Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hegemony and the Middle East

. Sunday, April 10, 2011

John Quiggin has continued his IR/foreign policy commentary, and I continue to generally disagree with his take, but I think I can finally pinpoint why. Take this:

The approach taken by the Administration [in Yemen] has been broadly consistent with that adopted in relation to Mubarak in Egypt. The Administration initially supported Mubarak’s proposal to stay in power and implement reforms, then shifted to the idea of replacing Mubarak with someone like … who could be trusted to pursue the same policies. When that became untenable, the Administration supported a transitional military government with elections to follow, and this outcome looks sustainable at present. [Maybe not. -wkw] However, there’s no guarantee that the government produced by elections will be as pliable as Mubarak’s, particularly in relation to Israel.

These developments don’t fit well with claims about continued US hegemony, at least if hegemony is supposed to entail a capacity to control outcomes. Obviously, the US is not a negligible player, and its change of side will probably hasten Saleh’s departure. On the other hand, the US changed sides only when it became clear it would be on the losing side otherwise. So, its position might affect the timing and consequences of Saleh’s fall, but it wasn’t decisive in bringing it about.

Given the content of this post, as well as previous entries, Quiggin seems to equate hegemony with something approaching omnipotence. E.g., the U.S. is no longer a hegemon because it can't pacify Iraq, or can't drive Airbus out of the market, or reacts to world developments rather than charting its own course and forcing everyone else to go along without a fuss.

The problem with this is that Quiggin has continuously phrased his argument as "U.S. decline has already occurred" or "U.S. is now just another state" or "U.S. has lost its hegemony". He believes that the U.S. used to be a hegemon, but now is not. But I can't think of the period in which the U.S. had unlimited capacity to do whatever it wanted without regard for anyone else. The types of examples he's given as evidence of the limits of current U.S. power -- trouble controlling local populations, regional satellite governments refusing to do D.C.'s every bidding, U.S. corporations facing strong competition globally -- have fairly clear analogues throughout post-WWII history. The U.S. had trouble pacifying Korea and Vietnam, couldn't keep the lid on Iran, was never able to cast aside Castro. Several of the U.S.'s major industries in the 1950s -- such as United Fruit -- lost dominance by the 1970s. The major industries of the 1960s -- the rust belt industries -- lost market share by the 1980s. So when was this time when the U.S. got everything it wanted, just how it liked it?

I think Quiggin may be overestimating just what "hegemony" really implies. It is not absolute power. Some theorists of hegemony refer to a "preponderence of power" that is exercised (largely) through indirect means (to distinguish from empire). Kindleberger referred to a hegemon's ability to stabilize the international system, not dominate it. In any case, it is a continuous rather than dichotomous measure. Quiggin has argued that hegemony, in the American case, requires authoritarianism in the periphery as a means of control. This is the very nearly the opposite of what most recent theorists of hegemony contend. Instead, the "American order" is predicated on the diffusion of liberal norms -- broadly defined, but generally including relatively open, but mixed, economies and representative governments -- throughout the international system, buttressed by a collection of multilateral institutions and a strong U.S. military with a global reach.* In other words, it's a hegemony of consensus rather than brute force, but force can be used if the consensus breaks down.** To the extent that this consensus-based system reinforces the values that the United States prefers, it isn't pushing things too far to attribute its persistence to U.S. hegemony. Indeed, much of what the U.S. wanted (and got) since WWII is not directly unobservable. I.e., the U.S. rehabilitated Japan and Germany and re-integrated them into the international system without much controversy. There have been no major power wars since 1945, and before you say "that's because of nuke deterrence" remember who it was that was doing the deterring. As always, counterfactuals are hard, but mainstream IR theorists from most ideological traditions tend to agree that the U.S. has had a stabilizing influence on the international system. Therefore, if you go with Kindleberger's definition -- hegemon as stabilizer -- rather than Quiggin's -- hegemon as dominator -- you end up with different interpretations of both the motivations and results of the U.S.'s behavior.

