SCMP Thursday, September 27, 2001

Beginning of end for US hegemony


Ever since the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, subsequent developments have shown that these incidents are a watershed marking the beginning of the end of US hegemony. This is not simply a matter of speculation but is based on solid evidence. For more than 10 years since the end of the Cold War, the US has been the only superpower on Earth. Guided by a narrow sense of national interest, it has been acting without any consideration for the feelings and interests of other countries, often to the extent of sidestepping international agencies such as the United Nations, to which it has refused to pay part of its annual dues.
After years of such reckless behaviour, the term "unilateralism" has begun to be used to describe this attitude. And within a few months of George W. Bush becoming US President in January, unilateralism had reached new heights, with numerous incidents of the US breaking international treaties and other rules almost at will, such as its refusal to adopt the Kyoto protocol on global warming.
Of course, none of this justifies the terrible attacks that took place on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and I share in the sorrow that has been expressed by so many others over the loss of thousands of innocent lives.
Nonetheless, from now on, the US can no longer simply do things according to its whims and fancies. Now that it wants to nail down and eradicate the alleged terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, it has to try very hard to win the co-operation of countries, such as China and Pakistan, with which it was not previously on very good terms. It has to try even harder to solicit support from many more countries - including some so-called "rogue" nations - in order to establish a worldwide alliance against terrorism. And now that the US has to constrain itself in this way, its formerly unilateral behaviour is likely to become history.
Now that the world has seen how America, despite its military might, is so vulnerable, the world knows what the US is afraid of and how easy it is for the nation to be hurt. The US is no longer invincible, and the American homeland is no longer absolutely safe.
Although some US scholars have recently argued that US dominance is based on "soft" power in such areas as information and culture, in the final analysis, one still needs military and economic superiority in order to build hegemony. But the US has already lost its absolute military superiority, and looks very likely to also lose its economic superiority quite soon.
We all know America is now facing a recession which will plunge the world economy into a depression. The headline on an editorial in the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal last Friday succinctly summed up the economic predicament the US now faces: "To Bush, the difficulty of fighting an economic crisis is in no way easier than fighting terrorism." In the long run, when people no longer think the US is the safest place in the world and putting money in the US is the safest thing to do, the international monetary system will quickly evolve from the present uni-polar, US-dollar-based mode into a multi-polar structure. And when this happens, the US will lose its present "above-it-all" position.
Now, as we try to convince the US not to repay violence with violence and not to be dragged into a long war with no definition of victory, opinion polls suggest few Americans are listening. I have no joy in arriving at such conclusions, nor do I have any clue what is going to happen after the weakening and final downfall of US hegemony.
I have never been an admirer of US hegemony, because it means that the same country is playing the roles of rule-setter, player, arbitrator, judge and enforcer all at the same time, under the excuse of globalisation, simply in order to profit itself and its multinational companies. It definitely is not an altruistic international policeman.
But having said this, we have to admit that a world without an international policeman - no matter how unilateral and unfair - might be no better than what we have now. If the situation is handled badly, the chances are that we might come out even worse off than before. This is especially a concern given the potential for an outflow of capital from the US to accelerate the trend towards globalisation.
One of the accusations against globalisation has always been that the process is guided solely by the motive of maximising the profits of multinationals. It is a Darwinian world in which the strong bullies the weak and the large eats up the small, with no justice at all. Modern-day mercantilism has produced a monster like the World Trade Organisation, which puts free trade ahead of all other considerations such as the environment, human rights and development. Its power to impose sanctions weakens national sovereignty, even though the organisation lacks democracy and transparency.
Most developing countries are aware that globalisation is a two-edged sword but see it as a game they cannot afford to miss out on. Once it is understood that national sovereignty cannot avoid being eroded in this new world order, all countries will need to adjust proactively and quickly to this new situation. But that takes time, and until a new set of rules are devised, too rapid a deterioration in US hegemony will produce a power vacuum that can only be filled by radicals and multinationals, causing great instability and uncertainty. Japanese right-wing militarists have already seized on the occasion to propose legislation to relax restrictions on their country's self-defence forces.
If a world consensus forms around the fading-out of US hegemony and the US gracefully accepts this as a fait accompli, it should devote itself to leading the world towards establishing a new order that is more just, more rational, more democratic and more beneficial to world peace and sustainable development. The US would then be in the unique position of being the world's last hegemonist and the hegemonist that eradicates all future hegemonies.
The US might have had an opportunity to establish a brave new world some 10 years ago, after the end of the Cold War. Lacking the necessary intellectual horizon, America blew that opportunity under the leadership of George Bush, father of the current President. But now providence has put another opportunity in the hands of his son, and what happens from now on will depend on the wisdom of US citizens and their leaders.
Lau Nai-keung ( ) is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate.