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date: 24 September 2017

Hegemony in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

American realists, liberals, journalists, and policymakers speak of American hegemony as if it were an established role, although a threatened one given the rise of China. They describe hegemony as essential to international political and economic stability, and a role that only America can perform. These claims are highly questionable, as there is no evidence that the United States is a hegemon nor that it has provided the benefits American international relations theorists attribute to a hegemon. To the extent these benefits are provided, it is the result of the collective efforts of numerous states, by no means all of them great powers. American assertions of hegemony are viewed with jaundiced, if not hostile, eyes by other states. Hegemony is a fiction, propagated by Americans to gain special privileges, justify an interventionist foreign policy, support the defense industry, and buttress national self-esteem. In practice, the quest for hegemony is a threat, not a prop, to the global order.

Keywords: hegemony, realism, liberalism, constructivism, power, influence, United States, China, Europe, global order, Kindleberger, Gramsci

Hegemony entered the international relations (IR) discourse in the 1970s. The concept, initially developed in the context of international economics, appealed to liberal and realist scholars for analytical and normative reasons. It appeared to provide a parsimonious explanation for global order and disorder, and a mechanism for structuring and maintaining the former. It also justified special privileges for the United States, the only postwar power that might aspire to this role. Not surprisingly, almost without exception, the scholars drawn to hegemony were Americans.

American realists, liberals, journalists, and policymakers speak of American hegemony as if it were an established fact, although a threatened one given the rise of China (Reich & Lebow, 2014). They describe hegemony as essential to the maintenance of international political and economic stability, and a role that only America can perform. These claims are highly questionable, as there is no evidence that the United States is a hegemon or has provided the widespread benefits American IR theorists attribute to a hegemon. To the extent these benefits are generated, it is the result of the collective efforts of numerous states. American assertions of hegemony are viewed with jaundiced, if not hostile eyes, by other states. Hegemony is a fiction, propagated by the Americans to gain special privileges, justify an interventionist foreign policy, support the defense industry, and buttress national self-esteem. In practice, the quest for hegemony is a threat, not a prop to global order.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hans Morgenthau repeatedly criticized international relations theory for failing to speak truth to power. In his view, the close links among universities, foundations, and government made it relatively easy to co-opt the discipline’s principal spokesmen and to substantially reward those who said and wrote what those in power wanted to hear (Morgenthau, 1946; Morgenthau, 1970, pp. 14–15; Myers, 1992). There is a more benign explanation for this phenomenon: scholars are products of the same culture as policymakers and are likely to share their worldviews. For this latter reason, many American IR theorists and foreign policy and national security analysts have a normative commitment to American world leadership. Theorists have developed the concept of hegemony to justify and advance this project. It rests on a particular understanding of power and its superordinate importance in world politics.

What Is Hegemony?

The definition and consequence of hegemony are a source of great debate among liberals and realists. Michael Doyle (1986a, p. 40) understands it to mean “controlling leadership of the international system as a whole.” Michael Mastanduno (2005) contends that hegemony exists when one political unit has the “power to shape the rules of international politics according to its own interests.” Stuart Kaufman, Richard Little and William Wohlforth (2007, p. 7) describe hierarchy, which they all but equate with hegemony, as the political-military “domination” of a single unit “over most of the international system.” Although John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan (1990) insist that such influence ultimately rests on material power, “it is most effectively exercised when a hegemon is able to establish a set of norms that others willingly embrace.”

As understood by American IR scholars, hegemony is international leadership exercised by a state whose power is grossly disproportionate to that of other actors in the system. With few exceptions, realists and liberals alike maintain that the United States has been a hegemon since 1945, although only a partial hegemon during the long Cold War because of the opposition of the powerful Soviet Union and its allies.1 At the end of that conflict and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States, in their view, became closer to a global hegemon as bipolarity supposedly gave way to unipolarity (Wohlforth, 1999).

Realists and liberals differ somewhat in their understanding of hegemony. Many realists contend that America’s unrivaled military power enables it to impose its leadership, which they openly acknowledge as a form of domination (Webb & Krasner, 1989). Brooks and Wohlforth (2008) assert “No system of sovereign states has ever contained one state with comparable material preponderance.” Judging by the numbers, Robert Jervis (2006) concludes, they are certainly correct. Entering the current decade, the United States accounted for well over 40% of the world’s military spending, it was the source of one-quarter of its economic activity, its share of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) was larger than that of the EU (although now comparable to China’s by at least some measures), and some 65% of the world’s currency reserve was held in US dollars (Norrlof, 2010, pp. 19–21). This understanding of hegemony describes it as the relatively straightforward outcome of the material dominance of one state (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2008, pp. 28; Dent, 2008).2

An alternative formulation, and a more sophisticated one, conceives of hegemony as the result of legitimacy as well as power (Clark, 2011, pp. 18–23; Haugard, 2006, p. 50; Lebow, 2003, pp. 283–284; Simon, 1982). Drawing on Gramsci, Roger Simon (1982, p. 21) describes hegemony as a relation “not of domination by means of force, but of consent by means of political and ideological leadership.” Theorists differ about whether consent is a function of self-interest—it is better to bandwagon than oppose the dominant power—or legitimacy—in which the hegemon protects and advances shared norms, values, and policies (Clark, 2011, pp. 23–28; Hurd, 2007; Lebow, 2003, pp. 283–284). Neorealists such as John Mearsheimer (2001, pp. 40) and Christopher Layne (2006, pp. 11–12) emphasize material interests because they see material power at the core of all international relations. The ideational explanation appeals to constructivists and those who distinguish influence from power. Scholars who stress the normative aspects of hegemony note that great power and hegemonic status rest on the recognition of rights and duties and are therefore quasi-judicial categories. In practice, powerful states, like Russia, that have not met their responsibilities in the eyes of other actors are denied the standing and respect conferred by great power status (Clark, 2011, pp. 23–28; Hurd, 2007; Hurrell, 2007; Lebow, 2003, pp. 283–284; Simpson, 2004).

Liberals tend to conceive of hegemony as a mix of power and norms. Robert Keohane (1984, p. 31) observes that hegemony rests on the twin premises that “that order in world politics is typically created by a single hegemonic power” and that “the maintenance of order requires stability.”3 Offering a quintessential liberal formulation, he argues that it is more fruitful to think of it as leadership by a single state, although not necessarily by military means (Keohane, 1984, pp. 39–40). Drawing on their economic might and so-called “soft power,” hegemons construct regimes that facilitate cooperation (Keohane, 1984, p. 137). Keohane’s conception of hegemony emphasizes norms, rules, and decision-making processes over coercion and bribery, but leaves unclear two key points: first, how institutions, norms, and procedures are related to or dependent on economic or military power; second, how institutions, norms, and procedures systematically relate to each other.

