Don’t Discount Hegemony

Response Essays
February 11, 2011

Andrew Mack and his colleagues at the Human Security Report Project are to be congratulated. Not only do they present a study with a striking conclusion, driven by data, free of theoretical or ideological bias, but they also do something quite unfashionable: they bear good news. Social scientists really are not supposed to do that. Our job is, if not to be Malthusians, then at least to point out disturbing trends, looming catastrophes, and the imbecility and mendacity of policy makers. And then it is to say why, if people listen to us, things will get better. We do this as if our careers depended upon it, and perhaps they do; for if all is going to be well, what need then for us?

Our colleagues at Simon Fraser University are brave indeed. That may sound like a setup, but it is not. I shall challenge neither the data nor the general conclusion that violent conflict around the world has been decreasing in fits and starts since the Second World War. When it comes to violent conflict among and within countries, things have been getting better. (The trends have not been linear—Figure 1.1 actually shows that the frequency of interstate wars peaked in the 1980s—but the 65-year movement is clear.) Instead I shall accept that Mack et al. are correct on the macro-trends, and focus on their explanations they advance for these remarkable trends. With apologies to any readers of this forum who recoil from academic debates, this might get mildly theoretical and even more mildly methodological.

Concerning international wars, one version of the “nuclear-peace” theory is not in fact laid to rest by the data. It is certainly true that nuclear-armed states have been involved in many wars. They have even been attacked (think of Israel), which falsifies the simple claim of “assured destruction”—that any nuclear country A will deter any kind of attack by any country B because B fears a retaliatory nuclear strike from A.

But the most important “nuclear-peace” claim has been about mutually assured destruction, which obtains between two robustly nuclear-armed states. The claim is that (1) rational states having second-strike capabilities—enough deliverable nuclear weaponry to survive a nuclear first strike by an enemy—will have an overwhelming incentive not to attack one another; and (2) we can safely assume that nuclear-armed states are rational. It follows that states with a second-strike capability will not fight one another.

Their colossal atomic arsenals neither kept the United States at peace with North Vietnam during the Cold War nor the Soviet Union at peace with Afghanistan. But the argument remains strong that those arsenals did help keep the United States and Soviet Union at peace with each other. Why non-nuclear states are not deterred from fighting nuclear states is an important and open question. But in a time when calls to ban the Bomb are being heard from more and more quarters, we must be clear about precisely what the broad trends toward peace can and cannot tell us. They may tell us nothing about why we have had no World War III, and little about the wisdom of banning the Bomb now.

Regarding the downward trend in international war, Professor Mack is friendlier to more palatable theories such as the “democratic peace” (democracies do not fight one another, and the proportion of democracies has increased, hence less war); the interdependence or “commercial peace” (states with extensive economic ties find it irrational to fight one another, and interdependence has increased, hence less war); and the notion that people around the world are more anti-war than their forebears were. Concerning the downward trend in civil wars, he favors theories of economic growth (where commerce is enriching enough people, violence is less appealing—a logic similar to that of the “commercial peace” thesis that applies among nations) and the end of the Cold War (which end reduced superpower support for rival rebel factions in so many Third-World countries).

These are all plausible mechanisms for peace. What is more, none of them excludes any other; all could be working toward the same end. That would be somewhat puzzling, however. Is the world just lucky these days? How is it that an array of peace-inducing factors happens to be working coincidentally in our time, when such a magical array was absent in the past? The answer may be that one or more of these mechanisms reinforces some of the others, or perhaps some of them are mutually reinforcing. Some scholars, for example, have been focusing on whether economic growth might support democracy and vice versa, and whether both might support international cooperation, including to end civil wars.

We would still need to explain how this charmed circle of causes got started, however. And here let me raise another factor, perhaps even less appealing than the “nuclear peace” thesis, at least outside of the United States. That factor is what international relations scholars call hegemony—specifically American hegemony.

A theory that many regard as discredited, but that refuses to go away, is called hegemonic stability theory. The theory emerged in the 1970s in the realm of international political economy. It asserts that for the global economy to remain open—for countries to keep barriers to trade and investment low—one powerful country must take the lead. Depending on the theorist we consult, “taking the lead” entails paying for global public goods (keeping the sea lanes open, providing liquidity to the international economy), coercion (threatening to raise trade barriers or withdraw military protection from countries that cheat on the rules), or both. The theory is skeptical that international cooperation in economic matters can emerge or endure absent a hegemon. The distastefulness of such claims is self-evident: they imply that it is good for everyone the world over if one country has more wealth and power than others. More precisely, they imply that it has been good for the world that the United States has been so predominant.

