About a year ago I introduced an ocasional series called “Quarter-Baked Ideas.” The idea was to blog about semi-formed thoughts related to international affairs. The whole notion turned about to be quarter-baked: I haven’t done another one until now.

Do rising powers have an intrinsic advantage in “flexibility” when compared to dominant ones? The answer to this question matters a great deal, I submit, to debates over the persistence and decline of hegemonic orders. As I’ve alluded to before, there’s a curious blindspot in mainstream hegemonic-order theory.

On the one hand, hegemonic-order theories emphasize the significance of, well, hegemonic orders. The costs and benefits of those orders are supposed to influence the disposition of second-tier states and thus whether they challenge the dominant power. Gilpin noted, in particular, the allocation of status as a key factor in accounting for whether rising powers adopted a status-quo or revisionist approach to hegemonic orders. Ikenberry, among others, sees the character of hegemonic orders as of central importance: the US-led order, he argues, is durable because it provides “voice opportunities” for other states and involves multiple mechanisms (“self-retraining” or “self-binding” elements) that limit the potential for American predation.

On the other hand, such theorists don’t really treat order itself as an object of contention. The character of the order might be important, but all the action occurs at the level of alterations in the distribution of state capacity. Hegemony lasts so long as the dominant power avoids, or prevails over, rising revisionist states. Yet, as should be obvious, hegemony isn’t separable from order. A political community might stand at the apex of the international pyramid of power, but if doesn’t build and maintain an order then it isn’t exercising hegemony. Indeed, this is why Ikenberry invests a great deal of energy in arguing that the liberal order can persist even without unipolarity, and that states might even accept US security primacy after relative decline.

In fact, although alterations in the distribution of power  undoubtedly motor the rise and decline of hegemonies, we should take very seriously the implications of distinguishing between state capabilities and hegemonic order. One such implication: the struggle over order itself is where a lot of the action lies.

This is a point that Alex Cooley and I have made — and will present on at ISA — in the context of rejecting labels such as “soft balancing” in favor of generalized mechanisms of security competition, such as those involved in what we call “international public-goods substitution.” The argument, which is not original, focuses on how states challenge hegemonic orders — often cooperatively and not always intentionally — by creating exit options in the realm of development aid, broder security, counter-terrorism, and other constituent elements of that order. In the extreme, this can take the form of alternative order building, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization aims (video) at in Central Asia. This approach is attractive to states who want to avoid the baggage — such as allowing non-governmental organizations free run of their territory or accepting specific kinds of aid conditionality — that comes with being solely reliant upon the hegemonic order to provide those goods. Also consider the rise of states “forum shopping” among international organizations.

Such substitution efforts are only one of a number of processes that erode hegemonic order. But regardless of which ones we focus upon, the bottom line is that American hegemony may end not with the “bang” of a (hot or cold) major military confrontation, but with the “whimper” of accumulating developments that simultaneously hollow out and renegotiate the US-led order.

So why might we think that challengers enjoy asymmetric opportunities in struggle over order? In brief, Hegemonic powers accumulate security, economic, and diplomatic commitments to other states. These commitments restrict their freedom of action, insofar as they must worry about how alterations in the terms of specific relationships might influence the entire of architecture of the order. They also may face domestic,  international, and ideological pressures that reduce (but do not eliminate) their ability to abandon efforts to maintain the content of their order, i.e., to react to public-goods substitution by eliminating order-building conditions. Challengers face far fewer of these sorts of constraints — and thus can seize opportunities to undermine hegemonic orders as they present themselves.

The counterargument, as Jeff Colgan suggested, is that this apparent flexibility doesn’t exist. For example, instead of seeing China as “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” in its relations with Latin American and African nations, we should recognize that Beijing is picking low-hanging fruit: countries that the United States simply doesn’t accord geostrategic priority to.

My sense is that there is some truth to both views. But whichever one adopts, we need to rethink our excessive focus on hegemonic wars in favor of a more nuanced account of the struggle over order.