Why U.S. hegemony has to take polarization into account
Way back in the summer of 2016, I was invited to participate in a workshop about hegemony.
Hegemony, if you’re not an international relations nerd, is a word that gets bandied about and means strikingly different things to various audiences. The Greek root word hegemonia just means rule or leadership. If you’re a Gramscian, hegemony means “the ‘cultural, moral and ideological’ leadership of a group over allied and subaltern groups”—albeit one that’s a little more sophisticated than just domination, since the superior group has to protect some of the interests of at least some subalterns. For many scholars of international political economy, hegemony means the ability to serve as the backstop for international regimes (and the willingness to do so), thereby underwriting cooperative institutions. Ikenberry and Nexon, the leaders of the workshop, defined the concept as “‘the mobilization of leadership’ by a predominant power to order relations among actors”. That distinguishes it from domination (strong, direct rule), empire (rule through indirect organization), and also simple hierarchy. There has to be something about the actual active process of mobilization of leadership that matters.
There have been a lot of debates about how hegemony endures and why it can fail. Perhaps hegemons no longer can fulfill the burdens of sustaining order; perhaps the contradictions of hegemony grow and lead to collapse of confidence in the system; more often, perhaps shifts in power relations among major powers lead to the challenge of the hegemon and the outbreak of conflict, even violent war. My contribution to the symposium (later published in 2019) was an essay outlining a larger research project about how domestic politics within the leading state can lead the hegemon to turn away from international cooperation, even if that’s a bad idea for the hegemon and the system itself.
My particular interest in this was in showing how polarization can develop incentives for zero-sum rivalries and the fostering of identities incompatible with hegemonic maintenance. In 2016, polarization was not something that international relations scholars really thought of outside of the context of polarity; within a couple of months after I wrote the draft article, of course, that all changed and the advent of Trumpism turned a great many IR scholars on to the insight I’d been developing for some time.
To be selfish, and because this is my newsletter, I’ll point out two things that I think the subsequent IR debates largely missed from my intervention. The first was the notion of etiology. I took this from its medical variant (or at least how they use it on House) to refer to the study of causes and the progression of a phenomenon. That’s a different sense than how we talk about “causal inference”, I think, or at least it’s sociologically different enough that even if the formal logic is the same it deserves a term. Specifically, for me, thinking about etiology is related to process-tracing: the working out of evidence and observations about how something came to be in the service of ruling out (or at least changing our beliefs about the likelihood of) other causes. As I wrote:
The etiology of Trump’s ascent matters. Was his election an accident, representing an outcome many standard deviations from the expected outcome of domestic politics? If so, then his administration might have severe practical implications but relatively few theoretical ones, aside from reminding us of the importance of black swans. On the other hand, if Trump’s election represented an outcome within the bounds of what could have been expected ex ante, then theories based on the assumption that such an outcome was unlikely need to be modified.It should give pause to ardent defenders of the liberal world order that the most successful blow to American primacy came not from external balancing, as realists long predicted, but from the free choice of American voters.
There have been debates about the causes of Trump’s election and what it means for IR, but I think that many of the grand stories—right-wing waves, political economy, etc—continue to downplay the role of simple polarization interacting with (and produced by) a constitutional structure that heightens the incentives for conflict and product-differentiation among political rivals.
The other part that I think has not percolated enough was the essay’s focus on the active management of hegemony. This got a little buried, to be sure, but it was a larger part of the Hegemony 3.0 theme of the workshop. The key passage was:
To the extent that hegemony requires active performance on the world stage—through brokering, sanctioning, and supporting other actors, for instance—hegemonic strategies require a claim on resources that must be mobilized domestically. Such mobilization will take place under institutions of domestic governance that predate the hegemonic moment. Perhaps ironically, hegemons have more latitude to shape international systems after victory than they do to reshape their domestic systems at that moment or afterward. As a consequence, the specific manner in which a disjuncture between domestic politics and hegemonic strategies will arise will be different for each hegemon. Yet in general we can be confident that the initial bargain will not prove lasting. Even if external conditions prove favorable for hegemonic maintenance, the ordinary contests for power and prestige within the hegemon will lead its policies or its governing institutions to change. Either raises the possibility of a revolution from above in the international order. Every hegemonic order will breed a crisis.
