Dennis Florig

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

Seoul, Korea


The theory of hegemonic overreach proposed here draws upon several schools of thought—long cycle theories of hegemonic breakdown, analyses of ideological-cultural hegemony, the globalization hypothesis, Huntington¡¯s clash of civilization¡¯s thesis, and studies of messianic mission in U.S. foreign policy.  Hegemonic overreach has two elements—the unwelcome overreach of the hegemonic system into traditional, non-western cultural zones and the overreach of the hegemonic state¡¯s military and political interventions into the affairs of other states and peoples. 

Past long cycle theories of hegemonic breakdown have focused on the contradiction between the hegemon¡¯s growing military-political commitments and its slipping economic capability relative to rising challenger states.  The theory of hegemonic overreach introduces a third, ideological-cultural dimension.  Because of the intensification of globalization, crises for the hegemonic state today come largely from cultural resistance in what has historically been the periphery rather than the core.  The ideological-cultural dimension is also crucial in understanding the behavior of the current hegemon.  U.S. foreign policy is driven not only by criteria of hegemonic preservation, but also by a sense of messianic mission implanted long before the U.S. stepped up to its current global role.  Recurrent failures in U.S. foreign policy can be traced to military and political interventions explained by the theory of hegemonic overreach, including the Vietnam War, the current Iraq War, and the failure of Wilson¡¯s post-World War I peace plan. 

Future challenges to western hegemony seem most likely to come from two sources—resistance to western cultural hegemony in the Islamic world and the rise of new or reformed super states, particularly China.  The challenge of Islamic fundamentalism appears durable, but lacks the backing of a state with substantial capacity.  Newly powerful states may be rising, but they may lack the motivation to challenge the hegemonic system if they are sufficiently accommodated by that system.  Whether the U.S. and the West accommodate new rising powers or the world is polarized will be influenced by the way the U.S., the West and the new powers interact in dealing with Islamic fundamentalism.

I. Concepts of Hegemony

The concept of hegemony has come to have several different connotations and shades of meaning in several different disciplines.  In the field of international relations there are two starkly contrasting concepts of hegemony.  While both notions recognize a hegemon as a state that exercises power over others, the basis of this power is conceived quite differently.  In one view, hegemony is synonymous with domination.  A state is hegemonic if it can dominate other states in a system with its military and/or economic power, if it can coerce others with its hard power.

However, the notion used in this paper is more Gramscian, conceiving hegemonic power as being based on a subtle fusion of coercion and consent. (Gramsci, Arrighi, Nye)  Sustained leadership of any political system, particularly a global system of states, requires not only the hard military and economic power to enforce dominance when necessary, but also the ideological, political, and institutional power to persuade others to accept the rules and norms of a system largely designed and operated by the hegemon and its allies.  This soft power is what allows a hegemonic system to function across decades without continuous resort to massive violence.  The global hegemon is able to represent the world system, which works primarily to the advantage of itself and its allies, as a system of universal norms and practices that benefit all.  Of course, many participants in the system are not fooled completely by the ideological mystifications, and therefore the political, economic, and institutional incentives of the system are aligned to reward states and leaders that comply and punish those who do not.  However, it should not be missed that at least to some degree consent is actually produced, that many of the beliefs and ideas of the system are internalized and sincerely held by many whose real interests may or may not be served by the system.

II. Theories of Hegemonic Stability and Hegemonic Cycles

Ahistorical Theories of Hegemonic Stability

One widely accepted assertion of international relations today is that there is only one superpower, that we live in a unipolar world.  Many U.S. IR scholars and most U.S. policymakers see America¡¯s superpower as contributing to global stability.  This is the theory of unipolar stability or hegemonic stability in which the hegemonic power plays a crucial role in maintaining order in the world system.  According to this perspective, the hegemon is the most benign power in the global system.  Because the hegemon is the power that benefits most from the existing world order, the hegemon has the greatest stake in keeping that system functioning.  The military power of the hegemon keeps the peace, discouraging challengers to the global order.  The economy of the hegemon is the engine that drives international economic growth and development.  In order to preserve its network of alliances, the hegemon is the political broker who moderates disputes between other powers, thus keeping them from escalating into serious conflict.  The hegemon seeks to bind other states into the global order and thus plays a leading role in developing global institutions that manage international security and economic relations.  The hegemon is often the source and usually a propagator of ideas about world order and security.  In the words of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the hegemon is ¡°the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future.¡±

In this simplest form, the theory of hegemonic stability is ahistorical.  The global leadership that the U.S. took after the second world war is assumed to play out indefinitely or at least through much of the 21st century.  The challenge of the Soviet Union and communism, the rise of China, even the fall of the prior hegemon Great Britain are relegated to footnotes in the ongoing story of U.S. global leadership.  In this view, unipolarity is not a moment, it is the fate of the U.S. to be ¡°bound to lead¡± the global system in perpetuity, or at least as far out as policymakers are capable of thinking or scholars are willing to project.

Theories of Hegemonic Cycles

An opposing perspective, the theory of hegemonic cycles, argues that hegemonic systems run in very predictable patterns.  The weaker, often realist, version of this theory, argues simply that hegemonic unipolarity is unstable and likely over time to break down into multipolarity or bipolarity.

The stronger version argues that there is empirical evidence of a repeated regular ¡°long cycle¡± of hegemonic breakdown in which hegemony begets counter hegemonic challenge, hegemonic war, and the emergence of a third power as the new hegemon.  (Gilpin,Wallerstein, Modelski, Rasler and Thompson)   

According to the theory of hegemonic cycle, as European powers expanded their conquest of non-European lands and modernized their economies, one power usually stood at the apex of the capitalist system.  Roughly speaking, in the 16th century, Portugal led the system, in the 17th century it was the Netherlands, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was Great Britain, and in the 20th century it was the U.S.  Hegemony is won through a combination of economic and military superiority. Hegemony is lost when a rising power emerges with innovative technologies and new forms of economic, political, and/or military organization amassing capabilities that challenge those of the hegemon.  The challenger covets the position of the hegemon.  The Spanish challenged the Portuguese, the French challenged both the Dutch and the British.  Later the British were challenged by Germany.  The U.S. was challenged by the Soviet Union.  The contest between the hegemon and the hegemonic challenger will generally lead to a system-wide war.  In three of the five cases the hegemon and the challenger were both so weakened that a third power rises to succeed as hegemon.

