Living with the Hegemon: European Dilemmas

The tragedy of September 11th 2001 demonstrated that the United States was not invulnerable. The American response – the skilful application of military power, backed by active diplomacy, leading to the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime – demonstrated that America nevertheless remains the dominant global power, militarily, economically, diplomatically. The immediate impact of the American success in Afghanistan – achieved without significant assistance from other states, through carefully-calibrated projection of force from the continental USA – has, indeed, strengthened the perception of global American supremacy, both inside and outside the USA.

West European states, the closest allies and formal ‘partners’ of the United States in the Western international order established after 1945, are thus faced with a range of strategic and tactical choices. Do they assume that American dominance within the post-cold war global order is likely to remain unchallengeable for the foreseeable future? Do they accept, and work within, a global framework of American hegemony, to bandwagon as far as they can on established ties to the USA through pursuing influence at the margin; or should they seek to balance American dominance by building up European institutions as a competing centre of power? In either case, do their relations with the USA depend on the provision of particular types of power – military, as well as economic – or is it possible (and acceptable to their American ally) to maintain mutual trust and cooperation between the self-consciously ‘civilian power’ of institutionalised Europe and the militarily-dominant USA? Is ‘partnership’ within the framework of multilateral institutions established over the past half-century – in almost all cases on American initiative, and with active American support – still meaningful, when the historical circumstances that underpinned these transatlantic institutions have now disappeared?

Hegemony – and Liberal Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘hegemony’, now widely accepted in conventional political discourse, emphasized the combination of coercion and consent which maintains structures of dominance, both within states and within systems of states. Stable structures of power depend on both material resources and ideology – dominant systems of belief. States can secure temporary supremacy over their neighbours through the use of overwhelming force and the utilization of superior technology, underpinned by the expenditure of the necessary economic resources; longer-term supremacy however depends upon at least a degree of acceptance of the legitimacy of the dominant power from those dominated. All formal or informal empires have proclaimed legitimising ideologies, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Islam provided the motivating force and rationale for Arab conquest of North Africa, Persia, and Central Asia, and maintained a succession of regional orders over the centuries that followed. Napoleon Bonaparte’s modification of the ideology of the French revolution into a doctrine of popular mobilization and administrative modernization provided the legitimacy which recruited divisions of German, Polish and Dutch troops to march with the Grand Army to Moscow in 1812. The absence of a broader rationale for German hegemony was a crucial weakness in the Nazi regime: it could depend only on coercion outside its borders, apart from a handful of would-be collaborators, provoking resistance which tied down its forces and dissipated its resources.

Theories of liberal hegemony – from Arnold Toynbee, Charles Kindleberger, Robert Gilpin and others – have provided a rationale for American engagement in the construction and maintenance of global order since 1945. Toynbee looked back to a succession of previous international orders, in which dominant powers had established structures of custom, law and institutionalised diplomacy which prolonged dominance and enabled the dominant power to maintain its position through prestige and authority as well as through the distribution of resources and the threat – and use – of force. Kindleberger and Gilpin focused more directly on the 19th century period of British dominance, as historical precursor for the American role post-World War Two. The English-defined gold standard and the English doctrine of free trade briefly nurtured global (or at least European) economic expansion, while the British navy suppressed piracy and the slave trade and British political leaders and lawyers laid down rules for international diplomacy and crisis management. Competing imperialist ideologies – Russian, French, German, Italian, Japanese – brought a reversion to economic protection and international rivalry; Germany’s rapid growth to industrial and scientific leadership in the final decades of the 19th century, followed by a military and naval expansion which was a clear challenge to Anglo-Saxon pre-eminence, brought the long peace of 19th century Europe to a catastrophic end in the Great War of 1914-18.

19th century Britain, however, was never as unchallengeable in terms of economic or military supremacy as the United States is today. Militarily, the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the United States without any competitor: in terms of investment in advanced technology or in deployable forces. The long timescale of military research, development and deployment implies that no serious challenger to the United States is likely to emerge within the next 15-20 years – at least in terms of the provision of conventional, organized forces. ‘Asymmetric’ warfare by state-sponsored terrorist groups remains, of course, an active threat; but America’s ability to project military force across the globe is likely to remain unique. There is no indication of any other state, or group of states, willing to make the sustained investment needed to acquire such capabilities, or with the resources to support such sustained investment.

