The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. *

The Changing Nature of World Power

Political Science Quarterly, 105 (2)

Summer 1990) 177-192.




The Changing Sources of Power

Balance of Power

Hegemony in Modern History

Theories of Hegemonic Transition and Stability


Power in international politics is like the weather.  Everyone talks about it, but few understand it.  Just as farmers and meteorologists try to forecast storms, so do leaders and analysts try to understand the dynamics of major changes in the distribution of power among nations.  Power transitions affect the fortunes of individual nations and are often associated with the cataclysmic storms of world war.  But before we can examine theories of hegemonic transition - that is, some of the leading efforts to predict big changes in the international political weather - we first need to recognize some basic distinctions among the terms power, balance of power, and hegemony.



Power, like love, is easier to experience than to define or measure.  Power is the ability to achieve one’s purposes or goals.  The dictionary tells us that it is the ability to do things and to control others.  Robert Dahl, a leading political scientist, defines power as the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do. [1]

1. Robert A. Dahi, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1961).  See also James March, “The Power of Power” in David Easton, ed., Varieties of Political Theory (New York: Prentice Hall, 1966), 39-70; Herbert Simon, Models of Man (New [York: John Wiley, 1957); and David Baldwin, “Power Analysis and World Politics,” World Politics 31 (January 1979): 161-94.]  HHC: {bracketed] displayed on p.178 of original.

* JOSEPH SAMUEL NYE, JR. is director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government and director of the Center for International Affairs of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as Ford Foundation Professor of International Security and associate dean for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on inter­national affairs and foreign policy. This article draws from his recently published book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (Basic Books, 1990).


But when we measure power in terms of the changed behavior of others, we have to know their preferences.  Otherwise, we may be as mistaken about our power as was the fox who thought he was hurting Brer Rabbit when he threw him into the briar patch.  Knowing in advance how other people or nations would behave in the absence of our efforts is often difficult.

The behavioural definition of power may be useful to analysts and historians who devote considerable time to reconstructing the past, but to practical politicians and leaders it often seems too ephemeral.  Because the ability to control others is often associated with the possession of certain resources, political leaders commonly define power as the possession of resources.  These resources include population, territory, natural resources, economic size, military forces, and political stability, among others. [2]  The virtue of this definition is that it makes power appear more concrete, measurable, and predictable than does the behavioural definition.  Power in this sense means holding the high cards in the international poker game.  A basic rule of poker is that if your opponent is showing cards that can beat anything you hold, fold your hand.  If you know you will lose a war, don’t start it.

Some wars, however, have been started by the eventual losers, which suggests that political leaders sometimes take risks or make mistakes.  Often the opponent’s cards are not all showing in the game of international politics.  As in poker, playing skills, such as bluff and deception, can make a big difference.  Even when there is no deception, mistakes can be made about which power resources are most relevant in particular situations (for example, France and Britain had more tanks than Hitler in 1940, but Hitler had greater manoeuvrability and a better military strategy).  On the other hand, in long wars when there is time to mobilize, depth of territory and the size of an economy become more important, as the Soviet Union and the United States demonstrated in World War II.

Power conversion is a basic problem that arises when we think of power in terms of resources.  Some countries are better than others at converting their resources into effective influence, just as some skilled card players win despite being dealt weak hands.  Power conversion is the capacity to convert potential power, as measured by resources, to realized power, as measured by the changed behavior of others.  Thus, one has to know about a country’s skill at power conversion as well as its possession of power resources to predict outcomes correctly.

Another problem is determining which resources provide the best basis for power in any particular context.  In earlier periods, power resources were easier to judge.  According to historian A. J. P. Taylor, traditionally “the test of a Great Power

2. See Ray S. Cline, World Power Assessment (Boulder, Cob.: Westview Press, 1977); Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1955), chap. 9; and Klaus Knorr, The Power of Nations (New York: Basic Books, 1975), chaps, 3, 4.


is . . . the test of strength for war.” [3]  For example, in the agrarian economies of eighteenth-century Europe, population was a critical power resource because it provided a base for taxes and recruitment of infantry.  In population, France dominated Western Europe.  Thus, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia presented its fellow victors at the Congress of Vienna with a precise plan for its own reconstruction in order to maintain the balance of power.  Its plan listed the territories and populations it had lost since 1805, and the territories and populations it would need to regain equivalent numbers. [4]  In the prenationalist period, it did not much matter that many of the people in those provinces did not speak German or felt themselves to be German.  However, within half a century, nationalist sentiments mattered very much.  Germany’s seizure of Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1870, for example, made hope of any future alliance with France impossible.

