Britain achieved the status of a hegemonic power in the nineteenth century. It was head and shoulders above all other states in almost all respects; militarily, industrially, etc. It enjoyed decades of prosperity that have left their trace to this day. Britain, essentially a small island, is still one of the leading world powers. The rise to hegemony did not happen overnight. It took decades for diverse, and unplanned, events to come together to propel Britain to the top.
However, by the end of the nineteenth century Britain’s position as the world’s undisputed reigning power was essentially over. The USA had already become a greater economic force by the 1880s and Germany was not far behind. At this stage in the hegemonic cycle life becomes most uncomfortable for the leading power of the day. Competitors begin to question its supremacy, and its ability to maintain control, through force as and when necessary, slides. Basically, the costs and benefits of hegemony shift and the hegemon finds itself unable to police the world.
The combination of the above factors turns the hegemonic power into an aggressive power eager to defend its privileges by all means. In addition, the world trading system goes into a turbulent period because of a political vacuum at the centre of power. This feature has been researched by political economic scholars under the title of Hegemonic Stability Theory. The aggression and turbulence are most evident: Britain fought two world wars years after it had lost its hegemonic status.
The rise to and, most significantly, fall from hegemony are very lengthy and subtle processes. The hegemon is most reluctant to recognise the change in status. There is abundant self-delusion involved in the behaviour of the leaders of a state in this situation. In Britain’s case the phenomenon is illustrated by the Suez crisis of 1956. Eden, prime minister at the time, was convinced that his country still ruled the waves and could act with a high degree of autonomy. He connived with France and Israel to attack Egypt. His aim was regime change, essentially to depose Nasser who he intensely disliked. The operation went into meltdown when the USA instructed the invaders to suspend their activities and then withdraw. The shock to Eden, and to Britain, was devastating, but it helped that country to finally recognise the simple truth that it is not the top power anymore.
The USA today is in a similar position. The parallels between Britain and the USA have been discussed by a number of authors; see for instance Niall Ferguson’s Hegemony or Empire in Foreign Affairs of September/ October 2003 and also Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. See also USA in Decline on this website. The key point for the present purpose is that the USA has been in the decline phase of the hegemonic cycle for quite some time; some scholars go back to the late-1970s while others put it later than that.
Whatever date one adopts, the basic message is that the USA is not a hegemonic power anymore. This does not mean it is not powerful. It simply means in practice that it is not in a state that allows it to unleash its might at will as it did at the height of its power because of its altered economic, social, and political position domestically and globally.
As in the case of Britain, this fundamental truth is not easy to accept by decision-makers in the USA. This caused the international instability that was so evident in the last few years. All indications suggest that the dreadful and costly war in Iraq has served one useful purpose: just like Suez, the Iraq war has finally revealed the real situation in relation to US hegemony. And again just like Eden, Bush will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into that frame of mind sooner or later.
The rest of the USA is already there and that is a hopeful sign.