In the opinion of many political scientists, the dominance America has historically exercised, and which it still exhibits over the rest of the world, is unparalleled in its scope and extent (Ikenberry, 2002). The United States play a unique role in world affairs. No other country in history has exercised such control over the international scene as has the US, whether by indication of military capacity, economic strength, political influence, technological progress or cultural sway – all these factors contribute to the complexity that is American pre-eminence (Cameron, 2005). Thus, the over-prioritization of merely one of these factors, which collectively have contributed to the status of the US as a global hegemon, would be premature and deeply flawed.
Failure to acknowledge the impact of other crucial, but often downplayed, non-military factors hinders the understanding of the nature of American global political power. A step forward to this direction, as Klaus Knorr (1975) has argued, is to examine the role of economic instruments, such as economic sanctions, trade embargos, provision of aid, and bilateral trade agreements, all of which contribute to American pre-eminence. More specifically, America has used its cultural and ideological attractiveness to extend its economy and influence far beyond that of any other nation. The appeal to American-favoured values of democracy, human rights protection, free speech and market economy has led to a cultural omnipresence, which in its nature can easily be transformed into political leverage, and thus must not be overlooked when accounting for America’s pre-eminence.
And lastly, there is a potent argument supported by several political theorists on the “normative devaluation of force as a means to settling conflict” in the modern technologically advanced world (Knorr, 1975; Walter Carlsnaes et al, 2006). A recent record of American involvement in military operations provides strong support to such a claim. The current state of the failing policies on the US military operations in Afghanistan or Iraq expose a similar flawed assessment of the potential effectiveness of strategic and operational approaches as it was proven in Vietnam. The outcome has been incapacity to meet established goals, ultimately resulting in a strong dissatisfaction with America’s unilateral approach in international relations, not just amongst domestic publics.
Although military power is an important part of US foreign policy, a question has been raised whether the utility of military force has been declining, especially since the end of the Cold War. According to the economist Klaus Knorr, “the utility of force is a function of both costs and benefits”. The advancement of modern arms technology has led to “more intricate weapons, with greater reach and velocity, and with an enormously magnified destructive power”. These changes in modern arms technology have “clearly altered the usability of military power” argues Knorr. Furthermore, since 1945 and the emergence of states as nuclear powers, the idea of war being a zero-sum game has been immensely reinforced. As Schelling (1984: 269) claims:
[d]eterrence is meaningless in a zero-sum context. So is surrender; so are most limited-war strategies; and so are notions like accidental war, escalation, pre-emptive war, and brinkmanship. And of course so are nearly all alliance relationships, arms-race phenomena, and arms control. The fact that war hurts – that not all losses of war are recoverable – makes war itself a dramatically nonzero-sum activity.
Thus the focus of foreign policy has shifted to the economic aspect of policy-making. Since the end of the Cold War, America has “increasingly come to see free trade as a means not only of advancing its own economic interests but also as a key to building peace in the world” (Cameron, 2005:120) Between 1992 and 2002 US GDP grew from $7.3 trillion to $10 trillion in 2002 prices which constitutes an increase of about thirty six percent, compared to 19 percent for the EU and 7 percent for Japan (Cameron 2005: 157). Because of America’s globally spread economy, the US has developed a sharpened interest in sustaining a stable global economy, in order to exercise its role as a hegemon in the international system. This interest is mainly due to the process of globalization, defined by Fraser Cameron as “the interaction of information, financial capital, commerce, technology and labour at exponentially greater speeds and volume than previously thought possible” (Cameron, 2005: 129).
Undoubtedly, America plays a leading role in the process of globalization. “It is often said that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold” (Cameron, 2005: 130). This remarkable growth in the development of US economy helped other nations recover from the financial crisis of 1997-8, particularly in Asia. The stock market boom of the 1990s combined with the value of the US dollar at the time ensured continued investment into the US economy (Cameron, 2005: 130) More than two-thirds of the top five hundred companies in the world are based in the US and no other country imports as much as America does (Cameron, 2005: 130) This multitude of American-led multinational corporations and their impact on global economy points to the immense influence America exercises through its strong economy.
The strong leadership role of the US in the Breton Woods System, and the numerous “strings” attached to aid for recipient states, as result from the so-called “conditionality”, or “the use of incentives to alter a state’s behaviour or policies” (Checkel, 2000), are exemplary of the importance of economics as a tool for American hegemony. Conditionality has traditionally been associated with the responsibilities which a state-borrower from the IMF takes on, with respect to economic and financial policies, and can be defined as follows:
a way for the IMF to monitor that its loan is being used effectively in resolving the borrower’s economic difficulties, so that the country will be able to repay promptly, and make the funds available to other members in need1
The US has been subject to multiple criticisms that it uses its economic status to effectively turn developing states into something more to its “own liking”2, thus significantly reducing the effectiveness of aid initiatives. Nonetheless, it is namely through the utilisation of similar economic tools that the US has managed to gain a head-start in having the “final say” in international politics.
Another important alternative to military power is the cultural impact of America in contributing to its impressive achievements in international affairs. American views of the values of democracy have had an astonishing impact on the rest of the world. The appeal to the type of democracy characterizing the American political system, coupled with the above discussed declining primacy of military power as a foreign policy tool, have augmented interest in the so called democratic peace theory, stating that “democracies constitute a zone of peace” (Knorr 31).
Francis Fukuyama agrees with this theory’s principles, noting that “never once has a democracy fought another democracy” (Fukuyama, 1991, pp. 659-664) Jack Levy also describes it as “the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations” (Levy in Rotberg, I. et al., 1989). This centrality of values, or the benefits of a certain type of ideology, immediately point to counter-arguments of the uniqueness of military power as a tool for America’s hegemony.
