Global HotSpots, Rethinking America

United States: The Hypocritical Hegemon

Why the United States has lost the mantle of moral and geopolitical arbiter.

United States Capitol. Credit: Ganesh Kumar -


  • The peaceful world order has been shattered by the Americans themselves.
  • If the world’s major power can act in violation of the law, what hope is there for a global peaceful order?
  • While the US was a benign hegemon in the 20th century, its impact this century has been quite malignant.

As this article may give rise to number of misinterpretations, let me make two things clear at the outset.

First, the world has a lot to be grateful to the United States, particularly around the middle and during the second half of the last century.

Imagine a world that would have been conquered and ruled by the German Nazis, the Japanese or the Soviets!

The United States did occasionally go astray in malignant imperialist fashion, notably in its war against the Vietnamese people.

But on balance, pax Americana and the prosperity it brought, were real — until, that is, the beginning of this century.

Second, I do not condone Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nor China’s brinkmanship in the South China Sea. Both contribute to regional and global instability and rising tensions.

At the same time, one must recognize that both issues are hellishly complicated from both historical and geopolitical perspectives. This is definitely not a bad guys versus good guys scenario.

Having said that, what I do find objectionable is the current bout of hypocritical accusatory outrage emanating from Washington (and some of its understudies/allies).

Let’s get some perspective

Yes, Russia has many faults – and so does China. But let’s keep some things in perspective.

Whatever may be the geopolitical and humanitarian costs of these two acts, Russia’s Ukraine invasion and China’s South China Sea escapades (so far at least) pale into insignificance compared to the acts the United States has committed over the past decades.

Just consider the egregious, systematic and highly self-serving violations of international law perpetrated by Washington very nonchalantly.

Consider as well, the immense resulting geopolitical instabilities, the tremendous humanitarian costs and the huge number of refugees that were caused by the U.S.-led, UK-supported invasion of Iraq.

With the benefit of hindsight, can any American (or the British) have any doubt about all on this?

Meanwhile, the United States’s longest-standing ally – France — strongly advised against the invasion, for which it was excoriated – remember “freedom fries” and “freedom toast”?

On the contrary, instead of acknowledging the profound failure of its ways, today, 12 years after the invasion, the United States is now sanctimoniously resuming an attitude of moral superiority.

All-time benightedness

For instance, it talks about the viciousness of ISIS in Iraq – and fails to recognize that this is largely the former Sunni-led Iraqi army that was dissolved by the U.S. occupation forces in an act of all-time benightedness.

After the Russian military advance into Ukraine, which was certainly deplorable, the original G7 of the G8 nations – the United States, Japan, Canada, UK, Italy, France and Germany – expelled Russia from the G8 club.

Washington and its allies in Europe and Japan also imposed severe sanctions on Russia and, in essence, ostracized it from the global marketplace and the global community.

Now, I brook no sympathy for Mr. Putin, but still find myself asking this question: Bearing in mind the gravity in law and of humanity of the invasion of Iraq – with all the pandemonium that followed – why, following the very same logic applied to Putin & Co., was the United States not expelled from the G8? Why were there no sanctions?

In respect to China and the South China Sea situation, Washington has hoisted itself onto a holier-than-thou moral platform. It regularly lambasts Beijing, including at the recent IISS Shangri-La Dialogue via U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

In that context, for those who may still doubt (as implausible as it sounds) that the U.S. promotion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is part and parcel of a deliberate U.S. policy of containing China, Secretary Carter’s words in a speech given in April tell it all, “TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier.”

Actions have consequences

With the invasion of Iraq and the consequences that ensued -– not to forget the prison in Guantanamo – the United States lost the mantle of geopolitical arbiter.

The peaceful world order has been shattered not so much by the Russians or the Chinese, but by the Americans themselves – with a little help from their friends, the British under Tony Blair.

In lieu of a glorified Pax Americana, we now have a highly unstable, uncertain, increasingly tense global situation. Progress is not helped, but severely hindered, by an unrepentant hegemon that has repeatedly acted in a malignant fashion.

Washington loves to speak out with great indignation and unabashed hypocrisy against the misdeeds of others, while washing its hands of its own unlawful actions.

