A THEORY OF
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
¡°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
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
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
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]
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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,
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.
invasion of Iraq
is more easily explained by traditional economic and geostrategic factors than
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
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,
Japan. In the current war in Iraq,
while the governments of Britain,
Italy, and Japan
supported the U.S.,
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
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
25,000 liters of anthrax--enough doses to kill several million people
38,000 liters of botulinum toxin--enough to subject millions of people
500 tons of sarin, mustard, and VX nerve agent (which) could also kill
advanced nuclear weapons development program (and) a design for a
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.
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
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
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
Relations between the core and
periphery have already undergone one massive transformation in the 20th
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
The existing global system can
accommodate new powers. But can it
accommodate new kinds of powers?
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
However, given the outcome in Iraq,
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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