Questioning American hegemony
The status of America as the world's most powerful country has become received knowledge. This notion finds a strong reflection on the website of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neo-conservative think tank supported by the unholy trinity of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Even on the front page of the PNAC website, American hegemony is taken for granted: "American leadership is good for both America and the world,"' it says. PNAC "intends... to explain what American world leadership entails." According to a PNAC position paper, issued in 2000: "The United States stands as the world's most pre-eminent (sic) power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge... [we need] national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."
This idea of America as a 'hyperpower' - something above and beyond a superpower in the post-Soviet world - is embedded in the media. An editorial in Britain's The Independent newspaper on May 6 described America as a "reckless, gun-toting hyperpower". An April 15 opinion piece by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian concluded with the line "Only a stronger Europe can speak as a serious partner to the hyperpower." Europe is thus portrayed as a kind of supplicant that must earn its place at the hyperpower's table.
The media discourse focuses on interpreting the international situation within the context, a priori, of American hegemony. Depending in one's point of view, American global leadership might be either a good or bad thing. Acres of newsprint are consumed as endless debate revolves around the question of whether America uses its hyperpower status responsibly or irresponsibly and what this means for the rest of the world. But almost nowhere is the basic assumption questioned: is American power as overwhelming as we have been led to believe?
The basis for the belief in American hegemony has two parts: American economic strength and American military power. Even a relatively cursory look at these shows that, at the very least, there are question marks over the reality of American hegemony.
America has the world's largest national economy - worth USD 10857 billion in 2003 (OECD figures). It is also more or less the world's most productive economy per capita (Luxembourg overshadows every other country in this respect). The US economy is larger than the pre-enlargement EU economy. Add in the 10 enlargement countries, however, and the EU pulls ahead of the US in GDP terms, albeit with a much larger population. The world's second largest national economy in 2003, meanwhile, was China, with output around half that of the US. But the Chinese economy quadrupled in the 20 years to 2000, and has an annual growth rate of around eight per cent, more than double that of the US.
The American economy therefore remains - for the time being - the world's largest. But does this translate to hegemony - "mastery or ruling power" over the rest of the globe? Size isn't everything. Commentators have highlighted considerable weaknesses in the American economy. The US is running a large federal budget deficit and has a vast current account deficit - buying in hugely more goods and services than it sells. The latter means that in effect the US needs the rest of the world to loan it nearly USD 2 billion every working day in order to finance the deficit. The EU, by contrast, is in the black.
Numerous doomsayers have warned and continue to warn that the American deficit spells serious trouble ahead. Even Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, called it "worrisome" in a speech on March 2, noting that it means vast "foreign accumulation of net claims on the United States." For the time being the dire warnings remain just that - warnings. Nonetheless, there is more than a little validity in the idea that America is economically vulnerable: hardly a "hegemonic" position.
The second main underpinning of the orthodoxy of American hegemony is American military power. US military spending is vast. It will be an estimated USD 400 billion in the budget year 2005, dwarfing the defence spend of any other country. The US has the world's most technologically advanced and potentially devastating arsenal. Once again, the media reflects the orthodoxy that American military might is hegemonic. In The Observer in February 2002, for example, Peter Beaumont and Ed Vulliamy wrote, "The reality - even before the latest proposed increases in military spending - is that America could beat the rest of the world at war with one hand tied behind its back." 
However, the same article goes on to ask the key question about the development of the vast and sophisticated arsenal: "Why the need for more and better military power? Even the military analysts are baffled." However, Beaumont and Vulliamy fail to explore this question in depth, and eventually reach the orthodox conclusion about dominance of American power: "The new culture of US military hegemony is not a continuation of the might the US enjoyed under Bill Clinton or any other administration. It is new "
For other commentators; notably French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, America's military resources exist primarily to create an illusion of hegemony. Post-Vietnam, American military engagements - the term 'war' is misleading - have involved 'enemies' that have been vastly inferior in military terms, thus guaranteeing a positive outcome for the US. Targets of American military aggression in the latter part of the twentieth century included Grenada, Panama, Iraq (the first Gulf War), Somalia and Serbia. In Afghanistan in 2001, the might of the American military was pitted against an army of 45,000 men operating 100 tanks and 200 artillery pieces. In the 2003 Iraq war the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi defence against American aggression soon became evident, with the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. In the face of shorter odds - for example in the case of North Korea, which has a million men under arms and demonstrable weapons of mass destruction capability - military action by the US is a far less likely outcome.
Rather than fighting wars, the US army stages 'spectacles' - organised firework displays of military might against vastly inferior opponents. These spectacles are conveyed to the home audience where they form an essential part of the political dialogue. It is the spectacle, or the conveying of events, rather than the events themselves, that matters. Commentator Douglas Kellner in an essay 9/11, Spectacles of terror and media manipulation,  wrote that in the context of a problematic US economy and the limited success of the Afghanistan war, George W Bush "needed a dramatic media spectacle that would guarantee his election and once more Saddam Hussein provided a viable candidate."
But it is a high-risk strategy. Kellner writes in his essay, "Media spectacles can backfire and are subject to dialectical reversal as positive images give way to negative ones." The ongoing problems in Iraq and the stunning "dialectical reversal" brought about by the revelations of abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners in US custody provide compelling evidence of the risky media spectacle strategy.
The clear indication of this analysis, however, is that US military power, rather than being 'hegemonic' is in fact subordinated to the need of the political elite in America to ensure confidence and to stage media spectacles as and when they believe it is necessary. This is not to say that the American army is incapable of fighting an actual war (as opposed to staging a firework display). But the concept of overwhelming American superiority - the pre-eminence of the hyperpower - is undermined.
These considerations point towards a need to questioning the concept of American hegemony. In failing to do so, the media is presenting a worldview that is simply misleading. It is also raising expectations, and politicians play up to those expectations. Would Tony Blair have been so quick to side with the US over Iraq without the notion of American hegemony underpinning his thinking? If one accepts the Project for the New American Century rationale of American pre-eminence and thus the 'responsibility' on America to play the role of global policeman, then it is easier to swallow the idea of the American invasion of Iraq. If America is just one of the players - albeit the most important (but not necessarily overwhelmingly important) - a unilateral solution is less justifiable.
In fact, serious questions are starting to be asked about these issues. Writing in The Observer on May 16, William Pfaff notes that the situation in Iraq has created "a crisis of thought and assumption in the mainstream intellectual community over [US] foreign policy." He writes that the possibility of defeat in Iraq is being entertained - not military defeat but an unsatisfactory resolution and humiliating outcome. "The [US] suffered a disruptive and doubt-filled domestic aftermath of the defeat in Vietnam for more than a decade. The war in Iraq was supposed to give the US the triumph it was denied in Vietnam. Instead it has doubled the defeat. The consequences of this... are unforeseeable."
A crisis of confidence within the US may be just beginning. But there are also those outside the US who have accepted the notion of American hegemony unquestioningly. They also need to re-examine their positions.