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date: 16 August 2017

Hegemony and Beyond: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Hegemony

Summary and Keywords

Scholars of international political economy in the 1970s explored the relationship among a dominant power, leadership, and openness. The discussion soon centered on the concept of hegemony, meaning a situation in which a single state exercises leadership in creating and maintaining the fundamental rules of the international system. The scholarly arguments that ensued focused on the rationale for, and durability of, hegemony, and seemed relevant because of a shared assumption that U.S. dominance, so strong during the quarter-century after World War II, was declining. However, the debate was premised on a shared but incorrect empirical perception that American hegemony was declining. When similar questions arose again at the end of the 20th century, the terminology used was less that of hegemony than of unipolarity and hierarchy, and the key question was whether exercising continuing leadership would be so costly to the hegemon that its decline would be generated by its leadership. The issues of hegemony raised in this literature have taken on renewed relevance with the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States.

Keywords: hegemony, unipolarity, hierarchy, institutions, political economy, security, trade, money, global currency, financial crisis, declinism, empirical international relations theory


The term hegemony comes from the Greek word hēgemonía, which means leadership exercised by a single state or group of states. Hegemonic rule requires extraordinary material capability as well as a set of political, economic, social, and cultural ideas for attracting followers and exerting influence when interacting with other states and nonstate actors.

The study of hegemony has received widespread attention because it raises fundamental questions about power, the most central and elusive concept in political science. A coherent research program around “hegemony” crystallized in the 1970s. But questions concerning how a state accumulates, exercises, maintains, and then loses power have a longer theoretical lineage in “power transition theory.” However, the discussion here is restricted to the hegemonic studies program and its connection to the research program on hierarchy and unipolarity.1 Hegemony exists when a single state with extraordinary capability exercises leadership in creating and maintaining the fundamental rules of the international system (cf. Keohane & Nye, 1977, p. 40). Unipolarity does not require the dominant power to exercise leadership or to influence international outcomes. Unipolarity is a condition in which a dominant state possesses aggregate capabilities far surpassing that of any other state (Waltz, 1979, p. 131).

Since its origins in the 1970s, scholarship on hegemony can be organized into two sections, the rationale for hegemony and the durability of hegemony, and this framework, rather than a strict temporal outline, is used to discuss theories of hegemony and evidence for them. There has been a temporal progression within the synthesis, the early literature provided a remarkably coherent agenda by examining the logic, inner workings, and longevity of hegemonic rule that remains relevant today. In what follows, propositions central to this research program are evoked and supporting evidence is examined. The goal is to advance the hegemonic studies program by bringing together insights from relatively insular scholarly communities in the hope that the discontinuity between research efforts targeting similar problems will be reduced.

The study of hegemony blossomed at a time when America’s relative power was assumed to be withering. The three founders of hegemonic stability theory, Charles Kindleberger (1973), Robert Gilpin (1975, 1981, 1987), and Stephen Krasner (1976), all issued warnings about what would happen if the United States failed to lead. Their predictions about the systemic consequences of American decline were met with skepticism. Keohane (1984) and Snidal (1985) offered reassurances about the potential for cooperation in the face of America’s relative decline. In the half-decade before the fall of the Soviet Union, a lively debate emerged about whether hegemony was necessary for trade cooperation (Conybeare, 1984; Gowa, 1989; Mansfield, 1994; Miller, 1988b, 1988a; Stein, 1984), monetary cooperation (Cohen, 1977; Eichengreen, 1987; Gowa, 1984), and financial cooperation (Kapstein, 2005; Simmons, 2001). Some authors contributed to many of these debates (Gilpin, 1987; Gowa, 1984, 1989; Milner & Snyder, 1988; Strange, 1987; Webb & Krasner, 1989).

Keohane’s book After Hegemony sought to bring theoretical rigor to the study of international cooperation and institutions, launching one of the biggest revolutions in international relations theory. Rational institutionalism, on the one hand, and the continued legacy of Waltzian neorealism on the other hand, sounded the death knoll of hegemonic stability theory. Institutionalists and neorealists did not agree on much, but they agreed on one thing: the study of hegemony was over. For neorealists, any concentration of power was sure to be short-lived, as the balance of power guaranteed that any major power disequilibrium would be brought into equilibrium (Waltz, 1979). And if bipolarity did come to an end, multipolarity was more likely to ensue than unipolarity (Waltz, 1979, p. 136). Even as unipolarity continued into the 21st century, the United States was at best a regional hegemon (Mearsheimer, 2001). For institutionalists, the study of hegemony reflected realist skepticism about multilateral regimes and prospects for international cooperation. At the same time, the founders—Kindleberger, Gilpin, and Krasner—did not attempt to defend their core arguments. Gilpin stressed that none of the critiques wounded his version of hegemonic stability theory, Kindleberger dissociated himself from the concept of hegemony, and Krasner undertook just one empirical test. One might also say, the hegemonic studies program was sidelined for lack of resistance.

