The ‘Necessary’ Hegemon Revisited

Lately, we have been hearing quite a lot from our Cousins across the water. All eaten-up with post-imperial malaise and envy of US leaders’ apparent good fortune, the Cousins are hard at work handing out friendly advice on how best to rule the world. They gave us a lot of advice just after 1763, if memory serves, but we weren’t very receptive that week and kicked them out of North America, not counting Canada. For typical recent examples see Paul Johnson "From the evil empire to the empire for liberty," The New Criterion, June 2003, and Max Hastings, "We stayed to rule. They want to conquer and go," The Telegraph, 26 June 2003.


This brings us back around, somehow, to the realist school of foreign policy, and to their successors the neo-realists, treated in an earlier column. The best of the realists, such as George F. Kennan, had a sense of how the world works, a vague notion of "balance" in international relations, and a willingness to try looking ahead at probable consequences of interventions. Their policy prescriptions were not exactly the strict non-interventionist ones that some of us might want, but on the other hand, they were hardly chest-thumping optimists certain that force will always prevail in the end. In other words, they were quite different from currently influential Neo-Conservatives.

Enter the neo-realists, some time after World War II.

Neo-realists don the "mantle of science" and assert that their ideas are "empirical," "testable," and all that. A reading of their journals – International Organization will serve as an example – reveals a mind-set given to formulating hypotheses about what goes on in the international state-system, testing them against actual historical "data," however recent, and then tightening up the hypotheses in the light of the data.

This is a rather odd way to proceed and, aside from the circularity involved, it seldom seems to produce the results the neo-realists seek, especially the power to "predict" what will happen next in the state-system. Odd or otherwise – I mean the method rather than the practitioners – neo-realists often claim that the state-system works best when one hegemonic power oversees the whole show. Here we must turn to an interesting critique by Isabelle Grunberg.(1)


Grunberg writes that neo-realists hold that "cooperation and a well-functioning world economy" require "a structure characterized by the dominance of a single actor. Dominance by a hegemonic power constitutes the optimal situation for ensuring and maintaining an open and stable world economy." She quotes David Calleo’s observation, in 1987, that US leaders appeared "ensnared in the fantasy of a reborn Pax Britannica."(2) At this point in the fray, the revelers hand out drinks and toast Great Britain and, now, the United States for having been, or being, just such benevolent overlords of the world system.

Grunberg undertakes to unpack the neo-realists’ assumptions. While she might disagree with the following generalization, she has in effect discovered that a discipline whose perpetrators imagine they can study human action with the methods of natural science – that is, empirically and inductively – will be driven back upon myth and narrative structures, just as soon as the natural-scientific quest is seen to fail, and even if the failure is never directly admitted. The myth dear to the neo-realists is that of benevolent hegemony gained and lost.

Grunberg notes that mythical truth is subjective to individuals or peoples and does not, therefore, provide a working guide for the conduct of international relations. In practice, national leaders project their mythical assumptions onto the wide world,(3) and the Devil take the hindmost. We have seen a lot of this lately.

Neo-realism’s organizing myth rests on "a hierarchical perception of world order and a cyclical vision of time." Reviewing the work of Robert Gilpin, Grunberg replies to his picture of history as a succession of empires, writing, "it is also true that the world has often relied on a decentralized way of maintaining security, often referred to as a balance of power."(4)

Neo-realist claims that hegemony fosters free trade – and is, indeed, the only path to free trade – rest, Grunberg writes, on an "assumption of benevolence on the hegemon’s part," on a noble sacrifice of that power’s own self-interest. With self-renunciation and deep wisdom, the imperial leaders undertake to provide the world with global public goods: security, free trade, order. Thus empire (okay, hegemony) yields worldwide Pareto optimality, i.e., no one is worse off for it, and most are better off.(5)

This seems a bit dubious at best. Grunberg notes that "the theory of hegemonic stability is of American origin and is quite strongly biased in favor of the United States." This is of course no problem for the theorists in question. Power held by a uniquely righteous nation can only bring about good; and the only gains to that nation are of an almost spiritual kind. True hegemons – as against evil empires – are generous and giving, marked by "their ethical natures."(6)

And so neo-realism looks more and more like a doctrine for a Hegelian ethical state bestriding the globe.


Grunberg’s analysis of neo-realism as myth now begins in earnest. Mythic structures, she writes, "are causative models" that have "a ‘subjective, rather than objective, coherence.’" They sway people because their content is already familiar.(7)

The central mythic sequence is this: 1) the hegemon falters, and 2) doom and gloom stalk the earth. It is right out of the Poetic Edda. Grunberg quotes Charles Kindleberger, who writes that, "there has to be a stabilizer – one stabilizer." Summarizing his claims, she adds, that hegemony permits "harmony of interests to emerge."(8)

One Ring to stabilize them all.

