You Can’t Always Get What You Want

1 December 2006, 1339 EST

After the sudden cancellation of the planned three-way meeting between President Bush, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki, the always-incisive Abu Aardvark quipped: US Hegemony, RIP.

Not sure that this follows. Yes, I agree, the US is in trouble internationally, but two leaders canceling a dinner with the President in what looks like a diplomatic snub is hardly the decisive piece of evidence in that regard. It’s not even a blow against “US hegemony,” if one wants to use that language (which I usually don’t, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment). Indeed, a hegemon is supposed to be able to absorb these kind of slights. Getting everything that one wants isn’t hegemony, it’s absolute control — and the US never had that to begin with, Administration unilateralist fantasies to the contrary.

Even a hegemon can’t always get everything that it wants — and I’m not even so sure that the US is a hegemon at the moment.

“Hegemony,” although used informally as a synonym for “preponderance” or something equivalent, is actually a word with Greek roots that means something closer to “leadership.” The hegemon doesn’t just force others to do something; rather, the hegemon gets others to, in some sense, buy into the course of action. In that sense, it’s less about pushing people around; it’s about getting them on your side, at least for the time being. Antonio Gramsci, the seminal modern theorist of hegemony, even argues that a successful hegemon has to defer, to some extent, to some of the desires of those subject to hegemony:

Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed — in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind.

Gramsci hastens to add that the hegemon shouldn’t sacrifice anything “essential,” but the point remains: hegemony isn’t about the hegemon always getting its way in every particular. Rather, hegemony is about the hegemon’s ability to set the basic direction of things, to take care of the big picture and the overall agenda. It’s not about the hegemon’s ability to always get a date for dinner.

Of course, Gramsci wasn’t talking about inter-state or international/global hegemony; Gramsci was talking about the hegemony exercised by dominant class fractions over other classes within capitalist political economies, and “hegemony” in his thought is a stop-gap that stops The Revolution (yes, that Revolution) from coming along, expropriating the expropriators, and ushering in the new socialist millennium. When Robert Cox imported the notion into International Relations theory, he stripped it of a little of its marxian-revolutionary baggage, but retained the basic outlines of the concept:

…it would appear that, historically, to become hegemonic, a state would have to found and protect a world order which was universal in conception, i.e., not an order in which one state directly exploits others but an order in which most other states (or at least those within reach of the hegemony) could find compatible with their interests.

For Cox as well as for Gramsci, the “interests” in question are not pre-given facts, but emerge within a set of social interactions as a result of which people (and states) come to know their interests — or at any rate to conceptualize them in certain ways. Exercising hegemony is about more than simply figuring out what other people’s interests are and then offering to fulfill those interests; that would just be giving side-payments in return for consent, and wouldn’t require leadership at all. Rather, a hegemon works by providing the “conception,” the story, the narrative, within which various other actors come to recognize themselves as part of some more general kind of project.

What this means, to my mind, is that hegemony is a particular form of dominance of or control over others. For that reason — and because I’m not a big fan of the crypto-marxian undertones of most uses of the term “hegemony” — I generally prefer not to talk about US hegemony, but US dominance and the way that it is legitimated or justified. (Bonus points for readers who can spot the Weberian sympathy in this analytical move.) My thinking goes like this: The US is, materially speaking, the 800-pound gorilla in the world at the moment, especially in the military realm but also in the economic realm and arguably in the cultural realm too, but that material supremacy doesn’t translate directly into anything without a socially-sustained story to configure and activate that supremacy and produce out of it some kind of social order. So what’s key here is the way that the 800-pound gorilla tries to make its dominance acceptable to others — a condition only achieved if others to some extent buy into the story. “Hegemony” designates a reasonably successful effort to do this, and so means something like “a legitimation strategy that works or worked.”

As John Ruggie might have said, it’s not US dominance that matters; it’s the fact that it’s US dominance — dominance with a US flavor and a US-centered legitimating story.

The reason that I’m belaboring this point a bit is simple: given this set of conceptual distinctions, I am not certain that the US has been a hegemon in recent years, since it has not been doing a very good job legitimating its dominance ever since the Bush Administration took office. Instead, the US has been throwing its weight around: unilaterally abrogating treaties even before 11 September 2001 (anyone remember Kyoto? efforts to ban land mines, or to curb the small arms and light weapons trade? the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty?), invading countries it characterized as a security threat without getting global approval for doing so, and so forth. The strategy of using “coalitions of the willing” is a more or less deliberate refusal to engage in the legitimation of dominance, because one only has to speak to “the willing” who pretty much by definition don’t need to buy into any kind of broader narrative in order to go along with the operation. Instead, they can sign on for their own private and even idiosyncratic reasons, and the dominant power can just skip all of that messy business of public diplomacy and the construction of a framework that appears meaningful to others. Anti-social sociality, so to speak: we have the appearance of a coalition, but in actuality it’s just a bunch of disconnected individual actors who just happen to be going in the same direction. Not legitimate dominance at all — and certainly not “hegemony.”

Such a condition — dominance without much of an attempt at legitimation — is both unstable and worrying. As Hedley Bull wrote twenty years ago:

The state which alleges a just cause, even one it does not itself believe in, is at least is at least acknowledging that it owes other stats an explanation of its conduct, in terms of rules that they accept . . . to make war without any explanation, or with an explanation stated only in terms of the recalcitrant state’s own beliefs — such as the Mongols’ belief in the Mandate of Heaven, or the belief of the Conquistadors in the Pope’s imperium mundi — is to hold all other states in contempt, and to place in jeopardy all the settled expectations that states have about one another’s behavior [emphasis added].

Besides the phrase I have italicized in the quotation, I think that the key point here is “in terms of rules that they accept.” Talking at other states in terms that make sense to us — to (the) US — does not make a good legitimation strategy. Coalitions of the willing loosely united under the banner of a “War On Terror(ism)” thus belongs in the same category as the insider-only justifications provided by the Mongols and the Conquistadors, which is hardly the company I think that a would-be hegemon should be keeping.

Thus, US hegemony can’t be newly dead after the cancelled dinner-date in Amman, because by my reading it hasn’t really been operating for the past six years anyway. Instead, the US has been trying to dominate the world by force alone, which is the kind of thing that really pisses off the ruled over time (and is almost certainly part of the reason that dominance generally tries to legitimate itself). We might charitably call this “inept dominance.” That leaders are refusing to dine with the Emperor President, and that Ecuador is electing a Chavez-esque anti-American populist, is less a sign of crumbling hegemony than the not-unexpected consequences of not having seriously pursued legitimate dominance in the first place — and not having paid enough attention to shoring up what legitimation there was for US dominance previously.

I’m not saying that the Administration would have actually succeeded in crafting a legitimating narrative even if it had really made a serious effort to do so. A lot of things might have gone wrong even if they had been earnestly trying. But, as some wise British lads once taught us (everybody sing along):

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You just might find
You get what you need

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