Home / foreign policy / On American Hegemony, Part III: Time for Some (Non-Game) Theory

On American Hegemony, Part III: Time for Some (Non-Game) Theory


Philip II, King of Spain, Reproaches William I, Prince of Orange, in Vlissingen upon his Departure from the Netherlands in 1559; Cornelis Kruseman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Whether they know it or not, those discussing American hegemony—or one of its synonyms—draw upon an extensive body of historical and theoretical scholarship. This scholarship comes in various flavors, such as power-transition theory and hegemonic-stability theory. These theories are not identical. But, aside from one major exception, we can treat them as part of an overarching approach that I’ve termed “hegemonic-order theory.”

In its strongest form, hegemonic-order theory holds that the only way to get stable international orders is to have a dominant power who makes and enforces rules. What do we mean by international order? The closest thing we have to a consensus definition is that “international order refers to the settled rules and arrangements between states that define and guide their interaction.”

As should be clear from my previous posts, I don’t find the “strong version” of hegemonic-order theory very persuasive. International order can be created and upheld by great-power cartels or by generalized consent among states; it may simply describe relatively durable rules and arrangements that emerge in the absence of enforcement by a dominant power or powers. As I suggested in the previous post, it helps to think of international order as bricolage, formed over time by different processes, as well as by a combination of deliberate choice and inadvertent outcomes.

Moreover, such definitions of international order assumes a clear distinction between political order within states—or other political communities—and the political order among them. In practice, this distinction is very difficult to sustain, as we’ve seen in the context of International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural-adjustment programs, human-rights regimes that make at least some demands on how governments treat their citizens, and American efforts to enforce its order through covert and overt intervention. But it is also clear that capital mobility, trade regimes, its military interventions, and other aspects of “international order” and “international ordering” have significant effects on American domestic political order. Even in hegemonic systems, hegemonic powers don’t stand outside of international order. They are both agents and objects of international ordering.

As I’ve summarized elsewhere, hegemonic-order theorists generally hold that world politics is marked by cycles of the rise and decline of dominant powers. For most of history, these cycles played out within regional systems.The Neo-Assyrian Empire dominated the ancient Near East. Athens and Sparta competed for dominance among Greek city-states and kingdoms. Rome conquered—and stitched together—a system centered on the Mediterranean. Various Chinese dynasties dominated a system that, at maximum, extended from the Steppe to Tibet and Indochina, from Central Asia to Japan. The Triple Alliance rose to dominate Mesoamerica, and the Inca Empire the Andes, before the arrival of the Spanish.

In stylized accounts, the British world system was the first example of something like global hegemony, although Britain always faced peer competitors in Europe itself. During the Cold War much, but not all, of the world was divided into American and Soviet spheres of influence. It is only after the Cold War, as discussed in the first post in this series, that we can truly speak of something like a global American hegemonic system.

Regardless of these matters of scale, hegemonic-order theorists believe that preeminent powers use their superior economic and military capabilities to order relations among subordinate political communities—this is what makes them hegemons. They help construct and enforce, or choose not to enforce, rules and norms of international conduct. They provide impure public, club, and private goods—such as security, trading systems, and economic development. They allocate status and prestige. For example, they may directly confer special recognition or titles, as the Romans did on kings and chiefs. At the risk of repetition, hegemonic powers don’t just shape relations among other political communities, they also affect their domestic politics. This isn’t just the case for hegemonic systems that take imperial forms. As I suggested above, there is no way to order relations among polities without impinging on their internal governance, economics, and politics.

I should emphasize, per the prior post, that none of this needs to be planned or guided by a grand design. It’s easy to focus on big post-war settlements—such as after the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World II—which have negotiated architectures guided by specific interests and principles. But most international ordering does not occur through “constitutional moments,” but the pursuit of self interest, short-term goals, improvised accommodation, and even shifting domestic priorities and how they interact with foreign relations. The crucial thing is that hegemonic powers can use a wide variety of instruments to shape international order, including imperial conquest or other uses of force; military and economic threats; the carrots of security guarantees, access to their markets, direct economic aid; and highly visible projects designed to legitimate their leadership, such as the American moon missions. Hegemonic bargains can look more like protection rackets, as in tribute-taking empires. Or they can provide benefits that flow, at the very least, to local elites in subordinate political communities.

Thus, international change, understood primarily as alterations of those elements of international order, is tied to hegemonic cycles. What drives the rise and decline of dominant powers? The most common story, as Robert Gilpin emphasizes in War and Change in World Politics, is uneven economic growth. There are a lot of historically specific reasons why economies wax and wane. At the most basic level, no individual economy performs better than others forever. But many accounts of the rise of hegemonic powers focus on some kind of innovation that takes time to spread, and thus gives a political community a window of advantage which, if it exploits, it can leverage into a bid for international dominance. In the standard story of the rise of Britain, industrial capitalism, perhaps aided by the creation of a captive market for British textiles in the Indian subcontinent, provided that innovation. Later on, the United States and Imperial Germany would both see comparatively rapid growth as they industrialized. Both emerged as potential challengers to Britain.