John Ikenberry (2001) has suggested that for five decades the American-led liberal, rule-based hegemonic order was “remarkably successful.” The United States championed multilateralism, built global institutions, and provided services, security, and open markets as “the ‘owner and operator’ of the liberal capitalist political system.” Hegemony has thus “provided a stable foundation for decades of Western and global growth and advancement” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 2). Through hegemony and a series of strategic partnerships, the United States was able to orchestrate a relatively benign leadership, distinct from an “imperial hegemonic order.” It helped to foster Western prosperity, democracy elsewhere, and a peaceful end to the Cold War. This, he claims, is “a remarkable achievement.” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 3)

According to Ikenberry, the current crisis is one “of authority within the old hegemonic organization of liberal order, not a crisis in the deep principles of the order itself. It is a crisis of governance.” As a result, “the character of rule in world politics has been thrown into question” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 8). Although American leadership has been challenged, the liberal international order remains resilient. “As an organizational logic of world politics,” it is, however, a victim of its own success. A new bargain needs to be struck between the United States and emergent actors. It will still rest on a unipolar distribution of power, and with it, “constituencies that support a continued—if renegotiated—American hegemonic role” within a liberal hegemonic order. Ikenberry believes that the United States will have to surrender some rights and privileges and strike the kind of deal that it will allow it to remain a “liberal leviathan.” Under such a new arrangement, the United States would still qualify as a hegemon (Ikenberry, 2011, pp. 2–10).

Another prominent liberal, Joseph Nye, Jr., deliberately and explicitly shies away from terms such as unipolarity and hegemon in his more recent work. He nevertheless de facto defines American military power in those terms. He warns that “mistaken beliefs in decline—at home and abroad—can lead to dangerous mistakes in policy.” He is relatively optimistic about American retrenchment and capacity for renewal. Nye (2010) acknowledges the potential of a Chinese threat, domestic economic decline, and a decline in the dollar through rising debt, but insists, “Despite these problems and uncertainties, it seems probable that with the right policies, the U.S. economy can continue to produce hard power for the country.”

In contrast to many realists, Nye recognizes that power does not itself determine outcomes; policy choices and implementation also matter. He distinguishes modes of power: economic versus military, and soft versus hard. He nevertheless remains resolute in his belief in the centrality of American values and power to the global order, warning that “The coming decades are not likely to see a post-American world, but the United States will need a smart strategy that combines hard- and soft-power resources.” Toward this end, Nye consistently advocates a liberal approach emphasizing multilateralism, bargaining, and the promotion of American values through globalization (Nye, 2010).

Despite these differences, realists and liberals commonly share a state-centric view of the world and evaluate states in terms of their relative power. Much of their writing analyzes the polarity of the world on the assumption that important consequences flow from it. Realists and liberals concur in understanding any change from hegemony to multipolarity—as the result of the decline of the United States and the rise of other countries—to have adverse consequences for peace and prosperity. These alarums have a familiar ring. Back in the 1970s, both worried that hegemony was fast disappearing in light of America’s seeming economic decline and the rise of Japan and Germany. Some even worried about a hegemonic war with Japan (Friedman, 1991).

Today, realists contend the threat is China, which the more pessimistic among them expect to challenge the United States for world leadership within a decade or two (Cox, 2007; Freidberg, 2005; Hunt, 2007, p. 322; Layne, 2009, p. 148; Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 400; Zakaria, 2008). Many realists and liberals portray the United States as a declining power (Hunt, 2007, p. 322; Cox, 2007; Zakaria, 2008). This fear found an official voice in President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy (United States National Security Council, p. 43). The differences among realists as to whether the United States is a secure or declining hegemon reflect differences in judgments about power and its relative distribution. They indicate just how subjective any such estimates inevitably are. For liberals, who tend to stress so-called “soft” as well as hard power, this discrepancy is more understandable (Hunt, 2007, p. 322; Parmar & Cox, 2010).

Realists and liberals share a common normative agenda: the preservation of American hegemony. In a book published in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Michael Mandelbaum (2010), a well-known realist, warns of the “chaos” that would result in the absence of US hegemony. He worries that US decline and Chinese ascendancy would result in a hegemonic war. Liberals are just as committed as realists to preserving what they believe to be America’s preeminent position in the global system, conceiving of the United States as “exceptional and indispensable” to the system’s stability (Dobbs & Goshko, 1996; Albright, 1998; Deudney & Ikenberry, 2012, p. 1). They disagree among themselves about the proper mix and relative importance of power projection, economic dominance, institutions, and cultural influence as appropriate means toward this end, but still find enough in common to collaborate on major books and articles (Ikenberry, Mastanduno & Wohlforth, 2011; Ikenberry & Grieco, 2003; Ikenberry & Mastanduno, 2003; Ikenberry, Lake, & Mastanduno, 1988; Ikenberry & Kupchan, 1990; Brooks, Ikenberry, & Wohlforth, 2012). In one notable major article that prompted much debate, Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth (2012), two liberals and a realist, assert that American hegemonic leadership (what they term “deep engagement”) is benign, because it provides political and economic benefits for the United States and its partners that outweigh its costs. These include the “reduction of transaction costs, establishment of credible commitments, facilitation of collective action, creation of focal points [and] monitoring.” Hegemony thus produces many public goods, notably system stability, although the United States, they concede, benefits disproportionately from its preeminence.

Hegemony Interrogated

The present criticism of this hegemonic discourse is twofold. First and foremost, the claim of hegemony is empirically false. By definition, it requires both economic and military dominance and leadership. There has never been a hegemon in the modern state system, as no state has achieved anything close to this degree of power and control. Several states have tried (e.g., Spain under Philip II, France under Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the Germany of Wilhelm II and Hitler) and failed (Lebow & Valentino, 2009).

The American hegemony of the immediate postwar period existed but eroded quickly. It was based on the extraordinary and short-lived economic and military power of the United States in comparison to the rest of the noncommunist world. In 1944, the US GDP peaked at 35% of the world total, a figure that had dropped to 25% by 1960 and 20% by 1980 (Maddison, 1995).4 Western Europe and Japan not only rebuilt their economies but also regained much of their self-confidence; both developments reduced the need and appeal of American leadership. The Korean War stalemate in the early 1950s demonstrated the limits of this supposed hegemony, as did the failure of intervention in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s and the delinking of the dollar from the gold standard in 1971. In the 1980s, the United States systematically reneged on its own liberal trading rules by introducing a variety of tariffs and quotas instead of bearing the costs of economic adjustments.5 More recently, imperial overstretch was evident in the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each instance, America’s capacity was found wanting and its strategic objectives were frustrated. The supposed “unipolar moment” of US power in the early 1990s was accompanied by an unprecedented number of intrastate wars, with the United States unable to impose solutions consistent with its supposed hegemonic status, even where it committed resources and its strategic interests were clearly articulated (Mack, 2005).

