Is There a Possible Dialogue Between Hegemony and Cosmopolitanism? Interview with Frédéric Ramel

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire

What do the two concepts of hegemony and cosmopolitanism imply? Are they opposed or is there a possible dialogue between them? In a recently published chapter (“Competition for Hegemony ” in the edited volume Cosmopolitanism in Hard Times), Professor of political science at Sciences Po CERI Frédéric Ramel questions these concepts and explores their scope. The following is an interview with the author.

In a recently published chapter, you analyse the relationship between hegemony (and hegemonism) and cosmopolitanism. Could you give us an overview of what these concepts mean?

Just as any other concept in International Relations, the notion of hegemony is a contested one and there is no consensus on a definition. Hegemony has three main acceptations: the concentration of material (economic and military) means of power by a state (according to the realist approach); the legitimation of a dominant discourse founded on the confusion between a particular interest of a state and the universal interest (according to the critical neo-Marxist approach); the stabilisation of an international order by state power that favours cooperation between its peers (according to the neo-liberal approach). Several examples come up as good illustrations of the three approaches, respectively: the position of Great Britain on a global scale during the nineteenth century, the discourse produced by the George W. Bush administration to justify the recourse to armed force against Iraq in 2003, and the US policy that aimed at setting up a global financial order at the end of the Second World War.

Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, corresponds to a philosophical current that is not homogeneous as such. However, in the modern era, cosmopolitism promotes a political unity of the world that relies on a citizenship that would transcend national identities.

From a philosophical standpoint, as a start we can consider that hegemony and cosmopolitanism refer to two radically different conceptions of the world: in short, between Machiavelli and Kant. The first entails resorting to more or less violent means in order to guarantee the very existence of political unities (plurality and war prevail). The second seeks to progressively establish peace through law (in history, plurality can trigger a progress towards pacification). The two horizons thus diverge.

Statue of Greek historian Thucydides in from of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna. Photo by Sianstock, Shutterstock

The objective of my chapter published in the coedited volume Cosmopolitanism in Hard Times has been to question these two models and to examine their scope. I begin by underlining the forgotten etymological origin of the concept of hegemony that is to be found in Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general who contrasted domination (incarnated by Athens in the Peloponnesian War) with hegemony (as practised by Sparta). The latter supposes self-control, restraint, responsibility—virtues that moved from the political space to intimate sphere with the Stoics. Indeed, for Stoicism a hegemonic being takes care of himself but does not seek to impose his views on others. If he does, then he moves into hegemonism, i.e. a distortion of the very spirit at the core of hegemony. After this introduction, my chapter examines the peculiarities of hegemonism that are radically opposed to cosmopolitan tendencies, at any time.

Where does the link—if any—between hegemony/hegemonism and cosmopolitanism come from? Do you have some examples, be they recent or more ancient, of such a link/relationship?

Most of the time, hegemony and cosmopolitanism do not really go well together... For realists, they are incompatible because the very idea of a global citizenship is an illusion. Only relations between great powers structure the international scene. As an example, for realists, the idea of a global unity based on the disappearance of borders is a misconception, as is the idea that oceans serve as bridges between nations. According to this perspective, this natural element is closer to an insurmountable wall for those actors who do not possess the adapted naval and air assets to project their military forces into and beyond that space.

For neo-Marxist critics, hegemony in the name of universal values is related to a particularly presumptuous ideological construct. Hegemony therefore hides domination.

Only the neo-liberals believe that complementarity can emerge when the hegemon aims to disseminate an order that would be favourable to all states by nurturing the convergence of interests within intergovernmental organisations. Even worse, the absence of a hegemon means the disappearance of order, as shown by the historical episode that is systematically mentioned to denounce its terrible consequences, i.e. the absence of a global leadership during the 1929 crisis during which the responses to the great economic depression were purely national and with no coordination. Nevertheless, this rather idyllical conception enters into tension with the cosmopolitan project. First, the hegemonic stability claimed by the neo-liberals tends to reduce and limit power struggles rather than encourage the creation of a new political form beyond nation-states. Additionally, this hegemonic stability is conceived as a multiplier of power for the benefit of the hegemon, its ultimate guarantor. Here, hegemonic peace is promoted, the spirit of which remains impervious to cosmopolitanism, which seeks to equalise power.

The British Commonwealth of National Together. National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Is there anything like cosmopolitan hegemony or a hegemony of cosmopolitanism?

