Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

THE BUCK STOPS HERE: The Return of US Decline

Academic journal article World Review of Political Economy

THE BUCK STOPS HERE: The Return of US Decline

Article excerpt

While scholars and researchers pore over the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), and policymakers grapple with the dilemma of reconciling continuity, reform and legitimacy, the additional challenges posed by the rise of China, the recovery of Russia, random terror attacks, and the apparent stalling and even reversal of globalization have reawakened interest in a post-hegemonic world. Predictions of US decline were commonplace during the 1970s and 1980s-historian Paul Kennedy caught the mood and gave it teleological form (Kennedy 1987). But Soviet collapse and a unipolar moment accompanied by the "new economy" and financial innovation appeared to restore the US to global supremacy, prior to stark failure in Iraq beginning in 2003 and then the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Decline is back on the agenda. The books under review here address the projection of power by the US government, from its emergence as first a regional and then global hegemon (Thompson 2015) to its ability to maintain global primacy (Kirshner 2014; Viotti 2014), subject to domestic political constraints (Thompson 2015; Viotti 2014; Wallach 2015).

How It All Began

John A. Thompson is a historian whose original focus was the Progressive Era, encompassing the first two decades of the twentieth century. This gave way to an enduring interest in US foreign policy, especially as it evolved during that period. In A Sense of Power (Thompson 2015), he charts the transformation of the US from a relatively insular actor to one that, within half a century, bestrode the world as a fully engaged and assertive hegemon.

Thompson (2015) is eager to dispel reductionist notions that would attribute the rise of US hegemony to a single source. "The provision of security is the prime raison d'etre of all states" (8), but in Thompson's view "since the late nineteenth century, there have been no 'wars of necessity' for the United States" (xi).

Nevertheless, inter-state rivalry is somewhat casually dismissed. The SpanishAmerican War of 1898 is treated as "clearly a response to external events rather than being motivated by an internally generated desire for overseas territorial expansion" (29). While acknowledging Theodore Roosevelt's energetic advocacy of intervention, Thompson places greater emphasis on cautious improvisation guided ultimately by the strategic doctrines of Captain A. T. Mahan, whose The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) is described by Perry Anderson as "the entrance of the United States into the intellectual arena of Weltpolitik" (Anderson 2013, 8).

The almost accidental nature of US expansion, in Thompson's telling, is encapsulated in his portrayal of the sinking of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, an unexpected success that allowed the US to link up with Emilio Aguinaldo's rebels against the Spanish colonial occupation, only for President McKinley to decide that independence would "lead to anarchy and a scramble for influence among the European powers currently competing for concessions in China" (30). Thompson mentions in passing that the US was among those competitors, participating in the suppression of China's Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (32). He makes no mention of its prior participation in the second Opium War of 1856-60, despite the "lack of interest on the part of the Chinese for American products" (Moore 2015, 15). Nor does he make any mention of the contemporaneous "opening" of Japan by Commodore Perry in 1854 (Feifer 2006).

The "economic interpretation" of history that was formulated by E.R.A. Seligman (1907) as a kind of depoliticized (read: deMarxified; Williams 1959) historical materialism, popularized by Charles A. Beard in his study of the US Constitution (Beard 1913), and later developed by William Appleman Williams and the Wisconsin School of historians, alongside its Marxist counterparts, is rejected by Thompson on the grounds of the relative insignificance of foreign trade and investment as a proportion of gross national product (GNP), especially as compared with that of Britain (16-20). …

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