Hegemony Is Not The Name of A Band


What to make of Australia’s forays into international politics? Of its double-timing of the US and China? Does it really matter what an apparently bit-like player such as Australia does, even if it does occasionally punch above Alexander’s waistline? On that point, how should we interpret Australia being ranked 12th in the world for military expenditure, while ranking 54th in population terms?

In the next few months I’d like to offer some of my own musings on these matters. This week I’ll begin with the idea of hegemony, since it is the pursuit of this, or resistance to it, which defines the play of world politics.

Here in Australia, both Labor and the Coalition have made fundamental commitments to anchoring Australia’s future to the US Alliance. Even as they exchange tit-for-tat recriminations on the management of the Alliance relationship, neither Party’s leadership could imagine a foreign policy bereft of it.

Thanks to Emo

The basis of the Alliance is simple: mutual interest. Australia and the US share not only similar security and trade interests, but also an interest in jointly pursuing a particular world order. John Howard joined the war in Iraq not just to earn brownie points within the narrow Alliance relationship, but because he believes that Australia’s future is best secured in a US-structured world. Such a world is safe for market capitalism, a system in which Australia does well.

It is my guess that what is written in the above paragraph would not be controversial inside the PM’s Office. It is a statement of the obvious.

One of the strangest paradoxes of international politics is that hardened Rightwing realists and critical theorists  often agree with each other. That’s Kissinger and Marx in bed together. Or of a lesser stature, imagine Howard and Chavez knocking the bedposts against the wall at Kirribilli.

In between the Left and the Right, with a head ache, are soggy-lettuce liberals who are maligned by realists as tree huggers, and by the Left as, well, tree huggers.

Against the gumph that is ‘liberalism’ (that we can build a peaceful world order of market capitalism mediated by national cultures), critical theorists and Realists agree that the international system is driven by competing States, power, empire and exploitation and within these different arenas is the pursuit of hegemony or counter-hegemony. The difference lies in whose side you are on. Do you finish all the huffing and puffing by getting out of the Right or the Left side of bed?

One of the most noxious views of realism comes from that latter day Rudyard Kipling, Niall Ferguson, who fears a world without a superpower, in much the same manner I imagine John Howard does. You will recall that in his book Empire, Ferguson calls upon America’s distracted youth to serve the new empire for the global good. Writing in 2004 in Foreign Policy, Ferguson argued that without a global superpower, a new Dark Age will descend upon us:

Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might quickly find itself reliving. The trouble is, of course, that this Dark Age would be an altogether more dangerous one than the Dark Age of the ninth century Technology has upgraded destruction, too, so it is now possible not just to sack a city but to obliterate it.

Fundamental to realism in international politics is the belief that States other than your own, of course are up to no good. Some call this the ‘security dilemma.’

Basically put, because another State can never be trusted, and because the international system lacks any regulatory body that can universally enforce rules, it’s best to stock up on weapons, alliances and the like. That’s why Australia has recently added steroids to its Defence budget. Given what happened to Saddam’s Iraq, the message is clear: no insurance policy (WMDS), no security. Now to reduce a piddling or moderately-sized State’s security dilemma, big States can offer alliances and prophetic visions of global order. So the world is full of complex alliances and international bodies.

For realists, it is only by journeying on the rollercoaster of security dilemmas that the balance of power in world politics is forged. There is no doubt that there is thrill in the ride. Every other ride is for five-year-olds, including the UN and human rights regimes.

John Howard should not be judged too harshly for the debacle in Iraq. He sees the world from the heights of his own realist rollercoaster, and the supersonic vibrations of that ride no doubt affected his balance.

Realists are good at imagining they can plan world order by the use of power and diplomacy. Henry Kissinger, the consummate realist, may have been joking when he said, ‘Next week there can’t be any crisis. My schedule is already full,’ but he also revealed the fundamental pretensions of those in power that the world revolves around them. It’s an understandable pretension to fall into. After all, as one wit put it, when you are the equivalent of an 800kg gorilla (as the US is) in the zoo of world politics, the rest of the world’s eyes are on you; but your eyes are on the bananas. Yum!

Eight hundred kilogram gorilla-States in international politics are called hegemons, from the Greek ‘to lead.’ That is, they have the power and the means by virtue of superior military capacity to shape the direction of international politics and to enforce their will. Consider the fact that the US’s military expenditure is greater than the combined expenditure of China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Italy, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Turkey, Israel and the Netherlands. That’s why the US could go to war in Iraq in defiance of the United Nations. It had nothing to do with the superiority of argument.

Even so, there are limits to hegemony as the US is now realising. Just as it messes up in the Middle East, to its South a wave of Left populism is shaping a new soul order based on rolling back neo-liberalism and US meddling.

In Asia, the rise of China is of such consequence that US foreign policy has been preoccupied by it since the end of the Cold War. Under the convenient excuse of the ‘war on terror,’ the US has expanded its military bases through mineral rich Central Asian States as a means of ensuring its continued but troubled hegemony.

How Australia relates to this hegemony, its role in its enforcement, and the forces gathering against that hegemony will be my concern in future articles.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.