Conversation with Bertrand Badie
The US hegemony: Failure or revision?
LEMONDE.FR | 10.JAN.07 | 18:19 • Updated 17.JAN.07 | 11:28
Debate with Bertrand Badie, Professor at Sciences-Po, Wednesday, January 17th, 2007
Q. What is the difference between hegemony and imperialism? Which of the two terms term better suits the United States?
A. The meaning of these two words is in constant evolution. But we are accustomed to use the word hegemony to designate forms of domination that are in part allowed and desirable through what we call "soft power". Etymologically speaking, imperialism means something else entirely, that is, any political project aiming at building an imperial order, either explicitly through conquest, and therefore involves the overt use of force, or implicitly by means of relationships, and that means client states, sometimes puppets, which sacrifice a substantial part of their sovereignty to the imperial power.
It is obvious that an empire held together only by force would be very costly to those who would undertake it and weak, subject to incessant challenges. But in any imperial project, hegemony plays a role. On the other hand, one can imagine forms of soft power that make occasional use of force and that build around them a network of influence that no longer fits the imperial model. So as entangled as they are, these two concepts concern two distinct practices.
Q. Do you think until political Europe comes to be, American hegemony will continue to expand?
A. That is undeniably an important consideration. I tend to think that in today’s world, hegemony has never been more difficult, costly and uncertain. But it is also certain that the absence of a countervailing power contributes to its success, or at least in imparting the illusion of success. When the Berlin Wall fell, the question was whether the United States would become an unrivaled empire. In the 1990s, Europe was the only player in a position to challenge it.
The United States quickly became very worried, and, through the active reform of NATO, sought to turn the EU into a vast NATO territory on the Old Continent. In attempting to superimpose itself on Old and New Europe, the United States demonstrated its desire to prevent Europe from becoming a countervailing power. From a certain standpoint, enlargement of the European Union has helped the United States in this enterprise: the Iraq crisis, in deeply dividing Europe, has contributed to more loss of unity and of the European diplomatic identity, and constitutes an encouragement to the United States to reaffirm its imperial policies.
Q. Does the US have choices in its hegemony?
A. Perhaps that is a fundamental question. There is a law of mechanics that induces the powerful to use their resources towards hegemonic ends. Undeniably, after having done strategic due diligence, not only the Neocons but by the whole of the US political elite since 1990 has shown the desire for hegemony and its use in the service of certain values and political projects.
The question is now whether, on the one hand, this hegemony in today’s world will become costlier and costlier and therefore less and less useful, and, on the other, whether hegemony still makes sense in the context of globalization. Let us not forget, moreover, that during the Cold War, the power of the Russian bear fed that of the American eagle. The disappearance of the bear makes a single hegemony far more weak and uncertain. We might ask ourselves if a unipolar world is achievable and if, following a period of hegemonic stability, we are now heading away from, that is, toward a new era of hegemonic instability.
Q. How is ideology important to the United States in its constant struggle to maintain its hegemony? Is it only a façade? Why are the Americans not happy with only its economic and geostrategic advantages?
A. This would take a very long time to explain. The messianic ideology created by the United States is also responsible for its unity and cultural development. It is very unlikely that this valorization of ideology would be abandoned –certainly not by the Neocons, who have made it their calling card– by any political current, specifically the Democratic Party, which resolutely deploys American values as a principal of their foreign policy. Let us recall how Jimmy Carter, in 1976, immediately after the defeat in Vietnam, completely revamped US foreign policy, and grounding it precisely in the founding principles of the rights of man and democracy. The difference does not result from the strength of ideological references but from the content, and above all, its insertion into concrete challenges which American foreign policy must face.
Q. Does the stinging embarrassment of American intelligence services caused by 9-11 and their further discrediting by various scandals and events constitute proof that US hegemony is in decline, compared to other blocks of nations?
A. Intelligence is a fundamental and commanding weapon in modern forms of international competition and conflict. This is why it appears today to be a tool undergoing complete technological revision and policy transformation. Every country in the world must come to terms with this necessary upgrade in resources in modern intelligence warfare.
This readjustment is not easy, because intelligence has relied until only recently on the classic and reassuring figure of the enemy. To transform intelligence into an instrument of microsocial, even individual, investigation, is a tremendous task that involves a transition time far longer than the interval that separates us from the Cold War. The intelligence crisis must be followed and periodically causes the White House to modify the institutional and human profile of its services. Of course, it will be in its reactive capability that most of its challenges, quite real, will play out, but let's not forget that there are also imaginary challenges with which US policymakers believe they face.
Q. Following the collapse of the Doha Round of trade talks, is the US is now oriented toward the signature of bilateral conventions with no end in sight. Does this strengthen or weaken the position of United States in the short and medium term?
