HEGEMONY AND THE LIMITS OF US
Corey R. Payne and Beverly J. Silver
Many analyses point to Trump’s behavior on the world stage –bullying and
racketeering more reminiscent of a maﬁoso than a statesman –as a personal
character ﬂaw. We argue that, while this behavior was shocking in how
unvarnished it was, Trump marks the culmination of a decades-long trend that
shifted US foreign policy from a regime of “legitimate protection”in the
mid-twentieth century to a “protection racket”by the turn of the twenty-ﬁrst.
While the temperaments of successive presidents have mattered, the problems
facing the United States and its role in the world are not attributable to
personalities but are fundamentally structural, in large part stemming from the
contradictions of US attempts to cling to preeminence in the face of a
changing global distribution of power. The inability of successive US admin-
istrations –Trump and Biden included –to break out of the mindset of US
primacy has resulted in a situation of “domination without hegemony”in
which the United States plays an increasingly dysfunctional role in the world.
This dynamic has plunged the world into a period of systemic chaos analogous
to the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century.
Keywords: Donald Trump; Joseph Biden; hegemony; war; US foreign
Donald Trump established a reputation for “bullying”and mob-like “ruthless-
ness”over the course of four decades in the “rough-and-tumble world”of New
York real estate and Atlantic City casinos (Brenner, 2017). Once elected
Trump and the Deeper Crisis
Political Power and Social Theory, Volume 39, 159–177
Copyright © 2023 by Emerald Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
President in 2016, Trump imported this behavior into the White House. Indeed,
as has been widely noted, Trump, as President, acted more like a maﬁoso than a
statesman, with an approach toward foreign allies that had more in common with
a protection racket than a partnership (e.g., McFaul, 2016). One particularly
egregious example –his maﬁa-style phone call to the president of Ukraine in 2019
–precipitated his ﬁrst impeachment and (failed) attempt to remove him from
ofﬁce (Foer, 2019).
Trump’s bullying, including his behavior on the world stage as US president,
has generally been understood as a personal character ﬂaw –which it no doubt
was. However, while Trump’s bullying as President was unprecedented in how
unvarnished it was, rather than being a complete aberration, it marks the
culmination of a decades-long process that transformed US foreign policy from a
regime of “legitimate protection”in the mid-twentieth century to a “protection
racket”by the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century.
While Biden has leaned into the idea that Trump’s toxic personality was
the root problem, expressing hope that his legacy would be to “restore the
soul of the nation,”to bring back “decency and honor to the ofﬁce”of
the president, and to “reconstruct our [international] alliances”(Vakil, 2022),
the Biden administration has found it hard to avoid the contradictions
involved in attempting to retain US global primacy in a world in which the
distribution of power is becoming more evenly distributed. Thus, although
Biden initially “brought down the temperature”in US relations with friends
and foes around the world (as had Obama vis-`
a-vis the administration of
George Bush, Jr), the Biden administration (like its predecessors) has been
unable to imagine a world in which the United States is not “Number 1.”As
we will argue, the inability of successive administrations to break out of this
global primacy mindset has resulted in the United States playing an increas-
ingly dysfunctional role in the world. In other words, at its root, the con-
tradictions and limits of US world power are structural, beginning well before
Trump and continuing after Trump.
Our argument proceeds as follows. In the next section we describe a
transformation of US world power from a regime of “legitimate protection”in
the decades following the Second World War to a “protection racket”in the
late-twentieth/early-twenty-ﬁrst century. We then focus on the Trump
administration. Bringing to the White House his extensive experience as an
unabashed “racketeer”in private life, Trump took the US global “protection
racket”to a whole new level. But rather than “making America great again,”
his brazenness accelerated the long-term decline of US power and prestige in
the world. In the penultimate section, we turn to the Biden administration’s
attempts to restore US leadership with the post-Trump “America is back”
agenda. Finally, we conclude by outlining what it would take to establish a
new global regime of legitimate protection –and point to the deadly conse-
quences of failing to do so.
160 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
FROM LEGITIMATE PROTECTION TO
“Which image the word ‘protection’brings to mind,”explains Charles Tilly
(1985, pp. 170–171), “depends mainly on our assessment of the reality and
externality of the threat. Someone who produces both the danger and, at a price,
the shield against it is a racketeer. Someone who provides a needed shield but has
little control over the danger’s appearance qualiﬁes as a legitimate protector.”In
the latter, “‘protection’calls up images of the shelter against danger provided by
a powerful friend, a large insurance policy, or a sturdy roof,”while the former
“evokes the racket in which a local strong man forces merchants to pay tribute in
order to avoid damage –damage the strong man himself threatens to deliver.”
Giovanni Arrighi (2007) found Tilly’s distinction useful for making sense of the
trajectory of US world power over the course of the second half of the twentieth
century, describing a shift from a regime of legitimate protection in the decades
immediately following the Second World War to a dysfunctional protection
racket by the turn of the twenty-ﬁrst century (Arrighi, 2007, Chapters 7–9).
The provision of “legitimate protection,”in Arrighi’s formulation (2007,
pp. 256–257), played a key role in the establishment of US world hegemony in the
aftermath of the Second World War. Working with a Gramscian conceptuali-
zation of hegemony (but extending it to the global level), Arrighi argued that US
world power was exercised through a combination of domination and consent.