Self-interest is one of the more imprecise terms in the political lexicon, and is often invoked by realists to explain any policy ex post facto. Realists have equated it with security, liberals with wealth, while constructivists attempt to reconstruct the different interpretations of actors. The present analysis sides with constructivists in believing that actor goals vary in their importance, framing, and pursuit, and accordingly refrains from imposing its formulations on leaders or their states, but rather struggles to understand how they frame and apply the concept of interest. History indicates that there are often wide variations within the same policymaking elite. People are loath to make hard choices from among their goals, and policymakers are no different; they can construct their interests in ways that appear contradictory, even irrational, to outsiders.

Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle distinguished between short- and longer-term interests. For the 5th- and 4th-century bce Greeks, hēgemonia was associated with timē—the gift of honor (Meiggs, 1972; Perlman, 1991). Timē was bestowed informally by free consent of the Greek community as reward for achievements, and retained by consent, not by force. Sparta and Athens were so honored because of their contributions during the Persian Wars. Athens also earned timē because her intellectual and artistic accomplishments made her the “school of Hellas.” Hēgemonia requires material capabilities, but those capabilities must be used to advance the community’s common interests.

The Greeks used the term archē to describe rule based largely on force, or the threat of it. Well-known examples of despotism include the Mongol Empire, the Nazi occupation of Europe, and, arguably, the control exercised by Soviet Union in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. When a despot’s power declines, or it loses its will to crush any opposition, demise becomes imminent. A hegemon in the Greek sense that makes loyal subjects out of conquered and foreign peoples—the Romans are the best example—can endure long after its power has waned (Doyle, 1986a, pp. 37–45; Strauss, 1997).

Hēgemonia requires a justification that is acceptable to a significant proportion of those who are ruled. Some empires evoked religious myths, as did the Egyptians and Mayans, while others (notably the Chinese and British) based their rule on their material and cultural achievements—and the timē this conferred. For it to function, allies and subjects must see the hēgemonia they have conferred as continuing to be conducive to their interests. Rome provided guarantees of internal and external security, generally supported the worship of local gods, and offered citizenship and access to its markets to assuage those whom they had subdued by force. The Romans were so successful in legitimizing their rule that they could afford to rely on a relatively small military force, most of it deployed on the periphery of the empire, facing Parthians and Germanic tribes. During the 1st century ce, Rome ruled over a territory that stretched from Britain to Persia with an average of twenty-nine legions, each composed of approximately 6,000 men (Webster, 1969; Goldsworthy, 1995; Luttwak, 1976, pp. 13–16). The British accomplished a similar feat. At the height of their empire, at the end of the 19th century, they maintained colonies on six continents with an army of 250,000 men supplemented by local forces, mostly Indian (Barnett, 1970; Farwell, 1981).6

Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War can be read as a homily about the destructive nature of short-term and myopic framings of interest. Athens leaves the community that sustains its hēgemonia in pursuit of short-term gains and in the process undermines that community and loses its hēgemonia, and ultimately its empire. Plato conceives of wisdom as a form of self-control in which reason educates appetite and spirit alike to forsake short-term gains in terms of longer-term ones that will bring greater personal fulfillment. Aristotle describes maturity as the ability to pursue more meaningful, longer-term goals, and to achieve them more effectively by cooperative means.

The question, therefore, is not whether China, the United States, or any other state is acting out of self-interest or altruism in supporting and defending the global order. This is a meaningless binary. Rather, it is how leaders of these states have formulated their interests. Do they pursue short-term and myopic gains at the expense of their longer-term interests (even if they claim otherwise)? Or, do they act in recognition that their enduring material and security interests are best served through global order and the norms that sustain them? It is this, longer-term, more enlightened and mature understanding of interest that guides this analysis and the consequent policy recommendations.

This argument makes apparent that hegemony rests on legitimacy as well as power, and here too, the US position has seriously eroded. Public opinion in Europe was extremely sympathetic to the United States after 9/11, but reversed itself and came to consider it a greater threat to world peace than North Korea (Schifferes, 2003). In Britain, those with favorable opinions of the United States dropped from 83% in 2000 to 56% in 2006. In other countries, the United States suffered an even steeper decline (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2006). This evaluation had not changed much by 2007, when an opinion poll carried out for the BBC World Service in 27 countries found that 51% of respondents regarded the United States negatively, a figure surpassed only by their negative evaluations of Iran and Israel, 54% and 56% respectively. By comparison, North Korea was regarded negatively by only 48% of respondents (BBC World Service Poll, 2007). Since the onset of the Iraq War, the United States has undergone a shift in its profile from a status quo to a revisionist power (Reus-Smit).

While the election of Barack Obama as president had a positive effect on these ratings, the United States still trails other advanced industrial states in popularity. Among Western countries, no country generated as many negative responses as the United States (34%) in terms of global influence (PIPA, 2010). Even the “Obama bump did not last, global opinion about his policies declining significantly by the spring of 2012” (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2012). The American IR literature either ignores or minimizes the significance of these events or seeks to explain them away as somehow aberrant to a general trend that has allegedly sustained American power and its acceptance by others.7

The second element of this critique concerns the inconsistency—and even contradictions of—the hegemonic literature. Realists and liberals have long associated the distribution of power with the distribution of functions in the global system. But they have never developed an adequate metric for measuring power, which accounts for the enormous variations in their assessments and forecasts. Indeed, such a metric is impossible to formulate, because power is a composite of so many different factors, among them territory, population, geographic location, economic development, robustness of the economy, level of technology, military strength, system of government, and quality of leadership. Most of these categories in turn are composites, as are the factors that compose them. Consider military power. Among other things, it is based on modern weaponry, skilled personnel, good strategic plans and leadership, and appropriate deployments. Weaponry varies in its capability, maintenance, and relevance to strategic and tactical challenges. Each of these criteria can only be assessed relatively and in context. The more the question of the definition and operationalization of the concept of power is examined, the murkier it becomes.

Liberals and realists contend that hegemony is legitimate in the eyes of other important actors who welcome American leadership and enforcement as beneficial to global stability and their national interests. The primary foreign support for these claims comes from conservative politicians and authoritarian leaders, the latter often direct beneficiaries of US military and economic backing. There has been a noticeable decline in pleas for US leadership since the end of the Cold War, and a corresponding increase in opposition to US military and economic initiatives.

President Obama’s personal popularity, even at its zenith soon after taking office, did not translate into multilateral leadership, and his efforts proved embarrassing when rebuffed. Since the Iraq War, the United States has undergone a shift in its profile from a status quo to a revisionist power. Germany, Canada, and Japan now top the list of respected countries, followed by France, Britain, China, and India. Even pariah countries such as North Korea score better than the United States on some surveys. More recent surveys reflect a sustained theme: the United States is rarely perceived as acting in the interests of the international community, and whatever legitimacy its leadership once had has significantly eroded (Pew Survey, 2011).8 Tellingly, this perception significantly contrasts with how Americans positively adjudge the country’s global standing (Rifkin, 2016).

