The Case for Hegemony

On April 30th, the State Department released a report noting a 25% increase in terrorist attacks around the world in 2006, ostensibly signaling the emergence of a period of unparalleled danger.  Indeed, the end of the Cold War did not usher in an era of universal peace, but rather unleashed both rogue regimes and non-state actors to pursue ambitious and destabilizing goals.  Today global hostilities are covered with unprecedented scrutiny magnifying their destruction and expanding the perception that the world has become concurrently more perilous and exceedingly unpredictable.  This has unleashed a nostalgic desire for the simplicity of the past that has now expanded to virtually every corner of the globe. 

The bipolar international structure of the Cold War is often warmly remembered as a time when the balance of power - aided by the commonly understood inevitability of mutual assured destruction - ensured a relatively peaceful world where a war between the superpowers was largely unfeasible.  By contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threats of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the instability of the greater Middle East draw many to the deduction that perhaps a multipolar world where no single power maintains hegemony is the preferable path towards a more stable and peaceful future. 

Such judgments have justified, if not formed the basis for, the current strategies of Russia and China to balance the power of the United States.  Russian President Vladimir Putin recently derided Washington's attempts to create a unipolar world while speaking at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February, as he explained that such actions have led to an increasing number of global conflicts.  Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov clarified Putin's remarks to Itar-Tass, Russia's main government news agency, when he noted the following: "We say that a unipolar world does not lead to anything good, there are many times more conflicts now than at the time of the Cold War."  

To be sure, this line of thinking is neither new nor confined to those outside the United States apprehensive of the unquestioned primacy of a single foreign power.  Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1990, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer wrote an essay self-explanatorily titled "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War."  The central supposition was simple: with the loss of order provided by the structural compositions of the Cold War, a Hobbesian anarchy was destined to shape the future of international relations.  Of course Mearsheimer was not alone in his views.  He has been joined by not only a growing number of "realists" weary of the costs associated with hegemony, but also a different sort of critic represented by the increasing number of anti-American leftists in the United States who are inherently suspicious of American power.

With the growing level of agreement that the United States should abandon its role as world's lone superpower, some questions must be asked.  May Mearsheimer and his radical leftist counterparts have been right?  Is the Kremlin accurate in its assessment they we have indeed reached a time of unprecedented conflict and global disorder?  A rather simple exploration of history illustrates that, on the contrary to those who disparage the preservation of American hegemony, the world has indeed become significantly more peaceful since the end of the Cold War.

According to data compiled by the University of Maryland, an average of 52.5 wars occurred per decade of the Cold War through 1984.  As a result of those conflicts, an average of nearly 4.6 million people died per decade.  This is hardly peaceful.  By contrast, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden found that state-based conflicts decreased by approximately 40% from 1992 to 2005.  Battle deaths since 1990 make up only a small fraction of those incurred through any decade during the Cold War, and the frequency of attempted military coups has dropped significantly; an average of 12.8 occurred per year between 1962 and 1991, while just 5.9 were attempted per year from 1992 through 2006.  From 1989 to 2005 the number of genocides decreased by 90%. 

A common misperception of the post-Cold War era maintains that while conventional battles between states have decreased, globalization and the deterioration of stability have put civilian lives at risk as the barriers between combatant and civilian have broken down from the growing number terror attacks and civil conflicts.  However, as the authors of the University of British Columbia's Human Security Brief 2006 noted in their latest annual report: "notwithstanding the increase in terrorist attacks, the number of civilian victims of intentional organized violence remains appreciably lower today than it was during the Cold War years."  Thus, all of the leading indicators - number of wars, battle deaths, civilian lives lost - point to a more peaceful and stable world under American primacy. 

If the confrontation of the Cold War is not a correct paradigm for a peaceful future, perhaps one resembling that of the Concert of Powers and the long held mutual goal of a balance of power that prevailed in Europe between 1815 and 1914 would provide a greater blueprint for the 21st century.  Such a restructuring of the world order has been called for from analysts and commentators as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky.  But was the world after the fall of Napoleon until the outbreak of World War I really as peaceful as some of the advocates of balance of power would lead you to believe? 

While a continent-spanning great power conflict was avoided until the outbreak of the First World War, the peace established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 did not last long.  By 1829, the Russo-Turkish War had concluded leaving more than 130,000 dead.  This was not the last time these two powers would go to war as an approximate 200,000 died in further hostilities in 1877 and 1878.  In the meantime, the Russians faced the Polish Insurrection between 1830 and 1831 - they had been granted control of much of Poland at the Congress of Vienna - leaving at least 20,000 dead, while the First Carlist War in Spain ended only after more than 30,000 lost their lives.   The Crimean War of 1854 to1856 resulted in approximately 300,000 deaths; the Seven Weeks War in 1866 killed 35,000; and by the time the Franco-Prussian War concluded in 1871 more than 200,000 had lost their lives.  Additional competition between the European powers for empire and the influence and resources that go along with it was also not without incident. 