Recently certain scholars of global hegemonic systems have suggested that the theory of the hegemonic state is superfluous or even inaccurate.  Serious questions have been raised about the importance of purported hegemons 16th century Portugal and 17th century Netherlands to a global system in which Europe was still a minor proportion of all world-wide production, or even their importance in European politics, given the relative weakness of their armies. (Wilkinson)  This is only the latest of a series of objections that the theory of hegemonic cycles, while pointing out significant regularities in relations between major powers and ordering in the international system, has a tendency to fit too wide a range of history and too diverse a set of circumstances into too narrow a Procrustean bed of convenient theory.

Dynamic Theories of Globalization and Hegemonic Stability

The theory of long cycles of hegemony has also been criticized as not giving enough weight to the changing nature of the hegemonic system over time.  Hegemonic cycle theory does recognize that the rise of each new hegemon and each new hegemonic challenger represent a new stage in the historical development of the world capitalist system and the dominant mode of organization of the system.  The succession of the Dutch, the British, and the Americans to the position of hegemony is generally recognized as not only a change in leadership but also a progression in the scope and scale of capitalist organization.  Yet within theories of long cycles of hegemony these distinctions tend to represent differences in degree, not in kind.

Yet the belief is widespread that the global system has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last half century.  The globalization thesis is often fused with a form of the hegemonic stability argument.  According to this view, since World War II, and especially in recent decades, a new era has begun in which American leadership is not only more easily exercised, but also more necessary, and recognized as necessary, by most of the major global powers and players. 

According to this perspective, globalization has increased the ability of the hegemon to integrate the system, lessened the possibilities for system-wide breakdown, and reduced the ability of competitor states to mount true counter hegemonic challenges.  In this view, the global system of the early 21st century is much more interdependent economically, institutionalized politically, and wired for communications than it has ever been, leaving little space for counter ideologies or powerful economic or political blocs to exist outside the prevailing global system. 

Perhaps the most well known is Fukuyama¡¯s The End of History, which was so popular in the triumphalism on the heels of the end of the Cold War but which may seem a bit naïve several years into the Terrorism Wars.  Without explicitly mentioning the theory of hegemony, few scholars have inadvertently given a more profound statement of the ideology of western hegemony than Fukuyama.

Another version of the globalization hypothesis that may be growing in appeal given the rising distaste for the unilateral militarism of the Bush administration is Joseph Nye¡¯s The Paradox of American Power.  Theories of hegemony typically try to integrate two dimensions of analysis—economic and military-political, tracing how rising economic challenging powers can eventually come into military conflict with the prevailing hegemon.   With his concept of soft power—social, cultural, and ideological power—Nye adds a third dimension to the equation, a dimension that is almost certainly taking on an ever increasing importance in the information age, when the internet, satellite TV, and Hollywood reach directly into the sensorium of  an ever greater fraction of the world¡¯s population.  Soft power provides ideological and cultural means to help absorb rising new powers into the system, defusing potentially destructive conflicts between challenger powers and the established hegemonic state.

III. A Theory of Hegemonic Overreach

A modification of the hegemonic cycle theory that incorporates some aspects of the globalization thesis might be called a theory of hegemonic overreach.  Most contemporary analysts of hegemonic breakdown focus on the imbalance between economic growth and innovation in new rising powers vs. heavy politico-military commitments in the economically receding hegemon.  Marx saw global capitalism engendering its own fatal oppositional forces, like a sorcerer¡¯s apprentice unable to control his own magic.  Lenin added the global politico-military contradictions of imperialism.  In describing the dilemmas of leading powers, Kennedy pointed out the problem imperial overstretch, a succinct metaphor for the standard theory of cyclical hegemonic breakdown. 

But perhaps another important contradiction in the world system is the tendency of the hegemonic system to relentlessly incorporate innumerable peoples and cultures, to swallow whole and be unable to digest entire ways of life.  Like the liberal Nye, perhaps theorists of hegemonic breakdown need to take much more seriously a third ideological-cultural dimension as well as the more classical economic and politico-military dimensions.  Such analysis could supplement more standard theories of hegemonic breakdown.

Perhaps each iteration of the hegemonic system should be seen as qualitatively different.  The hegemonic system when led by the British spanned more of the globe and reached deeper than when it was led by the Dutch.  Since the U.S. has assumed control of the system it has grown broader and thicker than it was in the days of the British.  But just as each iteration integrates more and more of global economics and politics, it also pulls more and more activity into its orbit which cannot be easily integrated.

Exactly because the breadth and scope of the world system expands over time, an analogous problem becomes more difficult at each successive iteration.  As the hegemonic system grows broader, deeper, and more institutionally complex, it still shows countervailing tendencies toward breakdown for two fundamental reasons. 

First, precisely because the system reaches ever more deeply into ever more aspects of everyday life in all corners of the planet, it increasingly engenders more sustained opposition and effective resistance.  Second, the particular state that is in the position of hegemon, the United States, has a special sense of messianic mission to make over the world in its image that leads it to take on an almost unlimited project of transforming the non-western world.  That boundless project of global transformation periodically leads the U.S. into military, political, and economic interventions that ultimately undermine support for the global system and strengthen the very forces opposed to it.

Overreach of the Hegemonic Cultural and Ideological System

Certainly there is a rich tradition of study of the cultural and ideological dimension of hegemony reaching back to Gramsci himself and post-colonial theorists such as Fanon, Friere, Said, and others.  However, this intellectual wellspring is rarely drawn upon in analysis of hegemonic breakdown or the dilemmas of the hegemonic state.

The capitalist economic system and the McWorld/Hollywood cultural system is relentless as it pervades deeper and deeper into more and more obscure corners of the world, ever expanding its sway and stirring both awe and resistance wherever it travels.  Many Americans may feel their hearts warmed at the opening of another McDonalds in some obscure corner of the planet, but most of them feel discomfited to see more Spanish language signs than English signs and hear Spanish spoken more often than English if it happens in part of their town.  Yet an influx of Mexican or Caribbean laborers hardly represent the threat to the traditional American way of life that American businesses, banks, movies, television, dress, etc. do to time-honored culture in a traditionalist Third World town.

