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.

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

1. Economic power

2. Military power

3. Willingness to do so


The Historical Record

Portugal 1494 to 1580 (end of Italian Wars to Spanish invasion of Portugal) Based on Portugal's dominance in navigation.

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.

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

Britain 1815 to 1914 (Congress of Vienna to World War I) Based on British industrial supremacy and railroads.

United States 1945 to 1971 Based on Bretton Woods economic order and US military power.


What does the hegemon do?

The system is a public 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.