America: a wounded hegemon

Nov 1, 2023
Global Economy Concept.

Amid the pomp in Washington did the Australian Prime Minister sense the enormity of the moment? As he paid homage to the hegemon could he feel the facade crumbling to reveal America’s slipping power?

Periods of hegemonic dominance have long fascinated historians and political scientists, and finding parallels with the US hegemony is a common pastime. Perhaps of most interest to America watchers are the theories of how hegemons maintain (or lose) their dominance.

Unlike a conqueror or occupying power that employs force and coercion to dominate and impose order on the international system, the hegemon promotes the international order through leadership, norm setting, rule making and by example. While military power has generally played an important role in the emergence of hegemons, it has not been the direct subjugation of territory but the spread of the power’s culture and ideology that has made a power a hegemon.

The voluntary compliance of allies or subjects is gained and maintained by the hegemon reliably conducting itself in a manner consistent with its claims and professed values. The legitimacy of hegemony requires that subject states and allies acquiesce out of self-interest. In other words, by ‘the enrolment of others in the exercise of your power by convincing, cajoling, and coercing them that they should want what you want’.

Hegemony is less about the exercise of power and more about order. G. John Ikenberry has pointed to the hegemon’s political bargain: where it agrees to bind itself to its partners, making itself more predictable, approachable, and user-friendly which, in turn, leads others to support the general hegemonic enterprise.

The hegemony that America built after the second world war has been well explained by Mark Beeson and Corey Crawford in an article discussing China’s hegemonic challenge to America. But before that competition reaches any sort of denouement it seems far more likely that America will have undermined its hegemonic status through its own actions.

The world – that is, allies, partners, and strategic competitors of America and the global south – is watching as America is losing legitimacy because of the contradictions between America’s particular variety of hegemony – one built on liberal internationalism and democracy – and its behaviours.

One central ideological pillar of American hegemony is the values embodied in the United Nations Charter and which are implemented through the institutions it has fostered – including international and human rights law. America’s cumulative actions over time have eroded the legitimacy of this pillar of its hegemonic order. America’s chronic hypocrisy and inconsistency make the shared values rhetoric increasingly empty.

The indications that the hegemony is crumbling have been evident for a while. The illegal invasion of Iraq, the inordinately expensive debacle in Afghanistan and the abandonment of the Afghans, and the intervention in Libya all variously display disregard for international law and/or an inability to manage crises effectively through to a better state-of-affairs.

There are many commentators who lay the blame for the Ukrainian War to a greater or lesser extent on America’s post-Cold War hubris and the reckless reach of the hegemony into Eastern Europe through the expansion of NATO. In the current situation, European nations cannot do without America’s military and economic support in managing the crisis with Russia, but the rumblings about the need for greater independent military capability in Europe, presently somewhat sotto voce, will only grow after the war is resolved.

Moreover, if a hegemon’s legitimacy depends on its reliability and constancy, then the waning enthusiasm in America for funding the war in Ukraine is both a strategic threat to the Europeans and a warning about the long term dangers of acquiescing in the hegemony. The dysfunction in the US Congress and the deepening partisan division in America makes a mockery of the democracy versus autocracy argument. A concern no doubt heightened for Europeans by the prospect of a Republican presidency in 2025, especially if it is Trump again.

At the outset the Biden Administration was clearly determined to re-energise the hegemony by emphasising America’s natural right to global leadership, and by highlighting the shared values that knit the hegemony together. That claim to leadership is now diminished.

The turning point at which the American hegemony began to irretrievably unravel will retrospectively be judged as the reaction of the Biden Administration to the Gaza crisis. The uncompromising support for Israel is so out of step with the shared values and norms, the respect for international law, and the shared democratic values that America claims to profess, and which it aspires to champion around the world, that its adherence to them can no longer be taken as genuine.

America appealed to the judgement of the world in the UN General Assembly on Russia’s aggression but spurns it over Gaza in both the Assembly and the Security Council. It places carrier battle groups in the Eastern Mediterranean to ensure Israel can continue its collective punishment of Palestinians.

The frailty of the hegemony has been revealed. The hegemony is mortally wounded. Whatever moral standing America had, whatever weight as an exemplar it exhibited as a liberal values based actor, have been squandered.

The full retreat of America’s hegemony will be gradual. America will remain the foremost military and economic power for a long time to come, which is just as well for America because it will increasingly have to rely on force and coercion, not leadership, to pursue its interests. The more it does so the the weaker will be its hegemonic claims.

Hopefully Albanese is awake to this shift and it will shape the strategic policy objectives in his mind in Beijing. The world of the hegemon he grew up under is fading and his responsibility is to coming generations.

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