Debating IR

Probing the philosophical underpinnings of the international system and anything else of interest.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hegemony, empire, and the international schoolyard

I found this article on the U.S. as an empire quite interesting in light of our discussions of historical materialism. Usually, we debate whether empire is morally good or bad, not whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous to have one. This article takes the stance that our imperial ambitions have shot us in the foot, as in this statement: "The Bush administration stands guilty of an extraordinary act of imperial overreach which has left the US more internationally isolated than ever before, seriously stretched financially, and guilty of neglect in east Asia and elsewhere."

Since the U.S. isn't yet capable of running the show on multiple continents at once, can it still be called an empire? The words "empire" and "hegemon" get thrown around in my SIS classes, but Brenner's discussion in my Analysis of US Foreign Policy class last semester pointed out that you're not a hegemon unless you can get people to agree with you, and that hegemony is a term most aptly used when countries follow your lead not because you force them into it, but because the fact that you're doing something makes the option look attractive and advantageous to them. Obviously, "empire" is a little harsher, encompassing military forms of coercion as well. But I would hesitate to call the U.S. either of these things. We failed miserably to convince other countries (except the UK and, who could forget, Poland) to go into Iraq; we are consistently condemned in the UNGA for our actions regarding Cuba, when our hegemonic status should theoretically convince these countries that oppressing Cuba would be a fun hobby for them too; and countries increasingly express dislike for our lack of respect for national sovereignty and our hypocrasy concerning human rights.

If hegemony just means that you're more powerful than the countries around you taken individually, then yes, we are a hegemon. If hegemony means that you're influential, then we're a hegemon. But we're certainly not hegemonic by the definition listed above -- just powerful enough that no one really wants to mess with us. And while our methods can be imperial, we don't have enough absolute control to merit the title "empire." But don't despair; while these lofty aspirations may go unfulfilled, at least we're the toughest bully on the playground. (Seems like a letdown, doesn't it?)

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