“Intellectual and moral leadership”was exercised in relation to “allied groups”
(and states) while coercive measures were applied to “antagonistic groups”(and
states). Paraphrasing Gramsci (1971, p. 57), Arrighi (2010, pp. 28–29) argued that
successful world hegemons have been able to inﬂate their power beyond what
would be possible to achieve through force alone by addressing “all issues around
which conﬂicts rage”on a “universal”plane; that is, by acting in ways that are
perceived as being in the interests of the hegemonic bloc as a whole.
to provide “legitimate protection”for its allies, most notably in Western Europe,
inﬂated US world power in the decades following the World War II. But by the
turn of the century, with the regime of “legitimate protection”transforming into
a“protection racket,”a vicious circle of US hegemonic crisis and decline was
unleashed (Arrighi, 2007, Chapter 9).
While the dominant groups of Western Europe formed the core of the US-led
hegemonic bloc in the aftermath of the World War II, the United States (more or
less credibly) sought to build a (geographically) broader and (socially) deeper
consensual basis for its world power. Thus, the social-economic pillars under-
girding the establishment of US world hegemony were as important as the mil-
itary ones. In the immediate post-war period, western European states faced
strong labor movements, and many faced the threat of revolutionary upheavals.
The US-sponsored reconstruction of Western Europe (e.g., via the Marshall
Plan), combined with the establishment of international economic institutions
that recognized the right of states to protect the livelihoods of their citizens from
the worst excesses of capitalism, not only relaunched a virtuous circle of proﬁt-
ability for capitalists (the Golden Age of Keynesianism); it also offered a
Domination Without Hegemony 161
reformist solution to the revolutionary challenges of the era, as the “American
Dream”of mass consumption (middle-class lifestyles) was promised to the
working class as a whole in the core countries (Silver & Slater, 1999). And while
coercion played a far more important role in US power strategies in the Third
World from the start, a consent-based appeal to Third World elites was
embedded in the post-war “development project”(McMichael, 2012), especially
the claim that industrialization would result in poorer countries “catching up”
with the national wealth standards of the rich (Arrighi, Silver, & Brewer, 2003).
In the military sphere, the United States was able to offer its European allies a
shield against a real danger that it had not created. In the ﬁrst half of the
twentieth century, mass violence (including two world wars) originated in Europe
and engulfed the world –wars which the United States had little or no role in
igniting. Moreover, Roosevelt and Truman’s proposals to ﬁnance the world-wide
provision of military protection with the surplus capital that accumulated in the
United States during the preceding 30 years of global systemic chaos meant that
the United States was able to offer protection to its clients at an unbeatably low
price (Arrighi, 2007, Chapter 9).
But this situation began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The US
defeat in Vietnam demonstrated that the protection that the US military offered
was not as reliable as it claimed or as its clients expected. Moreover, while the
United States was bogged down in Vietnam, its European and East Asian clients
grew in economic strength, becoming serious trade competitors, and provoking a
general crisis of proﬁtability for capitalists. At the same time, US multinational
ﬁrms steadily accumulated proﬁts in overseas ﬁnancial markets, ultimately
depriving the US government of tax revenues and contributing to a run on the
dollar. Thus, in this period, US military power lost its credibility and US ﬁnancial
dominance (which paid for the global extension of US military power) came into
crisis (Arrighi, 2007, p. 256).
By the 1980s, in response to the combined crises of US capitalism and US
world power, the broad hegemonic appeals to the core’s working classes and to
Third World elites were abandoned from above. The shift in the social-economic
sphere from the “development project”to the neoliberal “globalization project”
(McMichael, 2012) and from “welfare states”to “free markets”were key aspects
in the unraveling of the US regime of legitimate protection. At the same time, in
the military and ﬁnancial spheres, Reagan sought to restore US global primacy
by launching a “Second Cold War,”this time with allies footing the bill. He
strong-armed Japan into enacting “voluntary”export restrictions and into using
its trade surpluses to ﬁnance US deﬁcits through the purchase of US Treasury
bonds. Moreover, in an effort to avoid direct involvement of US soldiers in “hot
wars,”the United States bankrolled or otherwise supported a variety of “bullies”
to ﬁght proxy wars, notably, Saddam Hussein (against Iran) and Osama Bin
Laden (against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan).
For Arrighi (2007, p. 257), the “United States thus began to charge allies a
price for its protection, and at the same time to produce the dangers against
which it would later offer protection.”In this period, per Chalmers Johnson
(2004, p. 307), “like gangsters in the 1930s who forced the people and businesses
162 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
under their sway to pay protection money, the United States pressure[d] foreign
governments to pay for its imperial projects.”The racket was on display in the
1991 Gulf War. The Bush Sr. administration extracted ﬁnancial contributions to
cover the cost of the conﬂict from “its wealthiest and militarily most dependent
clients” – notably, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Germany,
and Japan. The client states contributed a total of $54.1 billion compared to the
United States’own contribution of $7 billion; moreover, with allied contributions
exceeding the costs of the war in 1991, the US Ofﬁce of Budget and Management
recorded a “proﬁt”for the ﬁscal year (Silk, 1991). The protection racket –in
which the United States extracted payment against threats that the United States
had itself created (e.g., via US support for Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War) –was in
Under the Clinton administration, the protection racket took on new features.
Former Warsaw Pact countries were admitted to the NATO military alliance,
notwithstanding prior promises made to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and against the
advice of Cold Warriors such as George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Jack Matlock, and
John Armitage, who (correctly) feared that the eastward expansion of NATO
would produce an eventual blowback in the form of unmanageable geopolitical
tensions with Russia. As with the eventual blowback from supporting Hussein
and bin Laden, the decision to expand NATO meant (to paraphrase Tilly) that
the United States was responsible (at least in part) for producing the danger
against which it would later offer protection.
