Superpower or hegemony?


WHAT DOES George W. Bush want to do? What is his plan for us all?

His address to the American people last night notwithstanding, the question in its broader sense remains unanswered, ripe for speculation.

The president's immediate aim is to destroy the government of Iraq, removing or killing Saddam Hussein.

This will be Mr. Bush's second war against another sovereign state since the attack by mostly Saudi terrorists on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It is justified as a part of a continuing campaign against terrorism, for which reason it is now appropriate to ask, Who will be next?

But what is his long-range plan for the United States? Is war to follow upon war?

That question also elicits a bundle of conjectures, most of them fearful.

There are, however, some indications of the administration's purpose beyond making war. It is contained in the revealed writ of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. It is also perceptible in the behaviors and comments of his closest advisers, especially the glib Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld when he boasts of America's capability to fight two wars at once, and his disdainful remarks about the traditional allies of the United States.

But perhaps even more revealing was his stinging comment about Britain, the loyal ally whose assistance he declared unnecessary to the task of putting an end to Iraq.

This doctrine of pre-emption, which implies the United States will use its military power to prevent any other state from attaining equivalence, and the swaggering of the president's lieutenants - not to mention the brave exhortations to war of their fervent supporters in the media - suggest aspirations to convert the United States into something quite different from what it is, the world's only superpower.

What they seem to intend it to be is the world's first hegemony.

This is a small word, though rich in meaning. There has never been one of these.

There have been vast and powerful empires: Roman, Spanish, English, superpowers of the centuries they dominated.

As with all superpowers, they had enemies and vulnerabilities. Sometimes they understood this and sought to compensate for it by understanding the balance of power and seeking allies. Sometimes they did not perceive the extent of their weaknesses, and suffered for their ignorance.

Hegemonies disdain alliances and international agreements, seeing them as "entanglements" that limit their freedom of action.

The hegemony endures in splendid isolation, goes where it wants to, acts the way it sees fit, though sometimes rationalizing its activity with sophistical interpretations of international law.

The hegemony feels above that law, invulnerable. It often is, for a while.

In the world today there is only one hegemony, the United States. But it is a regional hegemony. The United States so dominates one-half of the planet that not a single state in the Western Hemisphere can challenge it militarily or economically. Not even if every state in this half of the world were to join together in an alliance tight as a drum, could they pose a threat to that hegemony. The United States is that strong.

But the other side of the planet is full of countries vastly more powerful, technologically, economically and militarily, than those in this hemisphere.

Consider: Britain, France, Russia, Israel, all nuclear powers, all friendly - now; Pakistan and India: both nuclear powers, both friendly to us - now - if not to each other.

Then there is North Korea, and soon Iran. Hardly friendly to us. And finally, China, none too friendly to us, whose economic and military power expands by the day, a state that, at the rate it is going, may emerge as the regional hegemony in Asia and thereby counter and challenge America's influence in the area - influence over Japan, over the Koreas.

To resort to simile, the world is like an immense tank full of fish, small, medium, large and very large, and none can get out of it. The very biggest can best any of the others, but cannot best them all together, nor even a large fraction of them should they band together.

To survive in this tank takes more than muscle and might, rather a shrewd understanding of the balance of power. This is especially true now, when so many of these fish have nuclear teeth.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.

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