S. will be forced to adapt to a world that will change in ways we have never seen before. But we can be sure that the way the U.S. tackles these challenges will be a reflection of the liberal institutions that have allowed it to this point to uphold the liberal world order.

Kübra Şimşek

Political Science and International Relations

Yıldız Teknik University / Istanbul

Contact: simsekkubra963@gmail.com

Bibliography

  1. Caryl, C., (2013). The Democracy Boondoggle in Iraq. [online] Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/06/the-democracy-boondoggle-in-iraq/ [Accessed 15 Apr. 2018]
  2. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2008-01-01/rise-china-and-future-west
  3. Freedom House, 2018, Middle East and North Africa. [online] Available at: https://freedomhouse.org/regions/middle-east-and-north-africa [Accessed 15 Apr. 2018]
  4. Fukuyama, F., 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: The Free Press
  5. Ikenberry, J., 2008, The Rise of China and the Future of the West. Can the Liberal System Survive?, Foreign Affairs (January/February 2008) Available at:
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  7. Lowe, J., (2017). China’s Xi Jinping Tells Davos:’No One Will Emerge as a Winner in a Trade War.’. [online] Available at : http://www.newsweek.com/china-xi-jinping-world-economic-forum-speech-keynote-davos-543446 [Accessed 15 Apr. 2018
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