The cosmopolitan hegemony that you suggest corresponds to the idea of hegemonic stability that I have just mentioned. For a state, this means referring to universal values in order to impose its own power. The hegemony of cosmopolitanism refers to another more diffuse phenomenon, the characteristics of which go beyond a particular state’s foreign policy. It means the dissemination—or even the imposition—of universal values without any discussion, without the acknowledgment of alterity, or even by resorting to coercive means in order to impose these values (take the post-national wars as the intervention in Kosovo in 1999 denounced by Ulrich Beck for example).

The current international system reveals an heterogeneity of norms that are brandished by emerging countries against Western countries—whose colonial experience in the name of a civilising mission is the subject of fierce contestation. In both cases, it seems that we encounter hegemonism rather than hegemony as the Ancients (Thucydides or the Stoics) understood it. In other words, a conduct or a conception that can flirt with imperialistic temptations... More than ever, it is necessary to encourage the establishment of connections, discussions in order to prevent potential tensions between diverging norms from becoming fierce oppositions.

What does twenty-first century hegemony look like? What are the motivations behind this new hegemony understood as free access and free movement within the global commons?

Today, competition for hegemony between great powers is less to be found in territorial conflicts, or related to borders, than in the access to common/shared spaces, those spaces that belong to no-one and are open to all (high seas, international airspace, outer space, cyberspace). These spaces are absolutely vital for states’ and societies’ prosperity since they bear the flows of globalisation (assets, goods, and people). Controlling access to these spaces in order to guarantee the continuity of these flows while preventing other great powers from altering the freedom to manoeuvre within these spaces constitutes a strategic priority. The objective is two-fold: to allow for the continuity of social and economic activities that automatically use these flows; and to prevent any form of destabilising intrusion by other powers in these spaces, in particular in cyberspace with fake news and attacks.

STS115_Atlantis_undock_ISS.jpg: NASAderivative work: The High Fin Sperm Whale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That being said, this competition for hegemony produces contestation and can fall into illusion. Other actors—particularly independent transnational but also national social forces—claim other priorities, for example the context resulting from the global pandemic (a call for a renewed social multilateralism that places the improvement of living conditions at the heart of the political agenda rather than strategic power struggles). Additionally, the very idea of a hegemonic peace based on the precedence of a state power is not unanimously shared. Who should exercise it? The United States? Their time is over, even beyond the neo-populist situation of Donald Trump’s presidency, which moved away from the Democrat/Republican consensus concerning the function of regulation at the global scale (the difference between the two political parties related more to the way of envisaging this than to the fact of actually acting on it). China? Another state? It seems to me that such scenarios rely once again on a confusion between hegemony and hegemonism. On the one hand, they are fuelled by a conception of a benevolent hegemon who can at any moment fall into hegemonism by refusing to acknowledge the uniqueness of the partners and by imposing its views with no nuance. On the other hand, they do not give enough credit to this idea of hegemony as restraint that to me seems fundamental. A hegemony that can therefore be applied to any state or even any actor (social or individual) from the moment it/he/she respects not only itself but also the Other. I am not sure the great powers can escape through hegemonism, but if hegemony still has a future, it may be by reconnecting with its Stoic traditions that invite us to nurture a moral sense based on temperance. States do not have the monopoly on benevolence, and most certainly not the largest among them...

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.

Frédéric Ramel's chaper was published in Vincenzo Cicchelli and Sylvie Mesure (eds). Cosmopolitanism in Hard Times, Leiden & Boston: Brill Publishers, 2021.

Selected references

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Frédéric Ramel is Full Professor at Sciences Po, the Head of the Political Science Department and a researcher at the CERI. He participated in the creation of the Institute of Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM), of which he has been the scientific director between 2009 and 2013. Frédéric Ramel deals with international security, intergovernmental organizations and normative issues in IR. He coordinated the ANR Datawar (on the production and usages of databases dedicated to armed conflicts) and the GDR-CNRS GRAM (Groupe de recherche sur l’action multilatérale). One of his research programmes is also dedicated to aesthetics, music and sensitivity in the international realm. Among Ramel’s recent publications: International Relations, Music and Diplomacy (coedited with Cecile Prévost-Thomas, Palgrave MacMillan, 2018), “Teaching IR through Arts : some lessons learned ”, International Studies Perspectives, 19-4, November 2018; a special issue on the acoustic turn in Arts and International Affairs (2018) and with the Presses de Sciences Po: L’Enjeu mondial 2018. Les bouleversements de la conflictualité (coedited with Benoit Pelopidas).

Cover image: Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Copyright: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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