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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Head to Head Debate

That History Will Not Remeber U.S. Hegemony Kindly”

Almost two thousand years ago, a Roman rhetorician named Lucius Seneca wryly observed that ‘men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own’. Inherent in his memorably catchy word-bite are two obvious deductions; one, that a nation is something that an individual possesses, claiming ownership through a shared sense of community; two, that the primary condition for loving one’s country is not whether or not it is great—or even if it is right—but merely the fact that one is a part of it. So why the hell is this important in the context of this debate, you ask? To put it simply, the primary reason that history will not remember U.S. hegemony kindly lies not in the actions of the United States itself, but in how those actions are perceived throughout the world. And, as Seneca has observed, this perception is bound tightly to the concept of national communities, which are less concerned with accuracy as they are with reinforcing a sense of belonging.

Let us define the key terms of the question—‘history’ and ‘remember’. John Tosh and Sean Lang perceive history as comprised of two categories—historicity, or the academic craft of the historian, and social memory, a ‘shared interpretation of events and experiences’ that ‘confirm[s] the self-image and aspirations’ of a particular social grouping. Examples of social memory are far more prolific than historicity, and are usually vested in national histories aimed at reinforcing social consensus—justifying the present ‘at the cost of historical accuracy’. Secondly, the action of remembering implies viewing historical events with the benefit of hindsight, most often with the intention of justifying contemporary viewpoints. The historical verdict on U.S. hegemony, then, will be decided by the memories of the various social groupings that comprise the international community—groupings that have their own motivations and biases on how they portray American influence.

It is undeniable that American hegemony has brought substantial benefits to the world—the spread of democracy and stability, the dramatic rise in living standards, and the economic prosperity of the free market are just a few examples that my associate will no doubt utilise in his counterpoint to this article. However, in the context of ‘history’ and ‘remembrance’, these points are moot. Social memory, especially in a national context, is predicated not on the events themselves, but on how they are shaped, perceived, and used to reinforce arguments in the present. This is exemplified in the example of 19th Century Britain; despite historians urging us to ‘see the good side of the British empire’ (Kevin Myers) and its introduction of ‘sustained democratic institutions and economic growth’ (Mark Steyn), the Pax Britannica of the 19th Century is more commonly associated with the negative connotations of ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘racism’, and ‘subjugation’. The social memory of hegemonic influence is borne on the tide of the historical struggle to be rid of that influence.

Various events and statistics highlight the deteriorating global perception of America. Pew Global’s post-9/11 study of ‘110,000 people in 50 countries’ portrays ‘America’s image problem’ as a ‘world-wide … global slide’, with its policies widely perceived as ‘greedy’, ‘violent’, ‘rude’ and ‘immoral’. A study on the perceptions of Fulbright scholars on how the United States was perceived in their home countries revealed a significant critique of American values. The foreign policy of the United States, often expressed in terms of ‘occupation’ rather than ‘influence’, had ‘come under increasing suspicion’ due to its ambiguity over what was ‘right and wrong’. Amnesty International, in 1996, famously claimed that the blame for the various crimes being perpetuated throughout the globe ‘at the hands of governments or armed political groups’ was ‘[m]ore often than not’ shared by America. Closer to home, an article on New Zealand’s perceptions of America by William Ellis highlighted how the post-war perception of America as a ‘saviour’ had been soured by events such as the Vietnam War, clandestine activities in Third World countries, and the War on Terror. As conservative author Dinesh D’Souza has pointed out, the United States is held to a higher moral standard than the rest of the world—hence, its shortcomings are far more prone to criticism. This rejection of foreign influence contributes to a historical remembrance of U.S. hegemony that is preponderantly unkind.

Due to the distorting effects of social memory, the ‘rememberers’ of the present and the future are far more likely to remember America through its failures than its successes. The fundamental aims of nationalism inevitably lead it to propagate a group interpretation of history that negatively portrays any attempts at foreign influence, regardless of whether it is benign or hostile. And since the majority of the history that we are exposed to on a day-to-day basis is that of social memory, it is unavoidable that the majority of popular opinion will be influenced by it. Therefore U.S. hegemony, for all the good it may have done, will NOT be remembered kindly by history.

