Follow us on social

Shutterstock_68830279-scaled

A world without hegemons

Despite being far more powerful than its adversaries on paper, the US has had limited success in building a global coalition to support Ukraine.

Analysis | Europe

In 2022, military spending by the United States came to $877 billion, more than the total of $849 billion spent by the next 10 countries combined. U.S. spending was three times greater than the $292 billion spent by China, and more than 10 times as much as the amount spent by Russia. 

U.S. military forces, moreover, are stationed in more than 750 bases in 80 countries around the world. Neither China nor Russia has more than a handful of bases outside their borders.

If there is any country that might claim global hegemony, it would be the United States.

Yet if hegemony means the capacity to get other countries to comply with one’s demands, the United States is far from being a global hegemon. In a long series of wars from Korea and Vietnam in the latter half of the 20th century to Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st, the United States has demonstrated the capacity for massive destruction but it has won no more than Pyrrhic victories. The cost to the United States has included not only lives lost but also erosion of confidence at home and abroad. 

What, then, to make of the war in Ukraine? 

In the United States and Britain, many see it as a just war, with images harking back to World War II. Pundits such as Timothy Snyder at Yale University and Timothy Garton Ash at Oxford have extolled Ukrainians' martial spirit as evocative of the Athenian defense of democracy and the Greek warrior Achilles. Mainstream American media, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, still devote far more coverage to the war in Ukraine than to any other conflict elsewhere in the world.

U.S. opinion polls show public support for the war in Ukraine dropping somewhat this year, and some Republicans in Congress have questioned its cost. But most U.S. politicians still see support for negotiations as a step too far. After hastily withdrawing a call for diplomacy last fall, progressive Democrats remain hesitant to raise their doubts in public. Instead, the public calls for negotiation have come from the military, including the current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and his predecessor, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a June 2 speech in Helsinki welcoming Finland to NATO, firmly rejected the option of a ceasefire in Ukraine. President Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, meeting on June 8 at the White House, pledged that the two countries would continue to support Ukraine for "as long as it takes." 

Russia expert Fiona Hill, now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is a strong critic of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and of Vladimir Putin's goal of regaining hegemony over Russia's immediate neighbors. But speaking at a conference in Tallinn, Estonia, in May, Hill had a striking message for the United States as well. "The war in Ukraine is perhaps the event that makes the passing of Pax Americana apparent to everyone. ... [Other countries] want to decide, not be told what’s in their interest. In short, in 2023, we hear a resounding no to U.S. domination and see a marked appetite for a world without a hegemon."

She went on to say:

"Countries in the Global South’s resistance to U.S. and European appeals for solidarity on Ukraine are an open rebellion. This is a mutiny against what they see as the collective West dominating the international discourse and foisting its problems on everyone else, while brushing aside their priorities on climate change compensation, economic development, and debt relief. ... The Cold War era non-aligned movement has reemerged, if it ever went away. At present, this is less a cohesive movement than a desire for distance, to be left out of the European mess around Ukraine. But it is also a very clear negative reaction to the American propensity for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides.”

As a delegation of six African states including South Africa prepared to visit Moscow and Kyiv on June 16 to explore options for peace, Congressional foreign policy leaders made a bipartisan demand to punish South Africa for its alleged support of Russia. To satisfy their demands, South Africa would have to comply fully with U.S. sanctions on Moscow. 

Hill is not alone in noting the decline in U.S. global influence indicated by Ukraine, although others differ in their policy recommendations. Arguing that six countries in the Global South will decide the future of geopolitics, global risk analyst Cliff Kupchan urged U.S. policymakers to focus on India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa "in order to prevent a significant weakening in the U.S. position in the global power balance." 

In contrast, two scholars from Switzerland and Austria, noting that "the current war over Ukraine has given rise to neutral policies in roughly two-thirds of the world," contend that neutrality should not be condemned but should be recognized as an inevitable part of any conflict between states. They reject the argument that “not helping the good side of an epic struggle between good and evil is equal to doing evil yourself." Instead, proactive engagement by neutral or non-aligned parties can and should be crafted to address the real interests of the conflicting parties as well as human rights abuses by any of the parties.

The refusal to take sides between competing great powers is also visible in Southeast Asia, where one might expect U.S.-China competition to be at its height. But, as former senior Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani noted in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has opted to collaborate with both China and the United States. 

All 10 ASEAN member states participate in China's Belt and Road initiative to build infrastructure, despite a vigorous U.S. campaign against it. On the other hand, ASEAN includes two military allies of the United States, the Philippines and Thailand. And most other ASEAN members, including Vietnam, "quietly welcome the U.S. military presence as a counterweight to China." 

In the United States, Madeleine Albright's assertion 25 years ago that the United States is the "indispensable nation" is still widely shared. Broad recognition of the decline of American hegemony is not likely to gain much traction here anytime soon. In practice, however, it is likely that U.S. policymakers will have to accept reality. Most developing countries, including emerging powers in the Global South, are no longer willing to make zero-sum choices between the United States and its geopolitical rivals.

(Shutterstock/ Jim Barber)
Analysis | Europe
The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers


KYIV, UKRAINE - July 12, 2023: Destroyed and burned Russian military tanks and parts of equipment are exhibited at the Mykhailivska square in Kyiv city centre. (Oleksandr Popenko/Shutterstock)

The Ukraine War at two years: By the numbers

Europe

Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.

Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.

keep readingShow less
Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

Navalny's death shouldn't close off talks with Putin

Analysis

President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.

For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.

keep readingShow less
Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

ProStockStudio via shutterstock.com

Big US investors prop up the nuclear weapons industry

Military Industrial Complex

Nuclear weapons aren’t just a threat to human survival, they’re a multi-billion-dollar business supported by some of the biggest institutional investors in the U.S. according to new data released today by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and PAX, the largest peace organization in the Netherlands.

For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest