Rethinking The Hegemony Stability Theory Interpretation Politics Essay

As we start touching the debate between neo-realism and neo-liberalism, the role of the hegemonic power becomes controversial. A series of questions come into my mind and arouse my curiosity, like what is hegemon? Can the translation in Chinese (e???¬S ba quan) interpret the really meaning of it? Is there a division between benign hegemony and malign hegemony? Will the existence of hegemon ensure or impair the stability of the system? To what extent we shall analyze the function of hegemon? Is the Hegemonic Stability Theory a descriptive or normative theory? Will the decline of hegemon threaten the stability as suggested by the positivists including Giplin (1986; 1987) and Keohane (1984; 1986) that?

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After the reviewing of literature related to this topic, I come up with my own point of view concerning the meaning of hegemon, and the understanding of the Hegemonic Stability Theory. Generally, I would consider the hegemon as the main leader in the international system of states rather the one that tends to harm the other states’ interest through the domination of international institutions. Besides, although economists like Robert Mundell, Robert, Baldwin (1993), Bruno Frey (1984), or Mancur Olson (1965) supported the validity of the Hegemonic Stability Theory, it is still not as positive as argued by the neo-realist school (Keohane, 1984; Kindleberger, 1981; Waltz, 1979) that without the hegemon the stability would be uncertain or impaired, after examining the Gramsci’s conception of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971; Gramsci, 1994) and the contributions that Cox (1983; 1987; 2002) and neo-Gramscians have made in converting his theoretical models to the field of international political economy, I would argue that the Hegemonic Stability Theory is merely an explanation of the previous historical evidences that two hegemon (Britain 1946 – 1914 and the United States 1941 – 2001) were existed in two peaceful and stable periods respectively. Nevertheless, it cannot be an empirical predication or normative reference for the political scientists, politicians, historians, journalists, and other observers of international affairs to affirm that hegemon is the sufficient condition of stability.

Evaluation and Analysis of Hegemonic Stability Theory: Own Perspectives

My Understanding

As discussed in the seminar about neorealism (structuralism), the translation of hegemon in Chinese (e???¬S ba quan) is quite prejudiced, which I do agree. Besides, in terms of political, historical, and economic facts, I contend that periods with a single hegemonic core power were also periods in which there is relatively greater world economic growth, freer trade, and relatively less warfare (Gilpin, 1981; Keohane & Nye, 1977; Krasner, 1976). However, for my own point of view, I do not consider the hegemonic power and system stability as a causal relationship, or in other word, I would argue that this correspondence is not a result of the stable forged by the hegemonic leader; instead, they are just two independent phenomena that happened to be existed synchronically. In this paper, I would list four arguments to support my view that the Hegemonic Stability Theory is not as positive and sound as it was previously suggested, and the legitimacy of the hegemon to regulate or dominate the international institutions and rules is not justifiable enough.

In fact, as a theoretical mode, the Hegemonic Stability Theory is quite rigorous in terms of its structure and main arguments. It is awarded with the ingenious theoretical design: in the international economic system, the hegemon is willing to burden the costs of public goods with its capacity voluntarily and set the international institutions as well as rules, in this way, the stability of this system can be ensured. This kind of causal relationship can be formulized as: capacity + willingness = stability. According to this logic of argument, the theory seems to justify the situation when the hegemon tends to destroy the stability. Since the international stability depends on both the capacity and willingness of the hegemon, the collapse of stability is accordingly caused by the unilateral change of either capacity or willingness. These arguments, however, belie the egoistic character and conceal the immoral intention of the hegemon. Following are four deep reflections on this point.

Four Arguments

The Hegemon: The Biggest Sacrificer or Biggest Beneficiary?

According to the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the hegemon is willing to provide public goods for the sake of stabilizing the international economic system, while other countries get a free ride in this process, putting the hegemon into a seemingly “exploited” position. In other word, the hegemon sacrifices for the absolute gain in the world. This paved the moral basis and powerful ideology to justify the existence of hegemon, especially some of its hegemonic behavior.

But what is the intention behind for the hegemon to provide public goods? In fact, in my opinion, this is still guided by rationality and egoism, rather than altruism as suggested. Rationality means that the behavior of the actor is based on his own preference and interest, and every step in this process is guided by the calculation of cost and benefit which shall maximize his utility. The system of states shares the same principle, in which each state will make decisions based on its own interest, and they all tend to maximize their own power and profit through a series of diplomatic issues. Therefore, the intention of the hegemon to provide public goods, without exception, is also to fulfill his own interest preference and ensure the maximization of power and interest.