British hegemony was undermined partly by its loss of markets, and of industrial and technological leadership, to Germany. After the sustained economic growth of the 1990s, supported by technological innovation across a range of sectors, the USA also appears unchallengeable within the global economy, at least within the medium term. With the USA skirting recession in 2001-2, however, it is worth remembering the rapidity with which economic recession has brought shifts from optimism to pessimism in the past, and might do so again. In the late 1980s, budgetary and trade deficits, accompanied by slow growth, provoked a succession of studies of American ‘decline’ and of the dangers of imperial ‘overstretch’, of which Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1988) was the most widely read. The Japanese economy, widely seen as the strongest and most technologically advanced national economy in those years, has since then fallen back to apparent stagnation, remarkably rapidly. There are a number of structural weaknesses in the American economy, most notably the scale and persistence of its trade deficit and its increasing dependence on imports of energy. A shift in the balance of economic growth between the USA and Europe, accompanied by a shift in the dollar-euro exchange rate, might well bring a parallel shift in perceptions of economic strength and weakness. European governments would be wise not to assume that such a shift will follow the introduction of the single currency; it may however be noted that the last period of European optimism and American pessimism accompanied (and in part reflected) the surge in economic integration launched by the Single European Act in 1986. Continued economic growth within China may also have a cumulative impact on American economic competitiveness and confidence. US economic hegemony is thus not as secure as US military supremacy over the medium term.

Liberal hegemony, however, also heavily depends on the consent that comes from acceptance of the legitimacy of systemic leadership. The Western international system established under US leadership after 1945 embedded political and economic values in multilateral institutions, accepted as authoritative by America’s allies and partners. Robert Keohane’s classic study, After Hegemony (1984) was mistitled; American leadership persisted through the 1970s and 1980s, in spite of the decline of US economic dominance and the apparent decline (post-Vietnam) of US military supremacy because American ideas about governance and markets retained their authority, both within international institutions and within other advanced democracies. Joseph Nye, in Bound to Lead: the changing nature of American power (1990) rightly drew attention to America’s reserves of ‘soft power’, reflected in the wide international acceptance of ‘Western’ values and market principles, the prestige and influence of American universities and research institutions, and the broader cultural influence of the largely-American English-language media. American power might be more effectively exerted indirectly than directly, through the half-conscious acceptance by elites within other states of American assumptions about domestic and international order.

Part of the paradox of the resurgence of American economic and technological supremacy in the 1990s, together with the demonstration (first in the Gulf War, and then again in the intervention in Afghanistan) of American military dominance, is that these have been accompanied by a weakening of American ‘soft power’. American prestige, both abroad and at home, has suffered from domestic political and economic scandals (as in the 1970s). The disappearance of the Soviet Union deprived the USA of its most-easily accepted rationale for global engagement, which also legitimized American leadership of the Atlantic Alliance and the broader ‘free world’. Between the Gulf War of 1991 and the Afghan intervention of 2001, the visible hesitancy with which American policy-makers approached the deployment of US power, in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the preoccupation with ‘exit strategies’ from the point of entry on, weakened the respect of America’s allies for its military and political leadership. A further paradox of American supremacy is that what is perceived within the USA as ‘resentment’ at its liberty and prosperity, as ‘anti-Americanism’ from hostile outsiders, has partly flowed from the spillover of domestic controversies onto the international stage. The ‘global’ NGOs which demonstrated against US domination of the global economy at the WTO meeting in Seattle were largely American-led. The narratives of anti-globalization and the corruption of free market capitalism have drawn upon American critiques as well as on diatribes from other countries, and have been disseminated across the world through English-language media.

