Updated: Jun 18
Image Credits: The Economist
The second half of the 20th century saw a drastic shift in the ways the world was being governed. The centuries-old imperial system, dominated mostly by the European powers such as the British, French, Dutch, etc., over much of the planet started to get dissolved through the process of decolonization. This process of decolonization paved the way for a more indigenous political establishment, many of which also featured a democratic set of regimes in Africa, Asia, and South America. Not to mention the transformation of an imperial Europe into one that now largely functions as a cluster of independent democracies. Nonetheless, the current political framework of the world is heavily influenced by very few powerful states that hold the potential to change the course of the international system to a great extent. The United States of America is arguably the biggest name among these states. This paper will look forward to analyzing the position of the USA as a global power all the while trying to answer the question- Are we currently witnessing the end of US Hegemony?
“Hegemonic powers must have control over raw materials, control over sources of capital, control over markets, and competitive advantages in the production of highly valued goods” (Keohane, 1984). Robert Keohane gives an interesting definition of hegemony. He argues that for a state to be a hegemon it must exercise control and influence over international or at the least regional economics vis-a-vis other states in the said region. As a liberal definition, this is aptly argued but in a more inclusive paradigm (which includes realism). Hegemony can be understood as encompassing all tools that are at a state’s disposal which can be used to assert that state’s superiority, control, and dominance in its surrounding region. Global hegemony is extremely difficult to achieve as large bodies of water prevent the physical possibility of a state going to war, hence undermining the state’s claim to global hegemony (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2).
Therefore, for the purpose of this essay, I will be referring to regional hegemony exclusively. Hegemony is the collection of a state’s hard as well as soft power. It encompasses a state’s military capabilities, cultural dominance, economic and political influence, international standing and many other such factors. It is the ability of such a state to make other states do what they wouldn’t have otherwise by coercion or even sometimes outright war. According to a more realistic notion of hegemony - which I will be referring to vis-a-vis the United States - power is the most important thing for a state and should be its ultimate and final goal (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2). Since realists believe that the international world is an anarchic one with no higher authority to rule over states, it is a wild world where the only way of surviving is to gather more power and strength (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2).
Based on such premises, hegemony then becomes the obvious but not easy goal for the realist state. It is a way of ensuring its survival and growth in an anarchic world. Today, the United States is seen as a hegemon in the western hemisphere, with considerable influence in the eastern hemisphere as well, opposed perhaps only by China. Since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the United States has worked hard and long to establish the Liberal International Order, an international system characterized by its liberal, cooperative and democratic values (Biden, 2020).
The result of this has been the United States' hegemony in the international political world. It exercises veto powers and influence in almost all international organizations, has the largest economy in the world, the largest army, and has been one of the most socially and politically liberal states in the world. All of this marks the decades of United States hegemony. Nevertheless, the past couple of decades have seen the rise of other great powers in the world that pose a serious threat to the United States’ domination. In current times, China is the only state in the world that has the latent potential to surpass the States in terms of power and wealth and become the hegemony in the east with no power strong enough to balance it (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 10).
In the following paragraphs, I will describe the realist idea of hegemony. Is the United States a hegemon according to these parameters and how? At last, I will make a case for China and argue that China still has a long and hard way to go if it wants to become a hegemon.
“Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive” (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2). Arguably one of the greatest realists, Mearsheimer paints a straightforward picture of motivations for hegemony and power. Getting to control and influence other states’ decisions and policies according to their own intentions and wishes is perhaps the greatest result that hegemony can achieve. This can ensure that in all aspects, from military to economic, the state has the upper hand. Hegemony as described by Mearsheimer then, I argue, would result in immense power, and that power in turn would feed into the state’s growing hegemony. This snowball effect gives the state the opportunity to mold and alter international organizations and institutions according to its national and international interests. “However, the most powerful states in the system create and shape institutions so that they can maintain, if not increase, their own share of world power. Institutions are essential “arenas for acting out power relationships” (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2). International power and influence then, mark the goals of a great power that is in process of becoming a hegemon.