Another change that occurred during the nineteenth century was the growing importance of industry and rail systems that made rapid mobilization possible.  In the 1860s, Bismarck’s Germany pioneered the use of railways to transport armies for quick victories.  Although Russia had always had greater population resources than the rest of Europe, they were difficult to mobilize.  The growth of the rail system in Western Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the reasons the Germans feared rising Russian power in 1914.  Further, the spread of rail systems on the Continent helped deprive Britain of the luxury of concentrating on naval power.  There was no longer time, should it prove necessary, to insert an army to prevent another great power from dominating the Continent.

The application of industrial technology to warfare has long had a powerful impact.  Advanced science and technology have been particularly critical power resources since the beginning of the nuclear age in 1945.  But the power derived from nuclear weapons has proven to be so awesome and destructive that its actual application is muscle-bound.  Nuclear war is simply too costly.  More generally, there are many situations where any use of force may be inappropriate or too costly.  In 1853, for example, Admiral Matthew C. Perry could threaten to bombard Japan if it did not open its ports for supplies and trade, but it is hard to imagine that the United States could effectively threaten force to open Japanese markets today.


The Changing Sources of Power

Some observers have argued that the sources of power are, in general, moving away from the emphasis on military force and conquest that marked earlier eras.  In assessing international power today, factors such as technology, education, and economic growth are becoming more important, whereas geography, population, and raw materials are becoming less important.  Kenneth Waltz argues that a 5-

3. A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1954), xxix.

4. Edward V. Gulick, Europe’s Classical Balance of Power (New York: W. W. Norton, 1955), 248-51.


percent rate of economic growth in the United States for three years would add more to American strength than does our alliance with Britain. [5]  Richard Rosecrance argues that since 1945, the world has been poised between a territorial system composed of states that view power in terms of land mass, and a trading system “based in states which recognize that self-sufficiency is an illusion.”  In the past, says Rosecrance, “it was cheaper to seize another state’s territory by force than to develop the sophisticated economic and trading apparatus needed to derive benefit from commercial exchange with it.” [6]

If so, perhaps we are in a “Japanese period” in world politics.  Japan has certainly done far better with its strategy as a trading state after 1945 than it did with its military strategy to create a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity sphere in the 1930s.  But Japan’s security vis--vis its large military neighbors - China and the Soviet Union - depends heavily on U.S. protection.  In short, even if we can define power clearly, it still has become more difficult to be clear about the relationship of particular resources to it.  Thus, we cannot leap too quickly to the conclusion that all trends favor economic power or countries like Japan.

Like other forms of power, economic power cannot be measured simply in terms of tangible resources.  Intangible aspects also matter.  For example, outcomes generally depend on bargaining, and bargaining depends on relative costs in particular situations and skill in converting potential power into effects.  Relative costs are determined not only by the total amount of measurable economic resources of a country but also by the degree of its interdependence in a relationship.  If, for example, the United States and Japan depend on each other but one is less dependent than the other, that asymmetry is a source of power.  The United States may be less vulnerable than Japan if the relationship breaks down, and it may use that threat as a source of power. [7]  Thus, an assessment of Japanese and American power must look not only at shares of resources but also at the relative vulnerabilities of both countries.

Another consideration is that most large countries today find military force more costly to apply than in previous centuries.  This has resulted from the dangers of nuclear escalation, the difficulty of ruling nationalistically awakened populations in otherwise weak states, the danger of rupturing profitable relations on other issues, and the public opposition in Western democracies to prolonged and expensive military conflicts.  Even so, the increased cost of military force does not mean that it will be ruled out.  To the contrary, in an anarchic system of states where there is no higher government to settle conflicts and where the ultimate recourse is self-help, this could never happen.  In some cases, the stakes may justify a costly

5. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), 172.

