A question of hegemony

by William Pfaff

An implicit alliance has emerged in Washington since the Cold War’s end between avowedly “Wilsonian” liberals, anxious to extend American influence and federate the democracies, and unilateralist neoconservative believers in U.S. power projection, who call for American world leadership, aggressively imposed, for world society’s own good.

This spirit has underlain the activism and unilateralism evident in much recent U.S. policy, despite the criticism made of it by some commentators and scholars. It is behind aggressively unilateralist congressional approaches to foreign relations, which also express the older American isolationist impulse: Unilateralism and isolationism being two expressions of the same parochial sensibility.

It was responsible for the Clinton administration’s program to enlarge NATO’s membership and extend alliance operations. That essentially unilateralist initiative reflected a larger conception of extended U.S. influence that has become the principal theme in Washington’s post-Cold War policy thinking. Some envisage NATO’s eventual extension into the former Soviet states, possibly including Russia itself, and on to Central Asia, toward the frontiers of another U.S.-led Pacific strategic system and military alliance. This reflects not only deliberate policy choice but the inherent expansionism of bureaucracies and the emotional power of the idea of a political counterpart to America’s economic globalization.

Still others in the U.S. policy community regard the new century as an opportunity for an international re-enactment of 18th century America’s confederation of the 13 original colonies into what became the “united states” of America. They would like the industrial democracies — the developed world, or a major part of it — to form a new democratic union in which the United States would be the inspiration and the leader. This ambition is not always baldly expressed, but it lies behind Madeleine Albright’s characterization of the U.S. as the “indispensable nation,” that, because it “stands taller,” scans horizons others cannot see.

An early statement of what its advocates call the new Wilsonianism and others call the case for American hegemony was made by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in 1996, in a Foreign Affairs article, followed by a book and other press articles, recapitulating their case in the spring 2000 issue of the Washington quarterly The National Interest:

“Today’s international system is built not around a balance of power but around American hegemony. The international financial institutions were fashioned by Americans and serve American interests. The international security structures are chiefly a collection of American-led alliances. . . . Since today’s relatively benevolent international circumstances are the product of our hegemonic influence, any lessening of that influence will allow others to play a larger part in shaping the world to suit their needs. States such as China and Russia, if given the chance, would configure the international system quite differently. . . . American hegemony, then, must be actively maintained, just as it was actively obtained . . . the United States does not pursue a narrow, selfish definition of its national interest, but generally finds its interests in a benevolent international order. In other words, it is precisely because the United States infuses its foreign policy with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations feel they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.”

Another recent work, H.W. Brands’ significantly titled “What America Owes the World” (1999), says that while American “exemplarists” think that the country should try to serve as an example of a humane and just society, “vindicators” believe that America’s “peculiar obligation” to better humanity’s lot may require intervention and coercion. “Human nature is too recalcitrant for mere example to have much lasting effect, and . . . military might, even if it doesn’t necessarily make right, certainly can restrain wrong.” An analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Joshua Muravchik, argues that other nations “know that they have little to fear or distrust from a righteous [America].” He says in his book, “The Imperative of American Leadership” (1996), that “aside perhaps from the French, the only people averse to American leadership are the Americans.”

Opposed to this is the view of what Brands calls the “exemplarists,” whose most eminent member is undoubtedly the diplomat and historian George Kennan, who observed in 1999, in an interview in The New York Review of Books, that “this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power.” He added that for Americans “to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world” is “unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.”

One may add that a bid for hegemony would also eventually fail because its objective, however “benevolent,” is unacceptable to other nations, and seen as a threat. The European allies already are actively resentful of U.S. pressure to block them from establishing a European defense “identity” able to assert some independence of NATO. A European foreign minister remarked in the fall of 1999 that he had found that all his European Union colleagues regarded their most serious current problem in foreign relations as that of dealing with the U.S. The president of the Defense Commission of the French National Assembly, Paul Quiles, wrote in Le Monde last April about the disquiet felt in the assembly, and in the French policy community, at the views expressed by Sen. Jesse Helms during his encounters with the U.N. Security Council members earlier in the year, since the senator had “maintained that states, above all the United States, which are democratic, and act in the cause of liberty, possess unlimited authority, subject to no external control, to carry out military interventions.” Quiles continued, “If we allow these attitudes to follow their course, the risk is great that the United States, in searching to impose its will, will provoke greater and greater defiance from countries such as Russia and China, and still others.” Sen. Helms’ views are usually unrepresentative of general American opinion, but one must say that in this case they are not. They express one version of the Wilsonian legacy, which as a whole is less glorious, more complex, and has proven to be considerably less successful than Washington’s contemporary theorists seem to understand.

