Jay-Z, The Game, Global Hegemony, And Obama

Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch takes an international relations look at the recent sniping at Jay-Z by LA-based rapper The Game (dis track here--warning: offensive and not safe for work). As hip-hop's closest thing to a hegemon since the (not so) Cold War between rap superpowers Biggie and Tupac, Jay-Z faces the same problem that's confronted the USA since the Soviet Union collapsed: as a hegemon, how do you respond to sniping from lesser powers? Being on top increases the number of attackers and, as Lynch notes, decreases the marginal utility of hitting back. If Jay-Z (or the U.S.) hits back at every hater with hate missiles his own, he exhausts resources, elevates The Game to his level, and lends publicity to his opponent. If the hegemon responds, it must do so in away that preserves alliances and its own structural power.

It's a microcosm of America's geopolitical situation.

But there might not be an apt analogy here in current U.S. politics: in fact, Lynch's analogy reminds us that sniping from lesser foreign adversaries is something President Obama has yet to face, except for the predictable, reactionary accusations of Iran's Supreme Leader amid his own country's turmoil, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for an apology soon after Obama came to power (so soon, in fact, that it mostly got ignored).

(Obama and Jay-Z have their similarities unrelated to Lynch's foreign policy analogy. Both sharpened their elbows early--Jay-Z developed his freestyle technique and subject matter while selling drugs in New York; Obama developed his coalition-building tactics as a young community organizer on Chicago's South side--and both brush their shoulders off. Jay-Z's specialty is freestyle; Obama's is pre-written speeches. You could write a book about it.)

The Game, in this equation, stands in aptly as Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez--a lyrically talented but erratic firebrand, prone to fighting words. (Compare The Game's dis track to Chavez's 2006 U.N. speech.) Obama has started off, seemingly, on a good foot with Chavez, despite the past, and Ahmadinejad has been busy. Jay-Z and The Game, however, have flirted with criticism before.

Lynch says Jay-Z is working behind the scenes to make sure his alliance structure is in order, taking a cue from the realist line of IR thinking. That seems to be the path our superpower nation is on now, with an administration that professes coalition building as a mode of anticipating and dealing with conflict.

What's relevant about the analogy is that Obama has spent considerable energy forging good relationships so far, so that not even a typical middle-power-level adversary like Chavez will go after him. But he will probably, at some point, have to decide whether to respond when someone like The Game takes a shot. Like Hova, Obama can do some damage in a battle--witness his debates and speeches vs. John McCain.

Obama foundered in the eyes of some when Iran cracked down on protesters and accused the U.S. of meddling. They wanted to see him take out the big rhetorical stick and whack the Iranian regime with the full force of his linguistic skill. The next time a world leader provokes Obama, he'll likely face the same pressure to use his skills as the undisputed king of freestyle--but he, like Jay-Z, will probably begin with coalition building and restraint.