Hegemony is a concept derived from the Greek ἡγέομαι (hegemony), which means to be a guide or carry forward. It has been used in international relations to name a state that retains preeminence over others, particularly the stronger ones. Briefly, it can be enunciated here that the three requirements for considering a state as hegemonic power are: 1) preponderance of power, 2) willingness to use that power for specific purposes, and 3) leadership based on the explicit consent of others.
Throughout the modern era, only three States have achieved world hegemony: the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. These hegemonies, like all social phenomena, have had periods of a certain duration (little more than a century) that have been called hegemonic cycles, which consist of five phases: emergence, deployment, apogee, decline and extinction. Now, each phase corresponds to the promotion of ideas and values of some ideology. As the national power of a hegemonic State evolves, it tends to be guided by a certain ideology, which translates into an international behavior that favors certain economic policies and stimulates some types of alliances and international organizations with specific vocations.
In its emergency phase, it has been observed in the hegemonies the propensity to favor a progressive-revolutionary ideology, conceived as a set of ideas tending to implement a very deep or total reform in various spheres of human activity. Under this ideology, the State plays a fundamental role, which acts as the impeller and guarantor of social processes. In fact, if the state does not catalyze the metamorphosis that society experiences, the hegemony that is in its emergency phase can be interrupted and truncated. In terms of its implications outwards, the use of the progressive-revolutionary ideology obeys to the necessity to acquire or to increase the power. Hence, in this phase, the emerging hegemonic power envisages alliances -with some consolidated world powers, as with other ascending powers- to try to increase its national power. Thus, the United Provinces in the second half of the sixteenth century, the United Kingdom in the mid-eighteenth century and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, assumed progressive-revolutionary ideologies for the development of their hegemonies.
In the phases of deployment and apogee, hegemonic powers assume a liberal ideology. The advancement achieved by the hegemonic country in the previous phase increases the centralization of capital around its main cities, raises living standards throughout its society and becomes the “lighthouse” for development, for which the shift towards liberalism is implemented with the purpose of consolidating its competitive advantages. But hegemonic power also drives liberalism to neutralize possible competitor states. Thus, at this stage the hegemony is especially concerned not to increase its power, but to consolidate and demonstrate it; and precisely the most propitious environment to do this is in free competition. Thereby the United Provinces in the first half of the seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth and the United States in the mid-twentieth, assumed and promoted liberalism (philosophical, economic and political) as hegemonic ideologies.
Finally, in the phases of decline and extinction, hegemonies tend to orient their international politics from a conservative ideology. Why does the hegemonic country turn ideologically from liberalism to conservatism? The answer lies in the previous phase, because in fact, liberalism engenders its own decline. The competitive advantages achieved decades ago by the hegemonic power are spread among rival states thanks to the system of free competition established by it: liberalism leads to the democratization of the technological and productive advantages of the country, especially its opponents. Thus, the hegemonic power loses its advantage and, in relative terms, begins to decline. To curb structural changes, the declining country gradually gives up the liberal ideology and assumes a conservative type: at this time, it will seek to preserve its international power and statu quo. The United Provinces in the second half of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, the United Kingdom in the second half of the nineteenth and the United States in the last two decades of the twentieth assumed, with different shades, conservative positions in the face of the irrepressible reductions of its national power, always causing criticism of its leadership and rejection of its international policy.
Reduction of US power and turn to conservatism
Since the last decade of the nineteenth century, the international system entered a dynamic characterized by the hegemony of the United States: its emergency phase or rise occurred from the late nineteenth century to the First World War. Between 1914 and 1944, the United States deployed its power and consolidated its hegemony. Finally, from 1945 to 1981, pass a period of hegemonic heyday characterized not only by the preponderance of its national power, but also by the willingness to use it in the definition of the new international governance. However, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, US hegemony began to show signs of exhaustion. As shown in the following graph, after a momentary increase in the World Power Index between 1983 and 1984 (due to the drastic adjustments made by the reaganomics), US national capacities stagnated for the rest of the decade 1980s and throughout the 1990s, and then declined drastically after 2001.
Conservation of the statu quo and erosion of leadership
The US hegemonic decline was accelerated with the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 completely changed the priorities of the newly initiated government of George W. Bush (2001-2009): the war against terrorism became the central issue of its internal and external policy. This was reflected in the National Security Strategy of 2002, whose approaches had repercussions not only on the creation of the powerful Department of National Security, but also on the definition of a foreign policy characterized by the search of the re-positioning of its country through a strong unilateralism, a minimum of cooperation and domination in certain international affairs. Bush and his “hawks” projected the United States as the only actor capable of defending the market, preserve freedom and fight the “axis of evil.”
This hard-neoconservative policy of the beginnings of the 21st century was unsustainable for the hegemonic country because it increased the economic, political and social costs to the point of dissipating all its leadership. The turning point was the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Certainly, Barack Obama’s government stabilized the national economy and managed to show a different facet of his country to the world. However, the stagnation of American hegemony is not a simple political discourse, but a phenomenon that accumulates evidence day by day.
Aware of these realities, during his candidacy and in his first days as president, Donald Trump has been directed to stop bearing the costs of continuing to exercise global hegemony. Certainly, the United States will enjoy a very important power endowment, so it will remain the main power of the world. However, Trump would be reluctant to use that power for specific purposes, bringing his country back to national priorities and giving leadership in managing certain issues on the international agenda to other powers. But is this an unprecedented fact? A long-standing historical review confirms that the old hegemonic powers followed behavior patterns like what the United States could experience in the coming years: the Netherlands in the first decades of the eighteenth century and the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth century.
Trump, the redefinition of the United States and the new world order
The redefinition of the United States’ role with Trump’s presidency will have a direct impact on the future of other countries: several world powers -until now US strategic partners in the G7, the European Union and the NATO- could be seriously affected by the lack of leadership and commitment of the ex-hegemonic power. This change will generate power gaps in the international structure that could well be occupied by regional powers that have shown themselves as “emerging” since the first years of the 21st century, specifically China, India and Russia. All of this will lead to significant adjustments in the “clubs of powers”, especially between the G7, the BRICS Forum and the G20.
Undoubtedly, Trump does not intend to shut the United States out of the world or to remove it from globalization, but we may see in his government a sort of American “splendid isolation”, that is, the conduct of his country as an ex-hegemonic world power that will act with greater prudence and caution. All of this should not be a cause for concern, but simply a recognition that the role of the United States in the twenty-first century will be a very different one from that of the previous one.