Perhaps more than any other scholar, Nye, a liberal internationalist, pushed back against the notion that U.S. hegemony was over and irrelevant for world politics (Nye, 1990, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2011). As the Cold War came to a close, Nye (1990) launched a broadside against declinism, particularly Kennedy’s pessimism about the fate of the United States in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Kennedy, 1987), which had become a bestseller in the years before the fall of the Soviet Union. On the economic front, Nye (1990) argued it was naive to expect the United States to maintain its postwar high point relative to other powers. Not only was it unrealistic, it was also undesirable. Much of the observed decline was due to deliberate efforts by the United States to bolster America’s allies after the war. Nye (1990) also took up domestic challenges that some declinist accounts leaned on, stressing the vitality and dynamism of the U.S. economy instead. On the military front, America’s position had remained relatively constant due to bipolarity and the constraints of nuclear weapons. Nye (1990) also questioned the usefulness of focusing only on tangible forms of power, highlighting the importance of culture, language, and leadership as well. Taken together, these different sources of power suggested the United States was “bound to lead” (1990). But even as the United States emerged victorious from the superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union, the study of hegemony stalled and attempts to keep hegemonic stability theory alive failed (Lake, 1993).

As the end of the 20th century approached, three scholars, John G. Ikenberry, David Lake, and William C. Wohlforth, reinvigorated the research agenda by redefining the central concepts used to describe dominance (Ikenberry, 1996, 1998; Lake, 1996; Wohlforth, 1999). Hegemony was out, and a new set of terms was in: leadership, American postwar order, hierarchy, and unipolarity. It was a revolt of sorts against scholarly attempts to frame hegemonic studies too narrowly, the exaggerated focus on America’s relative weakening instead of its absolute strength, and the certainty that international cooperation withstood hegemonic decline.

Rationale for the Hegemonic Order

Several international relations theories of dominance have emerged: the public goods version of hegemonic stability theory, the security version of hegemonic stability theory, the dyadic-hierarchy model, and unipolarity. All of these perspectives agree that it is worthwhile to study a concentration of power across different dimensions.

Public Goods Version of Hegemonic Stability Theory (Kindleberger)

Kindleberger proposed that a dominant power was necessary for stable, harmonious economic relations (Kindleberger, 1973, 1981). He explained international economic cooperation as a public goods problem, from which everyone could benefit but no one could be excluded (Frohlich & Oppenheimer, 1970). Since beneficiaries can enjoy public goods irrespective of their contributions, by free-riding, large groups encounter difficulties providing public goods (Olson, 1965). If everyone fails to contribute, the public good will not be fully provided. However, a single actor with sufficient interest in bearing the full costs of public good provision can solve the problem (Olson, 1965; Olson & Zeckhauser, 1966). In Olson’s (1965) famous assertion, “The small exploit the large.”

From the theory outlining the difficulty of collective action, Kindleberger derived his proposition that, for “the world economy to be stabilized, there has to be a stabilizer—one stabilizer” (1973, p. 304). For Kindleberger, global economic stabilization meant “some country . . . would undertake to provide a market for distress goods, a steady if not countercyclical flow of capital, and a rediscount mechanism for providing liquidity when the monetary system is frozen in panic” (Kindleberger, 1981, p. 247). He also added exchange-rate stabilization and coordination of monetary policies. In the late 1980s, Webb and Krasner (1989, p. 196) invited scholars to validate Kindleberger’s argument, which they said “might not have been truly tested . . . The real test of hegemonic leadership arises in times of crises.”

Two decades passed before scholars met this call. The 2008 financial crisis brought renewed interest in the question of whether the United States, as the world’s dominant power, performed crucial stabilization functions during the crisis. Scholars were invited to reorient around real problems to explain the emergence and maintenance of global financial orders (Drezner & McNamara, 2013). Drezner (2014, p. 153, p. 156) drew on some of Kindleberger’s criteria to examine whether the United States and multilateral institutions helped stabilize the world economy and found that both played a role. Cohen (2015a) used Kindleberger’s five functions to explore whether China’s rise as a monetary power could be successfully accommodated, and concluded that accommodation is possible. However, his investigation did not settle whether and how stabilization occurred during the crisis. Norrlof and Reich (2015) examined Kindleberger’s five functions and asked whether the world economy requires one stabilizer or if these functions were shared between the United States and China. They found limited support for the first proposition, with stronger support for shared stabilization, during the global financial crisis. As more Chinese data become available, alternative methods should be used to determine the robustness of these findings and the validity of Kindleberger’s version of hegemonic stability theory. McDowell (2012) provided a detailed case study of the capabilities and incentives that resulted in the United States acting as an international lender of last resort during the global financial crisis, arguing that the Federal Reserve’s swap program is an example of U.S. structural power as conceived by Strange (1988b). Norrlof (2014) provided empirical snapshots of the dollar’s sustained preeminence despite deficits, wars, and the global financial crisis, and theorized how U.S. monetary capabilities translate into currency influence using power analysis. Cohen also explained the dollar’s supremacy after the financial crisis through a power lens, seeing autonomy as especially important for understanding the dollar’s global role (Cohen, 2015b). Helleiner (2014) described the continuity in the global financial order since the 2008 crisis, concurring with McDowell (2012) that Federal Reserve swap lines reflect U.S. structural power, and that the dollar’s reserve role has remained largely unchanged but Helleiner’s metrics are flawed.

