Snarky Behavior

Providing Perpetual Peace: A Defense of American Hegemony

December 7, 2007 · Leave a Comment

The following paper was written for my Conceptual Foundations of International Politics class.  I am in the midst of finals, and am too lazy to post anything original.  Note to anyone doing “Google Research”… don’t copy this.

In his sixth thesis on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Immanuel Kant (14) states:

Man is an animal which, if it lives among others of its kind, requires a master. For he certainly abuses his freedom with respect to other men, and although as, a reasonable being he wishes to have a law which limits the freedom of all, his selfish animal impulses tempt him, where possible, to exempt himself from them. He thus requires a master, who will break his will and force him to obey a will that is universally valid, under which each can be free. But whence does he get this master? Only from the human race. But then the master is himself an animal, and needs a master.


Robert Kagan (348) calls this reality of the human condition a “Kantian paradox.”  As it is applied to international theory, “the only solution to the immoral horrors of the Hobbesian world [is] the creation of a world government,” but “that the ‘state of universal peace’ made possible by world government [is] an even greater threat to human freedom than the Hobbesian international order, inasmuch as such a government, with its monopoly of power, would become ‘the most horrible despotism.’”  Kagan’s solution to the Kantian paradox, at least in the case of Europe (which he classifies as living in a “post-historical paradise” (333)), is the provision of security by the part of the United States on Europe’s (and presumably, the world’s) behalf.  This assumption is based on the logic that the “less profound the security competition, the less likely is war” (Mearsheimer 42).  In this paper I will argue a liberal perspective that the preferred organization of the international system, in the pursuit of securing a Kantian “perpetual peace” for the world order, is a unipolar one lead by the United States, provided that the US also practices self-restraint in its exercise of power, in order to maintain its legitimacy as a unipolar hegemon. 

The foundation of legitimacy behind what is today described as Pax Americana (Khalidi) stems historically from the outcomes of the Second World War, in which the United States established an enduring compromise with the shattered European nations to exercise and sustain its advantageous position of military and economic power based on a pledge of restraint in kind, for permission to protect (Sestanovich).  John Ickenberry (202) calls this compromise a “constitutional settlement”, one which the United States agreed to reluctantly, given its traditional preference for isolationism in international relations (with the notable exceptions of Latin America and the South Pacific (Khalidi)).  America’s reluctance to assume the “dual orders” of containment of a rising Soviet superpower and establishment of a liberal political order built around “economic openness, political reciprocity, and multilateral management” was ironic in that it established a recognizable legitimacy to lead the international system as a “benign hegemon” (Ickenberry 160, 198).  The United States thus engaged in the construction of multilateral, globally integrated liberal institutions such as the United Nations, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the dual intention of sustaining its own position of prominence, while at once limiting the returns to power (including in many ways, its own).  These steps were vital in preventing future major power wars, and to promoting the relative global peace, stability and prosperity that much of the developed world has enjoyed in the post-war period (Sestanovich).  The post-war power arrangements made by the United States are therefore relatively easily justifiable within their historical context, given the mutually beneficial nature of the “constitutional settlement,” and the natural emergence of a bi-polar international system.  However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in a uniquely unipolar moment:  “In the 1990s, like a victor in a great war, the United States faced choices about how to use its newly acquired power” (Ickenberry 233). 

