Leadership and Hegemony in the 2000 American

Presidential Election: Issues Affecting East Asia

This paper will be published in the American Studies Association of Korea Journal in 2001.
 It was presented at the American Studies Association of Korea meeting in October 2000 in Wonju, Korea.

The first American presidential campaign of the new millennium was so closely fought that the outcome was not clear several weeks after the votes were cast. The battle spilled beyond the normal campaign period into a bizarre post-election donnybrook. As both candidates tried to cloak their bitter post-election quest for power in high-minded, principled rhetoric, they only reinforced the convention wisdom that American political campaigns are full of a lot of insincere nonsense that is not taken seriously even by those who propagate it. But there are a growing number of studies that show that statements candidates make during the campaigns are relatively good predictors of their behavior once in office. (Fishel, Pomper, David, Budge and Hoffbert, Patterson et al) Although not every campaign promise is kept, the ideas expressed on the campaign trail tell us a lot about the men and women and the parties who will come to govern. A lot of the nonsense espoused during presidential campaigns is actually sincere nonsense.

Studies of the Clinton presidency in particular show "a notable degree of correspondence" between Clinton's campaign promises and his policy initiatives. (Shaw, p.1, see also Blood and Henderson) Studies of the 104th Republican-controlled Congress' "Contract with America" also show considerable Republican effort to implement their pledges. (Berlau, Congressional Quarterly) Schmidt et al demonstrated in a longitudinal study of 30 years that Senators who do not keep campaign promises are more likely to be defeated for reelection than those who do.

But what role does policy toward Asia play in American presidential campaigns and how does this affect subsequent American policymaking toward Asia? Historically, there has been great variability in the visibility of Asia in American presidential campaigns. When the U.S. has been at war in Asia, it has dominated elections. The Democrats are widely believed to have lost the White House both in 1952 and 1968 due to popular frustration with the prolonged Korean and Vietnam Wars. But in times of peace domestic politics tend to determine election outcomes, as indicated by the 1992 Clinton campaign slogan, "It’s the economy, stupid." To the extent foreign policy is salient, American concerns tend to be Eurocentric. Because of the growing Latino population, even Latin American politics are often more crucial to American campaigns than Asian issues. Despite the fact that most of the world’s people and an increasing percentage of the world’s goods and services come from Aisa, Asia is often barely visible in American presidential campaigns. Murray Hiebert of the Far Eastern Economic Review reflects the accepted wisdom about this year’s election when he answers the question, "Where does Asia figure in the race for the White House?" with "The conventional answer…is that is doesn’t."

But even though Asian issues did not prove decisive in the 2000 election, the campaign is one important gauge of future American policy toward Asia. Even general themes about American leadership have very concrete implications for the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Global Leadership and Hegemony

Scholars have used several different terms to describe the power of the U.S. in the global system--leadership, primacy, unipolarity, domination, Pax Americana, only superpower, etc. (Nye, Haass, Huntington, Johnson, Kupchan, Cumings, Chomsky) But perhaps the most useful term is hegemony. American politicians and diplomats prefer the term "leadership" not only because it implies strength and power but also because it implies that other states willingly and voluntarily follow the American lead. But the term hegemony makes clear the systemic sources of American power and the paucity of options for states that might want to resist American power.

One would have to look long and hard for the use of the term hegemony by major party candidates for the American presidency. But certainly a recurrent theme in American presidential campaigns is America’s global leadership. In a speech before the International Press Institute Al Gore said,

For all of my career, I have believed that America has a responsibility to lead in the world…from our position of unrivaled affluence and influence, we have a responsibility to lead the world in meeting the new security challenges.

The Democratic Party Platform states,

Democratic leadership has brought peace and security to Americans and to millions of freedom-loving people around the globe.

Similarly, the Republican Platform entitles its entire section on foreign policy, "Principled Leadership." Leadership seems an innocuous enough phrase until one begins to count up all the dimensions of global relations that candidates expect that the U.S. take the leadership role. From the outlines of all the demands candidates make for American world leadership one can see the shape of American global hegemony.

Going back at least as far as the early Cold War, when it comes to talking about American global leadership, there are certain prescribed roles for the nominee of the incumbent party and the nominee of the challenging party. Incumbent and challenging parties have different sets of opportunities. The incumbent party cites all the accomplishments of recent years, claiming credit for everything that has gone right in the world by attributing it somehow to the wise policies of the current administration. The out party decries everything that has gone wrong in recent years and blames it on the failed policies and weak leadership of the incumbent party. The incumbent party proclaims its bold leadership, recites all its achievements, and implies these achievements would be put at risk by its inexperienced, misguided rival. The out-party warns of the decline of American power and the dire consequences for the U.S. and the world unless American leadership (read hegemony) is restored. It promises that it will be tougher and more vigorous in protecting America’s interests around the world and will return the U.S. to its rightful place as effective leader of the global system.