Security Version of Hegemonic Stability Theory (Gilpin & Krasner)

More than any other scholar, Gilpin (1975, 1977, 1981) was the progenitor of hegemonic stability theory: “Just as the Pax Britannica provided the security and political organization for the expansion of transnational economic activity in the nineteenth century, so the Pax Americana has fulfilled a similar function in the mid-twentieth century” (Gilpin, 1975, p. 111). Krasner’s (1976) work was seminal in providing theoretical justification for why, and under what conditions, a hegemonic power supported free trade. Gilpin went beyond claims relating dominance to economic openness, arguing that the “Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, like the Pax Romana, ensured an international system of relative peace and security” (Gilpin, 1981, pp. 144–145). Reflecting on his contribution, Gilpin observed, “Stephen Krasner and I each appropriated Kindleberger’s basic idea that a political leader was needed to create and manage an international liberal economy. However, each of us made several modifications that placed Kindleberger’s insight within a state-centric intellectual framework of political analysis and thus fashioned a state-centric version of the theory of hegemonic stability” (Gilpin, 2001, p. 99). In this version of hegemonic stability theory, the hegemon provides an open economy as long as the distribution of gains does not compromise its security. As Webb and Krasner (1989, p. 184) explained, “. . . the dominant state can promote liberalization without jeopardizing essential security objectives. This is because an open system increases the income, the growth, and the political power of the hegemonic state without seriously affecting its social stability, and because the hegemonic state has symbolic, economic, and military capabilities that can be used to entice or compel others to accept an open trading structure . . . If the pattern of relative gains threatens the security of powerful states, international economic liberalization will be restricted even though those states could have increased their absolute welfare by participating in a more open system.” Thus, the hegemonic power will only support openness as long as other states do not gain more than the hegemon from international economic exchange. If the distribution of gains were to shift toward other states, economic gains could be transferred to the security arena, undermining the hegemon’s dominance.

These contributions have had tremendous impact and still resonate four decades later. The central claim embodied in Gilpin and Krasner’s version of hegemonic stability is that an economically open and peaceful international system is more likely to emerge when a hegemon is rising and has the capability and interest to foster open, peaceful interstate relations (Krasner, 1976, p. 323; Gilpin, 1981). Dominance breeds stability because only a dominant power has the incentive to single-handedly provide public goods from which everyone benefits.

Criticism of Hegemonic Stability Theory

Hegemonic stability theory was criticized both conceptually and empirically. According to Keohane, attempts to explain openness as a function of a dominant power’s capability and interest to provide order produced a tautology (Keohane, 1984, pp. 34–35). An actor that can and wants to do x, will do x, never z. The theory is deterministic in explaining the conditions under which hegemonic powers provide open and stable orders. That is a possible reading of the hegemonic stability thesis. However, Gilpin and Krasner’s specification that a hegemon with rising capability and sufficient interest produces order introduces some indeterminacy. Their theories remain interesting as a way of exploring whether asymmetrical distributions of power are more likely (than symmetrical ones) to facilitate an open, peaceful order.

Examining whether an open economic order had persisted under declining hegemony, Webb and Krasner (1989) performed the most direct test of the economic logic associated with hegemonic stability theory. Looking at several indicators, they found support for continued openness despite declining U.S. hegemony, but they questioned whether this evidence contradicts hegemonic stability theory. Perhaps the United States remained hegemonic despite relative decline. They also observe that changes in openness often lag changes in the distribution of power (cf. Krasner, 1976). Many criticisms of hegemonic stability theory were initially raised by Mckeown (1983). He asked what counts as hegemonic capability. Specifically, he probed when 19th-century Britain passed the power threshold (McKeown, 1983, p. 76). Scholars still disagree about the amount of capability states must have in order to qualify as hegemons, and while they agree that a hegemon must be a formidable military power, as implied by either a unipolar or bipolar distribution of power, they do not agree on the specific combination of capabilities required to succeed as a hegemon. A country’s share of world GDP, trade, and investment plays a role, but some scholars place greater emphasis on specific aspects, such as a country’s supply of a reserve currency, its external indebtedness, its financial breadth and depth. Broader agreement exists that the ability to significantly influence outcomes is a defining feature of hegemony (Russett, 1985). But here, too, we lack criteria for what counts as decisive influence, both within issue areas and in the aggregate. At stake in the controversy over what amount of power, or influence, is considered extraordinary is whether the theory has general validity that can be generalized beyond U.S. hegemony, or particular phases of U.S. international engagement in the postwar era (see also, Nye, 1990). If generalizations cannot be made, the study of hegemony defies social scientific inquiry. Responding to these concerns, Nexon and Wright (2007) adopted a social network structure to define hierarchy in transposable terms across hegemonic, unipolar, and imperialist orders, thus expanding the number of relevant cases.

The second criticism concerns whether open economic orders exhibit public good characteristics (McKeown, 1983, p. 78). If they do not, a hegemonic power is not required to overcome free-riding. In fact, if economic openness is not a public good but exhibits some aspects of rivalry and exclusion, a hegemon may not have incentives compatible with openness. Instead of pursuing free-trade policies, the hegemon may prefer an optimal tariff policy, shifting the gains from trade in its favor (Conybeare, 1984). In the areas of trade and security, Russett (1985, pp. 222–228) concluded that the United States was supplying private goods.