Order and Disorder

The liberal economist Charles Kindleberger is often characterized by IR scholars as authoring the concept of hegemony, although that was a claim he subsequently debunked.9 Nonetheless, those building upon his original insight that the global economic system requires a stabilizing lender of last resort envisaged hegemony as conferring three benefits on the international community that are organically related. The first responsibility of hegemony is normative. Much of what liberals conceive as “leadership” is the capacity to shape the policy agenda of global institutions or ad hoc coalitions (Barnett & Duvall, 2005; Manners, 2002, p. 239). It requires knowledge and the manipulation of appropriate discourses (Barnett & Duvall, 2005, pp. 56–57). It also requires insight into how other actors define their interests, what they identify as problems, and what responses they consider appropriate. Power is important, but it must be understood as embedded in institutional and normative structures. Normative influence is heavily dependent on political skill—all the more so in a world in which so many, if not most, important initiatives are multilateral.

The second constituent of hegemony is economic management. In the post-hegemonic era, this function is primarily custodial. Above all else, custodianship entails the management of risk through market signaling (information passed, intentionally or not, among market participants) and intergovernmental negotiations in a variety of venues. The intent, according to Kindleberger, is to stabilize and undergird the functions of the global economic system (Kindleberger, 1973, p. 305).10 His formulation has become foundational for his realist and liberal successors as they seek to justify the global need for continued American hegemony. Many American IR theorists nevertheless ignore the evidence that America has either willingly contravened, or is increasingly incapable of performing, these functions (Norloff & Reich, 2015).

Somewhat paradoxically, while overlooking the declining performance of the United States as a manager of the global system, these theorists’ understanding of a hegemon has expanded to include additional functions: the provision of liberal, multilateral trading rules; the sponsorship of international institutions; and the promotion of liberal democratic values (Ikenberry, 2007, p. 3).

The third element of hegemony is enforcement of global initiatives, or sponsorship. Sponsorship ultimately depends on capabilities. They may be military, economic, or knowledge-based. In part, sponsorship reflects what IR theorists consider essential to the creation and maintenance of international institutions and of the enforcement of global regulation or norms. To be effective, sponsorship requires dialogue, negotiation, and the use of regional or global institutions as venues. Above all, it requires agreed goals and procedures to confer legitimacy on any initiative and achieve a division of responsibilities. Sponsorship is not the same as leadership, as defined by either realists or liberals. It is neither unilateralism nor a “first among equals” in a traditional multilateral forum or alliance. Rather, it entails a capacity to listen, and then a selective willingness to use a variety of capabilities to implement consensual goals that are consistent with self-interest (Reich, 2010).

Norloff and Reich (2015) provided an empirical test of these functions of hegemony by looking to see who provided leadership in and after the 2008 crisis. They found that the Chinese played a critical role as a stabilizer. The Americans played also a role, but one far less consistent than the expectations generated by hegemonic stability theory. And, as the article and other authors note, the United States was the predominant cause of the global recession.

All three functions of hegemony require contingent forms of influence rather than the blunt exercise of power. Contrary to claims that their application is indivisibly tied to a hegemon, they are becoming increasingly diffused among states, sometimes in collaboration with non-state actors. Global governance practices are therefore sharply at odds with the formulations of realists and liberals alike. Western Europeans have made consistent efforts to extend their normative influence by promoting agendas well beyond those with which they are traditionally associated. These include environmental and human rights initiatives, but also security issues and corporate regulation. Asian states, most notably China, have increasingly assumed a custodial role, albeit embryonic at this point, quite at odds with the neo-mercantilist or rising military power depiction of realists. Furthermore, under President Obama, the United States continued to pursue a bipartisan sponsorship role that ran parallel to its more conventional efforts at leadership (Dombrowski & Reich, 2015).

The first function, agenda setting, describes the capacity to initiate, legitimate, and advocate policy issues. These issues cut across the spectrum of social, economic, political, and security concerns. They are characteristically associated with “progressive” agendas, such as environmentalism, human rights, social or economic justice, or civilian protection. They appeal to broad conceptions of justice, because in today’s world, this is a precondition for successful adoption. Agenda setting seeks to have these issues debated within regional or global organizations or broadly representative multilateral forums. It relies heavily on persuasion, generally in an institutional context, and arguably constitutes the most important form of leadership, as it does in domestic politics (Kingdon, 1984).

Most liberals, by contrast, downplay the role of agency in multilateral policymaking. They describe international regimes as “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge,” without ever describing how and why expectations converge beyond the leadership a hegemon is expected to provide. That leadership is attributed to the hegemon’s material capacities to underwrite the cost of the regime (Krasner, 1983, p. 2). Material capabilities do not ineluctably promote successful leadership. One need only contrast the US and Soviet experiences with their respective European partners during the Cold War. NATO worked much more by consensus and the Warsaw Pact by dictation, with profound consequences for the behavior and survival of both alliance systems. The difference was not due to material capabilities—both superpowers towered above their respective partners in this respect—but to their leadership styles and abilities.

To be effective, agenda setting requires the adoption of proposed measures in the context of multilateral venues that are designed for negotiation. Simple advocacy of a policy, even at the negotiating table, is an insufficient litmus test. Persuasion relies as much on the legitimacy of the proposal as on the sticks and carrots of material power. The problem of civilian protection offers a telling example of how agenda setting works. Norway, far from being a great power, nevertheless played an important role in the promotion of the concept of civilian protection. In the 1990s, the Norwegian government awarded funds to the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) to think through the concept and what would be required to implement it (Radelet, 2006, p. 5). In the UN, Norway worked with middle powers like Canada to promote human security and the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine in collaboration with other states and NGOs, including the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. R2P seeks to invert the traditional realist focus on sovereignty and the rights of states by stressing their responsibility to protect civilians or be subject to the prospect of multilateral intervention (Reich, 2006). By 2001, the R2P initiative had won the unstinting support of then Secretary General, Kofi Annan (UN Press Release, 1998; Evans & Sahnnoun, 2001; Reich, 2003; Jentleson, 2000, p. 20).

Members of the Bush administration had other ideas, and Anglo-American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq slowed the momentum towards UN adoption of R2P. Many members feared that it would be used by major powers as a pretext to intervene in other states. Norway and its allies persevered, noting that American efforts to legitimate their invasion of Iraq had been rejected by the UN. Over the next two years, they worked to widen their basis of support by enlisting key states from the global south. By 2005, the language of the R2P doctrine was embraced by the UN as consistent with Chapters VI and VIII of the UN Charter. At that time, over 150 world leaders adopted R2P, legitimating the use of force through multilateral intervention initiatives sanctioned by the UN Security Council (United Nations General Assembly, 2005).

