The Coming and Going of American Supremacy

The international political system changes. Sometimes it changes in accord with hegemonic design. The dynamic history of America’s global development project, and its necessary relationship with sweeping international change, has marked changing global order since the end of World War II. Today, however, there exists the increased reach of multinational corporations, and many transnational actors; they also alters the international political landscape. These entities operate with great autonomy. They work within a largely unregulated, anarchic international space. Their supranational agency (and inter-state context) also lends itself to elements some perceive as threats to “general security.” International economic gangster-ism, and the choppy waters of cyberterrorism, are two relevant areas. Some further argue that wherever power shifts, global governance must follow. But do these global governance exponents mean to maintain the status quo? Do they want to propel the current liberal world order for any specific reason? Curiously, they do not ask whose security is threatened, or who qualifies to construct global governance. Given such drastic changes to the international political system within just the last few decades, it is important to know how power has become what it is today. Moreover, it is important to ask why this power now enters twilight.

Pakistani social scientist, Hamza Alavi, shared his thoughts on “overdevelopment” in the early 1970s. His observations escorted one simple conclusion in particular: Colonial powers engineered governmental structures of their proxies to serve (and preserve) their imperial interests. Two key components were the colonial state’s sophisticated civil and military administrations, and their Westernized legal systems. Specifically, colonial powers and empires overdeveloped these two areas so as to create a lack of symmetry and to also skew development within the colony state. They structured their rule accordingly.

Alavi’s observations relate to Samuel P. Huntington’s philosophy regarding modernization. The American political scientist, Huntington, argued that without the constructs Alavi described, popular participation would result in perhaps total political collapse, and would give way to uprisings and general insurrection. Huntington further prescribes the constructs of Alavi’s “overdevelopment” as the remedy for such turmoil. Initiating any kind of economic or social development processes, suggested Huntington, come after political process were thoroughly institutionalized, and state apparatuses, thoroughly extended.

Alavi and Huntington, however paradigmatically different, both witnessed the end of empire as a politically legitimate organization of power on an international level after WWII. This transition colored the thoughts of many social scientists as the world indeed saw the nation-state, with its self-determination, triumph legitimate. A policy of non-intervention by foreign powers in the domestic/internal affairs of sovereign nation-states, along with striving for development, became the international political norm to emerge with the many unfolding post-colonial states.

Post-war America was the ever-industrializing global hegemon of the late 1940s. The US pushed weaker European colonial powers to relinquish control of their colonies. Some cite America’s anti-colonial stance as righteous; however, the fact remains that political independence of colonial states was itself largely inevitable. Other observations indicate that US risked European powers doing more harm than good should it cling to colonial rule too long. America thus sought to expedite the process; she did not want groups radicalizing within colonial states, crowding-out potential alliances with friendly nationalist groups in-colony.

One National Security Report (NSC 51) averred that 19th century imperialism was not anathema to communism, especially in more revolutionary areas. To the contrary, the report declared imperialism an ideal propellant for communism. America’s goal then was to propagate militarized nationalism for the sake of resisting international communism, which threatened the private ownership of property in de-colonizing nation-states. The key to sustainable hegemony was making use of the power consolidated within colonies via the overdeveloped state mechanisms treated by theorists like Alavi and Huntington.

Alavi’s overdeveloped asymmetrical civil administrative and military elements, were to theorists like Huntington, the necessary preconditions for both sustainable progress and political stability in new states. Some espoused that such state organs were the strongest gears of post-colonial states—they could be used to build and modernize states. The problem with overdeveloped civil and military bureaucracies, however, is that they lead to underdeveloped democratic elements. Post-colonial states that have, say, weak assemblies, or representative parties, but yet have strong civil and military administrations, give cause for concern. Democratic deficits call into question the purpose of the state’s existence: Does it exist to serve foreign capital and other foreign interests?

Historically, nationalist forces inside colonial areas already pushed the issue of independence, or sovereignty. Many colonies held movements to agitate for independence. They were well organized, and copious amounts of denizens mobilized. Kenya, Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia—even Portugal’s colonies saw the inevitable dawning of independence from below. Domestic pressure, and human as well as financial costs, forced colonial rulers to grant independence. US hegemony, thought many statecraft architects, would benefit from decolonization and militant nationalism as the post-colonial states sought to further development. Preying on democratically-weak nations to secure a unipolar future of American hegemony would simply become easier.