The western expansion into the non-western world has been going on for half a millennium.  The fear of loss of identity in this process in the non-western world is centuries old, as is the American dread of being overwhelmed by masses of unassimilated immigrants.  Yet only a few challenge that the cultural assault of the West has intensified in the information age, that in the words of Nye, it has become ¡°thicker and quicker.¡±  It has gone from being ever more global in scope to becoming ever more invasive in depth—to reaching not only most spaces on the planet to pervading an ever higher proportion of daily activities around the world.  What the panglossians of globalization fail to recognize is that this greater depth of global reach may be provoking a proportionally greater reaction and resistance.  A threshold in the rate of cultural intrusion may have been crossed, a ceiling in the scope and depth of alien cognitive dissonance, at least in some large parts of the non-western world, leading to what Bush conservatives have called on the domestic front ¡°culture wars¡± on a global scale.

Furthermore, if one truly believes the argument that the tools of the information age are inherently decentralizing and empowering to marginal social and political forces, then these tools can be mobilized by the resisters as well as the propagators of westernized versions of globalization.  In other words, Islamicists can use the internet, camcorders, and satellite TV too.

Huntington¡¯s ¡°clash of civilizations¡± thesis is usually shunned by both realists and critical theorists of hegemony.  However recent history seems to support at least two of Huntington main theses.  Civilizations, particularly but not only western and Islamic civilizations, are increasingly tending to clash, if for no other reason than the intensification of cultural globalization.  As Huntington notes, this has a lot to do with the unexpected revival of religious fundamentalism since the late 20th century, not only in the Muslim world, but in much of the Hindu and Christian domains as well.  In what Huntington calls the ¡°revenge of God,¡± religious right parties and factions have been thriving not only in the Muslim but in the Christian and Hindu worlds as well, reflecting growing membership in fundamentalist sects around the globe.  In much of the world religious fundamentalism has replaced socialism as the most powerful form of resistance to western liberal globalization, although progressive resistance is still also a major force as seen in the revival of social democracy in South America and the peace movement in Europe and North America in recent years.  In the early 21st century, the prevailing challenge to the hegemonic system, and particularly to the policies of the hegemonic state, come not so much from rival states but from mass movements based on a sense of cultural and national difference.

Hegemonic Overreach and American Messianic Mission

Huntington¡¯s assertion that western universalism is unlikely to convert the rest of the world to liberal globalism but is more likely to make the clash of civilizations more intense also seems to be proving true.  If the smug sense of the inevitability of the triumph of western superiority of a Fukuyama that prevailed during the Clinton era tends to exacerbates global tensions, then the Manichean militarism of neoconservative messianic mission has inflamed them even more.

Taking seriously the ideological-cultural dimension can also help understand the behavior of the current hegemon—that sense of almost religious mission, that almost revolutionary zeal to transform a backward world, that arrogant assumption that the world should be reshaped in America¡¯s image. (Gamble, Smith, Stephanson, Coles)  On the one hand, the hegemon is often taken as a highly conservative power, bent on preserving the system that puts it at the apex.  The hegemonic state has always been in somewhat of a contradictory position.  It must be conservative in the sense of preserving the system yet it must also be aggressive in extending the scope and depth of the overall system into the non-western world. 

Yet due to its pre-hegemonic formative experiences, the U.S. has always been qualitatively different than the British or any hegemonic predecessor.  From the first attempts of the U.S. to step up as a leading world power at the post-World War I peace conference, the U.S. has sought more aggressively to transform international political and economic systems in its liberal image. 

One source of this difference lies in U.S. historical experience.  The U.S. was a nation built on immigration.  People from around the world came to the U.S. and were made over into Americans, leaving the more nationalistic of the American elite with the impression that most of the world wants to become Americans.  It is only a slight parody to say that from this point of view, those who have not yet made the passage to America are simply weaker and lack the will compared to their stronger brethren who already made it.

These immigrants from diverse nations, religions, and cultures were poured into the ¡°melting pot¡± of American culture and ¡°Americanized¡± through a systematic process of indoctrination into a civic culture of liberal capitalism, rugged individualism, democracy of white males, nationalist expansionism, and ¡°Manifest Destiny¡± through public schools and political propaganda through the mass media.  It was no accident that the random cacophony of peoples that desperately fled to the North American continent in the 18th and 19th centuries was molded into the unified, purposeful global hegemon of the 20th century.  And while it was not part of a master plan, neither is it a random event that the U.S. attitude toward the entire planet in the 20th century is not that different than the American attitude toward North America in the 19th century.

The American transformational mission cannot be fully grasped without understanding U.S. economic and geostrategic interests as the hegemonic state.  But neither can it be truly understood without grasping the messianic impulses that lie deep in American culture.  The twin pillars of religious doctrine and secular liberalism that lie at the heart of U.S. hegemony can be seen in the son of a Christian minister Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. president to clearly articulate the concepts of U.S. hegemony and whose name is still synonymous with them.  Speaking of the U.S. forces in World War I, Wilson¡¯s sense of religious mission shines through.

(The troops) brought with them a great ardor for a supreme cause. . . . They saw a city not built with hands. They saw a citadel . . . where dwelt the oracles of God himself. . . . There were never crusaders that went to the Holy Land in the old ages . . . that were more truly devoted to a holy cause.[i]

And Wilson also clearly saw the U.S. as expression of God¡¯s will on earth.

The men who . . . frame[d] this government . . . set up a standard to which they intended that the nations of the world should rally. They said to the people of the world, "Come to us, this is the home of liberty; this is the place where mankind can learn how to govern their own affairs . . . and the world did come to us.[ii]

While over the years it has often been judged wise not to express directly overt religious sentiments in international fora and the ideology itself has become more secularized, the same sense of global mission to transform the world has been consistent for almost a century.  In his second Inaugural Address, often taken as the defining speech of his presidency, George Bush, openly expressing long held views, sounds much like Wilson nearly a hundred years ago.  Although at one point he explicitly denies seeing the U.S. as the ¡°chosen nation¡± of God, the rest of the text shows a profound sense of divine mission. President Bush clearly believes that ¡°God moves and chooses¡± in human history and the direction ¡°He¡± chooses for ¡°all the world¡± is American style liberty.

we can feel that same unity and pride whenever America acts for good, and the victims of disaster are given hope, and the unjust encounter justice, and the captives are set free.

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom¡¦Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now" - they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof.[iii]

The American impulse to rework the world in its image comes not only from its corporate and political imperatives but also at a deeper level from fundamental cultural, ideological, and even religious beliefs, not only from its calculations of power, but from its sense of its manifest destiny, once taken as a charge to rule over North America, now conceived on even a grander scale to be a mission to literally save the world.

IV. Hegemonic Overreach and U.S. Foreign Policy: Failures and ¡°Successes¡±

Overreach vs. Overstretch as Explanation of U.S. Foreign Policy Failures

In the past half century the contradiction of the nearly limitless project of the U.S. hegemonic state with its limited will and ability to commit resources to carry out its grandiose project has led to several major U.S. policy failures. 

