American foreign and domestic policy over the past few decades is deeply unpopular. The undercurrents of this distaste have their roots in the Vietnam War protests and are carried forward to this day. For many, the mere mention of the overarching role that the United States plays in global affairs evokes snide remarks and cynicism. But it’s difficult to mock American interventionism while carrying an iPhone made in China, wearing clothing assembled in Vietnam, and being transported by vehicles burning Arab petroleum –– these conveniences are largely due to the dominant role of the US in the global economy. This results in an ideological contradiction. One cannot decry “imperialism” on the part of the American political and economic apparatus while simultaneously enjoying the comfort and material trappings that result. Even so, the existence of this tension doesn’t answer whether this interventionism is justified. Nor does it answer how, if it is justified, it can be conducted in a manner that avoids the incredible human and material costs associated with current American global involvements. A reasonable answer to these questions can be obtained by charting the history of American hegemonic influence, identifying possible beneficial modifications to the current model, and considering the alternatives.
Since the end of the First World War, the United States was thrust into the forefront of global affairs. While the resource-poor European powers scrambled over colonies in Africa and Asia, the US (aside from a flirtation with traditional imperialism in the Philippines) maintained a non-interventionist posture. As a result, the outbreak of fighting in 1939 and concurrent Imperial Japanese push into Southeast Asian colonies did not directly affect the United States to the extent it did England or the Netherlands. Thus, I argue that the Pearl Harbor attack catalyzed the American war effort, and that the US still entered the Second World War largely on its own terms. This entry was not at the behest of another nation or treaty obligation, making it America’s first assumption of the role of global arbitrator.
The fact that the establishment of the United Nations and NATO were, respectively, spearheaded by Roosevelt and Truman supports this notion. In the 20th Century, the United States took the initiative in dealing with various global threats –– namely the Axis powers, the Soviet Union, nascent petroligarchies, and the spread of Communism through Asia and South America. This initiative was not limited to the geopolitical spectrum; vast advancements in science and technology raised the American standard of living to the global forefront and solidified the military advantage. These advancements were largely a result of the Arms Race against the USSR, a possible contender for hegemony. Even after the end of the Cold War, American interventionism continued throughout the Middle East, resulting in multiple ground conflicts and widespread counterinsurgency actions. In these situations, the US was not the only nation to take an active interest in the internal affairs of others for material and economic benefit. However, no other nation matched the scale and leverage with which the US did –– they lacked the hegemonic potential.
I do not attempt to prove the status of the United States as a hegemon –– most detractors indicatively label it the “bully of the world” or “imperialist.” In spite of these phrases, I believe that the notion of an American hegemony, when implemented effectively and analyzed through a Realist political lens, has the potential to be a globally beneficial force. This system of political analysis focuses on conflict between state actors. Thus, it is only fitting that the notion of hegemonic stability, proposed by the economist Charles Kindleberger, was first utilized in the Cold War. However, it has yet to be realized in the modern geopolitical context.
According to Kindleberger’s Hegemonic Stability Theory, a hegemon is characterized by a tremendous amount of social, military, and economic power and the wherewithal to wield it on a global scale. “The hegemony” includes all the nations within the hegemon’s sphere of control. This geopolitical volume can be further subdivided by type of control. For example, Japan, South Korea, the EU, Mexico, and Canada fall under the economic section, while Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, parts of North Africa, South Korea, and Japan fall under the military section. In turn, American media and cultural exports have made practically the whole globe part of the social sphere of control. Social, military, and economic powers are then used to either maintain or establish a status quo favorable to the hegemon. One such example is the United States’ invasion of Iraq. The questionable existence of weapons of mass destruction aside, the whole situation can be distilled as such: Iraq, an erstwhile ally during the 80s, began to disagree with the US restriction of its territorial ambitions. After the de facto “slap on the wrist” of international sanctions and the First Gulf War failed to dissuade Saddam Hussein, ephemeral WMDs and the nebulous associations between the Iraqi Intelligence Service and Al-Qaeda were more than enough to permit mobilization of the American military apparatus. Thus, the threat of an unfavorable situation (Iraq invading Kuwait, an American petroleum partner, or attacking Israel) was mitigated.
Ironically, this most recent and infamous example is also the foremost argument for responsible hegemony. There is no debate that the neutralization of Saddam Hussein’s military and governmental apparatus was not a sweeping military victory –– the military forces and governmental apparatus of Ba’ath Iraq were neutralized within months. However, the subsequent occupation and horribly misguided de-Ba’athification policy were both failures of foreign policy and missed opportunities for American enforcement of hegemonic stability. In order for Kindleberger’s theory to apply, the hegemon must both be aware of their hegemonic status and then view their actions in the context of long-term geopolitical repercussions. After all, Great Britain’s failure to consolidate control over its colonies following WWII and subsequent disintegration is an excellent example of what happens when potential hegemons fail to be farsighted within their spheres of influence. In the cases of Iraq and its precursor, Afghanistan, the United States acted as a hegemon without cognizance of the accompanying mantle of responsibility. This mantle can be developed in three ways: bolstering American public image throughout the world; working to maintain the political, economic, and military lead; and exhibiting a more decisive foreign posture.
