Hegemony or Empire
This is a piece I’m working on for the Fin. Comments much appreciated
It has long been commonplace for critics of American foreign policy to describe the United States as an ‘imperialist’ power. In the last couple of years, however, the term has come to be used more favorably, notably by the British historian Niall Ferguson. The positive view, that America needs to act more like an imperial power has been accompanied by a positive reappraisal of earlier imperial powers like Britain and Rome.
Despite the increasing attention given to imperialist views like those of Ferguson the United States is more accurately described as a hegemonic rather than an imperial power. The United States does not seek to expand its territory, or even, in general, to exercise direct control over the governments of other countries.
On the other hand, particularly under the Bush Administration, the United States has sought to be more than ‘first among equals’. The Administration’s view is that, on any important global issue, the United States is entitled to determine the outcome, with the support of allies if possible, but unilaterally if necessary. This is the viewpoint of a hegemonic, rather than an imperial power.
The hegemonic approach is reflected in withdrawal from international organisations, which inevitably embody the idea that each nation is, in some sense, an equal partner. By contrast, in the bilateral agreements now being pursued, the outcomes necessarily reflect the unequal bargaining power of the parties.
The other characteristic feature of empire is that attempt to extend a single model of government and a single concept of citizenship over many different peoples. US governments have sought to promote the American model of liberal capitalist democracy. However, this has been a somewhat equivocal effort for two reasons.
First, the ease of dealing with a reliable dictator rather than a fractious democracy has, on many occasions, led US governments to follow the logic of power politics rather than the ideals of global democracy. (The US is not alone in this. For example, France backed a string of African dictatorships, and our own dealings with the Suharto regime fit the same pattern).
More importantly, though, imitations of the US model are seen as just that – imitations. A central part of the dominant American worldview is that “only in America” can the ideals of liberal democracy be fully realised. This view fits equally with isolationism and with a hegemonic role, but not so well with either imperialism or internationalism.
The only truly imperial project in the world today is that of the European Union. The EU has both a plan for territorial expansion (though only to the limits of an, as yet undefined, Europe) and a concept of citizenship with rights over and above those of national citizenship.
Admittedly the EU does not call to mind the British Empire or the grandeur that was Rome. If there is any historical model for the EU, it is the Austro-Hungarian empire, a patchwork of different nationalities tied together more by diplomacy and dynastic marriage than by military conquest. But even this precedent is not very helpful. The EU is something genuinely new, and still evolving.
The rivalry between the United States and Europe is old, but has become steadily more evident since the end of the Cold War. Most of the time, the US has appeared to be the winner in this rivalry. It has won two Gulf Wars with ease and its military superiority remains unchallenged. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has acted with determination while the Europeans were divided and largely ineffectual. And the US economy boomed throughout the 1990s while Europe struggled with the costs of monetary and economic unification.
And yet, as 2003 draws to a close, the EU is extending its boundaries up to the borders of the former Soviet Union and even, with the admission of the Baltic States, beyond. It seems increasingly likely that Turkey, which has sought entry since 1958, will finally be admitted to candidate status next year and will join the EU a few years after that.
In purely geopolitical terms, the EU rather than the US has emerged as the winner from the Cold War. Quite possibly, by 2010, the EU could have twice the population of the United States and a significantly larger aggregate income.
Australia’s relationship with the EU has been dominated by the long-standing dispute over the Common Agricultural Policy. The reforms announced this year are, typically of the EU, a messy compromise that will take years to implement. Nevertheless, they will eliminate most of the subsidies to overproduction that have harmed Australian farmers. It is time to put this history behind us, and take the EU more seriously.