You had a bad day. Plans fell through; a date went badly; something you really hoped would happen didn’t. But it’s cool. As the world’s hegemon, you know you’ll feel better once you’ve sent your drones against a beach full of screaming children. Because you’re the world hegemon, and you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.
But getting there ain’t precisely the smoothest of rides. Smarter, tougher, and luckier people than you have all taken a stab and ended up shot in a bunker, probably poisoned, or dead before your mid-30s.
So how do you avoid their fates? Mostly, luck and patience. Oh, and using the How-To Guide of Hegemony.
First, hegemony defined
“Hegemony” comes from the Greek “hegemon,” which means “ruler” or “leader”, and which is very different than an empire, kingdom, or nation-state. The United States isn’t really an empire because it doesn’t control large swathes of foreign territory directly (Puerto Rico and other territories blur that line a bit, but those territories are more or less free to join the U.S. or quit it as they like, undermining the imperial categorization).
The U.S. does run a big and effective hegemony. It’s got various alliance systems all over the world that overlap with one another. None of them could function without the U.S. All of them follow America’s general lead. This is your ideal world: a place where you call the big shots and let the little guys deal with the details.
Rule #1 – You’ll need some large, productive land, with great access to the sea
The “geo” in “geopolitics” is all about geography. Geography dictates what futures are possible. Alexander the Great could have never built an empire from Athens – Athens was too small to support the army he needed. Conversely, democracy couldn’t have been invented in Macedonia – Macedonia had too many military frontiers to let such a fickle system of government survive for long. In both cases, geography made certain choices possible and others impossible.
Thus you need a big country with loads of resources within its borders. The more isolated, the better, and preferably isolated by sea. There is such a thing as “too big” – Russia’s long frontiers are not ideal, and Canada’s frozen tundra, while both isolated and massive, isn’t really superb for superpower building.
You’ll need natural and widespread rivers that can transport resources from one place to another. Think of these as free superhighways. And they should stay ice-free for as much of the year as possible. In general, you want a country that is neither too hot nor too cold with long, stable growing seasons.
Most of all, you should have enough strategic resources like oil, timber, metals, and foodstuffs to survive a blockade and still fight a war. No nation is an island; trade matters, but your army should be able to fight well even under the worst possible circumstances.
Rule #2 – Know who you are
Your national identity is super important for cohesion. You can’t have an army made up of different languages; that’ll play hell with command and control, but invariably some dick will say something like, “Wait, why are we fighting for those creeps who don’t speak our language?” It’ll spiral downhill and you’ll either have to shoot that guy or watch him grab a piece of your country and make it his own.
What kind of national culture is pretty irrelevant to success so long it doesn’t crowd out reason and science. If your culture is dominated by people who don’t believe the world is round, you’ll have a hell of a time convincing them to send a naval expedition to bomb somewhere in Africa. Barring that, you can adopt any language, religion, and national traits you like so long as you have the geography to produce a well-populated, well-fed, and resource-secure state. Go ahead and worship the Moon Reptiles! Just make sure your culture can understand why it may be advantageous to establish missile bases on the moon one day.
To establish this secure identity, you can use either force or persuasion. Force means either shooting, expelling, or exterminating those who don’t share your national identity and, while this can create a Here Today, Gone Tomorrow situation with some ethnic rebels giving you trouble, it can also waste military resources on campaigns better not fought and create excuses for other foreign powers to meddle in your country. Oh, if only Serbia hadn’t tried to ethnically cleanse Kosovo in 1999!
Persuasion is slower, but safer. Control of national media helps, but mostly this is about education. Your enemies won’t invade your country if you try to abolish local languages in schools and the workplace, but these tactics don’t always work. Japan tried to bring its language to Korea during its long period of colonization. Korea has neither forgiven nor forgotten that.
In all likelihood, you’ll have to do a mixture of both – burn out a few villages, deport an ethnic region or two, but always avoid appearing to be too much like Hitler. If you’re lucky, you’ll take power in a country that’s already done this deep in the past. American presidents, after all, don’t have to take responsibility for the crimes of the U.S. cavalry in the 19th century, and British monarchs don’t feel bad about their ancestors wiping out the Catholics in the 16th century.
Rule #3 – Don’t let other powers form coalitions against you
Nobody likes a winner who is too blatant about winning. If you’ve ever played a game of Risk, you’ll know that everyone gangs up on someone who gets too powerful, too early. There’s a point in the game where you can suddenly surge forward and win by appearing to be #2 or #3, but being an obvious #1 too early is often fatal.
