Sam Seitz

As I’ve begun research for my senior thesis, I’ve been reading voluminous amounts of literature on Germany’s responses to the European sovereign debt crisis. The specifics of my research are unimportant, but one particularly interesting argument I’ve encountered is that Germany acted so indecisively because of its federal, highly-dispersed political system. In other words, the power of the Bundesbank, FCC, and Länder allows them to veto (or at least meaningfully impede) European level decisions made by the Chancellery. This strikes me as a very compelling argument, but it has also led me to consider a more general assertion: Hegemonic powers will almost always have centralized control of foreign policy in one agency or individual. I’m far from convinced that this is true, by the way, but I’m willing to loosely defend it because it seems intuitive.

The reason this argument strikes me as plausible is that hegemonic powers, by their very nature, need to have active and engaged foreign policies in order to maintain international order and provide public goods. Nuno Monteiro might dispute this view, but I think that the literature generally supports my interpretation. Thus, it makes sense that hegemonic states would create domestic institutions, or at least informal political organizations, that enable rapid and decisive action. Having a dispersed political system with many different power centers simply wouldn’t be efficient, leading to indecision and national policy that is unmoored from strategic imperatives.

There seems to be at least some evidence of this historically. For example, Rome transitioned from a Republican government to one in which political power was concentrated into the hands of an emperor. This shift occurred just as Rome was expanding into a hegemonic power. One sees similar trends in the United States, where the New Deal and National Security Act of 1947 boosted Executive power and autonomy just as the U.S. was emerging onto the world stage. The Soviet Union also had a highly concentrated political system that allowed its leaders to act with decisive force. Of course, the U.S.S.R. may not technically qualify as a “hegemon,” but it certainly exercised control over a large network of communist states.

It is also worth noting that my view (again, loosely held) is not that concentrated domestic political systems are sufficient for the exercising of hegemony. Rather, it is that they are one of several necessary conditions. Canada’s Prime Minister is more institutionally powerful than the American President, after all, but I don’t think anyone is predicting a Pax Canada in the coming decades.

Anyway, I’m curious what y’all think. I’m sure there are some cases that do not neatly fit my theory, but I suspect there is at least some loose relationship between concentrated domestic power and effective international leadership.