In my latest piece on ADV, I brought up the discussion of whether the US is playing a Machiavellian game by not intervening in Syria and wider Middle East crisis. As a continuation of that discussion, on this piece, I would like to touch upon a vivid and important topic that very roughly covers the US grand strategies. In this sense, I will go over the discussion of the role of the US in the world politics. However, due to limit of space, I will leave futher elabration on the topic to another post, but try to sketch a brief of the discussion. To put the discussion into a context, let’s start with why what US does or does not is so vital for understanding the international relations.
In his book, Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger wittingly points out that “in every century, as if it is a natural law of international relations, there seems to emerge a superpower that has the “will and capacity” to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values.” As a historical fact, in the past, the dominant powers were Spain, Holland, Portugal, France, Germany and England respectively. In the late 20th and early 21st Century, no country other than the United States has had the “will and capacity” to influence the course of international relations. Indeed the US today has a unique place as a primus inter pares. With a better terminology, if we divide the countries into separate categories according to their power to influence the global affairs, the US is the only and sole superpower that still remains such. There are other great powers,of course, that can operate within a region or regions as a great power, such as China, Russia, Germany, Japan do, but there is no another superpower that can operate in a global scale as the US does. Buzan and Weaver put this with a “1+4” formula that states the US is the only superpower along with 4 other great powers (China, Russia, Germany, Japan) in the current international order. (So, according to them, there are substantial differences between superpowers and great powers in terms of capability).
Bearing in mind this structure of international order, the role of US in the world politics is an ongoing and historical debate as well as important one to assess and understand the nature and development of the current international relations. There are many books and articles on the topic. We can divide the discussion into two categories as I put it in the figure above. Within the first category, we see attempts to describe “post-Cold War order.” A couple of decades after the end of Cold War, the nature of the post Cold War order is still an unsettled issue among the scholars and the US place within this current order is a vital one to explain and understand the international relations. Thus, unsurprisingly, within the first group some argue that the emerging American hegemony after the end of the Cold War seems to meet in the near future itsWaltzian balancing (especially in Asia) (see also this and this on this point); while some other argue that American primacy can be sustained through out the next century. (See this and this too). Some other argue that what we witness is not the decline of the US, yet the rise of the rest is what’s happening in the world politics whereas some argue that there is not such a thing, and the US here to lead. (see this and this as well). As a different perspective, according to Ikenberry, the attempts to describe post-Cold War order have all failed. He accepts that the polarity of the system with the end of the Cold War has changed, but not the world order that created by the US in the middle to late 1940s, which is represented by the organizations such as IMF, WB and UN. One of the well organized reading on this side of the discussion is Layne and Thayer’s book which I would suggest to read for a brief of the debate. Here, I try to summarize the arguments in the first group. Now let’s turn to the second group of arguments regarding with the role of the US in world politics.
Within the second category, the discussion is more on the role of US should play in the international arena, not on the nature of the international order. This discussion is quite historical, one that goes back to the Monroe Doctrine. There are three distinct views on this. First, a group of writers argue that the US should stay away from the world politics as long as there is no direct threat to its motherland, which is already naturally protected by large amount of oceans. (Mearsheimerdepicts this by saying peace-loving Canada above, little brother Mexico below, Fish on the right and Fish on the left.) This view is called isolationism. The second group is quite opposite to isolationism and argues that the best interest of the US lies in the active foreign policy that intervene wherever and whenever it see fits. This position is called interventionism. For a matter of fact, the US foreign policy has historically had either isolationist or interventionist characters. However, there is a third group within this category that see best interest of the US is in the middle way which suggest selective interventions and the strategy of leading behind. For a historical record, I think, Obama’s type of presidency is more inclined with this later version of understanding of the US’s role in world politics.
As you can see from these parallel discussions on the role of the US in world politics, current international relations seems a derivation of the great power politics. That is why neo realism (and Machiavell) is still the most effective theoretical tool for understanding the nature of the international relations.
*The image created by the author.