“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
– John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
A hegemon is a state capable of dominating the conduct of international affairs. A hegemon has both the strongest military and economy, and today that would be the United States of America. In the long history of mankind, the U.S. is relatively young, but it didn’t take long for it to become a global power. The people of the U.S. benefit from the role its country plays internationally. But how are other states affected by U.S. hegemony? This question is best answered in two global conflicts with two other powers competing for the hegemonic position: the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, and the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
A look at the 20th Century explains how the U.S. became the contested hegemon (COYNE). After World War I, the world was multipolar, where a number of powers competed on the international stage, including The U.S., United Kingdom, Soviet Union, Italy, Japan and Germany. In this unstable phase, the states clashed in World War II. After the war, the Allied powers including the U.S., U.K., and U.S.S.R. prepared to lead the conduct of international affairs. The world was soon in a state of bipolarity during the Cold War between the U.S.S.R and the U.S. By the start of the 1990’s it became clear the Cold War was over, and the U.S. was the last superpower. This unipolar state is the way the world remains, with the U.S. as the contested hegemon. So now it is asked, how are other states affected by U.S. hegemony?
One example which can be looked at to answer the question is the South China Sea. China has established man made islands in the South China Sea which they have built up as military bases (Why China). China is trying to stake its claims in the South China Sea, rich in oil and other natural resources. Five countries in the region lay claim to some part of the sea, using the United Nations Law of the Seas which states a nation’s territorial waters extend 200 nautical miles off their coast (Firestein). Though they are a part of it, China disregards this policy citing history as justification for claiming their right to control the sea (Why China). According to the UN, any area which does not fall within a country’s 200 mile exclusive economic zone off their coast, is regarded as international waters, free to be navigated by anyone (Why China). But China uses a nine-dash line, which extends their claims into the established EEZs of countries such as Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and control areas of the sea which are supposed to be international waters (Why China).
Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea has become a threat to the allies of the U.S. and all who wish to use the South China Sea, which controls 30% of all global shipping (Firestsein). China is restricting freedom of navigation and overflight in this part of the world. Within the last few years, China has come into conflict with the Philippines and Vietnam, forcibly removing them from territories, creating large platforms and anchorages (House). Last July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an IGO, sided with the Philippines after they challenged China’s expansion into their EEZ, but the conflict remains unresolved (Firestein). As hegemon, the U.S. has urged China to end the aggression towards their allies in the region, so as to “maintain peace, stability and freedom” (House).
From the Chinese perspective, they have a historical claim they are now using to build up their military operations, and control a major function of the global commons to expand their economy. They say no state should be alarmed, downplaying their increased presence to keep the interfering U.S. out of their backyard. From the U.S. perspective, the Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is uncalled for. They see the nine-dash line as illegal and ill-defined, and are alarmed by the increasingly belligerent position they have taken, by threatening the sovereignty of allies. The U.S. has said they welcome a prosperous China, but as a balancing contender, the government is concerned about preserving their hegemonic status. With regards to the conflict, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee say, “either China gets what it wants, or it will use armed conflict to enforce its so-called ‘core interests.’”
Another current event which demonstrates how other states might see U.S. hegemony would be the conflict in Ukraine, particularly the Russian annexation of Crimea. There are a number of particularly relevant issues involving the balancing contender Russia which could be examined, from 2016 election interference, to our competing and overlapping interests in Syria, but Crimea is a situation very similar to the South China Sea. Here, the Putin regime believes they have a historical right to Crimea, just as the Chinese believe they have a historical right to control of the sea, and will let nothing get in their way of taking what they want (Wintour). In 2013, Ukrainians protested against their pro-Russian government (Why Russia). Though much of the Ukrainian population wants closer ties with the European Union, The Russian government sees this as a threat (Why Russia). After the Ukrainians oust their pro-Russian government, President Putin declares orders to invade Ukraine, and annex Crimea.
