Southeast Asia-US Relations: Hegemony or Hierarchy?

By Misalucha, Charmaine G. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Southeast Asia-US Relations: Hegemony or Hierarchy?


Misalucha, Charmaine G., Contemporary Southeast Asia


At first glance, international relations seem to be mostly about the interactions between and among states. While this proposition does seem to carry significant weight, it glosses over other interfaces that take place in the international arena, such as transnational activities that involve actors other than states (e.g., non-governmental organizations and multinational corporations). More problematically, it obscures the asymmetric character of the actors that prompt such interactions. To be sure, scholars have already addressed the issue of the inequality of states and the types of international rule that result from such uneven relations. Muthiah Alagappa proposes a typology with anarchy and world government at opposite ends of the spectrum; in between lie what he calls the instrumental, normative-contractual and solidarist orders. (1) Barry Buzan posits the idea of superpower overlay in the context of regional security complexes to describe how the presence of external Great Powers conditions, and to a certain extent hampers, local security dynamics. (2) Employing the English School, Adam Watson uses the image of a pendulum to describe how international society "swings" between centralization and independence, or how it "tightens" or "loosens" over time. (3) Similarly, Ole Waever examines international relations as concentric circles consisting of--from the innermost to the outermost circle --direct rule, dominion, hegemony, and independent states and other imperial structures. (4)

This being the case, the subject of international orders still raises several questions. First, from where do these types of rule come? Constructivists suggest that they arise from the language games-rules logic of Nicholas Onuf. (5) This "paradigm of rule" is founded on the intersubjectivity of social relations, which is to say that actors, by virtue of their language (understood here as both verbal and textual), construct the rules of their interactions that through time and practice become "institutionalized" as a type of rule or international order. In Onuf's analysis, these "institutionalized" orders may take the form of hegemony or hierarchy.

Hegemony is reminiscent of the early Cold War era in Eastern Europe when "... the position of the ranking state is so overwhelming that it can dispense with the chain of command and cast directive-rules in a benign form as mere suggestions, and still have its rule effectuated". (6) Hierarchy, meanwhile, may be understood as a more stringent version of hegemony in the sense that the threat of or the use of force plays a significant role. Since the arrangement of units in a hierarchic relationship is likened to a bureaucracy, i.e., the bottom rung is accountable to the one above it, it thus follows that dominant actors may exact "punishment" from subordinates should the latter deviate from the wishes of the former. (7) Furthermore, one may also argue that the distinction between hegemony and hierarchy centres on the question of legitimacy. In a hegemonic rule, the dominant actor's position is accepted by subordinates with little or no question, and is thus considered "legitimate". Conversely, hierarchy implies that subordinates are not yet convinced of the legitimacy of the dominant actor's rule, which may explain why they sometimes challenge or display "deviant" behaviour towards the more powerful state. Consequently, the dominant actor's recourse to the threat of or the use of force is both an indication of its lack of legitimacy (i.e., its inability to keep its subordinates under control), as well as a desire to achieve it (because the monopoly of the use of force conveys that it is able to consolidate its position above its subordinates).

A second question that may be raised in regard to the existence of different types of rule in the international system is about how they are maintained. The Constructivist logic is germane: scholars loyal to using language as a method of analysis would argue that which language games, and ergo, which type of rule, become salient depend on how states that are parties to an interaction acknowledge or reject the veracity of the "games" they play. …

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