Why U.S. Hegemonic Ambitions Are Failing

The current hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. government go back to the heavy influence of neoconservative thought that began to be expressed during the Clinton administration. The neocons realized that the U.S. was the sole remaining superpower and they aimed for the U.S. to achieve global hegemony with power as a foundation. Hegemony requires a military component and the U.S. government had it. What is more natural, thought the neocons, than for the U.S. to build up its global hegemony with its military power as a foundation?

Hegemony has other essential components, however, since no state or hegemon ever rules entirely by coercion or the threat of force, that path of control being far too costly and causing far too much resistance among subjects. Hegemonists require a degree of legitimation among large groups of people and among states that come under their sway. That in turn requires acceptance or even support among these peoples or states. This comes about by persuasion that focuses on some ideologies that are acceptable to the subject parties. Certain bases of acceptance must be present from some standpoints, be they political, economic, racial, ethnic, religious, scientific, artistic, ideological or whatever.

The neocon hegemonic thrust found expression in Bush’s attack on Iraq and his anti-terror campaign. Anti-terrorism became one of the legitimizing rallying points of the drive for U.S. hegemony. That became one of the bases of acceptance. A global war on terror was thought to provide an entry point by which U.S. global leadership and dominance could be asserted and attained. This seemed like an ideal way of gaining legitimacy. Whoever was not counted as for this goal would be counted as against it and regarded as an obstacle or worse, evil and pro-terrorist. Also, all sorts of crimes and activities of other states and groups, even domestic ones, could easily be labeled as terrorist, thereby widening the possibilities of using force.

In practice, this anti-terror idea was mainly put into practice by combining it with the superior military force of the U.S. The neocon emphasis was always on power and its application, and neocons gave little thought to its use by the U.S. ever leading to failure. Even today, they still think the same way. When power seems to fail, they always call for even greater doses of power to be applied. In their hearts, they do not really understand that hegemony cannot rely solely on force.

But when power was applied in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, success eluded the neocons and the U.S. government. Wars dragged on or forces thought to be defeated regained strength or new forces emerged. The U.S. did not gain acceptance and a basis for hegemony among the native populations based on anti-terrorism because they did not broadly buy into the anti-terror story. They didn’t see themselves as being rescued by U.S. forces. They may or may not have been experiencing oppression to various degrees, but they didn’t welcome U.S. forces with open arms as their liberators. Terrorism was not a problem for Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria prior to the interference of the U.S. Therefore it could not serve as a rallying point for their peoples. Rather, these peoples viewed the U.S. military forces as uninvited intruders or occupiers. There was no way that the U.S. could realize its hegemonic ambitions in these places by reference to an ideology of anti-terror. The most that such an ideology could achieve was to persuade the American public of the justice of the aggressions of the U.S. government. This was useful to the government but miles apart from the neocon goal of hegemony over foreign nations. Furthermore, as the costs of these aggressions came to be realized, they would tend to undermine the support of the American masses.

The neocons, Bush and Obama had a second ideological basis in their attempts to bring foreign peoples into their fold by their acceptance and not by brute force. That appeal was that they would free these peoples from their Family of Secrets: The... Baker, Russ Best Price: null Buy New $10.99 (as of 12:40 EST - Details) governments, whom the U.S. regarded as dictatorial, and they’d bring them liberty. They’d bring them rights of many kinds. They’d help institute new systems of voting and government. Women wouldn’t have to accept an inferior status. Whatever perceptions of injustice, real or imagined, that neocons believed existed in these countries, democracy would alleviate the problems. They’d bring democracy. Democracy, like anti-terror, was and still is an important rallying cry to make American interference acceptable to the broad masses of people in these lands and others. And perhaps accompanying that cry is the promise of greater economic prosperity by more greatly integrating these economies into the world economy or the West’s financial and trading system. The rhetoric of spreading democracy and rights also served the dual purpose of holding on to the acceptance of these wars among the American media and masses, just as the anti-terror appeal did. Americans like the idea of liberation, of liberating oppressed peoples.