While hegemons can directly use their economic might to order international relations, many versions of hegemonic-order theory focus on the importance of underlying economic wealth for military power. In turn, superior military capabilities translate into hegemony. This also means that the innovation that ‘kicks off’ the cycle may operate in the military sphere. New weapons, tactics, or forms of military organization might create an overwhelming advantage, especially if targets of dominant cannot rapidly adapt to them or adopt them. This pattern was much more common in the premodern period. When the Mongol armies swept off of the steppe, they encountered military styles often completely unequipped to deal with their combination of horsemanship, use of the compound bow, light armor, and ability to maneuver. But military innovations in the last 150 years have sometimes ‘reset’ the deck, making established navies and militaries obsolete and thus opening the door to rising powers.

Note that American policymakers worry about both of these motors of change when it comes to China. As hegemonic-order theories expect, China’s rapid economic growth undergirds the global power transition currently underway. To get a sense of the remarkable speed of China’s absolute (and relative) economic growth, consider this: according to one estimate, “per-capita GDP in the major European powers grew at about 1 percent per year over the ‘long nineteenth century’ (and about 1.6 percent in the United States). By contrast, Chinese per-capita GDP over the period 1950-1998—a period that includes both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—grew at more than 4 percent per annum, and World Bank figures suggest that annual growth rates of more than 10 percent” were “routine” for much of the “post-Deng era.” But western military analysts also worry about technological developments that might revolutionize warfare, and allow China, or Russia, to gain a sudden advantage that upends the balance of military power, such as in artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons systems.

Hegemonic-order theories identify other processes that produce relative decline. I’ve already mentioned strategic overextension: “the processes whereby a dominant power expends too much blood and treasure trying to defend its preferred international order, and thereby undermines domestic growth through some combination of overtaxation and economic underinvestment.” But a related strain of argument focuses on how the hegemonic order itself might produce shifts in power. This was a major argument about Japan in the 1980s. Washington’s bargain with Japan, in essence, gave its firms more access to American markets that American firms enjoyed in Japan. This assisted Japanese development, which served US interests and helped cement Japan’s willingness to subordinate its security policy to the United States. But, by the 1980s, the result of this bargain looked like a power transition in which the Japanese economy would overtake that of the United States. Similarly, American policy to bring China into global markets—justified first by the US-Chinese strategic partnership against the Soviet Union and, after the Cold War, by the idea that it would facilitate peaceful democratization in China—helped make current trends possible.

Whatever explains power transitions, hegemonic-order theorists view them not only as the primary cause of changes in international order, but as dangerous moments for international peace. Many hegemonic powers are relatively unconstrained by the lack of geopolitical rivals capable of mounting a serious threat to their security. They may intervene in weaker states, conquer them, or otherwise use force to enforce their writ. But hegemonic-order theorists tend to think that big, system-wide wars are much more likely when rising challengers start to develop the ability to challenge the (relatively) declining dominant power. This creates situations where rising challengers believe that they can defeat—militarily or politically—the incumbent political community, and the incumbent worries that time is the enemy: the longer it waits to take on rising powers, the more its position will deteriorate.

What makes for a rising challenger? It isn’t just a matter of means, but also of will. The key question is whether the rising powers are satisfied with the existing order—with the status they enjoy, the economic benefits that it brings, and so on—or want to alter it. International-relations scholars call the former “status-quo” powers, and the latter “revisionist” powers. What might these rules and arrangements involve? J. Davidson describes revisionist states as seeking “to change the distribution of goods” in world politics, such as “territory, status markers, expansion of ideology, and the creation or change of international law and institutions.”

Standard accounts treat this a continuum, but Steven Ward points out that there’s a big difference between states that want small adjustments and those that come to see the order itself as a fundamental threat to their aspirations. Both Ward and, independently, Stacie Goddard notes that degrees of revisionism aren’t simply a function of the inherent dispositions of states, but dynamics driven by their interaction with other powers and their shifting position within international orders. Both point to the example of the Empire of Japan during the interwar period, whose revisionism grew as a variety of factors—including the racism of established powers—marginalized it within international institutions and international society. Japan ultimately opted to try to reorder the Pacific through great-power war.

And that’s basically the scenario that hegemonic-order theorists worry about: the failure of incumbent powers to accommodate rising ones through reforms to international order. They see a variety of conflicts—the Franco-Spanish wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II—as driven by power-transition dynamics. Some argue that the Cold War was a power-transition conflict, where the rising challenger, the Soviet Union, ultimately exhausted itself trying to maintain parity with the United States.

A number of scholars, including Kori Schake and Charles Kupchan, have looked closely at one of the most famous examples of peaceful adjustment: that between the United States and the British Empire in the decades preceding World War I. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, London recognized that it lacked the capacity to maintain all of its security commitments. Ironically, its foreign direct investment in the United States did much to expand American power. So London made a decision to concede much of the western hemisphere to the United States; to abandon, for example, a robust defense of Canada and instead count on a good relationship with Washington to protect British interests. London famously reached the point where it ceased to calculate the strength of the United States Navy against its perceived needs for naval dominance. So, some scholars hold the US-UK power transition as a kind of “gold standard” for peaceful adjustment.