The extent to which the “goods” supplied by the United States can be characterized as public also has implications for the distribution of gains under hegemony. Public goods have two key properties, nonrivalry and nonexcludability. If some rivalry is introduced, relative gains are introduced. If some form of exclusion is possible, not everyone can enjoy the good. Free-riding becomes less obvious and threats of exclusion can be exercised to advantage. Provision of a mix of public and private goods (Russett, 1985), or imperfect public goods (Conybeare, 1984; Cornes & Sandler, 1984), or public goods provision based on comparative advantage (Boyer, 1989) underlies claims that a hegemonic power is positionally primed to benefit disproportionately from underwriting the international order (Beckley, 2011; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Ikenberry, 2011; Norrlof, 2010), as claimed by Gilpin and Krasner. However, Bussmann and O’Neal find limited support for the hegemon’s provision of entirely excludable (e.g., private) goods, in the form of deterrence, economic growth, and trade advantage (Bussmann & Oneal, 2007).2 In the area of trade, Gowa (1989) effectively defended the public goods metaphor. She argued that hegemonic powers are well positioned to gain from low tariffs and thus have an interest in free trade. Though she agreed that free trade is, in principle, excludable, she underscored how the difficulties excluding states from trade benefits reintroduces public good properties (Gowa, 1989, pp. 315–316).

Third, even if we accept the public goods assumption, a hegemonic power is not required to overcome free-riding. International cooperation can emerge through a coalition of smaller states (Snidal, 1985). Once an open regime is established, international institutions are sufficient to promote and sustain it (Keohane, 1984).

Fourth, demonstrating that liberal economic orders emerge from an asymmetrical distribution of economic power has been easier than showing how political power shapes the liberal economic order (McKeown, 1983, pp. 76–78). Most of the initial debate focused on economic bargaining power, including the retaliatory measures, needed to maintain open transactions across borders. Yet, while the political foundations of the international economic order have been more difficult to demonstrate, they also received early attention. Strange (1987, 1988b, 1996), for instance, explained the persistence of American hegemony, including the role of the dollar, as the result of four pillars of power: production, finance, security, and knowledge. Due to structural power in these domains, Strange argued that the United States could define the rules of the game: “Structural power is the power to choose and to shape the structures of the global political economy” (1987, p. 565). This view of structural power has been criticized for its circular reasoning (Keohane, 2000). Strange (1988b, p. 26) referred to “four interacting structures,” but she offered very little on how these issue areas intersect, closing off interesting possibilities that could have made her account more complete and compelling. Strange maintained that the international monetary order centered on the dollar was backed by U.S. security guarantees, an argument considered by numerous scholars (Helleiner, 2008; James, 2009; Kelly, 1977; Li, 2003; McNamara, 2008; Mundell, 1998; Norrlof, 2010, 2014; Posen, 2008; Strange, 1971). Most scholars argue that U.S. military power boosts confidence in the dollar, but, with a few exceptions, the mechanisms they describe are not well worked out. McNamara (2008) attributed private investors’ confidence in the U.S. dollar to normative and cognitive processes. Posen (2008) argued that countries support the currency issued by the military powers protecting them. Despite some efforts, the literature on how geopolitics determines the dollar’s global status is short on empirical evidence. The only proposition that has been rigorously tested, and supported empirically, is the one stating that governments are motivated by security considerations when choosing the anchor currency (Li, 2003).

A new research program, closely connected with the work of Gilpin (1975, 1977, 1981) and Krasner (1976), developed the idea that military power underwrites an open economic order. Scholars debated whether a dominant military power provides a stable political context that makes economic exchange more secure and predictable (Brooks, Ikenberry, & Wohlforth, 2013; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Drezner, 2013; Maass, Norrlof, & Drezner, 2014; Norrlof, 2010; Nye, 2011, p. 49). Probing the political foundations of international economic order is fraught with difficulties but intersects nicely with the renewed attention to linkages between economics and security in the wider subfield, making it a promising avenue for future research.


By moving beyond the strictures of neorealism to explore the hierarchical orders that Waltz (1979) bracketed when examining anarchical orders, the logic of dominance returned to the center of inquiry in the 1990s. This shift came as the strict separation between hierarchical domestic realms and the anarchic international realm came under scrutiny (Milner, 1991). Emphasizing the different forms that domestic and international order could take, Milner (1991) deconstructed concepts like government, authority, and force, which were ambiguous in neorealist theory.

A focus on hierarchy implies a shared interest in relations of super- and subordination, but different perspectives reach different conclusions about how such relationships emerge and their characteristics and consequences. The discussion here is restricted to analyses of hierarchy connected with the hegemonic stability theory program, admittedly leaving out a wealth of approaches ranging from dependency theory to world systems theory, as well as critical theories. While such approaches provide valuable insights, they do not share the underlying premises of the current debate on hegemony, which assumes the agency of the nation-state and modern economic theory. Yet, because the insights of theories not considered in this article offer interesting leads for future research—for example, research grappling with concepts like exploitation, which the current research agenda has not fully integrated—readers are encouraged to seek them out. Mattern and Zarakol (2016) provide an excellent overview.