So while you’ll have to be aggressive there and again, you can’t be too aggressive, and certainly not too successful. Losing a war isn’t the end of the world, in this view, because it can reinforce an nonthreatening view of you. The last thing you want is a coalition against you that checks your rise.
Oh, stupid Mr. Hitler ignored this to his peril. What if he’d stopped in 1938 with Austria and died in his bed in the 1960s or 70s? Germany certainly could have avoided nearly five decades of division.
Britain and the U.S., conversely, both did bang-up jobs of avoiding being too strong until it was too late for their enemies to stop them. It wasn’t until the defeat of Napoleon that Britain secured its prominent position in Europe, but even then it had the good sense to balance European powers off one another to create the illusion that a coalition of powers on the continent could check its ambitions. Its leaders skillfully played Europe against itself while building the world’s largest empire.
The U.S., meanwhile, kept from using its full power until the day came when it was forced to. The U.S. could have taken a stab at world domination as early as 1900, but had it done so, would have forced Europe to unite. Rather, it waited until Europe went mad in World War II and then jumped on the opportunity. Which leads us to Rule #4.
Rule #4 – Exploit chaos when you can get something out of it
You’re busy trying not to alarm anyone by being too successful, but you realize that your power stock isn’t going anywhere fast unless you take down the other great states in the world. This is easier than it looks; great powers compete with one another over time, and eventually they stumble into wars. Your best bet is to stay out of their conflcits as much as possible. Rather, you should aim to be the decisive force for any one side. You get to pick the winners; then, you get to sit at the table and split the spoils.
Don’t pick friends; pick allies you can drop when you need to. Let others make mistakes, fight bad wars, grow weaker, and bide your time until a critical moment comes when your influence can be most felt. You’ll have to do this more than once and it could take decades. But if you do it right, you’ll end up being the most powerful nation in the world by virtue of letting others exhaust themselves for dominance.
Rule $5 – Enforce your hegemony selectively
Now that you’ve slipped past the other great powers and become a superpower, you must keep the peace. You’ll need to have strong rules on what wars are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. You can’t make the world a utopia, and if you try, you’ll be creating the chaos you were just told to avoid. Instead, you have to fight selectively and purposefully. All wars should underpin your domination of each region and should do one of two things: divide regions further or replace regional military forces with your own.
You can, on occasion, be a good guy, but only if it’s on the cheap and it can be successful. Remember that your enemies still wait in the wings and will take advantage of a slip-up by you to expand their own power and influence, so don’t fight wars you can’t lose. Think of everything in terms of percentages – what’s the percentage of GDP you’ll siphon by invading this country or that, what’s the percentage of casualties your population will put up with, etc. Absolute numbers don’t matter; a big country like yours can lose 10,000 men in a single battle if that battle is worth fighting.
All other powers must be corralled and watched. Any attempt by them to grow should be painful, slow, and dangerous. As much incentive as possible must exist to prevent them from matching you. All-out war isn’t preferable; remember, you can’t afford such things with your forces spread worldwide. Instead, you use your many tools to check would-be competitors, using regional forces to support you, and hopping from one foot to the other as crisis requires.
If at all possible, make people accept and even need your hegemony. When people complain about you too much, simply step back from a crisis you can afford to let simmer. When everyone realizes nobody but you can solve it, your popularity will suddenly rebound. And make sure nobody but you can be that fixer-upper! Should another state slide into that role, you’re in trouble.
Keep the peace until one day you can do away with nation-states entirely
A truly successful hegemon should be the last one. Rather than replaying history by falling and being replaced, your ultimate goal should be a slow, steady process of standardization and unification that takes place so slowly that nobody’s the wiser when they wake up one day and there aren’t countries anymore. That’ll take at least a hundred years, if not more, because you’ll have to wait for entire generations to naturally die off and be replaced by more globalized youth. But as an immortal, you’ve got the time.
From securing your geography, you then secure your identity to something that works. Once united, you can prevent others from uniting against you; being selectively passive generally works. In the meantime, you exploit others mistakes until the world recognizes you as the only power capable of keeping the peace. Then you keep that peace for as long as necessary, ending the nation-state system and replacing it with something better.
Or you succumb to the cycle of history, lose everything, and get shot in a bunker. Either way, you’ve had a great time. Be patient; be balanced; if you’re lucky enough to have a good starting point, the odds favor you. And have fun! It might take a century or two, but if played right, you get to be the guy (or gal) whose name is synonymous with Pax Yourcountryana.