A yet further paradox is that the collapse of state socialism, with the apparent ‘victory’ of market democracy as the model for political and economic order, has led not to the ‘end of history’ that Francis Fukuyama proclaimed but to a greater emphasis on the differences among approaches to market democracy. The Malaysian Prime Minister and others laid great stress in the immediate post-cold war period on the claimed superiorities of the ‘Asian model’. The most delicate and difficult dialogue on the values which underpin market democracy has, however, been across the Atlantic: between an American model which emphasises free markets and a limited role for government in social welfare and European ‘social market’ models which – in differing ways – lay greater stress on the regulation of employment and on the provision of welfare. American charges that European social democracy has led to ‘Eurosclerosis’ have been met by European charges that American-style capitalism carries unacceptable social costs. The symbolic importance of capital punishment as an issue in transatlantic relations is that it encapsulates the differences of approach: the American belief in a more vigorous culture of success and failure, of reward and punishment, against the European concern with social harmony and community as necessary components of a liberal economy. Here again, the division of opinion is partly a reflection of differences within the United States, as well as between the USA and other democratic states. The Republican attack on ‘big government’, which has in many ways defined the issues of American politics during the 1990s, attracted limited support within Europe. Most European right-wing parties remained closer to the traditions of Christian Democracy and state-centred conservatism; from the mid-1990s onwards, furthermore, the majority of European governments were centre-left rather than centre-right. The international spillover of the Republican attack on Democratic ‘big government and Democratic ‘internationalism’ was that American ‘values’ have come to be rhetorically presented – by leading Senators and Congressmen, as well as by the Washington intellectuals who dominate the op-ed pages – as distinctive from those of America’s partners and allies, rather than as universal.

Geir Lundestad has described the US-led Atlantic ‘community’ of the past half-century as Empire by Invitation (1998). The United States, as a self-consciously liberal hegemon, operated through multilateral institutions which disguised, legitimised and moderated its dominance, and provided a narrative (or rationale) of common values shared by the ‘free world’ which were declared to be universal in their application. A central difficulty for the USA’s European partners, in responding to the current re-establishment of American military and economic dominance, is that the rhetorical justification for this dominant position is more often couched in Realist than in Liberal terms: with reference to US national interests rather than to shared global values and concerns, with self-conscious unilateralism rather than US- orchestrated multilateralism.

Bandwagon or Balance?

European governments are therefore faced with a harsher choice in responding to the reassertion of American leadership than their predecessors were in responding to President Truman’s formulation of shared values across the ‘free world’, or to President Kennedy’s grand design for ‘Atlantic partnership’, or even to President George Bush’s 1991 evocation of shared values within a ‘new world order’. The current rhetoric of ‘American values’ and ‘national interest’ is far less inclusive. European governments are offered a choice between ‘followership’ behind assertive American leadership, or resistance to American leadership – which necessarily implies a search for an alternative focus for power and influence sufficiently strong to demand American attention.

Over the past forty years, British governments have characteristically adopted a bandwagonning stance: declaring their firm support for American strategic goals, while attempting from within that overall stance to influence American policy at the margin. French governments, on the other hand, have characteristically resisted American strategy, while at the same time attempting to persuade their European partners to combine in a caucus which could collectively hope to counterbalance American dominance of Western diplomacy. The dependence of West European states on American military commitment, during the cold war, limited the attractions of this balancing strategy to other states, the German government most of all. Over Middle East policy, in 1973-4 and again in 1981, European governments deliberately diverged from the line set by American leadership, provoking sharp transatlantic disagreements and a retreat from the autonomous approaches briefly adopted. Even before the outbreak of transatlantic differences on the Middle East in 1973, Henry Kissinger’s ‘Year of Europe’ speech had spelt out to America’s European allies the Realist doctrine that military power and economic cooperation were intrinsically linked, and that Western Europe’s continuing dependence on the USA to extend security required its governments to bend their international economic policies to American preferences.

British and French approaches have to some extent converged since the end of the cold war. Both were for example determined to provide ground, air and naval forces to support the US-led coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, to demonstrate their significance as American allies. The experience of Bosnia, however, demonstrated both to British and to French policy-makers that a greater capacity for autonomous military operation was needed to avoid being forced to follow US policy without gaining significant influence over its direction: that a balancing caucus was needed to counter US domination. This led to the 1998 Franco-British initiative on European defence, which set out the objective of achieving not only a much greater degree of integration among European military forces but also of establishing a degree of ‘autonomy’ for EU member states within NATO – an objective which successive US Administrations had firmly resisted. At the Helsinki European Council in December 1999 the EU heads of government committed themselves to a series of ‘Headline Goals’ for deployable military forces, to be operational by 2003. By the end of 2001, however, the progress towards achieving these goals in practice appeared very modest.

