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June 2003

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This essay will attempt to demonstrate that the United States is truly a potential hegemon. This will be done by exploring the ideological and economical bases for the lack of balancing nations competing against the United States. Although the United States is a potential hegemon, it will never take the steps to secure that position largely for the same reasons that there are no balancing nations. This has allowed for the rise of a society of nations with substantial political will without the necessary means of enforcing that will. The result of the present situation is that the United States is in a position it has been reluctant to appreciate in terms of its potential.

Moral Identity
Throughout its history, the United States has occupied a unique place in world affairs. From its beginnings, the United States has been entwined in the affairs of the global community largely due to the potential power that it represented amidst the great struggles for hegemony on the European continent. Because of the relative young age of the United States as compared to other great powers in Europe and the Far East, the United States has been called to perform roles fulfilled by the traditional powers, roles it may have not been ready for. Yet, the nation has always looked on its role from the perspective of moral authority and within the traditional security concerns that have plagued many of the older powers throughout history.1 This moral authority is represented in the founding principles of the United States. Being a power of the people gives the United States the responsibility of insuring the use of the bill of rights, and the principles guiding them, not only in its commitment to its peoples but also as it reflects its position upon the world community. Although policy has not always translated neatly into this view, the nation has continuously searched for the moral path... whether it has been there or not. The idea of Manifest Destiny can be viewed as one path gone astray in this moral pursuit by American society.2 A "moral imperative", to borrow the term from a bygone administration, has been as much a factor in the decision making process as national security interests because of the nature of the U.S. political system.3

This moral national identity has been strengthened by the relationship between an informed public and the federal government. With the advent of modern communication (i.e. television news, newspapers, radio), the relationship between governmental action and public opinion has become closely entwined. The uniqueness of the U.S. political system requires successful decisions in order for leadership to remain in power.4 As such, one can define a successful decision as one that is made that still allows for a continuation of political power. If the decision was not a success, then surely enough with the next election, power will be switched to a different political party and/or elected officials. This constant balance between having to make decisions and having to maintain popular support within the general population has formed essentially a benign power. This "benigness" is a key factor in what has created an international policy that has successfully prevented the alienation of other great powers within the world system.5

Ideological Similarities
During the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union was cause for many states to choose sides. According to realist theory, states balance against the potential hegemon, which is regarded as the most powerful country in the system. This has not always been the case. After World War II, the United States had a substantial lead in terms of economic and military concerns over the Soviet Union.6 Still, most countries divided along ideological lines instead of strict power balancing. This resulted in a dramatic imbalance considering that most western European states, which were also ranked among the most powerful nations in the world, sided with the United States. These same states, which had regularly fought wars against each other throughout the previous centuries, formed an alliance that did not take relative power into consideration. This alliance was based on a perceived Soviet threat and the underlying principles guiding the two potential hegemons. One possible reason, which has been mentioned earlier, is this idea that the United States was considered a better option. This makes sense only in considering the similarities in democratic ideals of NATO member states. The preamble to the North Atlantic treaty states that they are determined to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law."7 Because of these historical similarities in ideals, the United States has not been considered a threat even though it is the only regional hegemon in modern history.

But what makes the country non-threatening? History has shown that past potential hegemons have all been defeated because of a rising counter balance of nations formed against them. They have all been perceived as a threat to international security. In modern history, both World War I and World War II were fought for a number of reasons but mainly in an attempt to prevent aggressive potential hegemons from becoming true regional hegemons. It is not a coincidence that both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany used force to try and obtain their goals and were subsequently defeated by a counter force of nations.8

Did the United States use force to obtain its hegemony? The answer to that question has to be yes. Throughout its early history, the United States used force, intimidation and a number of other methods in order to secure its power within North and South America. America's other-than-benign intentions are evidenced in remarks by twice Congressional Medal of Honor awardee, Major General Smedley D. Butler.

I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.... Looking back on it, I felt I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.9

Facts show that the U.S. military was used a number of times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Americas to protect U.S. interests.10 The big difference is in the perceived level of threat. Threat of force by the United States, since its rise to great power status, has never been directed at another great power, for the exception of the Soviet Union, without having been forced into the situation by a direct threat.

This particular idea of why the United States was considered a better option has been explained in a number of ways by various realist theories. None can truly hold faith to its definition of actors on the world stage as independent players without considering substate factors. Ideology as a role in how a state makes a decision is an important step in considering how a state acts towards other states. The United States has the "reputation" of being wholly supportive of democratic ideals of freedom and individual choice which appeals to the majority of the greater society of states.