Perhaps the most influential concept that emerged from the academic hegemonic cycle literature into policy and popular political discourse was the phrase ¡°imperial overstretch¡± coined by Paul Kennedy.  Imperial overstretch was introduced in the late 1980s in the wake of the U.S. retrenchment after Vietnam, the global recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, the relative decline of the U.S. economy compared to the Japanese and East Asian and even the leading European economies, and the conversion of the U.S. from the leading global creditor into the leading global debtor.  It captured in a simple phrase the perception that the U.S. was a power in decline and a sense of the reasons behind that decline.  It fell out of fashion in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival of the U.S. economy, the easy victory in the first Iraq War, and overall impression of U.S. hyperpower.  However, in the wake of 9/11, the snafu in Iraq, and the growing resistance around the world to Bush administration policies, overstretch or some similar concept seems destined to return to international political discourse to seek to explain the deeper roots of U.S. foreign policy.

I suggest that hegemonic overreach is a more apt metaphor.  What is the difference which term is applied?  Over-stretch, over-reach, they both describe over-action.  But overstretch implies an unavoidable, inevitable, mechanical process devoid of human will or choice.  Overreach identifies willful human action, like reaching for an apple on a tree in a garden.  Overstretch connotes a defective product, overreach invokes bad choices.

Kennedy¡¯s theory of overstretch is an expression of the standard view of the cycle of hegemonic breakdown which emphasizes the temporal contradiction of the hegemonic state—the rising cost of politico-military commitments vs. the declining economic capabilities relative to rising challenger states.  The metaphor of hegemonic overreach supplements this perspective by pointing to an inherent contradiction that is not so much rooted in time, although it works out over time—the mismatch between the finite capabilities of the hegemonic state and the virtually infinite mission of transforming the world into one liberal, democratic paradise.  Over time, this broad messianic mandate to ¡°save the world¡± translates into a series of unmanageable particular interventions that prove beyond the ability of the hegemonic state and its allies to sustain.

In the context of the global system and U.S. foreign policy both overstretch and overreach signify a mismatch between capabilities and missions, but they suggest different ways of thinking about why this mismatch occurs, how to avoid future policy failures, what causes the breakdown of hegemonic systems, and the future direction of the current system.

The theory of hegemonic overreach contributes to better understanding of several cases of U.S. foreign policy failure, particularly 1. the Vietnam War, 2. the current war in Iraq, and 3. the attempt of Woodrow Wilson to impose his vision of reform at the Paris peace conference after the first world war.  Two apparent policy triumphs that later bore bitter fruit are also examples of hegemonic overreach—the restoration of the Shah of Iran and the support for the anti-Soviet Islamic militant rebels in Afghanistan that later became the Taliban and which included aid to Osama bin Laden.  Each of these cases lends credence to the theory of hegemonic overreach as a way of understanding recurrent crises in the global system and endemic, systemic flaws in U.S. foreign policy.


One of the most significant policy failures of U.S. hegemony, and one that first gave credence to the possibility that U.S. hegemony was headed toward breakdown was the Vietnam War.  Many different reasons have been given for the miscalculation of the U.S. in Vietnam and it is beyond the scope of this paper to delve into them all.  The more limited purpose here is to compare overreach vs. overstretch as explanations and in particular to consider the importance of ideological-cultural factors as compared to more purely economic or military-strategic factors in the decision to intervene. 

Certainly one of the principle reasons for the U.S. invasion of Vietnam was the misinterpretation of the nature of the Vietnamese revolution as primarily part of the world communist conspiracy rather than a national revolution.  This is how President Lyndon Johnson characterized the war:

North Viet Nam has attacked the independent nation of South Viet Nam. Its object is total conquest. .  . Over this war—and all Asia—is . . . the deepening shadow of Communist China. . .The contest in Viet Nam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes. . . Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well being rests in part on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Viet Nam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America's word.[iv]

Because of its messianic global crusade against communism the U.S. saw not only the Vietnamese conflict, but virtually every local anticolonial rebellion and regional conflict as part of its Manichean struggle with communism.  Local and regional forces were either good supporters of the ¡°free¡± world or agents of the communist dark side. 

U.S. forces may have been stretched thin around the world by this global crusade as was recognized by the Nixon Doctrine which was proclaimed upon retreat from Vietnam.  But the reason why the U.S. had so many missions must also be examined carefully.  The interests of capitalists stretch far and wide around the globe.  But few major corporate interests were at stake in Vietnam.  The ¡°domino theory¡± suggested that if Vietnam fell more obvious assets like Indonesia, the Philippines, or even eventually Japan might be at risk.  Yet in fact when Vietnam went, the rest of Indochina fell, but no further dominos toppled.  So perhaps we should also take seriously the messianic mindset that sought to save the entire world from godless communism as a real ideological and cultural force in driving the U.S. commitment in remote Vietnam.  Maybe the real geostrategic lesson of Vietnam is that reach exceeded grasp.


No one knows the long-term outcome of the current conflict in Iraq, but so far the U.S. has not only been unable to defeat the insurgency, but the war has also created enemies and lost supporters for the U.S. throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds alike. 

The U.S. invasion of Iraq is more easily explained by traditional economic and geostrategic factors than the U.S. invasion of Vietnam (or Wilson¡¯s master plan for postwar peace).  Iraq has huge oil reserves and is strategically located in the region that exports most of the world¡¯s oil.  It is clear that the U.S. and its allies have massive material interests at stake in the Middle East.

Yet the very fact that the U.S. and several of its key allies have differed so sharply on strategy toward Iraq since 9/11 shows that something more than raw material interest drove the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  In the first Gulf War under the first President Bush, the U.S. had virtually unanimous support of its major allies and either troops or major financial and logistical support from France, Germany, and Canada as well as Britain, Italy, and Japan.  In the current war in Iraq, while the governments of Britain, Italy, and Japan supported the U.S., France, Germany, and Canada pointedly refused to do so.  Popular support in Europe and major allies in Asia has always been low.  Several early supporters of the war, such as Spain, have withdrawn their troops and others, such as Italy, are preparing to do so.