Image Credits: The Economist
HEGEMONY AND THE UNITED STATES
The United States has arguably been and continues to be one of the most influential and powerful states in the international system. After the end of the Cold War, it is the only state to have had a truly global circle of influence and control in almost all aspects of international relations and global affairs. Mearsheimer argues that there are five assumptions that prove that the world is a realist one. I argue that three of these assumptions in context with the United States argue that not only are these assumptions correct, but a hegemon also goes one extra step than a state in doing so. Mearsheimer’s assumptions are somewhat hard-lined and definitive; however, for these assumptions, I will characterize factors into two groups: fundamental and sentimental. Fundamental factors include more realistic ones, for instance, military strength and wealth. Sentimental factors are inclined towards the more soft forms of power such as popular culture, international standing in global organizations, etc.
Firstly, “The second assumption is that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the wherewithal to hurt and possibly destroy each other” (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 10), this assumption gives an insight into the military and economic character of a hegemon. The United States has the largest and the most advanced military in the world. The United States government after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed its attitude towards military interventions, wars, and armed conflicts dramatically (Herring, 2008). The amount of wealth that goes into maintaining and developing such an enormous military is no small amount either. One observes that other great powers such as Russia and China also pour considerable funds into their military but not to such an extent as the United States does (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 10). This shows that for a hegemon, military strength and capability are of the foundational parts of ensuring complete hegemony. The United States clearly endorses this ideology and though diplomatic ways are preferred, it is good to know that it can fall back on its militaristic strength. The very fact the States endorsed the methodology of “preemptive war” and the message of “good versus evil” after 9/11 shows how much trust it had in its military and technology (Herring, 2008) (Ikenberry, 2011). This fundamental factor is one of the biggest reasons that ensure US hegemony to date. The amount of American troops offshore continues to be an intimidating factor for other states who may or may not have conflicting intentions (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 10).
Secondly, the assumption that Mearsheimer works with is that “survival is the main goal of the state”. The United States embodies this perfectly and then some more. While the majority of the states focus on survival and basic economic growth, the United States has continued to experience unprecedented economic and financial growth. Its currency is widely accepted and demanded throughout the world, adding all the more to it. American investments and companies have risen dramatically since the 1990s. The amount of foreign investments made by Americans that are tied in other states is humongous and some technological and real estate giants make up large parts of it. On this account, even Liberals agree with the realists, that economic leverage is a clear and proper tool wielded by a state to gain power and position (Keohane, 1984). This is a fundamental factor mixed with parts of being a sentimental one. Since, economic might can be gained through channels such as cultural imports in form of films, fashion, and art, economic gains, and their use become subject to public opinion and become more sentimental in nature (Keohane, 1984). Finally, the assumption that is made is that “states are rational actors” is intensified in the case of hegemons (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2).
No hegemon will want to get tied down to agreements and alliances that it cannot ever break or which might someday curb its own ambition. Great powers do often lead towards a particular set of ideologies as witnessed during the Cold War, yet at the same time, they act with diplomatic tact in order to ensure their independence and free movement from obligations in the international realm.'' They are aware of their external environment and they think intelligently about how to maximize their prospects for survival. In particular, they try to gauge the preferences of other states and how their own behavior is likely to affect the actions of those other states, as well as how the behavior of those other states is likely to affect their own strategy. When they look at the different strategies that they have to choose between, they assess the likelihood of success as well as the costs and benefits of each one. Finally, states pay attention not only to the immediate consequences of their actions but to the long-term effects as well” (Mearsheimer, 2009).
This describes how states care about their long-term goals and interests more than sticking to one set of methods and ideas. This helps in gaining sentimental solidarity with the masses. The United States which sees itself as the harbinger of “peace” and “democracy” throughout the world has used such tactics time and time again (Mathews, 2021). It uses the more sentimental ideas around democracy and liberty to justify its actions and gain a certain kind of power with its own and foreign populations. This can also be seen as a sort of hegemony of ideas and preferences where the majority of the people in the world would want US values and laws in their own states. Thus, we see that the United States is a hegemonic power in the 21st century. Although, how certain its future is, is still very much up for debate.
