Hegemony and its Discontents
In asking the question, I am not here referring to fundamentalist, essentialist anti-Americanism – the belief that the U.S. itself is intrinsically malevolent, and must be opposed to its core. That idea has been around for awhile, and has been analyzed many places, including here. Rather, I mean a softer form of opportunistic anti-Americanism the opposing of U.S. national interests by other nations in pursuit of their own. This is a natural and predictable reaction to the era of U.S. hegemony – our inordinate role relative to our percentage of the global population (about 5 percent) and even global output (about 25 percent) in maintaining world order, a power we use (as any nation would use) in pursuit of our own interests.
It is U.S. military power that keeps the sea lanes largely unobstructed, allowing the gigantic stocks of global commerce to move. U.S. diplomatic leadership, sometimes using carrots and sometimes sticks and always with the cooperation of other like-minded nations, has presided over the creation of the World Trade Organization, the establishment of the International Criminal Court and various ad hoc war-crimes tribunals in places like the Balkans and Sierra Leone, and, most controversially, the reining in of destabilizing states.
But as hegemon, the U.S. is the one nation that cannot be subject to such courts, which will be used to weaken its hegemony; this is obviously an argument that can never play well elsewhere. But the reason is that global order is a public good – it benefits those who contribute and those who don’t alike. And so each nation has an incentive to free-ride, just as those who benefit from flood-control projects have inadequate incentives to contribute in proportion to the social value of their contribution. In this case nations have an incentive to pick at the edges of U.S. hegemony so as to further their own private interests. And so Germany, France and Russia dealt commercially with and forestalled military action against Iraq and Russia does the same now with respect to Iran not because they are corrupt and the Americans are pure, but because it is not in their interest to proportionally contribute to maintenance of global order, and it is in the interest of the U.S. to facilitate its own national interest (e.g., by installing pro-American governments or directing business to American firms) at their expense while it polices the world. The U.S., with its poaching of territories from Mexico and Spain during its rise to great-power status during the Pax Britannica, was also willing to behave as the realists would predict, and now other nations are doing the same. The U.S. will, for the same free-riding reasons, continue to spend a lot on national defense, and Europe will continue to spend little. Robert Kagan has written a famous essay about these divergent interests with respect to the U.S. and Europe, although from the point of view of different mental models of the world –- a Hobbesian jungle for the U.S., a postbellum Utopia governed by international law rather than the threat and actuality of military power for the U.S. While the argument here is grounded in realpolitik, the prediction is the same.
And so we can expect that over time other powers will be reluctant contributors to American hegemony, but will never seek to go far enough to threaten it. China or Russia will oppose an aggressive U.S. posture in Iran, but is not interested in seeing the U.S. defeated (or Islamists armed) to the extent that the U.S. withdraws from the world. One of the things that left other nations most fearful in the days after 9/11 was that the U.S. really had been brought low – fatally wounded, unable to maintain its role as the global policeman. It is worth remembering that in those days it was unknown whether worse attacks were coming, and whether the U.S. would even succeed in ousting the Taliban. Now that the imminent threat from the jihad has declined nations feel more comfortable free-riding, and so we can expect to see more of it. This is less true in places where threats still feel real, and so the Japanese are considerably more enthusiastic about aggressive American leadership than the Europeans are. But in general being the global sheriff is a thankless job.
And for Americans an ambiguous one at best. World War I saw the Red Scare and anti-sedition legislation that would never have passed muster in a time of peace, and World War II saw the creation of an immense national-security apparatus (Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”) that has only grown since then. The rise of American power, in other words, has coincided with the rise of the surveillance state. Do not kid yourself. It would have been utterly inconceivable to a Jefferson or even a Madison that the government under the guise of national security could collect the path – the number from which the call came, and the number receiving the call – of every phone call in the U.S., as the National Security Agency is said recently to have done. Even if those in the national-security state believe that they are only acting in response to an imminent and great danger, it is in the nature of things that national-security personnel always believe that. It is in their DNA to see threats everywhere, and hence to feel forced to move the goalposts with respect to the security/liberty tradeoff. It is, ultimately, what they are paid to do. The immense opportunity cost of the national security state – the diverted scientific and engineering talent and the tax burden that it necessitates – is also a substantial consideration, albeit ultimately a secondary one.
But what is the alternative? If the U.S. is not the global power, one of two other things must happen. Either, absent a hegemon, the world descends into chaos (which can still be observed on the global periphery in places like Somalia) or someone else becomes the hegemon. And whether that someone else is China or the caliphate or some as-yet unimagined global power, the alternatives offered do not seem very appealing. As a believer in limited government but a realist about man and the world he has built, I see no good choices for the U.S. In an address to Congress in July 2003, when Baghdad had just fallen and the introduction of “democracy” to Iraq seemed like a trivial task for political engineers, Tony Blair gave a speech to the U.S. Congress in which he said that “[a]s Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but in fact, it is transient. The question is, what do you leave behind?". If we don’t leave a global legacy, someone will, and that is what makes the choices for Americans so unappealing.