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Foreign Policy

What Is Hegemony? A Practical Proposal

Apr 04 , 2018
  • Jared McKinney

    PhD student at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies


“China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion.” China’s leaders, including both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, have repeated this line frequently, including at the most recent National People’s Congress. In contrast, Harry Harris, the chief of America’s Pacific Command and Trump’s nominated ambassador to Australia, told America’s Senate Armed Service Committee two years ago: “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia. Simple as that.” John Bolton, Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor, agrees. Just a month before Harris’ testimony, he decried “China’s seemingly inexorable march toward hegemony in East Asia” and recommended playing the “Taiwan card” to counter it. Even as U.S. officials condemn China’s supposed quest for hegemony, scholars sympathetic to American power describe the U.S. as the “hegemon” of the “international order,” albeit one uniquely “liberal.”

Since hegemony is apparently such an important—and contested—concept, one might be forgiven for asking, “What is it?” There is in fact no clear answer, as a new book by Perry Anderson shows. The term was first used in the modern era by the English historian George Grote in 1849, but did not come into common usage until after 1960. The noun, “hegemon,” was practically unused in English until after 1980.

The basic conceptual disagreement is whether hegemony implies leadership based on consent and recognition or whether it is merely a synonym for domination, rule, empire, and other such terms that rely more principally upon coercion. The English historian mentioned above, Grote, thought hegemony was an independent concept, and argued that Thucydides used it to distinguish between legitimate leadership in the Greek world and Athens’ increasingly unbearable domination. Perry Anderson, in contrast, argues that the strict juxtaposition of these conceptions was unwarranted both in the case of Thucydides and more generally in the ancient Greek world. Aristotle was to remark, for instance, that Greece’s hegemons, Athens and Sparta, imposed their respective forms of government on other polities, replacing the equality that was supposed to be at the heart of the Greek system of city-states with competitions for “rule” or acceptance of “subjection.” So much for Grote’s hard and fast distinction between leadership and domination.

This basic divide in understanding the word has continued into the present. Political scientist Richard Ned Lebow has defended the leadership/recognition-based conception of hegemony in a number of publications. Realist IR thinkers have been more skeptical. E. H. Carr remarked that “power goes far to create the morality convenient to itself,” though he acknowledged an order is only likely to survive in the long term if it was relatively “tolerant.” John Mearsheimer calls a state a hegemon when “no other state can seriously threaten” it. Such a state “dominates all the other states in the system.” In this conception, it is power, particularly military power, that dictates the terms of engagement.

When Chinese leaders denounce hegemony, they are undoubtedly rejecting the imperial variant described by Carr and Mearsheimer above. The sort of hegemony that denotes international leadership, in contrast, is increasingly being embraced by China under Xi Jinping.

When American military and political leaders condemn China’s apparent quest for hegemony, it is unclear which version of hegemony they oppose. Does the U.S. merely oppose Chinese empire? Or is it also intent on contesting—and preventing if possible—Chinese leadership?

The blurred lines between coercive leadership and consensual leadership further complicate the answer to this question. The most important passage of Anderson’s book highlights the tension between the competing conceptions of hegemony: “Leadership of a league: was that political or military? Were those led subjects or allies? Were its bonds voluntary or enforced? Every subsequent guise in which hegemony has reappeared has been haunted by the same ambiguity.” Even those who believe there is a critical distinction between hegemony/leadership and domination/empire must acknowledge that the concepts overlap.

Paul Schroeder once remarked that the difference between hegemony, which he saw as necessary for international order, and empire, which he saw as destructive of international order, was “one of degree, like the difference between warm, hot, and boiling.” To put flesh on this distinction, let me suggest three examples: America helping manage the post-war order through creating multilateral organizations and treaties—this could be called ‘warm’ hegemony. America’s big stick diplomacy in Central America—we might venture to call this ‘hot’ hegemony. America’s invasion of Iraq—this was boiling, and it was empire.

Is China seeking hegemony today? Obviously, it depends on what you mean by hegemony. In China’s case, the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank seem most closely parallel to America’s Post-WWII institution building, which I have categorized as a species of hegemony (but not empire) above. China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, in contrast, might be categorized as something closer to “big stick” diplomacy, though, to be fair, China has certainly not invaded any neighboring country, unlike the U.S. in the heyday of the big stick. No Chinese action approximates America’s recent imperial quest in the Middle East.

Sound thinking requires clear definitions. The word hegemony, which seems to have always have been ambiguous, makes this difficult. Going forward it is important both for the U.S. to clarify specifically what sort of hegemony it opposes and for China to be careful that its quest for hegemonic leadership does not get too “warm,” moving towards bullying and empire. Both moves are necessary if the world’s two great powers are going to negotiate the strains of shifting power.

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