Still, the Norwegians persisted, and R2P was embedded in a civilian protection framework adopted by the UN in 2009. The Obama administration essentially adopted R2P’s principles as part of US policy in its National Security Strategy, issued in 2010 (United States National Security Council, 2010: 48; International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, 2010). R2P had become operational: it found instantiation in UN resolutions about Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence and then in Darfur before being embraced in Libya and the Ivory Coast (UN Security Council, 2011; Evans & Sahnnoun, 2001; Goldberg, 2011; Cotler & Genser, 2011).11 Norway did not single-handedly cause the adoption of the R2P’s principle. Other nations played important roles. Yet the evidence suggests that it is hard to overlook Norway’s instrumental political, intellectual, and policy role as a staunch, unwavering supporter, even in the years after the US invasion of Iraq when it became politically less popular and its adoption appeared unfeasible.

The second of the three functions is custodianship. The liberal variant of hegemony focuses largely on management of the international economy. Kindleberger (1973, p. 305) famously identified the set of economic tasks a lender of last resort must perform. Liberals in IR accepted these tasks as requisites, although they never actually tested them in any positivist sense (Norloff & Reich, 2015). Liberals and some realists insist that only a hegemon can maintain stable patterns of exchange within a preexisting but evolving global economic structure (Gilpin, 1987, pp. 173–175; Ikenberry, 2011, pp. 18–22). Because the United States has played this role in the postwar world, liberals assert, the rules of exchange and finance have remained consistent, based on principles of the free exchange of goods and services. The result has been unprecedented and widely distributed economic growth.

This is a questionable claim. The United States has often transgressed the principles liberals describe as essential by adopting protectionist measures in the name of “fair trade.” It shook the foundations of the global economic order by unilaterally ending the convertibility of the dollar when it “closed the gold window” in 1973. It exploited its position by borrowing vast sums of money and at times running high rates of inflation that would not have been possible for any other country without encountering sanctions (Gowa, 1983; Block, 1977, pp. 182–198). It engendered the 2008 Great Recession through lax financial regulation. The image of American hegemony as marked by a broad, enlightened conception of self-interest and by being indispensable to growth and stability, is not only self-serving but inaccurate.

Liberals have nonetheless characterized the United States as a benign and enlightened actor; during the Great Depression and in the aftermath of World War II, it was needed as a stabilizer to provide a series of public goods (Ikenberry, 2011). Susan Strange (1986, 1998) offers a markedly different interpretation of the postwar period, one in which purposive American efforts at financial deregulation undermined its capacity for global economic management. She characterizes American policies as motivated by a long-term, systematic effort to accrue benefits and offload costs. Arguably, the United States has succeeded. In the Vietnam era, it exported its relatively large deficits and enjoined its major trading partners to hold dollar debt through a series of sticks and carrots that included delinking the dollar from gold.

In the last decade, the United States has generated unprecedented public and private debt. This phenomenon accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, until the two forms of debt began moving in opposite directions by 2010 as public bailouts and programs essentially reduced private debt. During both the Vietnam era and the Great Recession, Washington’s exploitation of its position destabilized existing patterns of global finance (Block, 1977, pp. 182–198). Chinese and Japanese investors still subsidize American consumers. The United States has been a regular exploiter, rather than provider, of public goods.

Washington pumped huge sums of money into the system after World War II to help others rebuild their economies and to create markets for US goods. In later decades, it borrowed money in lieu of balancing its trade deficit or raising taxes, and thus failed to play the role of lender of last resort. The US reliance on Keynesian deficit spending policies, combined with large public debts well before the 2008 crisis, made it massively indebted to countries like Japan and China, which still hold large dollar currency reserves as a result of favorable export balances.

American borrowing after 2008 took the form of the issuance of US Treasury bills. By March of 2011, the US Treasury Department estimated that China’s holding of US Treasury bills had reached $1.16 trillion, making it the largest foreign lender. Japan’s holdings amounted to $882.3 billion by the end of 2010. The total foreign holdings of US Treasury debt stood at $4.44 trillion, and the entire national debt had reached $14.3 billion (Shedlock, 2011). The pace of borrowing has accelerated in the last few years without much evidence of being invested in infrastructure or other forms of investment. By the beginning of 2013, debt levels had grown significantly; foreign holdings of US Treasury debt ballooned to over $5.5 trillion, and the national debt reached almost $16.5 trillion (Department of the Treasury, 2017). By 2015, those respective figures had reached $6.1 trillion and almost $20 trillion.12 The United States relies on China’s willingness to hold on to these Treasury bills and maintain the value of the dollar and, by doing so, avoids defaulting on payment of its public debt. Only the United States could carry such debt without having to embark on stringent budget cuts imposed by multilateral organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, other national governments, or private bankers. American behavior has become increasingly feckless and destabilizing, and far from propping up the financial system as lender of last resort, the United States has emerged as its primary borrower, and an increasingly irresponsible one.

American attempts at global economic coordination in the closing year of the Bush administration and much of the Obama administration were rebuffed by its closest allies: the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. They are among the Group of Eight (G8) countries that comprise the world’s traditionally largest economies. Today, the United States thus neither leads nor lends. If the US role is assessed in terms of the economic management functions thought critical by liberals, it is not a hegemon.

For the time being, the global economic system functions, for better and worse, without a hegemon. Leadership, economic management, and security provisions are no longer interrelated. Key management functions—providing market liquidity, reinforcing open trading patterns, market and currency stability, and reinforcing patterns of economic development—take place without a hegemon.

In the 1980s, following the process of market liberalization inspired by Reagan and Thatcher, these functions became increasingly reliant on market dynamics and monetary policy in lieu of state regulation. Liberalization made multilateral state-to-state coordination more complex, unwieldy, and ineffective. This complexity was responsible for the failure to coordinate monetary policy that contributed to the stock market crash of 1987 (Wanniski, 2002; Thoma, 2006). Market-directed custodianship is still possible, when facilitated by bilateral or multilateral negotiations and agreements involving state and non-state actors. But it must be coupled with carefully regulated economic policies that use markets sensibly (Snidal, 1985; Keohane, 1984, p. 38).

Two economic developments in the last several decades are particularly pertinent to the argument. The first is the growth of the global marketplace and, with it, the decline of national models of capitalism, especially in the West. Deregulation, privatization, and liberalization, inspired by the recipe that became known as the Washington Consensus, made economies more permeable and harder to guide by governments than had been the case between 1945 and the 1980s (Wade, 2002). The second development is the faltering of older multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, as they became less capable of coping with the intensified market gyrations, although this trend was attenuated by European intervention. Having been the catalyst for both developments, the United States is increasingly unable to guide or control markets. Institutions designed to coordinate policy, such as the Group of Seven (G7), have proved no more effective. The expansion of that “club” to 20 states has made interstate collaboration on a global scale that much more difficult. These developments have increased the risk of moral hazard; banks, corporations, and even countries (e.g., Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy) are regarded as “too big” to allow to fail (Swedberg, 2005; Blustein, 2001; DeLong & Eichengreen, 2001). The 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global economic crisis suggest that Susan Strange’s fear of “casino capitalism” is increasingly becoming a reality.

