Leviathan’s Justice: America’s Role as the Global Hegemon

Contrary to the leftist and libertarian interpretation of the world, American exceptionalism exists and has certain implications for the country’s foreign policy.  Why did the United States abandon its isolationist tendencies in the mid-20th century?  After the Second World War, America was the dominating super power in the world; it had no rival.  However, with this new status came a powerful enemy: the Soviet Union and other communist nations.  This led American leaders to re-think isolationism and the U.S.’s response in the wake of two World Wars and address the threat of communism.

Men like George Marshall and Harry Truman decided it was better for America to engage the world, including using intervention and economic aid, to prevent another world war.  Essentially, America engaging the world comes from an ultimate desire for peace and to prevent millions of deaths.

If America is going to engage the world to make it more peaceful, then the leaders need a sound theoretical framework from which to articulate sound foreign policy objectives.  An excellent place to start is with a realist perspective coming from reading Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.  International order is anarchic, which means that there is no authority over the countries of the world.  They exist in a “state of nature.”  Hobbes used the Latin phrase “bellum omnium contra omnes” to describe the state of nature; it translates to “a war of all against all.”  This is one of the reasons state on state wars happen; countries can invade one another with impunity from authorities.

This is where the Hobbesian social contract and the Leviathan come into play.  In a society, the people have to give up certain rights so that an authority may establish order. Typically, the forfeited rights can include everything; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Leviathan, which holds the power, can punish those who infringe the social contract.  The U.S. has consistently made the world a better place by defeating totalitarian regimes and international threats such as Nazi Germany, communist Soviet Union, and Islamic terrorist al-Qaeda. America must act as the world’s Leviathan, and its foreign policy should reflect that principle.

Although America needs to be the global hegemon, it should have guiding principles on when to intervene.  John of Salisbury, a 12th century bishop and political theorist who worked as the Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury under Theobald and Thomas Beckett, offers a useful paradigm on when to fight against certain regimes.

Salisbury published his Policraticus in 1159, which articulated a doctrine about tyrannicide.  This medieval concept applies to today’s geopolitics, although in a redacted form.  Tyrants were different than kings because the former no longer adhered to the rule of the law; a tyrant became plenipotentiary.  This means he was above the law, and through his voluntaristic nature his will was all that mattered.  The thought is best expressed at the Diet of Roncaglia in 1158 when the doctors of the law said to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, “You, being the living Law, can give, loosen, and proclaim law…kings rule while you are the judge; anything you wish, you carry on as the animate Law” (Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies, p. 129).

Although tyrants and kings are similar, the term king comes with it a normative prescription of behavior in ruling the people. The normative behavior includes a dedication to the rule of law, putting the king under the law, and adhering to justice. When a king then acts as if he can whatever he wills, he becomes a tyrant and moves into disorder. Then “[i]t is not only permitted, but is also equitable and just to eliminate tyrants. For he who receives the sword deserves to perish by the sword (Politicraticus, Book I, chapter 15).” Regicide was not allowed, but tyranicide was because the individual no longer followed the normative behavior expected for rulers. The tyrant was not sovereign in the medieval sense, so his actions negated the rules against killing him.

Today, America can intervene when another country or sub-state actor refuses to act how they should or how they’ve agreed to act. American government should seek justice above all else so that the world can be a safer place.

Treston Wheat :: Georgetown University :: Washington, DC :: @TrestonWheat



  1. I like what you have written but I am not certain that what you have said can apply across more than just a contemporary context. For example, I am not sure how Hobbes’ theory necessarily explains a multipolar international system aside from the realist tradition which illustrates order would be maintained through a balance of power. Hobbes does not really suggest that order can be made through balances of power.

  2. Zac Stephens says:

    Treston Wheat is the smartest man alive! He should be given the authority of Leviathan over the education system to see we all become Megaminds such as he is!

  3. is this your argument for interventions in Iran, Syria, North Korea?

  4. The fall of EVERY great empire started with an over extension of it’s military. Who will police the world when we are broke? To call us isolationist before WWII is a bit misleading. We traded with other countries and allowed our citizens to travel and even allowed citizens of other nations to come here. Sounds like we weren’t so isolated after all. After WWII the powers that be realized just how much money there is to be made policing the world, just how much power is there. We have also turned friendly nations of America into enemies, Iran, Egypt, etc… We make more friends with trade and decency than we do with bombs.

  5. I don’t think I understand why you think we, as a nation, should interfere/impose anything on other nations? I understand we can impose ourselves and that we often do…BUT you seem to think we are obliged to correct the actions of other even if their behavior is not a direct threat to us….

    Like you article…Write more…You voice is important.

    Ron –

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