Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST for short) describes the dynamics of the new economic and political world order founded after World War II. HST is based on research from political science, economics, and history.
At the core of this theory lies the assumption that a stable liberal economic world order needs to be dominated by a single country (a hegemon).
Key hegemonic stability theory examples used to introduce this theory include:
- The British hegemony during the 18th and 19th centuries and
- American hegemony after the Second World War (post-1945).
Simple Definition and Meaning of Hegemonic Stability Theory
The Hegemonic Stability Theory comprises two words:
Hegemony derives from the Greek word “hegemon” (the indisputable leader). A hegemon is a state with military, financial, and political superiority over other states in the international system.
Robert Keohane, the political scientist who developed the HST, explains that to achieve the status of hegemon, a state must “have control over raw material, control over sources of capital, control over markets and competitive advantages in the production of highly valued goods” (Keohane 1984, pp34).
In the context used by the advocates of HST, stability describes an international system with
- high levels of foreign investment,
- free trade,
- a sustainable international monetary system
Scholarly Definitions for your Essay
- “Hegemonic stability theory, which argues that international economic openness and stability are most likely when there is a single dominant state, is the most prominent approach among American political scientists for explaining patterns of economic relations among advanced capitalist countries since 1945.” (Webb and Krasner, 1989, p. 183)
- “Hegemonic stability theory claims that the presence of a single, strongly dominant actor in international politics leads to collectively desirable out- comes for all states in the international system. Conversely, the absence of a hegemon is associated with disorder in the world system and undesirable outcomes for individual states.” (Snidal, 1985, p. 579).
Origins of Hegemonic Stability Theory
HST was popularized in the 1980s by the political scientist Robert Keohane (1984). He developed the earlier ideas of Charles Kindleberger (1973) and Robert Gilpin (1981).
According to Kindleberger (1973, p. 28), a liberal world order requires leadership in economics and international law. This dominant country is capable of and willing to set standards of conduct for other countries under an “international governance system” (a set of internationalized rules).
Robert Keohane (1985, p. 132) refined Kindleberger’s theory from an economic standpoint. He saw the domination of a single state as “most conducive to the development of strong international regimes whose rules are relatively precise and well obeyed”.
Examples of Hegemonic Stability Theory
1. Pax Britannica (18th-19th c.)
Between 1815 and 1914 (the beginning of the first World War), the world saw a period of relative peace among the international powers.
Britain emerged victorious from the Napoleonic wars. During this century, the British Empire was the single dominant power, establishing colonial, naval, military, and economic dominance. The Empire significantly contributed to free trade.
The British hegemony established international economic and political stability by being the indisputably most potent state in the global system at the time.
2. Instability before World War I and during the interwar period
The decline of 19th-century British hegemony, climaxing in World War I, is an example of how international stability is jeopardized in the absence of a global hegemon.
Furthermore, Kindleberger (1973) argued that the lack of a world leader during the interwar period resulted in a significant increase in protectionism, culminating in the Great Depression of 1929.
Kindleberger also thought that the absence of international leadership undermined international military security, thus contributing to the outbreak of World War II.
3. Pax Americana (1945-1960s)
After World War II, the United States surpassed the Soviet Union as the world’s dominant economic and military power until the late 1960s.
This short-lived period of peace and economic prosperity in the western hemisphere is known as Pax Americana.
Indeed, the world became more open and globalized. The US played a key role in formulating the rules that govern international governance; among others, it establishing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
For example, The United States pushed Latin American nations to implement liberal economic programmes in line with its own interests through institutions like the IMF.
4. The irreversible decline of American hegemony
From the late 1960s onwards, the United States lost international economic power.
In the words of Keohane,
“Whichever date between 1963 and 1971 were chosen, it would still be clear that one of the most important features of American hegemony was its brevity.” (1983, p. 169).
The demise was the result of internal issues (e.g., the financial crisis) and the rise of other states, predominantly—but not only—China (Fishman, 2005). This created new power centres all over the world.
