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International Studies Review (2009) 11, 784–787

US Hegemony in a Unipolar World: Here to Stay or


Sic Transit Gloria?
Review by Christopher Layne
Texas A&M University

World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. By Ste-
phen G. Brooks, and William C. Wohlforth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2008. 226pp., $65.00 hardcover (ISBN-13: 978-0-691-12699-9).

Unipolarity has preoccupied American international relations (IR) scholars, poli-


cymakers, and foreign policy analysts since the Cold War ended and the ‘‘unipo-
lar moment’’ was proclaimed (Krauthammer 1990 ⁄ 1991). Since the Cold War’s
end IR scholars of various stripes—especially balance-of-power realists—have
warned that unipolarity would boomerang against the United States (Layne
1993, 2006a,b; Waltz 1993). The United States’ post-9 ⁄ 11 policies—especially the
US invasion of Iraq in March 2003—fanned these worries as scholars and policy
analysts argued that ‘‘unilateralist’’ US policies were fueling a backlash against
American hegemony (Ikenberry 2002; Nye 2002; Walt 2002, 2005; Pape 2005;
Paul 2005). More recently, the financial and economic crisis that hit the US
economy beginning in Fall 2007—coupled with the rise of new great powers like
China and India, and the resurgence of Russia—have raised questions about the
decline of America’s relative power. These doubts found official expression in
the National Intelligence Council’s (2008) Global Trends 2025 report.
World Out of Balance is a forcefully argued rebuttal to arguments that American
hegemony is waning and that unipolarity provokes other states to check US
power. This is an important—must read—book for scholars of IR theory, security
studies, and US foreign policy. Displaying a firm mastery of the various IR theory
literatures, Dartmouth professors Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth
seek to refute the arguments of Waltzian realists, liberal IR theorists, neoliberal
institutionalists, and constructivists that ‘‘the current unipolarity is not an unal-
loyed benefit for the Untied States because it comes with the prospect of coun-
terbalancing, increased dependence on the international economy, a greater
need to maintain a favorable reputation to sustain cooperation within interna-
tional institutions, and greater challenges to American legitimacy’’ (p. 4). Brooks
and Wohlforth conclude the ‘‘unprecedented concentration of power resources
in the United States generally renders inoperative the constraining effects of the
systemic properties long central to research in international relations’’ (p. 3).
Building on their theoretical findings, Brooks and Wohlforth prescribe policy:
the United States should use its ‘‘leverage to reshape international institutions,
standards of legitimacy, and economic globalization’’ (p. 21).
World Out of Balance demolishes the respective liberal IR theory, institutionalist,
and constructivist contentions about systemic constraints on US hegemony. How-
ever, Brooks and Wohlforth’s central claim—that unipolarity and concomitant
US hegmony will last for a long time—fails to persuade. Indeed, there is a lot