Woodrow Wilson began as a splendid isolationist. He regarded the outbreak of World War I as a fit of madness among the Europeans. He sent his confidant and adviser, Col. Edward House, to search for a compromise settlement. He was at the same time saying, “There is such a thing as a man too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” The latter proved to be untrue. In January 1917 Wilson appealed for a “peace without victory,” but after extension of the German submarine campaign, he went to war in April. He did so, he said, in order to fight a war to end wars, to make the world safe for democracy, and to end “power politics,” after which the U.S. would lead the way into a new international order in which war would be abolished.

When victory arrived, and with it the opportunity to realize his vision, he said that America’s role in the war had come about by divine agency: “It was of this that we dreamed at our birth. America shall in truth show the way.” He said that the world turned “to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the base of all freedom . . . that . . . all shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights, and that her flag is the flag not only of America, but of humanity.” He thanked God that Americans were not like other men.

It is hard to explain why Wilson’s fundamentally sentimental, megalomaniacal, and unhistorical vision of world democracy organized on the American example, and led by the U.S., should continue today to set the general course of American foreign policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, and inspire enthusiasm for U.S. global hegemony among policymakers and analysts. The disastrous consequences of this sentimentality during the past 80 years seems to have made no trace on the minds of Wilson’s modern followers. His naivete about universal national self-determination contributed to creating conditions in Central and Eastern Europe which in the 1930s and 1940s invited Hitler’s intervention. His influence on Franklin Roosevelt led the latter to oppose Winston Churchill’s efforts to exercise “power politics” in Central Europe so as to secure it from postwar Soviet control. It was responsible for Roosevelt’s belief that a new League, the United Nations, would resolve postwar geopolitical problems. Even U.S. policy in the Vietnam War was a confused amalgam of anti-Communism and Wilsonian sentimentality: Lyndon Johnson justified his foreign policy as meant only to give others what they “want for themselves — liberty, justice, dignity, a better life for all.”

Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in 2000 promised to overthrow the regimes of “rogue states,” rally laggard allies, and promulgate American-style democracy everywhere within America’s reach. They differed on pace and method, Mr. Bush the more disposed to unilateral methods, although seemingly less ambitious about universal reform. Whether American public opinion accompanies them in these extravagant ambitions may be doubted, but the rhetoric is automatic. They know no other. The country is still in the intellectual thrall of the megalomaniacal and self-righteous clergyman-president who gave to the American nation the blasphemous conviction that it, like he himself, had been created by God “to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”

The projections conventionally made with respect to the future are usually for more of the same, or if not that, for more or less of a repetition of something well-known from the recent past (another crash, another depression, another Hitler, another Munich). Neither assumption is really very useful, since the sole certainty about the future is that it is, strictly speaking, unforeseeable.

The useful statements that can be made about the future are the general ones: that hegemonic power invites opposition; that political entities seek to aggrandize their power and wealth; that a vacuum of power will be filled; that evil exists in history and reason is not its master — and that a constant in history is the unforeseen rupture that changes everything, as did World War I.

The U.S. will undoubtedly remain the most powerful and influential state and social system in international society during the early years of the new millennium. It is the “sole superpower,” and its economic system will undoubtedly continue to be the most visible and influential economic and commercial model. The system of global bases and integrated alliances that the U.S. built up during the 1950s and 1960s in response to the real threats of the Cold War, was for that reason accepted by those associated with it as legitimate, indeed desirable. When the threat was removed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and by the evolution of Communist China into a rationally authoritarian state, observing more or less normal rules of international relations, this policy of the U.S. was deprived of what before had been its compelling rationale, and therefore, potentially, of its legitimacy.

Under the influence of institutional and conceptual momentum, these systems of alliances and engagements were nonetheless maintained and extended, even though they had lost their essential justification, with the practical effect that maintaining the apparatus of the outmoded policy became the policy itself. The allies, who previously had been its beneficiaries, began to perceive it as a burden, an interference in their affairs.

Americans were themselves confused as to whether this costly and expanding global engagement was really necessary. New theories of external threat to the U.S. thus were developed: wars of civilization, generalized Islamic assault on the West, global terrorism, resurgent Chinese or Russian imperialism, international crime, the drug trade. The wretched “rogue nations” were promoted to the front rank of those threatening the United States. None of this possessed much convincing intellectual or political warrant. The postulated threats were fragile structures of speculation and worst-case scenarios, and some of them — the rogue missile threat and the drug danger in Colombia, supposedly requiring indirect military intervention — were influenced by the commercial interests of military manufacturers. All reflected the natural survival instincts of the cold war bureaucracies of government and of the latter’s policy auxiliaries in the civilian community, whose raison d’etre had been thrown into question.