Hierarchy and Institutions

Ikenberry (1996) developed a theory of how U.S. leadership and the regimes it created would remain central despite America’s weakening. However, as declinist sentiment dissipated, the central questions changed. In the wake of sustained U.S. economic growth and U.S. foreign policy activism throughout the 1990s, U.S. hegemony was hardly in doubt, but ran the risk of being too overbearing. Tying the United States down in security institutions so that its behavior would be more “predictable and restrained” was required to make it more acceptable (Deudney & Ikenberry, 1999). The liberal character of U.S. hegemony and the emphasis on cooperation and reciprocity enshrined in institutions served to legitimize American power, making it hegemonic, not imperialist (Deudney & Ikenberry, 1999). The United States was an “empire by invitation” (Lundestad, 1986). Ikenberry (1998, 2001) described the constraining force of institutions on state behavior that neorealists believed to be lacking (Mearsheimer, 1994). International institutions played an important role under hierarchy because the dominant actor exercised strategic foresight (Ikenberry, 1998, 2001). The United States had placed voluntary restraints on its power by creating international institutions that curbed its influence, not out of benevolence, but because it realized the greater effectiveness of consensual rule and the wisdom of institutional “lock-in” that withstood a possible shift in the balance of power (Ikenberry, 1998, 2001). Ikenberry provided evidence for order-building beyond the United States, using case studies to analyze the behavior of other great powers that had won major wars and by demonstrating how institutional bargains following the Napoleonic wars, World War I, and World War II constrained the leading power (Ikenberry, 2001).

As the United States adopted more unilateral policies (e.g., bypassing the United Nations Security Council; imposing steel tariffs unauthorized by the World Trade Organization) and even imperialist policies (e.g., contingent sovereignty; occupying Iraq) in the early 21st century, questions concerning just how effective institutional constraints were on American power started to emerge. Ikenberry (2004) hoped that, while unipolarity gave way to “imperial temptations,” it remained possible to effectively manage these impulses because they were nothing new. They had also existed in earlier eras of U.S. hegemony, when the United States shared superpower status with the Soviet Union. Ikenberry offered three reasons for the persistence of U.S. liberal order-building (Ikenberry, 2004). First, multilateral institutions continue to be the most effective way to manage growing interdependence. Second, multilateralism garners more cooperation from other states than do imperialist policies. Third, this grand strategy reflects the liberal character of U.S. domestic order. There is some support for the first and second propositions, and Deudney and Ikenberry (1999) have long argued for the third proposition, although it is about to receive its litmus test under President Trump. In his book Liberal Leviathan, Ikenberry (2011) came full circle with the liberal institutionalist approach pioneered in Keohane’s (1984) After Hegemony by arguing that, although liberal international order is likely to continue to be U.S.-led, the institutions underpinning it are sufficiently robust to survive American decline.

The wealth of propositions described here deserve to be tested more comprehensively, including the proposition that unipolarity is peaceful as long as the United States remains bound by multilateral institutions and preserves its liberal nature (cf. Ikenberry, 2002).

Contracting Hierarchy

Drawing on theories of relational contracting from the economics literature, Lake proposed a theory of hierarchy. Security provision is regulated through contracts specifying the terms of the defense bargain and the “residual rights of control,” ranging from formal to informal agreements, which describe what will happen when situations left unspecified by the contract arise (Lake, 1996, p. 7). The greater the hierarchical differentiation is between the parties to the contract, the lower the costs of opportunism, and the higher the costs of governance (Lake, 1996). This confirms the predicted effect of hierarchy under hegemonic stability theory, where opportunism is more easily overcome as the power gap between would-be free riders and the hegemonic power increases. In subsequent work, Lake elaborated a general theory of hierarchy encompassing both security and economic exchange based on relational authority (Lake, 2009). According to this theory, dominant and subordinate states enter a social contract whereby the former provides order in exchange for compliance and legitimacy (Lake, 2007, 2009, 2010). Unlike other theories of hegemony, the analysis is dyadic, with social bargains negotiated bilaterally between dominant and subordinate states, facilitating quantitative assessment. Using this relational approach, Lake generated, and tested, more specific hypotheses, such as whether subordinate states tend to spend less on defense because they can transfer defense costs to the dominant state offering protection (Lake, 2007, 2009). Lake provided evidence for this hypothesis, but the evidence is disputed (MacDonald & Lake, 2008). The exchange between Lake and MacDonald suggested that we must exercise caution when dismissing empirical tests, and not hold them to impossible standards for operationalization and causal identification.

Lake’s relational authority perspective has been criticized for being too “narrow” (cf. Mattern & Zarakol, 2016). The specific objection concerns the role of coercion in forging and sustaining hierarchical relationships. “His definition precludes relations of hierarchy that are established by coercion” (MacDonald & Lake, 2008, p. 171). However, Lake’s theory includes the possibility of coercion within the hierarchical relationship, since dominant states with “political authority are empowered to use coercion legitimately” (MacDonald & Lake, 2008, p. 177). This certainly expands the scope of the theory, but it still leaves unexplained the forms of coercion not legitimized by the transfer of authority in the bargain. The dominant power could, for instance, use coercion in ways that exceed the authority specified in the social bargain, or the dominant power might use coercion in ways not specified by the social bargain, making such use legitimate under the concept of “residual rights,” yet nonetheless unreasonable. Lake was not alone in grappling with how to incorporate the notion of legitimacy in hierarchical structures. The idea that some form of consensual element underpins dominance goes all the way back to Gramsci’s writings on cultural hegemony in the Prison Notebooks (Gramsci, 1971). Contrary to other forms of dominance, which predominantly rely on coercion, hegemony is widely considered to contain a degree of legitimacy. Outside of a Marxist dialectic (cf. Cox, 1981), most efforts problematizing the sources of hegemonic legitimacy see elites and states as conferring legitimacy (Clark, 2011; Ikenberry & Kupchan, 1990; Keohane, 1984). This assumption is under fire today. Nevertheless, like earlier works (Ikenberry & Kupchan, 1990), Clark’s (2011) book provided richly detailed case studies of the legitimating process.


