Book Review: Good-Bye Hegemony! Power and Influence in the Global System

By Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo - 02 June 2014

Good-Bye Hegemony! Power and Influence in the Global System, by Simon Reich and Richard Ned Lebow. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014. 208 pp, $95.00-£65.00, hardcover 978-0-691-16042-9; $24.95-£16.95, paperback 978-0-691-16043-6

American international hegemony is a fiction created, sustained and propagated by policy makers and IR scholars to support a large defense establishment and a foreign policy reliant on power – identified with material (military) capabilities. This is neither good nor desirable for the global order, nor for America’s own interests. Today, real hegemonic functions are diffused through the international system and performed by a range of actors including the European Union, China and other powers. If the US does not understand how the international system works and what functions and abilities are necessary to pursue a constructive (even if self-interested) foreign policy, it may continue to be – as it has often been – a source of global instability.

Challenging and provocative as they may appear, these are the major ideas driving Good-Bye Hegemony! And those whose intellectual efforts are behind them are not ‘outsiders’ but respected scholars that seek to fulfill what, according to Hans Morgenthau, was the primary responsibility of International Relations theory: speak truth to power. Simon Reich is professor of global affairs and political science at Rutgers University, and Richard Ned Lebow is professor of international political theory at King's College London and the James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government Emeritus at Dartmouth College. Their book is a frontal challenge to dominant theories and conventional wisdom about the US’s role in the world.

Hegemony, defined as the “international leadership provided by a state whose power is grossly disproportionate to that of other actors in the system” (p. 16), has been elevated to levels of obsession by US policy makers and scholars. Only one other issue attracts similar attention: the search for strategies to preserve it from decline. This fact accounts for what the authors call one of the principal anomalies of contemporary IR: “The extraordinary military and economic power of the US and its increasing inability to get other states to do what it wants” (p. 3).

The main schools of thought in IR (realism and liberalism, framed in US terms) share strikingly similar commonalities with regard to this issue, despite the differences and variations between and within them. Both frame hegemony as a question of power. For realists, power is closely related to material (particularly military) capabilities. For liberals, the key is a mix of power and norms. For both, power is expected to confer influence, and a common normative agenda rests on the preservation of American hegemony as foundation of the global order. But there is not a causal relation between power and influence, the authors argue.

Chapter 2 deals with power and influence, by reviewing the theoretical contributions of a wide range of scholars. For Reich and Lebow, the concept of power obscures the evolving changes in the international system, while hegemony may provide a basis to illuminate them. The functions of hegemony are defined as three-fold: agenda-setting, economic custodianship and the sponsorship of global security. The authors undertake a de-construction of those categories and functions in theory and in practice, and a deep analysis of who performs them (and how they are performed) in the real world.

Agenda setting is the capacity to initiate, legitimize and advocate policy issues, usually related to progressive agendas and broader matters of justice, and pursued through multilateral channels. Chapter 3 analyzes the European Union approach to agenda-setting, defined as a combination of influence, diplomacy and persuasion over the threat or the use of force (restricted to humanitarian grounds). Two case studies give insights into the process, namely the efforts to manage economic globalization through multilateral frameworks (the WTO), and the successful initiative towards an international treaty to ban landmines. This approach rests on an understanding of the benefits provided by shared norms and common goals, the authors argue (although the limits of European foreign policy ‘ethics’ are also recognized).

Chapter 4 deals with economic custodianship, understood as a benign role over the stability and management of the international economic system. Not surprisingly, China is the protagonist here. Its economic power and international projection have transformed it into a ‘source of global insecurity’ and a ‘threat to US hegemony’, according to American views. Drawing on perspectives from Chinese scholars and elites, and on the authors’ knowledge of this country’s culture and history, a case is built of China playing a growing custodial role in global economic management, adept to subtle combinations of bilateral and regional diplomatic negotiations and market mechanisms, and conservative in defense of a (capitalist) system of which it is currently the main beneficiary.

Sponsorship encompasses the enforcement of rules, norms and decision-making processes for the maintenance of collective security. For advocates of hegemony, the US is particularly well suited to this function for its military capabilities and power. These assumptions have formed the basis of US foreign policy for decades, building upon three myths that are also an integral part of this political culture: exceptionalism, messianism, and indispensability. Reich and Lebow develop a powerful refutation of these myths based on empirical fact and historical lessons. Failure from Vietnam to Iraq is contrasted with stances of relative success such as the first Gulf War or more recently Libya, to show how decisive other components of sponsorship can be: legitimacy, strategies that pursue collectively perceived needs, and genuine support from relevant and multilateral actors. Put in other words, these are cases based on more sophisticated strategies than the traditional carrots and sticks.

Built upon an insightful combination of theoretical and empirical approaches, this volume is sustained by a sobering and provoking narrative that makes it compelling for wide and diverse audiences (the starting point, with the comical comparison with characters of the film Good Bye Lenin! sets a tone that permeates the book). Those initiated in IR theory and/or foreign policy practice will find a revision and critique of the most prominent scholars and approaches, based on a profound understanding of the US tradition. Non-specialist readers will find ample support for critical views of the US’s international role and its militaristic approaches to international security. The purpose made explicit by Reich and Lebow of making “related theoretical and substantive contributions to the study of international relations and the practice of foreign policy” (p. 9) is more than reached, as the book provides a critical and comprehensive revision of hegemony-related authors, arguments and texts.

Empirical, conceptual and normative objections to hegemonic discourse and practice pave the way to a complex and multifaceted vision of current main trends in the international system. “Multipolar”, the authors warn, is not an appropriate term to describe current events as it echoes the language of realists and signals a mere shift in material resources. A more profound change is taking place: “a shift towards a world in which actors have differing forms of influence, and contrasting balances between material and social resources that they use to effect in differing domains” (p. 177).

Mabel González Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant, specializing in peace and security, with a focus on non-state actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding. She is also a contributing analyst to Wikistrat.

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