Hegemonic Multilateralism: The US

With the US as the main character, this story sees leadership where others see hegemony. The basic script merges a number of major elements: first, theories of international relations legitimizing the primacy of the United States, as classical realism or hegemonic stability and its view of history through cycles of imperial domination, as the contemporary Pax Americana (Arenal 2014). Second, foreign policy frameworks drafted by think tanks, whether the progressive Center for American Progress, or the neoconservative Project for a New American Century. Third, it arises from providentialism and exception- alism and the 'manifest destiny' doctrine rooted in American political culture, which defines the US foreign policy long-term goals as virtuous and universal, and shape America's self-perception as 'a shining city upon a hill'.[1] That view, bipartisan and assumed by popular culture, induced B. Barber (2003) to say that being American 'is not a nationality. It is an ideology'.

In this story there are other important characters: the United Kingdom as the faithful ally, more likely to follow this script because of the 'special relationship' with the US. The EU, indeed an irrelevant actor, while individual EU member states appear in the best case as reluctant supporters within the 'North Atlantic security community', and at worst as freeriders of the US burdensome commitment to global security while they enjoy their wellbeing and remain bemused in their permanent institutional imbroglios (Kagan 2003). The different modulations of this hegemonic script concerning the EU depend in part on historical factors and/or the ideological orientation of governments, which would illustrate, for example, the Bush/Obama approaches to the EU, or the attitude towards Atlanticism of socialist or conservative governments in France or Germany.

In this script, developing countries are a diverse group of characters, including loyal allies in the 'community of market democracies', able to participate in 'coalitions of the willing'. They can include threatening 'fragile states', which can be safe-havens for terrorism or transnational crime, and at times require external intervention and support from the West in their nationbuilding efforts. Or they can be hostile 'rogue states' plotting against the West, sponsoring terrorism and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Successive national security strategies adopted since the end of the Cold War would show, despite changes of government and doctrine, a striking continuity in that list of friends and foes.

In this story, multilateralism is the natural space for enacting American leadership, and a cost-effective mechanism for band-wagoning and for generating legitimacy. However, the US never will subordinate its sovereignty and national interests to multilateralism: there are no other political communities than those defined by nation states, and without a 'global demos’ any form of world government will be illegitimate. The UN? The US does not ask permission to defend its security or national interests to an organization mainly populated by developing countries, often depicted as 'unruly actors' to be educated and disciplined, according to the powerful political metaphor of government as a 'strict father' (Lakoff 2004, p. 33). Hence the conservatives' depiction of multilateralism as the hopeless Lilliputians' attempt of tying up the US as Gulliver.

In the plot of this story, global governance shall be the outcome of a teleological struggle to ensure US primacy and expand its universal values. Only the American leadership can provide security, stability, prosperity, and democracy to the entire world, on the assumption that the US often will have to do it alone, as an updated 'white men's burden'. Sometimes, the main character gets it wrong, becomes violent, and acts unilaterally—well, nobody is perfect. The hegemon is condemned in multilateral fora and loses the support of his allies... but, as in any blockbuster, there is a happy ending. We pan out with a good president winning the election and genuine American values returning, allowing it to use 'soft power' or 'smart power' to recover its leadership, ensuring world peace and prosperity.

  • [1] As depicted in the Sermon on the Mount used in 1630 by John Winthrop to invite the futureMassachusetts colony to be 'as a city upon the hill—the eyes of all people are upon us'.
 
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