Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

US is not the world's hub

Some see globalism as a network with an American hub and spokes reaching out to the rest of the world. There is some truth in this picture, as the United States is central to four forms of globalization: economic (the United States has the largest capital market), military (it is the only country with global reach), social (it is the heart of pop culture), and environmental (the United States is the biggest polluter, and its political support is necessary for effective action on environmental issues).

Yet, as I explain in my book "The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone," there are at least four reasons why it would be a mistake to envisage contemporary networks of globalism simply as the hub and spokes of an American empire that creates dependency for smaller countries. First, the architecture of networks of interdependence varies according to the different dimensions of globalization. The hub-and-spokes metaphor fits military globalism most closely, but even in the military area, most states are more concerned about threats from neighbors than from the United States. For instance, a US presence is welcome in most of East Asia as a balance to rising Chinese power.

About these ads

At the same time, in economic networks, a hub-and-spokes image is inaccurate, as Europe and Japan provide significant alternative nodes for trade. Environmental concerns - the future of endangered species in Africa, for example - are also less centered on the United States. And where the US is viewed as a major ecological threat, as in the production of carbon dioxide, there is often resistance to US policies.

Second, the hub-and-spokes image may be misleading in that it fails to account for two-way vulnerability. Even militarily, the ability of the United States to strike any place in the world does not make it invulnerable, as Americans learned at high cost on Sept. 11. And while the US has the largest economy, it is sensitive to the spread of contagions in global capital markets, as Americans discovered in the 1997 financial crises. In the social dimension, the US may export more popular culture than any other country, but it also imports ideas and immigrants from other countries. The United States is environmentally sensitive to actions abroad that it cannot control. Even if the US took costly measures to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide at home, it would still be vulnerable to climate change induced by coal-fired power plants in China.

A third problem with the simple hub-and-spokes dependency image is that it fails to identify other important connections and nodes in global networks. New York City is important in the flows of capital to emerging markets but so are London, Frankfurt, and Tokyo. In social and political globalization, Paris is more important to Gabon than Washington; Moscow is still more important in Central Asia.

Finally, the hub-and-spokes model may fail to take into account changes that are occurring in the architecture of global networks. Network theorists argue that central players gain power most when there are structural holes - gaps in communications - between other participants. The growth of the Internet provides inexpensive alternative connections that fill the gaps, making the hub less powerful. It is true, for now, that Americans are central to the Internet. But projections suggest that by 2003, there will be 60 million more Internet users abroad than in the United States - a gap that will grow as Internet access spreads. As American dominance of the Internet declines, more capital, entrepreneurs, and advertisers will be attracted to other markets.

The United States has been described as bestriding the world like a colossus. Looking more closely, we see that US dominance varies across realms and that many relationships of interdependence go both ways. Large states such as the US have more freedom than do small states, but they are rarely exempt from the effects of globalization. And states are not alone. For better and worse, technology is putting capabilities within the reach of individuals that in the past were solely in the hands of government.

The United States promotes and benefits from globalization. But over the longer term, we can expect globalization itself to spread technological and economic capabilities and thus reduce the extent of US dominance.

• Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This piece is adapted from an article appearing in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.