Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Hegemonic America: The Arrogance of Power

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Hegemonic America: The Arrogance of Power

Article excerpt

The United States entered the twentieth century as the most powerful country in the world. It has retained this status throughout the century, although arguably the German occupation of Europe in the early 1940s provided a brief interruption. This power has been based on a large, well-educated and fairly homogeneous population, a substantial and well-located territory, the world's premier economy, and a state supported by its people and capable of mobilizing its resources for military conflict when the occasion has demanded.

The purposes of the American state have always provided fertile ground for intellectual debate. Unlike, say, the British or French or German states, the United States has rarely resorted to the formulation of mere national interest when announcing its objectives. The balance of power, the securing of natural frontiers, or the creation of a linguistic imagined community have been beneath the dignity of a state pursuing "a world safe for democracy", a "Free World", or a "New World Order". Of course, critics and scholars alike have been quick to describe the United States' traditional diplomatic pursuit of a sphere of interest in the Americas under the Monroe Doctrine or its successive corollaries, and have even seen the doctrines of the balance of power behind its opposition to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But to a degree, this misses the point. Americans believe in what Kissinger calls American "exceptionalism".(1) The overarching ambition of the U.S. state has marched beyond the grubby confines of the diplomacy of self-interest. This is a state with a global mission.(2)

The character of this mission has been on view three times during this century after each of the American defeats of rival and aspiring hegemonic powers. The key components of the American mission are: free trade between states; removal of obstacles to the movement of capital; the creation of representative political institutions within states, or liberal democracies; and the replacement of power politics by international institutions and the rule of law. The American elite has believed for three generations that these conditions will produce a world of economic growth and international peace from which America, among others, will greatly benefit.

In 1918-19 this vision briefly emerged in the guise of "Wilsonian liberalism" and its pursuit of a liberal world order, sustained by the collective security of the League of Nations. It was defeated by the even older American tradition of isolationism from the affairs of Europe, which led to the U.S. Senate's refusal to endorse the League's Covenant. In 1944-48, after the defeat of the Axis powers, the same impulses led the United States to create the political and economic architecture of the post-war world, centred on the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This attempt to create a global liberal order was resisted by the Soviet Union and its allies for the next half century. As a result, the "Free World" was always partly militarized and severely compromised by the needs of the national security state the United States was forced to create.

The third American attempt to construct a liberal world is that in which we are now living and which is described variously as the New World Order (Bush), a world of freely trading democracies (Clinton), or globalization (most of the rest of us). Its economic policy dimensions are often termed "the Washington consensus", and its military form is NATO (North Atlantic: Treaty Organization) multilateralism, as practised through NATO in Serbia. This design springs from the American defeat of the Soviet bloc ten years ago and its attempt to complete the mission of 1918-19 and 1944-48 - that is, to create a liberal world order from which it will be a major beneficiary.

It should not be doubted that the United States possesses the power and probably the determination to try to enforce this vision on the rest of the international system, particularly since it has powerful allies in this endeavour. …

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