Hegemon and Proud of It

No apologies necessary for being the only superpower–and acting like it.

The American soccer team had a tough week at the World Cup in France, losing to the Iranians Sunday and the Yugoslavs Thursday. The cheering around the world stopped short of classic anti-Americanism, but it went beyond mere appreciation for two games well played. In many quarters of the globe, there seemed to be a sense of relief: Whew! At least here was one genuinely level playing field on which the United States was just another contender, not a superpower.

Complaining that Uncle Sam is too big for his britches is almost as popular an international sport as soccer itself. Lately, an old word has resurfaced: The United States stands accused of hegemonism. Didn’t this musty term figure in Thucydides’ description of how Sparta feared the rising power of Athens? And wasn’t it a Maoist code word during the Sino-Soviet dispute (as in, “dig tunnels deep, store grain everywhere, and never seek hegemony”)?

Yet today the H-word is commonly used to denounce, among other things, the U.S. practice of certifying other nations’ cooperation in the war on drugs and U.S. laws that punish foreign corporations for doing business with state sponsors of terrorism. Even the U.S. policy of promoting democracy and human rights is sometimes labeled hegemonist.

There is plenty of room for legitimate debate about where the line is between advancing universal values and imposing our own values on others; or when our country should act alone, when in concert with others. But these days U.S. power is subject to a form of ambivalence verging on antagonism–even from allies–that goes beyond the merits and motivations of this or that particular criticism.

There is nothing new about other nations resenting U.S. influence on their political, economic, and cultural lives. But with the end of the Cold War, America-bashing–or at least America-tweaking–is enjoying a new boom. That’s in part because of the end of the Cold War. Other nations tended to muffle or modulate their occasional annoyance with the country that was their shield against the Soviet threat. Now they feel less constrained.

It is sometimes easier for other governments to complain about what they depict as a swaggering, cock-of-the-roost American attitude than it is to tackle us head-on over substantive issues. Besides, taking potshots at Washington is often good local politics: Blaming a faraway caricature of the United States can deflect attention from shortcomings, or worse, closer to home.

Much criticism of America these days has a damned if we do/damned if we don’t quality. Many of the same voices accuse us of arrogance when we assert ourselves and of failure of nerve or vision when we encourage them to take the lead in their own region. Today we are Rambo, while only yesterday we were Forrest Gump.

The former Yugoslavia is an example. In 1993, Europeans berated us for conditioning our participation in Bosnia on transatlantic consensus. More recently, some of those same officials and pundits have griped about our determination to apply tough and, if necessary, military measures in response to the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Kosovo.

T here is a similar schizoid aspect to the reaction of some of our friends to U.S. policies toward the Asian financial crisis and the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. Both problems are too vast for us to be able to address alone, yet both require us to play a central role in orchestrating an effective international defense of common interests. That means we must combine coalition building with direct approaches to the parties. We have supported efforts by international financial institutions to stop the plunge of Asian economies. We also have talked directly–very directly–to Japan about the economic reforms it needs. Our attempt to defuse the crisis between India and Pakistan began with emergency meetings of the foreign ministers of the P-5 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) and the G-8 (the seven major industrialized democracies, plus Russia). But the United States has also conducted quiet diplomacy with the two countries involved.

These two cases illustrate the need to pursue U.S. interests on two tracks–together as possible and alone as necessary (or, in diplomatic jargon, multilaterally and unilaterally). In an increasingly interdependent world, many pressing problems that affect Americans can be addressed only through cooperation with other countries. The spread of nuclear and biological weapons, the growth of international organized crime, and global environmental degradation are a few examples.

An important part of U.S. diplomacy is getting sovereign states to work together voluntarily. Coercion isn’t appropriate and won’t work. The United States has got to be careful not to strut its stuff in ways that might disincline other countries from cooperating with it. We should lead by example and suasion.

We have a solid basis for doing so. Uniquely in the history of Great Powers, the United States defines its greatness not as an ability to dominate others but as an ability to work with others in the interest of the international community. For Americans, that phrase “international community” is not abstract or cynical or euphemistic; and we try to make good on its implications. U.S. foreign policy strives for a consensus among like-minded states on behalf of common interests that we can and should champion together.

We do this not out of philanthropy but out of enlightened self-interest. We believe that when democracy and prosperity and security advance anywhere around the globe, it enhances the freedom, prosperity, and security of the United States as well. After World War II the United States led the world in the design and construction of a superstructure made up of the United Nations, NATO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These institutions helped bring bitter adversaries into a framework of mutual support and benefit. Now these organizations that served what we used to think of as “the West” and “the North” are opening up to the developing and democratizing nations of the East and the South. And the United States is also leading the creation of new international institutions: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the North Atlantic Free Trade Association, the World Trade Organization, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

There is no need to apologize for our leadership role. But there is room for improvement in our leadership style. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has asked those of us who speak publicly for the United States to make a conscious effort not to sound smug, patronizing, or hectoring. That includes talking about foreign policy here in the United States. In the information age, what senior U.S. government officials say to an American audience is very likely to be heard or read around the world. What plays well in Peoria, Ill., might sound offensive in Panama City or Paris–to mention two capitals where there is special sensitivity to any hint of U.S. hegemonism. (She isn’t ordering us to pull our punches–just to be more conscious of what punches we’re landing where, and to what intended effect.)

While taking account of foreign sensitivities to American assertiveness, we must also be on our guard against a domestic temptation in the opposite direction. Today some Americans–including influential members of Congress–also worry about U.S. hegemonism, but from a different perspective. They warn that in the name of exercising international leadership, we are foolishly risking our country’s blood and treasure in faraway lands of which we know little. This concern–misguided and misguiding–loomed large last fall in congressional opposition to Fast Track, and it is present again today in opposition to paying our share of support for the IMF and our overdue bills to the United Nations.

When all is said and done, the United States can handle complaints about the style and even the substance of our engagement with the world. Better that than disengagement or a return to the isolationism of more than half a century ago.