When nations that all are heavily dependent on imported oil have such sharply different policies toward the world¡¯s leading oil exporting region, one must look at other factors beyond simple dependence on foreign oil.  Other material interests could be invoked.  France¡¯s long standing oil contracts with the Saddam regime have often been used to explain French reluctance to take a hard line.  So have the high number of Arabs residing in France compared to the low number of Jews.  Yet neither of these factors deterred France from sending troops in the first Gulf War.  And neither of these factors was at play in Canada¡¯s or Germany¡¯s decision not to back the U.S. in the second war after they did in the first war.

Perhaps we need to look more carefully at the official motivations proffered by the Bush administration.  President Bush¡¯s 2003 State of the Union address to the American people, before the invasion, played on post-9/11 fears and stressed the issue of WMD.  Bush accused Saddam Hussein of potentially having

25,000 liters of anthrax--enough doses to kill several million people

38,000 liters of botulinum toxin--enough to subject millions of people to death

500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent (which) could also kill untold thousands

advanced nuclear weapons development program (and) a design for a nuclear weapon[v]

Bush also claimed

Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveals that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.[vi]

One year later, in his 2004 State of the Union speech, after no WMD had been found, Bush¡¯s justifications had shifted, and the war was now part of a grander strategy of freedom and democratic peace for the entire Middle East.

(C)ombat forces of the United States and other countries enforced the demands of the United Nations, ended the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the people of Iraq are free.

As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair, and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East.

Our aim is a democratic peace, a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom.[vii]

The very fact that the ideological validations for the war could shift so dramatically in one year shows they cannot be taken at face value, that more base economic and geostrategic interests also lie behind the more noble rationalizations.  Yet just because something is not entirely true does not mean it is not believed.  Although Washington (and London) may have grossly exaggerated reports of WMD in Iraq, many may still have sincerely believed that Saddam was attempting to regain weapons he in fact once did have. 

Similarly, just because the U.S. has historically acted more often to crush democratic movements in the Middle East than to promote them, it does not follow that the rhetoric about democratizing Iraq was not serious.  In a historically messianic United States traumatized by 9/11 but still comforted by post-Cold War triumphalism, the neoconservative project of combating rising terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism by transforming Iraq into an oasis of liberal democracy in the desert of Middle Eastern autocracy sounded a sweet siren¡¯s song.   Surely the U.S. has neoimperial ambitions in Iraq, but its original ambitions were actually much greater than merely economic or geostrategic, in fact, they were truly revolutionary.  They reached far beyond what could reasonably have been expected to be achieved.

Wilson¡¯s Postwar Vision

Of the three policy failures cited in this section, the one that most clearly favors the theory of hegemonic overreach against overstretch is Wilson¡¯s failure to achieve his visionary goals in the post-World War I settlement.  The theory of overstretch hypothesizes that hegemonic power degrades over time, like a physical substance being subjected to repeated stress.  If characteristic miscalculations and failures are significant factors early in the hegemonic cycle that weighs heavily against life-cycle theories of decline and overstretch as principle explanations of hegemonic failure.

Policy goals that reach far beyond capabilities available and messianic ideology that drives global transformational goals that cannot be realized can be seen from the very dawning of U.S. hegemony, after the U.S. had played a decisive role in the outcome of the first world war.  Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president and the son of the preacher, struck such a dramatic pose at the Paris Peace Conference as a man on a mission to reform world politics.  The story is so well known it does not need retelling here. 

Yet Wilson¡¯s bold declarations about self-determination of peoples and peaceful settlement of international disputes went essentially unheeded as the leading imperial powers carved up the Ottoman Empire¡¯s territories, applied the concept of disarmament only to Germany, and, while creating a League of Nations, did not give it sufficient power to influence the outcome of international conflicts.  Wilson¡¯s reach so exceeded his grasp that even his own country¡¯s Senate rejected the treaty that only marginally reflected his transformational agenda. 

It could be argued that Wilson¡¯s failure is not quite the same as the failure in Vietnam and the unfolding potential failure in Iraq because the U.S. had not yet the established itself as global hegemon.  However, Wilson¡¯s postwar plan was clearly designed to create U.S. hegemony.  The U.S. had most of the capabilities to step up as the hegemon in the post-World War I world.  The U.S. simply misplayed its hand, first by Wilson¡¯s overreaching at the peace conference, then back home through the subsequent Republican rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the diplomacy necessary to carry out hegemonic strategy. 

Why did the U.S. succeed in establishing its hegemony after the World War II when it failed after World War I?  The standard answer that U.S. power was more overwhelming because the old European powers were so much more thoroughly destroyed and needed help facing the threat of the Soviet Union and international communism has great merit, but it leaves out some nuances that are important for understanding the later development of U.S. hegemony.  Because of its anti-communist, anti-Soviet mission, as the Cold War unfolded the U.S. reined in its reformist zeal and took a more realist approach to the European powers and Japan.  And because they were under such grave threat, the other capitalist powers were willing to tolerate American messianic zeal, because a savior was precisely what they were seeking.

The early Cold War masked the conflict between the messianic mission of U.S. foreign policy and the interests of other capitalist powers that were more apparent when Wilson came to Paris, during the Vietnam War, and since the end of the Cold War.

What Price Success?

Even prominent U.S. policy ¡°successes¡± during the Cold War have later proven to be cases of hegemonic overreach because of ¡°blowback,¡± or counterproductive long-term consequences.  In the 1950s a popular revolution in Iran ousted the British created and U.S. supported Shah of Iran.  The CIA quickly engineered a counterrevolution to bring the Shah back to power. 

In 1979 the Shah was ousted again, this time by the Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini which established the theocracy which was ideological inspiration for rising fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world.  The quarter of a century of repression by the Shah that U.S. intervention had produced had enraged the Iranian people, liquidated democratic and popular forces that might have channeled that anger in a progressive direction, and thus paved the way for a reactionary fundamentalist revolution.  The U.S. had the power to impose a regime on the Iranian people and help keep it in government for a generation, but it could not control the long-term consequences of its actions.  Now the U.S. is facing down a militant Islamic state apparently pursuing nuclear weapons.  Once again, U.S. reach exceeded its grasp.

U.S. support Islamic fundamentalist mujahadin in Afghanistan is another example of the U.S. cold warriors helping empower forces that would come back to haunt them.  During the Cold War, when Islamic fundamentalists with ideologies not unlike Osama Bin Laden were pointing their guns at the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, the U.S. thought of them as the good guys and the U.S. was actually providing them with weapons.