Without any sense of remorse on the part of the presumed clean-acting hegemon, let alone an apology over its own far greater misdeeds, who can blame the “lesser” nations (in the world of American thinking) for their own stumbles (and, in part, illegal acts)?

In the current anarchy, there is no legitimately recognized legal order.

If the world’s major power can act so egregiously in violation of the law and against the will of the United Nations, what hope is there for a global peaceful order?

The U.S. has lost its compass

The world has changed beyond recognition since the turn of the century. The former cold war global chessboard has disintegrated.

A new one is in the making, though its structure remains uncertain, in great part because of the difficulties of the erstwhile dominant players to adjust to the new ones.

The establishment of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) resulted principally from the refusal of the U.S. government to make the necessary adjustments in the structure of existing international financial institutions, notably the IMF, as Ben Bernanke recently conceded.

The collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Doha Round — and the consequent hijacking of the trade agenda by Washington with exclusionary mega-regional trade deals, TTIP and TPP – are not any more helpful.

They presage a world where “we” — and not “they” (the Chinese) — can write the rules of the 21st century trade framework. The arrogant pursuit of such divisiveness further undermines the possibility of building a new, solid and legitimate global governance structure.

Thus, while recognizing the considerable contribution the United States made to peace and prosperity in the second half of the 20th century, so far, fifteen years into the 21st century, its role and leadership leave a lot to be desired.

On balance, notwithstanding a number of bellicose incursions, while the United States could be deemed a benign hegemon in the 20th century, its impact this century has so far been quite malignant.

The United States desperately needs a new discourse. There is an urgent imperative to adjust to the new realities of the 21st century.

This includes constructive engagement with the new players (and/or old players now appearing in new garbs), and to tackle new challenges, such as immigration, climate change, inequality, ethnic conflicts, fundamentalism, gender discrimination and abuse.

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About Jean-Pierre Lehmann

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. [Switzerland] Follow him @jp_lehmann

Responses to “United States: The Hypocritical Hegemon”

Archived Comments.

  1. On June 8, 2015 at 8:58 am slackdammit responded with... #

    As you well know, Professor Lehmann, 10’s of millions of US citizens have, over the years, supported the position expressed in this article. But we have here a flawed democracy, or perhaps it should be termed a, “Loose Oligopoly.” Our democracy has been strangled by, “manufactured consent.”
    Virtually every country in Europe has has, at one time, embraced Fascism. The Hitler War was their antidote…and strong medicine it was.
    Here in North America, we are about a century behind!

  2. On June 8, 2015 at 10:14 am H. H. GAFFNEY responded with... #

    First, as an aside, it is not a problem of the U.S. violating “international law.” In the U.S., we say, “You say I violated the law, sue me, take me to court.” Of course, you can’t drag us to the ICJ, even though we helped set it up; we didn’t ratify it. And we have no standing in the China Seas disputes because we never ratified UNCLOS – “offends our sovereignty,” or something. The only real law is the WTO, which is
    functioning low-key.

    And in my 53 years in Washington, close to foreign policy, immersed especially in the
    defense side, and having attended a lot of high-level meetings over those years, I have never, never heard any U.S. official ever use the term “hegemony.” All discussions at the top are, “Today, we got a problem, how do we solve it?” We are relentless incrementalists. And until 9/11 (as this article rightly suggests), we did it together with allies. Then came the wildly unilateral invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (for which later we dragooned some of our allies to participate in – unlike Desert Storm in 1990-91, where we had both a UN resolution and even Syrian and Egyptian force participation to roll back Saddam’s “hegemonic” move on Kuwait).

    Before then, and from the end of the Cold War, the really big U.S. initiatives were on
    trade, i.e., on the globalization of the world’s economies (remember, it was “for”
    the U.S. consumer that China’s exports really exploded, leading to their new
    wealth). In short, the only U.S. “grand strategy” after the Cold War was for
    G-6/7/20, GATT/WTO (and of course NAFTA). Those initiatives could hardly be
    called “hegemonic,” considering what has happened to the wages of the American