6.  Richard N. Rosecrance, The Rise of the Trading State (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 16, 160.

7. Robert 0. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Power and Interdependence (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977), chap. 1.  See also R. Harrison Wagner, “Economic Interdependence, Bargaining Power and Political Influence,” International Organization 41 (Summer 1988): 461-84.


use of force.  And, as recent episodes in Grenada and Libya have shown, not all uses of force by great powers involve high costs. [8]

Even if the direct use of force were banned among a group of countries, military force would still play an important political role.  For example, the American military role in deterring threats to allies, or of assuring access to a crucial resource such as oil in the Persian Gulf, means that the provision of protective force can be used in bargaining situations.  Sometimes the linkage may be direct; more often it is a factor not mentioned openly but present in the back of statesmen’s minds.

In addition, there is the consideration that is sometimes called “the second face of power.” [9]  Getting other states to change might be called the directive or commanding method of exercising power.  Command power can rest on inducements (“carrots”) or threats (“sticks”).  But there is also an indirect way to exercise power.  A country may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other countries want to follow it or have agreed to a system that produces such effects.  In this sense, it is just as important to set the agenda and structure the situations in world politics as it is to get others to change in particular situations.  This aspect of power - that is, getting others to want what you want - might be called indirect or co-optive power behavior.  It is in contrast to the active command power behavior of getting others to do what you want. [10]  Co-optive power can rest on the attraction of one’s ideas or on the ability to set the political agenda in a way that shapes the preferences that others express.  Parents of teenagers know that if they have structured their children’s beliefs and preferences, their power will be greater and will last longer than if they had relied only on active control.  Similarly, political leaders and philosophers have long understood the power that comes from setting the agenda and determining the framework of a debate.  The ability to establish preferences tends to be associated with intangible power resources such as culture, ideology, and institutions.  This dimension can be thought of as soft power, in contrast to the hard command power usually associated with tangible resources like military and economic strength. [11]

8. Keohane and Nye, Power and Interdependence, 27-29; Robert 0. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Power and Interdependence Revisited,” International Organization 41 (Autumn 1987): 725-53.

9. Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “Decisions and Nondecisions: An Analytical Framework,” American Political Science Review 57 (September 1963): 632-42.  See also Richard Mansbach and John Vasquez, In Search of Theory: A New Paradigm for Global Politics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1981).

10. Susan Strange uses the term structural power, which she defines as “power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy” in States and Markets (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 24.  My term, co-optive power, is similar in its focus on preferences but is somewhat broader, encompassing all elements of international politics.  The term structural power, in contrast, tends to be associated with the neo-realist theories of Kenneth Waltz.

11. The distinction between hard and soft power resources is one of degree, both in the nature of the behavior and in the tangibility of the resources.  Both types are aspects of the ability to achieve one’s purposes by controlling the behavior of others.  Command power - the ability to change what others do - can rest on coercion or inducement.  Co-optive power - the ability to shape what others want  - can rest on the attractiveness of one’s culture and ideology or the ability to manipulate the [agenda of political choices in a manner that makes actors fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic.  The forms of behavior between command and co-optive power range along this continuum:

Command power - coercion - inducement - agenda-setting - attraction - Co-optive power

Further, soft power resources tend to be associated with co-optive power behavior, whereas hard power resources are usually associated with command behavior.  But the relationship is imperfect.  For example, countries may be attracted to others with command power by myths of invincibility, and command power may sometimes be used to establish institutions that later become regarded as legitimate.  But the general association is strong enough to allow the useful shorthand reference to hard and soft power resources.]

HHC: [bracketed] displayed on p.182 of original.


Robert Cox argues that the nineteenth-century Pax Britannica and the twentieth-century Pax Americana were effective because they created liberal international economic orders, in which certain types of economic relations were privileged over others and liberal international rules and institutions were broadly accepted.  Following the insights of the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, Cox argues that the most critical feature for a dominant country is the ability to obtain a broad measure of consent on general principles - principles that ensure the supremacy of the leading state and dominant social classes - and at the same time to offer some prospect of satisfaction to the less powerful.  Cox identifies Britain from 1845 to 1875 and the United States from 1945 to 1967 as such countries. [12] Although we may not agree with his terminology or dates, Cox has touched a major point: soft co-optive power is just as important as hard command power.  If a state can make its power legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes.  If its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.  If it can establish international norms that are consistent with its society, it will be less likely to have to change.  If it can help support institutions that encourage other states to channel or limit their activities in ways the dominant state prefers, it may not need as many costly exercises of coercive or hard power in bargaining situations.  In short, the universalism of a country’s culture and its ability to establish a set of favorable rules and institutions that govern areas of international activity are critical sources of power. [13]   These soft sources of power are becoming more important in world politics today.