The fall of the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan was a major triumph in U.S. policy, one of the first in the series of shocks that led to the fall of the Soviet empire.  However, the swiftness and totality of the collapse of the Soviet system indicates that fall was heavily overdetermined, that it was bound to happen regardless of any particular historical sequence.  The fall of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan probably sped up the coming of the collapse and the U.S. support for the mujahadin probably helped their cause.  But the depth of Muslim hostility to the Soviet system was revealed in the absolute and total flight of all the Muslim republics out of the Soviet Union once Gorbachev lifted political repression.  U.S. aid to the mujahadin was almost certainly superfluous to the outcome in Afghanistan and even more so to the overall outcome in the Soviet empire.

However, the U.S. aid was perhaps not incidental to the more local issue of who won out in post-Soviet Afghanistan.  Certainly the money, weapons, and training provided to Islamic militants similar to Osama bin Laden were substantial to small, irregular groups trying to establish themselves as independent fighting units and make a name for themselves among anti-Soviet forces.  While the U.S. probably cannot claim credit for the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, it must bear some of the responsibility for the kind of government that succeeded it.

The implications of U.S. ¡°successes¡± in Iran in the 1950s and Afghanistan in the 1980s are profound for the situation in Iraq today.  In the long run, U.S. ¡°success¡± in establishing a partially functioning pro-American regime in Baghdad may do more to stimulate the forces of Islamic fundamentalist resistance across the Arab and Muslim world than an early U.S. retreat.  A permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq may become a symbol not of a rising tide of liberal democratization in the Muslim world, but of infidel oppression, and a spur to a new surge of Islamic fundamentalist resistance to western domination.

V. Future Challenges to Hegemony

Potential Sources of Hegemonic Breakdown

The theory of hegemonic cycles focuses on the macro-historical process of the rise and decline of hegemonic powers.  However, within any one of the cycles, there are lesser periods of hegemonic weakening and regeneration.  The loss of the Vietnam War followed by the oil shock induced recessions of the 1970s and the early 1980s led some to predict the imminent breakdown of U.S. hegemony.  The decisive victory in the first Iraq war and the revival of the U.S. economy in the 1990s led others to talk of a second American century.  Both were premature.

Similarly, the short term outcome of the war in Iraq, whether it is the stabilization of a pro-American regime or the collapse of the current pro-American government will almost certainly lead either to new euphoric pronouncements about the 21st century belonging to the U.S. or claims that the end of U.S. hegemony are nigh.  Again, either conclusion will most likely be premature.  However, the outcome on the main battlefield so far in the Terrorism Wars will indicate much about the future direction of the global system.  Hegemonic states and even hegemonic systems do have life spans, however hard it is to gauge them.

There is an even larger question than whether the U.S. will remain the hegemonic state within the western system.  How long will the West remain hegemonic in the global system?  Since Spengler the issue of the decline of the West has been debated.  It would be hard to question current western dominance of virtually every global economic, political, military, or ideological system today.  In some ways the domination of the West seems even more firm than it was in the past because the West is no longer a group of fiercely competing states but increasingly a cohesive force.  In the era of western domination, breakdown of the rule of each hegemonic state has come because of competition from powerful rival states at the core of the system leading to system-wide war.  The unique characteristic of the Cold War and particularly the post-Cold War system is that the core capitalist states are now to a large degree politically united and increasingly economically integrated. 

In the 21st century, two factors taking place on the periphery and semi-periphery seem more of a threat to the reproduction to the hegemony of the American state and the western system than conflict between core states: 1. resistance to western cultural hegemony in the Muslim world and 2. the rise of new or reformed super states.

Relations between the core and periphery have already undergone one massive transformation in the 20th century—decolonization.  The historical significance of decolonization was overshadowed somewhat by the emergence of the Cold War and the nuclear age.  Recognition of its impact was dampened somewhat by the subsequent relative lack of change of fundamental economic relations between core and periphery.

But one of the historical legacies of decolonization is that ideological legitimation has become more crucial in operating the global system.  The manufacture of some level of consent, particularly among the elite in the periphery has replaced brute domination.  Less raw force is necessary but in return a greater burden of ideological and cultural legitimation is required.  Now it is no longer enough for colonials to obey, willing participants must believe.  Therefore, cultural challenges to the foundations of the liberal capitalist world view assume much greater significance.  Thus the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and other traditionalist belief systems as ideologies of opposition has increasing significance in a system dependent on greater levels of willing consent.

The other more recent change in core-periphery dynamics is the re-emergence of great states on the periphery or semi-periphery.  China, low on the international division of labor, is in some ways a classic case of a peripheral or at best semi-peripheral state.  But its sheer size, its rapid growth, its currency reserves, its actual and potential markets, etc. make it a major power and a potential future counter hegemon.  India lags behind China, but has similar aspirations.  Russia has fallen from great power to semi-periphery status since the collapse of the Soviet empire, but its energy resources and the technological skills of its people make recovery of its former greatness possible.  Perhaps in the mid to long term future the Terrorism Wars will be overshadowed by a counter hegemonic challenge by a coalition of Asian states led by China or some other power. 

No one knows exactly what the resurgence of Asia portends for the future.  However, just as half a century ago global decolonization was a blow to western domination, so the shift in economic production to Asia will redefine global power relations throughout the 21st century.

The Islamic Fundamentalist Challenge to Western Hegemony

The tendency of U.S. foreign policy and the western cultural system toward hegemonic overreach both increase the probability that conflict with Islamic fundamentalism will intensify and decrease the probability that any emerging non-western super states can be smoothly incorporated into the existing system.

From a theoretical perspective it is hard to explain why the current challenge to western hegemony is centered in the Islamic world and why the resistance has risen so strongly at this point in history.  One would not expect resistance to western power to be uniform in the non-western world.  States and regions that are winning under current forms of globalization; for example Northeast Asia, including Japan, South Korea, China, etc. could be expected to be more satisfied.  Regions that are crushed under the wheel of current forms of globalization, such as sub-Sahara Africa might be expect to be unable to mount any effective challenge.  Certainly Islam presents a coherent, deeply rooted counter ideology to western liberalism, making it a powerful, plausible alternative belief system.  And the ongoing wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict keeps western presence a visible, live daily issue.

One need look no further than the war in Iraq to see how the Terrorism Wars are only creating more terrorists.  This counter productive hegemonic overreach has a long history in this part of the world.  The U.S. engineered coup to return the Shah to Iran and the Shah¡¯s repression of all progressive forces left the Islamic revolutionaries of the Ayatollah Khomeini the only viable vehicle of resistance.  Iran was only the most visible case of U.S. support for reactionary monarchs or military dictators in the Islamic world, who hasten to crush any sign of progressive movement but either cozy up to reactionary clerics in search of some popular support or are unwilling or unable to muster the same determination in suppressing opposition in the mosques. 