Matthew Cunningham
VUW Salient

“That US Hegemony Will Be Viewed By History Kindly.”

Considering our New Zealand friends’ proposed topic of debate, it seems implausible that I predict the future on behalf of my publication. Instead, I aim to show that U.S. hegemony ought to be viewed positively by retrospective examiners. Here, I focus on the three most salient policy approaches after 9/11—Iraq, economic well-being, and nuclear weapons proliferation. After examining U.S. policy decisions relative to U.S. inaction, it becomes clear that we should be seen favorably by our future adjudicators. Note well that I seek not to say that the United States pursued optimal policies in every situation, but instead contend that future improvement in security and economic standing is due in large part to U.S. supremacy.

First, consider U.S. involvement in the Middle East. U.S. efforts, most critically in Iraq, have yielded a scenario markedly better than if Iraq had remained a dictatorship. The policy brief by the non-partisan Brookings Institution observes, “The population-protection strategy initiated by Gen. David Petraeus has been a remarkable success on balance.” While not marginalizing the precariousness that current levels of violence impart, the ease with which January’s provincial elections proceeded is surely a positive sign. The New York Times—certainly no fan of the Iraq war—cannot help but acknowledge the U.S.’s positive efforts: “Attacks are at the lowest level since September 2003, falling 70 percent since last March. […]In Iraq today, the Iraqi Army leads the only two significant combat operations under way.” The main mission has instead shifted from combat to stability operations, from “fighting insurgents to rebuilding Iraq’s services, making America’s exit more like a victory than a retreat.” In short, our intervention in Iraq, while results are not yet settled, has made the possibility of a stable democracy significantly more likely and thus gives us U.S. hegemony’s first benefit.

The stabilization of the flagging world economy provides the most compelling evidence of the gains from U.S. hegemony. According to the world’s most-cited economist, Professor Andrei Shleifer, the “extreme leverage in the financial system was the main culprit of the current economic crisis.” While leveraging was certainly a problem in domestic financial institutions, Professor Shleifer notes, “leveraging was even greater in European banks”. As an example of the harms from eschewing the financial conservatism of the U.S. model, Shleifer observes that “France, Russia, Japan, China, and India all suffered larger losses” in their major stock indices than the United States did in the same period. The Associated Press recently furthered this contention, stating, “World stock markets rallied again as confidence remained buoyed by positive U.S. economic data”. Clearly, U.S. economic hegemony has a determinative and indispensable role in the health of the world economy.

Notably, the demonstrated power of U.S. hegemony has also led to the de-nuclearization of previously bellicose states. For example, Muammar Gaddafi, the current head of the African Union, stopped Libya’s weapons program after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is clear that U.S. hegemony has yielded an improvement relative to the early years of the millennium in which Libya held unsecured nuclear weapons. As a current example of arms reduction, the BBC notes that “Washington and Moscow will sign a new strategic arms treaty by the end of this year,” a positive sign given that past efforts through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty led to 80 percent of all nuclear weapons in existence in 1991, and the complete removal of all nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine”, according to the Reuter News Service. With every nuclear weapon dismantled as a result of U.S.-led efforts, global security has correspondingly increased.

Lastly, allow me to place U.S. dominance of world affairs in its proper perspective. Looking to other forums for resolution of conflict, we can see that international efforts, notably in the United Nations, are plagued by deep-seated structural weaknesses. The most recent demonstration of the U.N.’s ineffectiveness was in the Blue Helmets’ inability to take judicious offensive action against rebel groups in the twelve year long Burundi Civil War. The BBC echoes this sentiment, stating, “The United Nations Security Council has explicitly accepted responsibility for failing to prevent the 1994genocide in Rwanda in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.” Highlighting the failure of the U.N. is not intended to gratuitously discredit international governance, but instead elucidate both the harms of U.S. inaction and the ineffectiveness of alternative methods. While U.S. hegemony does not discount the importance of multinational cooperation in providing foreign aid, the failure of the U.N. shows that there is no other single comparable source of political capital in conflict resolution.

Ultimately, U.S. hegemony has acted as an economically stabilizing force against overleveraged foreign capital, provided for a safer, more demilitarized world, and helped further democratization in a troubled Middle East.

Gregory DiBella
The Harvard Salient

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