March 31, 2005

Why Hegemony?

This post is apropos of nothing, really, I'm just kicking around some naïve ideas about international relations (because, uh, I'm too lazy to actually read up on the subject). So here we go. In the 1930s, as they say, Japan started expanding aggressively around the Pacific, seizing territories and resources so that it could be self-sufficient. Why? So that it could capably fight the inevitable war against the United States, of course. But was there any particular reason to think that war with the U.S. was in fact inevitable? No, but it was just assumed that that's what powerful nations do—go to war. And sure enough, the prophecy came true: Japan's aggressive expansion did in fact trigger a war.

At any rate, it's commonplace today to say that the U.S. is dominant in the world. What I think doesn't get asked enough, though, is what all this dominance is actually for? Some policymakers (and maybe theorists) seem to look at American hegemony in the context of those inevitable wars among great powers, as Japan did. Eventually, the thinking goes, we're going to square off against China or Russia or whatnot, and when we do, we want to be ready. Or, better yet, we want to be so damn powerful that we deter that inevitable conflict from ever happening. This first reason for pursuing dominance, I think, is going to lead to a particular sort of dominance.

A second alternative is to say that the U.S. ought to maintain its prime position in the world because that's the most stable configuration of states. Even if we might not ever in fact go to war with China or Russia, or even need to worry about that, we still need to worry about their increased capacity for local action. If their share of world power increases from X percent to X+Y percent, they can cause instability, or exacerbate existing world problems. (As, say, China seems to be doing in Iran and Sudan.)

A third reason for the U.S. to maintain hegemony, which I think is the reason that people like Anne-Marie Slaughter like to focus on, is that it can be used to promote good. Only in a world dominated by the United States can we get international regimes like the WTO or the World Bank that solve collective action problems on economic matters. Only in a world dominated by the United States can we create structures that strengthen the ability of other states to build health, education, law enforcement institutions. Or whatever. The point is that hegemony is only a means to a larger, somewhat utopian end. If this is the reason you prefer, then you shouldn't mind if the U.S. creates or participates in the sort of multilateral institutions that restrain American action, so long as that decrease in freedom comes with an increase in X good.

So okay. It's always worth asking why one thinks the United States needs to maintain its prime position in the world, why it needs to dominate the globe. I've sketched out three possible reasons above, and obviously someone can believe a combination of all or some of them, though usually one will be emphasized. The Pentagon's recently-released National Defense Strategy, I think, emphasizes reason #2, which partly explains its hostility to "international fora". John Bolton probably hews closely to some mangled version of reason #1—i.e. the 1930s Japan theory—which is why he sounds so crazy to liberal internationalists, who mostly prefer to emphasize reason #3 (although they don't always acknowledge it).

Er, at least that's what I think about that for now. Friends often tell me that my IR "theories" are silly and horribly facile, so maybe it's worth studying this stuff in more depth before dithering on any further. But so it goes...
-- Brad Plumer 3:41 AM || ||