Hegemony and Its Discontents

Matt Yglesias rebuts a Nation piece applauding Iran’s move towards nuclear armament, and encouraging other non-Western nations to follow in its footsteps. Unfortunately, Matt only deals with the humanitarian consequences (fewer social services, massively increased war casualties) of this position, not its motivation. The Nation is clearly motivated by a hatred of America’s position as the world’s hegemon, and desires to see the country step down from this role. This is an unfortunately common view among leftists. There is a pervasive belief that America’s foreign policy has only negative consequences, and that it only serves to damage the world, not lead it forward. This belief is completely and utterly wrong.
Let’s look at who led the world before America. From 1945-1989, we shared the role with the Soviet Union, a genocidal, aggressive, impoverished tyranny. From 1815-1914, the leader was clearly Britain, a somewhat-constitutional monarchy with racist and imperialistic tendencies. From about 1800-1815, it was Napoleon’s France, a relatively enlightened empire. And we can go on and on. The fact of the matter is that America is the first real, free democracy to lead the world. We don’t take colonies, and haven’t since the Spanish-American war. We allow our allies autonomy. We don’t seek territorial expansion. The world has never had a better country at its helm.
But none of the countries I just mention are real alternatives to American domination anymore. The U.S.S.R. has broken up, and its successor, Russia, is much smaller in both area and population, and weaker economically, diplomatically, and militarily. Britain is small, in all senses of the word; it has a small economy, little soft power, and a much weaker military than the United States. France is in a similar situation as Britain. The two countries that could even conceivably challenge America – China and India – aren’t there yet either. While China has many more troops than we do, and India’s not far behind us, neither country spends anywhere near as much on its military as we do, and we crush them in turns of GDP.
So there is no alternative to American leadership. This isn’t really a defense of American hegemony; it’s just a statement of fact. But even if India or China were capable, as they appear to be becoming, of taking charge, should they? The answer with China is an obvious no. It’s a dictatorship that looks out for its national interest and its national interest only. India is a slightly less adamant no. It’s a democracy, but not as sturdy as the American democracy. But what really scares me is that it still fights over land; after all, what’s Kashmir about? This leads me to view India as very much stuck in the old realpolitik position that the U.S. has crawled out of. A humanitarian approach is much preferable.
But is America taking that approach? To a degree, yes. Fighting Hitler was not in our national interest; we did it out of hatred of the horrific effects of fascism in general and Nazism in particular. Nor was combatting the Soviet Union in our national interest; it’s likely that a Henry Wallace presidency, as was a real possibility in 1943 and ’44, would have lead to further friendship and cooperation between the two nations. But instead we fought them, both to ensure that Western Europe didn’t fall to Communism, and to free Eastern Europe and Asia from it. We have continued this tradition after the end of Cold War. Bosnia and Kosovo were the first-ever interventions the U.S. undertook to stop genocide. The war in Iraq, though arbitrary and misguided, did at least have the ideal of democracy in mind.
But we can, and should, do more. We can undertake Marshall plan-scale projects to end world poverty, such as the plan developed by Jeffrey Sachs. We can use our military might to intervene and stop genocides and ethnic cleansings. We can use our economic and diplomatic power to ease nations toward democracy, and ensure human rights. The U.S. has a grand opportunity to use its unprecedented power for tremendous good, and we should not let it pass us by.

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