Concepts: Hegemony, Primacy and Leading State

“Leadership or domination of one element of a system over others” – Used by Gramsci to describe the leadership of the bourgeoisie over lower classes suggesting it is based on more of an ideological intent rather than one of force.

A global hegemon is a state that has absolute power within a system of competing states, and has complete control over global affairs. They have the capacity to intervene is another state’s affairs, and crave the power that comes from this. A hegemon can forcefully assert its dominance and yet at the same time, create alliances, ideas, and institutions that allow free participation. A global hegemon therefore exercises both the mentality of an imperialist state, securing its empire, whilst maintaining the values, such as democracy and liberalism, of the free world. Global leadership operates through ideological means, and less so through force.

Hegemonic status is determined by 5 factors which enable the hegemon to shape the preferences and actions of other states

  1. Military: strongest military in the world
  2. Economic: largest and most technologically advanced in the world
  3. Political: wide range of political allies
  4. Institutional: along with its allies, controls most of the international institutions
  5. Ideological: the predominant ideas of the world are those of the hegemon

Overwhelming material power or economic power does not allow a power to be declared a hegemon, and a successful hegemon can only exercise this title if it represents a persuasive model for a way of life that others admire, and want to adopt and share. Whilst a leading state has control over global affairs, it does not represent the qualities of an imperialist state, like a hegemon does, with few attempts to control other states through ideological means. Leading states are often leaders in terms of economic or military capabilities, but do not use these abilities to spread their ideological influence.

US Hegemony

Military power: US military spending outcompetes its top 10 competitors 10 fold, overshadowing the military outlays of other societies. US military capabilities abroad are the guarantor of stability and global balance of power

Economic power: dominance of US economy meant it was the main funder of the reconstruction of post war Europe, and the dollar has remained the world’s dominant currency since

Political: Intervention in the way other states align or realign with the continued support of Turkey’s aim to enter the EU

International organisations: The establishment of NATO and the UN during the Cold War gave America significant influence over international affairs, and with these organisations once only having power over western states, have spread to have a global impact. US influence has remained significant due to high levels of funding and security council veto

Ideology: Epitome of western capitalism and liberal ideas since its triumph in the Cold War. Globalisation and Americanisation are phenomenons that are often tied together by political analysts.

But as with the definition of superpowers, Nye mentions a more intangible element to the influence of a hegemonic state. If a hegemony is a state which can set the rules of the international system, whether by force during the time of empires, or through institutional means as the USA has achieved today, then what happens to this system when the power of the hegemony which built it fades? With the ostensibly multilateral world order we have today, even with a declining USA, would other countries dare overturn this system which suits them well? One could argue revisionist powers would attempt to do so, but currently lack the power. Is that, therefore, the meaning of a hegemony? A power with the ability to shape the international system until another overturns it?

   This however undermines the importance of a country’s economic stability in making it a hegemony. A definition of a hegemony argues that a state must have control over power resources, economic and military. In an interconnected world dependent on the stability of the world economy, military might seems to have been superseded by economic might, many would argue. With China’s economy growing and bound to reach the US in several decades time, one could argue that a hegemonic power needs a strong economy to sustain it. Plans to offer $46 billion to Pakistan for infrastructure assistance, growing relations in South America and Africa and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank all point towards China’s entrance into the fight to become a hegemony. Lawrence Summers, top economic advisor to Clinton and Obama declared that China’s new institution and America’s failed attempt to keep its allies from signing it as ‘the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system’.

   Therefore, a hegemony seems a collection of factors. Economic power and the ability to use it to shift the economic system to one’s own favour are both prerequisites to define one. An imperialist state is a tricky definition to attune to modern day, and quite controversial. One could argue that insofar as the USA can still maintain its liberal mantra and support for the sovereignty of a state, it has still demonstrated imperialist tendencies. Niall Ferguson, the celebrated historian, argues that the USA is an empire in denial, that invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the ambiguous aim of installing a liberal democracy, the spread of NATO, the power of US led institutions like the IMF all reflect a sort of neo-Empire, that the oeuvre of US interventionist involvement doesn’t align with the myth of a co-operative, benign power that Washington wanted to pedal. Noam Chomsky agrees, arguing that the Iraqi war was partly fought to control oil, the world’s most precious resource, to leverage rivals who wanted it, to keep the US empire in power. These are all controversial views but reflect how the USA seems to adopt a facet of every definition of a hegemony.

‘Primacy’ or ‘leading state’ refers to pre-eminence or dominance in a similar way to hegemony. However, primacy/ leading state may refer to dominance in a particular field or a particular region rather than overall importance in international politics. For example, while Russia and Saudi Arabia may be leading states in oil production, they can not claim the title of a hegemon because they do not have the overarching power that the US has in multiple fields. Having primacy or being a leading state in a particular area may not lend itself to making the state powerful.

It is possible to have a regional hegemon or a global hegemon (as many believe the USA has been since the end of the Cold War). Gramsci  famously argued, when revolution was slow in coming to Italy, that capitalism had constructed a hegemonic culture which had so impregnated every part of life that it somehow managed to preserve the capitalist system long after it should otherwise have collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. This does not greatly differ from primacy which asserts that states shape the world order due to their economic and military might. Primacy has been very good for the United States. America has enjoyed some degree of international primacy since World War II, and an essentially unrivaled sort of primacy since the end of the Cold War. And over the course of several decades, Washington has used that primacy to shape an international system that, by any meaningful comparison, has been highly conducive to American interests and ideals. Washington has employed its power to uphold stability in key regions, to foster the spread of democracy and human rights, to anchor a liberal global economy, and to contain or roll back the influence of aggressive authoritarian powers or other malign actors that might fundamentally disrupt this state of affairs. To be sure, the temptations of power have occasionally gotten the better of Americans, leading to military interventions or other exertions that have proven counterproductive in the end—Vietnam and Iraq being the two foremost examples. But on the whole, the United States has profited handsomely from its primacy, using it to shape an American global order.

Shaun Ali, Tasnia Uddin, Aidas Zvirblis and Ilenya Nocivelli

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