Dissecting American Hegemony: Part I-The Transition

As an extremely diverse global community, we tend to disagree rather than agree on various issues; it is incredibly difficult to find a truism that everyone agrees with. However, it would be very hard for one to argue against the fact that the United States of America has long held dominance in world politics. Its influence in diplomacy, economy, ideology and the society in general during the modern era is almost impossible to ignore. Often, people describe this as the ‘American hegemony.’


What is Hegemony?

Hegemony is defined as “the preponderant influence or authority over others.”[1] When put simply, it means that a decision or an action of a hegemonic power could cause a worldwide butterfly effect. Hegemonic states are at the very core of an international society, and often acts as the final decision maker. Its effects are not restricted to a single domain, but influence all aspects of the society including economy, politics, ideology, and culture.


From Europe to America

Although it has only been a century or so that nations from different parts of the world true became fully aware of each other’s presence, regional hegemony was not a rarity both in West and East. While the East had a single powerful nation called China dominating international politics, Western power was more devolved, shared between a handful of powerful European countries. It was only when the United States of America gained independence in 1789 that the power balance gradually started to shift.

In his book Paradise and Power, Kagan labels the argument that America had an ‘isolationist’ tradition as a myth, pointing out how since its birth America was viewed both by European nations and Americans themselves to be a “Hercules in the cradle,” destined to become an “empire of liberty.”[2] Despite such firm belief in destined greatness, in its initial years America was a relatively new and therefore weak state in the Western hemisphere. It lacked the great military and economic prowess that its former colonial master and its league of friends had; it therefore “both consciously and unconsciously…used the strategies of the weak to try to get their way in the world.”[3] By the “strategies of the weak,” Kagan refers to extolling of Enlightenment values when dealing with an international crisis, most notably the use of commerce over brute force. He argues that America advocated peace and international cooperation when it was weak, while Europe in its heyday flexed its military muscles when a crisis came its way.


History thus provides us with an apparent rule of hegemony: if you are the strongest, you can use ‘brute force’ to have things your way.”

It is ironic therefore that Europe’s definite point of decline from its throne precisely due to such ‘strategy of the strong’; World War One was a significant turning point in Western if not world international politics, as America began to replace Europe as the regional hegemon. After the destructive war, Europe was no longer capable of pursuing the power politics it uses to pursue before, partly because public opinion at home was extremely hostile against militant policy but also because it did not have the economic and infrastructural resources. From this sentiment (and reality) that Europe could and would not endure another war came forth the notorious policy of appeasement in the 1930s. So when another war eventually did happen, Europe was no longer the superpower it used to be; America now held the key to international politics. This is how we ended up with the modern state of international affairs; America became the ‘new Europe,’ exercising its military power and effectively making use of power politics when needed, while Europe returned to the Enlightenment ideal of international cooperation and economic interdependence to maintain peace.

History thus provides us with an apparent rule of hegemony: if you are the strongest, you can use ‘brute force’ to have things your way. But does this statement remain true in today’s society where democracy significantly restrict what the government can and can’t do? After all, the majority of people in democratic countries desire peace over war. With these questions in mind, to what extent America is a living example of this supposed truism will be explored in Part II.

*Photo Credit: Sofia Sforza, uploaded on May 8, 2016, provided by Unsplash. Available at: https://unsplash.com/search/gun?photo=AEP4lyBafBs

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hegemony

[2] Kagan, R. (2003). Of paradise and power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[3] ibid. 



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