Indeed, the political vacuum left behind in the international balance of power by the dissolution of the Soviet state certainly presented the United States with an opportunity to either push forward as a global empire, withdraw into a “whole-hearted embrace of liberal multiculturalism,” (Hurrell 12), or broaden its sphere of influence in a limited fashion by “pursuing an institution-building agenda” (Ickenberry 234).  It is important to note that the US under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush chose the latter path by expanding NATO; creating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and World Trade Organization (Ickenberry 234); and pushing the European establishment for a full reunification of Germany (Sestanovich).  Such actions of self-restraint and institutional self-binding were consistent with the expectations of a rational hegemon seeking to undercut others’ perceptions of threat (Ickenberry 20), while simultaneously shaping those institutions in ways that closely reflected US interests (Hurrell 12).  The result, in neorealist terms, was both a reorganization of the international structure (bipolar to unipolar) and the international system (redistribution of capabilities from competing blocs to a sole superpower) (Waltz 140).  As was the case following WWII, American hegemonic primacy was and continued to be considered legitimate by the rest of the world, for several reasons.  First, the United States had garnered tremendous legitimacy as the victor of the Cold War, as embodied by Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant declaration of “The End of History.”  Second, the withdrawal of sovereigns in the areas of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia “left in their wake a host of groups – ethnic, religious, cultural – of greater or lesser cohesion,” that, in the absence of an American security guarantee, would otherwise pursue “salient windows of opportunity” via aggressive-offensive internal and external power struggles in an environment of instability and insecurity (Posen 28).  Third, as Robert Jervis notes, “The US usually [gave] considerable weight to its partners views, and indeed its own preferences [were] often influenced by theirs, as was true in Kosovo” (Jervis 7).   Fourth, “US power not only preclude[d] effective opposition, but also increase[d] the incentives to bandwagoning” by weaker states looking to benefit within a system characterized by hegemonic capabilities to control and distribute global commodities, including gas and oil  (Hurrell 12).  Fifth, as mentioned earlier by Kagan, and expounded upon (less condescendingly) by Jervis, the American security provision permitted “America’s allies [to] not have to fear attacks from each other:  their militaries—especially Germany’s – were so truncated that they could not fight a major war without American assistance or attack each other without undertaking a military build-up that would have a great deal of warning” (Jervis, 7).  Put simply, a benign US hegemony effectively eliminated the security dilemma for much of the developed world, and resulted in a relative stability that most closely resembled the Kantian “perpetual peace” introduced at the beginning of this paper.

            It certainly can – and has – been argued that while the United States may have emerged after the Second World War “reluctantly,” the expectation of it remaining a “benign” and self-restrained hegemon has always been untenable.  States rationally look to maximize their power.  (Mearsheimer 31).  Indeed, Kagan’s neo-conservative “solution” to the Kantian paradox – unipolar provision of global security at the least expense to human freedom, which I will call “The American Leviathan” – seems incongruous prima facie with the neorealist (as tempered by liberal institutional) benefits argued previously of such a system, at least in the long-term.  Whether by convention of the unipolar structure, or by intention of the superpower itself, the United States is today a de facto empire (Ferguson 4). This certainly does not imply that the US projects its power in the same way toward all nations, only that it dominates certain regions in order to sustain a power position of leverage in the distribution of collective goods (Mearsheimer 41).  Thus, while the status quo distribution of capabilities may be satisfactory today (insofar as it results in relative peace, prosperity and security), it is unwise to assume that major power rivals will accept such an arrangement in perpetuity, especially given the realist power maximizing considerations.  We have already witnessed in the twenty-first century that the “present trajectory in which the United States maintains hegemony rejects significant limitations on its freedom of action” (Jervis, 11).  The refusal to participate in or abide by global initiatives such as the Geneva Conventions, the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court, and the unilateral decision to engage in preventive war and regime change in Iraq, all reflect efforts by the United States to resist being the “tied down Gulliver” (Hurrell 8) of international institutions.  But, it is argued: “hard unilateralism and the emphasis on the threat and use of military force can make sense only on the assumption that the dominant response of weaker states will be straightforward submission […] or the desire to negotiate.” (Hurrell 12), which is in itself an arrogant and dangerous assumption and overestimation of capabilities.  Over time, the “constitutional settlement” ceases to be agreeable to all parties, and the relationship becomes one of coercion instead of mutual cooperation.  If then, as is argued, the current system of hard hegemonic unilateralism is unsustainable; we must consider alternative arrangements of power to arrive at a theoretically preferred structure.  The neo-realist perspective as embodied by Waltz states that there exist only two alternatives:  bipolar or multipolar (Waltz 6).  Multipolar systems are inferior because “uncertainties about the comparative capabilities of states multiply as numbers grow, and because estimates of the cohesiveness and strength of coalitions are hard to make” (Waltz 6).  Indeed there exists no historical or empirical evidence to argue that a multipolar structure would be any more peaceful or prosperous than the current arrangement.  Neorealism also obviously rejects other liberal multipolar theoretical alternatives that are based on democratic peace theory and which assert the sublimation of national autonomy to supranational interests, be they economic or political (as proposed by Jervis (14)).