Moreover, with the eastward expansion of NATO, American arms manu-
facturers –who had faced signiﬁcant losses with the end of the Cold War –now
“stood to gain billions of dollars in sales of weapons, communication systems,
and other military equipment,”since the new Eastern European members were
required to replace their Soviet-made systems with military equipment that was
compatible with the Western alliance. US arms manufacturers “quickly latched
onto the idea”of NATO expansion and “helped the [Clinton] Administration to
sell it,”including spending vast sums on campaign contributions and lobbying
Congress (Seelye, 1998). The enthusiasm of US arms manufacturers led Senator
Tom Harkin to refer to NATO expansion as “a Marshall Plan for defense con-
tractors who are chomping at the bit to sell weapons and make proﬁts”(quoted in
Nevertheless, there were limits to the protection racket, which became clear
during the Bush Jr presidency, when the United States faced difﬁculties squeezing
tribute payments out of its traditional allies. In Madrid in 2003, the US-organized
“donors conference”to support the invasion of Iraq was a stunning failure. The
United States raised less than one-eighth of its target amount. In marked contrast
to the 1991 fundraising, client states like Germany and Saudi Arabia gave
virtually nothing. The largest pledge, from Japan, was for only $1.5 billion, a
pittance compared to its commitment to the ﬁrst Gulf War. Moreover, the
quagmires (and ultimate military defeats) in both Iraq and Afghanistan further
contributed to the decline of US status in the world. Not only was US military
protection seen as increasingly expensive and unreliable, the behavior of the
Domination Without Hegemony 163
would-be protector itself was beginning to be more widely perceived as a major
(direct or indirect) source of danger (Arrighi, 2007, pp. 259–260).
The Bush administration, unable to raise funds either domestically via taxa-
tion or internationally via tribute-seeking, attempted to squeeze Iraq and
Afghanistan. In Iraq, Bush administration ofﬁcials argued that the war would
pay for itself. For example, Paul Wolfowitz testiﬁed to Congress in March 2003:
“There is a lot of money to pay for this that doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer
money, and it starts with the assets of the Iraqi people.”That same day, Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that “before we turn to the American
taxpayer, we will turn ﬁrst to the resources of the Iraqi government and the
international community”(quoted in Navasky & Cerf, 2008). A neoliberal
plunder was thus planned: Iraqi state ﬁrms would be privatized, social beneﬁts
would be cut, and the free ﬂow of ﬁnancial capital would be ensured, with US
ﬁrms set up to take the lion’s share of the windfall. But more than that, the Bush
war planners saw the invasion of Iraq –and their planned invasion of Iran –as a
way to directly enrich Americans through the seizure of oil reserves and other
But, as Richard Lachmann (2020, pp. 347–351) has pointed out, neoliberal
plunder had unintended consequences: this plunder diminished opportunities to
recruit and retain collaborators in Iraq and Afghanistan by robbing local elites of
opportunities for enrichment –opportunities that had been available to their
Cold War counterparts. As local enterprises were replaced with US ﬁrms, the
goods and services that used to be provided by Iraqis and Afghans for Iraqis and
Afghans were now provided by US ﬁrms with foreign labor forces. In turn, the
United States “could count on less... [local] support than US occupiers in earlier
wars”and thus “needed to rely almost exclusively on military force”to pacify
insurgents. In the absence of opportunities for enrichment, local elites did “better
for themselves by allying with insurgents, or at least standing back and allowing
insurgents to push the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan”(Lachmann,
2020, pp. 348–349; Schwartz, 2008). This combination of a relative dearth of
consenting partners and sizable local elite resistance, Lachmann notes, contrib-
uted to a vicious spiral of ever greater doses of military might.
While this neoliberal plunder was successful at enriching American capitalists,
it did little by way of offsetting the ﬁscal costs of the wars. Instead, the Bush
administration turned to debt ﬁnancing to pay for the conﬂicts. During the Bush
years, the United States accumulated over $800 billion in war-related debt –a
ﬁgure that climbed to $2 trillion by 2020 (plus over $900 billion in interest), as
war operations expanded and deﬁcit spending continued unabated. About 40% of
the wars’costs have been ﬁnanced by foreign borrowing, with China and Japan
as the leading holders of that debt (Peltier, 2020). Thus, facing ballooning debt
and stubborn insurgencies, by the end of Bush’s term in ofﬁce, the United States
was facing ﬁnancial and military challenges remarkably similar to those of the
Entering ofﬁce amidst this debacle, the Obama administration aimed to
recover some international legitimacy that the United States had lost in the Bush
years but, faced with the daunting challenge of making order out of his
164 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
predecessor’s chaos, merely smoothed the rough edges of the neoconservative
Project for a New American Century –creating an institutional apparatus that
allowed for a more “sustainable”war on terror (Ackerman, 2021). Like Bush
before him, the question of how to pay for the War on Terror dogged Obama’s
tenure. Resource extraction from occupied countries was still on the table. For
example, Obama’s Department of Defense set up a task force to try to build a
mining industry in Afghanistan to extract the country’s mineral wealth for the
beneﬁt of US ﬁrms, a project that was rife with corruption and never got off the
ground, and Hillary Clinton’s State Department advisers discussed taking Lib-
ya’s oil after the US- and French-sponsored interventions there (Landler & Risen,
2017; Norton, 2016; Risen, 2010). Obama may have entered ofﬁce with true
intentions to wind down the Bush wars, but attempts to end the war in Iraq, draw
down operations in Afghanistan, and “pivot”military energies to East Asia
ultimately failed, as the blowback of US wars in the form of ISIS (in Iraq) and a
resurgent Taliban (in Afghanistan) kept the United States tied down in West Asia
(see, e.g., Bacevich, 2016).