The Bush plan for democratization of Iraq and Afghanistan may seem an improvement over the long standing U.S. practice of supporting reactionary regimes in the Islamic world, but in fact it is a much more ambitious grasping for power than ever before conceived.  The old reactionary monarchs were expected only to rule their people and keep the oil flowing.  Perhaps wealth would trickle down and their societies over time would modernize and even democratize, but that was not the essential function their regimes performed for the West.  But the Bush plan calls for immediate democratization for Iraq and Afghanistan with the hope that they will initiate a wave of rapid transformation of the Middle East and Central Asia into regions of liberal democracy, much as changes in the Soviet system unleashed a wave of democratization in eastern Europe.  The evidence so far is that this is overreach on a massive scale.

Perhaps the high flying rhetoric of the neoconservatives about transforming the Middle East and the Islamic world should not be taken seriously.  After all, plans for the democratization of Kuwait that were loudly trumpeted during the first Iraq war were quietly shelved once the Kuwaiti royal family was firmly back on the throne.  If so, then the war in Iraq is more classic U.S. overreach, in the tradition of supporting the Shah of Iran.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the vicious cycle between U.S. supported Israeli hard-liners and Palestinian militants continues, with each act of violence by one generating more support for militants on the other side.  Islamic fundamentalists and U.S. Christian fundamentalists seem to be locked in a similar cycle, with the 9/11 bombing strengthening the hard-line Republicans in the U.S. and the Iraq invasion strengthening the Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East.  The dynamics in the region are analogous not so much to the wave of democratizations at the end of the Cold War as the to the way Cold War hard-line policies by the Soviets strengthened the hard-liners in the U.S. and hard-line policies in the U.S. strengthened hard-liners in the Soviet Union.

It seems unlikely that the ¡°clash of civilizations¡± between Islamic fundamentalists and the West alone will bring about the breakdown of western global hegemony or even the end U.S. domination within the existing system.  The Terrorism Wars have already caused considerable chaos in the Middle East and parts of Asia and some discomfort in the western world.  It is beyond knowing whether these conflicts have already peaked or whether we have just seen the tip of the iceberg.  However, even if the Terrorism Wars prove a long and brutal struggle in which Iraq was only an early theater, chaos in the Muslim world is unlikely to represent a basic challenge to western supremacy.  Disciplined terrorists and rioting Islamic immigrants can only episodically bring the struggle home to the West.  Access to crucial oil supplies could be cut off, throwing markets into turmoil, but the global economy has already twice recovered from oil shocks.  Taken in isolation from other factors, Islamic fundamentalism is unlikely to be a decisive threat to western hegemony because there is no powerful Islamic state that can match western economic productive power, much less systematically wage war outside its territory, and thus there is no vital threat to western supremacy.

Potential Hegemonic Challenger States

The states that could most likely develop both the will and the capacity to challenge U.S. supremacy and even western hegemony, depending on how the 21st century unfolds, are China, India, and Russia.  Japan is another possibility if it fell out of the western alliance, but that is an unlikely event and will not be considered here.  China and India each have a population of over a billion and their economies are growing at close to 10% a year, but they are still relatively poor nations.  If they could sustain the current rates of economic growth over upcoming decades they would eventually become the two largest economies in the world.  China is already projected by many to surpass the U.S. in a decade or two in total economic production if measured by real purchasing power rather than by exchange rate.  If China and/or India were to achieve levels of economic development anywhere near that of the West, that would represent a shift in economic power to Asia beyond what Japan and other East Asian nations have currently achieved. 

However, for any of these states to become a challenger to western hegemony, several conditions would have to be met.  First, China and/or India would have to sustain their almost unprecedented rates of economic growth for almost unprecedented decades of virtually uninterrupted prosperity.  Achieving such high growth is rare enough, sustaining it would be even more unlikely.  Growth alone, without a change in the nature of the economy and society would leave these nations still low on the international division of labor, producing mostly low value added consumer goods for the western world.  To become true global powerhouses they would have to follow a similar trajectory as Japan and South Korea and climb up the ladder of technology, finance, and complexity of international organization.  Russia would face a similar task starting from a higher technological and social base, and with massive energy resources, but with 10% of the population of the Asian giants.

Yet even Japan, which is one of the handful of nations that has overcome these imposing ordeals, is not a hegemonic challenger, but firmly ensconced within the western system.  A hegemonic challenger would need to develop hard military as well as economic capability and soft ideological and institutional power comparable to the U.S. and its western allies.  It would need to create a counter hegemonic bloc, an alliance system of like-minded nations with a sense of grievance against the dominant bloc, as the communists had with capitalism or the fascists had with Anglo-American liberalism.

But most of all, even if a new super-state had power that was growing to match the U.S. and the Europeans, it would need a reason to break out from the existing global system rather than simply rise to power within the system.  After all, the U.S. in the 19th century flourished under British hegemony and when it passed Britain in first economic and later political power in the 20th century it had no need to create a new system, but rather simply supplanted the British in the existing system.  Except for its disastrous alliance with German fascism, Japan¡¯s rise to global economic superpower has been accomplished within the western hegemonic system. 

The existing global system can accommodate new powers.  But can it accommodate new kinds of powers?  For China and/or India, and probably Russia, to succeed, they will most likely have to play by new rules, as did Japan and its East Asian imitators.  The imperial system under the British had universal few rules, and the U.S.-led post-World War II trading system tolerated Japanese and other East Asian systematic mercantilist flouting of the principles of free trade because at the time they were such a small part of the global system.  By the 1980s the differences in forms of capitalist organization between the West and Japan and its East Asian imitators had become a major source of friction in the global trading system.  It was only a fortuitous set of circumstances—the recession in the Japanese economy, the boom in the American economy, the collapse of communism, and the war in the Persian Gulf that deflected U.S. attention—that forestalled a serious confrontation between allies over trade deficits and different trade practices. 

