Notes on Hegemony and Symbolic Capital

Oct 15, 2012

This is of interest only to international-relations theorists and fellow travelers.

A long-standing claims about hegemonic orders is that they are normative ones: that a dominant power uses a wide variety of power resources to create a set of international rules and regimes conducive to its ideological and material interests. After World War II the United States worked actively to promote norms and institutions consistent with a broadly “liberal internationalist” environment, albeit ones refracted through the prism of Cold War competition. After the Cold War the United States enlarged the order, however unevenly, and during the Bush Administration it sought, but generally failed, to recast that order along neoconservative lines.

The two most importnat “mainstream” pieces to focus on the normative dimensions of hegemonic orders are probably John Ruggie’s “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order” and G. John Ikenberry’s and Charles Kupchan’s “Socialization and Hegemonic Power.”

The former highlighted the specific normative and ideological content of US postwar order building. It made the rather basic point that a Nazi victory in World War II would have resulted in a very different economic order. The latter argued that hegemon’s exert power by socializing elites in “secondary states” into hegemonic policy preferences.

Elites in secondary states buy into and internalize norms that art articulated by the hegemon and therefore pursue policies consistent with the hegemon’s notion of international order. The exercise of power–and hence the mechanism through which compliance is achieved–involves the projection by the hegemon of a set of norms and their embrace by leaders in other nations.

Ikenberry’s and Kupchan’s argument shares many features with the emerging constructivist mainstream of the day. They highlight difficulties of measurement. They seek a modus vivendi between “material” and “ideational” forces in world politics. And they import arguments found int the critical literature on hegemony, such as that produced by Robert Cox and Stephen Gill, into a non-critical mode of analysis.

As part of my efforts to redraft a paper that, sadly, failed on a tie-breaker review at a prominent journal, I’ve been thinking more and more about recasting its basic argument in terms of the literature on hegemonic socialization. The paper focuses on two mechanisms by which weaker states influence their more powerful partners: interpersonal trust networks and symbolic capital.

The first mechanism is straightforward: interactions between stronger and weaker states may build social ties that “substitute” for credible commitments. Through positive interaction with foreign elites, US officials come to trust them — sometimes to a degree that leads them to overestimate their credibility, downplay information that cast doubt on their willingness to comply with US policy preferences, and otherwise incorrectly extend them the benefit of the doubt.

This matters more than one might expect given the architecture of US hegemony. Washington invests a great deal of effort into “socializing” officials in other countries through various education, training, and exchange programs. The wager here is somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, it is supposed to build positive relationships among US and foreign officials. On the other hand, it is supposed to create opportunities for foreign officials to “buy into” American norms and values. But to the extent that the first operates, we should also expect that US officials will come to trust and identify with their counterparts. In short, the latter assumes “unidirectional” socialization and the former “bidirectional” socialization. In practice, bidirectional socialization sometimes prevails.

Of course, such programs are not the only way that interpersonal trust networks develop. The routine practice of diplomacy promotes social ties that can take on a positive affective characteristic. It should not surprise that the leadership of other states may exploit this in pursuit of their own agenda. The relationship between the Bush Administration and the (recently defeated) Saakashvili regime exemplifies this process. Its officials–often educated in the United States or otherwise extremely familiar with US culture and politics–literally “wined and dined” Americans in a extremely successful effort to build affective ties.

Undercurrents of the first mechanism show up in the second, which is really the subject of this post. To the extent that hegemonic powers produce international normative orders we might think of those orders as akin to Bourdieu’s concept of “the field,” in which social capital is allocated in part through adoption of and commitment to hegemonic normative preferences. Put differently, we can extend Gilpin’s argument that the hegemon allocates status by focusing on social capital, as this frees us to think about hegemonic orders as providing resources that states may use instrumentally as part of a struggle for influence.

This connection has been made explicit in some analyses of “soft power,” which focus on soft power as a kind of social capital. A hegemonic power, such as the United States, accrues soft power as a number of its non-military and non-economic assets are imbued with the prestige derived from its military and economic might. Blue jeans, films, music, and its domestic institutions become “attractive” through a process of not unlike the misrecognition described by Marx and Durkheim in their analysis , respectively, of commodity fetishism and the origins of religion. Soft power persists, in this kind of account, because socio-cultural totems become detached from the military and economic dominance that first lent them their status.

Of course, the concept of “soft power” now extends well beyond this rather narrow treatment. But it can be linked back to hegemonic order through the “field” analogy, insofar as the hegemon’s material power does not dictate the nature of and allocation of symbolic capital. States therefore invest in a variety of activities that (they believe) confer social capital, such as foreign aid, and even come to look upon successful cultural exports as indicative of higher status in the field of international politics.

This somewhat rambling discussion leads back to my original point: that states may accumulate symbolic capital–particularly with a hegemonic power–by signaling their commitment to its normative and policy preferences. Saakashvili’s regime was rather skilled at doing so during the Bush Administration: it routinely committed itself to becoming an (explicit) success story for Bush’s freedom agenda, supplied disproportionate (on a per capita basis) forces to Iraq, and otherwise convinced many US officials that they saw the world the same way as Americans do.

Small states often enjoy a real advantage in this game, as it is much easier for them to socialize into the hegemonic system than its for US elites to gain comparable knowledge of their interlocutors’ domestic norms and cultural practices. In this sense, hegemonic norms and values are, somewhat paradoxically, easier for secondary states to exploit than for dominant powers.

My questions to readers are threefold:

  1. Does this make any sense?
  2. How would you amend it?
  3. What literatures should I be looking at on the relationship between hegemonic orders and social capital?
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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.