There is no obvious reason why hegemonic stability theory could not apply to other areas of international cooperation, including in security affairs, human rights, international law, peacekeeping (UN or otherwise), and so on. What I want to suggest here—suggest, not test—is that American hegemony might just be a deep cause of the steady decline of political deaths in the world.

How could that be? After all, the report states that United States is the third most war-prone country since 1945. Many of the deaths depicted in Figure 10.4 were in wars that involved the United States (the Vietnam War being the leading one). Notwithstanding politicians’ claims to the contrary, a candid look at U.S. foreign policy reveals that the country is as ruthlessly self-interested as any other great power in history.

The answer is that U.S. hegemony might just be a deeper cause of the proximate causes outlined by Professor Mack. Consider economic growth and openness to foreign trade and investment, which (so say some theories) render violence irrational. American power and policies may be responsible for these in two related ways. First, at least since the 1940s Washington has prodded other countries to embrace the market capitalism that entails economic openness and produces sustainable economic growth. The United States promotes capitalism for selfish reasons, of course: its own domestic system depends upon growth, which in turn depends upon the efficiency gains from economic interaction with foreign countries, and the more the better. During the Cold War most of its allies accepted some degree of market-driven growth.

Second, the U.S.-led western victory in the Cold War damaged the credibility of alternative paths to development—communism and import-substituting industrialization being the two leading ones—and left market capitalism the best model. The end of the Cold War also involved an end to the billions of rubles in Soviet material support for regimes that tried to make these alternative models work. (It also, as Professor Mack notes, eliminated the superpowers’ incentives to feed civil violence in the Third World.) What we call globalization is caused in part by the emergence of the United States as the global hegemon.

The same case can be made, with somewhat more difficulty, concerning the spread of democracy. Washington has supported democracy only under certain conditions—the chief one being the absence of a popular anti-American movement in the target state—but those conditions have become much more widespread following the collapse of communism. Thus in the 1980s the Reagan administration—the most anti-communist government America ever had—began to dump America’s old dictator friends, starting in the Philippines. Today Islamists tend to be anti-American, and so the Obama administration is skittish about democracy in Egypt and other authoritarian Muslim countries. But general U.S. material and moral support for liberal democracy remains strong.

The trouble with hegemonic stability theory is that it is difficult to test. The difficulty lies in the unobservable qualities of hegemony: it is about not simply material power—guns and money—but “soft power,” persuasion, ideas, things difficult to quantify and measure. Still, many scholars of international relations continue to think that there is much to the theory. The implications are large. If American hegemony does indeed underpin, at least indirectly, the virtuous macro-trends outlined in Professor Mack’s essay—the overall downward trend in wars and political deaths—then the decline in American hegemony many analysts are now seeing is about much more than the humbling of a superpower.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • A More Secure World? by Andrew Mack

    Andrew Mack outlines a dramatic decline over the last several decades in the number of battlefield deaths and of wars overall. Reason, he argues, for cautious optimism. He reviews several arguments for why this decline has taken place. He dismisses the “nuclear peace” theory, noting that the world’s nuclear powers have been involved in many wars. He suggests that several other things may be driving the trend. First, democracies tend not to fight one another, and there are more democracies now. Second, the gains that nations realize from international trade now far exceed those they could otherwise realize through plunder. In our era, conquest doesn’t pay like it used to. International support of insurgent groups shriveled after the Cold War. And International peacekeeping institutions grew. Mack argues that while each has its partisans, these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Response Essays

  • Security in an Insecure World by Erik Gartzke

    Erik Gartzke argues that modern states have engaged in fewer and less deadly wars because it is now very often more profitable to trade than to plunder. The wave of midcentury wars had two causes; these wars were often either anticolonial conflicts, in which the great powers effectively surrendered their strategies of plunder, or ideological proxy conflicts stemming from the Cold War (or, of course, a mixture of both). Yet neither cause obtains much anymore. Today’s wars tend to be between poorer, less militarily capable countries, with the great powers acting in a policing role. Whether this trend continues will depend to a great extent on the trajectory of the economically rising east Asian states.

  • A More Secure World? In Some Ways Yes; In Some Ways No by Bartosz Stanislawski

    Bartosz Stanislawski offers a mixed assessment of today’s human security picture. Although wars have become fewer and less deadly, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Nonstate actors are of particular concern today, in that, while states’ behavior may be modeled rationally, groups with an eccentric ideological or religious motivation cannot be so modeled. The result, obviously, is insecurity. The role of the mass media is also important, in his view. While much progress has been made, and while that progress is underreported, the media tend strongly to report violent conflict in a way that fills up the 24-hour news cycle. The result can be unjustified pessimism. Neither it nor its counterpart, unjustified optimism, is warranted.

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