Hegemon Shrugged?

As recent events in Ukraine, the Korean peninsula, Iran, and Syria demonstrate, we live in a turbulent and violent world. Since the end of WWII, it has been under American hegemony,[1] counterbalanced for several decades by the Soviet Union. However, in the almost three decades since the “evil empire’s” collapse, the US has been the world’s only superpower.

This global dominance faces new challenges. A newly assertive Russia is leveraging its ability and willingness to employ military force, as seen in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, to seek influence. Moreover, China is achieving the economic scale and military capacity to project power beyond its region, and has defied international law with its “building project” in the South China Sea.

President Trump’s “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (December 2017) does not use the term “hegemon” or “hegemony,” but it is clear that he intends to maintain America’s global sway:

We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States. When America does lead, however, from a position of strength and confidence and in accordance with our interests and values, all benefit (p.3).

Accordingly, he states that “we will advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.” (p.4, emphasis in original).

   In light of the challenging international environment and Trump’s policy statement, it is perhaps worth reviewing the nature and value of American hegemony. I know of no better tool for this task than Professor Fernando Tesón’s paper “Enabling Monsters: A Reply to Professor Miller.”[2]

Unlike almost all other libertarians, Tesón does not condemn out of hand the value of American hegemony to the community of peaceful nations, rightly noting that:

the presence of a hegemon may be highly beneficial because it may ensure the provision of global public goods. Whether the other nations have consented or not, they benefit from the stability, tranquility, and predictability that the hegemon ensures. The hegemon also benefits, of course, but we must reject the simplistic idea that hegemony is a one-way relationship where the hegemon gets to do what it wants and dictates to others what they should or should not do. Other nations free ride on the hegemon on a number of issues, from defense to trade to the environment (p. 178, endnote omitted).

Such “stability” enables economic growth from trade, investment and travel.

  It is also worth emphasizing, as Tesón does, that these advantages do not depend on any altruistic motive on the hegemon’s part. Even if it is for our own selfish reasons, we prefer a world populated by liberal democracies over one dominated by various forms of tyranny. As he says:

Once we accept, perhaps reluctantly, that having a hegemon is preferable to the alternatives, the question is who should be the hegemon. The main reason to support American hegemony is that any other plausible candidate is likely to be worse…The United States is the least bad of all possible hegemons because American institutions and culture embody liberal values” (p. 179)

As hegemon, we have maintained a world order that has largely shielded law-abiding nations from the depredations of aggressor states, rogue nations, and global terrorist networks. This has required us to address threats to the system under conditions of highly imperfect information. No doubt we have made errors, but in the last 70+ years there has been no conflict as remotely destructive as either world war, and I don’t believe it is entirely coincidental that there has been an dramatic and unprecedented reduction in the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty.

Libertarians not only typically make the error of vastly underestimating the value of the public goods supplied by US hegemony, but see our mistakes as part of some nefarious quest for empire. But this is really quite absurd. Despite the massive number of highly classified documents published by WikiLeaks, there is no credible evidence that the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in search of resources to loot. Nor have we done so.

As hegemon, it falls on us to make the hard choices, to exercise what might be termed “the morality of the strong.” Our dominance has permitted us unparalleled freedom of action and, with it, the opportunity to blunder. In contrast, almost all other states adopt the “morality of the weak.” Sweden will never be guilty of a rash and counterproductive intervention because it lacks even the means to defend itself, let alone to project force abroad. It must embrace diplomacy at all costs because it has no alternative.

Given our ever mounting and unsustainable national debt and the capacity of our various allies to provide for their own defense, there is surely room for a more restrained and prudent US foreign policy. However, we should all—libertarians included—be vary of the consequences should the hegemon shrug.


[1] A popular on line dictionary defines “hegemony” as “leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others: ‘Germany was united under Prussian hegemony after 1871’” The same source defines “hegemon” as “a supreme leader.”

[2] In Ethics and International Affairs 25(2): 165-82 (2011)

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