These tactics of in-party credit claiming and out-party blaming are probably universal among democratic polities. The difference in the U.S. is the scale. While in Korea, the in-party can plausibly claim credit for the good things that happen in Korea and the out-party can reasonably lay blame for national problems on the in-party, in the U.S. credit is taken and blame is assessed for developments all over the world, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

In the Democratic Party Platform, the Clinton-Gore administration claims credit for

stimulating worldwide economic growth

expanding trade and democracy in Asia and Latin America

opening markets for U.S. exports abroad, creating American jobs

integrating China into the world economy

establishing the World Trade Organization

structural reform of Asian economies

an undivided, democratic and peaceful Europe

enhancing military stability in Europe

reducing Russian nuclear arsenals

eliminating nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan

easing nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan

signing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

achieving indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention

advancing peace in the Middle East

brokering peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors

ending ethnic cleansing in Kosovo

brokering the Good Friday Peace Accord in Northern Ireland

ending civil war and fostering multi-ethnic democracy in Bosnia

ending violence and protecting democracy in East Timor

reducing the North Korean threat

placing a moratorium on North Korean long-range missile testing

the eventual dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

On the other hand, just one paragraph of the Republican party platform blames the Clinton-Gore administration for

                    the collapse of the world trade talks in Seattle

                    corruption and narco-trafficking in Latin America

                    kowtowing to Beijing

                    insulting Japan

                    corruption in Russia

                    the war in Chechnya

                    Russia’s sales of military technology

                    prolonged conflict in Kosovo

                    the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests

                    the collapse of the arms inspection regime over Iraq

                    the lack of results of American interventions in Somalia and Haiti.

Chief executives and governing parties of ordinary nation-states are thought to be responsible for developments within their country, but American presidents and parties are held accountable for events anywhere on the planet. That is a symptom of hegemony.

While the candidates strive mightily to establish cutting edge differences between themselves, the similarities between them are apparent, especially in foreign policy. Although there has been significant ideological polarization of American parties in the past generation spurred by the deepening conservatism of the Republicans, it has not been lost on the Bush campaign that by clinging to the political center Bill Clinton won two races he could easily have lost. In foreign policy in particular, since the early Cold War there has been a tendency toward a "bipartisan consensus," although this consensus has at times broken down. The similarities in style and substance of Bush and Gore have led Green party candidate Ralph Nader to label them Tweedledum and Tweedledee, after twins in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Less kind critics have called them Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.

Both Bush and Gore share the project of maintaining American hegemony. Their differences are on the strategy and tactics for preserving hegemony. Seeming ideological conflict can actually work to embed agreed premises. Debate on how to achieve an objective can obscure shared agreement about that objective. For example, an argument between two South Korean parties on whether South Korea has been "tough enough" with North Korea is based on the embedded premise that it is a good thing to be "tough" with North Korea. Debate on how the Korean government should liberalize the financial sector embeds the premise that the government should liberalize the financial sector.

Global Military Superiority

Debate between Gore and Bush over whether the U.S. has effectively exercised world leadership in the past 8 years and what strategy the U.S. should adopt to maintain its hegemony embed the premise that it is inherently the American right to rule the global system. Both Gore and Bush believe the U.S. should maintain its global military dominance. The Democratic Party Platform asserts the U.S. "must be able to meet any military challenge from a position of dominance." A Gore press release on May 27 argues,

America's military is the best-trained, best-equipped, and most prepared fighting force in the world. The United States military is the dominant military force in the world today. Our recent successes demonstrate the dominance of our force: victorious air campaigns in Kosovo and Bosnia; rapid deployments and airstrikes against Iraq; deterrent deployments and forward presence in Asia; peacekeeping missions in the Balkans; and successful humanitarian operations in Central America and Africa.

The Republican Party Platform agrees that the U.S. should be militarily paramount,

A Republican president and a Republican Congress will transform America’s defense capabilities for the information age, ensuring that U.S. armed forces remain paramount against emerging dangers.

However the Republicans contest that the U.S. is effectively holding on to its superiority.

(T)he U.S. military faces growing problems in readiness, morale, and its ability to prepare for the threats of the future…Over the past seven years, a shrunken American military has been run ragged by a deployment tempo that has eroded its military readiness…the administration’s defense budgets have been eating their seed corn — slashing spending on modernization to levels not seen since before the Korean War, undermining the health of our defense industry and producing what one administration official admitted was a "death spiral" for the U.S. defense capability of the future.