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HEGEMONY, THE US AND THE CHINA
China is perhaps the only state in the world that has the potential and latent power to give the United States a run for its money (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 10). While there is a case to be made about the possible take over of hegemony by China (at the least in the Eastern hemisphere), the United States will still remain a hegemon in the next couple of decades given that there are no critical shifts in the international environment. This is argued by Mearsheimer as well. “Some defensive realists go so far as to suggest that the constraints of the international system are so powerful that offense rarely succeeds, and that aggressive great powers invariably end up being punished. As noted, they emphasize that 1) threatened states balance against aggressors and ultimately crush them, and 2) there is an offense-defense balance that is usually heavily tilted toward the defense, thus making conquest especially difficult” (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch. 2). He argues that in most cases the offensive state loses and incurs heavy losses. China with its huge and aging population cannot afford to lose life and property. It is also argued that “unlikely event wherein one state achieves clear-cut nuclear superiority, it is virtually impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony. The principal impediment to world domination is the difficulty of projecting power across the world’s oceans onto the territory of a rival great power” (Mearsheimer, 2001, ch.2).
One cannot rule out the possibility of nuclear warfare completely, but it can be argued that given the developments that have taken place in the 21st century and the inhumane effects of nuclear warfare that were seen after the Second World War, China cannot attain hegemony through the nuclear channel. Coming to its economic potential and the current economy, liberals argue that, “Potential power may also be derived from the size of one's market for imports. The threat to cut off a particular state's access to one's own market, while allowing other countries continued access, is a "potent and historically relevant weapon of economic ‘power,’” (Keohane, 1984) but this is not true in China’s case. While China is the largest producing economy with state-of-the-art production processes and infrastructure, it still has a long way to go in developing its real estate, indigenous Chinese technological giants, and tertiary sector.
As discussed before, for a state to be a hegemon in the 21st century, it needs to stand out and convince the rest of the world on two accounts: fundamentals and sentiments. Firstly, if China wants to surpass the United States' economy, then it has to initiate the process of moving from a production-based economy to a more service-based economy with original enterprises. For example, even if China is the largest producer of Apple iPhones and their parts, the final profit from the goods adds to the economy of the United States since it is an American corporation. Therefore, till the time China ensures that its production process caters to Chinese companies and demands, it will lag behind the United States (Keohane, 1984).
This phenomenon ensures American domination and leverage over China. If American investors were to pull out of China, the Chinese markets would witness an enormous and sudden collapse resulting in economic losses. Moreover, China’s political ideology would need to reverse a lot of work done by the United States through the Liberal International Order. It would need to convince the rest of the states that communism would serve them better than liberal democracy which is a near impossible feat. Given the current Covid-19 pandemic and China’s response to it, it has been globally acknowledged that the Chinese government performed poorly towards its citizens and the rest of the world. Therefore, it can be argued that the United States will remain a hegemon in the coming years and it will take serious and large-scale policy changes for China or any other state developing the potential to be recognized as a contender to become a hegemon in the future.
Robert O. Keohane (1984), After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press), Chapter 3, pp. 31-46.
John J. Mearsheimer (2001), Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (New York: W.W. Norton).
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (2020), ‘Why America Must Lead Again’, Foreign Affairs, 99(2), pp. 64-76.
George C. Herring (2008), The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2015 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
G. John Ikenberry (2011), Liberal Leviathan: The Origin, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Mearsheimer, John J. “Reckless States and Realism.” International Relations, vol. 23, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 241–256, doi:10.1177/0047117809104637.
Jessica T. Mathews (2021), ‘Present at the Re-creation? U.S. Foreign Policy Must be Remade, not Restored’, Foreign Affairs, 100(2), pp. 10-16.
Michael W. Doyle (1986), Empires (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
Ashish Manav is a third-year student of International Relations at Ashoka University