Hegemon or Not?
Mearsheimer claims that "a hegemon is a state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system. No other state has the military wherewithal to put up a serious fight against it."11 No one can argue that the United States is not the regional hegemon in North and South America.12 This status has been a factor in affairs in the "new world" since near the beginning of American history. This definition, given by Mearsheimer, is not complete though. In order for it to work one must look at military influence as the prime motivational factor attributed to domination by a foreign power over another one. Mearsheimer claims that economic factors are only one way of looking at the capability of the military to grow in size and technology; this writer humbly disagrees. Economic factors have always been a key part of all international affairs since at least the American Industrial Revolution. An example of this is the Washington treaty that precipitated the formation of NATO. Article Two stipulated the strengthening of free institutions, the elimination of international economic policy conflicts, and the encouragement of economic collaboration. In terms of this paper, a more liberal view of hegemony is accepted, whereby it can be defined as having three attributes:

  • 1) The capability to enforce the rules of the system;
  • 2) the will to do so; and
  • 3) the commitment to an ideology which is perceived as beneficial to the major states.13

This capability rests along three premises:

  • 1) A large and growing economy;
  • 2) dominance in a leading technological or economic sector; and
  • 3) political power backed up by projective military power14

Does the United States fit these criteria? Let us take a look at how the United States fits into the three premises.

Economic Leadership
In terms of a large and growing economy, the United States still has the largest economy in the world even with the progress of other states in narrowing this gap. Total GDP in 2001 was almost as much as the combined total of the next six top GDP countries in the world.15 The next closest state was Japan with less than half the GDP of the United States. From 1990 until the end of 2001, real gross domestic product rose from $6,707.9 billion to $10,171.4 billion.16 In terms of real growth, the United States has experienced positive growth of GDP, as a percentage, every year with the exception of the short recession in 1991 and the current economic downturn.17 This growth, on average, has been higher than the percent growth for industrialized nations worldwide.

Does this obvious advantage in economic might demonstrate ability to enforce the rules of the system? One would first need to stipulate that trade is the driving force behind international economic growth. If one considers that, in 2001, the top ten GDP states in the world (which represents the clear majority of world trade) are also amongst the top U.S. trading partners, it should be obvious that the United States plays a key role in world economic markets.18 It should be further noted that these top ten states account for 70.3 percent of the U.S. trade deficit and, for the exception of the United States and Japan, the top ten GDP nations average a 52.5 percent reliance on trade for their GDP.19 This demonstrates the power of the American consumer on the world market to enforce its will. In a society that is ruled by political expediency and the drive to maintain power, the consumer is truly the bottom line in terms of economic influence. Still, the intimate ties in international trade promulgate cooperation and competition for the success of all within the world market. The strength of the American economic system lies wholly in its ability to work within all frameworks and not just within a select few. While current trends may suggest a shying away from polarization of American leadership and more towards equality within global markets, global trade is largely dependent on a strong U.S. policy setting role.

Technological Leadership
Is the United States a leading state in terms of technology? Considering that the United States has led the world in all modern major technological developments, one has to consider the value of such in terms of global power. Key indicators for technological leadership are hard to come by but a look at educational trends can give some glimpse into at least the capability of a nation to compete on the world market.

Of all indicators, The United States suffers the most in this area yet still maintains itself viable amongst the top industrial nations in the world. The ratio of bachelor's degrees conferred per hundred persons in the United States in the typical year of graduation is roughly thirty-three as compared to a range of ten in Turkey and thirty-seven in Great Britain.20 Moreover, 17.4 percent of that 33 percent are in science-related fields. Although countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Italy may have higher percentages of science-related degrees awarded as compared to all degrees, they have lower ratios of students per hundred actually attending college. Another point to consider would be the vast population differences that these countries have compared to the United States. This would suggest that U.S. college students are more diverse in their selection of majors and that these lower percentages in science related fields are indicative of a healthy stratification instead of a weakening of the American college educational system. Perhaps a clearer indicator of technological leadership would be in terms of capital outlay towards research and development.

The United States demonstrates substantial leadership in research and development in terms of total dollars spent. In 1997, the United States spent some $189.4 billion on R&D.21 Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, and Canada combined only spent a total of some $186 billion that same year. This U.S. rate has increased steadily from a figure of approximately $165 billion at the end of the Cold War to a figure close to $201.6 billion by 1998. Another fact, in the case of U.S. dominance in the field of technology development, is in the number of Nobel Prize Laureates awarded for Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology/Medicine. From 1901 to 1998, research conducted in the United States has earned some 198 awards, or 46 percent of the total given during this time frame.22 The next closest competitor was Great Britain at 71 awards.

