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The American Ascendancy | The Nation

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The American Ascendancy

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Hegemony Means Never
Having to Say You're Sorry

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, is the author, most recently, of North...

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What is hegemony? After a recent lecture a student asked me why it was so difficult in this country to have a reasoned discussion about this phenomenon; the minute you use the word, someone accuses you of being a Marxist. Recently postmodern scholar Judith Butler tried to unpack her views in a New York Times editorial: Hegemony, she explained, is when something is so powerful that you have no conscious awareness of it. There is a potent surreptitious mastery that comes from that which cannot be named. By refusing the name "hegemony," we also refuse a debate about what it is and what it means for the American people. The result, in my opinion, is that hegemony is least understood at its own point of origin--the United States.

Dean Acheson was present at the creation of this hegemony, as the United States grasped for world leadership amid the regression of the British Empire; as he put it, America was for the first time in the position of a person who, "on the death of a parent, hears in a new way the roaring of the cataract." Acheson's problem was to be pregnant with an idea that he could not articulate, lest Harry Truman lose the next election (for example, by announcing that the United States had now replaced England as the power with all the burdens-of-last-resort in the world system). To put it differently, the internationalist forces in American politics lacked a strong domestic base, particularly in Congress, which held many former isolationists (not to mention lunatics like Joe McCarthy, who astonished Wall Street by calling Acheson a Communist). George Kennan provided the solution to this dilemma with an elegant metaphor: containment. Imagine, a doctrine defining hegemony by what it opposes, obviating the necessity to explain to the American people what it is and what its consequences will be for them. It is only today, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Americans can see this obscured, underlying system that keeps going in spite of the disappearance of its ostensible raison d'être--the Communist bloc.

A central aspect of the containment project was to revive the industrial production of just-defeated Germany and Japan, to knit together a productive coalition that would revive both countries, keep Communism at bay, get them off the American dole, rejuvenate the middle classes and thereby extend American-style mass consumption to our allies. Japan and West Germany were posted as industrial workshops; cheap energy from the Middle East fueled their recovery and also created markets for American goods. Germans drove off in their Volkswagens, Italians in their Fiats, Frenchmen in their Renaults and Japanese in their Toyotas--into a consumer paradise that recapitulated America's leap forward in the twenties.

This "liberal" order encompassed a vast global militarization, eventually encompassing millions of American troops stationed at hundreds of bases in thirty-five countries, a blue ocean Navy and an Air Force that was for decades the key carrier of nuclear weapons, a phenomenon often treated as an unfortunate result of the bipolar confrontation with Moscow. This archipelago of empire easily survived the end of the cold war. Today it still holds the post-World War II settlement in place, and denies us the opportunity to see if the pacifist norms inculcated in Japan, or the liberal norms of Germany, will survive the removal of US troops and a return to full security autonomy. More important, by basing troops in the territories of the second- and third-largest economies in the world half a century after the last global war ended, the United States has a breadth of comprehensive advantage that neither the Dutch nor the British empire ever imagined. In this sense, the global reach and power of the contemporary American realm can only be compared to the Roman Empire.

In sum, this form of hegemony is potent, and it has a message: the capitalist market, the open door, pluralist democracy and self-determination. If this last element was often honored in the breach by Washington, it nonetheless has been a potent political and cultural ideal in the American arsenal since Woodrow Wilson first articulated his famous "Fourteen Points." Today this heterogeneous mix of Wilson and Nixon, Roosevelt and Reagan, Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms, seems to have no rival on the horizon that could possibly hope to take its measure.

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