In the wake of the attacks of September 2001, not only the British but also the French and German governments chose explicitly to bandwagon rather than to balance: to declare their active support for the American response, and to offer military contributions towards it. (It should be noted that the French government, in particular, took this stance in the face of considerable opposition in the domestic media.) Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, went furthest in declaring active sympathy for the American predicament and support for the American response; from which he gained considerable popularity within the USA, although it remains unclear how far he gained any significant influence over aspects of American policy. All three European governments appear to have chosen explicit support for current US policy in the hope of gaining some degree of constraint over future American options. Their calculation has been that the threat of withdrawal of support from the USA’s most active allies might serve to tip the balance among Washington policy-makers considering the range of possibilities – over further military action against Iraq for example: bandwagonning now in the hope of improving the chances of successful balancing later.

Transatlantic economic relations have of course been for many years much more a matter of balance among relatively equal powers than of leadership and followership. The EU is an effective force in global trade negotiations, a standard setter in international regulation, and a challenge to the extra-territorial reach of American anti-trust policy towards multinational companies – and therefore a necessary partner in developing global competition policies. World trade negotiations through successive trade rounds have revolved around transatlantic bargains between the EU and the USA, to rising discontent from other parties to the negotiations. The supremacy of the dollar – and the close links between the Washington-based international financial institutions and the US Treasury – have however maintained American dominance over crucial areas of global economic management. In the shadow of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is possible that the successful launch of the Euro as a tangible currency across 12 of the 15 EU member states, now visibly available as an alternative reserve currency and store of value, may prove in the long term to have given the EU the capacity to balance the USA in another major area of global public policy.

Currencies of Power

One of the most difficult issues for America’s European partners to address is that of the balance to be struck between military power, diplomatic activity and economic influence – and how to respond to the greater emphasis American policy-makers characteristically place on military power. West European governments depended on the United States for security throughout the cold war. The US maintained 12 divisions, two fleets and substantial air forces in and around the European theatre, backed by strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Institutionalized European integration developed, within this Atlantic security framework, as a self-consciously ‘civilian’ power, using the instruments of financial assistance and trade concessions to persuade its neighbours and partners to cooperate.

The enlightened self-interest which led US administrations to underwrite the economic and political recovery of Western Europe after 1945, and to extend an American security guarantee, partly lay in the expectation that the rebuilding of European state structures and economies would in time enable those states to shoulder a larger share of the ‘burden’ of global order and global development. American policy-makers saw burden-sharing both in military and in economic terms: anticipating that within NATO the European allies would progressively replace the conventional US contribution to the common defence, and that within the UN system and through bilateral economic assistance they would provide a progressively larger financial contribution to the pursuit of shared Western objectives. The question of potential linkages between burden-sharing and policy-sharing remained unexplored; US policy-makers appear to have assumed that their European partners would continue to accept the rationales for American policy, and thus to follow American leadership, even as they shouldered a larger and larger proportion of the costs of the defence and promotion of Western values.

In practice, the USA continued to provide by far the largest contribution to Western defence throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while becoming more and more discontented with its national contributions to economic development in other countries and to international institutions. Since then the continuing shrinkage of US aid programs, Congressional resistance to contributions to multilateral institutions, while actively supporting high levels of military expenditure even after the Soviet threat had disappeared, has tipped the budget for American foreign policy heavily towards military power rather than instruments for economic influence. European governments, in contrast, took their ‘peace dividend’ in the form of deep cuts in military expenditure, while largely maintaining expenditure on non-military aspects of foreign policy. As a result the United States now accounts for some 40% of global military expenditure, while the EU collectively accounts for 25%; while the USA is battling to reduce its 25% contribution to the budgets of the United Nations and UN agencies, to which EU states collectively contribute nearly 40%.

There is, however, no basis for mutual understanding across the Atlantic on the appropriate exchange rate between these different currencies of power and influence. The Realist conception of foreign policy which underpins the Bush Administration emphasizes the determining importance of military power, effectively demonstrated once again in its projection over Afghanistan. The logic of this position is that European states must invest a great deal more in deployable military forces if they wish either to balance American dominance or to exert greater influence over the direction of American policy; that the instruments of ‘civilian power’ are the small change of global influence. There is however little domestic support within any European state for significant increases in defence spending – combined with frustration among political elites that substantial expenditure on international economic development, even when (as in Palestine) in support of declared US objectives, does not gain significant influence over the policies which the hegemon pursues.

Is Partnership Possible?