There are four industries that are viewed when considering global high technology:

  • 1) aerospace;
  • 2) computers/office machinery;
  • 3) electronics/communications; and
  • 4) pharmaceuticals.23

U.S. production in these four industries accounted for nearly 32 percent of world high technology production. The next closest competitor was Japan at some 22 percent. This trend is also repeated in the service sector where the United States accounts for 27 percent of world revenues. The United States is also the world's largest consumer of high technology further attributing to the progressive nature of U.S. technological advantage.

Military Leadership
In terms of a projective military capability and the political power to utilize that capability, one only has to look at the world coalition that was formed by the United States against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the one formed against Afghanistan in 2001 (and, to a lesser degree, Iraq in 2003). These ventures had global proportions and a strong American leadership. The U.S. role in the formation of NATO, a coalition of sorts, aimed primarily against a Soviet threat, is also an example of American leadership in military affairs.24

U.S. dominance in military affairs is unquestionable. America has shown a tremendous capability to adapt technological and industrial capacity towards war fighting goals. Lord Robertson, Secretary General of NATO, in describing European military capability stated, "Today, the European Allies spend about 60% of what the United States spends on defense, but nobody would suggest that the European Allies have 60% of the capability."25 This capability came as a surprise to much of the world during the post Cold War era, in such places as Kosovo, as the United States demonstrated with incredible accuracy the power of its military weapons.26 Although the actions in the former Yugoslavia appeared to be a successful NATO action, closer examination reveals it to be largely an American lead success.27

In terms of real dollar amounts and capability, the United States maintains the highest state of spending towards defense than any nation in the world. The 2003 defense budget is $396 billion. This represents more than the combined total for the next 25 nations combined.28 This is somewhat misleading considering the defense budget in terms of GDP is on par, relatively speaking, with much of the industrialized world. This substantial difference is just as qualitative as quantitative as demonstrated by Lord Robertson's statement and the overwhelming victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A Benign Hegemon?
Now that the possibility of the United States as a potential global hegemon have been discussed, what of this idea of a benign hegemon and what does it mean in terms of real world situations? What it means is that although the United States is a potential global hegemon, the United States will never make the attempt to turn that potentiality into a reality. This is mainly due to a lack of will on behalf of the United States and the incapability of such a venture in terms of capital and political outlay.29

After the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet threat, many contemporary academics of the time saw the demise of America's predominance on the world stage just around the corner.30 This, of course, did not happen. The United States experienced phenomenal growth throughout the 1990s and the called for rise of a balancing nation, or nations, never occurred. NATO still remains the preeminent structure in European security and the United States still maintains large forces abroad in such nations such as Japan, South Korea, and the Middle East. So, as far as the decline of U.S. dominance on the world stage, it has yet to occur except in terms of the political fringe. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said in a 1999 Paris speech "The United States of America today predominates on the economic level, the monetary level, on the technological level, and in the cultural area in the broadest sense of the word... It is not comparable, in terms of power and influence, to anything known in modern history."31 This essentially represents the state of affairs today as well. Ikenberry goes on to say that "Today it is not the decline that the United States must manage but the fear, resentment and instabilities created by a decade of rising American power."32 33

How does the United States ease this fear amongst the nations of the world? It is largely a tribute to the U.S. political system. In the U.S. political system, society is tasked at advocating and lobbying desired course of action to the policy-making apparatus of the United States.34 This largely turns the national focus of attention towards domestic matters and the internalized state of the union. This also limits the capability of the United States in terms of foreign policy to politically expedient decisions.

The United States, as part of its open society, more or less allows for the ability of foreign governments to utilize the same means as the advocacy groups domestically. Foreign diplomats represent a large portion of Washington lobbying efforts ensuring that foreign affairs can be influenced by both the needs of the United States and the needs of the many players that decisions from Washington affect.35 "By providing other states opportunities to play the game in Washington, they are drawn into active, ongoing partnerships that serve the long-term strategic interests of the United States."36 These interests can play a large role in ensuring that decisions from Washington are sufficiently muted enough to prevent the alienation of "strategic partners" and alleviating fears of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

Further examples of this institutionalized decision-making processes are the U.S. commitment to liberal concepts of multinational institutions, such as the United Nations, NATO, World Bank, and the Organization of American States just to name a few.37 These entities serve a dual purpose for the United States. They take the edge off of the concept of a unilateral United States, they spread power amongst several nations, they provide structure for international relations, and they externalize internal trade and defense issues. At the same time institutions provide a legitimate non-aggressive way of promoting U.S. interests to the world without inflaming excessive anti-American sentiment.38 Some would view power sharing by the United States as a weakness; after all it does take away from the ability of the United States to act independently and without repercussion. However, it provides an economical means of exerting a wider, less noticeable, influence at a lower cost and with less chance of negative feelings.39