“They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact,” Putin says criticizing the West (Wintour). He went on to say of the invasion, “This happened with NATO’s expansion to the east” (Wintour). Russia begins backing pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine in the Eastern part of the country, where a number of individuals who identify with Russian heritage live (Why Russia). The rebels begin to take territory in Ukraine, and it is reported that they are responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (Why Russia). Western leaders including the U.S. issued sanctions against Russia, which have hurt their economy (Keaney). Today, these sanctions remain in place, and Crimea remains in control of Russia, while Ukraine remains an unstable and divided country.
From the Russian perspective, again, they have a historical claim to Crimea. They believe they are protecting fellow countrymen who are stuck within the Ukrainian borders established by the West. Putin believes that the West is against him, and wants NATO, The European Union and the United States out of his affairs. From the U.S. perspective, as President Obama stated following the invasion, Russia has attacked Ukraine, threatening their sovereignty. From a humanitarian standpoint, the people of Ukraine should be allowed to live in peace rather than made pawns in Putin’s struggle for power. As a contested hegemon, the U.S. sees its role as one to intervene in a situation where a balancing contender like Russia is setting a dangerous precedent for invading countries and deploying it’s military where it has no right to.
The conflicts with China in the South China Sea and Russia in Ukraine help demonstrate how some major countries view U.S. hegemony. As indicated, the balancing contenders, Russia and China, do not welcome U.S. hegemony (Keaney). China sees the U.S. as casting an unrightfully shadow over the South China Sea which limits their growth. Russia, more specifically Putin, seems to be the current anti-Western leader in the world. From Syria, to Ukraine and anywhere else he has influence, Putin is adamantly against Western values. Other countries such as Iran and North Korea share these beliefs, while Israel is a strong supporter who believes in American support (COYNE). In these conflicts and elsewhere, our allies show support for a hegemonic U.S. Japan, South Korea and other countries in the Asian-Pacific region are some of our strongest allies, and have benefited from U.S. hegemony through protection or rebuilding (COYNE). Though relations haven’t always been peaceful with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, they share diplomatic relations with the U.S. Much of Europe remains closely aligned with the U.S., as members of the UN and NATO. In the West, countries like Great Britain, France and Germany, the U.S. has strong allies who welcome American assistance on the global stage (COYNE). In Eastern Europe, the U.S. maintains strong support for an independent Ukraine, who in turn shares a favorable view of the country. Poland and surrounding countries share good relations with the U.S., and on the Black Sea, despite complex relations recently, Turkey has long welcomed U.S. assistance.
U.S. hegemony is here to stay and it should be. Consider how different the conflicts in the South China Sea and Ukraine would be different without U.S. hegemony. Without the global superpower watching over China’s shoulder, they would take the South China Sea instantly. Their military bases built up in the sea would keep anybody from using it, allowing their economy and military to match if not surpass American capability. At the very least, they would now have more power to dictate the direction of the surrounding countries, eroding U.S. relations in the region. Without a hegemonic U.S., Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric could mobilize action beyond Crimea. He has shown no hesitation to ignore the sovereignty of states in Eastern Europe. He also aligns himself with hostile states such as Iran much in the way China aligns itself with North Korea. The idea that the states would have just as much, if not more global influence than the U.S. should concern everyone. Their interests, are not the interests of the U.S. and its allies. The hope should be that the U.S. does not retreat from its role on the international stage. The U.S. is not perfect, but the democratic values it stands for are important. It will always be the state looked to first when disasters strikes because the moral compass of this country is stronger than that of Russia’s or China’s.
The U.S. is the contested hegemon, capable of dominating the conduct of international affairs. It didn’t take long for the U.S. to become the global superpower, but maybe that was because the world recognized what Americans stood for was unlike anything else in the world. All states are affected by U.S. hegemony. To some this is welcome, while others would rather see U.S. hegemony collapse. U.S. hegemony is here to stay, and it should be. The world is a safer place, when the U.S. is the strongest country in the world.