For the hegemon, the present position it holds in the distribution of power is already a quite satisfactory status quo, then in order to maintain this status quo; the hegemon must establish and safeguard the international institutions (either trading or monetary) to guarantee the rules for every state’s behavior in international relations would sustain. Therefore, during the formation of international institutions, the hegemon will intentionally project them to benefit its interest in every aspect. After establishing the institutions, it will further protect its interest with dominant power under the rules and regulations he set before. Hence, providing the public goods is not a moral contribution, but merely an instrument to realize the above goals. When the hegemonic role is impaired by the rise of the newly-emerged countries, usually the hegemon will not only suspend the provision of public goods, but also it will take the lead in breaking out the international institution to defend its own interest. For instance, during the 1970s, the power of the USA was significantly stricken by the Vietnam World, facing the severe domestic social crisis, in order to restrain the economic inflation and solving the deficit in the balance of international payments, the Nixon government implemented the New Deal and suspended the Bretten Woods System, causing the decrease of share price and economic benefits in many European countries, and ending the turmoil of international financial situation eventually. From this view it is not difficult to figure out that actually the real reason for the hegemon to provide public goods is just because they are the unavoidable costs during the process for the hegemon to be the biggest profiteer; the same thing is true when the hegemon violates international institution – to avoid the sacrifice when pursuing benefits. Consequently, the moral basis for Hegemonic Stability Theory is then quite fragile.

The Fact of Free-rider

As stated above, in the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the main reason that dependent countries are willing to be led by the hegemon under his rule is that they can enjoy the public goods freely with free-ride behavior, cutting down the cost while gaining more profits. This argument seems to sound reasonable at the first glance, but it is quite biased in fact. This section will illustrate this point through the example of the relationship between the U.S. and its allies during the Cold War Era, concerning two aspects-trading and monetary respectively.

On Trading Arena

After the WWII, the U.S. and its allies practiced trade liberalism in terms of trading relationship, tolerating the trade protectionism of the allies. Specifically, for the U.S., the domestic market is open to its allies, while for the allies, all the American goods were kept out in their markets by the trade barriers, but they are allowed to dump the products with low prices to the United States. This seemed to discriminate the American good and had quite a lot disadvantages for the United States, however, this superficial facts belied the real motivation behind, which can be found when review the whole process. In fact, initially, through this ‘unfair’ exchange, the allies seem can gain more capital to regain the economic and productive power, to provide more job opportunities and smooth the social turmoil caused by tremendous unemployment. Gradually, this will solidify the political power of those Parties that are friendly and acquiesced with the U.S. while restraining the others leaned to the Socialist Bloc, and containing the power of the USSR further.

Meanwhile, this trading behavior sufficiently revealed the characteristics of the Americanized capitalism: wealth and power are closely linked, while consolidating the power, at the same time, the pursuit of wealth is unremitted. If the US did not help the allies to revive their economy, it would then be forced to invest the capital aid in the future continuously, while the rate of return of these investments will be quite uncertain as the allies start to be dependent on it, and this situation was what the US did not want to burden. Hence, in this logic, to tolerate the trade barriers set by its allies while open the American market was in fact an investment focusing on the future. What the US expected was that as soon as the economy of its allies was revival, the citizens in those countries will develop the interest and capability to consume the high-ranking American products in the industrial chain till the extent that they highly rely on them. Afterwards, the US will strengthen its trade protectionism step by step.

On Monetary Arena

According to the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the currency of hegemon is located in the center of international monetary system, the establishment and maintenance of the international mechanisms dominated by the hegemon is an assurance of efficient operation of the international monetary system, they have the function to adjust, create the liquidation mechanism and build up confidence, as well as the ability to influence the interest of the employers, employees, and other groups. The hegemon is in charge of the costs for establishing and maintaining the operation of international monetary institutions, so that the other member states can take free ride. But the problem is that no matter it is to adjust, create the liquidation or build up the confidence; it would lead to distinct impact on various national interests and their domestic interest groups. The international monetary institutions are rarely neutral in the political domain, they relate to the economic well-being, political independence and even the international reputation of one country. Hence, the hegemonic currency, as the core in the whole international monetary system, enables the hegemon to enjoy the advantages in terms of finance and trade. In terms of monetary adjustment, when there is an imbalance of international payment, it must be solved by a generally accepted way to restore the balance of currency for the difference in the inflation rate or deflation rate varies. Although either deficit countries or surplus countries could make adjustment through devaluation or appreciation of their currency, the hegemon will utilize its monetary hegemony to force the other member states to bear the adjustment costs, rather than sacrificing unilaterally as it is preached by the Hegemonic Stability Theory. For instance, during the 1980s, the United States signed the Plaza Accord with Japan, which forced the latter to bear the adjustment cost to eliminate the trade deficient and balance of payment for the US economy.