As US power and status in the world spiraled downward, potential challengers
to US preeminence thrived. Notwithstanding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s
(2011) announcement of a strategic “pivot”toward East Asia, China’s extraor-
dinary economic growth proceeded unencumbered as the United States remained
bogged down in West Asia –with wars that increased its indebtedness to China.
Moreover, China became the largest and fastest growing market for a large
number of states on multiple continents. Among US allies, occasional concerns
about the rise of China were tempered by their growing alarm at ongoing US
military misadventures and their associated blowback. Unlike in the immediate
aftermath of the Second World War, the United States was not only failing to
provide the “intellectual and moral leadership”required to resolve the mounting
social, economic, and geopolitical challenges facing the world in the early
twenty-ﬁrst century –it was also increasingly seen as a key contributor to
mounting chaos. Meanwhile, China not only became one of the largest creditors
of the exploding US foreign debt, it was also taking steps toward a global heg-
emonic project (in the Gramscian sense of the term) in the form of the Belt and
Road Initiative –a project which Chinese leaders promoted as a “win-win”
initiative that was not only in China’s interest, but was also fostering the broader
“universal interest”in peace and prosperity (Xinhua Net, 2017). Thus, by the time
Trump was elected in 2016, Arrighi’s (2007, p. 261) contention that China was
“the real winner of the War on Terror”rang increasingly true.
TRUMP: AN UNABASHED RACKETEER TAKES OVER
Trump arrived on the scene as a racketeer ready to escalate the racket. Upon
entering ofﬁce, he applied on a world stage a bullying strategy that he had long
employed in his business and personal life. Learning gangster-style tactics of
political combat and extraction from Roy Cohn and his father (Brenner, 2017),
Domination Without Hegemony 165
Trump brought racketeering to the White House in a new fashion. While the
protection racket itself was not a new development, the brazenness with which
Trump conducted it –and his use of the Ofﬁce of the President for personal
enrichment –was new and offensive to the sensibilities of many in Washington
and beyond. Opening a hotel just steps away from the White House allowed
Trump to literally proﬁt off his presidency, as sycophants, foreign dignitaries, and
lobbyists alike curried favor with the administration by staying there. His
frequent trips to his other properties –in which the government paid for
accommodations for a host of security, staff, and aides –and his children’s
continued business operations abroad further padded the Trump coffers. Perhaps
most notably, in July 2019 Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr
Zelensky to dig up dirt on his political rival, Joe Biden. He noted in a phone call:
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine...I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal
necessarily...”Then, after discussing stalled US arms shipments, Trump
continued, “I would like you to do us a favor...” – that is, to open an investi-
gation into the Bidens (Wolf & Merril, 2019). If racketeering for “US interests”
had become standard foreign policy fare in Washington, racketeering for per-
sonal gain was beyond the pale for Democrats and establishment ﬁgures, ulti-
mately leading to Trump’sﬁrst impeachment. This ﬁne line between acceptable
and unacceptable extraction was used by Trump as a place to hang his hat in his
defense, referring to the quid-pro-quo discussion as a “perfectly ﬁne and routine”
phone call (Itkowitz, 2019).
On the world stage, as Stephen Wertheim (2021, cf. 2017) notes, Trump
“rejected the establishment consensus that the United States has the right and
duty to guard the international order by force.”In doing so he did not reject the
right to use force, but rather the notion that the United States had any duty to use
it to protect the international order –or, indeed, that the international order was
even worth protecting. Trump may have abandoned “high-minded internation-
alism,”but he replaced it not with restraint, but with “bullying militarism.”In
short, “Trump stripped American power bare, shedding its cloak of piety.”
Instead of appealing to the US “right and duty”to protect the international order
–and accepting the costs that came with such duties –Trump demanded payment
from those who were blessed, or cursed, with US protection. Trump threatened to
withdraw from NATO unless allied countries increased their contribution to
defense, claiming that countries like Germany are “making a fortune”off US
soldiers, and that the United States is owed “billions of dollars”from “delin-
quents”like Italy and Belgium (McFall, 2020). On the Korean peninsula, Trump
demanded a 400% increase in South Korea’s share of the costs of US troop
deployment in the country, threatening a withdrawal of troops amid the nego-
tiations (Gordon & Lubold, 2020). Trump had similar plans for the US bilateral
agreement over troop deployment with Japan, which he dubbed “unfair,”but
was out of ofﬁce before negotiations over a new agreement materialized (Gould,
Trump’s afﬁnity for protection rackets vis-`
a-vis allied countries was paralleled
by a desire for tribute from invaded countries. After coordinating with Turkish
President Erdogan, Trump redeployed US troops to Syrian oilﬁelds, announcing
166 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
“We’re keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind
only for the oil”(Borger, 2019; Borger & Sabbagh, 2019). Trump’s coordination
with Erdogan in Syria went hand-in-hand with US abandonment of the Syrian
Kurds, notwithstanding the fact that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units
(YPG/YPJ) had been essential in the defeat of ISIS. Left to face “terrible acts of
barbarity”by Turkish military forces (Denne & Gardiner, 2019), the abandon-
ment of the Syrian Kurds sparked a ﬁerce outcry in Washington and across
Europe; it proved to be a stark reminder of the unreliability of US protection.
