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When the Hegemon Can't Balance Itself
What happens on the Hill...doesn't stay on the Hill
I subscribe to a variety of Hill newsletters—Politico, Roll Call, Punchbowl—and right now Topic A for all of them concerns whether Congress will be able to pass a budget (no) and whether Congress will buy time for itself to pass a budget by passing some continuing resolutions (maybe? maybe not?). The debates are moving rather little at the moment, as everyone is staking their position and waiting for the countdown to reach crisis mode to force some sort of a resolution.
I have some guesses about what will happen (a good chance of at least a short shutdown, a larger likelihood in the long term of the House essentially folding to whatever the Senate can agree on), but I’m not paid to make predictions about specific outcomes. My job is to examine the process by which the United States governs itself and its external relations, and for that all I need is to have a good sense of the probabilities and tensions—where there are structural faults and where there are pockets of reliability. And my assessment is that there are still reasons to worry over the medium- to long-term about the capability of the United States to maintain the various international arrangements of which it is a part.
I’ve written about this before, specifically in an article for Security Studies about the threats “from below” to U.S. leadership (alternate link here). I argued at the time that polarization was likely to continue to cause problems for U.S. leadership because, in part, it would complicate attempts to coalesce the public and elites around a single national interest and because partisan conflict and differences would make it harder to carry out the routine maintenance of hegemony. Since I wrote, there have been a few empirical studies of polarization and foreign policy signaling, in particular assessing whether other countries’ audiences find U.S. commitments less credible. I won’t discuss those here, but I do want to return to my earlier argument because I think it’s been misunderstood in the details.
My argument was, and remains, clear: “domestic processes in the United States can erode the American political system’s ability to commit to hegemonic maintenance”. This emphasis on maintenance is not an accident. Any sort of social system or series of social relationships requires constant attention and performance to work; any institution, from a family to a global hegemonic order, requires some sort of adjustment to stay on an optimal, or at least satisfactory, path. But maintenance is unsexy and easily disrupted. If one stops paying the electric bills for a while, or stops weeding the garden, there’s no immediate penalty, but there is the beginning of a gradual erosion that threatens much larger systems. As I wrote: “maintenance can be costly and requires constant attention”.
Focusing just on credibility as a psychological or signaling relationship misses the point. The credibility of U.S. leadership also requires a government that can perform its obligations, especially those it sets itself. And that performance in turn requires an orderly domestic arrangement that can, for instance, pass budgets on time and under some broadly rational concordance between reality and allocation. This attention to the mechanisms by which the U.S. government maintains not only political relationships but the specific material and social bases of its influence—a defense-industrial base with surge capacity, a military that’s attentive to good order and training, provision of public goods like fighting and controlling infectious disease—draws our attention to system maintenance rather than just public opinion—even in other countries—as a core set of challenges for a hegemon.
What do breakdowns look like? Well, in substantive terms, they could look like the withering away of a defense base that can build ships or even source adequate amounts of black powder; massive cost overruns and costly failures of training and oversight; the whipsawing of U.S. participation in organizations like the World Health Organization; and turning PEPFAR, the anti-AIDS initiative, into a partisan issue. Now, of course, that’s too neat a list. Rather like how climate change means we can’t attribute any given hurricane or flood to global warming, I can’t say that the demise or troubles of any given program is necessarily dispositive for a theory that says that partisanship can undermine hegemonic order. All we can do is ask whether there’s some broader structural change that is promoting outcomes that are less cooperative and more conflictual, and thus less able to contribute to stability and good order.
And, well, yes, I think there is. Just to return to the budget for a moment: as the excellent Laura Blessing notes in a contribution to the volume Under the Iron Dome, the congressional budget process has largely fallen apart over the past fifteen years. Even when there is a budget passed, it’s out of regular order and comes late in the fiscal year. That makes long-term planning hard—but it also complicates short-term responses, like passing emergency aid for Ukraine and disaster-hit areas. Let’s also not forget that two features of executive politics that were regarded as dead letters when I was in high school—the possibility of electoral college divergences from the popular vote and impeachment—are now routine. (If Donald Trump wins re-election, it is likely he will do so without a popular vote majority.)
That’s why I still like the list of mechanisms I supplied earlier:
“contests about the content of national identity”, like polarization over the nature of American views on race, diversity, immigration, and more
“outbidding among aspirants for office-wooing allies in intracoalitional disputes”, like primary contests that lead to more extreme officeholders succeeding ones willing to compromise
“spoiling, in which an opposition party withholds support for policies to tarnish the incumbent party’s reputation”, like making sure that an administration has minimal cooperation—or fully adversarial relationships—that make re-election harder
“promulgating identities at odds with the policies of hegemon[ic maintenance]”, which is to be clear democratically okay but also involves promoting attitudes that tend to correlate with xenophobic or worse attitudes
“designing policies to cater to the most influential members of a party’s base rather than to the median voter”, which contradicts broadly “liberal” (in the international relations scholarship sense) arguments that policies will be shaped to help most people most of the time
As I wrote, “[s]uch patterns mitigate against the sort of broad-based compromises or long range planning that advocates for stable hegemonic orders pine for.” This list sounds depressingly familiar as a description of what we see today.
Now, there are exceptions. The Inflation Reduction Act was passed. Ukraine aid rests on a bipartisan enough basis to mostly get through. There’s probably still support enough for PEPFAR. But look closely at the coalitions for those sorts of initiatives and ask yourself whether you think that they would prevail in a second Trump administration—and think about what the replacements would be. Even under a Trump administration, there would still be bipartisanship on some foreign policy issues—but that doesn’t mean that foreign policy would be bipartisan.
Nothing’s inevitable. There is still a chance that decisive electoral reversals could lead to a shift back toward something that looks like consensus. And if you think the United States is the only great power with these problems—boy, howdy, wait until I tell you about the other members of the UN Security Council, like the country where purges keep taking place, the country where a cook tried to overthrow the regime, the country that’s really four countries, or the country that’s internationalist only because a dogmatic neoliberal keeps beating out a fundamentalist nationalist.
But the question that confronts us is not necessarily about relative great-power capacity but about whether the U.S.-led institutions prove attractive and durable enough despite challenges and alternatives. And these are ultimately claims about climate rather than weather—about the theory of system ordering and maintenance, not of discrete tests of particular policies. That requires thinking about maintenance and what can undermine it. This may not be a simple theory of international relations, but it’s one that lets us make sense of the world as it is.
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