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The Price of Hegemony: Can America Learn to Use Its Power?

Author: Robert Kagan

Affiliation: Brookings Institution. Former Member of the Policy Planning Staff at the US Department of State, and Cofounder of the (now-defunct) Neoconservative Think Tank Project for the New American Century

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

 Date/Place: May/June 2022, USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 4552



Keywords: Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Sphere of Interest, Liberal World Order, US Hegemony, American Global Role, Great-Power Politics




Robert Kagan is known for his penchant for neo-conservatism, his writings aligned with liberal internationalism, and his strong belief in the US’s extraordinary capabilities that no other great power possesses—capabilities that still enable it to remain as the only true global hegemon. His writings accordingly call on US administrations to assume the global hegemon role and learn how to use the superpower of the country to do so. This article comes in the context of his writings, and in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This bold move by Putin, and the consequences and responses that have followed, reveal the heavy price that the United States may pay if it does not learn from its previous great mistakes of not using decisively its comprehensive power to deter any great powers dissatisfied with the US-led liberal world order. These powers are seeking to reverse the existing order, as previous powers did such as Germany and Japan, which led mankind to two destructive world wars. Thus, the author argues that the Americans are able to reduce the severity of the challenges posed by the dissatisfied powers by brandishing American influence permanently and effectively, or else the alternative would be so expensive, as the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed.


The article is divided into three parts. The first part explains the circumstances in which the United States, Russia, and Eastern European countries found themselves after the end of the Cold War, and how President Putin ended up invading Ukraine. The author casts blame on Putin for what is going on in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe. As for the United States, it has no fault except for being an attractive superpower that is viewed by Eastern European countries with its strong liberal institutions as the most suitable haven for a more secure, prosperous, and free future. At the outset, the author shows his complete disagreement with the realist critics of American policy, who have advocated for more restrained foreign policy, or what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have called “the offshore balancing strategy”.  In Kagan’s view, a restrained strategy gives dissatisfied powers such as China and Russia spheres of interest for free in their regions in East Asia and Europe, and shackles the American hegemony and the superpower of the country. It also reflects unrealistic logic, as it does not reflect the true nature of global power and influence that characterized the post-Cold War era and which still dominates today’s world.


According to Kagan, the United States was the only truly global superpower during the Cold War, thanks to its unmatched wealth, capacities, and extensive international alliances. So, the collapse of the Soviet Union only strengthened American global hegemony, which exists independent of any move by Washington at the time to fill the vacuum left by Moscow’s weakness. The combination of the United States’ strength and democratic faith had made the country attractive to those seeking security, prosperity, freedom, and independence, and this is exactly what made the Eastern European countries turn towards Washington, away from Moscow. These countries sought to join the institutions of the West, such as NATO and the European Union, to entrench themselves, seizing the opportunity of Moscow’s weakness to liberate themselves from its historical imperialism. These countries will continue to resist Moscow’s attempt to return them to the Russian sphere of interest. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have feared that Russia would resume its centuries-old imperialism and seek to claim its traditional influence at the expense of its neighbors, much like the French after World War I, who feared the day when a revived Germany would again threaten them. That is why Washington’s policy was not the reason for provoking Moscow, as Putin justifies it or as the realists claim. The author says the reason was the weakness of Moscow’s overall power, the unattractiveness of its model, and its inability to provide any measure of security, prosperity, freedom, and independence for Eastern European countries.


The author attempts to show a positive meaning of US global hegemony and to distinguish it from imperialism. Imperialism is an active effort by a country to compel others to submit to it in its sphere. This is what Russia is doing. As for hegemony, it is a circumstance of comprehensive power in which a state exists, rather than a purpose for that state, as this strong state exercises influence militarily, economically, and culturally over the rest of the states just due to its existence through its pulling attraction. This is the case for the United States and the rest of the Western and Eastern European countries. The growth of American influence and the spread of liberalism was not so much a goal of Washington’s policies as it was a natural consequence of its overall strength and attractiveness. The Russians could have adapted to this fact as Britain, France and Germany benefited from the advantages of adaptation, but Russia did not do so for several reasons, including the lack of a long history of intimate relations and strategic cooperation with the United States compared to the mentioned countries. Also, Russia was not subjected to military defeat, nor was it occupied or subjected to reform, as happened to Germany and Japan. Furthermore, Russia did not believe that it could only be a successful economic power if it merged with the West (as Germany did). Therefore, its elites saw that the best result of such a merger would be the demotion of Russia to a second-rate power at best.


In the second part, the author argues that Russia-Putin’s will to restore what it considers as its own sphere of interest in Eastern and Central Europe is the main reason behind the Russian refusal to adapt to what the existing global geopolitical realities dictate, which is why Putin took the bold step of invading Ukraine. Putin preferred to take the 1940 Japan option when the Japanese officials refused to cooperate with Washington and London or submit to their conditions, which dwarfed – in their view – the Japanese status, risking losing everything in World War II. Putin’s choice is the same choice of Germany during the era of Wilhelm II and other dissatisfied powers through history, which had one end: defeat.


Since the end of the Cold War, all US positive behavior toward Russia (such as the refusal to humiliate Russia in the midst of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the financial-economic aid provided to Moscow) has not succeeded in dissuading Russia from this option. This indicates that Putin wants things that Washington could not provide for him: a sphere of special interest. Fortunately (according to the author’s words) Putin does not have the means to embody his vision. Putin’s problem—and some Western analysts who want to concede to Russia and China areas of traditional interests—is the failure to realize that such areas are not granted by great powers to another, they are not inherited, and they are not created by geography, history or tradition. Rather, areas of interest are acquired by economic, political, and military power. They come and go as the distribution of power in the international system fluctuates. Therefore, it is not likely that the countries of Eastern and Central Europe will acquiesce to Russia, nor the countries of the South China Sea to China, if these two powers do not reach a large level of power that would enable them to impose their visions, just as the United States has done in its regional sphere since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine. Also, Russia and China may impose their sphere of interest if they push toward more pressure with indifference from the West.


In the third part, Kagan provides some recommendations to the US administration. He calls to stop making the same past mistakes that would provide free opportunities for autocratic powers dissatisfied with the existing world order. The United States must realize that the choice to throw its weight and use its superpowers to perpetuate its global hegemony is the most suitable and realistic option. Russia’s brutality in Ukraine and its aftermath give Washington an idea that there are other, worse, more costly options instead of American hegemony. Therefore, the author calls upon Washington to risk confronting aggressive powers when they are in the early stages of their ambition and expansion. If Washington and its allies had resisted Russian expansionism earlier in the Georgia war in 2008 and the Crimean war in 2014, Putin would not have taken his bold step today in Ukraine.

The author urges doing everything possible to integrate Russia into the liberal political and economic order, but at the same time deterring it from trying to re-create its regional hegemony through military means. The United States should also realize that it has a high influence in Eastern and Central Europe thanks to its strength and the attractiveness of its model to the countries of the region. Moreover, he sees that the obligation to defend NATO allies does not mean the exclusion of helping others who are under attack in Europe by authoritarian aggressive powers.


Americans should realize that they are part of a never-ending power struggle, whether they wish to be or not. This is their fate. Therefore, America cannot resign from playing the role of the global hegemon as long as there are other major powers that have not abandoned the pursuit of their old geopolitical aspirations because of their history and sense of self. The United States would be better served if it recognized both its position in the world and its true interest in preserving the liberal world order.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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