Question 8

Competing theories of hegemonic stability

Hegemony is an important aspect of international relations. Various schools of thought and theories have emerged in an attempt to better understand hegemonic actors and their influence.

The Systemic School of thought

According to Thomas J McCormick, scholars and other experts on the systemic school define hegemony “as a single power’s possession of ‘simultaneous superior economic efficiency in production, trade and finance.” Furthermore, a hegemon’s superior position is considered the logical consequence of superior geography, technological innovation, ideology, superior resources, and other factors.

Long cycle theory

George Modelski, who presented his ideas in the book, Long Cycles in World Politics (1987), is the chief architect of long cycle theory.

In a nutshell, long cycle theory describes the connection between war cycles, economic supremacy, and the political aspects of world leadership.

Long cycles, or long waves, offer interesting perspectives on global politics by permitting “the careful exploration of the ways in which world wars have recurred, and lead states such as Britain and the United States have succeeded each other in an orderly manner.”

Not to be confused with Simon Kuznets’ idea of long cycles, or long-swings, long cycles of global politics are patterns of past world politics.

The long cycle, according to Dr. Dan Cox, is a period of time lasting approximately 70 to 100 years. At the end of that period, “the title of most powerful nation in the world switches hands.”.

Modelski divides the long cycle into four phases. When periods of global war, which could last as much as one-fourth of the total long cycle, are factored in, the cycle can last from 87 to 122 years.

Many traditional theories of international relations, including the other approaches to hegemony, believe that the baseline nature of the international system is anarchy.

Modelski’s long cycle theory, however, states that war and other destabilizing events are a natural product of the long cycle and larger global system cycle.

They are part of the living processes of the global polity and social order. Wars are “systemic decisions” that “punctuate the movement of the system at regular intervals.” Because “world politics is not a random process of hit or miss, win or lose, depending on the luck of the draw or the brute strength of the contestants,” anarchy simply doesn’t play a role. After all, long cycles have provided, for the last five centuries, a means for the successive selection and operation of numerous world leaders.

Modeslki used to believe that long cycles were a product of the modern period. He suggests that the five long cycles, which have taken place since about 1500, are each a part of a larger global system cycle, or the modern world system.

Under the terms of long cycle theory, five hegemonic long cycles have taken place, each strongly correlating to economic  Kondratic Waves (or K-Waves). The first hegemon would have been Portugal during the 16th century, then the Netherlands during the 17th century. Next, Great Britain served twice, first during the 18th century, then during the 19th century. The United States has been serving as hegemon since the end of World War II.

The traditional view of long cycle theory has evolved somewhat, as Modelski now suggests that Northern and Southern Sung China, Venice and Genoa were each the dominant economic powers during medieval long cycles. However, he does not classify any of these states as world powers. Only when Portugal gained hegemony after 1500 is that distinction made.


The other views of Hegemonic Stability besides the competing theory.

The Neorealist interpretation of Hegemony.

The Neoliberal interpretation of Hegemony

The Classical Liberal interpretation of Hegemony


The neorealist interpretation of hegemony

Neorealist have been focusing on this theory recently, the main proponent of it being John J. Mearsheimer who is trying to incorporate it into ‘offensive realism’.

In his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ Mearsheimer outlines how the anarchic system that neorealists subscribe to (see Kenneth Waltz for original theory) creates power hungry states who will each attempt to install themselves as regional and global hegemons.

His theory is not widely embraced by fellow realists who argue that the hegemon supports the system so long as it is in their interests. The system is created, shaped and maintained by coercion.

The hegemon would begin to undermine the institution when it is not in their interests. With the decline of a hegemon, the system descends into instability. Other realists argue that the anarchic system does not actually give causal motivation to aid the creation of hegemons]


The neoliberal interpretation of hegemony

Neoliberals argue that the hegemon wishes to maintain its dominant position without paying enforcement costs, so it creates a system in which it can credibly limit the returns to power (loser doesn’t lose all) and credibly commit to neither dominate nor abandon them.

This is done through institutions, which are sticky, (hard to change, more convenient to continue using than to revamp.)

These institutions favor the hegemon, but provide protection and a stable world order for the rest of the world. The more open this world-order, the less likely that there will be a challenger.

With the decline of the hegemon, institutions don’t automatically die, because they were constructed in a way that benefited all stakeholders; instead, they take on a life of their own.


The classical liberal interpretation of hegemony

It is motivated by ‘enlightened self-interest’; the hegemon takes on the costs because it is good for all actors, thereby creating stability in the system, which is also in the interests of all actors.


Duncan Snidal argues that ‘the range of the theory is very limited to very special conditions,’ and suggests that the decline of a hegemonic power may demonstrate the possibility of a collective power.

According to Snidal, the applicability of the theory can be challenged due to limitations and the theory only holds true empirically under special conditions.


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