Superpowerdom on the Cheap

Reasearch Note

A typical notion in the history of hegemonic states is note the roots of their eventual decline in what Paul Kenneday called imperial overstretch. Large powers dissipate their forces in distant peripheral commitments and conflicts. These outstrip available resources. As the domestic economy struggles to create the requisite surplus for the military, investment and technology growth slump. Eventually, the hegemon must either retrench (Britain) or collapse (Soviet Union, Rome).

The United States is therefore an aberration. Far from overstretch, America’s ‘informal empire’ appears underfunded. A wide range of critics have argued that the greatest threat to American foreign policy goals is poor resourcing (Nye, Brzenski). A standard critique of US troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan concern the low commitment of US manpower and reconstruction funding. Before September 11, 2001, the Bush administration toyed with the idea of eliminating one of the ten standing Army divisions (Kurt Campbell and Celeste Ward, “New Battle Stations?” Foreign Affairs September/October 2003). And even today the Bush administration is adamant in its refusal to expand the number of Americans in uniform or raises taxes to close a budget deficit roughly equal to the size of the US defense budget.

Superpowerdom on the cheap is unprecedented. The result is a bizarre, by the standards of past empires, reach for influence without resources. The US appears to be attempting to learn the lessons of history before they are taught. Rather than end in the ‘inevitable’ predicament of imperial overstretch that has bedeviled hegemons from Athens to the Soviet Union (Kelly and Rowe 2003), the US seems to consciously trying to avoid it.

This is therefore an astonishing experiment for international relations. In the 1980s, historians of imperial decline like Walter LaFeber and Paul Kennedy were already writing of American decline. The Vietnam quagmire, the military retrenchment and economic malaise of the 70s suggested the US was going the way of other would be hegemons, only faster. The rise and fall of imperial states seemed like a law (or as close to a law as we can get in IR), and already ‘declinism’ was writing obituaries. Yet the boom of the 1990s suggests the 1970s were a slip dip, but not a serious reduction in American power.

The US’ current effort therefore should fascinate IR theory for two reasons. First, we must evaluate how successfully the US manages its balance sheet of resources vis commitments. This question is particularly relevant as America’s commitments are expanding in the wake of 9/11. Particularly, we must examine how the US strives to meet its commitments with minimal resources.

Second, we must examine whether US policy makers have in fact learned from the social research on imperial decline and are using that as a guide of what to do or to avoid. Professional IR theory and diplomatic history have provided a large body of work on hegemony. Almost all of it ends in generic predictions that hegemony is unsustainable over the long-term. Even Rome fell at some point. In dissecting the causes of imperial decline, important lessons on economic management, resources extension, ideological commitment, and domestic mobilization have been elucidated. It bears investigating then whether the knowledge actually changes the behavior of the current hegemon.

This discussion is particularly important for the philosophy of social science. There are tough debates within IR over the policy relevance of our work and over the learning capacity of statesmen. The (non-)use of the hegemony literature by US decision-makers has important implications for these debates. Were IR debates exploited within decision-circles to improve policy judgments, then this is evidence of IR’s policy-relevance, even if unattended. It would also suggest that learning is real. This is a sharp point of contention between realists and constructivists. Randall Schweller quipped once that learning is when policy makers do what academics want. Ned Lebow responded that is we don’t learn from social science, what is the point. American hegemony and its management is an important case for this argument in IR, as American unipolarity is the dominant feature of international politics today (Kapstein and Mastanduno, Unipolar Politics).


Keynes famously quipped that self-described practical men are usually unconscious disciples of some dead economist. In the same way, evidence that US policy-makers need not be tied directly to a reading of ‘declinist’ historian or hegemony theorists. Abstract theoretical work often filters in larger debates through second and third had treatments in the media or praxis-oriented journals, like Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy in the United States. So we are looking for tropes and expressions that suggest an awareness of the declinist and hegemonic literatures.


2001 National Security Strategy

2001 Quadrennial Defense Review

2002 Nuclear Posture Review

Interviews in the State and Defense Departments

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