Put into practice, this democracy appeal fell completely to pieces in country after country as religious, tribal and ethnic divisions came to the fore after the U.S. military succeeded in deposing the old governments. In every country exposed directly to U.S. forces or to the U.S. arming and training of native forces (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria), no stable democracy, no nationwide democracy, and no democratic peace have emerged. Deadly contests and rivalries for power remain.

Although democracy seemed to neocons like a reasonable basis for acceptance of U.S. hegemony, it failed on several grounds. The neocons failed to understand the societies that they were invading and/or undermining. They didn’t understand their laws, ways and their divisions. It was thought that bringing down the existing governments would suffice.  However, these societies had no core group of democrats that could persuade everyone to form a new democratic state and live happily ever after. The U.S. invasions encouraged terrorists and terrorism, both directly and indirectly. The U.S. military played off one group against another. The region was infused with new and more sophisticated weapons. The direct attacks by U.S. forces encouraged armed resistance from many among the native populations.

As the anti-terror strain of thought failed to support the hegemonic ambitions of neocon/U.S. government thought, so did the pro-democracy concept. The most basic and heartfelt reliance of neocon thought was on power (“shock and awe”) as expressed by the U.S. military. It was not on the soft power without which no government can sustain its power to govern. That soft power depends on the acceptance by native populations. They have to think that what the government is doing is by and large sensible in order to support it, even if their notions of what is sensible are distorted or mistaken. If the American interlopers could not generate that acceptance directly by their own edicts and measures or indirectly through new puppet governors and intermediaries, then the hegemonic missions would fail. Generations: The Histo... Strauss, William Best Price: $2.03 Buy New $13.78 (as of 03:50 EST - Details)

Hegemony must have some grounds for acceptance among those governed by the hegemon. At times, the U.S. has failed so badly that it has resorted to paying tribesman directly. It has created a temporary economic inducement in both Iraq and Afghanistan by this means. This showed that it had failed to find other grounds. At other times, its failure was signaled by so-called surges in which it had to re-introduce more troops to control the situation. Failing to generate non-coercive means of gaining acceptance, the U.S. substituted coercive means.

This is what is happening again in Iraq regarding the Islamic State. The neocon Republicans argue that Obama drew down American forces in Iraq too quickly and now must send them back in. But even if Obama had kept those forces there, their continued presence would still have signified a failure of hegemonic ambitions to have found a non-coercive basis, as their re-introduction against IS also signifies.

We may say that Bush’s failures to achieve his neocon ambitions rest on poor understanding of the societies invaded, naive expectations concerning democracy, an excessive reliance on military force, an exaggerated belief that foreign peoples would benefit from an American presence and grasp it with open arms, an oversimplified understanding of the difficulties of creating a new and viable state, a lack of understanding of the behavior of American armed forces in their relations with native populations, and various tactical blunders all along the way. In terms of creating and sustaining hegemony over new lands, he and the neocons relied far too heavily on military means, believing that American superpower status would win the day. He and the neocons failed to understand that extending hegemony requires a great deal of soft power and they had developed no firm grounds for gaining the acceptance of native peoples. Anti-terror and democracy didn’t suffice.

Ukraine and Russia provide the most recent examples of neocon policy, as effectuated by Obama. The thinking shown in this case goes back to the presidencies of Clinton and Bush.

The neocon goal, the hegemonic goal, was advanced enormously with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. All the U.S. had to do was bring the new Russian Federation into the western orbit and it would have been well on its way to opening Russia fully to western capital and western influences. This project was entirely feasible. Russia had its share of democrats among its elite and still does; this embraces its major leaders, including Putin. It had numerous and important economic relations with European countries and still does. The masses did not share these democratic aspirations as fully as its government, but neither were they rebellious. Medvedev is the most A Foreign Policy of Fr... Paul, Ron Best Price: $0.25 Buy New $8.85 (as of 06:20 EST - Details) western-oriented leader. Putin has consistently reached westwards to Europe, but he also pays more attention to mass sentiment and thus is more sensitive to the status of Russia as an independent and unique power. He reaches toward the west economically but he won’t kowtow and he appeals to certain cultural and religious senses of his public.