Krauthammer (1990) declared the unipolar moment before the final eclipse of the Soviet Union. He saw that bipolarity had not given way to multipolarity, and that it would not do so any time soon. Only in “another generation or so . . . will [there] be great powers coequal with the United States . . . the only country with the military, diplomatic, political and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world” (Krauthammer, 1990).

Wohlforth provided the decisive theoretical and empirical statement for the existence, peacefulness, and durability of a unipolar order (Wohlforth, 1999). Using both quantitative and qualitative measures, he showed that U.S. power was unsurpassed (Wohlforth, 1999, pp. 10–22). Unipolarity was peaceful because the conditions for conflict predicted by power transition did not apply when American primacy was “obvious” and disagreement about the distribution of power unlikely (Wohlforth, 1999, p. 24). He grounded his proposition about unipolarity’s peacefulness in structural realism, or at least said his proposition was consistent with it, since structural realism predicted that levels of conflict would be lower when states were more certain about alliance politics and relative power (Wohlforth, 1999, pp. 25–26). He also claimed unipolarity was durable for a number of reasons: states face collective action problems when attempting to balance unipolar powers, states remain ambivalent about the wisdom of strong regional powers, and power diffusion has not significantly eroded U.S. power (Wohlforth, 1999, pp. 28–33). In World out of Balance, Brooks and Wohlforth (2008) offered additional arguments regarding the durability of unipolarity. Because of the absence of systemic constraints, they say the United States has a unique opportunity to pursue “systemic activism.” In a critique, Monteiro (2011) accepted the stability of unipolarity but rejected Wohlforth’s (1999) proposition that unipolarity is peaceful. Monteiro’s propositions regarding unipolarity’s peacefulness versus conflict propensity rest on qualitative assessments, which could usefully be elaborated and complemented with quantitative assessments.

These propositions should be developed more carefully and tested more directly. Whatever the future holds, the prediction in the late 1990s that “multipolarity is developing before our eyes,” seems overblown (Waltz, 1997, p. 915).

Unipolarity is conceptually distinct from hegemony, but this division has been difficult to uphold. According to Brooks and Wohlforth, “The international system is unipolar if it contains one state whose share of capabilities place it in a class by itself compared to all other states” (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2008, p. 13). Unlike hegemony, unipolarity “is not about influence or outcomes” (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2011, p. 202). For Nexon and Wright (2007), the absence of authority relations between the leading state and other states distinguishes unipolarity from hegemony. According to these definitions, unipolarity is just a structural condition. However, whether unipolarity can be effective without legitimate leadership has been questioned (Finnemore, 2009). Indeed, when explaining international order, unipolar analysis nonetheless ends up relying on how “U.S. leadership” and “U.S. hegemony” provide public goods and shape international outcomes (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Ikenberry, Mastanduno, & Wohlforth, 2009, pp. 14–15). There is no real theory of how a unipolar distribution of power shapes international outcomes in the absence of U.S. leadership because it was always assumed that a dominant power capable of leading would have an interest in leading, which was Keohane’s (1984) central insight. We are therefore ill prepared to deal with the present circumstance in which a unipolar power, under the mantle of a status-quo-changing President, promises an end to international leadership. More direct propositions evaluating the consequences of unipolarity without hegemony would be useful going forward.

Durability of the Hegemonic Order

A shared tenet of early theorists—whether power transition theorists, hegemonic stability theorists, or system leader theorists—is that hegemony tends to run itself out of business. The theorists were influenced by the elaborations of the great masters studying empire—Ibn-Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim philosopher, and Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century English philosopher—both of whom showed how empires sow the seeds of their own destruction. In the process, they prepared the grounds for a social scientific approach to history. Sensitive to the corrupting forces of decadence and the limits of taxation as causes of economic and political decline, their views resonate strongly today.

The limits of hegemonic orders have shaped the debate since its inception. First-order theories ask about the causes of decline, focusing on specific indicators to establish whether decline has taken place. When did Pax Britannica end? When did Pax Americana end? If not yet eclipsed, when will Pax Americana end? Second-order theories ask about the consequences of decline: how will the United States’ relative decline affect world politics? If the United States were to decline, will the liberal international order survive?

Hegemonic Burden

One of the consequences of theorizing hegemony as a public goods dilemma is the gradual dissipation of gains, undercutting the hegemon’s lead. Since states cannot be prevented from benefiting from the public goods that the dominant state disproportionately pays for, the hegemon’s defining purpose presents a contradiction. Gilpin (1975) reached a similar conclusion from a different perspective, pointing to the destabilizing tendencies inherent in capitalism, which “plants the seeds of its own destruction in that it diffuses economic growth, industry, and technology, and thereby undermines the distribution of power upon which the liberal, independent economy has rested” (Gilpin, 1975, p. 260). This insight is further developed in War and Change (1981), where diminishing returns on the hegemon’s capacity for production, and its ability to protect the order, explain decline as the limits of expansion are reached. What arguments, and evidence, in the literature shed light on whether hegemony is self-defeating or self-reinforcing?

