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Wed. October 04, 2023
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Fear and Consensus in Hegemonic Governance
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By Cornelia Beyer Is hegemonic governance necessarily based on consensus? I have argued elsewhere, that the consent hegemonic governance is based on is declining particularly in the populations of many countries and particularly due to the US’s policies in the Global War on Terrorism (Beyer 2008: chapter 3). However, at the state level the consent is still high (Beyer 2010). States generally agree with what the hegemon is proposing to do or is doing, just as in a few cases the international community does not go along with this (e.g. the Iraq war 2003). I argue here that consensus under hegemony implies a state of incalculable fear and fearlessness at the same time under the condition of high asymmetry. High asymmetry means that the hegemon is not naturally challenged and that other states obey him due to fear of consequences. Fear is matched with fearlessness, which is an essential element of consent. This double meaning of fear is typical of Orwellian ‘doublethink’ which recognizes the reality as so threatening that it is neglected for the sake of an alternative reality that compromises with this reality. An example for the brute reality, which is neglected but present, is the nuclear capabilities of the United States (Norris and Kristensen 2007). These capabilities can potentially be turned into actual weapons, and the United States is the only country which to date has used these kind of weapons towards another country. Even if the theory of mutual assured destruction makes us believe that nuclear capabilities will never be employed, as long as they are matched by others, this is not necessarily the case: plans had been leaked with regards to Iran, and other plans might be in place. Why should the US refrain from using nuclear weapons, if it seems feasible, against states that cannot even deter this use? There is no final guarantee that the US might not attack any other state it wishes with nuclear weapons and no insurance agency would bet on that. This is the basis of the first reality in doublethink: the state of existential fear. Economic and ideological powers are causal for the second reality of fearlessness: economic power and soft (ideological) power shape an alternative reality which is merely based on the perception of what is beneficial and therefore fearlessness and consent (compare Beyer 2008: chapter 3, Beyer 2010). States generally agree with the leading position of the United States, implicitly or explicitly, and the United States are not really being challenged. Even in the event of non-cooperation – which could be perceived as threatening – the criticism remains surprisingly low and the consensus about leadership surprisingly high. This lack of criticism or opposition is an outcome of an underlying consent that exists with regard to the leading powers, particularly in the elites, less so in the general population. This consent also implies that the dominant military power of the United States is interpreted mainly as a protecting power and as benign and the dangers thereof are ignored. The essence of consent is the belief that the hegemon shares the general interest in the public good. It is the delusion of the weak that is causal for this interpretation of reality. This is not to say that the hegemon might not at times have an interest in protecting his allies and care for the weak. However, his superior powers are not generally and principally bound by a belief in an overall good. The hegemon is essentially bound by the same rationality as any other state, and most other states would agree on the proposition that it is possible under certain conditions to attack another country and generally to act according to the national interest. The hegemon has proven this rationality by intervening in Iraq on the premises of pre-emptive action, which was intensely debated internationally. Was this an action based on the rationality of the common good or was it based on self-interest? The available answers to this question differ vastly (compare Lucas 2003 versus Fisk 20031, and as a synthetic position Powell 2004). Consensus can therefore be regarded as based on the idea of beneficiality. Without regarding hegemony as beneficial, there would be no support for it and no legitimacy thereof. Furthermore, it relates to security. Hegemonic governance is based on consensus, without the consensus, the exercise of power of the hegemon would be threatened, opposition would have to be faced, and therefore the stability of hegemonic governance would be vulnerable. However, it can be assumed, that the consensus will break down under certain conditions. One of these conditions is the open exercise of force by the hegemon. The exercise of force by the hegemon brings forward the underlying existential fear in the subjects of hegemonic governance, diminishes consent (as seen in the case of the Iraq war) and therefore undermines hegemonic governance. 1 For critical comments on the general rationality of the first Gulf War, see Hybel 1993. References: Beyer, Cornelia (2010): Counterterrorism and International Power Relations: The EU, ASEAN and Hegemonic Global Governance. (London: IB Tauris, forthcoming). Beyer, Cornelia (2008): Violent Globalisms - Conflict in Response to Empire. London: Ashgate. Fisk, Robert (2003): The Case Against War: A Conflict Driven by the Self-Interest of America, in: The Independent, Febuary 15, 2003, online: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0215-03.htm , accessed: 06.03.08. Hybel, Alex Roberto (1993): Power over Rationality: The Bush Administration and the Gulf Crisis. Albany: Suny Press. Lucas, George R. (2003): The Role of the 'International Community' in Just War Tradition--Confronting the Challenges of Humanitarian Intervention and Preemptive War, in: Journal of Military Ethics, 2:2, 122 - 144. Norris, Robert S. and Hans M. Kristensen (2007): The U.S. stockpile, today and tomorrow, in: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 63:5, 60 - 63. Powell, Colin (2004): A Strategy of Partnerships, in: Foreign Affairs, January/ Febuary 2004, 83:1, 22 - 34.

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