Bush and Gore agree that the U.S. should maintain its global military dominance. They simply disagree on whether the U.S. is spending enough right now to hold on to its paramount status.

Missile Defense

Several scholars have argued that whether the U.S. pursues national and East Asian theater nuclear defensive systems is a crucial decision for the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region. (Cirincione, Gill, Manning and Przystup) Republicans and Democrats disagree about whether national and theater nuclear defenses are necessary to retain military dominance. The Republican Party Platform argues,

Over two dozen countries have ballistic missiles today. A number of them, including North Korea, will be capable of striking the United States within a few years, and with little warning. America is now unable to counter the rampant proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their missile delivery systems around the world.

America must deploy effective missile defenses, based on an evaluation of the best available options, including sea-based, at the earliest possible date. These defenses must be designed to protect all 50 states, America’s deployed forces overseas, and our friends and allies in the fellowship of freedom against missile attacks by outlaw states or accidental launches.

We will seek a negotiated change in the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that will allow the United States to use all technologies and experiments required to deploy robust missile defenses.

The Democratic Party Platform is much more cautious, supporting only research into a limited missile defense system and laying down several conditions that must be met before actually deploying such a system,

We reject Republican attempts to…construct an unproven, expensive, ill-conceived missile defense system that would plunge us into a new arms race…(We) support the development of the technology for a limited national defense system…A decision to deploy such a system should be made based on four criteria: the nature of the threat, the feasibility of the technology, the costs, and the overall impact on our national security, including arms control.

In short, as has been the pattern since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, we can expect a greater military build-up under a Republican administration. Democrats remain confident that current American forces are dominant, while Republicans pursue an ever greater edge. Not surprisingly, as this difference in how to pursue hegemony has persisted, military contractors have drifted further and further into the Republican camp, altering the political economy of arms procurement and reinforcing the differences between the parties.


Several scholars have noted that the relationship between the U.S. and China is central to the future of the Asia-Pacific region. (Metzger and Meyers, Bernstein and Munro, Gill, Buzan, Solomon, Zhang and Montaperto) As on other issues, there are important similarities and subtle differences between Bush and Gore on China policy. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are comfortable with a strong, socialist China that could become the center of a group of countries resisting western-style liberalization, a potential leader of a counter-hegemonic coalition. Both Bush and Gore severely criticize the Chinese government. The Republican Party Platform states

America’s key challenge in Asia is the People’s Republic of China. China is not a free society. The Chinese government represses political expression at home and unsettles neighbors abroad. It stifles freedom of religion and proliferates weapons of mass destruction…China is a strategic competitor of the United States, not a strategic partner.

Bush himself used similar rhetoric in a speech on China’s entrance to the WTO on May 17,

China today is not a free society. At home, toward its own people, it can be ruthless. Abroad, toward its neighbors, it can be reckless.

Similarly, Gore castigated the Chinese government in a speech before the International Press Institute on April 30,

(W)e have strong disagreements with China over human rights and religious freedom, and over Chinese treatment of Tibet. These issues cannot—and must not—be ignored or marginalized. They must constantly be pursued. Human rights and human dignity speak to the deepest bonds we share, across all borders and nationalities. America has to prod China to make progress in all these areas.

Both men espouse a strategy of incorporating China into the global trading system; for example, both men endorsed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Both men share the hope that this will lead to a transformation of the Communist regime into a more western-style liberal democracy. Both men are pursuing what the Chinese Communist Party itself disdainfully labels the strategy of "peaceful evolution."

In his May 17 speech Bush argued,

(C)ommunism, in every form, has seen its day…Trade with China will promote freedom. Freedom is not easily contained. Once a measure of economic freedom is permitted, a measure of political freedom will follow…I view free trade as an important ally in what Ronald Reagan called "a forward strategy for freedom."…Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy…Trade freely with China, and time is on our side…Simply put: China is most free where it is most in contact with the world economy.

On Veterans Day 1999 Gore asserted

(O)ur long-term strategy must be to encourage China to become a strong, prosperous, and open society, while integrating it into the institutions that promote global norms on proliferation, trade, the environment, and human rights…(B)uild cooperation where we can and deal with differences as we must… It is wrong to isolate and demonize China—to build a wall when we need to build a bridge.