Such considerations question the conclusion that the world is about to enter a Japanese era in world politics.  The nature of power is changing and some of the changes will favor Japan, but some of them may favor the United States even more.  In command power, Japan’s economic strength is increasing, but it remains vulnerable in terms of raw materials and relatively weak in terms of military force.  And in co-optive power, Japan’s culture is highly insular and it has yet to develop a major voice in international institutions.  The United States, on the other hand,

12. Robert W. Cox, Production, Power, and World Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), chaps. 6, 7.

13. See Stephen D. Krasner, International Regimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983).


Table 1

Leading States and Major Power Resources, 1500s-1900s


Leading State

Major Resources

Sixteenth century


Gold bullion, colonial trade, mercenary armies, dynastic ties

Seventeenth century


Trade, capital markets, navy

Eighteenth century


Population, rural industry, public administration, army

Nineteenth century


Industry, political cohesion, finance and credit, navy, liberal norms, island location (easy to defend)

Twentieth century

United States

Economic scale, scientific and technical leadership, universalistic culture, military forces and alliances, liberal international regimes, hub of transnational communication

has a universalistic popular culture and a major role in international institutions.  Although such factors may change in the future, they raise an important question about the present situation:  What resources are the most important sources of power today?  A look at the five-century-old modern state system shows that different power resources played critical roles in different periods. (See Table 1.)  The sources of power are never static and they continue to change in today’s world.

In an age of information-based economies and transnational interdependence, power is becoming less transferable, less tangible, and less coercive.  However, the transformation of power is incomplete.  The twenty-first century will certainly see a greater role for informational and institutional power, but military force will remain an important factor.  Economic scale, both in markets and in natural resources, will also remain important.  As the service sector grows within modern economies, the distinction between services and manufacturing will continue to blur.  Information will become more plentiful, and the critical resource will be the organizational capacity for rapid and flexible response.  Political cohesion will remain important, as will a universalistic popular culture.  On some of these dimensions of power, the United States is well endowed; on others, questions arise.  But even larger questions arise for the other major contenders - Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and China.  But first we need to look at the patterns in the distribution of power - balances and hegemonies, how they have changed over history, and what that implies for the position of the United States.



International relations is far from a precise science.  Conditions in various periods always differ in significant details, and human behavior reflects personal choices.


Moreover, theorists often suffer from writing in the midst of events, rather than viewing them from a distance.  Thus, powerful theories - those that are both simple and accurate - are rare.  Yet political leaders (and those who seek to explain behavior) must generalize in order to chart a path through the apparent chaos of changing events.  One of the longest-standing and most frequently used concepts is balance of power, which eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume called “a constant rule of prudent politics.” [14]  For centuries, balance of power has been the starting point for realistic discussions of international politics.

To an extent, balance of power is a useful predictor of how states will behave; that is, states will align in a manner that will prevent any one state from developing a preponderance of power.  This is based on two assumptions: that states exist in an anarchic system with no higher government and that political leaders will act first to reduce risks to the independence of their states.  The policy of balancing power helps to explain why in modern times a large state cannot grow forever into a world empire.  States seek to increase their powers through internal growth and external alliances.  Balance of power predicts that if one state appears to grow too strong, others will ally against it so as to avoid threats to their own independence.  This behavior, then, will preserve the structure of the system of states.

However, not all balance-of-power predictions are so obvious.  For example, this theory implies that professions of ideological faith will be poor predictors of behavior.  But despite Britain’s criticism of the notorious Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, it was quick to make an alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1941.  As Winston Churchill explained at the time, “If I learned that Hitler had invaded Hell, I would manage to say something good about the Devil in the House of Commons.” [15]  Further, balance of power does not mean that political leaders must maximize the power of their own states in the short run.  Bandwagoning - that is, joining the stronger rather than the weaker side - might produce more immediate spoils.  As Mussolini discovered in his ill-fated pact with Hitler, the danger in bandwagoning is that independence may be threatened by the stronger ally in the long term.  Thus, to say that states will act to balance power is a strong generalization in international relations, but it is far from being a perfect predictor.

