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The Definitions of Hegemony and Pax Americana

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The politics of hegemony is an important area of political science.  During the Pax Americana period – that is, after WWII – the United States is known to have helped the world establish economic order.  Moreover, the U.S. is known to have assisted other countries with economic aid and in reconstruction efforts.  Hence, it is essential to comprehend the power of the U.S. in the light of various definitions of hegemony.

     Watson refers to two meanings of hegemony in International Relations: “One has to do with the distribution of power in a system.  Not merely military force, but also technical and financial strength.  The other meaning is the dominance of a particular idea or set of assumptions, such as economic liberalism and globalization.“  Certainly the second definition of hegemony in International Relations cannot be applied to a country that influences other countries, e.g. the United States since the beginning of the Pax Americana period.  The first definition of hegemony in International Relations, however, may describe the power of the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century, and of the United States during the period known as Pax Americana.  Watson writes that the first definition is a “material condition” enabling a “great power, or a group of powers, or the great powers in a system acting collectively, to bring such great pressures and inducements to bear that most other states lose some of their freedom of action de facto, though not de jure.”  Also according to the author, the Western world’s hegemony in our times, and especially that of the United States, has aimed to alter the “internal behaviour” of other countries as well as societies (Watson).

     The implications of change of “internal behaviour” induced by powerful countries combine the two definitions of hegemony in International Relations (Watson).  As an example, if the Western world, and especially the United States, manages to convert a large number of countries into believers in economic liberalism and globalization – the ideas proposed by hegemonic societies would be considered the dominant ones.  Likewise, the Western world has its own ideas about human rights in addition the environment and the “standards of civilization,” which happen to be prominent today seeing that the world media is by and large controlled by the Western civilization (Watson).  All the same, the world at large has not adopted these ideas as their own, which suggests that the second definition of hegemony in International Relations cannot really be applied in our times.

     According to Ferguson, the hegemony of the United States during the period referred to as Pax Americana, was based on four pillars.  The first pillar was entirely economic, as the economy of the United States outperformed most of its competitors in the twentieth century.  The second pillar of U.S. hegemony related to the country’s “power to advance multilateral, mutually balanced tariff reductions under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization) (Ferguson).“  During the Kennedy Round  negotiations of 1967, the reductions in tariffs were achieved mainly due to pressures from the United States.  The pressures were exerted through “conditionality,” that is, the terms that the International Monetary Fund, based in Washington D. C., applied to grant loans (Ferguson).

     The third pillar of U.S. hegemony may be understood by the way the U.S. dollar was presented by the U.S. government as a “key currency,” both “before and after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods institutions (Ferguson).”  This allowed the U.S. to be “less restrained” than other nations as far as foreign investment and strategic policymaking were concerned (Ferguson).  Subsequently, the world experienced the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, granting extensive privileges unto the United States (Ferguson).

     The fourth pillar, according to Ferguson, was the maintenance of hegemony by the United States through its ability to formally constitute an “alliance of states” – in other words, NATO – which was committed to the “containment of two rival superpowers” (Ferguson).

If we were to believe that Pax Americana continues to this day, the conventional definition of hegemony in International Relations is enough to help us understand the period since 1945.  After all, the United States has maintained a leadership position among the countries of the world by using its military power as well as economic and technological strength, despite the fact that its use of military force has been disapproved by various nations.  However, Antonio Gramsci’s definition of hegemony cannot explain the position of the U.S. from 1945 to 2007, seeing that this definition may only describe a leading nation that is respected by the subordinate groups for all its decisions (Hegemony in Gramsci’s Original Prison Notebooks).

The fact that the United States’ decisions during the Vietnam War were not supported by the American public and the world at large confirm Wallerstein’s hypothesis that Pax Americana must have ended during the Vietnam War.  Foster and McChesney write that the end of the Vietnam War was the time when the mask of the American Empire was lifted.  The period called Pax Americana was “revealed as imperialism pure and simple (Foster & McChesney).”  This is because the president of the United States could no longer explain the foreign policy of his nation as based on the “liberation of man” and the “survival of liberty (Foster & McChesney).”

     Hence, Gramsci’s definition of Pax Americana may only explain the period between 1945 and the Vietnam War, when the United States was considered a helper and facilitator rather than a hostile imperialist nation.  According to Gramsci, hegemony refers to political power flowing from moral, intellectual and political leadership as well as consensus or authority instead of military force.  Thus, a ruling class may form as well as maintain hegemony in a civil society by the creation of political and cultural consensus by way of political parties, unions, media, schools, the church, and various other kinds of voluntary organizations that exercise hegemony over social groups in addition to “allied classes (Hainsworth).”  These organizations of persons, the media, as well as information that flows from them control the behaviour and thinking of the people by presenting them with “dominant ideologies,” thereby creating “a state of domination (Hainsworth).”

     Moreover, the leading class may hold greater power over the people than the government, according to Gramsci.  Besides, all decisions made by the leading class must be democratic in nature.  In particular, the subordinate groups should agree with the leading class in matters of economic development as well as legislation, seeing that the people are significantly affected by decisions on these issues.  The leading class is allowed by the people to use force against hostile groups.  Just the same the force used by the leading class should not exceed the consent of the people (Hegemony).

     The work of the United States during the period, 1945 to the Vietnam War, may definitely be understood in the light of Gramsci’s definition of hegemony.  Apparently, the U.S. financiers and corporations along with the U.S. government formed the leading class, with the financiers and corporations playing a major role and the government simply voicing their interests through new plans and negotiations with the rest of the world.  The role played by the U.S. government on behalf of the ruling class, that is, the financiers and corporations, is comparable to the present role of the media.  All the same, it is obvious that the functions of the United States during Pax Americana – if it is believed to be the period, 1945-Vietnam War – were entirely democratic.  As a matter of fact, the ideologies of the United States during this period were almost entirely accepted by the rest of the world.  The U.S. continued to foster enmity with the Soviet Union.  Even so, the subordinate classes did not disagree with the this stance of the United States.  As the U.S. promoted anticommunist ideologies, the subordinate classes preferred them to the communist ideologies.  Thus, the United States had managed to dominate almost the entire world with its moral, intellectual, and political ideologies.

Works Cited

Ferguson, N. “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs (Sept.-Oct. 2003).

Foster, J. B., and R. W. McChesney. (2004, Sep). “The American Empire: Pax Americana

or Pox Americana.” Monthly Review (Sep 2004).

Hainsworth, S. Gramsci’s Hegemony Theory and the Ideological Role of the Mass Media. 17

May 2000. 14 Nov 2007. <http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/contributions/gramsci2.html>.

Hegemony in Gramsci’s Original Prison Notebooks. 10 Nov 2007.


Wallerstein, I. “The Eagle has Crash Landed.” Foreign Policy (Jul-Aug 2002).

Watson, A. International Relations & The Practice of Hegemony. 5 Jun 2002. 14 Nov 2007.


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