Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Liam Downey

Second Advisor

Jennifer Bair

Third Advisor

Thomas Mayer


This research project studies the United States as a hegemonic power, or, in other words, as a nation that exerts disproportionate influence in shaping the contours of the international economic and political system. In order to promote the global accumulation of capital and secure critical geopolitical goals, a hegemonic power must wield military violence while also demonstrating the moral leadership necessary to earn the assent of a critical mass of nations. But which of these is most fundamental to U.S. hegemony, coercion or consent? Structural perspectives in sociology suggest that the capacity to use unrestrained military violence is much more important to the U.S. government than compliance with international humanitarian norms. Constructionist perspectives, on the other hand, suggest that, in pursuit of hegemony, the United States will respect international normative restraints and relinquish its ability to use certain types of violence. This dissertation presents several rival explanations, or theoretical pathways, that exist along a spectrum between strong constructionist and strong structuralist positions. Evidence from three case studies on U.S. policy development regarding chemical weapons, torture, and landmines is presented and used to adjudicate between these competing models. As a whole, this research indicates that the United States is unwilling to abdicate militarily effective forms of violence in order to comply with humanitarian norms. U.S. officials, however, attempt to obscure the often stark divide between humanitarian standards and actual military policies by employing several legitimating strategies, which are identified in the course of this research. These techniques include the use of humanitized technology, humanitizing discourse, defensive categorization, and surrogacy.

Included in

Sociology Commons