A. You are correct to bring up this issue. It should not be forgotten that one of the constants of US policy, all things being equal, is to discard multilateralism the moment it becomes no longer useful. We see this tendency again today, especially in trade, but not only in this area. We see it at work in privileging bilateral agreements.
This constitutes three tremendous advantages: It allows the United States to reap the dividends of inequality of resources and power in its favor; it permits the United States to disrupt various forms of regional integration that we are witnessing around the world, to the point of transforming trade negotiations into interregional negotiations; last, it allows the United States to selectively inject doses of political conditionality that is very attractive to the countries with which the US deals and which a global agreement could never produce. The advantages are so significant that we will see this tendency endure.
Q. Can Iraq be compared to Vietnam? And independent of that, could we see another US failure?
A. Any comparison is dangerous. The defeat of the US in Vietnam was that of a superpower losing to a small, determined state, which is not the case in Iraq, where the US is facing a society, or, more precisely, a multitude of social actors who are intermingled with the purveyors of violence. The cost of the Vietnam War was far greater in human life compared to the costs of today’s war: 60 000 GI’s in Vietnam and 3 000, for the moment, in Iraq.
But the Vietnam War belonged to a two-pole world and was a result of competition with the Russian and Chinese enemies, while Iraq has thrust the United States at the center of the Middle Eastern crater owing to totally different strategic considerations. There remain, however, three elements of similarity: First, it has earned the distrust, even the hostility, of the entire international community together with causing embarrassment to the oldest allies of the United States; second, we see, once again, the reflex of an injured great power in two manifestations: Military escalation and the almost desperate desire to get rid of the client government, which compels Washington to talk of the Iraqization of the conflict as it once did of Vietnamization. Finally, we are going to see the same skepticism take hold of the American public, which, after every election, is going to make the US political elite more an more cautious concerning the Iraq commitment and, like the Vietnam quagmire, is going to be resolved only with time. There are major strategic differences, but similarity in the political vectors.
Q. What lies beyond a simple US failure in Iraq?
A. Decisive stakes are being played out in Iraq. The United States is in the process of discovering the extremely high cost of unilateralism and the usefulness of “burden sharing”, which Neoconservative enthusiasm had always discounted. Defeat in Iraq means above all else defeat for unilateralism. But it’s also a defeat of intervention in its simplest formulation: the thinking that that copious political resources can solve any societal crisis.
The Americans are also discovering in Iraq that the greatest power in the world can do nothing against societies and that inter-nation war cannot transposed to conflicts that derive from the collapse of social compacts. These last few years, especially in Iraq, have been black years for the idea of intervention. In the future, the Iraq Syndrome will have a far deeper impact than the Somalia Syndrome years ago.
In the short term, perhaps Iran and Syria will escape the politico-military enterprise planned against them by the United States. In the long term, it is the idea of intervention, and therefore, at the end of the day, the idea of a duty to protect that risks being weakened. Finally, Iraq is the fermata of the great misunderstanding that divides the United States from the Middle East. We are already sensing the tremors of a complete revision of US policies in the region, at a time when some in the United States are beginning to question the cost of the unconditional support of the state Israel by Washington.
Q. But do you not seriously think that things in the Arab World would have remained at a standstill if Uncle Sam hadn’t decided to kick over the anthill?
A. Things are at a standstill more than ever in the Arab world, and it is probably because of the intervention in Iraq. There has been no "regime change" anywhere. The idea of the Greater Middle East Initiative has already been discarded. The timid elections which burgeoned here and there only delivered success to the Islamists and to denunciation of them by the Western “conscience”.
None of the conflicts that have been roiling the Middle East for years have been seriously tackled. Israel-Palestine relations, Darfur, Iran and Syrian have never been more at an impasse. The Jordanian and Egyptian regimes are weaker and sicker than ever. The Lebanese crisis has never been more acute. I see only negative and funereal consequences for the Arab world because it is crystal clear that knocking over the anthill has sent the ants scurrying everywhere, joining in the incredible imbroglio within each of these societies.
Q. Current US policy toward the Middle East serves neither the interests of the Americans nor those of the West. Is the United States a victim of its alliance with Israel? Is Iran the next target of US “hawks”?
A. Concerning the US-Israel alliance, I believe and have said that the United States is questioning more than ever the consequences of its policy of unconditional support for Israel since 1967. The balance sheet is very disappointing: this alliance has blocked any voluntary and cooperative action vis-à-vis Arab states. Any cooperation displayed by certain Arab governments has immediately created rejection and impasse within those societies; anti-Americanism has spread to every part of the Arab world and has reached a peak, especially where local governments have compromised with Washington.
Simultaneously, the efforts at mediation pursued by US diplomacy and in which it has a great deal vested have produced meager results. The failure of Camp David in the summer of 2002 bringing together Clinton, Arafat and Barak, was one of the bitterest diplomatic defeats America has ever faced. In short, the US has been weakened in all its endeavors in addition to its military and diplomatic efforts.