Naturally, US leaders have volunteered their loyal subjects’ services in this thankless task.


As presented by Grunberg, neo-realists give sundry reasons for the cyclical nature of hegemonic projects in human history. The much-feared decline of a hegemon may follow from 1) its open-handed efforts at providing the world with "liquidity" – something which only cynics would see as exporting inflation; 2) over-investment abroad, which raises up competitors; 3) sacrifice of the hegemonic nation’s technological lead; 4) generous imposition of "free trade" resulting in a trade deficit: a statistical illusion, as Tom Paine long ago noted; and 5) drag on the hegemon’s economy from subsidizing those who "free-ride" on imperial generosity.(9)

Next Grunberg displays the various water metaphors employed by neo-realists, a poetic alternative to those unedifying input-output diagrams used by political scientists in the 1960s. As a virtual international Mitra-Varuna, the hegemon provides "gift and guarantee"; it "provides and protects."(10) One wonders what Émile Benveniste would make of it all. He would have to revise his etymological dictionary at several points.

By now, the hegemon has become a real, embodied person, a paternal figure – father to all men of good will. As such, however, he is subject to those mythic reversals in which sons rise up and kill their father. But as long as he lasts, he is the World Savior or Healer, and ground of all true order. Grunberg writes "the figure of the hegemon-doctor is a messianic one." He is a benevolent despot.(11)

It is odd that an empirical science should rely so much on "cosmological images" or "cosmogonies."(12) I shall only mention Gnosticism in passing. There are, as Grunberg shows, many sources for the mythical structures of neo-realism.

There a few other themes worthy of our heed. There is, to be sure, the Fall. The collapse of the true hegemon is a cataclysm like the "death of the sun." It is part of an eternal return to primal chaos and disorder. No wonder that, like the Straussians, but for different reasons, neo-realists are always quoting Thucydides.(13) It is their particular contribution to neo-paganism.

Of course a Fall requires an earlier Golden Age, supplied at present by the British Empire, as the Cousins never tire of telling us. There is a divine genius at work, it seems, in the true hegemon, when things are going well. Grunberg writes: "Dean Acheson implies that postwar America is the godlike creator of our contemporary world. That the hegemon’s power of creation is a myth, however, can be seen by examining how two allegedly hegemonic types of monetary systems were actually created: although the nineteenth-century gold standard was influenced by Britain, it in fact had a decentralized, informal beginning; and although the creation of the Bretton Woods system was strongly influenced by American leaders, British influence was felt to a surprising extent, given the power discrepancy between the United States and Britain."(14)

The mythical structures of neo-realism also allow for projecting fascism onto "small, free-riding nations" depicted as "predatory dwarfs" wilfully getting in the way of the hegemon’s good works.(15) This is a much-needed maneuver, for otherwise the discontented might begin comparing the hegemon’s methods and ideology to those of fascism, or other like systems. That would never do.

The hegemon’s claim to inspired benevolence must stand at all costs. When the empirical evidence – remember that? – indicates otherwise, so much the worse for the facts. The explanation will be that narrow, economically-oriented domestic interests sometimes move the hegemon slightly off his natural path.(16) That will all be fixed in the next election cycle.

And what does it all mean in the end? At the risk of sounding ungenerous, it seems to mean that neo-realism is yet another ideological cover tailor-made for those who want to rule the world anyway. The results are not as poetic as Vergil’s work, but all the same they draw from the deep well of myth. A first-century Roman would understand.

It also seems to mean that neo-realism is not especially realistic.


1. Isabelle Grunberg, "Exploring the ‘myth’ of hegemonic stability," International Organization, 44, 4 (Autumn 1990), pp. 431-477. Grunberg identifies Robert Gilpin, Robert O. Keohane, Charles P. Kindleberger, among others, as the neo-realists whose claims she is criticizing.

2. Grunberg, pp. 431-432.

3. Ibid., p. 433.

4. Ibid., pp. 434-435. "Balance of power" theories have their drawbacks, too, but I leave that to one side.

5. Ibid., pp. 438-440.

6. Ibid., pp.444-446.

7. Ibid., p. 449.

8. Ibid., pp. 451-452.

9. Ibid., p. 453.

10. Ibid., pp. 454-455.

11. Ibid., pp. 456-458.

12. Ibid., p. 459.

13. Ibid., pp. 460-461.

14. Ibid., pp. 463-465.

15. Ibid., p. 469.

16. Ibid., pp. 474-475.