The Malevolent Hegemon: Part II
In Part I, we examined the basic role of the hegemon and the unique model the U.S. has created, which we dubbed the “Benevolent Hegemon.” This week, we discuss why many Americans have become disenchanted with this model, which is pressuring policymakers to either jettison the superpower role or significantly redefine it. Next week, we will conclude the series by discussing the emergence of a new hegemonic model we call the “Malevolent Hegemon.”
The Costs of Benevolence
The U.S. did not naturally aspire to hegemony. From a geographic perspective, the U.S. lives in splendid isolation; neither Mexico nor Canada is a major military threat. As Otto Von Bismarck noted, the U.S. is “surrounded by weak powers and fish.” Unlike many nations, the U.S. can choose whether or not it wants to be involved in the world. Paradoxically, this also means the U.S. is an ideal superpower because it faces no local threats and doesn’t need to devote resources to protect against nearby threats.
Americans did view the threat of communism as significant enough to accept the substantial costs of hegemony. Here are some of the changes entailed in accepting the superpower role:
Distortions of government: The U.S. Constitution created a republic with checks and balances that were designed to impede rapid changes in policy. A generally weak executive was coupled with a bicameral legislature that has one house represented by population and another by state. This structure was designed to prevent majority dominance. Added to this mix was a judiciary that could also restrain legislative or executive excess. The arrangement was generally workable when the U.S. was a small, agrarian republic. However, superpowers must often act quickly in response to global events. Instead of writing a new constitution that would have created a much stronger executive branch, the presidency simply evolved to take this power mostly by reducing the influence of Congress. In addition, the judiciary became an active shaper of policy. Centralizing power was necessary to execute the role of the hegemon, but it did fundamentally change the process of U.S. governance.
At the same time, the demands of hegemony required a larger government. Not only is there a large military requirement but providing the reserve currency fosters the need for nearly constant fiscal stimulus. In other words, the government needs to help stimulate consumption in order to act as the global importer of last resort.
A large standing military: Prior to the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. typically mobilized for war; once the war ended, there was rapid demobilization. However, during the Cold War, defense spending remained elevated to build the military infrastructure required to meet the costs of hegemony.