In Iraq and Afghanistan Trump took a similar approach. He lamented that
the United States had spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in the Iraq
war but got “nothing”in return. He explicitly said that war should be run by the
mantra “to the victor belong the spoils”(quoted in Beckwith, 2016). Trump
reportedly broached the subject twice with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi,
asking, “So what are we going to do about the oil?”in regard to repayment to the
United States for its wars in the country (Swan, 2018). In Afghanistan, Trump
was initially persuaded against a rapid drawdown of US forces by the allure of
extracting rich mineral deposits in the country (Landler & Risen, 2017). Pro-
tection rackets and demands for tribute were a deﬁning characteristic of Trump’s
particular combination of the need for primacy and the sensation of victimhood.
As Christy Thornton (2021) notes, there was a tension in the Trumpist world-
view, “in which the United States was simultaneously the most powerful and
important country in the world and yet also the victim of predations of those who
were presumed to be inferior and external.”
For many observers, Trump’s ultimate defeat in the 2020 election and the
transition to a Biden administration offered hope that the United States could
once again bring order to an increasingly chaotic world. Nevertheless, while the
temperaments of presidents and the particularities of administrations have no
doubt been important in shaping the US role in the world in the past half century,
we have also seen that the problem is fundamentally a structural one. To para-
phrase Richard Lachmann (2020): As the ship that is the United States sinks,
does a new captain make a difference? In the case of Trump, rather than “making
America great again,”he managed simply to accelerate both the sinking power
and prestige of the United States in the world and the sense of deepening global
systemic chaos. We are thus left with the question: can the Biden administration
AFTER TRUMP, “AMERICA’S BACK”
In the face of Trump’s chaotic tenure, Joe Biden ran a campaign to “Build Back
Better,”to “restore the soul of the nation,”to work for the reestablishment “of
democracy, of decency, of honor, of respect, the rule of law... Just plain simple
decency”(Financial Times, 2021; Graham, 2019; Tharoor, 2020; Weissert &
Superville, 2021). Wasting no time on this “restoration,”Biden’sﬁrst trip abroad
as president featured a simple message to the world: “America is back”
(Madhani, 2021). Many around the world greeted the new presidency with an
Domination Without Hegemony 167
understandable sigh of relief, as Biden quickly went about shoring up alliances
that Trump had thrown by the wayside. His bold initial actions on the foreign
policy front, including the tacit acceptance of US defeat in Afghanistan and a
signiﬁcant reduction in the use of drone strikes (Cooper, 2021), offered glimmers
of hope that a major change of course was underway.
Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan –despite intense pressure from
the press and from within his own party –was an encouraging sign. He spoke
with a clarity of purpose that had eluded his predecessors, declaring that:
We were left with a simple decision: Either follow through... and leave Afghanistan, or say we
weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war. That
was the choice –the real choice –between leaving or escalating. I was not going to extend this
forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit. (Biden, 2021)
These actions –bringing to an end a two-decade military occupation and the
reduction in drone strikes –would no doubt be on the top of the list of
requirements for ending the US protection racket, as they alone would go far in
reducing the dangers (both direct, in the case of civilian deaths from US military
strikes, and indirect, in the case of blowback on the West) produced by the
Nevertheless, if the goal was to reestablish hegemony in the Gramscian sense –
to return to a regime of legitimate protection –the ﬁrst year of the Biden
administration did not offer great hope. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, while
undoubtedly the correct course of action, demonstrated once again the unreli-
ability of US protection in the present moment. The defeat of the (technologically
and ﬁscally far superior) US military at the hands of a poorly armed insurgency
and the rapid fall of Kabul –even before US forces had ﬁnalized their exit –
harkened back to the US defeat in Vietnam. The incapacity of the US military to
win wars was once again on full display, while the abandonment of thousands of
Afghan allies who were left defenseless against the new Taliban regime further
eroded trust in the United States as a reliable partner (e.g., Hudson & Ryan,
2021; Latiﬁ& Stepansky, 2021).
What’s more, the Biden administration complemented the troop withdrawal
with the announcement of an “over the horizon”strategy in Afghanistan: instead
of occupying territory with US forces, drones and other long-range weapons
systems would be used to continue US attacks on targets. Such a strategy, if
pursued, would lead to a large number of civilian casualties, as bombings
continue while military intelligence worsens –a fear that has been reinforced by
recent drone strike scandals (Aikins, 2021; Swan & Basu, 2021). Moreover, the
Biden administration’s seizure of the Afghan Central Bank’s assets (with the plan
to redistribute them to “families of 9/11 victims”and to aid organizations)
(Ahlman, 2022) and the punitive economic sanctions that it has imposed on
Afghanistan make assertions that the United States is acting in the interest (and
for the protection) of the Afghan people ring hollow. Although the Biden
administration claims that such actions are directed at the Taliban government,
their effect has been one of widespread harm. Indeed, ongoing civilian deaths
from drone strikes and economic sanctions reinforce the trend toward growing
168 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
anti-American sentiment among those whom the United States is claiming to
protect (e.g., Cambanis, 2021; Hasan, 2018).
For many US policymakers, the problem with the war in Afghanistan was not
that it was destructive (to Afghans and Americans alike), but that it bogged down
US power and prevented it from confronting China. The end of the war in
Afghanistan provided an opportunity to reorient military energies toward China.
As senior administration ofﬁcials regularly note, “The president deeply believes
that in contending with the threats and challenges of 2021 –as opposed to those
of 2001 –we need to be focusing our energy, our resources, our personnel, the
time of our foreign policy and national security leadership on those threats and
challenges that are most acute for the United States”(quoted in Gearan, 2021).
