At the dawn of the century, America rampant appears to be master of global politics. Washington’s military budget currently accounts for over a third of world expenditure on arms, and is larger than that of the next nine powers put together. The Pentagon’s weapons systems are in a league of their own. The US enjoys an unchallengeable military predominance over any combination of hostile states for the foreseeable future. Critics point out that American strategic preponderance is overwhelmingly based on air and sea power: the US has lost its capacity to control populations on the ground because its hugely increased capacity to kill has been accompanied by a precipitate decline in its willingness to let its soldiers die.

To some extent, this is true. Population control is typically delegated to other states. American military power controls these by presenting them with offers they can’t refuse: either they co-operate or they will ‘pay a price’, and where necessary the price will be the modern equivalent of siege warfare—a blockade, followed by devastating bombing that can completely destroy economic installations and infrastructures as well as military forces on the ground. Once this is completed, the US can usually find groups within the state prepared to join with it in an effort to overthrow the regime in place. Serbia is one example, Afghanistan another. China, Russia and the West European states, including even the UK, may mutter about American ‘unilateralism’. But when Washington beats the drum for international military action, these lesser powers tend to bandwagon with it rather than risking the consequences of building coalitions to balance against it.

Since 1989 successive US administrations have mobilized this coercive might to secure American political dominance on a world scale. Madeleine Albright captured this objective in characteristic style. America, she announced, is today ‘the indispensable power’. Bush has taken this logic to its conclusion, with a strategy bent on scrapping the old arms-control frameworks established during the Cold War and making the US a post-nuclear power able to use missile defence systems to face down mere nuclear states. Meanwhile in Afghanistan the Pentagon has successfully showcased its devastating state-busting capacity. To all appearances, US global supremacy is now at its all-time zenith.

But do the underlying realities of the new century correspond to the surface expressions of US power? In their important new work, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver mount a vigorous and wide-ranging case to the contrary. They argue that despite its historically unprecedented military dominance, the United States is suffering a long ‘hegemonic decline’ which it is incapable of arresting. It can temporarily maintain ‘an exploitative domination’—a phrase they borrow from David Calleo—but this will bring with it accelerating disorganization and chaos, entraining a potentially catastrophic transition to a new world order. At the same time, Arrighi and his co-authors identify East Asia as a new dynamic centre with the range of (non-military) capacities capable of establishing such an order. Far from the East Asian crisis of 1997 indicating any weakness of the region, they argue that just as the Wall Street Crash of 1929 revealed, through its international repercussions, the new centrality of the United States in the world system, so the global shock of 1997–98 is evidence that the centre of gravity of the international system is shifting eastwards.

As the title of their book suggests, Arrighi et al explore their theme within a theoretical perspective deriving, in broad outline, from World-Systems theory. This is a tack that highlights successive cycles of rise and decline of a sequence of hegemonic powers amongst the core states. In an introductory chapter, they seek to modify a tendency towards system-determinism within this Wallersteinian perspective—arguing, in particular, that hegemons do not merely dominate an unvarying system: they typically transform the structure of the system itself as they rise to dominance. Thereafter, they suggest, each hegemon finds itself trapped in a kind of path dependency which makes it incapable of responding to new system-level problems, leading to its displacement by a new hegemon capable of resolving these. Chaos and Governance further amends Wallerstein’s conception of the nature of hegemonic crises, by broadening the scope of such upheavals beyond purely economic competition to include inter-state rivalries, inter-enterprise transformations, social conflicts and the emergence of new configurations of power. Equipped with these theoretical instruments, they then attempt a systematic comparison of hegemonic cycles along four different axes: geopolitics and high finance; the transformation of business enterprise; transnational social conflicts; and the relationships between the West and other civilizations. It is from their consideration of these four axes that they derive their conclusions about the oncoming fate of American post-war hegemony.