To understand whether ideas matter in international politics and if they can be agents of systemic transformation, one must examine the debate about the “benevolent” hegemony of the United States. Supporters of moral American hegemony claim that the spread of its moral values worldwide will bring about an international transformation. In short, hegemony serves a universal good. A similar claim has been made about the ancient international system of South Asia. The claim here is that the rule of Asoka—the Indian ruler credited with spreading Buddhism and nonviolence to the rest of the world—was committed to the collective good and to the propagation of an ethical code of conduct— dhamma. On this view, Asokan moral hegemony produced a peaceful South Asia. Against this view, this article shows how ideational variables such as dhamma were bound up with material interests to serve the strategic goals of Asokan hegemony in the international system of South Asia. It lends support to the realist conception of the world where strategic deployment of ideational variables and material interests enhance state power, thereby offering the best explanation of seemingly moral behavior.

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