Hegemony comes from the Greek word hēgemonía, which means leadership and rule. In international relations, hegemony refers to the ability of an actor with overwhelming capability to shape the international system through both coercive and non-coercive means. Usually this actor is understood to be a single state, such as Great Britain in the 19th century or the United States in the 20th and 21st century. However, it could also refer to the dominance of a cohesive political community with external decision-making power, such as the European Union. Hegemony is distinct from Empire because a hegemonic power rules by influencing other states rather than by controlling them or their territory. Unipolarity refers to the distribution of military capabilities, whereas hegemony also refers to economic, social, and cultural power. The literature on hegemony tries to explain the United States’ role in the international system as a function of its privileged position within the system. Some scholars also see hegemony as an institutionalized coalition of powerful and wealthy states. Central questions to the debate are whether a hegemonic actor is well placed to shape the system, what strategies hegemonic powers use to define the system, if there are particular costs and benefits associated with exercising hegemonic influence, if other states gain or lose from hegemony, and under what conditions hegemonic powers endure.
The literature on hegemony is voluminous. Gilpin 1981, Keohane 1984, Cox 1987, and Nye 2011 provide a useful conceptual discussion. Treatments covering multiple issue areas are available in Keohane 1984, Gilpin 1987, Gilpin 2001, Nye 2002, and Norrlof 2010. Other valuable sources are the easily accessible text Zakaria 1998–1999 and the characterization of the United States as an “empire by invitation” in Lundestad 1990.
Cox, Robert W. Production, Power and World Order. Social Forces in the Making of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Analysis of how production affects international order and how power and production relates to the rise and decline of British and American hegemony in the 19th and 20th centuries. Useful account of hegemony conceived in consensual Gramscian terms. Not easily accessible.
Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Argues that states’ tendency to expand is destabilizing because shifts in the balance of power create incentives for rising powers to alter the system.
Gilpin, Robert. The Political Economy of International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Seminal contribution on the international political economy (IPE) in the presence and absence of a hegemonic leader. Useful guide to the interplay of economics and politics as well as a helpful account of the liberal, mercantilist, and Marxist perspective on IPE.
Gilpin, Robert. Global Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Study of the open international order, which is underwritten by American hegemony and cannot be taken for granted. There is no counterfactual example of a stable liberal international order in the absence of a hegemonic power. Useful introduction to the functioning of the international political economy.
Keohane, Robert O. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Essential reading on hegemony. Uses rational choice to demonstrate that international cooperation can persist despite the absence of a hegemonic power when international institutions reduce transaction costs, information asymmetries, and uncertainty.
Lundestad, Geir. The American “Empire.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
A sweeping account of American foreign policy in the postwar era until the end of the Cold War and its effect on the other policy choices of other countries. Argues for the consensual elements underpinning American hegemony through the catchphrase “empire by invitation.” Useful historical overview.
Norrlof, Carla. America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
The United States has positional advantages in the form of large commercial and financial markets, the global currency of choice, as well as military primacy, which interact favorably to sustain its hegemony.
Nye, Joseph S. Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
Celebrated book. Useful discussion of power as well as the main debates surrounding America’s continued hegemony.
Nye, Joseph S. The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Argues that America’s soft power is crucial for understanding continued US hegemony. Sees American leadership of international institutions as more effective than unilateralism.
Nye, Joseph S. The Future of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.
Widely acclaimed book. Exploration of vertical power diffusion away from states and horizontal power diffusion between states and its implications for American hegemony. Very useful distinction between different forms of power.
Zakaria, Fareed. “The Challenges of American Hegemony.” International Journal 54.1 (1998–1999): 9–27.
Asserts that predictions of American decline are overblown and neglect to take into account that power is relative, and that America’s power base is multidimensional and includes “soft power.” To maintain a stable world order, the United States must exercise restraint.
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