Storified by CK MacLeod · Tue, Aug 14 2012 12:04:29
Good profile of Susan Rice by James Traub, but when exactly did the US enter a "post-hegemonic era"? http://bit.ly/NtKWFIattackerman
.@attackerman Traub implies only that transition into "a post-hegemonic era" is one way to explain policy, doesn’t require a "when exactly"CK MacLeod
Traub’s phrase appears in his discussion of the Obama administration’s “reticence” on Libya. According to Traub, the approach “would later be stigmatized as ‘leading from behind,’ but perhaps it’s better understood as leading without wishing to be seen as taking the lead — a new model of multilateralism suitable to a post-hegemonic era.” Though Traub here seems to presume that American “hegemony” might accurately describe the U.S. role in the world at some point, his phraseology does not commit him or Dr. Rice to any “when exactly” at all. Even assuming that America or American power ever did or could qualify as hegemonic, globally or perhaps in and around North Africa, Traub’s phraseology takes no position on whether “a post-hegemonic era” is a reality already upon us, or something more in the nature of a direction for policy.
.@attackerman now seems clear post-hegemony was always the destination, most serious question since ca. 2003-4 has been pace of transitionCK MacLeod
The reference to ’03-’04 is to the first proofs that War on Terror policy in its most aggressive form was not going to succeed – specifically that Iraq, would not be easily pacified, controlled, and turned into a secure base for further operations in the region. There would be no “cakewalk,” no installation of a compliant client government, no easy turn or effective domination to the immediate east and west. The answer to the Petraeus question – “how does this end?” – would be an exit strategy, not an exploitation strategy. How could an authentic “hegemon” or “hyperpower” find itself in such a position? Put differently, what does or can being a hegemon mean if it does not include the ability to shape politico-military events decisively?
Ackerman’s response somewhat surprised, and also intrigued me:
@CK_MacLeod that is not something that seems clear in the slightest.attackerman
.@attackerman are you saying you see the US of A as global hegemon, able to remain so indefinitely, and ought to do so?CK MacLeod
@CK_MacLeod No, what I’m saying is that abandoning a hegemonic geopolitical position is not going to be something politicians choose.attackerman
I would argue that “hegemonic geopolitical position” is, at best, an obsolete description, if it was ever really tenable at all. It seems more likely to me that no truly hegemonic geopolitical position has ever been available to anyone. A highly favorable geopolitical position, a geopolitical position that all but guarantees significant influence unmatched by any single rival, is far from hegemonic if it still means that some combination of lesser powers can frustrate the country in that position and force it to reverse and retreat, or prevent it from exerting its will at all.
@CK_MacLeod It may or may not be something a rising China forces on us, but if it is, it’ll happen gradually & not for decades.attackerman
Logically, it seems to me, there are two ways that “rising China” becomes highly problematic in relation to U.S. hegemony: 1) If U.S. hegemony ever existed in relation to China and is also of vital importance, or 2) if a delusion regarding the existence of such hegemony and its vital importance, as possibly implied by familiar political rhetoric, led to catastrophic American miscalculations.
The remaining two tweets can be taken to condense the perspective I’ve outlined above:
.@attackerman seems to me that hegemony means "power to choose" – otherwise someone or no one is "hegemonic"CK MacLeod
(shoulda said there “otherwise someone else or no one”)
.@attackerman so it wouldn’t be a rising China, but total resistance to dominance by any one nation-state, even the good ol US of ACK MacLeod
To go much further, we would have to examine what “geopolitical hegemony” ever meant or could mean. In summary, I’m going beyond anything Traub said, though in a direction that his phraseology, and for that matter Obama policy, leaves open: I’m suggesting that U.S. global hegemony may never have existed except as an idea that, when put to the test via the Iraq and the Neoconservative program, was proven as self-defeating as the critics of such thinking, from the outset of the Cold War to the triumphalist ’90s, had always said it would be.
It was a little while later that this other non-quite-an-exchange occurred:
What political scientists study incentives that lead ppl to choose what they know are bad outcomes; & also are not annoying to talk to?attackerman
.@attackerman taken literally your ? is nonsensical. To "choose" is to affirm one outcome to be "better" than another.CK MacLeod
Oddly, but on reflection inevitably, this exchange has something in common with the discussion of hegemony.
First to the point I was trying to make when I called the question “nonsensical”: One can, of course, choose what one knows will be a “bad outcome” for oneself in the service of some greater goal – heroic sacrifice. Or, for another example, one might choose physical harm in order to enjoy a thrill – masochism. In each case, and every such case, you are willing the good, or the good or better outcome, as you understand it. To choose in this sense always means to choose the good. There is no choosing of the “bad” outcome except as against a worse one.
I suspect that Ackerman was instead looking for a public choice explanation of what the matter with Kansas was, or some such, but the infirmity of the original question actually gets at what political-cultural liberalism, whether in the academy or in journalism, misses about the meaning of such choices to those who make them. I don’t know what particular issues Ackerman was wondering about, but the possible illusion of hegemony alongside enduring emotional investments in underlying presumptions – that “we” are good, that “we” must be most powerful, that “we” deserve to be most powerful, that our ways are best materially and morally not least because they are ours, and so on – provide one set of answers regarding those incentives embraced despite superficially “bad” outcomes. Such mechanisms may affect the thinking even of occasional critics of hegemonist policy.
Political science as defined and practiced in the United States is not just ill-equipped but congenitally unable to comprehend the underlying questions on their own terms. The fact-value distinction at the core of political science is alien to the determination of the badness or goodness of outcomes for those making the choices in question. As soon as political science confronts such distinctions on their own terms, it is no longer political science, but just another interloper in the hostile territory of political belief, political meaning, political philosophy.
it’s not like I spend every day on @attackerman’s case, btwCK MacLeod