U.S. Hegemony and a Rising China

Today, China is the rising Asian power growing rapidly, running a huge trade surplus with the U.S. (over $200 billion in 2005), operating its economy on a different set of principles than the West, and looming as the most likely potential strategic competitor to the U.S. in East Asia.  China seeks accommodation, not confrontation with the U.S. and the West, at least for the short to mid term.  China¡¯s strategy requires a long period of peaceful development, trade, and absorption of technical, organizational and economic expertise from the West.  There are also strong reasons for the West to seek good relations with China.  Continuing to reap the benefits of the dynamic trading system of East Asia is only one.  There are also mutual security interests in curbing nuclear proliferation, bringing an end to the unstable remnants of the Cold War in East Asia such as the division of Korea and the problem of Taiwan, and keeping Japan integrated into a stable East Asian security architecture.

However, the attitude of the West, particularly the U.S., is more mixed.  Hard-liners in the U.S. see a rising China as an alien threat to western values.  As long as China remains a middle level player on the global economic and strategic landscape, this viewpoint remains a minority position.  But if China continues to rise as a world power, the ¡°China threat¡± school will gain credence.  If so, how deeply the China threat works itself into U.S. foreign policy may well depend on how much overall U.S. strategic thinking is driven by a sense of threat.  The state of the Terrorism Wars with the Islamic world will certainly be a central factor in determining how secure Americans feel in the world.  If the Terrorism Wars are still raging at fever pitch, the U.S. is likely to see a world of many threats, to, as President Bush once put it, tend to regard the whole world as a battlefield.

Even though Chinese strategy is based on a long period of accommodation with the West, if the U.S. were to pursue polarizing policies there are forces within China that would respond in kind.  On the surface China seems to be westernizing as it assimilates into the global economic system.  However, there is a significant difference between modernizing an economy and westernizing a culture as the Japanese experience demonstrates.  With the revival of China, there has been a corresponding reinvigoration of Chinese nationalism, encouraged by the state.  With the decline of Maoist ideology, the ruling party has turned to traditional culture and memory of China¡¯s historical magnificence as props for its own legitimacy.  As the Japanese and South Koreans discovered, the benefits of fervent nationalism for a country plunging into the world economic system on a large scale include not just political unity but also artificial preferences for national goods that holds down imports and an increased tendency for human assets and financial capital abroad to return home. 

So far, reviving Chinese nationalism has been reined in by the larger project of incorporation into the global system.  However, there are dynamics in the Chinese polity that could get caught up in a cycle of polarization with the West, if one were initiated by the U.S. or by some set of mutual misunderstandings.

China and the Axis of Evil

A confident U.S. can probably accommodate emerging Asian powers.  A U.S. leading a West fracturing under the pressure of escalating Terrorism Wars is much more likely to come into increasing conflict with newly emerging powers, possibly leading to polarization between Western and Asian powers.  The choices the U.S. and the West face can be illustrated by a few highlights of the Bush administration¡¯s overall approach toward China and its policy on the North Korean nuclear crisis in particular.  The early effect of 9/11 on U.S.-China relations was benign as the U.S. sought any and all allies in the Terrorism Wars.  China eagerly joined the campaign, looking to improve relations with Washington.  China has problems with Islamicists in its western provinces and Chinese authorities have no problems with crackdowns on dissidents at home or abroad. 

However, the ¡°axis of evil¡± State of the Union speech following 9/11 where President Bush lumped together Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the three greatest threats to contemporary world peace is a good example of how conflict and hegemonic overreach in the Islamic world also polarizes relations with China and other Asian nations.  The invasion of Iraq had an even more dramatic effect on the Northeast Asian region.

China openly denounced the axis of evil speech, the Iraq war, and the new U.S. doctrine of preemption as new examples of U.S. hegemonism and unilateralism.  The government of South Korea officially endorsed the war mostly just to keep up appearances of alliance solidarity, but popular resistance was massive, anti-U.S. demonstrations widespread, and even many government officials felt restive.  Coming on the heels of the axis of evil speech, the invasion of Iraq raised widespread fears in South Korea that North Korea would be the next target.   Reaction to the Iraq war in Japan was more mixed, but again popular support was miniscule and only military brass wanting missions for their forces and rightist seeking to break out from the peace constitution enthusiastically supported Japan¡¯s participation in the war. 

The era of U.S.-China goodwill and cooperation against terrorism might have been quite short-lived.  However, the Bush administration, stung by criticisms of its unilateralism and perhaps reacting to forestall further polarization, put forward a new initiative on the North Korean nuclear issue—the six party talks assembling the four major powers in the region with the two Korean states in a multilateral forum.  The original intention of the Bush administration was to get together the five other parties in the region to jointly pressure the North Koreans, make them feel more isolated, and coerce them into taking a more conciliatory stance. 

However, that is not the way the six party talks have played out.  Instead, China has become the host to the talks and to a large extent a mediator.  Rather than all the other parties siding with the U.S. against North Korea, China, sometimes working implicitly with South Korea, has become a go-between, seeking to moderate the positions not only of the North Koreans, but also the U.S.  Hard-liners in the U.S. are not pleased with this development.  U.S. conservatives want China to bring more pressure on Pyongyang, not Washington.  An intransigent unwillingness to take Chinese advice on how to deal with the North Koreans is increasingly coupled with a building tendency to blame the Chinese for lack of progress in the talks.  The North Korean nuclear issue provides an interesting lesson in evolving U.S.-China relations.  The cooperative stance against terrorism that was forged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was almost squandered by U.S. overreaching in the axis of evil speech, the invasion of Iraq, and the proclamation of the doctrine of preemption.  Goodwill and mutual accommodation were recaptured with the multilateral six party initiative.  However, as the six party talks fail to work out according to U.S. intentions, China is increasingly held responsible by the hard-liners in the Bush administration.  The skyrocketing trade deficit introduces more friction into the relationship as strategic cooperation sputters. 

The connection between the Islamic challenge to U.S. hegemony and the U.S. relations with emerging powers can be seen once again in the unfolding Iranian nuclear issue.  Once again, the U.S. is locked in a tense confrontation with an Islamic nation over weapons of mass destruction.  Once again, all the other global powers, including China, Russia, and India, share the many of America¡¯s concerns.  No other power is sanguine about further nuclear proliferation, Iran¡¯s links to terrorist movements, or the intentions of its Islamic fundamentalist regime. 

However, given the outcome in Iraq, China, Russia, and much of the non-western world is reluctant to simply follow the U.S. lead in trying to coerce Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions.  Cynics in the West point to Russia¡¯s deal to provide Iran with nuclear technology and China¡¯s oil contracts as the reason for their reluctance to sign on to U.S. threats of sanctions and further action and these factors probably play some role.  Yet there is good reason for their caution, given the American record of overreach in the  Persian Gulf over the past half century.


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