We are left then, with Waltz’ assertion that a bipolar structure is the most pacifying arrangement in world order (Waltz 6).  In the current context, such a structure might predictably arise from the rise of China or China and Russia as regional hegemons (Jervis 12).  Waltz’ reasoning for assigning eminence to bipolarity over hegemony is its possibility for external balancing.  He states:  “The vice to which great powers easily succumb in a multipolar world is inattention; in a bipolar world, overreaction; in a unipolar world, overextension” (13).  Of these vices, overreaction is the most manageable because it is balanced both internally and externally, whereas a unipolar hegemon, without other great powers to check its expansion, is balanced only internally.  The argument logically concludes that “moments” of unipolarity are not durable, because other states will predictably balance against the strongest.  What Waltz’ theory fails to explain in the present context is why, “for their parts, the other members of the security community seek to harness and constrain American power, not displace it” (Jervis 7).  That is to say, why has there not yet arisen a legitimate challenge to the artificial imposition of hierarchy implied by American empire?  One might explain this phenomenon as a reflection of American power itself:  that the significant entry barriers that checking American military power might entail would be too great, and that “others accept the [status quo] to keep their own defense spending very low, especially because the alternative to American dominated stability might be worse.”  (Hurrell 8).  However true it may be, this explanation seems insufficient.  Why then do these states continue to participate in liberal institutions?  Why do they then ally themselves in America’s global war on terror?  To some degree, the participation of other powers in American established and internationally integrated liberal arrangements demonstrates that American hegemony must be accepted as legitimate through liberal and constructivist lenses.  The participation by other powers may be reluctant, but so then, as Ickenberry argues, was the systemic creation by the world’s leader.  It is thus interesting to note that while Waltz’ theory of stability crumbled with the Berlin Wall, it stands stronger today in a unipolar world: “Stable systems are self-reinforcing, because understanding others’ behavior, making agreements with them, and policing the agreements becomes easier through continued experience” (136).  Because America has in many ways acted as a responsible steward, as a “benign hegemon” overseeing Pax Americana for the duration of its “unipolar moment,” its legitimacy to lead remains relatively unchallenged, the world more prosperous, and the risks to major power war less than they were previously under the Cold War bipolar system.  Certainly there are increased risks of asymmetric warfare and terrorism in such a structure, but as long as non-proliferation remains a cardinal priority, the threats of terrorism, while unpredictably dangerous, are not existential (as they were during the Cold War (Khalidi)).

Of course, as Khalidi observes, the United States did not entirely decide how it should behave as a unipolar hegemon until 2001, when it radically changed its National Security doctrine (Khalidi).  That is to say, it is too early to dismiss neorealist predictions of unipolar excess giving rise to external balances and inevitable major power conflicts.  The idea of “legitimacy” is in many ways a constructivist concept that cannot be properly addressed using realist tools.  However, the fact remains that the American hegemony continues to be legitimate, and should continue to remain so as long as it “recognizes the extent and potential of its soft power and acts judiciously on that recognition” (Hurrell 5).  Moreover, as Jervis argues, “The American hegemony will surely eventually decay but increased European and Japanese strength need not lead to war, contrary to the expectations of standard theories of hegemony and great power rivalry” (Jervis 7).  It is important not to undervalue the constraining nature of the American domestic makeup, which complicates “natural” imperial tendencies based on a “self-image that precludes it for seeing itself for what it is, in part because of the popularity of values of equality and supra-nationalism” (Jervis 11).  While these values can certainly be manipulated in the Wilsonian and Jacksonian traditions (Mead 23), as they have been by the current neo-conservative administration, they remain a pacifying force for “good” (as perceived by other states), consistent with democratic peace theory.  While the Kantian paradox remains, the Pax Americana version of perpetual peace, provided by an American Leviathan serving in the role of “surrogate government” (Waltz, 196) at the international level, continues to be the preferred system of the international order.   


Works CitedFerguson, Niall.  Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.Hurrell, Andrew. “Hegemony, Liberalism and World Order: What space for would-be great powers?” International Affairs 82, I (2006): 1-19.

Ickenberry, John G. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

—“American grand strategy in the age of terror.” Survival 43:4 (Winter 2001/2). 19-34.

Jervis, Robert.  “Theories of War in an Era of Great Power Peace:  Presidential Address, American Political Association 2001.”  American Political Science Review 96, No. 1. March 2002. 1-14.

Kagan, Robert.  “Power and Weakness.” Policy Review No. 113 (June 2002): 333-350.

Kant, Immanuel. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” On History, Trans. Lewis White Beck. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.  1-24.

Khalidi, Rashid. “Alternative Views of American Primacy.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 8, 2007.

Mead, Walter Russell. “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy.” The National Interest Issue 58 (Winter 1999/2000). 5-27.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Posen, Barry.  “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.”  Survival 35:1 Spring 2003. 27-47.

Sestanovich, Stephen. “American Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 1, 2007.

Waltz, Kenneth.  “Structural realism following the Cold War.” International Security Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000). 1-28.

Theory of International Politics. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1979. 

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