[OUTLOOK]Hegemony and democratic checksRecently, voices have been raised around the world to criticize the United States. American power, they say, has grown too great.
Today the United States is the biggest power in the world; in fact, it is a worldwide empire with more power than any other empire the world has ever seen. The military budget of the United States is larger than that of the next 20 countries in the world combined. The American budget for advanced technology research and development is three times that of the research budgets of the next six developed countries put together.
In other words, the United States has the power to keep its position at the top for a very long time, and it has the power to conduct military exercises in any part of the globe on a scale that the world has never seen before.
Past empires had only partial hegemony. Even at its peak in the 19th century, the United Kingdom only held hegemony on the seas, and had a smaller army than either France or Russia. During the Cold War, the United States ruled the air and the sea, but the Soviet Union could pressure the Western world with its mighty army and challenge the United States with its strategic nuclear weaponry.
Alas, the Soviet Union, the only superpower that could stand up to the United States, fell, leading to an age where no power is strong enough to check the United States. This concept that there is no power to check the United States has meant that the United States is now seen as arrogant.
Historically, hegemonistic power had been checked by alliances of other powers. But today's case of the United States is different. China is often mentioned as a potential candidate to challenge the United States in the future. If it keeps growing economically at its current rate, it is estimated that China's economy could overtake that of the United States in 25 years. But China lags behind in the area of technological development and still harbors the great task of modernizing its political system.
The most important geographic difference between the United States and the other world powers is that the United States is located far away from its potential challengers, while the others are geographically close to one another. That is why powers other than the United States have always felt threatened when there was a military buildup in another country. Tensions rose automatically.
The pursuit of a military buildup to check the United States has often caused world powers to grapple with each other even before they could have an impact on the United States. Beginning in the 20th century, the United States started intervening in the affairs of Europe and East Asia. This was all due to such geographic characteristics.
Is there truly no power that can check the United States? As long as the United States does not completely ignore the opinion of the rest of the world, the role of international opinion and its political and diplomatic leadership in international society will not be neglected, although there is no power that can check American hegemony in terms of military balance.
But no other power could check the United States as effectively as the people of the United States themselves. The United States is a true democracy. President George W. Bush has declared from the moment he was elected president that he would overthrow Saddam Hussein of Iraq. He has often discussed military action against Iraq in public. Recently, however, several central Republican figures and former U.S. officials, including Henry Kissinger and other experts, have publicly opposed an attack on Iraq. It is unclear whether Mr. Bush will indeed push on with his plans to attack Iraq, but one thing is certain: President Bush, despite all that military power under his command, cannot ignore the opinions of the people of the United States. This is where the United States differs from all hegemonic powers of the past.
In the past, such powers were relatively free from any domestic restraints. Today's United States might be an unprecedentedly mighty hegemonic power on the outside but it is also an unprecedented country in which the people can check the power of their government.
As the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, in the end it could very well be a democratic constitutional system that is the most important element of keeping the global peace.
The writer is the president of the Social Science Institute.
by Kim Kyung-won