Everyone loves equality: equality of races, of ethnic groups, of sexual orientations, and so on. The problem is, however, that in geopolitics equality usually does not work very well. For centuries Europe had a rough equality between major states that is often referred to as the balance-of-power system. And that led to frequent wars. East Asia, by contrast, from the 14th to the early 19th centuries, had its relations ordered by a tribute system in which China was roughly dominant. The result, according to political scientist David C. Kang of the University of Southern California, was a generally more peaceful climate in Asia than in Europe.
The fact is that domination of one sort or another, tyrannical or not, has a better chance of preventing the outbreak of war than a system in which no one is really in charge; where no one is the top dog, so to speak. That is why Columbia University’s Kenneth Waltz, arguably America’s pre-eminent realist, says that the opposite of “anarchy” is not stability, but “hierarchy.”
Hierarchy eviscerates equality; hierarchy implies that some are frankly “more equal” than others, and it is this formal inequality — where someone, or some state or group, has more authority and power than others — that prevents chaos. For it is inequality itself that often creates the conditions for peace.
Government is the most common form of hierarchy. It is a government that monopolizes the use of violence in a given geographical space, thereby preventing anarchy. To quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, only where it is possible to punish the wicked can right and wrong have any practical meaning, and that requires “some coercive power.”
The best sort of inequality is hegemony. Whereas primacy, as Kang explains, is about preponderance purely through military or economic power, hegemony “involves legitimation and consensus.” That is to say, hegemony is some form of agreed-upon inequality, where the dominant power is expected by others to lead. When a hegemon does not lead, it is acting irresponsibly.
Of course, hegemony has a bad reputation in media discourse. But that is only because journalists are confused about the terminology, even as they sanctimoniously judge previous historical eras by the strict standards of their own. In fact, for most of human history, periods of relative peace have been the product of hegemony of one sort or another. And for many periods, the reigning hegemonic or imperial power was the most liberal, according to the standards of the age. Rome, Venice and Britain were usually more liberal than the forces arranged against them. The empire of the Austrian Hapsburgs in Central and Eastern Europe often protected the rights of minorities and prevented ethnic wars to a much greater degree than did the modern states that succeeded it. The Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Middle East frequently did likewise. There are exceptions, of course, like Hapsburg Spain, with its combination of inquisition and conquest. But the point is that hegemony does not require tyrannical or absolutist rule.
Stability is not the natural order of things. In fact, history shows that stability such as it exists is usually a function of imperial rule, which, in turn, is a common form of hierarchy. To wit, there are few things messier in geopolitics than the demise of an empire. The collapse of the Hapsburgs, of the Ottoman Turks, of the Soviet Empire and the British Empire in Asia and Africa led to chronic wars and upheavals. Some uncomprehending commentators remind us that all empires end badly. Of course they do, but that is only after they have provided decades and centuries of relative peace.
Obviously, not all empires are morally equivalent. For example, the Austrian Hapsburgs were for their time infinitely more tolerant than the Soviet Communists. Indeed, had the Romanov Dynasty in St. Petersburg not been replaced in 1917 by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Russia would likely have evolved far more humanely than it did through the course of the 20th century. Therefore, I am saying only in a general sense is order preferable to disorder. (Though captivating subtleties abound: For example, Napoleon betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution by creating an empire, but he also granted rights to Jews and Protestants and created a system of merit over one of just birth and privilege.)
In any case, such order must come from hierarchal domination.
Indeed, from the end of World War II until very recently, the United States has performed the role of a hegemon in world politics. America may be democratic at home, but abroad it has been hegemonic. That is, by some rough measure of international consent, it is America that has the responsibility to lead. America formed NATO in Europe, even as its Navy and Air Force exercise preponderant power in the Pacific Basin. And whenever there is a humanitarian catastrophe somewhere in the developing world, it is the United States that has been expected to organize the response. Periodically, America has failed. But in general, it would be a different, much more anarchic world without American hegemony.
But that hegemony, in some aspects, seems to be on the wane. That is what makes this juncture in history unique. NATO is simply not what it used to be. U.S. forces in the Pacific are perceived to be less all-powerful than in the past, as China tests U.S. hegemony in the region. But most importantly, U.S. President Barack Obama is evolving a doctrine of surgical strikes against specific individuals combined with non-interference — or minimal interference — in cases of regional disorder. Libya and Syria are cases in point. Gone, at least for the moment, are the days when U.S. forces were at the ready to put a situation to rights in this country or that.
When it comes to the Greater Middle East, Americans seem to want protection on the cheap, and Obama is giving them that. We will kill a terrorist with a drone, but outside of limited numbers of special operations forces there will be no boots on the ground for Libya, Syria or any other place. As for Iran, whatever the White House now says, there is a perception that the administration would rather contain a nuclear Iran than launch a military strike to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
That, by itself, is unexceptional. Previous administrations have been quite averse to the use of force. In recent decades, it was only George W. Bush — and only in the aftermath of 9/11 — who relished the concept of large-scale boots on the ground in a war of choice. Nevertheless, something has shifted. In a world of strong states — a world characterized by hierarchy, that is — the United States often enforced the rules of the road or competed with another hegemon, the Soviet Union, to do so. Such enforcement came in the form of robust diplomacy, often backed by a threat to use military power.