 2009 International Studies Association


Christopher Layne 785

less to their argument for unipolar stability than meets the eye.1 Their case is
based on a freeze-frame view of the distribution of capabilities in the interna-
tional system that does not engage the argument that, like all hegemonic sys-
tems, the American era of unipolarity contains the seeds of its own demise both
because, over time, a hegemon’s economic leadership is undermined by the dif-
fusion of know-how, technology, and managerial skills throughout the interna-
tional system (which propels the rise of new poles of power), and leadership
costs sap the hegemon’s power pushing it into decline (Gilpin 1981; Kennedy
1987; Goldstein 1988; Modelski and Thompson 1996).
Contrary to the argument in World Out of Balance, a strong case can be made
that the early twenty-first century will witness the decline of US hegemony.
Indeed, notwithstanding their claim that unipolarity is robust and US hegemony
will endure well into the future, Brooks and Wohlforth actually concede that uni-
polarity is not likely to last more than another 20 years, which really is not very
long at all (pp. 17, 218). This is a weak case for unipolarity, and also is an impli-
cit admission that other states in fact are engaged in counterbalancing the Uni-
ted States and that this is spurring an on-going process of multipolarization.2
The ascent of new great powers would be the strongest evidence of multipolar-
ization, and the two most important indicators of whether this is happening are
relative growth rates and shares of world GDP (Gilpin 1981; Kennedy 1987).
Here, there is evidence that global economic power is flowing from the United
States and Europe to Asia (Emmott 2008; Mahbubani 2008; National Intelligence
Council 2008; Zakaria 2008). The shift of economic clout to East Asia is impor-
tant because it is propelling China’s rise (Goldstein 2005; Gill 2007; Lampton
2008; Ross and Feng 2008)—thus hastening the relative decline of US power.
Unsurprisingly, Brooks and Wohlforth are skeptical about China’s rise, and
they dismiss the idea that China could become a viable counterweight to a hege-
monic United States within any meaningful time frame (pp. 40–45) Theirs is a
static analysis, however, and does not reflect that although the United States still
has an impressive lead in the categories they measure, the trend lines appear to
favor China, which already has overtaken the United States as the world’s leading
manufacturer—a crown the United States held for more than a century (Marsh
2008; Dyer 2009).3 China also may overtake the United States in GDP in the next
ten to 15 years. Empirically, then, there are indications that the unipolar era is
in the process of drawing to a close, and that the coming decades could witness
a power transition (Kugler and Lemke 1996; : Organski and Kugler 1980; Organ-
ski 1968).
Brooks and Wohlforth also maintain that unipolarity affords the United States
a 20-year window of opportunity to recast the international system in ways that
will bolster the legitimacy of its power and advance its security interests (pp.
216–218). Ironically, however, institutional reform is the arena where multipolar-
ization’s effects already are being felt because—as was apparent during the run-
up to the April 2009 London meeting of the Group of 20—the impetus for
change is coming from China and the other emerging powers. Here, there is a
big flaw in Brooks and Wohlforth’s argument: if they perceive that the United
States is in decline, rising powers such as China need to wait only a decade or

1
As John M. Owen (2001 ⁄ 2002: 118 n. 3) pointed out (in reference to Wohlforth’s 1997 work on unipolar sta-
bility), the argument in World Out of Balance actually is tautological: in a unipolar world, Brooks and Wohlforth say,
the lopsided concentration of power in the unipole’s favor makes counterbalancing impossible. In other words, the
world will remain unipolar because it is unipolar.
2
As Layne (2006b) points out, unipolar stability conflates a systemic outcome (the lack of a balance-of-power in
a unipolar world) with unit level behavior (ongoing balancing by states).
3
These include defense spending; defense spending as a percentage of total great-power defense expenditures;
defense research and development spending; defense spending as a percentage of GDP; GDP; GDP per capita; and
GDP as a percentage of great-power GDP. See Brooks and Wohlforth, World Out of Balance, pp. 27–35.
786 US Hegemony in a Unipolar World

two to reshape the international system themselves. Moreover, because of the


perception that its hard power is declining, and the hit its soft power has taken
as a result of the financial and economic meltdown, there is a real question
about whether the United States retains the credibility and legitimacy to take the
lead in institutional reform.
World Out of Balance is a major contribution to both the scholarly and policy
debates. But its main argument about the durability of American hegemony has
a dated feel, and Brooks and Wohlforth are outliers on the question of US rela-
tive decline.4 During the next 20 years, we will find out if they are right or, as
others (Layne 2006c; Pape 2009) have argued, the United States has passed the
apogee of its power. From a grand strategic standpoint, a lot rides on
whether—as Brooks and Wohlforth claim—the United States can successfully
prolong its hegemony or international politics is reverting to multipolarity.

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4
For Brooks and Wohlforth, claims about US relative decline and incipient multipolarity reflect a change in per-
ceptions about the distribution of power—not a shift in objective power relations. Coming from Wohlforth this is
an odd argument, because he previously has argued that diplomacy and grand strategy are driven by policymakers’
perceptions of the balance-of-power rather the actual distribution of power (Wohlforth 1987). The growing belief
that the world has become (or rapidly is becoming) multipolar has profound implications for international politics
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Christopher Layne 787

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