The evolution of American hegemony
The hegemon must be prepared to accept costs to itself in the larger interest of upholding the system
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The latest edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore witnessed considerable hand-wringing about the US commitment to a “rules-based” international order. Just a few days earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had declared that Europe could no longer rely on America under Donald Trump. On cue, Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement. All this has sent American commentators across the political spectrum into apoplexy. The general sentiment was sharply articulated in David Frum’s claim that Trump has “sounded the death-knell for American leadership”. The US-led alliance had deferred to Washington, Frum argued, “because it trusts that leadership to be exercised with a view to something bigger than the selfish interests of the United States.”
The word that captures this image of the US’s global role is not leadership but hegemony. As Perry Anderson reminds in his recently published conceptual history of hegemony, The H-Word, the term was popular amongst American political scientists in the 1970s and 80s. But Americans have always been wary of its connotations of coercive power. Since the early 1990s, they have preferred “soft power” and “leadership”—words that swaddled the American power in a benign aura just as it reached its apogee. Nevertheless, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, hegemony is back in circulation—if only in discussions of whether American hegemony had had its day.
Hegemony is best understood as a form of power that combines coercion and persuasion. Yet, the relative weight and importance of these ingredients of hegemony have always been a matter of judgment. Writers and thinkers from antiquity have grappled with this constitutive tension in the idea of hegemony. Anderson’s survey is a pellucid guide to the conceptual mutations, ambiguities and slippages in the idea of hegemony. And it provides essential context for contemporary discussions.
From the Greeks onward, the notion of hegemony has been invoked in the context of explaining (or rationalizing) the dominant role of one state in a coalition of nominally independent states. The Romans apparently had little use for the term, preferring instead the blunt notion of empire. Hegemony resurfaced in 19th century Europe: initially in the context of Prussia’s claim to leadership of the German states and then of Wilhelmine Germany’s ostensible bid for mastery of the continent.
In the aftermath of the First World War, discussions of hegemony subsided and gave way to legalistic discourse on the League of Nations. Interestingly, the best conceptual exposition of the workings of hegemony came from the most perceptive critic of the League and the international order it sought to establish: E.H. Carr. An erstwhile British diplomat and holder of one of the first university chairs in international relations, Carr pierced the claims of a law-based international order and showed it up as a dressed-up defence of the status quo. Carr did not scorn the need for a hegemony that was not seen as oppressive, but he harboured no illusions about its ingredients: “power goes far to create the morality convenient to itself, and coercion is a fruitful form of consent.”
Such plain speak was unlikely to get purchase in the US—even as the country set about constructing an unprecedented hegemonic order after the Second World War. Even “realist” international relations scholars like Hans Morgenthau tiptoed around the term and resorted to a range of euphemisms to capture the essence of America’s global preponderance. Ironically, “liberal” American international relations theorists put the term back into circulation in the 1970s. The terrain of investigation, however, was the international economy.
In his influential book on the Great Depression, economic historian Charles Kindleberger had identified the prime cause of the depression as the US’s unwillingness to play the role of the hegemon—defined here as the lender of the last resort—in stabilizing the world economy. The hegemon, Kindleberger argued, must be prepared to accept costs to itself in the larger interest of upholding the system. The book was published just as the Nixon administration pulled the US out of the Bretton Woods monetary system, leading to the collapse of this regime and the advent of floating exchange rates.
Packaged as ‘Hegemonic Stability Theory’, these arguments were taken up by a bevy of political scientists who debated the validity of the thesis and the need for a hegemon to keep a “rules-based” system going. Much of this debate, Anderson observes, was conducted in the shadow of America’s apparently slipping hegemony. In fact, the neoliberal order that supplanted Bretton Woods proved a yet stronger basis for American hegemony. Coupled with the US’s unquestioned military preponderance, it set the stage for America’s ascent to unipolarity.
As earlier, the current discussions are essentially about the survival of American hegemony in the age of Trump. It’s a question that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will ponder as he proceeds to Washington later this month. For nearly 20 years now, successive Indian governments have worked on the assumption that American hegemony worked in India’s interest too. If its continuance cannot be taken for granted, even temporarily, then advancing India’s wider interests will become all the more challenging.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.