However, subtle differences can be read in their statements about Taiwan and their position on the Taiwan Relations Act which promises U.S. military support of Taiwan in any conflict with China. The Republican Party Platform takes its traditional pro-Taiwan, anti-China position,

A Republican president will honor our promises to the people of Taiwan, a longstanding friend of the United States and a genuine democracy…All issues regarding Taiwan’s future must be resolved peacefully and must be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China violates these principles and attacks Taiwan, then the United States will respond appropriately in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. America will help Taiwan defend itself

In his April 30th speech Gore took a marginally more conciliatory tack,

We also have concerns over tensions building between China and Taiwan. We need to maintain our commitment to the One China policy, but urge China and Taiwan to intensify their dialogue and to resolve their problems by peaceful means. The Administration is honoring its obligation to make defensive weapons available to Taiwan. But I am deeply concerned that those in the Congress who are pushing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act are blind to its consequences: a sharp deterioration in the security of the region.

It is difficult to know whether the differences in tone over China and Taiwan foreshadow significantly different policies. It is easier for the party out of power to strike a tougher pose toward potential enemies and competitors of the U.S. such as China, Russia, or the Arab states because they do not have to be responsible for managing on-going diplomatic relations. In 1992 Bill Clinton took a tougher line on China than the incumbent elder Bush, threatening to end normal trading relations with China unless their human rights policies changed. Once Clinton was in office, he reversed his campaign position, eventually developing the policy of constructive engagement. Republican Richard Nixon was perhaps the champion of tough cold war campaign rhetoric toward China, yet after he became president he flew to Beijing and toasted with Mao Zedong. However, tough campaign rhetoric cannot be completely discounted. The hard line Ronald Reagan took toward the Soviet Union in the 1980 campaign foreshadowed a massive military build-up and the "new" cold war.

Global Economic Hegemony

Many scholars have pointed out the growing importance of economic relations in East Asia in the post Cold War world and the increasing significance of trade relations to the global system. (Guerrieri, Aggarwal and Morrison, Johnson)

In terms of the global economy, both Bush and Gore see structuring the global trading system as an American responsibility. Bush has proclaimed

The steady opening of international trade around the globe is the product of sixty years of American leadership from presidents and Congresses of both parties.

The Republican Party Platform foresees "U.S. leadership of a global economy without limits to growth."

The Democratic Party Platform asserts

Democrats believe we must be leaders in the new global economy, not followers...Trade has been an important part of our economic expansion—about a third of our economic growth in recent years has come from selling American goods and services overseas. There is no doubt…we can outcompete workers anywhere in the world.

Both party platforms call for expanded trade, but are wary of barriers to American products.

Republicans: The fearful build walls; the confident demolish them. (We are) confident in American workers, farmers, and producers, and (we are) confident that America’s best is the best in the world…We must secure America’s competitive advantage in the New Economy by preventing other countries from erecting barriers to innovation.

Democrats: We must work to knock down barriers to fair trade so other nation’s markets are as open as our own…We believe globalization will work for all Americans only if there are rules of the road…that promote both a strong economy and our basic American values.

Both demand restructuring of global trade practices to promote American prosperity.

Republicans: America can set the standards and be at the center of a worldwide web of trade, finance, and openness…But free trade must be fair trade, within an open, rules-based international trading system. That will depend on American leadership, which has been lacking for the last eight years… We must be at the table when trade agreements are negotiated, make the interests of American workers and farmers paramount, and ensure that the drive to open new markets is successful…

Democrats: (A)ll trade agreements (must) contain provisions that protect the environment and labor standards, as well as open markets in other countries…We should use trade to lift up standards around the world not drag down standards here at home.

However, while demanding more open global trading rules, both parties assert an American right to take unilateral protective action.

Republicans: The vitality of (trade) depends upon the vigorous enforcement of U.S. trade laws against unfair competition. We will not tolerate the foreign practices, rules, and subsidization that put our exports on an unequal footing.

Democrats: Al Gore will insist on and use the authority to enforce worker rights, human rights, and environmental protections in (trade) agreements.

Both American political parties want it both ways. They want international trade rules that reflect American economic practices, yet they demand that the U.S. be free to pass and enforce its own national rules whether or not they are consistent with international standards. Republicans focus on retaliation for what they see as violations of American concepts of free markets. Democrats are more sensitive to labor and environmental protections. But both parties simultaneously demand binding global rules and the American right to make unilateral trade policy.


Hegemony does not openly proclaim itself. That would not be hegemony, but naked domination. American political and ideological hegemony is masked behind the more innocuous veil of "leadership." The United States expects to exercise "leadership" in every important aspect of global society. In a presidential campaign both major party candidates compete over who can offer the more vigorous and expansive agenda for American global leadership; in other words, who would be better at maintaining American hegemony. This paper has cited only a few examples most significant to Koreans and East Asians.




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