Proximity and perceptions of threat also affect the way in which balancing of power is played out. [16]  A small state like Finland, for instance, cannot afford to try to balance Soviet power.  Instead, it seeks to preserve its independence through neutrality.  Balance of power and the proposition that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” help to explain the larger contours of current world politics, but only when proximity and perceptions are considered.  The United States was by

14. David Hume, “Of the Balance of Power” in Charles W. Hendel, ed., David Hume’s Political Essays (1742; reprint, Indianapolis,Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), 142-44.

15. Quoted in Waltz, International Politics, 166.

16. Stephen M. Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of Power,” International Security 9 (Spring1985): 3-43.  See also by Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987), 23-26, 263-66.


far the strongest power after 1945.  A mechanical application of power balance might seem to predict an alliance against the Untied States.  In fact, Europe and Japan allied with the United States because the Soviet Union, while weaker in overall power, posed a proximate threat to its neighbors.  Geography and psychology are both important factors in geopolitics.

The term balance of power is sometimes used not as a prediction of policy but as a description of how power is distributed.  In the latter case, it is more accurate to refer to the distribution of power.  In other instances, though, the term is used to refer to an evenly balanced distribution of power, like a pair of hanging scales.  The problem with this usage is that the ambiguities of measuring power make it difficult to determine when an equal balance exists.  In fact, the major concerns in world politics tend to arise from inequalities of power, and particularly from major changes in the unequal distribution of power.



No matter how power is measured, an equal distribution of power among major states is relatively rare.  More often the processes of uneven growth, which realists consider a basic law of international politics, mean that some states will be rising and others declining.  These transitions in the distribution of power stimulate statesmen to form alliances, to build armies, and to take risks that balance or check rising powers.  But the balancing of power does not always prevent the emergence of a dominant state.  Theories of hegemony and power transition try to explain why some states that become preponderant later lose that preponderance.

As far back as ancient Greece, observers attempting to explain the causes of major world wars have cited the uncertainties associated with the transition of power.  Shifts in the international distribution of power create the conditions likely to lead to the most important wars. [17]  However, while power transitions provide useful warning about periods of heightened risk, there is no iron law of hegemonic war.  If there were, Britain and the United States would have gone to war at the beginning of this century, when the Americans surpassed the British in economic and naval power in the Western Hemisphere.  Instead, when the United States backed Venezuela in its boundary dispute with British Guyana in 1895, British leaders appeased the rising American power instead of going to war with it. [18]

When power is distributed unevenly, political leaders and theorists use terms such as empire and hegemony.  Although there have been many empires in history, those in the modern world have not encompassed all major countries.  Even the British Empire at the beginning of this century encompassed only a quarter of the world’s population and Britain was just one of a half-dozen major powers

17. A. F. K. Organski and Jack Kugler, The War Ledger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), chap. 1.

18. Stephen R. Rock, Why Peace Breaks Out: Great Power Rapprochement in Historical Perspective (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).


in the global balance of power.  The term hegemony is applied to a variety of situations in which one state appears to have considerably more power than others.  For example, for years China accused the Soviet Union of seeking hegemony in Asia.  When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping met in 1989, they pledged that “neither side will seek hegemony in any form anywhere in the world.” [19]

Although the word comes from the ancient Greek and refers to the dominance of one state over others in the system, it is used in diverse and confused ways.  Part of the problem is that unequal distribution of power is a matter of degree, and there is no general agreement on how much inequality and what types of power constitute hegemony.  All too often, hegemony is used to refer to different behaviors and degrees of control, which obscures rather than clarifies that analysis.  For example, Charles Doran cites aggressive military power, while Robert Keohane looks at preponderance in economic resources.  Robert Gilpin sometimes uses the terms imperial and hegemonic interchangeably to refer to a situation in which “a single powerful state controls or dominates the lesser states in the system.” [20]  British hegemony in the nineteenth century is commonly cited even though Britain ranked third behind the United States and Russia in GNP and third behind Russia and France in military expenditures at the peak of its relative power around 1870.  Britain was first in the more limited domains of manufacturing, trade, finance, and naval power. [21]  Yet theorists often contend that “full hegemony requires productive, commercial, and financial as well as political and military power.” [22]

Joshua Goldstein usefully defines hegemony as “being able to dictate, or at least dominate, the rules and arrangements by which international relations, political and economic, are conducted… Economic hegemony implies the ability to center the world economy around itself.  Political hegemony means being able to dominate the world militarily.” [23]  However, there are still two important questions to be answered with regard to how the term hegemony is used.  First, what is the scope of the hegemon’s control?  In the modern world, a situation in which one country can dictate political and economic arrangements has been extremely rare.  Most examples have been regional, such as Soviet power in Eastern Europe, American influence in the Caribbean, and India’s control over its small neighbors - Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal. [24]  In addition, one can find instances in which one

19. “New Era Declared as China Visit Ends,” International Herald Tribune, 19 May 1989.

