Empire & Hegemony

When upstart Japan defeated the Russian empire in 1905, the world was stood on its head. It was the first time in modern history that the East had beaten the West. Japan presented its expansion of influence in the region under the rubric of “Asia for Asians.” As the century progressed and Japan became ever more powerful, historian Gerald Horne argues, it organized Pan-Asian conferences and spoke against anti-Asian discrimination elsewhere in the world, relying on widespread hatred of the British empire’s racism to boost its own popularity.

From Indians struggling against colonialism to African-Americans disgusted with white supremacy, many people of color sympathized with Japan’s ambitions.

Within the Japanese empire, however, it was a different matter.  The Taiwanese were the first to fall within the Japanese orbit.  Then Korea became part of the empire as the result of a secret protocol negotiated by Theodore Roosevelt that, in exchange, delivered the Philippines into the U.S. sphere of influence.  Koreans soon discovered that empire meant second-class citizenship: expropriation of resources, slave labor, sexual slavery, forced name changes, the denial of language and culture.  When the Japanese moved into China in the 1930s, the atrocities mounted.  Japanese imperial ambitions translated into the rape of Nanking in 1937-38, the biological and chemical experimentation of Unit 731 in Manchuria, and the cruel and unusual punishments of the prisoner-of-war camps.

While Japan’s formal empire came to an end with its military defeat in 1945, it would within the space of a single generation recover its economic power in the region.  Japan’s economic model exerted enormous influence in Asia; Japan’s manufacturing relied on a regional assembly line based in lower cost countries; the Japanese culture of comic books, films, and pop music became extraordinarily popular.  And once again, as the Japanese economy went global and began to threaten U.S. and European interests in the 1980s, Japan began to garner support far from its region.  Once again, the East was challenging the West.  This time, however, what had once been imperial might backed by military power had became hegemonic influence backed by economic muscle.

Empires exert control directly – through coercion or unequal pressure.Hegemony, on the other hand, relies on more subtle means.  “Hegemony is signaled when people do what you want them to do,” historian Bruce Cumings explains, “without having to be told or, better yet, asked.”  Japan controlled Korea directly for four decades after 1905; in the postwar period, South Korea frequently followed the Japanese lead without even being asked.  The age of empires has been declared over on several occasions – after World War I, then again during the decolonization that followed World II, and finally with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

But no sooner had the ink dried on imperialism’s death certificate in the early 1990s then “empire” enjoyed a minor renaissance.  British historians like Niall Ferguson discovered a new fondness for Kipling and the supposed benefits of the British empire.  And among a newly vocal group of neo-conservatives in the United States, the notion became popular that America needed to preserve its unchallenged military authority in the world.  It should do so by force if necessary, they argued, but also by making it prohibitively difficult and expensive for other countries to establish a rival claim to power.  The new American empire, given fresh impetus by the events of September 11, 2001, declared its right to attack preemptively, to spurn or even tear up international treaties, and determine the socio-economic systems to replace those of overthrown dictatorships, failed states, and indebted nations.

According to another interpretation, imperialism has indeed died, but Empire lives on.  As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, no country can control the world’s territory as Britain once did, not even the United States with its preponderant military strength.  Instead, a global system with no fixed center – one of trade, communications, movement, and regulation – constitutes a new Empire.  This version of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (There is No Alternative) exerts influence on all countries, from within as well as from without — a combination, perhaps, of both imperial and hegemonic control.

Has the United States truly assumed the mantle of world empire or, as French thinker Emmanuel Todd has argued, have recent U.S. military and political actions been a consequence of weakness rather than strength?Do the post-September 11 Bush policies represent a fundamentally different direction for U.S. foreign policy or have there been deeper continuities with previous unilateralist strains in American history?  Does the war in Iraq represent imperial ambition, a more narrow realist calculation of geopolitics, or an attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East?  Do any other countries in the world aspire to challenge U.S. power, whether individually (China) or collectively (the European Union)?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read about how the United States used sexual politics to colonize Puerto Rico in Laura Briggs’ Reproducing Empire, catch up on radical politics in Canada in New Socialist, log on to Foreign Policy in Focus for the latest critique of U.S. foreign policy, flip through Joel Andreas’s graphic description of militarism in Addicted to War, listen to Arundhati Roy lecture on empire on the CD Come September, and watch the dissection of realpolitik in The Trials of Henry Kissinger.

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