Who Needs a Global Hegemon? — Maleeha Lodhi


US soldiers are pictured in Afghanistan. The limits of American ability to control events around the world have increasingly been highlighted.  Reuters
US soldiers are pictured in Afghanistan. The limits of American ability to control events around the world have increasingly been exposed in recent conflicts. Reuters

A compelling new book exposes the limits of America’s hegemony and rightly argues that the world does not need a global hegemon or policeman to run it


[dropcap]A[/dropcap] wide-ranging though inconclusive debate has been underway, mostly in the West, about America’s place in a world transformed by the dispersal of global power and the emergence of multipolarity.

Views differ sharply about what this diffusion of power implies for US global pre-eminence and whether this means that America’s hour of power has receded into history.

Several Western analysts, including conservatives and liberals, have lamented a world bereft of a global hegemon or policeman, and predicted chaos as its consequence. Others have welcomed the advent of an era of decentralized power and the opportunity this offers for more democratic global governance, resting on multilateral, rule-based processes, even if that is still aspirational rather than reality.

Shifting global dynamics have resulted in a more complex international landscape where there are increasing constraints on the exercise of power. Right-wing critics of President Obama like to attribute the diminution of US power to his ‘failure to lead’ and reluctance to deploy military force. Much of this criticism reflects an inability to accept the limits of US power in a dramatically transformed world. Obama acknowledged these limits in his 2010 national security strategy, which called for building coalitions with other nations to promote US goals.

Obama continues to be assailed by his domestic detractors for his cautious approach to using hard power. This prompted him to recently state he did not need to “make apologies for being careful in these areas even if it didn’t make for good theatre”.

Meanwhile the foreign policy debate continues about America’s role in the world. A recently published book now joins this discourse from a rather different and provocative angle. ‘Goodbye Hegemony’, written by two academics, Richard Ned Lebow (King’s College) and Simon Reich (from Rutgers University), makes for an insightful read.

The book questions the very notion of hegemony and offers a stinging critique of (mostly) American international relations scholars and foreign policy writers, who developed this concept to promote the project of US hegemony, and its ‘right to lead’. This is embedded in ideas of American exceptionalism, but is today “an unrealistic and counterproductive aspiration”, according to the authors.

They challenge the proposition that US hegemony has long existed and has been good for the world, as for America. They argue instead that this is an “empirically false claim”. The US hasn’t really been a hegemon, except for a relatively short period and that too partially. Moreover it has often acted in a way, especially in its military interventions, that has undercut rather than upheld global stability.

The book’s core argument is compelling – and simple. A hegemon is not needed for global stability because three key functions associated with this are being shared widely in the international community and performed by different states, sometimes in collaboration with non-state actors. These functions are identified as ‘agenda-setting’, a type of social power that depends on persuasion and is a key attribute of leadership.

The second function is economic ‘custodianship’. This entails bolstering the international economic order, especially at times of crisis, acting as a ‘lender of last resort’ and stabilizing the global financial system. The third role is ‘sponsorship’ of global initiatives. This involves enforcing international rules as well as provision of security and support for trade and finance.

The authors posit that “no hegemon is needed to manage the international system, which has the potential to work successfully without one” as networks of actors in Asia, Europe and the US are attempting to play these three critical roles to maximize their power and influence while acknowledging the need for policy coordination.

The book’s case rests on the distinction drawn between power and influence. The authors reject power as a narrow understanding of material capabilities, because that is only one component of power. Moreover power doesn’t always translate into influence. America, they show, has been very powerful, but only occasionally influential.

For the authors, US hegemony existed briefly in the mid-twentieth century but by the 1960s had run its course. As other nations acquired economic strength and political stability, US hegemony eroded. Although America possessed extraordinary military and economic power, that didn’t mean it could get other states to do what it wanted. Even in its apparent ‘unipolar moment’ in the early 1990s, the US was unable to maintain international stability that a hegemon is supposed to provide.

Subsequent US behavior threw the distinction between power and influence into sharper relief. The book cites American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as further eroding its standing, exemplifying that power does not necessarily produce influence. In both cases, “America’s capacity was found wanting, its strategic objectives were frustrated and its standing declined among friend and foe alike”. This showed that in its quest for security and hegemony, the US undermined both.

For the authors, persuasion, which rests on legitimacy, and collective action are more effective in exercising influence than muscle flexing through unilateral actions, threats, bribes (aid) and coercion. They argue that American foreign policy, cast in terms of hegemony and reliance on hard power, has, in fact, left it with diminishing influence. This approach has also been inconsistent with post cold war realities.

In detailing how the functions of agenda-setting, economic custodianship and sponsorship are being performed, the authors describe a shift towards a world in which many countries and actors exercise different forms of influence. European countries are held up as being effective at agenda-setting.

goodbye hegemony

Good-bye Hegemony: Power and Influence in the Global System

Princeton University Press, 2014


Although many American analysts often berate European ‘weakness’ for the lack of emphasis on military power, yet Europeans, despite their diversity, have developed an alternate approach to foreign policy that emphasizes compromise, consensus and diplomacy over the threat or use of force. The main exception, they point out, is the British Conservative party.

The authors cite two examples to show Europe’s success at agenda-setting. The first is the campaign for a treaty banning landmines in the face of US opposition.  The second is how a more formalized, multilateral and rule-driven structure for globalisation, advocated by Europe, has prevailed over the US effort for a liberal, market driven and ad hoc globalization.

The discussion of economic custodianship is particularly insightful. China, it is argued, is playing an increasingly important custodial role, having assumed some of the key functions of international economic management.

It has done this by dealing with global financial imbalances fuelled by large US and European official debt, acting as a lender of last resort, injecting capital into collapsing US banks, stabilising currency exchanges, making huge investments abroad, and enhancing aid and trade with developing economies. China has obviously acted this way in pursuit of its own interests, because this enhances its access to markets and raw materials as well as expands it influence.

The distinction the authors draw between Washington and Beijing is this. China has not tried to redesign the global system as the US did after the Second World War. It has instead sought to preserve the existing system, much like Germany and Japan did earlier. From this they conclude that the US and China have compatible goals as Beijing is not interested in being a hegemonic power and wants to uphold, not overthrow the global order.

What do the authors propose for the US? They would like America to rethink its “post-hegemonic role” and transition to a role of sponsorship, which would serve American interests much better. Hegemony, they say, is “expensive in blood and treasure”, while “sponsorship is relatively cheap”, and more effective. Hegemony “drains legitimacy’ while sponsorship enhances it.

In some cases, the authors say, Obama has tried to pursue a sponsorship strategy and they cite the case of Libya, where Washington worked though a coalition. But they maintain that unless the US policy community, who make the case for American domination, and thus justify its militarism, don’t say ‘good bye to hegemony’ as a policy guide, America will not be able to revive its global standing.

c. The News International


All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

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