Iraq and Hegemony

Article excerpt

We REGARD OURSELVES AS "REALISTS" IN A TRADITION OF POLITICAL analysis that extends from Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes to the likes of Raymond Aron and John Mearsheimer. Thus, in arguing for the Tightness of the war in Iraq, we base our argument on what we perceive to be contemporary political reality. That is, we do not assign priority to either abstract moral ideals or current standards of international "legality."

This does not mean, of course, that either is irrelevant. International legality is a constituent of political reality, but (like political opinion) of secondary importance - as we believe the event has clearly shown. The Coalition partners, primarily Britain and the United States, believed it could be useful to seek legitimation for the war in the United Nations security Council. But the case they could make there was limited to whatever legal grounds were antecedently acknowledged as valid by that body, and these excluded some of the most important political considerations.

Similarly, both the moral principles that people actually hold and the ideals they publicly profess, and especially those of relevant decision-makers and executives, are part of political reality, whether or not they reflect a transcendent reality (as we believe valid ones do - some practices really are unjust, some people and regimes really are evil). Moreover, all political actions are undertaken with a particular desired end in view. Hence, the radical separation between what "is" and what people think "ought to be" is not merely unrealistic: it is impossible to put into practice. Many a present "is" began as an "ought." But when ideals, principles, aspirations and expectations are divorced from what is realistically possible, they can be positive obstacles to achieving some good result. And in our opinion, much of the critical analysis of the war, both before and since it was fought, suffers profoundly from a lack of realism about international politics generally.

The single most important feature of global political reality today, and for the foreseeable future, is the hegemony of the United States. And while there are several dimensions to its dominant status, several kinds of power that together constitute its supremacy, it is its military superiority over that of any conceivable aggregation of other states that is the most important. The Iraq problem provides an ideal illustration of hegemony in action. Since realistic political thinking about contemporary world affairs must always bear in mind the hegemonic position of the American regime, it is essential to have some understanding of this peculiar status: what a hegemon is, what responsibilities attend it, what can reasonably be expected of it, what the advantages are of supporting it, how it is influenced by lesser powers, and so on.

The demand for and nature of hegemony

A fully adequate analysis of hegemony, complete with a variety of historical illustrations, is obviously beyond the scope of this brief essay. However, some understanding of this distinct political relationship is essential for assessing not merely the Iraq problem, but the contemporary global situation in general. Now, the classic statement of the need for hegemony in the ordering of states is in Thucydides, and the very fact that he treats a world that is so much simpler than ours has the advantage of requiring one to confront matters truly basic to political life, largely obscured by the complexity of the modern world.

In the opening passages of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides looks back to the remote past of Greece and finds that people then were uprooted, insecure and incapable of engaging in great collective actions. In "the weakness of ancient times," there was little commerce or freedom of naval communication because of the fear of bandits and pirates. People moved around and were "prevented by their want of strength and the absence of mutual intercourse from displaying any collective action. …