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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)
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