In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hegemony in International Law

  • Introduction
  • Regional Hegemony
  • Power Transition Theory
  • Gramscian and Neo-Gramscian Approaches to Hegemony
  • Hegemony and Domestic Politics

International Law Hegemony in International Law
Michael Mastanduno
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0141


In international politics, hegemony refers to dominance or authority exercised by one state or group of states over others. Hegemony is simultaneously material, ideational, and relational. Hegemonic states typically enjoy a preponderance of material capabilities, both military and economic. They also establish the legitimacy of a particular type of international order, regional or global, that reflects and reinforces their national values and interests. Hegemonic states establish and maintain the rules of the international game. But hegemony is not simply coercive; it also implies a meaningful degree of acquiescence on the part of other major states in the system. Hegemony involves authority; the dominant state exercises it and other states at least to some degree accept it. Leaders need followers or collaborators. Hegemony works best when other states accept the leading role of the hegemonic state and view the order it has created as beneficial and desirable. Hegemony should be distinguished analytically from unipolarity. The latter term refers to a distribution of material capabilities in which one state is unambiguously superior to any others. Unipolarity does not imply anything in particular about relationships among states in the system. Hegemony should also be distinguished from empire. Empire refers to a formal relationship of dominance and dependence. Hegemonic relationships are likely to be more informal than formal, although they are typically institutionalized in ways that reflect the authority of the dominant power. The scholarly literature on hegemony is broad and deep. It includes analyses and comparisons of different hegemonic orders, in particular the 19th-century order associated with British hegemony and the post–World War II order of American hegemony. A lively debate continues over whether the latter order is stable and enduring or fading away. Some scholars focus on hegemony as a means to organize international economic relations; others focus primarily on military or security relationships. Some work within a mainstream perspective; others take a critical, including Gramscian and neo-Gramscian, approach. Some scholars devote attention to regional hegemony, examining, for example, the contemporary role of Germany in the European Union or China in East Asia. Across these literatures scholars struggle with an array of conceptual questions, such as “Is hegemonic decline inevitable?” “Do hegemonic transitions cause war and under what conditions can they take place peacefully?” “Do hegemonic orders disproportionately benefit the dominant state or do hegemonic states take on responsibilities and obligations that undermine their own power and benefit other states?” Scholars are also interested in the types of political bargains that are struck between leading and supporting states, the institutionalization of hegemony, and how crises are managed within hegemonic systems. Finally, literature explores the domestic politics of hegemony. Especially in democracies, the activist foreign policies associated with hegemony require the support of interest groups, political coalitions, and the general public.

General and Conceptual Approaches

Scholarship in this category explores the meaning of hegemony as a form of and mechanism for international order. Clark 2009 views hegemony as a legitimate institution of international society. Wilkinson 1999 and Ikenberry, et al. 2011 explore the relationship between hegemony and unipolarity. Nexon and Wright 2007 analyzes the differences between hegemony and empire. Lake 2011 develops the underlying logic of hierarchy and authority in hegemonic relationships. Ikenberry 2014 offers critical reflections and extensions of the arguments of Gilpin 1981 (cited under Hegemony and International Relations Theories). Cox 1983 applies the concept of hegemony in Gramsci 2014 (cited under Gramscian and Neo-Gramscian Approaches to Hegemony) to international relations. Williams, et al. 2012 focuses not on the hegemonic state but on the calculations and behavior of secondary states in a hegemonic order.

  • Clark, Ian. “Bringing Hegemony Back In: The United States and International Order.” International Affairs 85.1 (2009): 23–36.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2009.00778.x

    Clark views hegemony not simply as a term for American primacy but as a legitimate institution of international society in which rights and obligations are conferred on the hegemonic state. Shows that historically hegemony has taken a variety of forms, including that of a single state and of a coalition of states.

  • Cox, Robert W. “Gramsci, Hegemony, and International Relations: An Essay in Method.” Millennium 12.2 (1983): 162–175.

    DOI: 10.1177/03058298830120020701

    Cox takes Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, as developed in the Italian thinker’s Prison Notebooks (Gramsci 2014 [cited under Gramscian and Neo-Gramscian Approaches to Hegemony]), and explores how the concept can be applied most usefully to the study of international relations.

  • Ikenberry, G. John, ed. Power, Order, and Change in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Brings together leading international relations scholars to reflect on the enduring contributions of Robert Gilpin’s War and Change (Gilpin 1981 [cited under Hegemony and International Relations Theories]). Essays on different types of international order, strategies for hegemonic rule, the dynamics of power transition, and the relationship between hegemony and nuclear weapons.

  • Ikenberry, G. John, Michael Mastanduno, and William Wohlforth. International Relations Theory and the Consequences of Unipolarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511996337

    Based on a special issue of World Politics (January 2009) with additional articles by Daniel Duedney, Barry Posen, and Jeff Legro. The contributors explore the sources and meaning of unipolarity and its consequences for American hegemony, American domestic politics, alliance behavior, unilateralism and multilateralism, and international order.

  • Lake, David A. Hierarchy in International Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    Contrasts hierarchy with anarchy as organizing principles in international relations. Hierarchy is an arena in which dominant and subordinate states form binding social contracts, which provide mutual benefits based on mutual acceptance of the dominant state’s authority. An important contribution in developing the social dimension of hegemonic power.

  • Nexon, Daniel, and Thomas Wright. “What’s at Stake in the American Empire Debate.” American Political Science Review 101.2 (2007): 253–271.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055407070220

    The authors argue that empires have a distinctive network-structure when compared to hegemonic or unipolar orders. In imperial relations, the politics of divide and rule replaces the balance of power and the imperial power faces special problems in legitimizing its authority across multiple actors.

  • Wilkinson, David. “Unipolarity without Hegemony.” International Studies Review 1.2 (1999): 141–172.

    DOI: 10.1111/1521-9488.00158

    Wilkinson views the post–Cold War global order as unipolar but not hegemonic. Argues “non-hegemonic unipolarity” is a global systemic condition worthy of study and begins the task by arguing that unipolarity is not necessarily unstable and may offer a means to resolve conflicts that are not available in more decentralized international orders.

  • Williams, Kristin, Steven Lobell, and Neal Jesse. Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.

    Case studies illuminate the strategies available to secondary states in response to global or regional hegemons. Some states choose binding or “bandwagon” strategies; others favor hard or soft balancing. Domestic politics in the secondary states is key in shaping the varied responses.

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