Another ofﬁcial says, “Our strategic competitors around the world would have
liked nothing more than to see us in Afghanistan for another 5, 10, 20 years
dedicating even more resources to Afghanistan while it remained in the midst of a
civil war”(quoted in Martina, Brunnstrom, & Ali, 2021). Chief among those
“threats,” “challenges,”and ‘strategic competitors’, they argue, is China.
The end of the war in Afghanistan was thus seen as an opportunity for a
renewed attempt to shift military focus from West Asia to East Asia. Adminis-
trations have attempted this before: in exchange for their support for a with-
drawal from Iraq in 2010, Obama yielded to the hawks in his administration for a
“pivot to Asia.”Those who had advocated a more belligerent stance toward a
rising China since the turn of the century rejoiced. As Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton wrote at the time:
As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan,
the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense
resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about
where we invest time and energy... One of the most important tasks of American statecraft
over the next decade will. . . be to lock in a substantially increased investment –diplomatic,
economic, strategic, and otherwise –in the Asia-Paciﬁc region. (Clinton, 2011, p. 57)
Yet the Obama era pivot never fully got off the ground. Before the reor-
ientation could take effect, the United States found itself embroiled again in the
Middle East, facing blowback from its disastrous invasions in the form of ISIS (in
Iraq) and a resurgent Taliban (in Afghanistan). While touting a pivot, Obama
ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009 and by 2014 had renewed combat
operations in Iraq. By the end of his term these wars were still in full swing, and
the growing use of drone attacks facilitated increased US involvement in a host of
other Middle Eastern conﬂicts, from Syria to Yemen. This ﬁrst pivot was a
Whether Biden’s pivot will be more successful remains to be seen. The inter-
vening Trump years helped expand the base of support within the United States
for anti-Chinese rhetoric and action. Biden continued in Trump’s footsteps, most
notably in taking actions that escalated, rather than de-escalated, tensions in the
South China Sea (Lendon, 2021) and in framing his domestic policy priorities
(from his infrastructure act to a “China competitiveness bill”) as necessary for
keeping a leg up in the rivalry (Lobosco, 2021; Tankersley, 2021). Such an open
Domination Without Hegemony 169
commitment to confrontation represents a sea change from the Obama pivot
attempt, in which the rhetoric of rivalry was shrouded in a language of cooper-
ation (for example, in outlining the pivot, Clinton nevertheless noted that “a
thriving America is good for China and a thriving China is good for America. We
both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conﬂict”[Clinton,
2011, p. 59]). The dramatic change in perspective during the Trump and Biden
administrations bodes well for US “China hawks”who wish to see a successful
pivot, even if it bodes poorly for those who wish to see a peaceful future. But
despite the apparent commitment to confront China, the United States may still
end up “distracted”from the pivot once more.
That US foreign policy has descended into a seemingly endless game of
“whack-a-mole” – in which a succession of crises, challengers, or insubordinates
require military attention –is itself a sign of the inability of the United States to
halt its own decline and of the limits of a coercive response to the erosion of its
hegemony. But US ofﬁcials are taking the wrong lessons from these series of
crises and from the failure of US militarism to halt decline: For example, when
recent US war games simulating a conﬂict in the South China Sea resulted in a
“brutal loss”for US forces, the response from the top echelons of military
command was to double down on high-tech weapons systems and augment U.S.
destructive capacity through improved coordination (Copp, 2021). Any discus-
sion over whether the United States could ever win or should even try to win a
military confrontation with China was not on the table –US military failure only
seems to lead to more and greater doses of ﬁrepower, never introspection.
The continued commitment shown by the Biden administration to maintain-
ing US primacy in a transformed world means that it is more likely that the
United States destroys the world than reestablishes hegemony. Indeed, the United
States ignores the changing balance of interstate power at its own peril. Chinese
President Xi Jinping, for example, has regularly noted that the United States
cannot simply bully the world. China, he says, will not accept “sanctimonious
preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us... we will never
allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate [China]. Anyone who tries will ﬁnd
them[selves] on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people”
(Davidson, 2021). In a similar tone, Russian President Vladimir Putin has likened
recent US policies to the destructive ﬁnal actions of past declining powers:
We hear threats from the [U.S.] Congress, from other [U.S.] sources. . .The people who do this,
they probably assume that the United States has such economic, military and political might
that it can get away with that. It is no big deal, that is what they think. The problem with
empires is that they think they are powerful enough to make some mistakes. We will buy these
[people], bully them, make a deal with them, give necklaces to them, threaten them with
battleships. And this will solve all the problems. But problems accumulate. A moment comes
when they cannot be solved anymore. (quoted in Auyezov, 2021)
While Putin is throwing stones while living in a glass house, his point stands:
The unwillingness of the United States to adjust and accommodate to the
changing geopolitical reality is a destabilizing force in the world.
170 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
As David Calleo (1987, p. 142) has argued, international orders break down
not only due to the rise of new challengers, “but also because declining powers,
rather than adjusting and accommodating, try to cement their slipping preemi-
nence into an exploitative hegemony.”Seen in this light, the trajectory we have
described –from legitimate protection to protection racket –can also be
understood as tracing a process whereby the declining power (the United States),
in seeking to “cement its slipping preeminence,”has accelerated the breakdown
of the international order and has become a major cause of deepening systemic
chaos (cf. Arrighi & Silver, 1999, pp. 288–289). Moreover, what was once
unthinkable –cataclysmic warfare, analogous to the world wars that character-
ized previous world-hegemonic transitions, but this time with far deadlier
weaponry –has become a real possibility.
