Hegemony: What Is It Good For?

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Even before the collapse of 2008 brought the Western economic model to its knees, political analysts were discussing whether U.S. primacy was in decline. Fareed Zakaria described a comparative decline of U.S. dominance when he wrote about the "rise of the rest," forecasting the continued emergence of countries like China, India and Brazil. This talk of U.S. decline has led to questions of what such a decline would mean not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world. Some analysts have a more hubristic take on the subject than others.

In his article "Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline," published in The New Republic, Robert Kagan argues that American decline could put the entire world order at risk of collapse. In Kagan's words:

"The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it."

Kagan insists that the idea of a liberal, democratic order surviving without the United States propping it up is "a pleasant illusion."

The degree of ethnocentricity that underlies Kagan's article would be hard to understate. In fact, the words "ethnocentricity," "hubris" or "jingoism" fall short of characterizing a worldview that puts U.S. hegemony on par with the life-sustaining power of the sun. To the people in countries who have found themselves on the receiving end of brute U.S. influence—not to mention the generations of people inside U.S. borders who have seen the myth of U.S. benevolence dispelled by their own struggles for civil rights or a living wage—the illusion being weaved here is not so much a pleasant one.

Would Kagan have a different view of U.S. dominance if he had lived in Iran in 1953, when a CIA plot overthrew the country's prime minister and replaced him with a brutal shah? Or if he'd lived in Guatemala in 1954? Lebanon in 1958, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1965? How would he have felt living in one of the South American countries in the 1970s that saw a U.S.-backed coup remove a popular government while killing and torturing thousands in the process? The U.S. list of post-World War II military interventions is a long one, leading up to the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it requires a very skewed vision of reality to think we were greeted as liberators each time our boots—or bombs—hit the ground.

Kagan criticizes Iran and North Korea for defying "American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs." Never mind the implicit assumption here that countries should obey U.S. demands. Why does he think those countries might have wanted nuclear weapons in the first place? Take a look at a map of U.S. military bases in all the countries surrounding Iran, and the picture becomes clear pretty quickly.

Kagan complains that "Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties." Again, put aside the implication that U.S. "entreaties" should be treated as gospel. Such a statement ignores layers of geopolitical strategy embedded in the conflict, which do not revolve completely around the United States. It also ignores the role that the United States has played in perpetuating the conflict, by tacitly supporting Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Also absent from this narrow point of view is mention of the international agreements and institutions that have managed to come together without U.S. ratification, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court. There is a world out there that keeps turning even when the United States isn't pushing it.

Throughout the article, the fiber of Kagan's language is laced with this implicit assumption that the United States should have its hands in all matters of global importance—if anything, for the global good. When he talks of the Arab Spring spinning out of U.S. control, he implies that this is a decidedly bad thing, not for reasons of U.S. strategic interest in the region, but for the sake of liberal democracy. To non-Americans—or to Americans who have managed to avoid getting drunk on the Kool-Aid—this must be insulting at the least.

The trouble is, Kagan's blindly nationalistic perspective is shared by so many Americans that he is able to proceed on the basis of these assumptions without ever bothering to explain or justify them. The source of that nationalism runs deep. It is a nationalism that has survived the massacre of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, the persecution of immigrants, the repression of women, the exploitation of the poor working class and the imperialistic conquest of foreign markets, and has still managed to come out clean on the other side.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not about to trade in my U.S. citizenship anytime soon. But if we are to discuss the implications of U.S. dominance entering a state of decline, we would be wise to first put that dominance in its proper context. The United States is but a single country, and to suggest that the prosperity of all others relies on it is to egregiously misrepresent the hegemonic order.

Joshua Pringle is a master's student of international relations at New York University as well as the senior editor of Worldpress.org. 

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