Is Hegemony Possible or Even Desirable?
Hegemony is shrouded by fragmented and diverse definitions that challenge its analysis in the contemporary international system. Diverse viewpoints, theories, and paradigms underpin these varied definitions, making it challenging to decide whether it is possible or even desirable in the international system existing today or in the future. Despite its association with international relations since the end of the Second World War and the creation of the United Nations, some schools of thought assert that it is unnecessary in maintaining the extant world order while others find it an existential necessity for the contemporary international system. This analysis delves into whether hegemony is possible or even desirable given the emerging more balance of economic and military power between nations. The analysis demonstrates that hegemony is possible and desirable in maintaining a peaceful world order despite plausible opposing views.
Definition of Hegemony
Before analyzing its possibility and desirability, defining hegemony and understanding its theoretical foundations is critical. Hegemony has several and sometimes conflicting definitions. In the contemporary international system, hegemony is associated with a state rather than a group of people or ideologies. The realist school of thought defines hegemony as a state with overwhelming power to dominate others with its superior economic and material might (Schmidt 1). Contrastingly, the liberal school of thought understands hegemony as a state championing a rule-based system founded on consensus and constitutionalism (Schmidt 2). Likewise, the constructivist school of thought marries the realist and liberal perspectives by defining hegemony as a state, or civil society, which possesses material, ideological, and institutional power to create and maintain world order and has others support it (Dirzauskaite and Ilinca 30). As such, hegemony has more than material power to include ideological and cultural leadership sufficient to influence the world order and elicit compliance from other states (Bull 51). In these definitions, dominance using hard power or leadership using soft power are the overarching concepts anchoring a hegemon. As such, hegemonies exert their influence primarily by coercion and, or consent.
Balance of Power
In international relations, power in the international system can be balanced by one (unipolarity), two (bipolarity), or several (multipolarity) states or superpowers. Balance of power is thought to be critical for maintaining peace in the international system. In this regard, no one state dominates global power; rather, it is shared or balanced between two or more powerful states (Bull 97). However, the theory of balance of power has been disapproved by the emergence of unipolarity under the domination of the United States as the only superpower after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990 and ushered in a new world order (Gilpin 186). Before 1990 during the Cold War era, power was balanced between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, thus creating bipolarity in the international system. After 1990, the United States remained the only superpower and thus became the hegemon in the international system (Bull 194). This system has not changed, even with the emergence of China as a military, economic and ideological powerhouse, and the reemergence of Russia as the most significant territorial and military remnant of the former Soviet Union.
Possibility of Hegemony
Hegemony is possible in the international system. The United States is a hegemony in the current international system. It attained this position when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1990. Its hegemonic position was advanced by globalization, which took root in the 19th century (Buzan and Lawson 21). Although globalization emerged following the industrial revolution, when transportation and military technological innovations occurred in Europe and the United States, its modern form seen today expanded dramatically after the Second World War. The post-second world war era ushered in political, economic, and cultural globalization, with the United States taking leadership as the only superpower. Consequently, although there can be only one political, economic, or cultural hegemon at any one time, the United States has become a hegemon in all the three major areas of globalization. Specifically, its political system has become globalized as most countries worldwide aspire to have democratic regimes. Similarly, the United States is influential to the international economy through its capitalism promotion, globalized trade ties, and promotion of liberal markets (Kaplan 7). Likewise, the American culture has permeated other countries and regions outside the United States through the influences of mass media and the internet.
The stability witnessed under the United States as the hegemon is perplexing and negates the theory of the balance of power, yet it demonstrates the rarity of the balance of power historically. According to the theory of hegemonic stability, a single dominant state can promote the stability of the international system by articulating and enforcing interaction rules among the system’s members (Schmidt 7). The United States has demonstrated its capacity to maintain hegemonic stability using its military power to back its politics, large economy, technological advancement. It has become a hegemon because it is willing to dominate, has the capacity to enforce the international system’s rules and norms, and supports a system perceived as beneficial by other significant states. In this regard, the United States has demonstrated that hegemony is possible.
