Hegemon and Hegemony

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Hegemon and Hegemony

A hegemon is a country with the economic, political, and military power to set and enforce the prevailing rules of the international system. Unlike an empire, the hegemon does not have to exert formal control over other states or powers in the global arena; instead, it exercises a degree of informal control known as hegemony. The power and influence of the United States on world affairs in the twentieth century is often cited as an example of hegemony.


Hegemons work to maintain the status quo in international affairs because their hegemony is the result of the current global order. Consequently, hegemons serve to discourage major wars, although minor conflicts have been common during periods of hegemonic stability. When states violate the explicit or implicit rules of the international system, the hegemon punishes those transgressions. The hegemon also rewards states for their compliance by ensuring that those states receive a share in the global economic markets or trade.

Individual states usually either join with the hegemon, or seek to displace it. The balance of power politics in the past has often attempted to prevent the rise or triumph of hegemonies as the coalitions against Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany demonstrated. States that align with the hegemon receive protection and access to economic rewards, whereas states that balance against the hegemon face various forms of retaliation, including military attack. A successful, mature hegemony results in a great degree of stability in the international system because the major powers tend to align with it to enjoy the rewards provided by the global leader. A hegemon need not be a global hegemon. A powerful country may be a regional hegemon that dominates a specific area, even though there are more powerful nations elsewhere.


With the rise of the modern nation state and its high levels of military and economic cohesion, it became increasingly unlikely that any single empire could conquer the entire world. Instead, the world witnessed the rise of hegemonic powers that dominated certain historic periods and certain regions without achieving global conquest. Scholars point to the Hapsburg Empire of the fifteenth century, the Dutch in the sixteenth century, and the British Empire in the nineteenth century as examples of past hegemons.

Periods of hegemony are cyclical and can be divided into four distinct phases. The first phase occurs as a rising state endeavors to gain advantage over other international powers. This period is often characterized by major wars and may be accompanied by the decline of an existent hegemon. The second phase begins when a new state gains hegemony and begins to impose its rules and influence on the system. The third phase is marked by stability within the international system and the maturation of hegemonic leadership. The fourth and final phase is the fall of the hegemony because of domestic decline, or the rise of a new hegemony. This period is often marked by system-wide war.

Historians have demonstrated that periods of prolonged hegemony were less common before the Industrial Revolution. The growth of industry and global trade that occurred with the Industrial Revolution allowed certain states to gain material advantages in production and technology and, consequently, use that advantage to drive for hegemony. The British Empire and the United States are examples of this trend. In the case of the British Empire, the competition for markets and access to resources spurred colonialism and the development of global empires in the nineteenth century. The United States, by contrast, sought to dismantle formal colonialism as it gained global hegemony at the end of World War II (1939–1945). It wanted to expand its commercial interaction with the newly independent states and to replace colonial interests with American values and ideals.


During the first half of the twentieth century, the United States rose to replace the British Empire. World War I (1914–1918) marked the ascent of the United States as a hegemon and the decline of British hegemony. At the end of World War II, the United States began to impose its rules and preferences on the world as it gained hegemony. The United States avoided colonization and was instead able to impose its will on other states through less formal means of control, including economic and military incentives. The post-World War II era was characterized by the mature American hegemony. Even though the United States was challenged by the Soviet Union and its bloc during the Cold War, it dominated the world to a degree far greater than past hegemons.

In 1945 the United States had a clear preponderance of economic and military power. Although Soviet military power grew to match that of the United States, the Soviets were unable to match U.S. economic power. Global institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) reflected American preferences for world order and helped promote American interests. Despite a range of small wars, the Cold War era was remarkably stable in terms of economic growth and the absence of system-wide war. The end of the Cold War can be seen as the triumph of U.S. hegemony over its rivals. However, the Cold War also witnessed the decline of American economic power in relative terms. The United States produced almost half of the world's economic output in 1945. By the 1970s that figure declined to 25 percent, where it has more or less remained through the early twenty-first century.

The end of the Cold War may also mean the decline of U.S. hegemony. While the United States once again has a clear preponderance of military power, other incentive to align with the country has decreased. Like any hegemon as its economic power declines, more countries are willing to challenge the United States. The willingness of states to refute American leadership during the second Iraq war demonstrated an increased tendency to balance against, instead of align with, the United States. In addition, regional economic hegemons such as the European Union or China are increasingly willing to challenge American economic leadership.

see also Empire, United States.


Calleo, David P. Beyond American Hegemony: The Future of the Western Alliance. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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

Keohane, Robert O. After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1984.

Ruggie, John G., ed. Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form. New York: Columbia University, 1993.

Walt, Stephen M. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1987.