With regards to image, the global perception of the United States could use a facelift –– the majority of the world sees it as obese, ignorant, and arrogant. Since hegemony is inherently based on a power differential, a beneficial and stable situation would be one in which the dynamic is not threatened because it is comfortable for both sides. Consider the military presence in Okinawa, Japan. A growing number of Japanese are pushing for their government to not renew the US military leases on the island. A large fraction of this opposition is based on the highly negative global perception of American military presence and militaristic stereotypes as well as a spate of crimes and disorderly behavior involving American servicemen. In this case, the power dynamic is heavily in favor of the US, since Japan does not have an offensive military capacity and relies on the American presence there to keep China and North Korea at bay. Furthermore, the protests against the Okinawan bases indicates an unstable dynamic between hegemon and hegemony. If a concerted effort to address Japanese grievances against the Okinawan bases was made, the power dynamic may find a sort of equilibrium.
This notion of public perception also applies to American relations with allies. One major bone of contention is the continued unconditional geopolitical and military support for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. The rest of the world notes the hypocrisy with which a nation that labels itself as the “land of the free” simultaneously arms and supports notorious human rights abusers. In fact, it’s no surprise that Yemeni alignment with Iranian paramilitary groups and hostility against the US has risen after Saudis started using American munitions against them. A total cessation of relations is unrealistic, but conditional aid with real consequences for non-compliance can do a great deal to rectify that perception. In a sense, while better public perception amongst US allied countries may not fully remove the yoke of hegemony, it would certainly make it easier to bear.
On a similar note, the US won the Cold War largely due to its excellence in its own economic, political, and technological sectors. For prospective members of the American or Soviet proto-hegemonies, the fact that the average US citizen could live a comfortable life under a stable political structure and robust economy while enjoying the latest technologies was simply a better option compared to the growing discomfort and upheaval of Soviet life. This in turn had a cyclical effect, as greater military alliances protected happier citizens who contributed more to the economy to enable the purchasing of better military technology. Compared to that, our current state is one of outright disunity, national scandal, cultural disharmony, and flagging economic and technological leadership. In that context, hesitancy and a growing desire to no longer associate with the hegemon is understandable for erstwhile allied nations. After all, why should they feel confident in the American hegemony when we can’t even take care of ourselves? It should be noted that the United States is not actually doing poorly, but the lead is narrowing. In geopolitics, perception is reality; any sense of weakness will be picked up and taken advantage of. The manner in which these weaknesses can be addressed is a separate matter, but the American position on the food chain will slip unless we can collectively redevelop a positive global impression and once again represent an ideal.
The notion of a more aggressive foreign posture is both the most important and most controversial of the three means of reinforcing American global responsibility. I am not advocating mindless jingoism, but a measured realism regarding the commitment of American military and economic power. Theodore Roosevelt framed the mannerisms of an ideal hegemon when he said, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Inasmuch, the power a hegemon wields must be applied violently and with extreme discretion –– anything less emboldens both dissenters and possible contenders to the title. Two infamous examples of this are President Obama’s “Red Line” against chemical weapons in Syria and President Trump’s “Fire and Fury” on North Korea’s missile tests. As a result, Al-Assad continues using chemical weapons, while his ally Russia openly encroaches on the regional US sphere of influence, and Kim Jong-Un has completed his ICBM program and thereby consolidated his power; Roosevelt might refer to this as speaking loudly and carrying nothing at all. Similarly, the premature proclamations of victory that have precipitated the seemingly endless engagement in Afghanistan must be retired in favor of concrete, achievable objectives. Nevertheless, I do not think that every geopolitical crossroads should be solved with a flurry of cruise missiles; explicit threats should be made infrequently, but, if necessary, acted on overwhelmingly. The overall geopolitical posture of the hegemon should be that of the open hand and closed fist: one presented in friendship and the other a silent indicator of force. This strategy may involve situations in which American servicemen and women are put in harm’s way, but for the hegemon, keeping a grip on power necessitates a tightening of the fist.
Notions of beneficial hegemonic stability aside, isolationists and non-interventionists will claim that American hegemony does more harm than good to the American people and advocate extrication from our spheres of influence. This is all well and good, but it’s naïve to think that the role of hegemon will remain vacant for long. If not us, then who? China and Russia are already encroaching on traditionally American spheres of influence such as the Philippines and Turkey, respectively. This is not meant as a clarion call but as a reminder that there are others in line for the position. If, per se, the roles were in fact reversed, what guarantees would there be for the continuation of the American standard of living? Without the authority to negotiate beneficial trade deals, where would we buy our cheap goods or outsource the production of our electronics? One of the major complaints about US relations with its hegemony is potential for suffering created by an US occupation. This is a valid issue and should certainly be addressed, but is it reasonable to think that China and Russia, with their own checkered human rights records, will act in a better and more humane fashion?
The American Hegemony is not perfect, and the concept of Pax Americana is not without its own fair share of flaws. But the fact of the matter is that the United States has borne the mantle of hegemonic responsibility for almost a century, and it is not possible to relinquish that title without subsequently giving up the way of life we take for granted. Nevertheless, by being aware of its shortcomings and actively striving to improve in its capacity as hegemon, the United States can be a stabilizing influence on the world.