    But the real instigation of the whole current trouble, including American unilateralism
    (not hegemonism, because we really have proved we can’t run anything out there), was the wild misinterpretation of the Soviet “invasion” of Afghanistan in late 1979 (the Soviets got involved simply to solve a leadership dispute in Kabul, then were sucked in) as a threat by the Soviets to the oil of the Middle East. After all, around then, the most critical global issue for America (we were already slumbering on the strategic
    nuclear balance) was the price of a gallon of gasoline, for if it went up even a
    few cents, it was thought that U.S. Presidents would lose elections. (Brzezinski
    and my old boss, Bob Komer, were responsible for a lot of this panic). Therefore, with the help of the Egyptians and Saudis, we created the “Arab-Afghans,”
    which evolved into Al Qaeda and now ISIS – given our wild mismanagements of the
    situations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Thank God for Obama’s reluctances now to get deeper – however offensive Jackson Diehl and Fred Hiatt find that.

  3. On June 8, 2015 at 11:02 am Edward responded with... #

    I realize that in order to reach the mainstream Western audience, you have to engage in a certain degree of Russophobia and Putin-bashing. Nevertheless, to describe the two separate issues of the return of the Crimea to Russia as an act of self-determination and Eastern Ukrainian armed insurgent demands for autonomy within Ukraine as a Russian “invasion” betrays the kind of group think at the Western elite level that is going to continue to make the resolution of the very serious global issues that will inevitably multiply as the world rapidly changes in every sphere very difficult. The rise of the homicidal ISIS is merely one example.

  4. On June 8, 2015 at 7:45 pm David Stein responded with... #

    As the world economy grew, and the position of major US corporations became increasingly dominant, the commercial agenda overtook the political agenda, and America has focused ever more on such issues as oil, trade and intellectual property rights to the near exclusion of our earlier efforts to promote free and fair elections and grass roots economic development. The political has been subverted and America’s former concerns with global freedom replace by a determination to engage in cut-throat economics in a race to the bottom.

  5. On June 30, 2015 at 1:38 pm tMod responded with... #

    You one of those guys that works for the Kremlin, defacing/filling the web with Russian propaganda? I am open minded, but calling Russia’s foray into Ukraine as anything other than an invasion is disingenuous to say the least.

  6. On June 30, 2015 at 3:25 pm Dave responded with... #

    This guy is misinformed, it was the Soviets that prevented the Germans from conquering the world not the Allies. Please check your facts because you sound like an idiot. This article is full of fanboyism.

  7. On July 2, 2015 at 2:33 pm spiral007 responded with... #

    tMod, you do not have to question someones integrity to hold your opinion. What you say of Edward could very well apply to you in reverse.

    Having said that Edward has it right (your knowledge of history is very self serving as have been all the statements from the US government – which is the point of this article!!!).

  8. On July 2, 2015 at 3:06 pm tMod responded with... #

    I guess you work for the Kremlin too, comrade. What do you know about my knowledge of history? I merely expressed skepticism at the sincerity and impartiality of the poster’s opinion expressed above. I was not refuting the article in totality, merely expressing my astonishment that ANYONE would believe that what is going on in Ukraine is anything but a proxy invasion by Russia. That is the only point I was making. Don’t take one comment I made and make all these assumptions and try to tell me what I said or what I meant.

  9. On July 2, 2015 at 6:49 pm spiral007 responded with... #

    ‘but calling Russia’s foray into Ukraine as anything other than an invasion’
    ‘Ukraine is anything but a proxy invasion by Russia’
    well tMod, shifted from invasion to PROXY invasion!!! keep working on it you may get it right…..there is hope.
    Now to name calling, you must be part of the DoD initiative on PR on social media….
    I do not have a window to your totality of comments…if you expect people to react based on your other comments make them visible….in the meantime learn to write comments that stand on their own!!!
    On a serious note, you need to stop name calling and have a discussion on merits…if you can not do that stay AWAY…this forum is not for you!!!

  10. On July 2, 2015 at 7:22 pm tMod responded with... #

    Ha ha ha, who are you to dictate what is an appropriate response in this forum? You a moderator?
    Why would I want a knucklehead like you going through my past comments? THAT is name calling. I can tell English isn’t your first language. That’s unfortunate.
    Let me remind you, YOU chose to respond to me. If you don’t like how I respond, you can easily step away from the discussion and move on. I’m sorry, but it isn’t necessary for me to stay away from this forum because you are unable to have an adult conversation. A pity.