American rhetoric about transatlantic partnership was always a little disingenuous: offering junior partnership within an American-led community, rather than an effective partnership of equals. Multilateral rhetoric, and multilateral institutions, nevertheless made it easier for European governments to accept American leadership, and to persuade their domestic publics that they had gained a degree of influence over American policy in return. The United States resisted any moves towards an autonomous European group within NATO, from the 1960s through to the 1990s; but successive US Presidents paid lip service to the multilateral quality of NATO, participating in regular summits and bilateral consultations of a quality which persuaded all but Gaullist France that the consultative partnership offered was a bargain worth maintaining. Partnership in global economic policy has become much more substantial – with the partial exception of global financial regulation, where US administrations have remained determined to maintain their key role within the IMF. The most difficult test for continuing hegemony – that is, for continuing acceptance by America’s dependent partners of the legitimacy of its dominant role – thus lies in the politico-military domain.

The USA has now demonstrated, in Afghanistan, that it can go it alone in managing a crisis and defeating a distant but weakly-armed opponent. American policy-makers were determined to avoid their Afghan operations becoming entangled in the multilateral coils of NATO, permitting only a handful of forces from a small number of allies to assist the American-led effort. But it has not yet demonstrated that it can build a stable peace within West, Central and Southern Asia without a broader coalition to sustain a longer-term strategy. The implication of Administration rhetoric and requests for assistance from allies has been that the long-term process of rebuilding domestic order and a working economy can be shouldered primarily by others, after the United States has defeated the immediate threat. Such a division of responsibilities is unlikely to be welcome or acceptable, however, without both some appearance of continuing consultation and some definition of shared objectives and values sufficient to legitimize the demands the US wishes to make. A world in which American policy-makers proclaim that ‘superpowers don’t do windows’, or that ‘it is not the job of the 101st Airborne to help children across the road’, while expecting their allies to shoulder the burden of these essential but subordinate nation-building tasks, is one in which American power is likely to be increasingly resisted rather than welcomed. US power can be successfully exerted in a crisis without waiting for the consent of other friendly states; but if the consent of those friendly states is taken for granted over an extended period it will cease to be offered so willingly, and may in time be withdrawn.

The dilemmas European governments face in the aftermath of Sept.11th 2001 in responding to the expectations of their American hegemon are acute. They have to recognize that Europe as a region now matters far less to the United States than over the previous half-century, as American attention has turned to the Western hemisphere and Asia. They have to weigh up the arguments for greater investment in military power, partly in response to US expectations and partly as a means of counterbalancing US power. They have to pursue opportunities to influence the direction of US policy, in circumstances in which American tolerance for multilateral channels of consultation have declined. They have to respond to American requests for support and assistance, without having had the opportunity to share in formulating the policy which has set the context within which those requests are made.

There are, however, dilemmas for the USA as well. Hegemony rests on consent as well as on coercion, as has been argued above; and consent has to be generated and maintained, through the provision of persuasive leadership and through reference to a universal set of values. Liberal hegemony requires dominant powers to present the pursuit of their enlightened self-interest as being in the common interests of civilization as a whole. Explicit references to direct and immediate national interests, a rationale for foreign policy which stresses the exceptional and exclusive interests of the United States compared to those of its partners, resistance to multilateral regimes which diffuse American leadership within frameworks of shared rules and obligations, all weaken the ‘soft power’ of American prestige and reputation on which the informal empire of this hegemonic world order depends.

The founding fathers recognized that ‘a decent respect for the opinions of men’ outside the North American continent required them to frame the rationale for independence in terms which foreign as well as domestic audiences might accept. In providing a framework for foreign policy, US political leaders and intellectual elites in the post-cold war world have found it easier to address their domestic audience than their partners and allies beyond North America – not recognizing that in the long-term this may threaten the ability of the US to generate the ‘coalitions of the willing’ needed to support US objectives across the globe. Where economic and financial instruments are required, America’s European partners are essential to such coalitions; where peacemaking and nation-building operations follow the resolution of immediate crises, they have greater resources and skills than any other group of states. Those instruments and resources will continue to be readily available in support of American interests only if American policy-makers continue to invest in a multilateral rationale for US dominance, rather than to assert that dominance as a reality which other states must – willingly or unwillingly – accept. Hegemony rests upon a range of resources, of hard military power, economic weight, financial commitments, and the soft currency of hegemonic values, cultural influence and prestige. Soft power costs political time and investment, rather than massive expenditure of budgetary resources: imaginative leadership, to persuade those states in the shadow of the hegemon that they share in a common enterprise, rather than being coerced to follow an agenda set over their heads.