Power Politics


First, a clarification. In International Relations, a hegemon is a state who has enough power to dominate the system it inhabits, and in world politics this has been the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. 

When the international system is rooted in a single hegemon, and it is hailed as somehow morally or ideologically superior, the system is de-stabilised. This is illustrated through Ronald Reagan’s name for the Soviet Union in his speech to the House of Commons in 1982: the “Evil Empire”. 

Framing one’s political opponents as “evil” suggests anything that is done to counter them is justifiable, no matter the cost. Though the “evil empire” collapsed in 1989 the US continued to maintain their morally virtuous position as they adopted the position of a global policeman, which gives a global hegemon the responsibility to maintain and shape the world order.

However, this makes a cooperative international system impossible because, even if the hegemon is willing to cooperate, the centralisation of power makes proper oversight of their activities impossible. The United States has repeatedly illustrated its willingness to break international law through secretive unilateral actions, and it perfectly highlights the dangers of a superpower with a global policeman status. 

After the 9/11 attacks President Bush signed the “covert action memorandum of notification”, a secret order which enabled the CIA to take prisoners whilst deciding who they take, for how long and why, making them a judge, jury, and enforcer all in one. When the CIA seized its first high value target through this newfound authority they did not pass him onto the military to avoid reporting the detainee to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); instead, they proceeded to host off-grid detention centres in allied countries.  

The ICRC released a report in 2007 after fourteen “high value detainees” were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006. The report stressed that “the fourteen were placed outside of the protection of the law during the time they spent in CIA custody” and that the “entire system of detention provided for by the Geneva Conventions of 1949… is based on the idea that detainees must be registered and held in officially recognised places of detention”. 

A more recent example in Afghanistan suggests this is very much a recent issue which persists even after the world has become aware of the human rights violations the United States has committed. A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch eerily mirrors the 2007 ICRC report. The “report documents 14 cases in which CIA-backed Afghan strike forces committed serious abuses between late 2017 and mid-2019”. It goes on to outline specific parts of international law the US-backed groups violated through executions of captured combatants or wrongful executions of civilians due to “mistaken identity, poor intelligence, or political rivalries in the locality”. 

This illustrates the consequences of a global hegemon who cannot be contained and freely violates international treaties. Framing the international system in a confrontation of good and evil creates the image of a falsely virtuous superpower, giving them an unreasonable amount of power and the ability to avoid proper oversight.

An all-powerful global hegemon who wishes to establish a world order based on democracy and human rights is inherently contradictory.

An all-powerful global hegemon who wishes to establish a world order based on democracy and human rights is inherently contradictory. A hegemonic framework of power, which facilitates such secrecy and unilateralism, cannot be relied upon to enforce human rights and democratic standards as there can be no effective scrutiny methods which ensure this. The American hegemony, and the consistent violations of international law by the CIA which follow it, is a clear example of the impracticality of a cooperative international system which finds its roots in a single power. 

image: UKBERRI.NET Uribe Kosta eta Erandioko agerkari digitala via Flickr

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