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What is meant by the word ‘Hegemony’ in International Relations and how has the ‘practice’ of hegemony changed?
The phenomenon of hegemony in world politics is defined as the political, economic, or military predominance or control of one state over others. The associated term, hegemon, is used to describe an actor or group who exercises hegemonic power or is responsible for the circulation of hegemonic ideas. In association with International Relations (IR), this could be an actor with an overpowering capacity to control the international system through both coercive and non-coercive means. The use of force is not entirely missing within hegemonic systems, but it tends to be the exception rather than the rule concerning the upholding of the hegemonic order and, in most advanced capitalist societies, leadership is achieved primarily via consensual means. In his article on Antonio Gramsci and the theory of hegemony, Thomas R. Bates describes its basic premise as “that man is not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas” (Bates 1975). A hegemonic state differs from organisations such as empires as they do not make territorial demands of other states or forcefully impose their ideologies. They manage to maintain power and dominance without being feared and rather by the manipulation of culture and social institutions, such as the media. This thereby gives the dominating power chance to influence the preferences of others in the favour of their preferred order.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a Sardinian Marxist and communist politician who produced essays on his ideas of hegemony whilst serving a twenty-year prison sentence. His essays, known as the Prison Notebooks, brought the ideas of ideology and hegemony into terms of IR by examining how hegemons disseminate their capitalist ideologies throughout society in a consensual manner. In his Prison Notebooks, he described power as a centaur, half man and half beast, representing that a balance of coercion and consent was necessary. Gramsci saw the capitalist state as being compiled of two overlapping societies, a ‘political society’ (ruling through force) and a ‘civil society’ (ruling through consent).
It is said that US hegemony began with the collapse of the axis powers and following the end of the Second World War in 1945. The US was welcomed as the new world hegemon due to the “poverty of the rest of the capitalist world, and their fear of the Soviet Union” (Brown and Ainley 2009). The States has been the lone global superpower since 1991, at the breakdown of the Soviet Union, when it was firmly placed at the top of the international system, facing no serious rivals for global leadership. Over the past decades, and with acceptance on the most part from other states, the US has created a uniquely open international order. Built with European and East Asian partners during the aftermath of the Cold War and coordinated around open markets, security agreements, democratic community, and multilateral cooperation, this order has provided the basis and operating logic for modern world politics.
However, in this time of intensified uncertainty, “in the second decade of the twenty-first century, American hegemony is widely perceived to be in terminal decline” (National Interest, 2015). Some scholars maintain that a new world is dawning, a world which the US will not lead, as new challengers appear and American power and advantage fades. Current president Donald Trump, during his inauguration speech, illustrated the US as bleak and in desperate need of help. This opposing view on the common optimistic opinion of the United States being the greatest nation in the world, being precisely why he got elected. This alone demonstrating that the majority of the US population no longer think of their country as the great nation it once was. It’s costly and ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined its military capability, one of its strongest qualities. During and after the Cold War, America’s position as global hegemon was built on the foundation of the provision of security against a common rival, along with the provision of economic goods. Today, the US has been overtaken, producing far less of its own goods whilst sitting at the top of the list as the biggest importer of goods in the world. Furthermore, the threats we see to our nation’s security are far different from what they were at the time of the Cold War. Private groups and radical religious fanatics are able to gain access to weapons and to the kind of violence that was only accessible to very few powerful states. G. John Ikenberry argues that during most of the post-war era, the US has been able to pursue its own national interest whilst also maintaining “the construction of a progressive and mutually agreeable global order” (Ikenberry 2005) but now more and more frequently, they are clashing. The practice of US hegemony is debatably more selfish than ever before.
Under the leadership and request of President Donald Trump, America wishes to withdraw from the most widely accepted global climate compact in the world, the Paris climate accord. Trump promised to bring industry back to the US during his campaign and some of his main supporters are employed in Americas fossil fuels industry. Considering hegemony and IR, to reject a deal that your greatest allies and the United Nations leader’s plea for, is an unlikely way to maintain global leadership. Some observers believe that American hegemony is coming to an end. With the extraordinary rise of China, some fear that as its relative position rises, it will begin to use it’s growing influence to rewrite the rules and reshape the institutions of the international system to serve its own national interest. As America sees China as a security threat, conflict may arise, which is seen as inevitable in such a power transition.
It could be said that current decline in US hegemony shares similar characteristics with that of British decline and hegemonic crisis in the late 19th century. Furthermore, it is possible to say that British decline in production, exports and finance helps to make a coherent analogy with that of US decline. The practice of hegemony will without doubt change as nations further develop and relationships between nations and states alter. The US is no longer needed so essentially in terms of security and financial support for example, as it once was. It could be argued that it is not essential in terms of IR, to have a global hegemon at all. With the transparency of the 21st century in terms of the media and public knowledge, the practice of hegemony is more criticised and closely watched than ever.
Robert W. Cox was a Canadian scholar of political science
- Babones, S (2015) American Hegemony Is Here to Stay. The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/american-hegemony-here-stay-13089
- Bates, Thomas R. (1975). Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 36, University of Pennsylvania Press pp. 351–366.
- Brown, C & Ainley, K (2009). Understanding International Relations. (4th ed.). England: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 143
- Ikenberry, G. John (2005). Power and liberal order: America’s postwar world order in transition. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 5(2), pp.133-152.
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