This is basically the deep background to the phrase, popularized by Graham Allison, “the Thucydides Trap.” I’ve heard secondhand that its ‘all over’ policy and military circles. It comes from Thucydides description of the cause of the Peloponnesian War as lying in “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon,” which “made war inevitable.” Some inside baseball: a lot of academics, particularly those working in the power-transition research program, are really annoyed with Allison for, in their view, misrepresenting his argument as more original that it actually is. The gossip is that Allison justifies this on the grounds that he’s writing for a popular audience. Back in the 1980s, people were also annoyed with Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers on similar grounds, but I imagine less so since Kennedy is an historian. Anyway, bottom line: all variations on the same arguments.

More important, these arguments aren’t wrong. But they’re incomplete in important ways—ones that matter for American hegemony and contemporary international order. To understand why, consider Kennedy’s emblematic case: the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For hegemonic-order theorists, the Spanish bid for European hegemony—really, that of Charles V and the branch of the Habsburg dynasty running through his son, Philip—was made possible by two developments. First, Charles’ inheritance that linked together a large number of holdings (below), and the fact that he was the most likely candidate to become ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a position which he secured in 1520. Second, and a bit further down the road, wealth from Spanish possessions in the New World.

Domains of Charles V in gray (from my book, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe)

Charles’s reign was marked by incessant warfare—most notably against France and German Protestants. After the Second Schmalkaldic War, Charles abdicated, dividing his European empire between his son, Philip II of Spain, and his brother, Ferdinand I. The Spanish Monarchy, closely identified with the Catholic cause, would continue to fight on multiple fronts—France, in the Netherlands, against England, and in the European-wide conflict of the Thirty Years’ War. France and Spain fought on after the Peace of Westphalia, and concluded a peace, favorable to France, in the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees.

The standard interpretation of this history holds that Spanish efforts to maintain hegemony exhausted Castile and distorted its economy (the settlement of the 1520-1521 Comuneros Revolt ensured that taxation would fall on Castile’s most productive sectors). Spain’s defeat by France in the seventeenth century meant that Bourbon France would become the next contender for European hegemony. In classic hegemonic-order theory, the Spanish Monarchy was the dominant power in Europe, and France its main challenger. For much of the period, French was gravely weakened by its Wars of Religion, but, under Bourbon rule, it dislodged Spain from its position. This is consistent with the propaganda wars of the period, and even the development of ideas about the balance of power as a check on would-be hegemons.

But if we look closer, we see some significant omissions from this story. Most important: the role of what we would now call non-state and transnational actors. Convention dates the start of the Protestant Reformation to 1517, when Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz. The contention that followed proved a major complication for Charles V’s broader ambitions—and, as mentioned above, led to his abdication. When France was not itself convulsed by religious conflict, its rulers generally exploited religious cleavages in Germany to weaken their Habsburg rivals. Despite his own Catholicism, Henry II, for example, backed Charles’ Lutheran opponents during the Second Schmalkaldic War.

The Dutch Revolt was not purely religious in character, but no conflicts of the period were. Matters of taxation, local prerogatives, class conflicts conjoined there—as they usually did in the period—with religious differences to produce a particularly intractable conflict. External support of Dutch Calvinists by co-religionists help explain the survival and success of the revolt. Indeed, H.G. Koenigsberger compares Calvinist movements to “revolutionary parties” of the nineteenth and twentieth century, complete with transnational support networks. The Dutch Revolt—the Eighty Years’ War—not only became the focal conflict for the Spanish Monarchy; it also produced a serious rival to Spain outside of Europe.

In many of these religious movements, we find, in essence, coalitions of state-like, non-state, and transnational revisionists seeking changes in the European order. This counter-order contention by transnational religious networks played an important role in undermining Spanish hegemony. And they provide only one example of ‘bottom up’ counter-order contention doing so. For example, in 1640 rebellions against Habsburg rule erupted in both Portugal—which Philip II had brought under his rule in 1581—and Catalonia. The Spanish managed to subdue Catalonia but Portugal broke free. Both rebellions were sparked by demands that the Spanish monarchy placed on its provinces to finance and prosecute the Thirty Years’ War. Needless to say, such uprisings dealt important blows to Spain’s geopolitical position.

The Spanish case is not unusual. Across hegemonic orders—as well as ones upheld by great-power cartels—we find important counter-order pressures coming from “domestic” and “transnational” movements that seek changes to international order. Think of the Revolutions of 1848, international communism, fascism and independence movements in European colonies. In some instances, such movements found support from revisionist states. Many movements seized control of political communities, and from there mounted more familiar state-based challenges to prevailing rules and arrangements. We find signs of some of these patterns, I contend, in the contemporary moment.

All of this suggests additional processes through which hegemonic orders unravel—ones that can happen before, and prove more important than, the “Thucydides trap.”

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