Writing in the 1970s and 1980s, the founders of hegemonic stability theory believed American power had weakened a few decades into the postwar era, sometime between the 1960s and the mid-1970s (Gilpin, 1975; Kindleberger, 1981; Krasner, 1976). An extensive debate followed in which scholars tried to identify sources of weakening on the economic and security side.

The negative economic consequences of America’s ambitious foreign policy objectives were echoed by prominent voices (Calleo, 1982; Kennedy, 1987). Providing a stable and secure environment was seen as especially damaging to the hegemonic power because it allowed others to divert resources to economically profitable activities. The financial implications of security commitments formed the backbone of Kennedy’s “military overstretch” hypothesis (Kennedy, 1987). Kennedy posited negative feedback between hegemonic commitments and the economy. Specifically, he argued that the military spending required to finance security guarantees drains the economy and reduces the resource base to fund overseas engagements in a downward spiral, putting hegemony at risk. Security scholars started worrying about the “Lippmann gap”—the political stalemate resulting from the difference between America’s increasingly broad commitments and its means to fulfill those commitments (Lippmann, 1943).

Perspectives on whether U.S. security undertakings entail economic burdens that undermine long-term economic prospects, and eventually U.S. hegemony, figure prominently in the debate. In discussions of U.S. grand strategy, authors argue that the military spending needed to finance America’s security engagements is economically debilitating, thus driving debt and decline (Drezner, 2013; Gholz, Press, & Sapolsky, 1997; Layne, 1997, 2002; MacDonald & Parent, 2011; Pape, 2009; Posen, 2007; Posen & Ross, 1996; Schweller, 2014; Walt, 2005, 2011; Williams, 2016). This near consensus view has produced massive support for a diminished U.S. role, with a minority questioning the theory and evidence informing a reorientation of U.S. hegemony (Brooks, Ikenberry, & Wohlforth, 2013; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Norrlof & Wohlforth, 2016; Nye, 1995).

Yet there is no hard evidence that America’s security commitments have been economically counterproductive. Some scholars believe the United States should retrench because they “see no credit booms, or real estate bubbles, or banking crises in the absence of a military induced expansion” (Oatley, 2015, p. 133). But any such conclusion must consider causes for credit expansion endogenous to the financial sector and demonstrate how financial crisis impacts the United States in relative terms. Macdonald and Parent (2011) provided a direct test of the wisdom of retrenchment. They presented statistical evidence showing that, historically, great powers have retrenched in the face of decline and they concluded that the United States should do the same. In making this case, they assumed that military spending contributes to debt and decline. This causal chain is, however, unsupported by economic theory and is directly refuted by statistical evidence (Norrlof & Wohlforth, 2016). As Rasler and Thompson (1994, pp. 120–121, p. 134) showed, there is no empirical basis for Gilpin’s assertion that U.S. military consumption has contributed to crowding out U.S. investment. Rather, the investment-consumption trade-off hastens decline once relative weakening sets in (Rasler, 1990; Rasler & Thompson, 1994).3 Future research should clarify if other causal pathways exist whereby military spending contributes to economic decline.

Eventually, hegemonic powers are likely to decline beyond some meaningful absolute threshold, arguably contributing to the popularity of declinist sentiment, but such forecasts have also been attractive because they resonate with the public goods logic so central to hegemonic order studies. Free-riding undermines the hegemon’s power base as the costs of public good provision are borne by the hegemon alone, leaving other states to divert resources to private ends. While theories of hegemony building on the public goods rationale predict more general diffusion than the narrower debate about the costs of America’s grand strategy, both explanations reach similar conclusions, accounting for some of the declinist appeal. However, the diffusion of benefits is explicable in other terms: increased competition and the spread of new technology and production techniques (Rasler & Thompson, 1991, 1994; Thompson, 1990). If these are the real causes of decline, future research should exercise caution when inferring how diffusion impacts the hegemonic state, whether diffusion affects a hegemonic state to a greater extent than it does other states, and, if so, why the hegemonic state is more susceptible to diffusion than other states.

Hegemonic Privilege

No one disputes that the United States has experienced relative decline since World War II. The relevant question is whether the United States has undergone meaningful decline. Does the United States no longer have superior capabilities? Is the United States no longer able to significantly influence outcomes?

The most cited statistic for the United States’ decline is the long-term decline in America’s share of world GDP. In the late 1980s, a debate erupted between Strange (1987, 1988a) on the one hand and Milner and Snyder (1988) and Miller (1988a) on the other hand about how to measure U.S. decline. Milner and Snyder (1988) were right that Strange did not provide the relevant data to support her argument that the United States’ share of world output had remained more or less constant and that the relevant data did not disprove decline. Strange was, however, right (although Milner and Snyder did not necessarily disagree) that relying solely on the U.S. share of world GDP was insufficient to demonstrate decline.