20. Charles F. Doran, The Politics of Assimilation: Hegemony and Its Aftermath (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 70; Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), 32; Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 29.

21. Bruce M. Russett, “The Mysterious Case of Vanishing Hegemony; or, Is Mark Twain Really Dead?” International Organization 39 (Spring 1985): 212.

22. Robert C. North and Julie Strickland, “Power Transition and Hegemonic Succession” (Paper delivered at the meeting of the International Studies Association, Anaheim, Calif., March-April 1986), 5.

23. Joshua S. Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), 281.

24 James R. Kurth, “Economic Change and State Development” in Jan Triska, ed., Dominant Powers [and Subordinate States: The United States in Latin America and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986), 88.] 

 HHC: [bracketed] displayed on p.187 of original.


Table 2

Modern Efforts at Military Hegemony

State Attempting Hegemony

Ensuing Hegemonic War

New Order After War

Hapsburg Spain

Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648

Peace of Westphalia, 1648

Louis XIV’s France

Wars of Louis XIV

Treaty of Utrecht, 1713

Napoleon’s France


Congress of Vienna, 1815

Germany (and Japan)

1914-1 945

United Nations, 1945

Source: Charles F. Doran, The Politics of Assimilation: Hegemony and Its Aftermath (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 19-20.

country was able to set the rules and arrangements governing specific issues in world politics, such as the American role in money or trade in the early postwar years.  But there has been no global, system-wide hegemon during the past two centuries.  Contrary to the myths about Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, British and American hegemonies have been regional and issue-specific rather than general.

Second, we must ask what types of power resources are necessary to produce a hegemonic degree of control.  Is military power necessary?  Or is it enough to have preponderance in economic resources?  How do the two types of power relate to each other?  Obviously, the answers to such questions can tell us a great deal about the future world, in which Japan may be an economic giant and a military dwarf while the Soviet Union may fall into the opposite situation.  A careful look at the interplay of military and economic power raises doubt about the degree of American hegemony in the postwar period. [25]


Theories of Hegemonic Transition and Stability

General hegemony is the concern of theories and analogies about the instability and dangers supposedly caused by hegemonic transitions.  Classical concerns about

25. The distinction between definitions in terms of resources or behavior and the importance of indicating scope are indicated in the following table.  My usage stresses behavior and broad scope.

Approaches to Hegemony


Power Resources

Power Behavior


Political/military hegemony

Army/navy (Modelski)

Define the military hierarchy (Doran)

Global or regional

Economic hegemony

Raw materials, capital, markets, production (Keohane)

Set rules for economic bar-gains (Goldstein)

General or issue-specific


hegemony among leaders and philosophers focus on military power and “conflicts precipitated by the military effort of one dominant actor to expand well beyond the arbitrary security confines set by tradition, historical accident, or coercive pressures.” [26]  In this approach, hegemonic preponderance arises out of military expansion, such as the efforts of Louis XIV, Napoleon, or Hitler to dominate world politics.  The important point is that, except for brief periods, none of the attempted military hegemonies in modern times has succeeded. (See Table 2.)  No modern state has been able to develop sufficient military power to transform the balance of power into a long-lived hegemony in which one state could dominate the world militarily.

More recently, many political scientists have focused on economic power as a source of hegemonic control.  Some define hegemonic economic power in terms of resources - that is, preponderance in control over raw materials, sources of capital, markets, and production of goods.  Others use the behavioral definition in which a hegemon is a state able to set the rules and arrangements for the global economy.  Robert Gilpin, a leading theorist of hegemonic transition, sees Britain and America, having created and enforced the rules of a liberal economic order, as the successive hegemons since the Industrial Revolution. [27]  Some political economists argue that world economic stability requires a single stabilizer and that periods of such stability have coincided with periods of hegemony.  In this view, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana were the periods when Britain and the United States were strong enough to create and enforce the rules for a liberal international economic order in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  For example, it is often argued that economic stability “historically has occurred when there has been a sole hegemonic power; Britain from 1815 to World War I and the United States from 1945 to around 1970… With a sole hegemonic power, the rules of the game can be established and enforced.  Lesser countries have little choice but to go along.  Without a hegemonic power, conflict is the order of the day.” [28]  Such theories of hegemonic stability and decline are often used to predict that the United States will follow the experience of Great Britain, and that instability will ensue.  Goldstein, for example, argues that “we are moving toward the ‘weak hegemony’ end of the spectrum and … this seems to increase the danger of hegemonic war.” [29]