These developments are further evidence that the United States does not act responsibly or perform the economic functions attributed to a hegemon (Norrlof, 2010, pp. 5–6). China, often in partnership with other Asian states, is beginning to assume some of these functions (Norrlof, 2010, pp. 2–8). China’s role is not hegemonic, but is confined to the economy and to sustaining financial liquidity and engendering growth (Yao, 2013). Beijing has made no attempt to assume economic dominance or create multilateral institutions based on its priorities or values. Indeed, it has taken steps to forestall criticism of its role in sponsoring the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank by not assuming a controlling interest. China’s clear strategic goal is to buttress the global economy, which serves its interests and enhances its influence. China’s limited role is nonetheless essential to the effective functioning of a stable financial system.

The third element of hegemony is sponsorship. It encompasses enforcement of rules, norms, agreements, and decision-making processes as well as the maintenance of security to enhance trade and finance (Reich, 2010, pp. 62–63). Liberals and realists consistently maintain that only hegemons can provide such enforcement because of their preponderance of material power. They assume that American hegemony is legitimate in the eyes of other important actors who welcome its leadership and enforcement as beneficial to global stability and their national interests. When empirical support is mustered for these claims, the foreign voices invariably cited are conservative politicians in allied states or authoritarian leaders who benefit personally from US backing. During the Cold War, German conservatives welcomed US leadership as a means of offsetting Soviet power and of constraining Social Democratic opponents. Leaders of South Korea, Taiwan, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Iran, Egypt, and various Latin American states were, to varying degrees, dependent on US military and foreign aid and happy to say in public what Washington wanted to hear to keep the dollars flowing. Their opponents regarded US influence as regressive, as it supported regimes opposed to democracy and human rights.

There has been a noticeable decline in pleas for US leadership since the end of the Cold War, and a corresponding increase in opposition to US military and economic initiatives—as Rodrigo Duterte’s rapprochement with China vividly demonstrates. Since the Iraq War, the United States has undergone a shift in its profile from a status quo to a revisionist power (Reus-Smit). A BBC World Service poll conducted in early 2007 indicated a significant increase in the standing of countries associated with alternate visions of the international system. When asked what countries exerted a positive influence in the world, Canada and Japan topped the list at 54%, followed by France (50%), Britain (45%), China (42%), and India (37%) (BBC World Service Poll, 2007). More recent surveys reveal that the United States is not perceived as acting in the interests of the international community. Whatever legitimacy its leadership once had has significantly eroded as publics around the world are particularly worried about the way in which the United States uses its military power (Pew Survey, 2011; Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2012).

Leadership and legitimacy are closely connected, and enforcement clearly depends on the latter. In situations where US efforts at enforcement have been seen as legitimate (e.g., Korea, the First Gulf War, and Libya in 2011), international support has been forthcoming, and with it, backing by relevant regional and international organizations, notably the UN Security Council. Key to the legitimacy of enforcement has been a common perception of threat, but also a commitment on Washington’s part to limit its military ambitions and action in pursuit of a consensus. It often also requires collaborative decisions concerning processes of implementation in which the United States is not forthright in asserting an agenda. Historical examples suggest that the consequences are often undesirable when the United States departs from this course of action. The Truman administration won support for the liberation of South Korea but not the invasion of the North, and George H. W. Bush for the liberation of Kuwait but not the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. When George W. Bush insisted on the invasion of Iraq with the goal of removing Saddam, he was unable to gain support from NATO or the UN. When the administration went to war in the absence of international institutional support, it had to cobble together a coalition based largely on bribes and threats. Its subsequent decline in standing in the latter case was precipitous, and this began before the insurgency in Iraq.


The theoretical and policy lessons of these experiences are straightforward. Material power is a necessary but insufficient condition for enforcement. The latter also depends on legitimacy, an important component of influence. In its absence, even successful enforcement—as defined by Washington—will not be perceived as such by other states, and possibly as aggrandizement, as the Iraq invasion was by public opinion in France, Germany, Canada, and Japan. Such perceptions undermine legitimacy and make future enforcement more difficult.

Sponsorship can entail the threat or use of force, and here the United States tries hard to live up to theoretical expectations. It has unparalleled military expertise and capacity, and has been involved in more wars, for more years, than any other state in the postwar period (Mack, 2005).13 Liberals tend to downplay or ignore the military element of hegemony, focusing more on economic incentives and soft power. Violence in their writings fades into the background under a wealth of incentives and rules. Even Ikenberry (2001, pp. 248, 257–273) once claimed that the United States, while it provides security, nevertheless exercises remarkable self-restraint and refrains from overt aggression. The historical record suggests otherwise.

The maintenance of the security architecture is foundational to the concept of sponsorship. It entails a willingness to enforce global security and its rules and norms, or at least to underwrite the costs of doing so. It nevertheless also requires the greatest powers to refrain from acting unilaterally and pre-emptively. Sponsorship strategies must be responsive to collectively perceived needs and implemented with the backing, and preferably active collaboration, of a wide coalition of other actors. It entails the use of material power in the context of broader decision-making and consensus. It requires what then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (2010) characterized as a willingness “to accept the responsibility of mobilizing action.”

Why should any state act as a sponsor? A great power may do so for reasons that have nothing to do with hegemony. It may be a state in decline, hoping to sustain or regain status by enforcing generally accepted norms. It may be a powerful state aspiring to enhance its legitimacy or prestige, and with it, the willingness of others to accept its leadership on other issues. A great power may do so, or join with others toward this end, because its leaders simply see their state as better off in sustaining the current arrangements. Perhaps, they even worry that chaos is otherwise a real possibility—a daily trope in the US media. In sum, sponsorship and enforcement can be motivated by self-interest and a commitment to regional or global norms (Gilpin, 1987, pp. 96–105; Doyle, 1986b).

Self-interest is one of the more imprecise terms in the political lexicon, and is often invoked by realists to explain any policy ex post facto. Realists have equated it with security, liberals with wealth, while constructivists attempt to reconstruct the different understandings of actors. This analysis sides with constructivists in believing that actor goals vary in their importance, framing, and pursuit; thus formulations must not be imposed on leaders or their states, but rather analysts must struggle to understand how they frame and apply the concept of interest. History indicates that there are often wide variations within the same policymaking elite. People are loath to make hard choices from among their goals, and policymakers are no different; they can construct their interests in ways that appear contradictory, even irrational, to outsiders.

