JOHN TAN. About Hegemony, Leadership ….. and Assange?

Jan 13, 2020

There has been one global hegemon since WWII, a commander with enough soft and hard power to make all the rules that matter, and to enforce them.

America used that power to create the world order. Its hegemony has been called benevolent by close friends, predatory or coercive by others. So, how should a global hegemon behave anyway? And when one has all that power, does it really matter what others think?

Clearly, many of America’s friends, foes and in-betweens do think that perceptions matter. Supporters of US power write of its global “leadership” when what they really mean is “hegemony”, or “rule”, or “primacy”.

There is a chasm of difference between the words. Is the US a ruler, or a leader, or both, or a ruler masquerading behind a thin veneer of leadership?

Academic Sandra Destradi complains that the terms “empire”, ‘”hegemony’, and “leadership” are highly contested in international relations literature and are often used in a confusing, inconsistent manner. Empire and hegemony or hegemony and leadership are frequently employed as synonyms.

“In fact, the interests and motivations of followers are of central importance in conceptualising leadership – and ignoring the dynamics of followership can be misleading. Thus, the USA did not exercise ‘real’ leadership in the second Gulf War, even though their allies seemed to ‘follow’, because there was a lack of common interests and goals. For in order to give leadership concrete meaning, a leader must have followers, those willing to buy into a broad vision of collective goals articulated by a leader in whom both legitimacy and trust are placed,” she wrote. (1)

The idea that a ruler needs legitimacy and trust is pursued by others, and acknowledged even by America’s staunchest supporters.

Johns Hopkins professor David Calleo: “One of the principal reasons for the decline of America’s global hegemony in recent decades is the de-legitimation of US leadership. Power lacking legitimacy is greatly devalued.” (2)

Robert Kagan, that prominent neoconservative supporter of the Iraq war, is reported by Rapkin & Braaten to have argued that ”the struggle to define and obtain international legitimacy in this new era may prove to be among the most critical contests of our time. In some ways it is as significant in determining the future of the US role in the international system as any purely material measure of power and influence’.” (3)

This warning from B. Catley: “The United States has shifted from being a benign hegemon to an arrogant superpower and this will likely generate a hostile reaction.” (4)

Stephen Brooks: “A predatory hegemon is one that uses its power to structure the system to its own advantage and extract rents, whereas a benevolent hegemon is one who fosters a global economic system that benefits other states to a similar or greater degree than the hegemon.” (5)

And then, there was Niccolo Machiavelli, that 16th century godfather of statecraft who wrote that a ruler should prefer to be feared rather than loved, it it came to making a choice. But Machiavelli also wrote: “It is above all things necessary to make himself (the ruler) esteemed, which he will do if he so regulates his actions and conversation that he shall be thought a man of honour, liberal, and sincere.”

If hegemony is defined as having the power to make others behave as the hegemon wants, then US hegemony has been steadily weakening in the last 70 years. The inability to win decisively in Vietnam, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, inability to subdue North Korea, Russia’s renewed assertiveness, all bear testimony.

Weakening hegemony does not mean weakening power, of course. The US still retains the ability, in military and many other areas, to greatly damage any challengers and others who are too independent. And it is usually true that a weakening hegemon will face increasing pressure from within to do whatever it takes, to use its ample strategic “assets” to damage unfriendly persons and states, in order to remain unquestionably No.1 by far.

For global leadership to be meaningful, some broad leadership skills need to be exhibited, so perhaps a word might come from the behavioural sciences.

Engelbrecht, et al. say: “Ethical leadership is critical to a leader’s credibility and his/her potential to exert meaningful influence. This credibility of ethical leaders is likely to have a significant influence on trust between a leader and followers. Integrity, which refers to adherence to moral principles, captures the essence of ethical values and therefore can be seen as an important driver of ethical leadership. One can also consider the impact integrity has on the concept of trust in that followers have confidence in leaders who are perceived as high on integrity.” (6)

And what about Julian Assange? Whether or not he was employed as a journalist is moot. He was exercising journalism, in the sense that he exposed uncomfortable truths about government lies and misdeeds, a job that every journalist should do. Indeed, it is every ordinary person’s right and duty to do so.

Whether or not there was a “secret” stamp on it was immaterial. Otherwise governments of every ilk would cover up all their lies and crimes under a barrage of secrecy stamps. Most of all, such tactics are unbecoming of a real democracy.

Of course, whistleblowing carries a cost, and numerous cases of whistleblowers and journalists imprisoned or worse attest to that cost. Quite simply, those with power do not like their tactics revealed, and they have nasty ways to let others know. In the Assange case, the global hegemon is signalling clearly that those who don’t toe its line will pay a high price.

But hegemony also carries risks for the hegemon. Washington may perhaps be reminded that Assange may be put on trial, but in the longer term, the judgement of the world may well be on the US.


(1) Destradi, S. (2010). Regional powers and their strategies: Empire, hegemony, and leadership. Review of International Studies, 36(4), 903-930.

(2) Calleo, D. P. (2009, 11). How to govern a multipolar world. Current History, 108, 361-367.

(3) Rapkin, D. P., & Braaten, D. (2009). Conceptualising hegemonic legitimacy. Review of International Studies, 35(1), 113-149.

(4) Catley, B. (1999). Hegemonic America: The arrogance of power. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 21(2), 157-175.

(5) Brooks, S. (2012) Can we identify a benevolent hegemon?, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25:1, 27-38.

(6) Engelbrecht, A. S., Heine, G., & Mahembe, B. (2017). Integrity, ethical leadership, trust and work engagement. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 38(3), 368-379.

(The writer was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore)

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