28 March 2023
America, the ambivalent and erratic liberal hegemon

America, the ambivalent and erratic liberal hegemon

It is rather difficult to come to terms with America’s unpredictable relationship with the world. But for better or worse, the US is the only world power capable of defending a liberal world order.

Today, President Joe Biden is masterfully leading a coalition of Western countries to provide massive assistance to Ukraine to help resist Russia’s invading military. But this brilliant leadership comes straight on the back of America’s badly planned and executed withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, which created a humanitarian and political disaster for the Afghan people, especially its long-suffering women.

And we cannot forget, just a few years back, the arrogant and rude behaviour of US President Donald Trump towards America’s longstanding allies and partners. At the same time, he was cosying up to obnoxious and dangerous dictators like North Korea’s KIM Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

How can we understand this ambivalent and erratic liberal hegemon? In a new book on America’s foreign policy from 1900-1941, historian Robert Kagan suggests some historical origins for its foreign policy.

The shock of being thrust into global leadership

The rise of the US to great power status through the 19th century was dramatic. When the new colonial settlers threw off British rule in the late 18th century (the “American Revolution”), the newly minted United States of America amounted to just 13 small states, clinging to the east coast of America. Then, just one century later, by the end of the 19th century, the US had become the world’s biggest economy. But the US was totally unprepared for global leadership.

Indeed, global leadership was suddenly thrust on America from the beginning of the 20th century by the collapse of the British-led world order, the rise of the authoritarian states of Germany and Japan, and ultimately World War 1. Following World War 1, the US dominated the world economy even more than it would following World War 2. The new reality was that the US held the balance of power in world politics, and was the only country capable of ensuring a peaceful and democratic liberal world order.

And yet, then like now, Americans were ambivalent about their country’s power. For many Americans, their country was too big, distant and powerful to be vulnerable to foreign invasion, so they didn’t want to worry about the rest of the world. How could you convince someone in the beautiful state of Idaho that a conflict between kings, kaisers and princes some 8,000 km away in Europe was relevant to their lives? So, Americans constantly ran away from their power, and then were dragged back by the world. They would swing from indifference to panic, as they have done in recent years with China. And today the fear is that the US will succumb to a bout of “Ukraine-fatigue” and perhaps drop its massive assistance they have provided over the past year.

US presidents can be weaker than they seem

The president of the US is widely referred to as the leader of the free world, and the most powerful man in the world. But the reality is that the president can be greatly constrained by the Congress. For example, Democratic President, Woodrow Wilson spent some six months in France for the post World War 1 Paris Peace Conference at Versailles which proposed the creation of a League of Nations. But despite Wilson’s strong support, the League became a victim of congressional politics. Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led an assault which ultimately culminated in the Senate’s rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the League.

More recently, President Obama’s administration negotiated a trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is widely regarded as the most sophisticated trade deal ever conceived, and an excellent initiative to lift trade standards in the Asia-Pacific. But resistance from Congress and public opinion, and also from presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, meant that the deal was never ratified, and the US remains absent from Asia’s big trade deals.

Public opinion is a big influence on foreign policy

With the oldest democracy of the modern world, the American public has always had an important influence on the formation and conduct of foreign policy. The delay in the US’s entry into both World Wars was mainly due to the lack of public enthusiasm. Against that, American history is replete with dramatic events, like the tragic attacks of 9/11, galvanising public opinion, which demands a robust response or at least a sign of disapproval.

But while public opinion can push America to war, it can also turn it against wars and compel the government to withdraw—as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—when the costs in terms of American casualties become too high. Today, many are worried that public opinion, especially in the context of the upcoming presidential campaign, will turn the US away from supporting Ukraine.

Motivation for foreign intervention

Most countries intervene in foreign conflicts when they perceive a direct threat to their homeland, sovereignty and national interests. But this is often not the case for the US. When the US intervened in World War 1 and the European theatre of World War 2, there was virtually no likelihood of Germany ever invading the US homeland. Indeed, despite Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour, neither was any likelihood of Japan threatening the US homeland.

As Kagan argues, US intervention in foreign conflicts is usually undertaken to protect the liberal world order, to protect democracy and freedom. The US does not want to be left alone as a democratic outpost in a world of authoritarian regimes. Indeed, a world of democracies would be a safer world for the US and us all according to democratic peace theory which suggests that democracies are very unlikely to go to war against each other.

Today, the American homeland is not directly threatened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the invasion by Russia, supported by China, represents an assault on the liberal world order. US support for Ukraine is motivated by its desire to protect the liberal order, and countries’ right to sovereignty and democracy.

The importance of “national mood”

America’s national mood can play a big role in the country’s foreign policy. For example, the US suffered from great disillusionment from the consequences of World War 1. Thus, the 1920s would see the US turn inward with an America-first policy, combined with xenophobia, protectionism, anti-immigration sentiment, race problems and the rejection of internationalism – a portrait hauntingly similar to today’s America.

Even in recent years, the national mood has played a big role in US politics. National despair at the experience of George W. Bush’s wars and global financial crisis laid the foundation for the wholly improbable election of Barack Obama, a young and fresh figure with a message of optimism. And then frustration at the seeming indifference of Washington elites paved the way for the vulgar, plain-speaking populist, Donald Trump, to win the presidential elections against Hilary Clinton, who seemed to embody all that is wrong about Washington.

Concluding comments

Much of the international behaviour of the US hegemon has deep roots in its history, as suggested in these few points. But as we think about life with the US hegemon, I would like to draw three lessons:

-- We all need to make greater efforts to understand the behaviour of the US hegemon, whose international behaviour is usually more shaped by idiosyncratic domestic rather than international factors;

-- If you are an ally or partner of the US, you now must contribute more than in the past to this relationship – this goes especially for Europe’s national defence. The US can no longer do everything alone. Moreover, US politics will always look more kindly on those who are willing to make substantial contributions.

-- Prepare for surprises. As well-intentioned as the US usually is, history shows that it is incredibly capable of the most egregious mistakes.


This article by John West was first published by Unravel on 28 March 2023.
Tags: asia, us hegemon

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