The Theory of Hegemonic Stability

Central Idea: The stability of the International System requires a single dominant state to articulate and enforce the rules of interaction among the most important members of the system.

To be a Hegemon, a state must have three attributes:

The Capability to enforce the rules of the system;

The Will to do so;

A Commitment to a system which is perceived as mutually beneficial to the major states.

Capability rests upon three attributes:

A large, growing economy;

Dominance in a leading technological or economic sector;

Political power backed up by projective military power.

The Historical Record

Portugal 1494 to 1580 (end of Italian Wars to Spanish invasion of Portugal) Based on Portugal's dominance in navigation Hegemonic pretender: Spain

Holland 1580 to 1688 (1579 Treaty of Utrecht marks the foundation of the Dutch Republic to William of Orange's arrival in England) Based on Dutch control of credit and money Hegemonic pretender: England

Britain 1688 to 1792 (Glorious Revolution to Napoleonic Wars) Based on British textiles and command of the High Seas Hegemonic pretender: France

Britain 1815 to 1914 (Congress of Vienna to World War I) Based on British industrial supremacy and railroads Hegemonic pretender: Germany

United States 1945 to 1971 Based on Petroleum and the Internal Combustion Engine Hegemonic pretender: the USSR

What does the Hegemon Do?

The system is a collective good which means that it is plagued by a "free rider" syndrome. Thus, the hegemon must induce or coerce other states to support the system The US system tries to produce democracy and capitalism, thus it champions human rights and free trade. Other nations will try to enjoy the benefits of these institutions, but will try to avoid paying the costs of producing them. Thus, the US must remain committed to free trade even if its major trading partners erect barriers to trade. The US can erect its own barriers, but then the system will collapse.

Over time, there is an uneven growth of power within the system as new technologies and methods are developed. An unstable system will result if economic, technological, and other changes erode the international hierarchy and undermine the position of the dominant state. Pretenders to hegemonic control will emerge if the benefits of the system are viewed as unacceptably unfair.


Additional Reading: 

Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 38

Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-39, Chapter 14, "An Explanation of the 1929 Depression," (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 291-308

W. Max Corden, "American Decline and the End of Hegemony," SAIS Review, Vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 1990), pp. 13-26

Michael H. Hunt, "American Decline and the Great Debate: A Historical Perspective," SAIS Review, Vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer-Fall 1990), pp. 27-40

R.W. APPLE Jr., "Deep Concern in the World Over Weakened Clinton," New York Times, September 25, 1998

Helen Milner, "International Political Economy: Beyond Hegemonic Stability," Foreign Policy, No. 110, Spring 1998

Herman Schwartz, "HEGEMONY, INTERNATIONAL DEBT AND INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC INSTABILITY," Government and Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia,Charlottesville VA 22901

Beth A. Simmons, "Rulers of the Game: Central Bank Independence During the Interwar Years," International Organization, Vol. 50, no. 3 (Summer 1996)

Richard Doody, A Chronology of Dictatorial Regimes between the World Wars

National Defense Council Foundation, World Conflict Count, 1998

LARRY ROHTER, "Consequences for the United States in Argentina's Collapse," New York Times, 25 December 2001

G. John Ikenberry, "Getting Hegemony Right," The National Interest, No. 63 (Spring 2001)

James Chace, "An Empty Hegemony?" World Policy Journal, 1997

Clark S. Judge, "Hegemony of the Heart," Policy Review, No. 110 (December 2001/January 2002)

Stanley Kurtz, "The Future of 'History'" Policy Review, No. 113 (June and July 2002)

Mark Landler, "As the World Tracks Wall St., U.S. Leadership Is Two-Edged," New York Times, 25 July 2002

G. John Ikenberry, "Strategic Reactions to American Preeminence: Great Power Politics in the Age of Unipolarity," National Intelligence Council, 28 July 2003

Martin Wolf, "The dependent superpower," Financial Times, 17 December 2003

Jared Diamond, "The Ends of the World as We Know Them," New York Times, 1 January 2005

Paul Starobin, "Beyond Hegemony," National Journal, December 1, 2006


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