The active management of hegemony, in other words, is a two-level game, and the hegemonic moment (1945 or 1989, for instance) only changes the international board, not the domestic one (or, rather, changes the international system more deeply than the domestic order). After victory, the hegemon has profound influence to set the terms of the international order—but by the same token, since its system has just prevailed, it has muted incentives to rearrange its domestic affairs. (Yes, 1946-1948 saw some changes to the US government, but 1989 didn’t see all that many, and even the flurry of 1947 changes to Congress and the defense establishment don’t match the root-and-branch change to the international order.)
The takeaway, then, is that the hegemon must perform its international obligations under domestic institutions that are not fitted to the task. The other half of this is that hegemony is active: it is “structural” only to the extent that the hegemon hegemons. And if domestic institutions complicate that performance, then the hegemon can’t.
This brings us to today’s situation. In some ways, the past couple of years have shown some nuances to my argument, namely that the previous Congress (and the one before it!) were able to do quite a lot. Covid relief, the American Recovery Plan, and so on—these are big accomplishments that defy predictions of simple gridlock. On the other hand, the risks my analysis pointed to have been basically vindicated. January 6 matters a lot. U.S. support for Ukraine apparently hinged on Joe Biden narrowly winning over Donald Trump. And the continuance of U.S. aid for Ukraine continues to run through a rather slight gap in the House Republican caucus.
Another way I think that these events show that my account is right has to do with the roots of party competition and domestic governance. In an interview in the Financial Times today, FT journalist Katie Martin reports from Davos that the Euros are miffed that the US government is treating them like an afterthought in green energy:
…folks in the European Union were pretty upset at the US [green energy] subsidies, which were part of the IRA. Can you remind us what Europeans are unhappy about? I mean, the law is trying to curb climate change, which, you know, the EU also wants to do.
In the run-up to the meeting in Davos, we have just heard so much bellyaching from the Europeans saying this isn’t fair. We’re worried that it’s going to take European companies over to the States. And one of the, kind of, complaints from the Europeans has been, well, it feels like we’re a bit of an afterthought in how this act has been, this legislation has been pulled together. You get to Davos and the view from, for example, American chief executives is no, sure, Europe really was an afterthought (laughter) in this whole thing.
(Similar complaints have been aired by, say, South Korea about U.S. industrial policy.) What I find interesting here is that Europeans expected to have a say in U.S. domestic economic policy. Which isn’t really unreasonable from one standpoint: if you’re the international hegemon, of course you have to take partners’ interests into account. But the U.S. government also belongs to U.S. citizens, interest groups, and oligarchs, and their transnational loyalties are … situational. And U.S. members of Congress particularly have little interest in playing nice with foreigners when votes and party brands are on the line. In other words, the hegemon’s domestic politics are misaligned with its international interests.
Now, one could argue, cogently, that hegemony produces interests that bounds how badly the hegemon will behave. Maybe! Although Donald Trump was also elected president and nearly re-elected quite recently, so perhaps those boundaries are not as strong as assumed. And partners step on each other’s toes all the time. So what’s the big deal?
Well, it comes back to active management for me. If we assume that frictions raise the cost of doing business, then a system that produces higher frictions will be less sticky than a more lubricated ones. If we take this one step further and consider that frictions may also undermine credibility, then frictions—especially big ones, like debt ceiling crises!—may tend to undermine the prospects of future cooperation: an even bigger threat to hegemony. And so domestic and intermestic factors that raise frictions and reduce credibility—which can be produced through many channels, of which, say, strong polarization and weak parties that produce a dysfunctional House could be one—are important topics that we should take seriously.
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The WTO aspect of this is particularly interesting to me as the turning away has both hegemonic and polarization aspects. The failure of the TPP, which was widely seen as competitive with China, straightforwardly fits this line of argument. But for the WTO there's been a loss of faith as China has successfully used the system in ways that lead to a job shock in the United States and facilitated its own economic and military rise.
I suppose the failure here is one to build a coalition within the United States to replace the Washington Consensus. In a polarized environment the U.S. can disrupt institutions it built but can't muster the breadth of support to pursue an update to them.