However, the hegemonic position of the United States is threatened by China, India, and Russia mainly because of its institutional architecture, societal openness, and control of NATO. The countries challenge the international system institutions and norms and provide alternatives to those of the United States. For instance, China has become the largest source of foreign direct investments, especially to poor and undemocratic states, while Russia is invading Ukraine currently, a move highly opposed by the United States and the west (Schutte 6). In these cases, the two countries flex their economic and military might while the United States observes.
Desirability of Hegemony
Although hegemony is possible, as demonstrated by the United States, its desirability is debatable and controversial. Hegemony can be overcome in two ways. The first one is to operate within the hegemonic system. In this case, weak states get absorbed and conform to the hegemonic system to take advantage of the benefits and opportunities it presents (Gilpin 186). The second alternative is for a weak state to detach or disengage itself from the dominant power (Gilpin 189). The states that align with the United States are more than those that oppose its hegemony. Therefore, from a global perspective, it appears that hegemony is desirable because the hegemonic position of the United States is supported by a majority of the countries worldwide. The few countries that oppose United States’ hegemony are China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia openly, which scores of others are critical of its policies, particularly during and after President Trump’s Administration. However, although anti-Americanism is rising, it is confined mainly to segments of the population in countries and not often expressed as an official opinion of the entire country.
From another perspective, the United States has appeared to lose its motivation to maintain its hegemony. It has reduced its military spending because of increased public pressure to focus on domestic development after engaging in expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Cooley and Nexon para 7). Besides, it has abandoned its democratization ambitions in this country and is reluctant to counter Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. In the same vein, through President Trump’s administration, the United States criticized international bodies like the European Union and NATO and vowed to reduce its financial support by asking members to increase their contribution (Cooley and Nexon para 2). Besides, President Trump’s administration pursued anti-globalization policies, adopting more nationalistic ones. This was demonstrated in the trade wars with China, in which the United States increased tariffs on Chinese goods and services enormously. However, this reluctance to maintain global domination may change with President’s Biden’s administration. This demonstrates that the United States is willing to defend and perpetuate its hegemony.
This analysis set to investigate whether hegemony is possible and even desirable in the contemporary international system. The answer to this question is that hegemony is possible and desirable. Its possibility has been demonstrated by the global domination and leadership demonstrated by the United States as a unipolarity. The United States is a political, economic, and cultural hegemony in the international system. It employs coercion and persuasion to maintain its hegemonic position. Similarly, hegemony in the international system is desirable because it promotes global peace and discourages anarchy. Few countries are officially opposed to the United States and its policies, and most of them are aligned to it by forming interdependencies. Although, other superpowers like China are emerging as political, economic and cultural powerhouses, they are yet to threaten the hegemonic position of the United States. Therefore, while the dominance of the United States in the international system may be threatened or weakening, it is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. For this reason, the United States could remain a hegemony for a long time.
Bull, Hedley. The anarchical society: a study of order in world politics. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2012.
Buzan, Barry, and George Lawson. The global transformation: History, modernity and the making of international relations. Vol. 135. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Cooley, Alexander and Daniel H. Nexon. “How hegemony ends: The unraveling of American power.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-06-09/how-hegemony-ends?check_logged_in=1&utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20220303.
Dirzauskaite, Goda, and Nicolae Cristinel Ilinca. “Understanding “Hegemony” in international relations theories.” Thesis, Development and International Relations, Aalborg University, 2017.
Gilpin, Robert. War and change in world politics. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Kaplan, Robert D. The revenge of geography: What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013.
Schmidt, Brian C. Hegamony: A conceptual and theoretical analysis. Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, 2018.
Schmidt, Brian C. The debate on American hegemony. Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, 2019.
Schutte, Giorgio Romano. “The challenge to US hegemony and the “Gilpin Dilemma”.” Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, vol. 64, no. 4. 2021, pp. 1-18.