The False Hegemon

Foreigners think our government controls every event in global politics. This could sabotage Obama’s attempts to “reset” our foreign policy.

This week Time magazine tried to articulate the essential components of the Obama doctrine. One of the key parts was the concept that America does not have the solution to every problem in the world. As Obama said in his April speech in Strasbourg, "we're not always going to be right . . . other people may have good ideas . . . in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise, and that includes us." Or, as Time puts it, "America is one of many nations."

This acknowledgment of humility in the wake of a global economic crisis and two draining wars would seem to be an example of simple intellectual honesty. This sentiment is certainly consistent with the national mood. Americans don't seem all that enamored with hegemony right now. A welter of good and bad books have been published in recent years around the theme that American power is on the wane. Public-opinion surveys suggest that ordinary Americans would be delighted to have U.S. foreign policy scale back its ambitions for a spell.

While the Obama administration and the American people might be content with the notion of America as just another country, this sentiment raises some uncomfortable questions. There is the factual one: is America really just one of many nations? Despite everything that has befallen the United States during this decade, the fact remains that by standard metrics-GDP, military might, cultural attraction-the United States is far and away the most powerful country in the world. This fact is so glaring that even academics are starting to acknowledge it. Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth wrote an entire book on the durability of American unipolarity. World Politics published a special issue this year on the nature of the unipolar era.

The rest of the world certainly seems to treat America as the hegemonic power, for good or ill. According to the New York Times, Latin America is waiting for the United States to break the deadlock in Honduras. Vladimir Putin is incapable of giving a foreign-policy speech in which he does not blast American hegemony as the root of all of Russia's ills. While Chinese officials talk tough about ending the dollar's reign as the world's reserve currency, its leaders also want America to solve the current economic crisis and to take the lead on global warming in the process.

It's not just foreign leaders who are obsessed with American hegemony. Last week, in an example of true hardship duty, I taught a short course in American foreign policy at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. The students in my class represented a true cross section of nationalities: Spaniards, Germans, Brits, Estonian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, Ghanaian, Kenyan, Turkish, Belgian, Mexican, Nicaraguan and, yes, even Americans. I cannot claim that my students represent a scientific cross section of non-Americans (one of them complained that I did not rely on Marxism as a structural explanation for American foreign policy). Still, by and large the students were bright, well informed about world affairs and cautiously optimistic about President Obama.

That said, a persistent trend among my students was their conviction that the U.S. government was the world's puppeteer, consciously manipulating every single event in world politics. For example, many of them were convinced that George W. Bush ordered Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to precipitate last year's war with Russia. The Ghanaian students wanted to know why Obama visited their country last week. The standard "promotion of good democratic governance" answer did not satisfy them. They were convinced that there had to be some deeper, potentially sinister motive to the whole enterprise. Don't even ask what they thought about the reasons behind the war in Iraq.

To be sure, the United States is a powerful actor; the government is trying to influence global events (and Americans are not immune to their own misperceptions). And good social scientists should always search for underlying causes and not take rhetoric at face value. Nevertheless, the belief in an all-powerful America hatching conspiracies left and right frequently did not jibe with the facts. For many of these students, even apparent policy mistakes were merely examples of American subterfuge.

Ironically, at the moment when many Americans are questioning the future of U.S. hegemony, many non-Americans continue to believe that the U.S. government is diabolically manipulating events behind the scenes. Going forward, the persistence of anti-Americanism in the age of Obama might have nothing to do with the president, or his rhetoric or even U.S. government actions. It might, instead, have to do with the congealed habits of thought that place the United States at the epicenter of all global movings and shakings. The tragedy is that such an exaggerated perception of American power and purpose is occurring at precisely the moment when the United States will need to scale back its global ambitions.

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