In Exit from Hegemony, we explore the theory and practice of the American hegemonic system. We argue that there are three distinct principles of liberal international order: democratic political systems that broadly respect political and human rights, free economic exchange within and among states, and the management of international affairs via multilateral institutions and other forms of intergovernmental cooperation. There is no reason why all three must coexist, but it became conventional wisdom in the 1990s that these three ‘pillars’ of liberal order mutually reinforced one another. From the Clinton to the Obama administrations, American grand strategy sought accordingly to enlarge liberal order via the expansion of American leadership from its Cold War boundaries to the entire globe. Thomas Wright refers to this as the “convergence” wager, which held that the major powers would come together around all three ‘pillars’ of liberal order, and “stop treating each other as rivals and begin to work together to tackle common challenges.” By the late twenty-teens, this wager appears to have failed.
To better understand why and how the convergence wager failed—as well as the current trajectory of international politics—we take a close look at the concepts of hegemony and international order. We argue that international orders have architectures, made up of prevailing rules, norms, and values. International orders also have infrastructures, composed of the relationships, practices, flows, and interactions that underpin them. Overall, we suggest conceptualizing international orders as ecosystems or as having specific ecologies, within which a variety of different state and non-state actors operate. In Chapter 3, we use these concepts to make sense of the different pathways through which hegemonic orders—and, for that matter, international orders more broadly—unravel.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 each explore and illustrate a different pathway that is undermining the US-led order. Chapter 4 focuses on the rise of Russia and China as revisionist powers, exploring both their common grievances with the US-led international order, but also the different strategies that they have adopted as challengers. Chapter 5 looks to uncover less obvious “bottom-up” dynamics by exploring how states in various regions, even smaller and weaker ones, are increasingly undermining the order by exiting from its institutions and rules and soliciting assets and governance from alternative providers. Our key analytical point in this chapter is to show how regime security, once thought by rulers to be guaranteed by the security, governance and social status conferred by their association with the liberal international order, is now threatened by its intrusions into domestic sovereign affairs. New findings about the domestic political effects of Chinese aid in Africa as well as case studies of Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines all demonstrate how regimes are shifting to new and alternative providers of public and club goods in a bid to consolidate their domestic power and authority. Chapter 6 explores how the transnational networks of the 1990s that enhanced the liberal order have been curtailed by states and tracks how new networks that promote illiberal forms of order—national culture, sovereignty, transitional values and closed borders—are now interacting and openly disrupting what had appeared to be a domestic political consensus in the West.
Chapter 7 then turns to the foreign policy practices and agendas of the Trump administration. It examines the deeper domestic origins of Trumpism and highlights how Trump intersects with all three of the pathways that are eroding liberal internationalism.
Chapter 8 reprises the book’s main findings and arguments and offers some possible scenarios for what a post-liberal international order might look like. We assess the likelihood of an emerging US-China Cold War, explore the dynamics of an international order without liberal values, and call attention to the rise of transnational oligarchy as a distinct political force that is supported by the institutions and legacies of the liberal order. Although we anticipate that a future new Democratic administration will attempt to revive American global leadership, commitments to allies, and to upholding again liberal values and norms, we conclude that the international system is too far down multiple pathways to allow for a return of America’s former hegemonic role. Exit is upon us.