Precipitate Decline: The Advent of Multipolarity

Published in Harvard International Review •  Spring 2007

As recently as 2003, it was considered absurd to talk of the decline of the United States. Now, however, such a belief has become common currency among theorists, policymakers, and the media. what significantly raised the awareness of this concept was, of course, the fiasco of the United States’ preemptive invasion of Iraq. What is not yet sufficiently appreciated is the precise nature of this decline and when it specifically began.

Most analysts contend that the United States was at its hegemonic apex in the post-1991 era when the world was marked by unipolarity, as contrasted with the bipolar structure that existed during the Cold war. But this notion has reality absolutely backwards. the United States was the sole hegemonic power from 1945 to approximately 1970. Its hegemony has been in decline ever since. the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow to US power in the world. And the invasion of Iraq in 2003 transformed the situation from one of slow decline into one of precipitous collapse. By 2007, the United States had lost its credibility not only as the economic and political leader of the world-system, but also as the dominant military power. Since I am aware that this is not the standard picture either in the media or in scholarly literature, let me spell this out in some detail. I shall divide this ac-count into three periods: 1945-1970, 1970-2001, and 2001 to the present. they correspond to the period of US hegemony, that of slow US decline giving rise to a creeping multipolarity, and that of the precipitate decline and effective multipolarity of the era inaugurated by US President George W. Bush.

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