Book Review:

April 1, 2004

The End of the American Era

By Charles Kupchan

Published By: Vintage

On: November 11, 2003

Buy Here $15.95

Reviewed By: Ania Kielbratowska

The end of the Cold War provoked the publication of a number of works at­tempting to come to grips with the new global order. Charles Kupchan's most recent book not only surveys the existing literature, but also pro­vides an interesting voice in the debate over the future fault lines of international politics. In line with neo-realist theory, Kupchan believes that "the defining element of the global system is the distribution of power". We live in a unipolar world, dominated by the United States. This unipolarity guaran­tees a degree of stability within the international system - no other power can even contemplate challenging the US. America's primacy, however, is being gradually undermined. Kupchan refers to two powerful trends, which in his mind make the demise of American hegemony inevitable. The first is that US primacy is waning because alternative centres of power are slowly emerging. With the Cold War a distant memory, the European Union no longer needs the American security umbrella. Euro­pean integration has moved beyond its merely economic stage to encom­pass military issues. European Union's recent independent peace-keeping mission in Macedonia shows that the European Union is flexing its muscle on the international stage.

US predominance is ending also because of a shift in American foreign policy. Isolationism and unilateralism are both on the rise. America's ambivalent engagement in Kosovo and the frequent calls from Washington urging Europeans to share more of their own security burden testify to isolationism. The withdrawal from the Kyoto agree­ment and the refusal to be bound by the ABM treaty show that unilateralism is also becoming a dominant element in American foreign policy. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the September nth terrorist attacks have the potential of leading to a further American retrenchment, rather than a new engagement. Since "a stingy internationalism combined with a prickly unilateralism is a lethal mix", Kupchan calls for a new brand of "liberal internationalism". The US must manage the transition to multipolarity in a way that preserves the stability of the interna­tional system.

For all his book's breadth of political reference and his masterful command of historical detail, Kupchan fails to make a convincing case. The reasons that he gives for the inevitability of the waning of American hegemony are ill-conceived. The European Union is far from the cohesive and unified entity that Kupchan makes it out to be. Rather, it is riddled with internal division. Some European nations supported the American invasion of Iraq, while others fervently opposed it. The setback over the European constitution at the recent Brussels summit demonstrates that further European integration will not just painful, but by no means inevitable either. In the wake of the summit France and Germany signaled their willingness to enhance cooperation in some areas, regardless of whether other member states decide to follow suit. Enlargement is bound to reinforce these divisive tendencies. All this means that a rapid reaction force, planned to be established by 2003, so far remains within the realm of abstraction.

Kupchan also overstates the likelihood of further political integra­tion. European citizens are supposedly overwhelmingly in favour of a closer union. Most Europeans, however, cherish strong national identi­ties which are unlikely to give way to a feeling of European belonging. A European demos that would be necessary for the creation of democratic European-level institutions simply does not yet exist.

Kupchan's claim that we are witnessing America's retreat from the world stage is seemingly more compelling. George W. Bush came to power on an isolationist ticket, promising to withdraw American troops from the Balkans and pledging the construction of a missile defence shield. The failure to obtain the endorsement of the UN for the interven­tion in Iraq also bears the semblance of unilateralism. Opposite trends, however, are also pervasive. The commitment of $15 billion to the fight against the AIDS pandemic, as well as the active participation of the US in the drawing up of the Middle-Eastern "road map" tesify to a continu­ing American willingness for engagement. September 11th has compelled Americans to take a deeper interest in international affairs; the number of young Americans applying for positions with the state department, as well as the intelligence services, is on the rise. Most importantly, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre shattered the belief of American's in their own invulnerability and led them to intervene twice in two years - in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dominance of unilateralist tendencies is questionable as well. Prior to its intervention in Iraq, the United States secured a UN resolution (1441), recognizing that Saddam’s regime posed a threat to international security. The military operation itself, as well as the subsequent nation-building activities, involved the participation of a number of countries, including the UK and Poland. Thus, while Kupchan identifies some crucial developments which sup­port his thesis, the broad range of counter-evidence demostrates that neither America's withdrawal from the international stage nor the emergence of a unilateralist tendency in its foreign policy are irrevocable trends.

In conclusion, Kupchan's highly readable and thoroughly re­searched work is far too sweeping in its conclusions to be regarded as a fully accurate analysis of the future balance of power in international politics.