The functions of agenda setting, custodianship, and sponsorship overlap in part. All confer advantages to states that perform them and to the community at large. They require consultation, bargaining, and consensus, but also reflect competition and jockeying for influence among powerful states. There neither is, nor should be, a division of labor in the global system. Decisions to perform these functions are driven by cultural conceptions, domestic politics, and consideration of national self-interest. Within limits, powerful actors generally attempt to exert what degrees of influence they can. This will depend in part on the nature of their resources, but also the priorities they establish and their legitimacy in the eyes of other actors. They are also affected by both domestic and international constraints and opportunities.

The concrete choices, or debates about choices, of Europe (including the EU), China, and the United States reveal the extent to which these functions are becoming distributed globally, entailing states using different combinations of material and social power, and creating new possibilities of order and disruption. This process is due in the first instance to the failure of the United States to perform in a responsible way, a choice that cannot simply be attributed to loss of power. It also reflects the growing power of other political units, their interest in playing a more important role in world affairs but also their recognition that almost all of their national goals, including well-being, depend on an ordered international system.

Ultimately, hegemony is difficult to reconcile with democracy. Leading intellectuals and political leaders have frequently proclaimed that democracy and pluralism in government and decentralization in economics are not only more effective means of governing than hierarchy and centralization but are important ends in their own right. The commitment to democracy and pluralism is equally applicable to international relations. This makes it enigmatic and indefensible for scholars and policymakers to embrace hegemony and simultaneously the undemocratic hierarchies it aspires to impose and maintain.

Many American IR theorists and foreign policy and national security analysts have a normative commitment to American world leadership. They have developed the concept of hegemony to justify and advance this project, and incorporated it into the very heart of their research programs. However, this is empirically unsupported, rests on a flawed understanding of power and its superordinate importance in world politics, and encourages the United States to behave in ways counterproductive to its interests and those of the world community. It is incumbent upon IR scholars to cut themselves loose from this concept and say goodbye to hegemony as a theoretical and policy guide as the first step toward pragmatism and restoring America’s global standing in both domains.

American policymakers are invested in hegemony because their policies remain largely state-centered and predicated on US leadership. Of equal importance, it provides a justification for extraordinary defense spending. For most members of the American foreign policy elite, alternatives to US global leadership are, if not unthinkable, extremely distasteful. For the general public, fed on a steady diet of American exceptionalism and superiority, they are unacceptable. Almost every major policy speech on foreign policy invokes the superiority of American values, its messianic role in the world and how responsible leaders everywhere welcome it.14 The only alternative to leading, the American people are told, is following, and that is unpalatable. So US foreign policy remains focused on retaining something that no longer exists.

Those states seeking higher status have accordingly been compelled to couch their claims for differentiation in the language of equality. Other actors see through this ploy and hasten to point out the contradictions between claims for status and the principle and policies invoked to justify it. This is particularly true of states that consider themselves peers. The United States, as the world’s dominant power, remains intent on pushing its claim for hegemony, and with it, its right to lead. This is a non-starter, not only because of the way in which American unilateralism has aroused widespread opposition, but because the very idea of hegemony is unacceptable. Hegemony represents outright rejection of the principle of equality and is bound to be opposed by others for this reason. For critics it is also a violation of the principle of fairness, because, since the end of the Cold War, the United States, more than before, has used its power to pursue policies that many regard as damaging in sustaining international economic and political stability.15 American leaders and foreign policy intellectuals who fail to recognize these political truths will pay an even bigger price in lost status.

Hegemony, by contrast, is a contested role. It is the creation of American officials, journalists, and scholars. To serve as a hegemon, the United States needs the approval of other states; they must acknowledge the legitimacy of the role, the privileges the United States claims come with it, and the right of the United States to occupy the role. Despite the full court press by its leaders, foreign policy intellectuals, and academics, Washington has failed in convincing others to accept it as a hegemon. Rather, counter-hegemonic discourses have developed that deny the alleged benefits of hegemony and argue that the United States is unqualified for filling the role because of its rampant unilateralism.16

American leaders, journalists, and academics assert that American hegemony is essential to the maintenance of political and economic order. They ignore the ways in which the United States acts to undermine these orders through irresponsible borrowing and military initiatives unauthorized by regional or international organizations (Nye, 1991; Mastanduno, 2005; Ikenberry & Kupchan, 1990). 17 Even America’s closest allies think it has become more of a revisionist than a status quo power. Those Americans who propagate hegemony are so committed to it that they solicit statements from any foreign leaders or journalists they can cite to confirm their claims. The fiction of hegemony plays well at home and appears to buttress their self-esteem and provides justifications for high military budgets and periodic military interventions (Reich & Lebow, 2014). But foreigners rarely concur.

Indeed, the striking asymmetry between US self-perceptions and those of others indicates that it is possible—and dangerous—for role recognition and the self-identifications associated with it to become self-referential. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores this phenomenon in the character of Malvolio. The United States bears a disturbing resemblance to Malvolio. Its political leaders, media, and intellectuals have convinced themselves that they are a hegemon, that they perform unique and necessary services for the world at large, and that others recognize their contribution and welcome and respect them for their character and willingness to provide public goods (Reich & Lebow, 2014, chapters 3 and 5). Malvolio sought evidence from others of his romantic appeal and misinterpreted their rejection of him as positive proof. The United States behaves this way with hegemony; it solicits such feedback from those who are dependent on it or seek to gain through flattery. In his perceptive application of cybernetic theory to politics, Karl Deutsch (1953) warned that a preference for internal over external feedback makes a system less able to understand, react, and adapt to its environment, and can be a principal cause of its failure and collapse. It may be a positive sign that in December 2013, for the first time in a survey run for four decades by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans believe the United States plays a less important role in the world and is respected less by other countries (Lewis, 2013).

Power and Influence

American hegemony eroded during the postwar decades as other nations regained their economic strength and political stability. Of equal importance, the postwar world witnessed movements and developments over which the United States could exert little to no control, such as Third World nationalism and the rise of China. Efforts by Washington to maintain a puppet regime in South Vietnam and futile efforts to block Beijing from taking China’s seat in the UN Security Council darkened America’s image and publicized its impotence. The decline of the dollar accelerated this trend. Yet American foreign policy embraced—and still embraces—hegemony. Internalizing this view to the point that it is beyond debate, it has not effectively adjusted to this reality. It is an unrealistic and counterproductive aspiration. The glaring discrepancy between America’s self-image and goals on the one hand and others’ perception of them on the other may explain one principal anomaly of contemporary international relations: the extraordinary military and economic power of the United States—and its increasing inability to get other states to do what it wants.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. In Iraq, the Bush administration claimed to have created “a coalition of the willing.” But in practice, the intervention was opposed by some of America’s closest allies, and the support of lesser states had to be purchased. In trade, the United States sought a critical G 20 consensus on how to manage the 2008 Great Recession, only to be rebuffed by Asians and Europeans alike.

