What is a hegemon? Is the United States a global hegemon?

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Fiona Fairbairn

What is a hegemon?  Is the United States a global hegemon?

A hegemon promotes leadership in the international system and it possesses sufficient capacity to fulfil this role.  Other states thereafter define their relationship with the hegemon by acquiescing, opposing or being indifferent to its leadership.  However, to establish hegemonial control, there must be enough acquiescence, known as ‘hegemonic consent’.

The concept of hegemony bears a strong resemblance to the concept of power.  Crude realism tends to operationalise hegemony strictly in economic or military terms.  Although this is important, in the analysis of whether the US is a global hegemony, the ability to lead (derived from what the US stands for), as well as how it seeks to achieve its goals will be examined.

There are many reasons for arguing the US hegemony is clear and has increased, but there are many valid and defendable points countering this.  Whether the world is a unipolar one is an issue which has dominated a great deal of post-September 11th discussion.  However, this essay will analyse the relationship between the US and hegemony throughout the period since 1985, focussing though mainly on its current stance.

It is of importance at an early stage to note how the ‘paradox of hegemony’ creates difficulties in the analysis of the international power system.  There exists a trade-off when making decisions between taking unilateral interests in order to promote its self-interest and its aspiration to uphold long-term systemic stability due to its international responsibilities.  

International institutions reflect universal values which yield consensus.  This is necessary for the derivation of the hegemon’s power.  Therefore, when a hegemon is forced to conform to international institution norms and rules, this would appear to show that the power is not a hegemon as it is being forced to put its parochial domestic interests back on the shelf.  However, this is not necessarily the case as part of a hegemon’s role to promote home interests is constrained by its responsibilities and obligations to provide leadership for the system as a whole.  So this begs the question as to why, when these international institutions promote hegemon interests by creating pluralist decision-making forums, they are sometimes undermined as Bush is threatening (in the last resort) with the current Iraq dilemma with reference to the UN Security Council.  This is because in particular circumstances, the principles promoted by e.g. the UN are inconsistent with immediate preferences.

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A starting point is to use the traditional view of International Relations and to look at the distribution of material power.  Mustanduno said that to direct attention on a range of power attributes leads to the conclusion that the United States is now in a class by itself.  The United States surpasses all other countries in terms of military power and preparedness, economic and technological capacity, resource endowment and political stability.  All other powers are limited or asymmetrical in some way.  In Bound To Lead, Nye backs this up by saying that the US is the only state who ...

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