America Should Be Aware of Its Own Decline

By Sam Roggeveen

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At the end of my first post I promised to say more about the contemporary international scene and why I think it's important, as the age of U.S. unipolarity ends, for American conservatives to see the world in terms of an international society and not just a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog system.

The term "international society," rarely heard in American discussions about international relations, originates with a group of scholars associated mostly with the London School of Economics in the 1950s and '60s, and to this day it is largely absent from American universities, which tend to focus on realism and idealism, with little discussion of what is also called the "English School" tradition.

One of the most influential books to come out of the English School was in fact written by an Australian, Hedley Bull (pictured: an interior shot of the Hedley Bull Centre for World Politics at the Australian National University, Canberra). Bull not only wrote a memorable and genuinely important book, but he also achieved a kind of perfection through his choice of title, which is dramatic (for a textbook, anyway) and in three words summarises expertly his own theme and that of an entire intellectual movement: The Anarchical Society.

That title captures what the English School shares with realism (the reference to anarchy acknowledges the "self-help" nature of international security -- there is no global cop) and what sets it apart from realism (the word "society" indicates that the interactions of states are more than merely the workings of a system; countries are not just billiard balls bouncing off one another).

The reason it is especially important now for Americans to recognize the societal dimension of international life is that America is in decline.

That's not a statement of opinion and is not intended to suggest that America's current economic malaise is permanent, because that probably isn't the case. But no matter how strongly the U.S. bounces back, it is a mature economy and unlikely ever to match China's growth rates. China also has a much larger population, so it can overtake the American economy even while its citizens remain much poorer; by some measures, China is already the world's largest economy.

If you're thinking America has previously faced down a peer competitor (the Soviet Union) and won handsomely, keep in mind that China is already a much larger economic force that Soviet Russia ever was, and that China is not done yet. Nor is India, or Indonesia. In fact, the "great convergence" between developed and developing economies is the economic and strategic story of our age.

The benefits of an international society -- a law-bound international order marked by authoritative institutions and universally recognized traditions -- may not be readily apparent to Americans. After all, systems of laws has little attraction for those with the resources to protect themselves in an anarchical world. But in the multipolar order to come, international society will be far more important to the U.S.

Now, realists are not necessarily against the idea of international institutions such as the UN. As I said in the previous posts, they see such bodies as a useful stage for the international power struggle -- a way to manage competition. But that misses their deeper purpose, which is to tame or sublimate the power contest. In my previous post I quoted the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, and here he is again on the importance of constitution. It is the conservative's desire, Scruton says, see power not naked in the forum of politics, but clothed in constitution, operating always through an adequate system of law, so that it's movement seems never barbarous or oppressive, but always controlled and inevitable, an expression of the civilized vitality through which allegiance is inspired.

Scruton was talking about power and constitution within the state, and although such a "civilized vitality" is likely to be weaker in the international realm, there are enough similarities between domestic and international politics to allow the comparison. As I said in the earlier post, international political life has its own laws, institutions, traditions and norms, which can be knitted together into a loose "constitutional" order.

In an environment where one great power is rising and another is in decline (a situation that, historically, almost always creates conflict), such an order will be far more convivial than one marked by a naked contest of power. And given that traditions and institutions, by definition, take generations to establish, the U.S. cannot begin building them soon enough.

Now, if there are any conservatives left reading this post, they may well be thinking that this all sounds rather ... well ... progressive. In my next post, I want to explain why conservatives can't just dismiss this as a lefty CINO (conservative-in-name-only) plot.

Sam Roggeveen is editor of The Interpreter, the blog of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.