To quote Alice, the story becomes “curiouser and curiouser.” Although American hegemony has not existed for some time, prominent American IR scholars believe it does but periodically worry that it is about to disappear. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Charles Krauthammer famously proclaimed that the long-awaited “unipolar moment” had arrived. Like-minded realists predicated that American hegemony would remain unchallenged for decades to come. Most recently, Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth (2016) have echoed this argument. Other realists began worrying about more immediate threats. George Friedman, who runs Stratfor, a respected and widely read realist-oriented newsletter, then predicated a war in the near future with Japan (Friedman, 1991). Realists remain divided among themselves. Michael Mandelbaum, among others, thinks it essential that the United States cut back on its foreign policy commitments, but that this will result in greater disorder, leading other countries to look back with nostalgia on American hegemony (Mandelbaum, 2010, especially pp. 3–5).18 For most realists, the key question is how the United States will face the expected challenge from a rising China. Some believe that a power transition of this kind will almost certainly lead to war (Glaser, 2011).19

Liberals share certain attributes with realists, but among themselves they distinctly share a fundamental optimism that American hegemony will survive in some form or evolve into something in which the United States retains its centrality. Their greatest concern, pace realists, is that a global system without a hegemon would become unstable and more prone to war (Keohane, 1984; Ikenberry, 2011; Nye, 2010).

Both realists and liberals frame hegemony as a question of power. Realists in particular assume that material capabilities constitute power and that power confers influence. These categories are related in more indirect and problematic ways. Material capabilities are only one component of power. Power also depends on the nature of a state’s capabilities, how they developed and how they are used. Perhaps the most graphic illustration of this political truth is offered by the US and Soviet (now Russian) nuclear arsenals. These weapons and their delivery systems were expensive and all but unusable in any scenario. The principal one they were designed for—all-out war—would have constituted mutual, if not global, suicide. Intended to deter the other superpower, these weapons became a cause of their conflict (see Lebow & Stein, 1994, chapter 14 for elaboration). For the Soviet Union, its nuclear arsenal and conventional forces also became its principal claim to superpower status. Extravagant expenditure on the military, in the context of a stagnating economy, is generally understood to have been one of the causes of the Soviet collapse.

Nuclear weapons could rarely, if ever, be used to make credible threats. The utility of conventional forces has also become increasingly restricted. In an era of nationalism and identity politics, people are less willing to be coerced by foreign powers. Vietnam and Afghanistan became competitions in suffering, which the foreign powers were bound to lose. The ability to inflict pain—the mechanism on which military power depends—can be offset by the ability of the weaker side to absorb it. The US-Mexican relationship offers a different window into this problem. Repeated efforts by successive American administrations to exploit its greater power to act unilaterally in violation of its agreements with Mexico led to Mexican resistance. America needs to renegotiate new agreements that—at least in the short term—gain less, not more, for Washington (Lebow & Lebow, 2012; Aspinwall & Reich, 2016).

Attempts to translate power directly into influence rest on carrots and sticks. Such exercises, even when successful, consume resources and work only so long as the requisite bribes and threats are available and effective. More often than not, they fail. The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq offers a dramatic example. Raw power was ineffective when applied in a politically unsophisticated way and at odds with prevailing norms and practices. It eroded, not enhanced, American influence. Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan are anomalies for most realist and liberal understandings of power, but not for an approach that disaggregates influence from power and pays attention to its social as well as material basis. Such a shift grounds the study of influence in the shared discourses that make it possible. It builds on Hobbes’ (1990, p. 16) understanding in Behemoth that “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people.”20

Effective influence rests on persuasion; it convinces others that it is their interest to do what you want. Persuasion depends on shared values and acceptable practices, and when it works, helps to build common identities that can make cooperation and persuasion more likely in the future. Influence of this kind also benefits from material capabilities, but it is not a function of them. It is restricted to common goals and requires considerable political skills. It depends on sophisticated leaders and diplomats, shared discourses with target states, advocacy of policies that build on precedent, and a willingness to let others help shape and implement initiatives. Suffice it to say here that power, by which is meant primarily economic and military capabilities, is a raw material that can used to gain influence. By influence is meant the ability to persuade others to do what you want, or refrain from doing what you do not want.

Many realists and liberals equate material capabilities with power and power with influence. Such a formulation is necessary for any parsimonious theory of foreign policy or international relations. However, it tells us little about the real world. It is important how capabilities are invested; arguably, the United States overspends on its military at the expense of other investments that might make it more powerful (e.g., infrastructure, technology, education). Far more effective is convincing others that it is in their own interest to cooperate. Influence accordingly rests as much on good leadership—that is, choosing appropriate goals and means toward this end; on having the political nous and rhetorical skills to persuade others to cooperate; and on knowing when to defer as much as knowing when to assert. In a complex global environment, those lessons need to be internalized by policymakers, academics, and commentators alike.


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(1.) For a notable argument in favor of the evolution of American hegemony, see Keohane (1984).

(2.) For critiques, see Lee (2010) and Clark (2011).

(3.) Also see Lake (1993).

(4.) Also see Robert Gilpin (1987, pp. 173–175). Even he, a renowned proponent of hegemonic stability theory, acknowledges the fact that the global dominance of the United States was fleeting.

(5.) On this point see, for example, Kindleberger (1981) and Reich (2002).

(6.) This figure is from 1899, on the eve of the Boer War. In 1880, the British managed with 186,000 men, another 65,000 troops in India, and much smaller forces elsewhere (Barnett, 1970; Farwell, 1981).

(7.) For a broad discussion of this issue, see Katzenstein and Keohane (2007).

(8.) For more recent trends, see Gallup, US leadership approval.

(9.) For Kindleberger’s original formulation, see Kindleberger (1973, p. 305). For his debunking of the concept, see Kindleberger (1986).

(10.) In more formal terms, these economic functions consist of: maintaining an open market for distress goods; providing countercyclical lending; policing a stable system of exchange rates: ensuring the coordination of macroeconomic policies; and acting as a lender of last resort (Kindleberger, 1973, p. 305).

(11.) For an analysis of the American perspective, see Jentleson (2012).

(13.) Although the figure is now outdated, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and numerous “shadow wars,” such as Yemen, still ensure the United States remains at the top of this list.

(14.) For one prominent example, see POTUS (2011).

(15.) For an extensive discussion of this point, see Reich and Lebow (2014).

(16.) An early entry was Hubert Védrine’s charge in 1998 that the United States had become a “hyperpower” (Védrine, 2008). Also see To Paris, U.S. looks like a hyperpower (1999).

(17.) For a critique, see Reich and Lebow (2014).

(18.) For fatalistic views, see also Traub (2010) and Freidberg (2005). For optimists, see Brooks and Wohlforth (2008) and Wohlforth (1999, 2002). For a summary of realist views, see Layne (2009).

(19.) For pessimistic assessments, see Mosher (2000) and Halper (2010).

(20.) For a related approach, see Weber and Jentleson (2010).