The question of whether another state would rise to challenge US hegemony became relevant in the 1990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union left the United States with seemingly unprecedented might. It became even more pressing after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as the second Bush administration aspired to a military preponderance that could not be matched by any combination of competitors. "Realist" theorists and commentators intoned that in a world of sovereign nation-states, such an asymmetry would necessarily be intolerable to all non-hegemonic states. As a result, a search for a new equilibrium would emerge, either spontaneously as middle sized countries acted collectively to contain the new gorilla on the block, or by dint of painful institutional learning and construction by far-sighted statesmen. Although it is still unclear which, if either, of these outcomes will emerge, the balance of power mantra continues to be the dominant framework for understanding global dynamics: it is the ideology of foreign policy as scripted, in effect, by Clint Eastwood.
But I believe the very premise of this debate reflects a view of world politics that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Indeed, the notion of a balance of power, no matter how tough-minded and realistic it may seem, will come to make much less sense for mid-21st century international politics. The important issue will not be whether some international association such as the European Union or some new powerful contender such as China will rise to constrain current US dominance. The issue will be whether states, or associations of states, will be effective international actors in the face of such forces as religious militance, mass migration, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the new economic inequalities emerging from market-driven globalization.
I am not claiming that these tendencies cannot be mitigated with intelligent policies. Nor do I argue that we will not move beyond international confrontations that are dangerous in a traditional sense, such as those presented by North Korea, Iran, the future of Taiwan, or even the potential recklessness of US interventionism. In his outspoken address to international delegates in Munich this February, President Putin issued a denunciation of US intervention that sounded like an old-style call for a containment coalition-this time geared toward restraining Washington.
Indeed, many of his criticisms were perfectly justified, especially with respect to the United States' hardly veiled ambitions for enhanced missile defense and weapons in space. But for now, Russia is in no position to lead such a coalition. Its concern about awakening Islamic separatism within its own Muslim territories precludes an easy rallying of Iran and Middle Eastern states. Moscow remains anxious in its own right about Iranian nuclear ambitions. And its ham-handed control of oil does not make it easy for the Kremlin to wean Germany and other European states away from their longstanding NATO commitments. Unipolar dominance, as Putin implies, is an abnormal historical condition. It will change-but not due to the emergence of a traditionally conceived coalition designed to contain the United States. What is more, Putin's mindset seems itself anachronistic. Unless Washington rekindles a dangerous and reckless arms race, balance of power responses will be overshadowed by more ubiquitous perils that have little to do with an equilibrium among states. Indeed, the entire notion of power as possessed by nation-states is evaporating beneath our feet. To understand this deliquescence, we must briefly recall all the arenas in which power is exercised--not just the international sphere.
Identifying Sites of Power
Let us reflect for a moment on the idea of power, not merely as a parameter of international relations, not merely as "hard" or "soft," but as a resource for organizing collective life. …