The change for once imperial powers was great after the war. US anti-colonialism precipitated the consolidation of power in Europe. As European empires quit their formal colonizer status, European states had to shift their focus to political and economic issues within Europe. This shift indelibly marked the de-legitimization of empire as an acceptable form of international political rule, and America’s project for international development took flight. But before America heralded the golden age of capitalism through lofty presidential rhetoric in the post-war interim, her commitment to international development and widespread economic liberalism was long underway in her own backyard.

US-sponsored development projects plagued one region, Latin America, since the 1930s. America’s Export-Import Bank, established by Roosevelt through his Good Neighbor Policy. Other US-sponsored development institutions, already mediated coercive interactions in the region. America preyed on the overdevelopment of many poor nations within Latin America. US planners clearly subscribed to classically liberal notions of politics within Latin America. The American experience with forcing the economic liberalization of Latin American states invariably influenced US involvement with post-war international reconstruction and development in a quickly anti-colonial world.

Competing interests also fuelled America’s global quest for international development after 1945. Three years later, the United States alone contributed virtually half the world’s industrial production—virtually half. America had not only the will to forge a new global system, but it also had the money and capital—the necessary productive forces—to do so. The Soviet Union, America’s main post-war economic competitor, actually lost a quarter of its physical capital, and at least twenty-four million lives as a result of the war. Despite the existing competition between the two powerful unions, America yet reigned in its post-war hegemony.

Cordell Hull, an important global order architect, eulogized America’s harmonious vision for the future of international relations. He invoked the unrestricted trade that would eliminate international jealousy, which many liberal internationalists claimed causal in the warring among would-be peaceful and prosperous countries. By the late 1960s, though, productivity slowed in Germany, Japan, and in the US itself. One important question was whether America’s post-war determination to create a highly liberalized future among interacting and sovereign states would help illuminate the regression of capitalism’s golden. After all, the 1970s failure of capitalism’s economic staying force had serious global consequences.

International relations expert, David Williams, observes that by the 1970s the second spike in oil prices (coupled with the proposed increased interest rates) clouded America’s global vision. Latin America, for one, suffered a severe amount of crisis despite decades of US-sponsored development plans. Moreover, America had been altering Latin American states for decades. Writes Williams, “In this sense the increase in capital flows that is so characteristic of the golden age had a paradoxical impact.” Latin American states, claims Williams, had been exposed to private capital, and also to the “volatility of these flows,” which necessarily included the risks of a volatile and sudden increase in the “cost of servicing their debts.”

America still espoused that liberalized international relations as the key to peace and prosperity. For a time, the US seemed able to secure the international harmony and cooperation it promised it would. The key to its chimeric success, observes Chris Brown, another international relations expert, was that “…the United States, in the immediate post-war era” was the predominant regime with the “ability to establish rules of action and enforces them, and the willingness to act on this ability.” Brown is right to conclude that America was also “living on the capital built up under hegemony.” In typical, liberal economic maneuvering, the US sought not to destroy its Cold War competition, but to outspend it; it would use decolonization as a way of solidifying power within newly emerging and already overdeveloped post-colonial states around the world.

Ultimately, America’s plan neither eliminated poverty, nor were the benefits of unfettered trade, or future neoliberal agreements, remotely egalitarian. Overdeveloped military and civil bureaucracies were prostituted in order to further American hegemony in post-colonial states. Such conditions merely left these states’ democratic institutions underdeveloped. New sovereignties remained easy targets for the global, post-war hegemony America had envisioned. Today’s horizontal shift in political power is obvious, however. The global political landscape no longer resembles its 1945, post-war self. Take the governments of continental European states, for example, who are seeing an economic shift in power to the countries ringing the Pacific Rim.

As opposed to America’s post-war hegemony of many decades, the global shift towards a multiple polarity of political power means shifting alliances. The West will continue to learn that states are now more interdependent than ever. Just as empire that was once the order of the day in the international political system, the American hegemony of the late 20th century eclipses. Nation-states simply cannot expect to act unilaterally anymore; their actions make waves far too big. As America’s project for global development still falters in yielding desirable, egalitarian effects, the American post-war hegemony of the last seven decades is soon to eclipse.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.  


Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.