Rarely has there been a powerful, hegemonic state that has managed transitions in the global balance of power in a dignified, strategic and timely way.

For a hegemonic state to effectively handle its own decline would first involve admitting that there are limits to and expiry dates on the power of all states, no matter how instrumental their leadership may be in the interim. In other words, at the very moment when a state achieves the epitome of preponderate power, it should start utilising that power to prepare the system for the day when its leadership will inevitably be weakened.

Unsurprisingly, such an approach is too often rejected out of hand. The lessons of history and the cycles of the state system are downplayed or ignored by hegemonic elites, leaving them ill-equipped to interpret their own strategic environment accurately, both in terms of its continuity with past trends and in terms of its divergence into unprecedented security dynamics. Rather than making good on the competitive advantage that naturally accompanies being the most powerful state in the world, hegemons can instead be overwhelmed by global upheavals quite rapidly.

This dilemma of hegemonic state power was highlighted recently in regard to the United States’ criticism of the UK’s decision to become a founding member of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

On the surface, this appears to be a rare though by no means serious disagreement between America and Britain concerning the best way to secure infrastructural development in Asia, whether through the World Bank or through new investment mechanisms led by China which are commensurate to its growing economic might. Delving deeper, however, the issue serves as a useful tool in uncovering the respective attitudes solidifying either side of the Atlantic in regard to the rise of China.

As a lasting post-hegemonic power that increasingly relies on the economic influence and financial sector of its capital city, that Britain should seek to engage with China is typical. Inward investment sourced from the world’s second largest economy is an eagerly sought-after prize within Britain. In October 2013 when visiting China on a trade mission, George Osborne proclaimed that China was ‘an opportunity, not a threat’. Today, it seems, British statesmen are willing to go so far as to incur the momentary displeasure of the senior partner in the special relationship, if by doing so durable gains can be made in the Anglo-Chinese relationship Britain hopes to extend over the coming years.

Even more typical still was the American response to the announcement heralding Britain’s participation in the AIIB. By exhibiting a wariness and mistrust of accommodation towards a rising power, by seeking to take a more confrontational stance, America is behaving like a classic hegemon. Power and the ability to project national interests onto the international sphere are drawn in zero-sum terms, in which China’s rise proportionally translates into a corrosion of American influence. Today, China seeks to consolidate much-needed soft power among its regional neighbours, neighbours who are too often apt to view China through the lens of historical enmity. Tomorrow, China will turn to hard diplomacy, if not hard power, to curtail America’s role in guaranteeing the security of allies such as Japan and Taiwan. Such is the logic of hegemonic confrontation.

There is a tendency to see America as a unique hegemon capable of defying historical, declinist trends, both in terms of the extent of its military might as of today and in terms of the historically benign way in which America first exercised its powers of dominion, rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan and constructing the liberal international order.

That being said, if America truly is exceptional, then any decline in American power or unravelling of the American-backed security umbrella, no matter how incremental, has the potential to unleash even greater waves of instability than witnessed in prior systemic configurations. Introducing hegemonic uncertainty into the dire situation of global security we currently face could lead to international chaos in upcoming years, unless managed correctly. Beyond passive economic engagement on the one hand and increasingly militarised confrontation on the other, there is a third approach that can be implemented towards China.

By empowering global governance, from the UN to its specialised bodies such as the IAEA and the WHO, America has a far better chance of preventing China from seeking to topple its hegemonic position. China, or indeed other hegemonic contenders, will be deterred from rising in a way that is destabilising; this is because powerful hegemons are threatening, whereas powerful systems that are genuinely inclusive are efficient. Moreover, revanchist, authoritarian and aggressive state interests, where and when they arise, will be easier to detect, delegitimise and counteract through organised multilateral cooperation.

The price that America would have to pay to achieve this? Submission to a powerful, rule-governed international system itself, justified by the recognition that buying stability via military superiority alone will get too expensive, if not now then one day.

Sceptics, of course, will say that such an approach is misguided. They will say that the system is inherently anarchic, that China is not to be trusted and that the power of global governance is flimsy when it comes to restraining states, particularly ambitious, revisionist ones. Suffice it to say that when hegemonic elites cling to such a logic, when their strategic decisions are guided by such scepticism, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Global governance cannot simultaneously restrain and include China if it has already been disregarded by America as ineffectual at doing so.

China continues to assert that it does not seek hegemony or to agitate against the status quo. The climate change agreement concluded between China and America at the end of last year, though arguably falling short of the meaningful action required to fundamentally address environmental degradation, nevertheless demonstrated what inclusive global governance could look like if both sides persevere in working together. From a legal framework, anything from regulating the use of drones to unpicking the breakdown of nuclear non-proliferation, the list of projects which could both strengthen global governance and laterally improve Sino-American relations is substantial. Unfortunately for us, all that hegemonic confrontation can lead to unforeseen sources of instability, it all too often follows a road that is depressingly predictable.

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