Hegemonic China? Five Remarks and Three Takes

I have been working on a preliminary presentation  (“paper” would be nice, but so far not true) for a meeting in a couple of weeks at the Hoover Institution on hegemony, legitimacy internal and external, and, by implication, China.  It arises out of my book manuscript on US-UN relations which, unsurprisingly, touches on the questions of hegemony and legitimacy, in relation to the US and to China, as well as what I describe as the parallel systems of international organizations and the hegemonic US security guarantee.

I am not a China expert, and my interest lies in writing something on the general conditions and meanings of hegemony and legitimacy.  Those general conditions have relevance to current discussions of the United States and China in the world. So one possible title is “How to Know When China Is a Hegemon,” and another is “What Becomes a Hegemon Most?”  Each is a little facetious, but each points to serious questions in today’s discussions of the rise of China and the apparent and, for many, presumed decline of the US.

Five things are principally on my mind.  First, even at this stage of a rapidly unfolding debate over the rise of China, there is still an awful lot of treatment of China as a matter of power simpliciter in the world – the classic bouncing billiard balls of international relations realism.  To the extent that this gets broken out into something more nuanced, it is still very often simply a matter of economic power translating to military power. But of course it has to be more than that.  The role that is being attributed to China in many of these same discussions is more than power alone, whether naked military power or combined military-economic might.  It is a role that is about power that means authority, and authority that implies not merely realist heft in the world, but rising – reaching for – hegemony.

Not necessarily global hegemony in the sense of the United States today; nor “merely” hegemony within a geographical range such as Asia; I’ll call it “rising hegemony” and set its issues aside.  Second, instead, hegemony is (partly) a function of power, but what makes it “hegemonic” is power that issues as “authority.”  Which is to say, the “legitimate” expression of power, at least in the rough terms of being roughly accepted by those under its sway.

Third, however, legitimacy for purposes of hegemony is not the “agreement” or necessarily the “consent” of those under its sway – if it were, it would not be the relationship hegemony implies.  Hegemony is not collective action or, in international relations, collective security.  On the contrary, hegemony in security matters is what the United States offers to its allies today – the acknowledged ability to free ride on the strong horse.  Hegemony offers allies a double arrangement: they are happy to free ride on the hegemon so long as they see their overall interests lying in train to the hegemon.  Not in every single thing, but enough, which is largely the position of the NATO allies.  However, the flip side that security policy is set in the end by the the hegemon, which bears the cost and looks to its own interest first.

Yet – the crucial yet – that the hegemon looks to its own interest in the first place is precisely what causes allies to trust it.  Because the strong horse looks to its interests first, allies will believe it – and it avoids the problem of collective action, hold-up, insincere promising and defection that characterizes true collective security (e.g., UN collective security).  This means that “consent” in any particular sense is not what gives hegemonic order its legitimacy, or is what turns hegemonic power into authority.  Consent in some very general sense, of not actively resisting through arms?  Sure, but not in any sense of consent that implies collective agreement.

Fourth, then, hegemony is about legitimacy, and it is difficult (not possible, that is) to talk about hegemony without having a theory of legitimacy.  This creates a certain problem for those parts of disciplines – political science, law and economics, sociology – that, in order to convert themselves into social science, have eschewed thick, intentional explanations (those that require an irreducibly psychological component) in favor of pure surface behaviorism.  Because full Weberian legitimacy is a social attribute of a social order, upon which the purely political and purely legal supervene; and the quality of legitimacy ascribed to such a social order requires not merely an outward behavior (obedience to authority, iterated) but an inwardly psychological quality of a habit of obedience done for a reason, intentionally done (in Anscombe’s sense) under a description and according to a reason.

Without an account of the intentionality and the psychological state of a habit of obedience by reason of a belief in the legitimacy of the social, legal and political order, we leave out a crucial component of the account.  And why, pray, with Laplace and God, have we any need of that hypothesis?  Because it gives one a reason to see the stability of an order on more than merely the prediction that they’ve obeyed before, they’ll obey again.  That is a large topic, obviously, but for now we add one additional point.  The legitimacy of order, including those of hegemony, among states and not only within them, presents certain grave difficulties because states are not individuals and do not possess psychological intentions in the full Weberian sense.  This is why, for example, a scrupulous scholar such as the late Thomas Franck was careful to offer his account of “legitimacy among nations” as being somewhat by analogy to legitimacy within a society of individuals.  But we leave that largely aside.

Fifth and finally, then.  For our purposes, we extract from the foregoing that hegemony, because it relies on legitimacy, requires a connection to the legitimacy of the hegemonic regime – not merely in its relations with other states, but arising from its legitimacy internally.  This is a matter often overlooked by those seeking to theorize the rise of China.  If it reaches for genuine hegemonic status, it will do so because it offers to important allies and followers in the world at large a model of legitimacy that arises from within its own state.  For all the loud dissenters against the US hegemony over the decades, after all, the legitimacy of its hegemonic order was premised on many things, but premised not least of which upon the legitimacy of the US within its internal order, and the offering of that internal order as an example to others in the world.  Working from that model, we tend to assume that liberal democracy is its own appeal, and in part that is true.

But it is also true that proffering a model legitimacy for purposes of supporting hegemony need not rely upon liberal democracy’s now seemingly fading universal appeal.  China is offering a quite different basis of legitimacy – one based around authoritarian politics and rapid economic growth.  Growth is the new basis of legitimacy, not human rights, or democracy, or liberalism.  To many regimes in the world, of course, this is music to their ears, having been told since the end of the Cold War that the only form of legitimacy is liberal democracy and the moral hegemony of human rights.  The broadest observation, however, is this:  Hegemony depends upon authority, not merely power, and authority depends upon legitimacy, and legitimacy has external, internal, and (crucially, but hardest to explain)  exemplary aspects to it.

So.  Consider now three different takes in the last two weeks on the rise of China and impliedly American decline, with different preoccupations.  The first is historian Paul Kennedy’s take in TNR.  It’s a puzzling admixture of “don’t worry, it’s just a rebalancing that was bound to happen if you take the long view,” and “do worry, because the moves the US is making to accommodate the rise of China are going to be very bad for the US.”  It is hard to tell whether Kennedy is saying don’t fight City Hall, or resist decline as long as possible.  The second is from the Weekly Standard’s economics columnist, Irwin Stelzer, in a blistering take on how the US is seemingly incapable of taking a strategic view as against a rising power that has a unified field theory of economic and military-geopolitical power.  The third is the much-noticed TNR essay by Mark Lilla, observing that Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss are much debated theorists among China’s elite political and social theorists and intellectuals.  (Much to ponder there, and I won’t try to do it justice here, as it deserves its own post.)