Instead of reaching out to the new Russia and the new Russian leaders, the U.S. and the EU decided to bring the eastern European nations into the EU and into NATO. This was despite the fact that a gradual and peaceful entry of Russia into western ways was possible. Greater integration with the West was possible and was occurring despite NATO’s expansion.

It is really a separate story to understand how NATO succeeded in expanding its role. This was pushed under several aggressive leaders, to the point where NATO has prosecuted warfare in Afghanistan, Libya and the old Yugoslavia. The current secretary-general Rasmussen continues this tradition vigorously and he is exceedingly vocal in demonizing Putin and Russia in order to build up NATO and its role further. His militarism is matched only by the U.S. neocon senators and their media propagandists. The NATO expansion could not have occurred without U.S. support. The U.S. wants NATO belligerence toward Russia. This tends to drive Europe toward the U.S. and away from Russia.

It is a misreading of Putin to see him as wanting to invade eastern European countries or rebuild a USSR. Putin is being demonized intentionally by some such as Rasmussen. This demonization rejects the attempt to achieve the western hegemonic goal by means of soft power. Putin’s demonization most clearly serves the purpose of NATO and of militaristic neocon thinking.

The attempt by the U.S. to take Ukraine into the western and NATO orbit has pushed Russia further away from integration with Europe through the resulting sanctions. The policies of Clinton and Bush that separated Russia from the West have now been taken further into economic relations. This is contrary to the ambition of bringing Russia into a western embrace, which is where it seemed that important Russians wanted to take it.

Why did the U.S. not cultivate peaceful relations with Russia by ending NATO? That would have meant accepting a significant degree of independence of Russia. Russian interests in the Middle East conflicted with those of the U.S. Of greater importance, it would have meant allowing Russian influence on Europe to grow. It would have meant a reduced influence of the U.S. in Europe. The U.S. prefers to keep Europe in its orbit and to consolidate its control over eastern Europe, using a militaristic NATO as a tool. It prefers at times such as now to deal with Russia as a hostile power, raising European hostility to Russia and keeping Europe allied to the U.S. Kindle Paperwhite, 6&r... Best Price: $40.90 Buy New null (as of 05:45 EST - Details)

Having rejected the easy path to a soft hegemony over Russia, via economic investments, trade and joint projects, U.S. leaders now think that some form of western political hegemony over Russia can be achieved by means of sanctions. This will not work. Putin won’t give in. Would any American president give in under similar conditions? Furthermore, the Russian masses are no more amenable to U.S. pressures than Arabs have been.

U.S. leaders perhaps hope to create a color revolution in Russia or a putsch that deposes Putin. These possibilities are unlikely, and if they did occur the consequences would be very uncertain, as they have been in Ukraine and elsewhere. The U.S. can’t count on achieving its hegemonic aims by policies or events that create major uncertainties.

The last three U.S. presidents had some degree of ambition to achieve some degree of hegemony regarding Russia, but all three rejected the easy path of cooperation. They led the U.S. into pursuing a more and more belligerent, antagonistic and sabre-rattling path toward Russia that has little or no chance of bringing it into the western fold.

Successive administrations seemed to have feared that an independent and business-oriented Russia that forged strong economic relations with Europe would undermine the position of the U.S. in Europe. American hegemonic ambitions have run into a Russian wall where they can go no further. The U.S. cannot succeed militarily against Russia and it cannot find grounds that appeal to the Russian masses. It’s no accident that Obama has pivoted toward the Pacific and the Orient, but there it is running right up against a Chinese wall and Chinese fighter jets. Add Chinese submarines to the mix. In this region too, the U.S. has become more belligerent.

The hegemonic ambitions of the U.S., dashed in the Middle East, are growing in Africa. In eastern Europe and the Pacific, they are devolving into defensiveness against other great powers. American belligerence is looking more and more like a sign of American weakness and frustration.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts