09/24/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Taking the Lead: Obligations of the United States as Global Hegemon

The international debate over whether the United States should intervene militarily in Syria is multifaceted. With this conflict comes not only the divide over favoring or opposing intervention, but widespread fear of backlash against the U.S. and its allies, fear of long-term military commitment, and hesitancy over the effectiveness of such an intervention, as a recent Pew poll shows. Even President Obama wavered on these issues in his September 10th remarks, saying, in favor of using U.S. force, that

even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver... the last few days, we've seen some encouraging signs, in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action... For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world's a better place because we have born them...

In the same speech, Obama spoke against the idea that the U.S. should intervene: "as several people wrote to me, we should not be the world's policemen. I agree... America is not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong..."

The question Syria has awakened is whether it is the United States' job to "be the world's police," an unappealing designation to many. If police are responsible for preventing and detecting crime and maintaining the public order, international relations theory dictates that, yes, it is our job.

In the 19th century, we had a multipolar international system in which Great Britain, Austria, Russia, France, and Prussia shared equal power. Later, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two world superpowers that emerged from WWII in the new bipolar system. The Cold War began in 1945 because these superpowers had conflicting ideologies and national interests (capitalism vs. socialism, for example) that influenced their perceptions of the international system and thus, their actions. When the Cold War ended in 1989, an unprecedented world order was established with United States as the global leader, or hegemon.

A hegemon is defined as a dominant state that has a preponderance of power that often establishes and enforces the rules and norms in the international system. The United States consciously took on this position of leadership in the post-Cold War order.

In our contemporary international system, the U.S. remains the central power, with the European Union and China lagging behind. As hegemon, the United States has more military, economic, technological, diplomatic, political, and geographical advantages than other countries. G. John Ikenberry, Michael Mastanduno, and William C. Wohlforth demonstrate in their article "Unipolarity, State Behavior, and Systemic Consequences" that other states rival the U.S. in one area or another, but "the multifaceted character of American power places it in a category of its own... What makes the global system unipolar is the distinctive distribution of material resources."

Given the above definition's specification that the hegemon often establishes and enforces the rules and norms in the international system, the question becomes: to what ends and in what situations should we devote our national energies and all of our advantages towards assisting countries in need?

"...There is some positive relationship between a state's relative capability to help or harm others and its ability to get them to do what it wants," Ikenberry, Mastanduno, and Wohlforth argue. "Even if the relationship is complex, more capabilities relative to others ought to translate generally into more power and influence."

This being true, isn't our job as the world's hegemonic power defined by our ability to at least try to keep our fellow countries conflict free? As the world's most powerful country--a title that took us 45 years of fighting with Russia to attain--isn't it irresponsible not to intervene in some way?

Speaking specifically on the Syrian conflict, Samantha Power believes that a lack of U.S. action signals to North Korea and Iran that the international community is willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction. That's how much the actions of the United States, as hegemon, matter. She corroborates that "...the United States possesses unique capabilities to carry out a swift, limited and proportionate strike so as to prevent and deter future use of chemical weapons" and that "countries around the world have joined us in supporting decisive action." As the most powerful nation and the only one with these capabilities, we represent those countries. We are obligated to act in some way.

Power does admit that "the United States cannot police every crisis any more than we can shelter every refugee." Maybe we can't resolve every single crisis but with all of our resources, we owe it to those in the international community who have less than us to try to maintain order. Giving our full consideration to each conflict that arises or crime that occurs--the opposite of what we did during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide--is what makes us the world's police.

One question that stood out in my research was "if the U.S. stops being the world's police, do we stop being the world's superpower?" Our might over Russia during the Cold War and our unique resources are what make us the global hegemon but, like it or not, if we choose not to use these advantages to police the world, what kind of superpower are we?

In a speech to the U.N. today Obama cautioned: "the danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries" but rather that the U.S. "may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." This remark, it seems, is an indication of Obama's reverence for the United States' position as hegemon.