Unipolar Disorder

Survival: Volume 52, Issue 1 February 2010, pages 187 – 190

Follies of Power: America’s Unipolar Fantasy
David P. Calleo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
25.00/$30.00. 176 pp.

David Calleo has spent most of his professional life attacking America’s claim to global hegemony. He has always said it was bad for the world, and bad for America. In the Cold War period his attack on American pretensions was made on behalf of Europe. America’s vision of a Pax Americana left no room for Europe to breathe. Now it leaves no room for anyone else to breathe.

In his latest book, Calleo provides a brilliant, sustained argument against America’s ‘unipolar fantasy’ – crudely, the belief that the United States can and should run the world. America, he suggests, was born with a ‘unipolar gene’ which has made it either isolationist or imperial. The excluded middle way, which Calleo has always favoured, is pluralism. The unipolar temptation was checked during the Cold War, but when bipolarity ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union, America instinctively opted for unipolarity rather than multipolarity. This was a mistake, according to Calleo, not only because the United States lacks the capacity to be a global hegemon, but because any such condition would be morally repugnant.

America’s unipolar fantasy, Calleo argues, derives from four fundamental assumptions, about the country’s irresistible ‘soft power’; its incomparable ‘hard power’; its invulnerability to ‘overstretch’; and its legitimacy. The first three are about capacity, while the last involves morality. Calleo dismisses all four. ‘Soft power’ does not stop anti-Americanism: ‘Terrorists eat at McDonald’s, wear blue jeans, and download popular music’. The so-called successes of ‘soft power’ in transforming Germany and Japan into democracies after the war depended on the presence of American armies of occupation, and this will also be true of the much less promising venture in Iraq. So the question is whether America’s ‘hard power’ is up to the job of policing the world. Calleo thinks not. Although American hard power remains incomparable, it has to work harder. During the Cold War, American forces were required to police half the world; now they have to police the whole world. As a result, American spending on security is greater today than during the Cold War. The deployment of hard power also makes the world less secure: it encourages nuclear proliferation and turns rogue states into failed states that will require permanent garrisons. In short, Calleo reverses Tony Blair’s rationale for nation-building that ‘the spread of our values makes us more secure’. In fact, attempting to force our values on others makes us less secure by stirring up resistance all over the world.

Calleo then turns to the well-worn theme of ‘overstretch’. In doing so, he offers a fascinating, but neglected, geopolitical perspective on the current economic crisis. The United States has long suffered from imperial overstretch in the sense that it has run an almost continuous current-account deficit since the 1970s. Calleo correctly points out that the continued ability of the United States to finance its external deficit is a ‘critical support to its hegemonic ambitions’. This ability, he argues, is in rapid decline. The high-productivity phase of US growth, which induced foreigners to buy dollars, ended with the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2001. Since then, both internal and external deficits have ballooned as the US economy has become increasingly rickety. High domestic consumption has depended on growing consumer debt; new wealth to offset the growing debt came not from new investment but from speculation in equity and real-estate markets. An ‘unprecedented income gap [opened up] between the very rich and the rest’. Between 2000 and 2004 the gross federal debt grew by 31% while US GDP grew by only 19%. In such circumstances both European and Chinesereasons for supporting the dollar have eroded, and with them the US ability to support its hegemonic pretensions.

On the question of legitimacy, Calleo starts from the liberal position that for power to be legitimate it must enjoy the consent of the governed. His distinctive move is to reject the contractual theory of the state in favour of what he calls the ‘Idealist’ theory, in which the state’s legitimacy depends not on a contract between self-interested individuals but on a moral consensus underpinned by a constitution that protects individual liberty by providing for a dispersion of power. The latter idea makes the state (usually the nation-state, though not always) the unique carrier of legitimacy; it also renders more or less illegitimate attempts to exercise imperial dominion. The strength of Calleo’s foray into political philosophy is to point out that the contractual theory of the state can lead to either Locke or Hobbes, whereas the Idealist theory of the state is a decisive obstacle to a Hobbesian imperium. He is highly critical of the direction taken by the George W. Bush administration, arguing that under Bush’s leadership the United States ‘appeared a startling reincarnation from Hobbes’s dread seventeenth century – a rogue Leviathan on the loose’.

Calleo’s alternative to the Hobbesian sovereign is what he calls a ‘collaborative balance of power’, or ‘multilateral governance’. This model is represented by the European Union. While the United States has grown increasingly Hobbesian, Europe has become increasingly constitutional. Calleo hopes that the continent’s practice of ‘mutual appeasement’ might yet offer the world a way forward.

Follies of Power is the distillation of all Calleo has been thinking and writing about US foreign policy for years. Despite his recognition of China’s emergence, his treatment remains heavily US-Europe centred. Fitting China into the new multilaterism will certainly be much harder than sorting out American-European relations, which are no longer burdened by the problem of currency misalignments. The more fundamental critique of the Calleo thesis simply denies the existence of the ‘unipolar gene’. Nature, according to this analysis, abhors a vacuum, and the United States only stepped into a position of world leadership vacated by Britain by virtue of its superior power and technology. A feeling of ‘exceptionalism’ is not unique to America: all states feel exceptional when they have exceptional power. Most critics, though, would accept Calleo’s conclusion – even if they reject his premises – that imperialism, or hegemony, is unstable because it drains the hegemon of power and raises up rivals rather than partners. So America’s ‘unipolar moment’ may turn out to be just that: an interlude in the transition from bipolarity to multipolarity. The question is whether the transition can be accomplished without major wars. If ideas matter, as I believe they do, Calleo’s deserve to play an important part in helping build a humane future.