I argue, however, that the theory of hegemonic stability and transition will not tell us as much about the future of the United States.  Theorists of hegemonic stability generally fail to spell out the causal connections between military and economic power and hegemony.  As already noted, nineteenth-century Britain was not militarily dominant nor was it the world’s largest economy, and yet Britain is por-

26. Doran, Politics of Assimilation, 15.

27. Keohane, After Hegemony, 32; Gilpin, War and Change, 144.

28. Michael Moffitt, “Shocks, Deadlocks and Scorched Earth: Reaganomics and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony,” World Policy Journal 4 (Fall 1987): 576.

29. Goldstein, Long Cycles, 357.


Table 3

A Neo-Marxist View of Hegemony


World War Securing Hegemony

Period of



Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648
Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815
World Wars I and II, 1914-1945



Source:  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Politics of the World Economy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984). 41-42.

trayed by Gilpin and others as hegemonic.  Did Britain’s military weakness at that time allow the United States and Russia, the two larger economies, to remain mostly outside the liberal system of free trade?  Or, to take a twentieth-century puzzle, did a liberal international economy depend on postwar American military strength or only its economic power?  Are both conditions necessary today, or have modern nations learned to cooperate through international institutions?

One radical school of political economists, the neo-Marxists, has attempted to answer similar questions about the relationship between economic and military hegemony, but their theories are unconvincing.  For example, Immanuel Wailerstein defines hegemony as a situation in which power is so unbalanced that

… one power can largely impose its rules and its wishes (at the very least by effective veto power) in the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas.  The material base of such power lies in the ability of enterprises domiciled in that power to operate more efficiently in all three major economic arenas  - agro-industrial production, commerce, and finance. [30]

According to Walierstein, hegemony is rare and “refers to that short interval in which there is simultaneously advantage in all three economic domains.”  At such times, the other major powers become “de facto client states.”  Walierstein claims there have been only three modern instances of hegemony  - in the Netherlands, 1620-1650; in Britain, 1815-1873; and in the United States, 1945-1967. (See Table 3.)  He argues that “in each case, the hegemony was secured by a thirty-year-long world war,” after which a new order followed - the Peace of Westphaiia after 1648; the Concert of Europe after 1815; and the United Nations-Bretton Woods system after 1945. [31]  According to this theory, the United States will follow the Dutch and the British path to decline.

The neo-Marxist view of hegemony is unconvincing and a poor predictor of future events because it superficially links military and economic hegemony and has many loose ends.  For example, contrary to Wailerstein’s theory, the Thirty

30. Immanuel M. Wallerstein, The Politics of the World-Economy: The States, the Movements, and the Civilizations: Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 38, 41.

31. Ibid.


Table 4

Long Cycles of World Leadership



Global War





Portugal, 1516-1540




Netherlands, 1609-1640




Britain, 1714-1740




Britain, 1815-1850




United States, 1945-1973


Source: George Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 40, 42, 44, 102, 131, 147.

Years’ War coincided with Dutch hegemony, and Dutch decline began with the Peace of Westphalia.  The Dutch were not militarily strong enough to stand up to the British on the sea and could barely defend themselves against the French on land, “despite their trade-derived wealth.” [32]  Further, although Wallerstein argues that British hegemony began after the Napoleonic Wars, he is not clear about how the new order in the balance of power  - that is, the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe  - related to Britain’s supposed ability to impose a global free-trade system.  For example, Louis XIV’s France, which many historians view as the dominant military power in the second half of the seventeenth century, is excluded from Wallerstein’s schema altogether.  Thus, the neo-Marxist historical analogies seem forced into a Procrustean ideological bed, while other cases are left out of bed altogether.

