Is Global Hegemony Possible Today?

April 20, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The United States, from the conclusion of World War II until now, was always either the sole or one of two “global hegemonies,” with the other being the Soviet Union prior to its demise. With the rise of non-state and state actors fomenting unrest, several U.S. government and military officials have said that today’s world, especially the Middle East, is more volatile, unstable, and chaotic than ever. As regional partners are beginning to act, many in the U.S. Congress are fearful that the U.S. is losing clout given its lackluster response to these threats. For many, the fear is that the United States will lose its hegemonic stature. However, given several outside circumstances, some self-inflicted, and growing realities, is it possible to obtain hegemony anymore?

Make no mistake, the United States still has the best military in the world, though unmatched military capability does not necessary translate into de facto global hegemony. Sequestration is one of, if not the chief bulwark toward greater U.S. dominance. Military spending has been significantly curtailed by automatic across-the-board cuts triggered by the Budget Control Act. Sequestration was supposed to be a doomsday device that forced legislators to work together to pass a budget – it is terrible policy for the sole purpose of incentivizing lawmakers to reach a deal to prevent it, something political impasses could not overcome. According to figures from a 2014 Defense Department assessment the president’s fiscal year 2013 budget reduced DOD funding by $487 billion, March 2013 sequestration reduced base budget funding by an additional $32 billion, fiscal year 2014 enacted appropriations reduced funding by $31 billion, and the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget requested $45 billion less than was planned.

Military leaders have bemoaned the effects of sequestration since its implementation as it hurts readiness and reaction. The Pentagon has been forced to implement new polices to deal with the reality of sequestration. Initiatives such as the Better Buying Power for acquisition have followed the model of “do[ing] more without more.” Eric Rosenbach, Principal Cyber Advisor to the Secretary of Defense told lawmakers recently on Capitol Hill that sequestration actually costs more money because the Defense Department cannot make long-term investments – it must spend money on short-term budgeting.

Sequestration, combined with growing threats globally, has stretched resources thin. Adm. Samuel Locklear, Commander of Pacific Command, stressed that in the Pacific theater, forces do not have what they need to maintain a dominant edge. “We need to have the types of…intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance…ISR assets that allow us to maintain our knowledge of what’s going on. These are globally stressed because of the things we’re doing in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Yemen and many of those assets are similar in type we would use in that arena,” he explained in front of lawmakers last week.

ISR resources are limited even in the theater they operate most. The military cut the number of orbits or drone units it deploys globally, but the untoward rise of the Islamic State (IS) group forced the Defense Department to reinstate the previous level of drone units with the personnel for previously reduced levels.

Sequestration has also contributed to a reduction in overall force numbers. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has warned that current troop levels might not be enough in the future, a startling assertion given the force is shrinking.

Being everywhere at once is also extremely difficult. Consider the president’s “pivot” to Asia, or more accurately described as the Asia rebalance. Events in the Middle East continue to occupy U.S. attention and resources to that region, which has distracted and disrupted plans for a Pacific rebalancing effort. The Navy signaled that it is ready to rebalance to the Pacific with the release of its new maritime strategy aimed to highlight the importance of the “Indo-Asia-Pacific region, the ongoing development and fielding of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities that challenge our global maritime access, continued threats from expanding and evolving terrorist and criminal networks, the increasing frequency and intensity of maritime territorial disputes, and threats to maritime commerce, particularly the flow of energy.” In terms of assets and capabilities that will be positioned to this region, the Navy outlined an increase of 97 ships by 2020, a 60 percent ship and aircraft presence as well as a renewed deployment and maritime focus in the Middle East with a ten ship increase.

Despite these capabilities, a recent study indicated that marine power might not be as effective as it once was given the proliferation of more advanced weapons that can be launched from land. The vastness of the Pacific used to allow ships to operate freely as missile systems could not reach them. However, new technologies allow for increased range, greater accuracy, and less space to hide, which questions previous maritime strategies and effectiveness. Such proliferations have leveled the playing field and contributed to the rise of military capabilities of other nations forcing the U.S. to reevaluate its superiority.

In the Middle East, the United States cannot afford another ground war. The last two wars played a large role in the economic woes and burgeoning national debt. Air power will only go so far to beat back insurgencies and threats to the region. It will be hard to mount another ground offensive with a shrinking force and limited funding. Currently, the U.S. is playing more of an advisory role by leading the global anti-IS coalition, training Iraq soldiers (and Syrian rebels, though, at a glacial pace), and providing intelligence support to Saudi Arabia in their efforts against the so-called Houthi rebels in Yemen, also known as Ansar Allah. The U.S. has long served in mediation roles in the region, however, U.S. influence has waned and trust has eroded because the U.S. has tried to do too much at once and paradoxically not done enough.

In Europe, Russian aggression in Ukraine has put the U.S. in a bind. While non-state terrorist actors pose little threat to the U.S., Russia has significant capabilities to escalate global conflicts. The strife in Ukraine is seen as the West versus Russia and Russia is fighting for its life. Despite the fact that Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia has hinted that it might incur into smaller NATO countries as part of this greater West versus Russia power struggle. Under NATO’s Article 5, the U.S. would be obligated, along with all other NATO countries, to respond militarily if another NATO country is attacked. Russia’s aggression and strategic posturing of insinuating targeting smaller NATO countries has called into question NATO’s effectiveness not only in deterrence, but in adhering to Article 5 commitments.  The U.S. has maintained they will uphold their treaty commitment under Article 5 but limited resources previously mentioned combined with the fact that most NATO countries have not lived up to their obligations under the treaty to spend two percent of their gross domestic product toward defense, undermines objectives.

The cyber domain is also becoming a highly contested atmosphere. Military leaders have stated that the U.S. military’s superiority does not translate into superiority in the cyber realm. The U.S. faces threats from both state and non-state actors in cyberspace. Nations such as Iran and North Korea are exerting covert influence and trying to beef up their capabilities to open up a new front of attack. It is difficult to know what else the U.S. is doing on a covert basis but cyberspace is another area the U.S. must shore up.

Simply put, it is difficult to be everywhere at once. The global influence of the United States has diminished some due to globalization and self-inflicted wounds such as sequestration. The U.S. can continue to assert dominance in the world but sacrifices must be made at home in the form of higher taxes or significant cuts in spending, likely social safety nets, to name a few. Hegemony is not impossible, but in today’s advanced world, it is much easier to level the playing field.