Tag: hegemonic stability theory

COVID-19 Breathes Life into Hegemonic Stability Theory

This crisis has us all having a lot of feelings.  I am feeling a bit nostalgic for Hegemonic Stability Theory. While Comparative Politics will have much to say about why countries varied in their responses (also see Max Brooks’s World War Z [the book, NOT the movie] to get a taste of the comparative politics of pandemics), it is the job of IR (and epidemiologists) to discuss why the disease spread as it did and why the international community largely failed. While there are many theories that may apply, I think that HST applies quite well.

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Flexibility and Constraint in Hegemonic Orders

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.

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Podcast No. 7 – Interview with Alex Cooley

The seventh episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Alex Cooley about his books on hierarchy, basing, incomplete contracting, and his new book — Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  • Front Matter
  • Who is Alex Cooley?
  • Logics of Hierarchy
  • Base Politics
  • Contracting States
  • Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia
  • End Matter

Note: the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


Speaking of Retrenchment

Christopher Preble has a solid critical review of Robert Kagan’s new book at The National Interest. Preble is particularly concerned with the free-rider problem:

EVEN THOSE inclined to believe Kagan’s assessment of the international system and America’s role in it must contend with one central fact that Kagan elides: the costs of maintaining the status quo are substantial and likely to grow. That is because Washington’s possession of vast stores of power—and its willingness to use that power on behalf of others—has created an entire class of nations that are unwilling to defend themselves and their interests from threats. The data clearly show a vast and growing gap between what others pay for defense and what Americans pay to defend them. The critical question, then, centers on differing perceptions of this capability imbalance. Because U.S. security guarantees to wealthy allies have caused them to underprovide for their own defense, they also have less capacity to help the United States in its time of need—either now in Afghanistan or in a theoretical future contest with China or a resurgent Russia. Kagan contends other countries will choose not to defend themselves and their interests, but at other times he acknowledges it is precisely the presence of American power that has discouraged them from doing so. In the end, it is clear Kagan doesn’t want other countries to defend themselves because, he says, they just can’t be trusted to get the job done. Most will be content to let security challenges grow and fester on their borders, or within them, leaving the United States—and the United States alone—with the task of cleaning up the mess. As he sought to explain in 2003, Americans should “be more worried about a conflagration on the Asian subcontinent or in the Middle East or in Russia than the Europeans, who live so much closer,” because the harm from other countries’ failure to act will inevitably threaten U.S. security.

This is spot on: from a pro-primacy position, depressing non-US defense spending via security guarantees is a feature, not a bug. The positive case is that it reduces the risks of interstate war and otherwise suppresses rivalries. From a US perspective, it also enhances Washington’s influence. The negative case is, as Preble stresses, that it shifts the burden of others’ security onto the US taxpayer and may hasten relative decline.

As recent Japanese-ROK security agreements suggest, this doesn’t amount to an all-or-nothing deal. States in the US umbrella that feel sufficiently worried about their security won’t ignore their own needs. In this context, the Asia pivot also makes sense, as the major European powers really aren’t that concerned about traditional military threats. I see no problem with rejecting Kagan’s Manichaeanism, recognizing that the US does have significant room for defense savings, but still acknowledging the central place of the US in many aspects of global security–and acting accordingly.


Multipolarity versus Hegemony: Is this really the right question?

Dan recently commented on how the decline in US economic power will likely lead to a rewrite of the post-war global order. Additionally, there are reports that a new intelligence assessment by US agencies is set to be released after the upcoming elections which notes the coming relative decline of US predominance, particularly in the economic realm, by 2025. Now, there have been numerous predictions of US decline that, like the death of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. But the current panic in the US economy is on par with the very worst crises we’ve seen since the Great Depression (e.g. Stagflation, Black Monday, post-9/11, etc.), and there seem to be real structural problems that are unlikely to abate any time soon. That combined with the true rise of new economic players (e.g. China, India, and the continued productivity of the EU) means that for the first time since WWII we are seeing even more economic parity on the world stage.

Let’s assume for a moment that we will finally see a significant decline in US economic predominance and the rise of a more multipolar world order–is this necessarily a good thing? The answer I think is that polarity isn’t really the most important factor.

There has long been a debate in IR circles on what types of great power systems create the most stability–from a military and economic perspective. Balance of Power theory suggests that stability is dependent on the relative parity of great powers, as power imbalance between the great powers provides opportunities for both defensive and offensive balancing actions that can lead to war. There are only two possible systems, bipolar and multipolar–depending on who you ask, one or the other is preferrable from a stability standpoint. Hegemonic Stability Theory predicts an opposite scenario, where a single predominant economic and military power creates conditions necessary for peace and for an open economic trading order (Peter has certainly provided insightful commentary on HST in this space). The two theories are difficult to reconcile–however, Ed Mansfield tried to do just that in “Power, Trade, and War“. The book was based on his dissertation and was an attempt to determine which theory had it right–was the world more peaceful and prosperous when there was a more even distribution of power amongst great powers, or when there was a high imbalance of power with a single great power dominating the system?

The data suggests the answer was, well, yes. Mansfield found that in addition to looking at the polarity of a system (how many great powers exist in a system) it is equally important to examine the concentration of power in the system, where concentration is a combination of the number of great powers as well as the relative inequality of economic and military capabilities among those powers.

Mansfield finds a U-shaped relationship, rather than a linear relationship, between the concentration of power and openness of trade, and an inverse-U relationship between the degree of concentration and the outbreak of war [see figure below for a representation of both relationships].

What is most interesting is that the most dangerous times in terms of war and the least prosperous times occur in systems where the concentration of power appears in flux, or in a middle state–stability in trade and peace comes when power is most concentrated or most evenly dispersed.

I bring this up because if we are seeing the emergence of a more multipolar order (and that is debatable), whether or not this is a good outcome will depend more on how this effects the concentration of power in the system. The rise of new great powers and their effect on the relative concentration of power in the global system may have a net negative effect on peace and stability if we transition into that middle state. US economic power will decline in a relative sense, but militarily speaking it should remain predominant. Yes, China is growing economically and would like to convert those gains into military power, but the gap is large and a global economic slowdown will no doubt hamper those plans. Same with Russia–with global oil and gas prices dropping, Putin is less likely to catch up (if that is even the goal) with the US. And I will believe that Europe is dedicated to seriously enhancing their military aresenal when I see it. However, more important is the US’s ability to actually use that power and convert it into influence. While our spending will remain high (regardless of who is elected, just check the historical data), we have serious issues with our ability to translate that power to favorable battlefield outcomes as well as diplomatic victories. The main reason of course is the damage done and the vulnerability demonstrated since 2003 with the Iraq escapade. Not only did it stretch resources too thin, but it also demonstrated that a large budget doesn’t easily translate into dominance in practice.

I don’t have a prediction as of yet, but the economic and military trends do worry me–not because I am only comfortable with the US being a global hegemon, but depending on how dispersed power becomes in the next 20 years we could see far more turbulence in the system than we have for decades.

Just a thought.


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