Usa's hegemony and its resistance
Politics is about power. Just as individuals want to gain and retain power, groups too want to gain and retain power. We routinely talk of someone becoming powerful or someone doing something for power. In the case of world politics too, countries and groups of countries are engaged in constantly trying to gain and retain power. This power is in the form of military domination, economic power, political clout and cultural superiority.
Therefore, if we wanted to understand world politics, it is necessary that we understand the distribution of power among the countries of the world. For instance, during the years of the Cold War (1945-91) power was divided between the two groups of countries, and the US and the Soviet Union represented the two ‘camps’ or centres of power in international politics during that period. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with only a single power, the United States of America. Sometimes, the international system dominated by a sole superpower, or hyper-power, is called a ‘unipolar’ system. This appears to be a misapplication of the idea of ‘pole’ derived from physics. It may be more appropriate to describe an international system with only one centre of power by the term ‘hegemony’.
The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union took everyone by surprise. While one of the two superpowers ceased to exist, the other remained with all its powers intact, even enhanced. Thus, it would appear that the US hegemony began in 1991 after Soviet power disappeared from the international scene.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, rapidly occupying and subsequently annexing it. After a series of diplomatic attempts failed at convincing Iraq to quit its aggression, the United Nations mandated the liberation of Kuwait by force. For the UN, this was a dramatic decision after years of deadlock during the Cold War. The US President George H.W. Bush hailed the emergence of a ‘new world order’.
A massive coalition force of 660,000 troops from 34 countries fought against Iraq and defeated it in what came to be known as the First Gulf War. However, the UN operation, which was called ‘Operation Desert Storm’, was overwhelmingly American. An American general, Norman Schwarzkopf, led the UN coalition and nearly 75 per cent of the coalition forces were from the US. Although the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, had promised “the mother of all battles”, the Iraqi forces were quickly defeated and forced to withdraw from Kuwait.
The First Gulf War revealed the vast technological gap that had opened up between the US military capability and that of other states. The highly publicised use of socalled ‘smart bombs’ by the US led some observers to call this a ‘computer war’. Widespread television coverage also made it a ‘video game war’, with viewers around the world watching the destruction of Iraqi forces live on TV in the comfort of their living rooms.
Incredibly, the US may actually have made a profit from the war. According to many reports, the US received more money from countries like Germany, Japan and Saudi Arabia than it had spent on the war.
Despite winning the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush lost the US presidential elections of 1992 to William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton of the Democratic Party, who had campaigned on domestic rather than foreign policy issues. Bill Clinton won again in 1996 and thus remained the president of the US for eight years. During the Clinton years, it often seemed that the US had withdrawn into its internal affairs and was not fully engaged in world politics. In foreign policy, the Clinton government tended to focus on ‘soft issues’ like democracy promotion, climate change and world trade rather than on the ‘hard politics’ of military power and security.
Nevertheless, the US on occasion did show its readiness to use military power even during the Clinton years. The most important episode occurred in 1999, in response to Yugoslavian actions against the predominantly Albanian population in the province of Kosovo. The air forces of the NATO countries, led by the US, bombarded targets around Yugoslavia for well over two months, forcing the downfall of the government of Slobodan Milosevic and the stationing of a NATO force in Kosovo.
Another significant US military action during the Clinton years was in response to the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in 1998. These bombings were attributed to Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation strongly influenced by extremist Islamist ideas. Within a few days of this bombing, President Clinton ordered Operation Infinite Reach, a series of cruise missile strikes on Al-Qaeda terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. The US did not bother about the UN sanction or provisions of international law in this regard. It was alleged that some of the targets were civilian facilities unconnected to terrorism. In retrospect, this was merely the beginning.
On 11 September 2001, nineteen hijackers hailing from a number of Arab countries took control of four American commercial aircraft shortly after takeoff and flew them into important buildings in the US. One airliner each crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. A third aircraft crashed into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, where the US Defence Department is headquartered. The fourth aircraft, presumably bound for the Capitol building of the US Congress, came down in a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks have come to be known as “9/11”.
The attacks killed nearly three thousand persons. In terms of their shocking effect on Americans, they have been compared to the British burning of Washington, DC in 1814 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. However, in terms of loss of life, 9/11 was the most severe attack on US soil since the founding of the country in 1776.
The US response to 9/11 was swift and ferocious. Clinton had been succeeded in the US presidency by George W. Bush of the Republican Party, son of the earlier President George H. W. Bush. Unlike Clinton, Bush had a much harder view of US interests and of the means by which to advance them. As a part of its ‘Global War on Terror’, the US launched ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ against all those suspected to be behind this attack, mainly Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was easily overthrown, but remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have remained potent, as is clear from the number of terrorist attacks launched by them against Western targets since.
The US forces made arrests all over the world, often without the knowledge of the government of the persons being arrested, transported these persons across countries and detained them in secret prisons. Some of them were brought to Guantanamo Bay, a US Naval base in Cuba, where the prisoners did not enjoy the protection of international law or the law of their own country or that of the US. Even the UN representatives were not allowed to meet these prisoners.
On 19 March 2003, the US launched its invasion of Iraq under the codename ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. More than forty other countries joined in the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ after the UN refused to give its mandate to the invasion. The ostensible purpose of the invasion was to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Since no evidence of WMD has been unearthed in Iraq, it is speculated that the invasion was motivated by other objectives, such as controlling Iraqi oilfields and installing a regime friendly to the US.
Although the government of Saddam Hussein fell swiftly, the US has not been able to ‘pacify’ Iraq. Instead, a full-fledged insurgency against US occupation was ignited in Iraq. While the US has lost over 3,000 military personnel in the war, Iraqi casualties are very much higher. It is conservatively estimated that 50,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the US-led invasion. It is now widely recognised that the US invasion of Iraq was, in some crucial respects, both a military and political failure.
Resistance to hegemony
History tells us that empires decline because they decay from within. Similarly, the biggest constraints to American hegemony lie within the heart of hegemony itself. We can identify three constraints on American power. None of these constraints seemed to operate in the years following 9/11. However, it now appears that all three of these constraints are slowly beginning to operate again.
The first constraint is the institutional architecture of the American state itself. A system of division of powers between the three branches of government. places significant brakes upon the unrestrained and immoderate exercise of America’s military power by the executive branch.
It is commonly said that the world is entering a multipolar phase in global governance with the “rise of the South” or the increasing powers of emerging economies China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa (from hereon the BRICS) and the strengthening of their relations as seen in the succeeding BRICS Summit since 2011. By the time this article sees publication, the BRICS Summit in Durban, South Africa would have added new achievements to further that notion. Many believe too that with the economic stagnation in the Eurozone and the US, BRICS countries are gaining more wealth, expertise, consumption power and the political clout to influence and re-arrange the global system to their advantage. The lingering economic crisis in the US is also seen as a signal of the beginning of the end of US hegemony and that among the new powers, many think that China is the most likely challenger to US dominance.
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