One further example of an American calming factor on world affairs is the concept of American soft power.40 The free trade of information and personal freedoms is wholly an American hallmark that has found a sustaining popularity among the majority of the world's rising middle class.41 This, combined with its pop culture wrappings, has proved to be a potent combination for less free societies to deal with. America's cultural influence has given rise to extreme radicalism both for and against the United States and the concepts for which she stands. As represented by the before mentioned French Foreign Ministers statement, the rise of an Islamic radicalism against American concepts, and the rising number of democratic states, this is not seen as a conventional threat to security as much as it is a threat to cultural institutions. States do not arm militarily against the onslaught of McDonalds or "N" Sync.

All of the aforementioned facts contribute to the will of the United States to act on the world stage. Even as U.S. leadership struggles with the daily decisions needed to ensure the placement and promotion of U.S. power abroad, the internal needs of an empowered population must be met. This symphony of action and inaction, as orchestrated by poll, election, and media, contribute to the most open democracy having ever existed. This democracy is, at the same time, on top of a global struggle to maintain status and position without causing undue rivalries that would rise up against overtly aggressive behavior. The balance leaves a substantially different world than that represented during the Cold War. Bipolarity allowed for the excuse of many actions that cannot exist today in our unipolar society. Consequently, every action has to have a deliberate and morally acceptable reaction.42 In a society of nations where morality is being defined in terms of a state's interest, or an actor's interest, the responsibility for action must be spread amongst many so as to minimize the political damage that can occur. Absent that ability to share responsibility in decision making, as would occur in a hegemonic society, then balancing against the potential threat to moral interests, or state interests, would be a natural consequence.43 This argument means that the United States has a special place in the society of nations somewhere below hegemony but within a primary leadership role.

What of This Role?
As a leader in the world community, the United States has been fitful. The U.S. populace is largely more concerned with internal matters than external matters. This has left the role of foreign policy decidedly in second place in terms of political commitment. At the same time, foreign affairs have played substantial roles in undermining the political agenda of the political parties of the United States.44 George Bush's reelection bid in 1992 failed largely due to his inability to convince Americans of his prowess in domestic affairs during a recession, even though he demonstrated his ability to lead the world during the Persian Gulf War.45 At the same time, Bill Clinton was very successful at taking the focus off of his soft foreign policy because of the economic prosperity that dominated his eight years in office. What has resulted is the inability and unwillingness of the United States to force its claim to decisive leadership as the world's only super power. This is not a bad thing.

By not taking this decisive leadership position, the way has been opened for other actors to have their voices heard on the world stage. Over the past decade, the United Nations has finally found its niche in promoting world security. States have shied away from blindly following the United States and have openly proposed opposing positions. The global decision process has turned away from global military confrontations. The role that the United States plays in this drama is that of benefactor. One way the decreasing level of world wide military expenditures can be viewed is as a reliance on American benign intentions to defend the security of the free world. It can be viewed as an acknowledgement and an entrustment that the United States will not, and cannot take, advantage of its status as the most powerful nation in the world if it wishes to maintain its prosperity.46

This is not to say that we live in a safer world than yesterday. Clusters of resistance thrive opposing the umbrella of U.S. security. New threats emerge even as old ones refuse to die. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction continues to be a concern. Old, less liberal, regimes persist in the wake of a technologically freeing revolution. Old insecurities resurface in the guise of an increasingly arrogant and regionally powerful China. Old hatreds persist in the Middle East and abroad with in an increasingly belligerent and capable terrorist network.

The need for a powerful United States exists in the world today; not just for the security offered but for the institutions and principles she represents.47 Many have argued that Americans view the world through the eyes of "What we do is the right way".48 This writer respectfully, but whole heartedly, disagrees. The United States cherishes the idea that there may be another way of doing things. What Americans disagree with is the idea that culture be used as an excuse for oppression. Unfortunately, such views are not accepted in the suspicious world of nation-states. Indeed, even the term oppression is argued within the context of the culturally biased nation-state. This writer would stipulate that it is not the nation-state that presses humanitarian reforms. A state utilizes power for security reasons. It is the people within the United States that clamor for this ever-increasing desire to promote humanitarian ideals. The government is then forced, perhaps by the citizens that are elected, or by popular demand, to push the agenda for its own internal security. Consequently, however reluctant the United States may be in assuming its role as a leader of humanitarian reforms it is a role well suited to its principles and the principles of an increasingly humanitarian society of nations.

Assessing the Presidency of George W. Bush at Midpoint

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