In fact, it was largely the example of the tumultuous environment of 19th century Europe that molded America's earliest perceptions of a proper security environment.  What was essentially conceived by George Washington and was later refined by John Quincy Adams, American leaders have long sought to avoid entangling the nation in any sort of foreign policy based on balance of power. Expressing his deep seated reluctance for any type of balance of power in the Western Hemisphere, Adams noted in 1811 that were the United States not to emerge as the hegemon of the Americas, "we shall have an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribe at eternal war with one another for a rock or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors."  Multipolarity, in the absence of a global congruence of interests and widespread cooperation, will inevitably lead to such a situation the world over. 

Critics of American efforts to maintain its primacy often point to the economic, political, and military costs associated with such ambition.  These concerns are not without merit, but they also overlook the costs incurred when a peer competitor arises as was the case throughout much of the Cold War.  The average annual percentage of GDP spent on defense during the Cold War was roughly 7% compared to less than 4% since 1991.  Thus, the so-called "peace dividend" would be more appropriately labeled the "primacy dividend" as the United States was not at war at until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rather was in a costly struggle to outlast a peer competitor. Additional criticisms about the costs in American lives are also unfounded.  During the Cold War an average of about 18,000 American military personnel died as a result of hostile action per decade. Even if we count the civilian lives lost on 9/11, that number has decreased a staggering 83% since 1990.  Finally, the questions of the political consequences incurred as a result of hegemony are, at the minimum, significantly exaggerated.  It was the not so not-aligned Non-Aligned Movement that emerged out of the Cold War, and even "Old Europe" is returning to the acknowledgement that there is a pervasive parallel in values and interests with the United States.

Indeed, any future deterioration of American hegemony would be accompanied by catastrophic consequences.  History reveals that tragic violence inevitably follows newly created power vacuums.  The decline of the Ottoman Empire brought on a massacre of the Armenians, and the end of British rule in India resulted in massive devastation in South Asia.  As was persuasively illustrated in Niall Ferguson's War of the World, the weakening and contraction of Western empires were indispensable contributors to the unprecedented bloodshed of the 20th century.  Make no mistake, history will repeat itself - beginning in Iraq - should the United States loose its nerve and retract from its responsibilities as the world's lone superpower.  While it has become fashionable to proclaim that the 21st Century will emerge as the "Asian Century," the United States - and its many allies - should do everything in their powers to insure that we are indeed at the dawn of a new American century. 

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. 
On April 30th, the State Department released a report noting a 25% increase in terrorist attacks around the world in 2006, ostensibly signaling the emergence of a period of unparalleled danger.  Indeed, the end of the Cold War did not usher in an era of universal peace, but rather unleashed both rogue regimes and non-state actors to pursue ambitious and destabilizing goals.  Today global hostilities are covered with unprecedented scrutiny magnifying their destruction and expanding the perception that the world has become concurrently more perilous and exceedingly unpredictable.  This has unleashed a nostalgic desire for the simplicity of the past that has now expanded to virtually every corner of the globe. 

The bipolar international structure of the Cold War is often warmly remembered as a time when the balance of power - aided by the commonly understood inevitability of mutual assured destruction - ensured a relatively peaceful world where a war between the superpowers was largely unfeasible.  By contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threats of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the instability of the greater Middle East draw many to the deduction that perhaps a multipolar world where no single power maintains hegemony is the preferable path towards a more stable and peaceful future. 

Such judgments have justified, if not formed the basis for, the current strategies of Russia and China to balance the power of the United States.  Russian President Vladimir Putin recently derided Washington's attempts to create a unipolar world while speaking at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February, as he explained that such actions have led to an increasing number of global conflicts.  Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov clarified Putin's remarks to Itar-Tass, Russia's main government news agency, when he noted the following: "We say that a unipolar world does not lead to anything good, there are many times more conflicts now than at the time of the Cold War."  

To be sure, this line of thinking is neither new nor confined to those outside the United States apprehensive of the unquestioned primacy of a single foreign power.  Writing in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1990, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer wrote an essay self-explanatorily titled "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War."  The central supposition was simple: with the loss of order provided by the structural compositions of the Cold War, a Hobbesian anarchy was destined to shape the future of international relations.  Of course Mearsheimer was not alone in his views.  He has been joined by not only a growing number of "realists" weary of the costs associated with hegemony, but also a different sort of critic represented by the increasing number of anti-American leftists in the United States who are inherently suspicious of American power.

With the growing level of agreement that the United States should abandon its role as world's lone superpower, some questions must be asked.  May Mearsheimer and his radical leftist counterparts have been right?  Is the Kremlin accurate in its assessment they we have indeed reached a time of unprecedented conflict and global disorder?  A rather simple exploration of history illustrates that, on the contrary to those who disparage the preservation of American hegemony, the world has indeed become significantly more peaceful since the end of the Cold War.