Proponents of hegemonic stability theory associate the decline in American hegemony with the increased disorder in international stability and economic openness (Snidal, 1985).
Examples of the hegemonic power’s inability to prevent conflict are:
- The American defeat in Afghanistan and widespread turmoil in the Middle East after Taliban captured the capital in 2021
- The outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia war and the subsequent financial and humanitarian damages
5. The Great Recession of 2007–2009
The 2007–2008 global financial crisis was the starkest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It is argued that this international crisis occurred because the US did not act as a global financial stabilizer, like it has done in the past (Elliott, 2017).
This led commentators to stress the importance of global hegemony for international security and the stability of financial institutions in the post-2008 context.
Criticisms of Hegemonic Stability Theory
Although still used in international political economy, Hegemonic Stability Theory has received multiple criticisms.
- Nostalgia: Proponents of the theory have been “accused” of engaging in a broader lamentation or “nostalgia” for the supposed decline of American hegemony since the 1970s (Snidal, 1985). They also tend to regard post-war American hegemony as beneficial to Western interests. However, American leadership contributed to tragic proxy wars in South America and Asia that should not go unnoticed.
- Hegemons may lead to instability: Marxist scholars attribute the late 1960s decline of the US economy in the rise of an unsustainable financial system instead of the emergence of a powerful rival (e.g., Arrighi, 1994).
- Limited Application: “The range of the theory is limited to very special conditions” explains Snidal (1985, p. 580). For example, it doesn’t explain the transformation (but not deterioration) of the international governance system due to the rise to power of previously peripheral states (Ikenberry, 2015).
- Hegemony may not be necessary: Keohane’s 1984 After Hegemony argued that repeated interactions, transparency, and monitoring could sustain international cooperation. Thus, he demonstrated that the global order could remain stable in the absence of a hegemon. Since the 2000s, effective trade agreements between the United States, the European Union, and China are examples of this.
- Dismisses the possibility of international cooperative action: Hegemony is not required for international stability (Ikenberry, 2000). Powerful countries strive to build strong cooperative relations; thus, international collective action is possible in the absence of a dominant state. Consider the role of the United Nations today.
Hegemonic stability is a valuable theoretical perspective in political science, economics, and history. The theory claims a robust causal relationship between domination and systemic stability. International military security and economic order depend on the presence of a dominant state (or group of powerful nations).
HST has been particularly interested in the relationship between the dominant state’s level of economic power in the international economy and the degree to which international trade increases or decreases.
It’s worth remembering the two main criticisms against HST. First, global order can be established collectively (without the presence of a single dominant power). Second, the presence of a global hegemony (e.g., the US) does not singlehandedly guarantee international stability and peace.
Arrighi, G. (1994) The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso 1994.
Gilpin, R. (1981). War and change in world politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Elliott, L. (2017, March 4). Crash course: What the great depression reveals about our future. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/04/crash-1929-wall-street-what-the-great-depression-reveals-about-our-future?CMP=fb_gu.
Fishman, T. (2005). China Inc.: The relentless rise of the next great superpower. London: Simon & Schuster.
Ikenberry, G. (2000). After victory: Institutions, strategic restraint, and the rebuilding of order after major wars. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Ikenberry, G.J. (2015) The future of multilateralism: Governing the world in a post-hegemonic era. Japanese journal of political science, 16(3), pp. 399–413.
Keohane, R. O. (1980). The Theory of Hegemonic Stability and Changes in
International Economic Regimes, 1967-1977. In O. R. Holsti et al. (Eds.). Change in theInternational System. Boulder: Westview Press.
Keohane, R. (2005). After hegemony: Cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kindleberger, C. P. (1973). The world in depression, 1929–1939. London: Allen Lane.
Snidal, D. (1985). The limits of Hegemonic Stability Theory. International Organization, 39(4), pp. 579–614. Webb, M., & Krasner, S. (1989). Hegemonic stability theory: An empirical assessment. Review of International Studies,15(2), pp. 183-198.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.