Added to this is the weight of a significant event: the failure or quasi failure of Israel in Lebanon during its war of July/August 2006 has profoundly troubled the Pentagon and the White House. The brutal discovery of the impotence of Israeli power has led US strategists to believe that the use of force, at the center of Israeli strategy, cannot be taken for granted. This has given way to strategic revision but it is too early to tell where it is going. But I think that in August 2006 something broke and that his rupture will be become apparent in the annals of this long conflict.
As to Iran, it is well known that more than one strategist at the Pentagon has made the country the mechanical target of the next stage of US policy in the Middle East. The departure of Donald Rumsfeld, which was far more important and significant than widely believed, the slow and inevitable revision of US policy in Iraq and the policies of support for Tel Aviv are likely leading to a reconsideration of what formerly appeared to be inevitable. But there is reason for caution. The diplomatic game is also very dependent on rhetoric. The United States has too often and too explicitly threatened Iran to reverse course to the point of completely eliminating the idea of military action. I’m afraid that the White House is a prisoner of the diplomatic discourse it created at the outset that is far too compelling to be purely circumstantial.
Q. Do you think the ballistic defiance of North Korea and Iranian intransigence are evidence of a significant erosion of the power of dissuasion of the United States? Has the United States lost its position of policeman of the world and is incapable of containing the recent proliferation revival?
A. This is a complicated question. Non-proliferation arrangements clearly belong to the era of bipolar policies, when the US-soviet diarchy had the means to guarantee them. I am not sure that in the post-bipolar era non-proliferation can work in the same way. The NPT is perhaps, in fact, far more obsolete than generally admitted. In any case, it is too late to brandish non-proliferation instruments as a means of dissuasion. Too many exceptions, of which everyone is aware, have been chalked up: India, Pakistan, Israel.
As to India, its violation of the NPT has been rewarded by the United States, which has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Delhi.
Finally, nuclear weapons have entered into the realm of political contest as opposed to military challenge. Over the years a nuclear aristocracy has been built up that constitutes a genuine global oligarchy and a club of prestigious states to which all weaker powers aspire—like playing football in a better conference.
The Middle East became nuclear at very fast pace and has placed Iran before a nuclear power on its western flank, a nuclear neighbor on its eastern border, and an old nuclear power on its northern frontier.
The same observation is true for eastern Asia, dominated by Chinese power, where the survival of North Korea no longer depends on the the display of political power. Acquiring a nuclear arsenal represents its last chance to survive, after it has failed in every other domain. This is why the quest for nuclear capability is increasingly a political contest, that is, the worst of practices to which the US must face up and which condemn it to powerlessness.
Q. Regionalism (Europe, Asia, Russia, South America) could legitimately counter US hegemony. But how much does NATO interfere with a common European foreign policy?
A. First, the United States has always been distrustful of regionalism. It came very late and timidly, and solely for economic advantage, to the table on NAFTA. As a superpower, it has everything to fear from a coalition of others and the risk of losing its ability to control such coalitions. An interregional world is far more difficult to dominate than a world comprised of 194 individual sovereignties. This is the reason why the United States has been seeking to substitute large continental entities that are looser and more controllable to more limited and stronger regional constructions. Thus, it today backs the OAS or NAFTA against MERCOSUR. And it has mobilized for EU enlargement to the maximum and the integration of Turkey. This is why it promotes the policies of India of overture to the east and its long-term integration in one large Asian structure. This is why it backed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation project –to block the start of Southeast Asian regional integration– then enlarged it more or less formally to include China, Japan and South Korea.
As to Europe, the challenge is in its size. NATO has expanded faster than Europe and constitutes a vast entity under US domination. In having European enlargement coincide with NATO enlargement, the US hopes to attain a dual goal: injecting pronounced diversity into the political options available to the European Union, making common European foreign policy an impossibility, and having European integration coincide with the political-military integration of the NATO alliance. Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and former Secretary General of NATO, is a case study and we should observe his statements and policy choices.
Q. Does American economic exceptionalism translate into hegemony? How much longer can the United States continue to spend borrowed money without creating goods?
A. That’s a real question. The United States suffers from several imbalances, but most of all from a hegemonic position that is too exclusively dependent upon military superiority. Empires are weakened when they cannot rely on a single sure resource. Today, the military resource allows the US to distinguish itself form the rest.
As to trade, the US is threatened by the European Union, whose volume of exports exceeds that of the United States. As to economy and finance, it is subject to the rules of interdependence which, obviously, limit its sovereignty, including in the direction of Asia and, in particular, China. Culturally, whatever the strength of its hegemony, the United States is increasing aware that soft power doesn’t mobilize consumers to support policies.
A colossus with singularly shackled feet, the United States suffers from an imbalance in leadership that not only costs it dearly but places it increasingly in contradiction with the rigors of a globalized economy. All empires come to an end…
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