The European allies, berated in the past for not doing enough to defend themselves, found themselves criticized as creating a “fortress Europe” when they launched a project for their common defense, which would weaken American influence and privileges in Europe. The need for U.S. bases and facilities in Japan and Okinawa is taken for granted even though the U.S. has friendly relations with China, accords it normal trading relations, has spoken of its strategic relationship with that country as a “partnership,” and now has a developing relationship with North Korea. The U.S. has an obligation to Taiwan, but Taiwan is not essentially a military problem but a political one. America’s primary interests in Asia are commercial and economic. Japan, the true great power of the region (or the eventual one, when present political inhibitions are lifted), meanwhile spends $40 billion annually to have the most advanced military establishment in Asia, and one of the largest — a military expenditure more than three times that of China.

Washington is unwilling or is perhaps intellectually and politically incapable of reassessing its actual strategic interests in Asia with serious attention to the costs to America of existing policy. The Asian deployment is defended because it exists, but some in Asia now ask whether it is not an instrument of intimidation. In Asia, as in Europe, the American position risks becoming transformed from that of welcome defender into burdensome intruder. Washington does not understand that its power risks becoming a destabilizing force.

The U.S. position and the prevailing system will certainly both be challenged in the future. The nature and identity of a successful challenge is unforeseeable today, but it is in the nature of hegemonic domination, or a quasi-hegemonic system, to generate challenge, and its own eventual replacement.

That is a basic political reality. Domination can endure for long periods when it is that of an advanced civilization over backward ones (as with Rome). The challenge to the modern American position will come from societies that are themselves equally advanced — and as a consequence of the entropy of the hegemon itself, its natural tendency toward degradation of its energies, a general phenomenon.

The U.S. investment in present policy — intellectual as well as institutional and financial — is too great to be easily reversed. In the way of reform, the most that can reasonably (if optimistically) be hoped for is an acknowledgment that a different conception of the nation’s role is legitimate, and an admission that the present course may be less well-founded than conventionally believed: a concession of the possibility of danger ahead.

Yet revolt against even the limited international hegemony the American nation now exercises is inevitable, sooner or later. Eventually a pluralism of power will re-establish itself, whether the U.S. resists or not. The deep forces at work in the political and cultural relations of nations, as well as the strategic ones, will see to that.

Change could come in a constructive way, leading toward an international system in which the major powers recognize and respect their differences of interest, look for equitable resolutions, and cultivate second-order agreement (which is the precise and mutually agreed definition of differences, essential to any fruitful discussion of the differences themselves). It might come in conflict and bitterness, with unpredictable consequences, even inside the U.S.

The U.S. is nearly always taken by foreigners to be invulnerable, but why should this be so? A stable and seemingly fulfilled European society, enjoying the most prosperous economy in the contemporary world, fell overnight, in 1914, into a series of sanguinary calamities. In 1900 the British Empire was “the sole superpower.” The British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, and Netherlands empires dominated Africa and most of Asia. The destructive forces that were to dominate most of the 20th century were without influence in 1900, or did not yet exist. Marxism as a political movement was a marginal affair. Hitler was 11 years old. Benito Mussolini was 17, a budding pacifist and socialist. Fascism and Nazism did not exist. They were unimagined, perhaps unimaginable.

The century began in circumstances of apparent security more reassuring than those of today. No one in 1900 could have imagined the events which only 14 years later were to destroy the existing international system, and deal a blow to civilization whose effects still are felt.

Responsible political and economic leaders and scholars in 1900 would undoubtedly have described the 20th century prospect in terms of continuing imperial rivalries within a Europe-dominated world, lasting paternalistic tutelage by Europeans of their colonies, solid constitutional government in Western Europe, steadily growing prosperity, increasing scientific knowledge turned to human benefit, etc. All would have been wrong.

After World War I, democracy did not re-emerge as a compelling model of government until World War II and the Cold War had revealed the nihilism of the alternatives. Given a populist cast by the ascendance of the U.S., Western democracy then presented itself to the world as the most authentic and humane form of representative government history has known. It entered the 21st century, the new millennium, with that reputation intact, but again, as before 1914, under attack for its spiritual sterility.

The world crisis of 1914-1989 was terminated by the collapse of Nazism and Marxism, but the utopian impulse was not exhausted in the U.S., where it has always been an element in the national sense of self. America’s optimism about world transformation has yet to be broken, which is why the U.S. is a dangerous nation while remaining a “righteous” one. The puritanism of its cultural origins was intolerant of sinners, and impatient with God’s roundabout and unhurried ways. The U.S. is impatient for progress. Its vision of reform expresses its conviction of singular virtue and national exception, which by happy coincidence reinforces national economic interest and the extension of national power. The risk to it is the classical one which history poses to power, that of self-destructive hubris, leading to barren tears.