Others have attempted to organize past periods of hegemony into century-long cycles.  In 1919, British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder argued that unequal growth among nations tends to produce a hegemonic world war about every hundred years. [33]  More recently, political scientist George Modelski proposed a hundred-year cyclical view of changes in world leadership. (See Table 4.)  In this view, a long cycle begins with a major global war.  A single state then emerges as the new world power and legitimizes its preponderance with postwar peace treaties.  (Preponderance is defined as having at least half the resources available for global order-keeping.)  The new leader supplies security and order for the international system.  In time, though, the leader loses legitimacy, and deconcentration of power leads to another global war.  The new leader that emerges from that war may not be the state that challenged the old leader but one of the more innovative allies in the winning coalition (as, not Germany, but the United States replaced Britain).  According to Modelski’s theory, the United States began its decline in 1973. [34]  If

32. Goldstein, Long Cycles, 317.

33. Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1919), 1-2.

34. George Modelski, “The Long Cycle of Global Politics and the Nation-State,” Comparative [Studies in Society and History 20 (April 1978): 214-35; George Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987).]  

HHC: [bracketed] displayed on p.191 of original.


his assumptions are correct, it may be Japan and not the Soviet Union that will most effectively challenge the United States in the future.

Modelski and his followers suggest that the processes of decline are associated with long waves in the global economy.  They associate a period of rising prices and resource scarcities with loss of power, and concentration of power with falling prices, resource abundance, and economic innovation. [35]  However, in linking economic and political cycles, these theorists become enmeshed in the controversy surrounding long cycle theory.  Many economists are skeptical about the empirical evidence for alleged long economic waves and about dating historical waves by those who use the concept. [36]

Further, we cannot rely on the long-cycle theory to predict accurately the American future.  Modelski’s treatment of political history is at best puzzling.  For example, he ranks sixteenth-century Portugal as a hegemon rather than Spain, even though Spain controlled a richer overseas empire and swallowed up Portugal a century later.  Likewise, Britain is ranked as a hegemon from 1714 to 1740, even though eighteenth-century France was the larger power.  Modelski’s categories are odd in part because he uses naval power as the sine qua non of global power, which results in a truncated view of military and diplomatic history.  Although naval power was more important for countries that relied on overseas possessions, the balance in Europe depended on the armies on the continent.  Britain could not afford to ignore its armies on land and rely solely on its naval power.  To preserve the balance of power, Britain had to be heavily involved in land wars on the European continent at the beginning of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.  More specifically, Modelski underrates the Spanish navy in the sixteenth century as well as the French navy, which outnumbered Britain’s, in the late seventeenth century. [37]  Some major wars, such as the Thirty Years’ War and the Anglo-French wars of the eighteenth century, are excluded altogether from Modelski’s organization of history.

Vague definitions and arbitrary schematizations alert us to the inadequacies of such grand theories of hegemony and decline.  Most theorists of hegemonic transition tend to shape history to their own theories by focusing on particular power resources and ignoring others.  Examples include the poorly explained relationship between military and political power and the unclear link between decline and major war.  Since there have been wars among the great powers during 60 per-

35. William R. Thompson, On Global War: Historical Structural Approaches to World Politics (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), chaps. 3, 8.

36 Richard N. Rosecrance, “Long Cycle Theory and International Relations,” International Organization 41 (Spring 1987): 291-95.  An interesting but ultimately unconvincing discussion can be found in Goldstein, Long Cycles.

37. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), 99.


cent of the years from 1500 to the present, there are plenty of candidates to associate with any given scheme. [38]  Even if we consider only the nine general wars that have involved nearly all the great powers and produced high levels of casualties, some of them, such as the Seven Years’ War (1755-1763), are not considered hegemonic in any of the schemes.  As sociologist Pitirim Sorokin concludes, “no regular periodicity is noticeable.” [39]  At best, the various schematizations of hegemony and war are only suggestive.  They do not provide a reliable basis for predicting the future of American power or for evaluating the risk of world war as we enter the twenty-first century.  Loose historical analogies about decline and falsely deterministic political theories are not merely academic: they may lead to inappropriate policies.  The real problems of a post-cold-war world will not be new challenges for hegemony, but the new challenges of transnational interdependence.

38. Jack S. Levy, “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War,” World Politics 40 (Oc­tober 1987): 82-107. See also Jack S. Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983), 97.

39, Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law and Social Relationships (1957; reprint, Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970), 561.