How to Be a Hegemon

(And thanks Glenn for the Instalanche!) I’ve been very light on the blogging of late, as I have to turn in my short book manuscript on US-UN relations on Sunday.  The following probably won’t make the final edit as a footnote, but I thought I’d preserve it here:

One of the great ironies of multilateralism today, for America’s friends, is that the treaties that most matter are not the grand designs of Kyoto or other sign-and-forget, scratch-n’sniff documents.  The treaties that matter most to American friends are the ones that make promises to individuals in the form of human rights, but which have the effect of making it unnecessary for the state to have to do anything.  Rights against refoulement and in favor of asylum, for example, or the extension of all the municipal and domestic protections of human rights law that figure in London or Paris or Brussels applied to pirates on the high seas.  America’s allies love these kinds of multilateral treaties, because in large part – and despite all the wailing and complaint – they remove from them the obligation to do anything.  In apparently imposing obligations, they actually relieve them of any real obligations.

Even so basic a global public good as the freedom and security of the seas is nibbled away, bit by bit, through high minded treaties that make it possible for the usual enforcers to plead the inability to enforce.  Until China, for example, concludes that it will have to act like a maritime power in a far away place after all, kills the pirates and razes their bases, hauls away their women as concubines and enslaves their children in IPad factories, and sows antipersonnel land mines in their fields – but then offers them a deal on their undersea oil and mineral rights.  It ignores the stern reports from Human Right Watch, and watches as the world both breathes a sigh of relief that someone did something, and takes a deep breath in dismay at the party that did it.

The new strong horse signals its presence, not by conquest – but by the imposition of a rough public order on the high seas that the old strong horse used to enforce, but had become unable to impose by reason of its insistence on a purely utopian rule of law, suitable for Oxford or Marin County, but less so in open ocean two hundred miles off Somalia.  The act that signals China’s hegemony, if it comes, will not be purely self-interested, because pure self-interest is not what hegemony is about.  Instead it will be the imposition of a rough, but reasonably effective, public order mostly beneficial to it – but just enough beneficial to others that they will follow.  As they used to follow the United States.