THE NEXUS OF SOCIAL AND GEOPOLITICAL CONFLICT
To reprise: on the deﬁnitional level, a legitimate protector is one who provides “a
needed shield”from danger while having “little control over the danger’s
appearance”(Tilly, 1985, pp. 170–171). Legitimate protection goes hand-in-hand
with hegemony in the Gramscian sense of the word. As such, the transformation
that we have described from legitimate protection to protection racket is also a
transformation from a situation of “hegemony”to one of “domination pure and
simple”(Arrighi, 2007). Yet, as Max Weber (1978) argued using different terms,
power based on domination without legitimacy cannot sustain itself in the long
The US-led regime of legitimate protection stood on two pillars: one in the
military-geopolitical sphere and one in the social-economic sphere. Both of these
pillars collapsed by the early twenty-ﬁrst century. So far, we have focused mainly
on the geopolitical and military sphere. Yet, with the switch in the 1980s from
promoting welfare states and developmentalist social compacts to the promotion
of neoliberal policies, including austerity and structural adjustment on a global
scale, the social-economic pillar of US hegemony also crumbled. A vicious circle
has ensued whereby the insecurities produced by a dysfunctional US regime of
military protection and the insecurities produced by a dysfunctional regime of
social protection have fed into each other, resulting in a slide into systemic chaos
on a global scale (Silver, 2015, 2019; Silver & Payne, 2020).
Reversing the ongoing slide into systemic chaos requires a radical reimagi-
nation of legitimate protection for the twenty-ﬁrst century –one that provides a
credible solution to the deep social and ecological problems left behind by six
centuries of capitalism and Western domination of the world system. This is both
an urgent and daunting task. A simple reconstruction of the pillars that supported
the US regime of legitimate protection is not a viable option in either the
geopolitical or the social-economic sphere.
In the geopolitical sphere, a new global regime of legitimate protection would
have to reﬂect the changing balance of power between East/West and global
North/South –that is, the fact that ﬁve centuries of Western military and ﬁnancial
Domination Without Hegemony 171
domination of the capitalist world system has come to an end (Karatasli,
Kumral, Pasciuti, & Silver, 2017). A new world hegemony (if there is to be one)
would thus have to move beyond a project of –in shorthand –consent for the
West, coercion for “the rest.”Indeed, any regime of protection that does not
factor this world historical shift in the balance of power into its foundations will
be neither global nor legitimate.
In the social-economic sphere, a simple return to the Keynesian-welfare state
compacts is not possible. Although they were posed as an effective reformist
solution to the revolutionary challenges of the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century –
and as an alternative to the Soviet path –the vast majority of the world’s popu-
lation were excluded from these compacts, including a signiﬁcant segment of
working people in rich countries. As Immanuel Wallerstein argued, the univer-
salization of mass consumption was, from the start, a promise that could not be
kept in the context of historical capitalism; it was not possible to accommodate
“the combined demands of the Third World (for relatively little per person but for
a lot of people) and the Western working class (for relatively few people but quite
a lot per person)”without squeezing proﬁts dry (Wallerstein, 1995, p. 25). This
became patently clear with the global wave of social unrest in the 1960s and
1970s, which can, in part, be understood as insisting on the more rapid fulﬁllment
of the US hegemonic promise of development and universal mass consumption.
The ensuing crisis of proﬁtability in the 1970s was resolved through the
“neoliberal counter-revolution”and a massive (upward) redistribution of wealth.
By the late 1990s the crisis of proﬁtability was resolved but was soon thereafter
replaced by a deep crisis of legitimacy for global capitalism (Silver, 2019).
What’s more, the US regime was ecologically unsustainable. The universali-
zation of the Western resource-intensive development model –as the supposed
precondition for the universalization of mass consumption –was predicated on
treating non-renewable natural resources as if they were free goods –i.e., on the
externalization of the costs of reproduction of nature. While Gandhi, already in
the 1920s, had noted the non-generalizability of the Western development path,
pointing to how “a single tiny island kingdom”(England) required resources
from a vast colonial empire and was “keeping the entire world in chains”in order
to industrialize (quoted in Guha, 2000, p. 22), the United States’development
model took resource intensity to a whole new level. The ecological consequences
of generalizing this model of development have now come home to roost in the
form of the climate crisis.
Finally, the US regime of social protection was intimately tied with militarism.
It was based on massive military expenditures (i.e., military Keynesianism) and a
close connection between advances in workers’rights and warfare. The welfare
state and warfare state developed in symbiotic relationship to each other (Silver,
2015; cf. Payne, 2020). In retrospect, the relatively stable Cold War duopoly of
power (alongside quite a bit of good luck) meant that military buildups of the
twentieth century did not lead to the destruction of the planet. But in a world
characterized by a shifting geopolitical balance of power, a system in which social
protection of citizens is intimately tied to militarism is, to put it mildly, quite
dangerous. A major redirection of resources away from military pursuits is
needed to resolve the current crisis.
172 COREY R. PAYNE AND BEVERLY J. SILVER
In other words, a radical reimagination of legitimate protection is required.
Meanwhile, we are living in dangerous times.
