Indispensable Power: Hegemonic Tendencies in a Globalized World. (Perspectives on the United States)

By Zarif, Javad | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Indispensable Power: Hegemonic Tendencies in a Globalized World. (Perspectives on the United States)


Zarif, Javad, Harvard International Review


Contemporary international politics continues to be characterized by a widening rift between the United States and the rest of the world, even Europe. This division is a direct result of Washington's inability, despite its overwhelming military might, to achieve its desired outcomes unilaterally. The trend continues despite the almost unanimous global sympathy with the US population following the tragic barbarism of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

According to recent polls, a growing majority in Europe is openly critical of US policies and desires a reassessment of the type and extent of Europe's partnership with the United States. During June and July 2002, Western allies of the United States vehemently opposed US policy during a showdown in the UN Security Council over the International Criminal Court (ICC). British Foreign Minister Jack Straw dismissed US President George Bush's "axis of evil" characterization of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran as domestic electioneering. Meanwhile, the gap between US and European approaches to the lingering Palestinian question continues to widen.

This rift stems from a tendency on the part of an increasingly predominant voice within the US administration to go it alone, thereby confusing unilateralism with leadership. The United States tends to ignore the concerns of the rest of the world, setting standards of right and wrong that align with US interests. One prime example is the US rejection of treaty-based multilateral verification mechanisms on weapons of mass destruction while pursuing military pre-emption based solely on its own findings. Similarly, the United States refuses to cooperate with other countries on environmental issues while polluting more than any other country. Washington also enforces US law extraterritorially, applies sanctions against non-conforming countries, imposes economic and social policies on other states, pampers US businesses with subsidies while imposing high trade barriers on foreign goods, adopts unjust double standards in crisis situations, and intimidates other countries into accepting and implementing US policies. The Bush administration has cavalierly pulled out of four international conventions in less than a year: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Rome Statute creating the ICC, and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. These actions have seriously undermined the international system and the interests of every law-abiding state.

The path pursued by the United States is increasingly distancing Washington from the global mainstream, which affects almost all aspects of US foreign policy and, in turn, poses fundamental risks to the international system. Given the unique global position of the United States, this trend seems to be the underlying difficulty facing the international community. It has already given rise to conflicting conceptions of how the most essential public goods--security, peace, environment, health, trade, and aid--can be provided. Broadly speaking, it seems that on these issues, the United States and the rest of the world stand on opposing sides of the divide. If unchecked, the gulf may widen, adversely affecting international security and well-being.

Reacting to Hegemony

The above-mentioned trend in US policy is at odds with the current international system and is thus not sustainable, even considering the current global distribution of power. A glance at the world reveals that the United States, despite its military might, lacks the necessary ability to single-handedly bring about the results it desires in crises and major issues on the international agenda. Several instances since the end of the Cold War have clearly shown that for the United States to deal effectively with any major international issue, it needs the cooperation of at least some of the major regional and global powers.

In such a world system, it appears to be quite natural for other major powers to join in resisting attempted dominion by the strongest. …

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