Can Hegemon Bring Stability?

In the causal relationship set by the Hegemonic Stability Theory, the international institutions and then the orderly stability are results of the public goods provided by the hegemon, through which the contribution of the hegemonic power far outstrips the other member states, quoting the words of Olson (1965), this is exactly the situation when “the small exploits the large”. Meanwhile, except the moral contribution of Hegemonic Stability Theory, it is said that the hegemon owns the strength to deter the other member states, so that it can utilize coercive mechanism to ensure the stability of the system. In addition, the international institutions set by the hegemon will significantly increase the predictability and certainty of the member states’ behaviors, reducing the transaction costs, stimulating the mutual cooperation, and preventing the system failure so as to ensure the stability of the system.

In fact, as discussed above, the behaviors of the so-called hegemonic power, like other countries, are directed by its self-interest as well. The main determination for maintaining or destroying the stability is consistent with the judgment that whether the action will fulfill interest and strategy of its own or not. If it is beneficial, then trying to stabilize the system is to defend the self interest and pursuit greater power; if not, as stability will be an obstacle for the hegemon to pursuit its interest, it will break out the stability without hesitation, which is usually more destructive comparing to other member states.

In addition, there is always a game of interest distribution between the hegemon and the dependent countries. According to Game theory, players can make profits through mutual cooperation, or they can make gain more through defection. For games that play only once, cooperation is difficult to achieve because both of them will not be afraid of follow-up punishment. In this game structure, the players tend to defect than cooperate as they do not trust the other and cannot expect the behavior of the other. However, as interdependence is growing in the real international relations, iterated games are more frequent than those played only once. In this way, different choices will directly cause different follow-up effects, so that the behavior of players will be constrained. If during the first time the player defects and hampers the other’s interest, then in the following games he will commit the so-called “tit-for-tat” treatment. In the same logic, the institutions and rules established by the hegemonic power not only provide the environment for iterated games, but also bring constraints to its own. Imaging during the game between the hegemon and dependent country, if the former tries to continue the asymmetry of interest distribution using its power and biased mechanism, then there is no guarantee that the latter will be willing to obey and not counterattack. For example, sines 1951, the Western Europe established the European Coal and Steel Community and has been continuously pushed forward the integration of the Europe. This revealed the desire of improving the power of player in the game through unification and self-renewal so that there could be a balance of power between the US and the Europe.

Rethinking the Current World System

Nowadays the most successful states are no longer the ones seeking to create universal empires (Rapkin, 1990), and we can observe that the United States, even admitting that its hegemonic power is declining, still support the multicentric interstate system because of the way in which opportunities for capitalist accumulation affect the motivations and political activities of the most powerful and wealthy groups within them. After all, the hegemon will still be the one who can maximize his interest and fulfill his strategy.

The American hegemonic power at present indeed, is causally dependent on massively uneven economic development as well as on the violent and destructive conflicts by which the international system of power adjusts to changes in the distribution of economic comparative advantage. Even if we were willing to ignore the economic injustices associated with the capitalist world economy, continuation of the legitimacy of warfare as a mechanism of competition and resources exploitation will certainly put an end to us all, regardless of our attitudes toward capitalism. Hence, within the system the stability is established on the tolerance and sufferance of some states, while the hegemon would extort the best interest. If this is true, the hegemonic sequence must be replaced by some other means of resolving disputes in the future, and this may refer to the further international political integration.


In a word, as one of the important theories in international political economy, the Hegemonic Stability Theory has ingenious design in terms of the academic mechanism, and it gives a quite innovative theoretical discussion concerning the relationship between state power and world economy. However, just as Duncan Snidel’s analysis (Snidal, 1985), the range of the Hegemonic Stability Theory limited to very special conditions. While in the real application, this theory has also become an alternative theoretical weapon for some countries to defend their hegemonism and power politics. The explanation for the role of hegemon in providing public goods and establishing the international institutions is also utilized as the theoretical support for hegemon to control the international institutions and expand its own power, constituting the so-called American soft power. Therefore, the interpretation and understanding of the Hegemonic Stability Theory should be more objective, while realists like Keohane, Organisky, Waltz, and Gilpin would offer illustrations to justify the actions of the hegemon, the facts that the international institutions and rules dominated by the hegemon cannot be ignored as well. In sum, it is for me more like an explanatory and descriptive theory for the two hegemon (Britain 1946 – 1914 and the United States 1941 – 2001) (O’Brien & Clesse, 2002) existed in the history, rather than a normative theory suggested by Gilpin that the decline of the hegemon will hurt the stability of the system of states.