Historically, in periods of crisis ruling groups have been tempted to divert
attention from their own failings by seeking scapegoats (internal and external)
around which to build national-chauvinistic cross-class alliances. This tendency
was evident during the prior period of systemic chaos associated with the crisis of
British world hegemony. Rulers had learned that, at least in the short-run, little
victorious wars could produce a “rally around the ﬂag”effect and bolster gov-
ernments. The Spanish-American War (for the United States) and the South
African War (for the United Kingdom) were two such examples. Likewise, just
before the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Russian interior minister remarked
that “this country needs...a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution”
(quoted in Levy, 1989, p. 264). Examples of such “diversionary wars”abound in
the historical record, such that “the presumed nexus of civil conﬂict and inter-
national conﬂict”has become, as Stohl (1980, p. 297) points out, “one of the most
venerable hypotheses in the social science literature.”
While rulers no doubt hoped to be on the winning side of short and popular
wars, the historical record is full of miscalculations. For Russia in 1905, rather
than stemming “the tide of revolution,”defeat in the war with Japan led to
revolutionary upheavals that shook the Empire. And while the First World War
initially produced a “rally around the ﬂag”response from workers (including the
collapse of labor internationalism as workers sided with their nation-states and
joined the war effort), rather than being a short popular war, the First World War
turned into a horrifying and deadly quagmire. The unexpectedly long and brutal
war produced a wave of revolutionary crises (including the 1917 Russian Rev-
olution) even before the war ended. Thus, although domestic social conﬂict was
sometimes contained by war, the brutality of war was just as likely to spark an
escalation in domestic social conﬂict and revolutionary crises. As a result, a
vicious circle of domestic and international conﬂict, and deepening systemic
chaos and human suffering, was unleashed in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth
century (Arrighi & Silver, 1999, Chapter 3; Silver, 2015).
Likewise, today, in the face of mounting social upheaval worldwide and a
deepening crisis of world hegemony, the temptation of ruling groups to ﬁnd
scapegoats –internal and external –grows, as does the temptation to engage in
“short victorious wars”to divert attention from elite failings. In periods in which
there is a stable geopolitical balance of power, the damage produced by little
“diversionary wars”(e.g., Reagan in Grenada, Clinton in Kosovo) may be
limited in their negative effects to those upon whom the bombs fall. But in
periods of world hegemonic breakdown (like today) –with ongoing major shifts
in the global balance of power –little diversionary wars can easily spiral out of
control, with heightened risk of triggering another decades-long vicious circle of
war and social conﬂict, and deepening systemic chaos –this time in a world with
far deadlier weapons.
Ruling groups, both in and outside the United States, that are busy banging
the drums of war are essentially playing with matches while sitting on a powder
keg. Removing the powder keg –that is, bringing about structural
Domination Without Hegemony 173
transformations that address the root causes of the crisis –is an essential
precondition for bringing an end to the systemic chaos. As we have suggested
above, this will require a radical rethinking of hegemony and what legitimate
protection might look like in the twenty-ﬁrst century. In the meantime, if
humanity is to survive long enough to see these transformations through, it is
necessary to “take the matches away”from ruling groups who appear to be
willing to risk blowing up the world in an effort to retain their own wealth and
power. This means resistance to attempts by elites to divert social antagonisms
into cross-class, pro-war compacts, and a rejection of growing calls for milita-
rism. It also means a widespread shift in the United States away from the
mentality of maintaining global primacy at any cost and toward adjustment and
accommodation to the changing balance of power in the world.
To paraphrase E. H. Carr (1945, p. 204): on the eve of the First World War,
ruling classes convinced the mass of workers that “their bread was buttered”on
the side of national belligerence, rather than on the side of internationalist unity.
Today, the costs of making the same mistake are unfathomable.
1. We would like to thank Ricardo Jacobs, Sahan Karatasli, Kevin Young, and par-
ticipants in the Arrighi Center General Seminar at Johns Hopkins University for their
helpful feedback on an earlier draft. We are grateful to Richard Lachmann (1956–2021) for
encouraging us to write this piece as well as for the inspiration he provided as an intel-
lectual, colleague and human being.
2. To be sure, the claim of the dominant power to represent the universal interest is
always more or less fraudulent. For one thing, those excluded from the hegemonic bloc
(Gramsci’s“antagonistic groups”) are ruled by force. Nevertheless, the claim of the
dominant power to represent the universal interest must have a signiﬁcant degree of
credibility in the eyes of allied groups. “Hegemony”(as opposed to domination) pre-
supposes that “the leading group should make sacriﬁces of an economic-corporate kind”;
that is, it cannot sustainably rule solely on the basis of its own narrow interests (Gramsci,
1971, p. 161). Karl Polanyi took a different path to arrive at a similar conclusion, writing
that: “Unless the alternative to a given social set up is a plunge into utter destruction, no
crudely selﬁsh class can maintain itself in the lead”(1944, p. 163, emphasis added).
3. For example, as we write, tensions are ramping up between the United States and
Russia over Ukraine, leading some in Congress to express concern that an escalation on
that front would distract the United States from the pivot to China. Republican Senator
Josh Hawley, for one, called on the Biden administration to drop US support for Ukraine’s
eventual membership in NATO, arguing that “a binding commitment to defend the
country would undermine efforts to counter China”(quoted in Basu, 2022, emphasis added).
4. It is for similar reasons that the “end”of America’s longest war in Afghanistan was
celebrated in Washington with a dramatic increase in the U.S. military budget via the
passage of a bill that is “laser-focused on preparing our military to prevail in a conﬂict with
China,”as was proudly proclaimed by the top Republican on the House Armed Services
Committee, Mike Rogers of Alabama (quoted in O’Brien, 2021). The budget surpassed
even the heights requested by the Biden administration –showcasing how, even if a
president were to call for cuts, the bipartisan and interest-group forces driving the
military-industrial complex would not easily be brought to heel (see, e.g., Lachmann,
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