Assessing America’s role as a global hegemony – Andreas Kluth

The term “hegemon” signifies a dominant global power, and the United States has held this position for decades. However, its influence is now diminishing as other nations rise. Andreas Kluth argues that this shift will impact global politics, peace, and war. The concept of hegemony is about who establishes and enforces global rules, impacting everything from trade to international stability. While some argue for the balance of powers or alternative theories, the US-led hegemony since 1945 has contributed to relative global stability, despite controversies. Whether the US continues its hegemonic role may be determined in its upcoming elections, with contrasting international visions at stake.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.

The World Is Still Better Off With US Hegemony: Andreas Kluth

By Andreas Kluth

(Bloomberg Opinion) — “Hegemon” is a loaded word, even if the Greek root simply means leader. In world politics the term refers to a superpower that dominates the international system as a whole, for good or ill. In our lifetime, the United States has been such a hegemon, and controversially so. Now, though, America’s relative global clout seems to be slipping as other powers rise. And that’ll have far-reaching consequences for global politics and matters of war and peace.

As it happens, I recently relocated to what a colleague has aptly called Hegemon HQ — that is, Washington, DC. It’s the ideal perch to investigate this big question about American leadership, which I intend to do in several of my future columns. Is US power actually waning, or does it just seem that way? Does the US, going into a presidential election next year, even want to remain hegemon? Or are Americans fed up with defending that battered regime so awkwardly named the “rules-based international order”? Not least, should the world root for American decline or continued US preeminence?

That last one depends largely on where in the world you happen to find yourself. If you’re in Beijing, US hegemony can’t end fast enough, because you think China should reclaim its rightful place as a sort of Middle Kingdom in world affairs. If you’re in Tallinn, Estonia, you want the US to stay strong and engaged, because you realize that an American presence in Europe is probably the only thing standing between you and renewed subjugation by the Kremlin at some point. 

But hegemony goes far beyond who can defend whom against what aggressor. It’s ultimately about who determines and enforces the rules of the system as such — governing everything from money flows to trade and shipping on the high seas. Wonks call these multilateral norms “public goods” because in theory they benefit all countries, especially the smaller ones. 

Starting in the 1970s with the work of Charles Kindleberger, an American economic historian, a popular theory in international relations has argued that you need a hegemon to maintain such rules to have any order and stability at all. When you don’t, the international system reverts to its default state, which is anarchy— since the world, unlike a nation, can’t have a single government with a monopoly on legitimate violence. 

By this logic, the world was relatively stable during the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, when the UK ran monetary institutions such as the gold standard, kept trade routes open with its navy and so forth. Obviously, that doesn’t mean the era was necessarily pleasant, even or especially for people whom the British colonized. Just more orderly than it would have been otherwise.

That imperfect order then gave way to chaos after World War I, when Britain was no longer able and America not yet willing to be hegemon. After World War II, though, the US stepped up and reestablished stability, at least within the capitalist world. With institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and alliances such as NATO, that US-led (and not always pacific) regime was immodestly labeled the Pax Americana, harking back to the ancient Pax Romana.

Almost as soon as “hegemonic stability theory” became mainstream, however, other policymakers and scholars, especially here at Hegemon HQ, became anxious that America’s moment as world leader was already passing. Maybe that was due to “imperial overstretch,” or to America’s shrinking share of the world economy, or something else. But reports of the hegemon’s death have been greatly exaggerated so often that we should be cautious about writing off the US too soon.

As a narrative about international relations, hegemony also has competition. Traditional realists looking at the long sweep of history insist that it usually wasn’t one power’s leadership but rather a balance of powers that preserved order. Liberal internationalists continue to believe that countries can cooperate even in the absence of a hegemon. And far out in left field, Marxists have their own niche theory of hegemony. 

My view is that hegemony as it’s been exercised by the US since 1945 best explains the relative stability of the “free world” in that era — defined as increasing prosperity and liberty for many, if sadly not all, and the absence, so far, of another world war. 

That said, I’m fully aware of the anger in much of the world, and especially the Global South, directed at the US. Like Britain in the 19th century, the US often puts its national interest ahead of the system’s, which is a no-no for hegemons. It’s also hypocritical, posing as a global defender of democracy but sporadically supporting coups by repressive dictators — this week happens to be the 50th anniversary of Chile’s, in which the US Central Intelligence Agency had more than a gentle hand. Sometimes, Washington stands up for other countries’ national sovereignty, as in Ukraine. Other times it rides roughshod over it, as in Iraq in 2003. As hegemon, America is supposed to act as lender of last resort to prevent global bank runs; instead, it sometimes exports financial turmoil to the world, as in 2008.

But ask yourself two questions. The first is whether the world would be better off substituting in a different hegemon. Given the prerequisites in economic, technological, military and nuclear power, that could only be China in the foreseeable future. I doubt many people beyond its borders would choose the Chinese Communist Party as ward of the international system and its rules.

The second question is whether the world would really improve if it had no hegemon at all — that’s the alternative implied by the catchphrase of multipolarity. If you accept, as I do, that the international system’s default state is anarchy, the answer is No. And even if you believe in the balance of power as the secret sauce, keep in mind that in that realist tradition war is a feature rather than a bug in the system — it’s what recalibrates the scales every so often.

The immediate question for me here at Hegemon HQ is whether the US even wants to keep its role of hegemon. The answer may become clear in next year’s election. Even if it’ll be fought over America’s domestic culture wars, it’ll also pit two opposing international visions against each other. One, embodied by Donald Trump or a politician of his ilk, is transactional, nationalist and isolationist. The other, represented by President Joe Biden or a similar candidate, is internationalist and combines idealism with realism and engagement.

The question of America’s global leadership may eventually be decided in part by resources, by the trajectories of rival powers, by attitudes toward US power across the world and other factors. But even before those come into play, Americans themselves will get to vote on it.

To contact the author of this story:
Andreas Kluth at [email protected]

Read also:

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

Visited 484 times, 18 visit(s) today