“Hegemon” is a very irritating and loaded word, although the Greek root simply means leader. In world politics, the term refers to a superpower that dominates the international system as a whole, for better or worse. In our lifetime, the United States has been such a hegemon. Now, however, America’s relative global influence appears to be waning as other powers rise. And this will have far-reaching implications for world politics and matters of war and peace.
It just so happens that I recently moved to what a colleague aptly called the hegemon’s headquarters – that is, Washington, DC. It is the perfect place to explore this big question about American leadership, which I intend to do in several of my future columns, writes Andreas Kluth in his analysis.
Is US power really waning, or does it just seem that way? Does the US, which will participate in the presidential elections next year, even want to remain a hegemon? Or are the Americans tired of defending this tortured regime, ludicrously called the “rules-based international order”? And last but not least, should the world aim for American decline or continued US preeminence?
The latter depends largely on which part of the world you are in. If you’re in Beijing, American hegemony couldn’t end fast enough for you, because you think China needs to reclaim its rightful place as a sort of Middle Kingdom in world affairs. If you’re in Tallinn, Estonia, you want the U.S. to stay strong and engaged because you realize that the American presence in Europe is probably the only thing standing between you and a new submission to the Kremlin at some point.
But hegemony goes far beyond who can defend whom against what aggressor. Ultimately, it is about who defines and enforces the rules of the system as such – regulating everything from money flows to trade and shipping on the high seas. Specialists call these multilateral norms “public goods” because, in theory, they benefit all countries, especially smaller ones.
Since the 1970s, when the American economic historian Charles Kindleberger began working on a popular theory in international relations, it has been argued that a hegemon is needed to uphold such rules for there to be any order and stability at all. When this does not happen, the international system reverts to its default state of anarchy—because the world, unlike a nation, cannot have a single government with a monopoly on legitimate violence.
By this logic, the world was relatively stable during the Pax Britannica in the 19th century, when the United Kingdom ran monetary institutions like the gold standard, kept the trade routes open with its navy, etc. Of course, this does not mean that the era was necessarily pleasant, even or especially for the people the British colonized. It was just tidier than it would have been otherwise.
This imperfect order gave way to chaos after World War I, when Britain was no longer able and America still unwilling to be the hegemon. After World War II, however, the US stepped up and restored stability, at least within the capitalist world. Thanks to institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and alliances like NATO, this US-led (and not always peaceful) regime was unabashedly called the Pax Americana, reminiscent of the ancient Pax Romana.
Almost as soon as the “hegemonic stability theory” became mainstream, other politicians and scholars, especially here at the hegemon’s headquarters, began to worry that America’s moment as world leader was passing. Perhaps this was due to “imperial overgrowth,” America’s declining share of the world economy, or something else. But reports of the hegemon’s demise have been greatly exaggerated so often that we should be wary of writing the US off too early.
America’s relative share of world production is declining. On the other hand, who knows how much it takes to be a hegemon?
As an international relations narrative, hegemony also has competition. Traditional realists, looking at long history, insist that it is usually not the leadership of a single power but rather the balance of power that preserves order. Liberal internationalists continue to believe that states can cooperate even in the absence of a hegemon. And Marxists have their own niche theory of hegemony.
The hegemony exercised by the US since 1945 best explains the relative stability of the “free world” during this era – defined as increasing prosperity and freedom for many, though unfortunately not for all, and the absence – for now – of a new world war.
However, it is a fact that the anger of much of the world, and especially of the Global South, is directed at the US. Like Britain in the 19th century, the US often places its national interest above that of the system, which is unacceptable for hegemons. Also, the US is hypocritical in posing as the global defender of democracy but sporadically supporting coups of repressive dictators – this week marks the 50th anniversary of the one in Chile in which the US Central Intelligence Agency had more than a little input. Sometimes Washington stands up for the national sovereignty of other countries, as in Ukraine. Other times it violates it grossly, as in Iraq in 2003. As the hegemon, America must act as a lender of last resort to prevent mass bankruptcies of the world’s banks; instead, it sometimes exports financial turmoil to the world, as in 2008.
But ask yourself two questions. The first is whether the world would feel better if it replaced the hegemon with another. Given the prerequisites of economic, technological, military and nuclear power, it can only be China for the foreseeable future. I doubt that many people outside its borders would choose the Chinese Communist Party as the guardian of the international system and its rules.
The immediate question here at the hegemon’s headquarters is whether the US wants to retain its hegemon role at all. The answer may become clear during next year’s election.
The entire analysis of Bloomberg TV Bulgaria website
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