Of course there have been moments where the U.S. has had to choose between values: either open markets, or representative government. In many of the cases, i.e. where it has had no large interests, the U.S. has not directly intervened. In other cases, particularly at the height of the Cold War, it's chosen markets over democracy. The type of action that the U.S. has taken to reinforce open markets has ranged from force intervention (the removal of Mossaddegh in favor of Pahlavi, and Allende for Pinochet) to diplomacy (China) depending on the situation. Since the 1980s there's been something of a reversal: the U.S. has preferred accommodation to force when promoting market openness, and has used force to push political reform. Interventions into Somalia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan were clearly not for material reasons, and I think the case that the Iraq invasion was motivated primarily by economic interests is remarkably weak. This shift, I'd argue, is a response to the collapse of the Soviet alternative, which effectively removed the primary rationale for realpolitik in the promotion of American economic values, which left the liberal political values as what needed spreading.

Quiggin hones in on what may be the exception: the Middle East and N. Africa. It's true that American policy there is closer to its Cold War pattern of supporting authoritarians so long as they're willing to keep markets open and not exacerbate security dilemmas. For example, American policy towards Egypt has long been conditioned by Suez Canal politics, as well as Egypt's stance towards Israel. But there has been another component for at least a few decades: try to use American support as a moderating influence on regimes. In Libya, that meant buying off Gaddafi's nuclear program. In Pakistan, that's meant trying to prevent a full-on military/ISI takeover, and dismantling AQ Khan's proliferation network. In numerous countries it's meant limiting belligerence directed at Israel. We might question how successful all of these have been, but in each case there's both a logic to the U.S.'s behavior and most likely some tangible gains from them.

Which leads me to Quiggin's conclusion:

Now let’s do what game theorists call backward induction. The crisis in the Arab world has shown that, when push comes to shove in the form of a popular revolt, the US state will have no choice but to leave friendly dictators to their fate. But, if that’s the case then a rationally self-interested US state would not commit significant (military, financial or political-credibility) resources to backing those dictators in the first place, since the benefits are likely to prove transitory. So, even if the current wave of revolts peter out leaving some of the autocracies in place, it would make good sense for the US state to disengage from them.

This only works if Quiggin is correct that the maintenance of authoritarian regimes is the ultimate U.S. goal. But, as should be clear, I see no reason to think that's the case. It seems to me that the U.S.'s $2bn/year or so of aid to Egypt was worth it, as it lessened security dilemmas between Israel and Egypt and gave the U.S. some leverage over the Egyptian military when it was not clear whether they'd support Mubarak or the protestors.*** Similarly, U.S. aid to Libya convinced Gaddafi to abandon his nuclear program; can you imagine the situation there now if Gaddafi had been able to weaponize nuclear material? Saudi Arabia has similarly learned to live with Israel because it gets rich off of the U.S. In other words, there are a range of intermediate interests besides "preserve authoritarianism" that might make U.S. engagement with authoritarian regimes rational. That does not mean that the U.S. prefers those regimes in all cases (although it might in some); instead it means that hegemony always comes with constraints, so some interests are given priority over others.

*Once again, I'd refer Quiggin to Ikenberry's After Victory.

**There's a long line of thought related to this -- from Gramsci to McCloskey outside of IR, and including Ruggie and Gilpin and many others within IR -- and Quiggin himself seems to endorse a variant of it in his "Fukuyama, F*** Yeah!" post.

***How much leverage is not clear. I suspect we'll learn much more about this in the coming years. But surely the answer is "more than Obama would've had if the military didn't rely on the U.S. government for ~ 25% of its funding".


John Quiggin said...

I posted this at Phil Arena's which is also relevant here. I agree with your observations on the fact that the US was never omnipotent, but would say (in agreement with Phil) that the US was relatively more powerful at the beginning of the Cold War than it is now, which implies a gradual decline over time on this measure.

By contrast, at the end of the Cold War and continuing until the Iraq War went sour, there was a great deal of talk of the US as a hyperpower, empire, a Pax Americana and so on. I've been reacting against that ever since I started blogging eg here

If we are in agreement on the wrongness of these claims, we can narrow the discussion to a more precise focus on hegemony.

I will have a go at the game theory argument when I get a chance

Kindred Winecoff said...

Partially agree. I wrote a post on the main page explaining what I agree with and what I don't.

(I didn't leave it here b/c it's long, and I wanted to post some graphs.)

Hegemony and the Middle East




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