Between a Paper and Real Tiger - The Dilemma of US Power Position

  • Mar 19, 2022
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United States as the World Hegemon

When hearing the word hegemon, many would associate it with the US, one of the strongest countries, both in terms of economic and armament, in the world. This fact is further cemented especially after the end of the cold that ended with the USSR in ruin while the US prevailed as the “sole” hegemon of the international system. The US hegemony can be seen clearly through the numerous international organizations and institutions that were shaped with values supported by the US. With that huge power and great position, the US could easily insert and influence the outcome of an event according to its interest.

A Past Full of Journey
In the past, the US has been involved with numerous international conflicts, with some of the notorious ones in the two world wars and the many entanglements in the Cold War (notably Vietnam). Aside from seeing them as mere bloody or chaotic military engagements the US was involved in, we can also see it as something else.

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War has been a means to further the interest of one towards someone else. In the case of international politics, that would be commonly done among states. The same goes for the many past conflicts the US has participated in. They were not merely done for the goodness of the world, they were also done to fulfill or materialize its interest. With those many records as well, the US could be considered a "real tiger" then when it came to fulfilling its interest despite some resistance. This is proven to be true, especially in the realist perspective, where states (including the US) are rational actors who wish to fulfill and act according to their interests.

With that many records of military or stern gestures, it is to be expected that many view the US as the hegemon and who shapes the international system. Unfortunately, as time went on, new players with considerable power have emerged and at times have proven to be something the US has to reckon with. These new emerging powers (especially China & Russia) at times have conflicted interests with the US which surprisingly force it to relent at times. This surely surprises many states, notably when the US was even considered a mere paper tiger when it persisted in its interest. How the emerging power has continued to push the US between the line of a real and paper tiger has continued in the 21st century, even at the current international dynamics.

The Case of Ukraine-Russia Conflict
The recent move from the Kremlin to send its troops into Ukraine still shocked the world despite the scenario being predicted in the past. Now, as Ukraine is engulfed in battles to defend its sovereignty, the attention of the world is also focused on the US, the spearhead of the western hemisphere. With Joe Biden taking the presidential seat, the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have appeared to play this game on the safe side. Make no mistake, the US is not straddling the fence, it still maintains its ground on how unlawful the Russian invasion is.

If in the past the battlefields the US would be involved in were on the lands of Europe, jungles of Vietnam, or the deserts of Arabia, in this conflict, the US would be fighting it in the offices of the UN or White House. The US has been reacting to the conflict through mobilizing its allies, along with itself, on handing out economic sanctions to Russia and its elites. It has made a case in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) recently that unfortunately bore nothing due to Russia's veto right. Real gestures on the ground have been made, like through mobilizing its armed forces, but it pales in comparison with that of Russia, and it is only concentrated in the nearby NATO members, not Ukraine.

The US obviously can't and won't be using its entire arsenal, either in Europe or US soil, for Ukraine because of many considerations. First, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so it eliminates the use of its 5th article as a legitimate excuse. Due to that condition, the US would have to go out of its way if it were to be directly involved with the conflict, something that would further irritate Russia. The second is that Russia has been taking a more stern position in reacting to Western messages. With these two factors combined, it can be understood why the US prefers to resort to more indirect measures.

Another thing to be considered is Russia's position as a resource supplier, especially its vast amount of oil and coal, for the rest of Western Europe (from their households to industries). If the NATO countries (especially Germany & France) were to engage Russia or make their conflict of interest more vocal, it certainly would jeopardize themselves. Hence it's no surprise that Russia has been keeping it up with impunity.
The factors combined, it can be inferred that the resort towards the sanction regime was the best option. Its effect would not work overnight or reach its designated goal but compared with its drastic counterpart (direct military involvement), it may spare the US of a major Russian reprisal. Unfortunately, despite the ones handed by the US and those from its allies around the world, the sanctions have yet to stop Russia's invasion. With the sanctions being the US response and how far the Russian has gone with their special military operation, it's safe to say that the sanctions fall short of their target.

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So far, despite how the invasion is shunned by the US and its allies, the invasion is still going. Unlike its vocal abhor towards the invasion in speeches, the US hasn't taken any drastic measures in getting rid of it. The US has been on the backfoot by throwing sanctions and mobilizing its forces only where NATO members are nearby. With only the sanctions and vocal speeches as a barrier against Russia, it is no surprise that the invasion is still going on.

Despite the status of hegemon, it does not mean that the US would throw its resources into any conflict around the world. In contrast to the constructivist view that connects status and behavior, at the end of the day, the US is still a rational actor in the anarchic international system. It is still an actor that has its interest that would dictate how and when it will use its resources. Therefore, the US does not need to start up a direct military intervention, as in the case of Ukraine. Yes, the US may still disagree/detest the event, but if it considers the mounting risk it has then the US also has the choice to still maintain its position through resorting to a safer means.

With how much is at stake and how much things have changed, it's to be expected that the image of the US as a hegemon would change. We can see how the US would act and sound resolved or uncertain here and there. Others may shun it for not being resolved or not contributing in time or when it matters. But at last, it is not up to us to decide about how the US should act or react to international events. At the end of the day, the US would be doing the things it did for its interest, something other states may not understand or agree on.

Author: Abel Josafat M (Undergraduate International Relations Student of Universitas Padjadjaran)


Editor: Tim

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