Hegemony and Multilateralism

By Price, Richard | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Hegemony and Multilateralism


Price, Richard, International Journal


I INTRODUCTION

Does US strategy as a hegemon, epitomized in the eyes of many by its war versus Iraq, represent a significant and lasting change in the structure of global politics? Are analysts like Robert Kagan right that contemporary US strategy is more the inevitable product of hegemony and less the choice of a particular administration? Getting this question right is of paramount importance for foreign ministries around the world in ascertaining how to avoid, on the one hand, over-reacting to the transient aberrations of an extreme administration, or failing to face up to longer-term changes, on the other. Do recent events demonstrate that strategies for security as pursued by many countries other than the US are in peril, such that decisions to go ahead with multilateral initiatives like the landmines convention and International Criminal Court (ICC) without the US are mistaken?

Without claiming there is a perfectly clean revolutionary break from previous US foreign policy strategy, there has been a distinctive change in US strategy under the Bush administration. This change includes an explicit embrace of an agenda of hegemonic superiority as the end, a rejection of multilateralism as a presumptive approach to security in favour of unilateralism (and bilateralism), and an avowed embrace of preemptive (better termed preventive) military action as means. There are many implications of the Bush administration's strategy for world politics, though here I confine myself to an examination of two interrelated developments that are front and centre: 1) what are the implications of US strategy with regard to the control and prevention of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and 2) what conclusions can we draw about the viability of multilateral international security institutions like the UN, ICC, or landmines convention? These concerns follow from what are arguably the most revolutionary planks of the Bush administration's strategy; namely 1) the contention that the Cold War strategy of deterrence is outmoded in an era of WMD and terrorism; and 2) the administration's frequent and blunt recourse to unilateralism, epitomized by Bush's challenge at the UN in September of 2003 that the UN would become an irrelevant talk-shop and go the way of the League of Nations if it did not enforce its own security council resolutions by approving war against Iraq.

This article proceeds by first examining the extent to which key features of US strategy under the Bush administration are policy proclivities of a particular administration or structural features of a hegemon. I then examine the implications of US hegemony for design strategies for multilateral institutions. This sets up an examination of what the evidence so far suggests regarding the success of US strategy with regard to WMD, and the success of coalitions of states to proceed with initiatives like the landmines convention and ICC without the hegemon. I conclude by addressing the significance of US domestic politics and threat perceptions for these issues, since they provide a potential avenue for productive responses to the Bush administration's strategy that are often overlooked by analyses that are focused at the international level.

II US STRATEGY: INEVITABLE UNILATERALISM?

Which elements of contemporary US strategy are proclivities (or, for critics, pathologies) of the Bush administration, and which are more enduring features likely to outlast any one particular administration? Are these tendencies inevitable features of a hegemonic power? Robert Kagan, in his essay "Power and weakness," has suggested just this, that US tendencies and differences with others are the inevitable product of power differences:

Today's transatlantic problem, in short, is not a George Bush problem. It is a power problem. American military strength has produced a propensity to use that strength. Europe's military weakness has produced a perfectly understandable aversion to the exercise of military power. …

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