The described joint impact of economic factors and cultural attractiveness, points to the deficiency of embracing military power as the sole approach for the achievement of the type of hegemonic status the US possesses, which essentially has been the main suggestion of this paper. Essentially, the economic and cultural factors in accounting for US’s status in global politics, and the possibility to transform those two into political leverage, makes up an important part of the so-called “soft power” approach, which has served the US’s foreign policy as the most viable alternative to the sole reliance on military might. In other words, the “success story” of American political pre-eminence can be attributed mainly to the role of soft power “techniques” in decision-making.
And although many would object to such a claim, the foreign policy of the current American administration with its “go-it-alone” approach of unilateral actions has made more than evident the shortcomings of military power when it has not been propped up by alternative approaches. The potency of similar alternatives to military power is in that, the “type of currency” they rely on to urge cooperation, is “an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values” (Nye, 2004). In other words, in adopting Nye’s view, when accounting for American political pre-eminence, it would not be an overstatement to claim that,
[t]he possession of superior economic and military power is frequently not enough. History is not always on the side of the biggest battalions or the deepest pocket. . [t]he player with the strongest poker hand does not always win the pot
And lastly, as mentioned earlier, there has been a potent argument supported by several political theorists on the “normative devaluation of force as a means to settling conflict” in the modern technologically advanced world (Klaus Knorr, 1975; Walter Carlsnaes et al, 2006). More specifically, the poor record of American involvement in military operations provides strong support to such a claim. The current state of the failing policies on the US military operations in Afghanistan or Iraq expose the same type of similar flawed assessment of the potential effectiveness of strategic and operational approaches, as US administrations have relied on in Vietnam war.
The outcome has been incapacity to meet established goals, ultimately resulting in a strong dissatisfaction with America’s unilateral approach in international relations, not just amongst domestic publics. After the 9/11 attacks the majority of states in the international community were willing to offer their sympathy to the US. The international community and its institutions offered themselves as the forum for discussions of how jointly to respond to similar events, as it was recognised that an attack on the US could not be neglected by other nations, since the current extent of global economic and political interdependence implies swift and adverse “spillover effects” to other parts of world.
However, the decision of the Republican administration to adopt a “a go-it-alone” approach, and neglect the UN’s Security Council in invading Iraq, quickly led to a shift in attitudes among domestic publics within the US, but also resulted in a prolonged adverse image of America globally. For example, the strict reliance on American military approach in Afghanistan, coupled with the failure to stress the capacity of ideology to “win the hearts and minds of people”3, and the lack of discipline in the American forces on ground, in those alien to America cultures, have all had an immensely devastating influence on America’s standing as the world’s “superpower”.
[t]he killing of large numbers of civilians by American forces, through indisciplined firing or as a result of their heavy reliance on air-strikes, has been a bitter feature of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq-just as it was in Vietnam4
There have been objections, even among America’s historically closest military allies, the British, of the types of methods employed in Afghanistan, i.e. the requests have been made by British forces deployed in Afghanistan “to use fewer bombs to avoid alienating villagers, particularly as the Taliban splinter” (Walsh, 2007). The “refusal” of the current American administration to accept the obsoleteness of “hard power” measures to cope with the challenges of a post-Cold war world, which are of essentially different nature and require a variety of policy instruments have, in the end, asked America to pay too high a price: the loss of its credibility as the world’s leading power.
Thus, as it was recognised earlier in this paper, military capacity, economic strength, political influence, technological progress or cultural sway, all contribute to the complexity that is American pre-eminence (Cameron, 2005) and the over-prioritization of merely one of these factors, which collectively have contributed to the status of the US as a global hegemon, would be premature and deeply flawed.
Failure to acknowledge the impact of other crucial, but often downplayed, non-military factors hinders the understanding of the nature of American global political power. The use of economic instruments, such as sanctions, trade embargos, provision of aid, and bilateral trade agreements, coupled with America’s cultural and ideological attractiveness in term of the primacy ascribed to values of democracy, human rights protection, free speech and market economy, and their capacity to be transformed into political leverage, have served as viable alternatives to military might and have jointly resulted in American omnipresence in world affairs.
Ambrose, S. E. and D.G. Brinkley, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Carlsnaes, W. et al. (eds), Handbook of International Relations. London: Sage Publications, 2006.
Checkel, J. T. “Compliance and Conditionality”, ARENA Working Papers 00/18, 2000. Available at http://www.arena.uio.no/publications/wp00_18.htm.
Ikenberry, G. J. (ed.), America Unrivalled: The Future of the Balance of Power. USA: Cornell University, 2002.
Jackson, R. and G. Sorensen, Introduction to International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Knorr, K., The Power of Nations: The Political Economy of International Relations. USA: Basic Books Inc., 1975.
Levy, J.S. “Domestic Politics and War,” in Robert Rotberg and Theodore K.R. The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Nye, J.S. Jr, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. USA: Public Affairs. 2004
Schelling, T. C. Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
“The Human cost of War in Afghanistan”. The Economist, March 2007. Available at http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=9141410
Walsh, D. “Strategy That Fails to Win Hearts and Minds”. The Guardian, August, 2007. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/aug/25/afghanistan.declanwalsh
1 “IMF Conditionality”. IMF website www.imf.org
2See Hoover Institution, Stanford University. IMF. “What is Conditionality?” http://www.imfsite.org/conditionality/whatis.html for instances of what specific requirements make up conditionality (for example, “decreasing government spending, budget deficits, and external debt” or “decrease tariffs, removal of quotas, and of exchange controls and inequitable exchange rates”)
3 This has been expressed in a statement of a officer that “blistering bomb strikes were destroying efforts to win hearts and minds” (Walsh, 2007)
4 “The Human cost of War in Afghanistan”, The Economist