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Ailing empires

  • Written by  Julian Sayarer
  • Published in Opinions
Who will succeed the United States of America at the top of the world's hegemonic order? Who will succeed the United States of America at the top of the world's hegemonic order? Anna Om
16 Jul
Is the world going through another transfer of power? Julian Sayarer asks where this moment in history might lead

All through history, a central question is who holds power before and who holds it afterwards: who is the hegemon? The French Empire of the 17th century had become the British by the end of the 18th, the American by the 20th. In international relations, this concept of a power holder at the centre of an order falls under the doctrine outlined variously by Robert Keohane and Immanuel Wallerstein, of hegemonic stability theory (HST).

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the world has been in a state of flux that has challenged hegemonic order, but is yet to return from the flux with a new hegemon. For now, the US, though in the descendant, is still nominally it and still reaps advantages of that fragile supremacy: a veneer of legitimacy to wars for resources and influence, the boon of international trade conducted in its currency, the norms of the world order drafted in its desired image.

Within the theory is the notion that the hegemon suffers stresses and frictions as a result of its centrality. It benefits from its position, but has to maintain certain inputs to keep it all turning. Hegemonic stability theory posits that, at some point, maintaining these inputs wears down and depletes the hegemon, which falls so that another takes its place. The first signs of this are perhaps always going to be small. Presidents Putin, Erdoğan and Rouhani of Russia, Turkey and Iran assemble at the 2017 Astana Peace Process – the US disposable, in ways recently unthinkable, to the main chance of peace in Syria.

It would be hard to imagine an area of politics more dominated by men than foreign policy, so that where women do arrive they tend to emulate male traits: Hillary Clinton’s ‘We came, we saw, he died’ of Muammar Gaddafi, was every bit as distasteful and macho as Joe Biden’s ‘Bin Laden’s dead and General Motors is alive.’ A more positive example of how women can intersect foreign policy would be the recent decision by Belgium to appoint a female ambassador to that most patriarchal of states, Saudi Arabia.

Change here fits in with the expanding movement for female empowerment – be that in the right to expect more of male behaviour, to be heard where speaking out on abusive behaviour or the closing of the gender pay gap. If the US has been the international hegemon of the last century, there is no question that in gender terms it has been the male. Men have had the running of both industrial and post-industrial society, conferring great advantages of prestige, pay and power disproportionately upon them.

In keeping with the logic of HST, those advantages have not come without costs upon men, who fall at the centre of global, economic and domestic orders, but bear burdens in fulfilling this role. The expectations of breadwinner and the denial of emotions are two features of patriarchy that do much to incubate the culture of toxic masculinity that #metoo has drawn into the light. Toxic masculinity is an abuse of power that manifests itself in greed, harassment and lack of self-control, all of it readable as the crumbling of a gendered infrastructure.

While foreign policy is perhaps the world’s most public spectacle and gender politics the most private, it is powerful to see the international hegemon of Pax Americana on the slide just as the gender hegemon of patriarchy also begins to look ever more fragile. That the two downfalls might happen simultaneously offers help on how to understand their characteristics, and the features of what comes next. It was historically the case in anthropology that female ethnographers produced more insightful findings because, where their male counterparts had access and thus a fixation on chiefs and elders, women were more likely to talk inside the home, the community, to observe and create a more accurate rendering of social fabric. International relations, while often fantastically abstract of individual lives, are only an output and macrocosm of seven billion lives lived overwhelmingly on highly gendered terms. That a hegemon of geopolitics and gender might fall at the same time could offer a rare opportunity to reimagine our world on terms we desire rather than merely tolerate.

It’s important to stress a key criticism of HST – its failure to envisage a world without a hegemon. Just as gender begins to be seen as a less binary notion, so too are international relations obliged to reckon for the global equivalent – multipolarity: a world with a weakening US, rising China, and Russian influence in the Middle East.

A transformation into this healthier way of seeing the world is long overdue. The male mindset of hegemonic foreign policy has only bequeathed us axis politics, the sort of myopia that welcomes small liberalisations in an allied state such as Saudi Arabia, but acquiesces to its war that only lays the conditions for extremism and conservatism in a non-allied state such as Yemen. Watching diplomats ameliorate the world’s evils with this sort of primitive logic is akin to watching a right-handed person try to cut paper with left-handed scissors. The 21st century, already so transboundary, will demand far greater nuance.

Julian Sayarer is the author of four books, the latest, All at Sea, was Geographical’s March 2018 Book of the Month. His previous title, Interstate, won the Stanford Dolman award for its story of a hitchhiked journey from New York to San Francisco

Click here to purchase All at Sea by Julian Sayarer via Amazon

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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