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The United States can still reshape the world order, according to Dartmouth Professors

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 02/24/09 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp (603) 646-3661

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The U.S. economy might be in jeopardy, but it is still far ahead of all other states on the scales of world power, according to Dartmouth researchers. Dartmouth Government Professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth say that this is not yet a post-American world, and the U.S. remains an unambiguous global superpower that has the ability to reshape the global system. The two have published their analysis in the March/April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs in an article titled “Reshaping the World Order: How Washington Should Reform International Institutions.”

Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth
Stephen Brooks (left) and William Wohlforth say that the U.S. still has the capacity to reshape the world order. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

“Five years ago, pundits were saying that the U.S. was a huge, unchallenged empire,” says Stephen Brooks, an associate professor of government. “Today, they are saying that America is in imminent danger of falling off the top rung. They were too optimistic before and too pessimistic now.”

Brooks and Wohlforth are also the authors of World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton University Press, 2008). The book examines what international relations theory can tell us about the constraints on the United States’ use of power in the international system.

In the Foreign Affairs piece, Brooks and Wohlforth note that the U.S. still spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined and that the U.S. accounts for one quarter of the global economy.

'President Obama has indicated that he wants to push forward with significant institutional changes, and our analysis indicates that the U.S. still is in a positon to do so."

- Stephen Brooks

Views from the Green Podcast: Reshaping the World Order, with Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth

“The gap between number one, the U.S., and number two, China, is still very wide,” says Wohlforth, the Daniel Webster Professor of Government at Dartmouth. “Depending on how you measure China’s economy, it is between 20 percent and 43 percent of the United States’ level. So, while we might be slightly lagging right now, our closest competitor is only slowly narrowing that gap because the U.S. is so far ahead. Relative power shifts slowly.” Brooks and Wohlforth agree that it will be decades before another country will be able to match the U.S. share of global power.

The researchers explain that others are overly pessimistic about America’s position within the world because they conflate trends with final outcomes. They say it’s a mistake to confuse a state that is declining from one that has declined, just as we should not confuse a state that is rising from one that has risen.

Wohlforth and Brooks are also careful to distinguish the capability to act and influence. “To say that the U.S. has a greater capability to act than any other state does not mean that America is omnipotent,” says Brooks. “Because the U.S. has so many capabilities, people often have unrealistic expectations about what America can do,” Wohlforth adds.

Brooks and Wohlforth also look at the U.S. role in reshaping the world order over the next 20 years, while it remains a superpower. They note that there are many new security challenges that the current institutional order is ill equipped to handle, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, ethnic conflict, and global warming. They stress that international institutions can and should be reformed to meet the new challenges, and that America retains the ability to push this process forward.

Drawing upon their book, they offer suggestions on how the U.S. can be most successful in creating new institutions and revising old ones, like the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency. “President Obama has indicated that he wants to push forward with significant institutional changes, and our analysis indicates that the U.S. still is in a positon to do so,” Brooks says.

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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