In Europe, fear of U.S. hegemonists

July 23, 1998|By William Pfaff

WARSAW -- The proposition that a world approaching the new millennium needs, for its own sake, hegemonic domination by America -- an idea popular in some Washington circles -- is now making its way on the summer's international conference circuit, and being received abroad with skepticism and some alarm.

Even in Poland, the country most anxious for membership in American-led NATO, people are taken aback by the importance the hegemony argument has acquired in Washington. They are not entirely reassured when told that it excites think tanks and foreign policy and security bureaucracies much more than it does the citizens of Des Moines or Atlanta. This reaction was apparent at a recent meeting of policy academics and intellectuals from the United States, Europe and Taiwan, sponsored in Warsaw by the Stefan Batory Foundation.

The hegemony argument is linked to the debate over whether the objective of Western foreign policy should be democracy's promotion in countries not yet democratic. The argument in favor says democracy produces stability and peace, linked to free markets and prosperity.

The argument against says that democracy requires social institutions and value systems which develop slowly, according to the conditions in individual countries, and that without those institutions and values democratic institutions are a shell.

It goes on to say that the popular will in new democracies is as likely to produce instability and threats to international peace as the contrary, particularly when new democratic structures are installed in conditions of economic and social upheaval, as is mostly the case today. It notes that Slobodan Milosevic remains in power in Yugoslavia because he keeps winning elections there.

Pax Americana

The hegemony argument says that since the United States is the world's most powerful country, and will remain so for a considerable time, it will tend to dominate what happens whatever its policy. Therefore, a conscious policy of imposing Pax Americana is better than any alternative.

Moreover, such a policy is justified because American hegemony is benevolent hegemony. "Everyone knows" that the United States is "a righteous nation" (to quote Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute). As James Schlesinger, former U.S. defense secretary, has observed, "humility is not our national style."

It also is said (by Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment, for example) that the Washington debate is really a struggle for the American soul, between cynics and "realists," conservative worriers about multiculturalism and cultural relativism, who don't really like democracy very much, and on the other hand those who believe in a crusading Americanism worthy of the country's founding conviction that it is a nation unlike any other.

Several things can be said about all this. The first is that confusion exists in the Washington debate between the possession of potentially hegemonic power -- no one disputes that the United States has that today -- and a policy meant to secure hegemony and aggrandize American power, which means trying to compel others to do what they are told and putting down challenges to American domination. The argument frequently jumps from the existence of the first to the inevitability of the second.

Very little evidence exists that the American people would support the costs of a policy of global hegemony. No evidence whatever exists that the world would put up with American hegemony for very long. The history of such matters is that hegemonic power inevitably generates its own opposition.

The European Union, China, Russia and Japan -- to take only the biggest powers -- are not going to indefinitely subordinate their own interests to those defined in Washington. They already have made trouble over U.S. policy regarding Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Middle Eastern peace and U.S. trade and economic practices. Russia condemns NATO expansion and China assails America's Taiwan policy. American monetary leadership will be challenged when the single European currency comes into existence in January.

None of those as yet represents really deep conflict in national interest. The new European currency and globalized high-technology competition, as between Boeing and Airbus, will in the future inevitably produce much more important clashes of interest.

It is true, as Mr. Kagan says, that in this affair policy philosophies are engaged. The hegemonists provide the latest manifestation of the American messianism, which goes back to the Puritans but had its crucial modern political formulation in Woodrow Wilson's crusade in 1918-1919 to remake Europe according to American ideas and values.

Moral philosophy

The realists appeal to the tradition of Tocqueville and Burke and George Washington, as well as to the effort of certain modern thinkers and practitioners to develop a policy philosophy that is, as Kenneth Thompson describes it, "moral although shunning moralism." They also believe in the adage that while the study of history may make you wise, "it cannot fail to make you sad."

Thus the deeper division is between the historical optimism and deep belief in progress always a force in American thought -- an optimism that scarcely imagines the possibility of failure -- and a historical pessimism that follows from the conviction that history, whatever the successes it records, is essentially a tragic affair. That is an un-American notion, but is the reality, and in the long run reality imposes itself, even on Americans. The question is how long it takes to do so.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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