According to data compiled by the University of Maryland, an average of 52.5 wars occurred per decade of the Cold War through 1984.  As a result of those conflicts, an average of nearly 4.6 million people died per decade.  This is hardly peaceful.  By contrast, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden found that state-based conflicts decreased by approximately 40% from 1992 to 2005.  Battle deaths since 1990 make up only a small fraction of those incurred through any decade during the Cold War, and the frequency of attempted military coups has dropped significantly; an average of 12.8 occurred per year between 1962 and 1991, while just 5.9 were attempted per year from 1992 through 2006.  From 1989 to 2005 the number of genocides decreased by 90%. 

A common misperception of the post-Cold War era maintains that while conventional battles between states have decreased, globalization and the deterioration of stability have put civilian lives at risk as the barriers between combatant and civilian have broken down from the growing number terror attacks and civil conflicts.  However, as the authors of the University of British Columbia's Human Security Brief 2006 noted in their latest annual report: "notwithstanding the increase in terrorist attacks, the number of civilian victims of intentional organized violence remains appreciably lower today than it was during the Cold War years."  Thus, all of the leading indicators - number of wars, battle deaths, civilian lives lost - point to a more peaceful and stable world under American primacy. 

If the confrontation of the Cold War is not a correct paradigm for a peaceful future, perhaps one resembling that of the Concert of Powers and the long held mutual goal of a balance of power that prevailed in Europe between 1815 and 1914 would provide a greater blueprint for the 21st century.  Such a restructuring of the world order has been called for from analysts and commentators as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky.  But was the world after the fall of Napoleon until the outbreak of World War I really as peaceful as some of the advocates of balance of power would lead you to believe? 

While a continent-spanning great power conflict was avoided until the outbreak of the First World War, the peace established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 did not last long.  By 1829, the Russo-Turkish War had concluded leaving more than 130,000 dead.  This was not the last time these two powers would go to war as an approximate 200,000 died in further hostilities in 1877 and 1878.  In the meantime, the Russians faced the Polish Insurrection between 1830 and 1831 - they had been granted control of much of Poland at the Congress of Vienna - leaving at least 20,000 dead, while the First Carlist War in Spain ended only after more than 30,000 lost their lives.   The Crimean War of 1854 to1856 resulted in approximately 300,000 deaths; the Seven Weeks War in 1866 killed 35,000; and by the time the Franco-Prussian War concluded in 1871 more than 200,000 had lost their lives.  Additional competition between the European powers for empire and the influence and resources that go along with it was also not without incident. 

In fact, it was largely the example of the tumultuous environment of 19th century Europe that molded America's earliest perceptions of a proper security environment.  What was essentially conceived by George Washington and was later refined by John Quincy Adams, American leaders have long sought to avoid entangling the nation in any sort of foreign policy based on balance of power. Expressing his deep seated reluctance for any type of balance of power in the Western Hemisphere, Adams noted in 1811 that were the United States not to emerge as the hegemon of the Americas, "we shall have an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribe at eternal war with one another for a rock or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors."  Multipolarity, in the absence of a global congruence of interests and widespread cooperation, will inevitably lead to such a situation the world over. 

Critics of American efforts to maintain its primacy often point to the economic, political, and military costs associated with such ambition.  These concerns are not without merit, but they also overlook the costs incurred when a peer competitor arises as was the case throughout much of the Cold War.  The average annual percentage of GDP spent on defense during the Cold War was roughly 7% compared to less than 4% since 1991.  Thus, the so-called "peace dividend" would be more appropriately labeled the "primacy dividend" as the United States was not at war at until the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rather was in a costly struggle to outlast a peer competitor. Additional criticisms about the costs in American lives are also unfounded.  During the Cold War an average of about 18,000 American military personnel died as a result of hostile action per decade. Even if we count the civilian lives lost on 9/11, that number has decreased a staggering 83% since 1990.  Finally, the questions of the political consequences incurred as a result of hegemony are, at the minimum, significantly exaggerated.  It was the not so not-aligned Non-Aligned Movement that emerged out of the Cold War, and even "Old Europe" is returning to the acknowledgement that there is a pervasive parallel in values and interests with the United States.

Indeed, any future deterioration of American hegemony would be accompanied by catastrophic consequences.  History reveals that tragic violence inevitably follows newly created power vacuums.  The decline of the Ottoman Empire brought on a massacre of the Armenians, and the end of British rule in India resulted in massive devastation in South Asia.  As was persuasively illustrated in Niall Ferguson's War of the World, the weakening and contraction of Western empires were indispensable contributors to the unprecedented bloodshed of the 20th century.  Make no mistake, history will repeat itself - beginning in Iraq - should the United States loose its nerve and retract from its responsibilities as the world's lone superpower.  While it has become fashionable to proclaim that the 21st Century will emerge as the "Asian Century," the United States - and its many allies - should do everything in their powers to insure that we are indeed at the dawn of a new American century. 

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.