Strange (1987) pointed to the benefits enjoyed by the United States resulting from its provision of the world’s reserve currency, its role as a leading financial center, and its role as a leader in information technology and the security domain. Taken together, these components are still the essential domains with which to gauge U.S. capabilities relative to other states. Because of interactive effects between trade, money, and security, the hegemon has considerable flexibility in choosing between different policy options and coalitions, the latitude to opt out of agreements, and the ability to create a structure in support of its interests and power (Norrlof, 2010). This perspective emphasizes that, instead of assuming a disproportionate burden in shouldering costs, the hegemon is well positioned to benefit from international cooperation by parameterizing decline through gains-shifting short of exploitation. In contrast to scholars who argue that hegemony is self-defeating and who highlight the negative spiral, scholars who see hegemonic privilege tend to believe that systemic stabilizers support U.S. hegemony. They find positive feedback in the United States’ multidimensional power base, especially insofar as security and economic leverage afford a high degree of macroeconomic flexibility (Beckley, 2011; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016; Mastanduno, 2009; Norrlof, 2008, 2010). Many of the propositions found in the literature would benefit from more direct evaluation using statistical tests or detailed case studies. Using the latter approach, a recent consideration of alliances demonstrated that the United States retains considerable autonomy in its security partnerships (Beckley, 2015).

Has the United States sustained economic, technological, and military capabilities? Strange saw that “U.S. dominance in the global production structure” (Strange, 1988a, p. 752) was a key aspect prolonging U.S. commercial power. The globalization of production created significant trade in intermediate inputs, and raised intrafirm trade, prolonging America’s commitment to free trade while complicating the commercial scorecard (Milner, 1988b). Spreading production worldwide has been accompanied by a long-term trend rise in foreign affiliates, value added, and net income in ways that have been extremely profitable for the United States (Farrell, 2004; Norrlof, 2010, pp. 90–93; Quinlan & Chandler, 2001; Starrs, 2013). Some scholars predict the end of the dollar and the financial era (Eichengreen, 2011; Helleiner & Pagliari, 2011; Kirshner, 2008, 2014; Layne, 2012), while others foresee continued U.S. dominance (Cohen, 2003; Germain & Schwartz, 2014; McNamara, 2008; Norrlof, 2009; Oatley et al., 2013). In terms of innovation, the technological gap between the United States and China remains large (Beckley, 2011, pp. 22–30; Brooks & Wohlforth, 2016). In the security domain, no one contests the United States’ unprecedented strength.

Hegemony and Beyond: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of HegemonyClick to view larger

Figure 1. US Financial and Military Capability

Source: Author’s calculations based on IIS (2016) and IMF (2015; 2017).

Notes: Military capability is calculated as the share of great power capability (US, China, France, Russia and India) for 2013. Reserve currency provision and financial market size is calculated as a proportion of the world share.

Figures 1 and 2 offer an idea of the United States’ overall economic and military capability. Figure 1 shows a breakdown of military and financial capability. The dotted 25% line reveals that the United States’ military capability—measured as the capacity for reconnaissance, strategic transportation, and communication to project power—is more than twice the share of aggregate great power capability.4 U.S. reserve currency provision far surpasses any other states’ provision or that of the Eurozone. The U.S. financial markets are slightly more than a quarter of the world share.

Hegemony and Beyond: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of HegemonyClick to view larger

Figure 2. US Commercial and Production Capability

Source: Author’s calculations based on GFD (2016).

Figure 2 shows the United States’ output and commercial capability. U.S. GDP remains nearly a quarter of world GDP. U.S. commercial capability disaggregated into its combined share of world exports and imports is slightly lower than that of China, and the size of U.S. companies relative to the rest of the world far exceeds any other country’s share. Quite clearly, the United States’ multidimensional power base still outclasses that of rival powers.


Hegemonic order studies have struggled since their inception because the United States was assumed to be in terminal decline. Under the weight of declinism, much emphasis was placed on how the predicted consequences of dominance—economic openness and political stability—would endure after hegemony. Of course, any theory of dominance must grapple with how dominance might fade, but decline went from something to be theorized and evaluated to an assumption that became exceedingly difficult to dispute, even in the face of overwhelming conflicting evidence. A new research program, which seeks to draw on all the levers of the discipline—sophisticated quantitative and qualitative analysis spanning the range of social science methods from statistics to refined case studies and network analysis—is crystallizing. The aim is to understand the political and economic determinants of extraordinary capability, what kind of order is likely to emerge, how the relationship between different forms of capability are structured, why such orders endure, and how they are eventually challenged. The way forward brings us back to the old masters, who saw that the intersection between politics and economics is crucial for understanding great power trajectories and who raised the possibility of internally driven decline. It remains to be seen if the absolute power gap between the United States and the rest of the world endures under President Trump, and, if not, what kind of international order will emerge.


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(1.) Insights from power transition theory are examined where relevant. Similarly, due to space constraints, how empire relates to hegemonic studies is explored only in passing.

(2.) For power transition theorists, stable international relations result from the hegemon’s provision of private goods that benefit satisfied allies (benefits are restricted).

(3.) Nor do they find that consumption in the form of military spending crowded out investment in the halcyon days (1870–1913) of the British Empire (Rasler & Thompson, 1988).

(4.) The military great powers are the United States, Russia, China, France, and India.