The defining feature of the post-Cold War order has been American hegemony. Nearly every aspect of this order, from the international economy to all major security relationships, has been defined by the unprecedented concentration of power in the United States. This is largely celebrated in America, as both Democrats (liberal internationalists) and Republicans (neoconservatives) regularly tout how the world benefits from an abundance of American power. This is the “missing debate” in Washington. While they have large disagreements on economic and social issues, it is a widely shared assumption of the American political elite that the United States is a hegemonic power and that it should exploit its power to better the world.
There are two defining features of a hegemonic power. One is how powerful it is. The other is its character. The general description of American hegemony is that it is a benign superpower. It is thought to be benign because it isn’t imperial and employs its force in pursuit of noble ends, like spreading democracy. It is considered to be a superpower because of how dominate its military is.
Both descriptions are erroneous and misleading.
It is true that the American military is the most powerful in recorded history. As both supporters and critics regularly point out, the United States spends more per year on its military than the next dozen (or so) countries combined. Spending nearly 600 billion every year has purchased clear advantages in nearly every military metric available, whether nuclear or conventional. Supporting this advantage is a network of military bases and an assortment of semi-permanent alliances with formable military powers including the United Kingdom, Australia, and France. Undergirding this military is the largest and most dynamic economy in the world.
The problem isn’t the strength of the American military, which is indeed a second to none. The problem is that those who describe American hegemony in these terms fail to respect the limits of military power. The irony of American hard power is that it is so abundant it ends up begin used in counterproductive ways. The United States has used its military in at least 8 high profile exercises since 1989. Each episode had two things in common. Not a single one addressed American security and each mission sought to introduce liberal values by way of military force. In this matter, each effort has failed as not a single country is today democratic. In places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, American armed intervention has been disastrous. The undisciplined use of the American military is a result of mischaracterizing how powerful American hegemony actually is. The American military is designed to be destructive. At this there is no institution on Earth that is more capable. But the power to destroy does not easily translate into the power to build. What the enthusiasts misunderstand is that while America does own a military that can be described as a superpower, it is not the correct instrument for reengineering the politics of foreign countries.
The other narrative used to describe American hegemony is in regard to its character, which most of America’s political elite consider to be benign. There is a serious argument to be made that the United States fits such a description. When the United States does use force in the post-Cold War era, it has done so for arguably noble reasons, such as protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq or the Kosovar Albanians.Yet, what is considered benign will depend on a number of factors, and there is a lot of evidence that the United States uses its power in both illegitimate and gratuitous ways. The era of benevolent hegemony has often been one of American unilateralism. A glaring contradiction of the “benevolent America” description is that the United States claims the right to use force illegally. The invasion of Iraq was illegal. So was the overthrow of Gadhafi’s Regime. The United States justifies this double standard by claiming that it is exempt to the rules that regulate other state behavior. As Madeline Albright claimed, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” While this attitude may be convenient for those who wield American power, to those outside it reeks of hypocrisy and arrogance and what seems benign to America is often considered malicious to others.
A more realistic and less self-aggrandizing understanding of American hegemony is in order. For one, the United States is not nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. American politicians are so intoxicated with American hard power that not only do they assume responsibility for solving the world’s problems, but that it also owns the tools to do so. The United States military has robust stopping power but is not the correct tool for most international problems. Bombs stop advancing armies but they do not build democracies. A more sober understanding of the limits of hard power will temper the hubristic use of the American military. The second point is that, fair or unfair, perceptions matter, and the routine use of force will expose America to accusations of hypocrisy that ironically reduce its influence in a “smart power” world. Why Libya but not Myanmar? Why the Balkans and not Rwanda? The inconsistent use of force serves to delegitimize America. Instead of a benign superpower, the United States should begin to view itself as first among equals. The United States is first owing to its phenomenally capable military. Despite it being misused in the past, the United States is still the dominant military power today. But the United States is also among equals and therefore must abide by the same rules it expects other countries to follow.
I count Iraq (1991 and 2003) Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya.