The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw a multi-theoretical popular consensus emerge within international relations scholarship regarding a new, unipolar international system, with the United States at its apex as the sole ‘hyperpower’. Despite some early predictions that this arrangement would likely remain in place for many decades, or even be permanent, recent years have seen increasing scholarly agreement on an impending return to a more multipolar world. Most of the literature generated by realists, liberals, constructivists and power transition theorists alike focuses on the ‘rise’ of one or more ‘revisionist’ states, seeking to challenge US hegemony. The following essay seeks to challenge this conventional wisdom. After providing some necessary background to the concept of hegemony, two key claims are made, drawing chiefly upon the work of theorists in the fields of international political economy and world-systems analysis, as well as critical theory more broadly. The first claim is that, should the international system become more multipolar in coming years, the primary agent of change will likely have been the US itself, whose economic policies and militarism have played a greater role in facilitating its own absolute decline than have the shifting preferences of other state actors or any purely relative global economic convergence. The second claim is that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, the true era of unchallenged American hegemony was not that which followed the end of the Cold War, but instead the roughly twenty-five-year period after the Second World War, since which time the US has been in decline.
‘Prestige’, observe power transition theorists Schweller and Xiaoyu (2011, p. 43), ‘tends to be sticky’. The prestige to which the authors refer is the special status of the United States at the apex of the international system; which is to say, its hegemony. A concept that dates back to Homer, hēgemonia was initially used interchangeably with arkhē—a term meaning, broadly, ‘rule’—by the Ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon. It was Thucydides who first distinguished between the two concepts, identifying Athens’ passage from the former to the latter as the cause of the Peloponnesian War (Anderson 2017). Thucydides portrayed hēgemonia as leadership based on ‘attachment or consent’, whereas arkhē implied the mere acquiescence of subjects, extracted by the ‘superior authority and coercive dignity’ of empire (Grote 1850, pp. 395–7). ‘Force’, notes John Wickersham (1994, pp. 31), is ‘what makes the difference’. It is a distinction echoed by the key divide between the major schools of contemporary international relations scholarship, with neoliberals and constructivists eager to stress the importance of the ‘soft’ power of diplomacy, institutions and norm formation, and structural realists maintaining the primacy of material power (for seminal examples of each argument see, respectively, Nye 1990; Finnemore & Sikkink 1998, pp. 896–905; Waltz 1979).
Today, the concept of hegemony is most commonly associated with the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s goal was to redress the shortcomings of the strict economic determinism—the ‘brutal materialism’—adhered to by so-called Orthodox Marxists, which viewed the triumph of socialist revolution as an inevitable historical stage of development. In Italy, Gramsci witnessed a very different outcome: the triumph not of a socialist revolution, but a fascist counter-revolution. Imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s regime, Gramsci sought to explain how ‘an exploitative order was capable of securing the moral consent of the dominated to their own domination’ (Anderson 2017). Such ‘cultural hegemony’, according to Gramsci, results from the transformation of mere ideas into ‘common sense’, which sees the current order uncritically and indeed unconsciously accepted by most as if it were an entirely natural and inevitable condition. Hegemonic social order tends to be enduring—or, ‘sticky’—as it rests upon a foundation of moral and intellectual authority that is voluntarily accepted because it is seen as legitimate (Gramsci 1992, pp. 258, 330–3).
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels (1976, p. 67) had claimed that, ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ Vladimir Lenin and the other Orthodox Marxists of the Third International interpreted this to mean that, only by first seizing the means of production could there then be a ‘hegemony of the proletariat’ (Anderson 2017). This is, for want of a better term, the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ conception of hegemony, in which coercion, plus time, equals consent. Gramsci sought to turn this on its head, suggesting that, only by ‘working to produce elites of intellectuals of a new type which arise directly out of the masses, but remain in contact with them’, could any social movement hope to ‘replace common sense and old conceptions of the world in general’ (Gramsci 1992, p. 340). Whereas Marx and Engels’ purely negative conception of ideology appeared to deny the very possibility of a proletarian revolution brought about in the first instance by the winning of hearts and minds, Gramsci saw the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ as the preferred method (Anderson 1976, p. 41). However, Gramsci’s work does occasionally acknowledge that hegemony is comprised not only of consent but also coercion. Thus, hegemony is not synonymous with ideology. As Terry Eagleton (1991, p. 112) notes, Gramsci’s hegemony ‘includes ideology, but is not reducible to it.’
Both neoliberals and constructivists in international relations tend to emphasise the cultural aspect of hegemony: the consent won with the ‘carrot’, rather than the ‘stick’ (see, e.g., Nye 2004; Wendt 2003). In this conception, the United States is a hegemon, but not an empire, by virtue of the fact that those it dominates consent to their own domination (Ikenberry 2004a). They do so not because they are fearful of the intentions and military might of the only state to ever use nuclear weapons on a civilian population, but because they are enlightened actors who see cooperation as a positive-sum game, and are so attracted to American ideals of freedom and democracy that they—paradoxically—consider wilful subordination to be in their own best interest. Realists, by contrast, focus on the stick. Like the earliest Greek historians, realists draw no distinction between rule and hegemony. Whether states consent to US hegemony is of no concern to realists, who see states as ‘black boxes’, whose only relevant preference is that for their own survival. For defensive realists like Kenneth Waltz (1959; 1979), states are security maximisers, who accede to the will of the hegemon, because it has the biggest stick. Indeed, in this view, having the biggest stick is the sole requirement for being a hegemon. Waltz’s protégé, Stephen Walt (1985; 1999), stresses the importance of alliances to balance this power. For offensive realists like John Mearsheimer (2001; 2011), all states are power maximisers, each seeking to acquire the biggest stick for itself. Neoclassical realists maintain this focus on the stick, but are more accommodating of the non-state variables introduced by neoliberals and constructivists (Rathbun 2008).
Power transition theory—perhaps best categorised as a sub-theory of neoclassical realism— shares offensive realism’s assumption that states will seek hegemony for themselves, but only when there is a reasonable chance of success. The theory holds that such periods of transition have been the cause of all major wars. Unlike offensive realism, however, power transition theorists share the constructivist view that the international system is more ordered than anarchic, and afford more weight to a state’s preferences and economic power. According to Organski and Kugler (1980, p. 61):
The fundamental problem that sets the whole system sliding almost irretrievably toward war is the differences in rates of growth among the great powers and, of particular importance, the differences in rates between the dominant nation and the challenger that permit the latter to overtake former in power. It is this leapfrogging that destabilizes the system.
Theirs is a rather mechanical and deterministic view, not unlike that of structural realists, or, indeed, the Third International. Partly for this reason, but also the numerous problems with its empirical claims—more transitions have taken place as a result of wars than vice versa—and the largely bloodless demise of the Soviet Union, power transition theory had fallen out of favour by the end of the 1980s (Lebow & Valentino 2009, p. 389). The United States, agreed most pundits and scholars, had won the Cold War, and had become the first truly global hegemon. Even those sceptical of Francis Fukuyama’s (1989; 1993) ‘end of history’ thesis were at least willing to concede that the world was experiencing what Charles Krauthammer (1991) termed ‘the unipolar moment’. Importantly, though, as Gramsci (1971, pp. 198–9) observed, even academics are not immune to the allure of ‘common sense’, which is not necessarily the same as ‘good sense’.
The unprecedented economic growth of China over the last few decades has returned power transition theory to prominence among many scholars who study Asia. Two such scholars, Schweller and Xiaoyu (2011), take a decidedly more Gramscian view than Organski and Kugler, arguing that, in order for the current system to change—given that ‘the nuclear age makes … hegemonic war unthinkable’—a ‘rising challenger’ must first ‘delegitimize the hegemon’s global authority and order’ (p. 44). This perspective assumes that the ‘challenger’ is the primary agent of change in the international system. Why this should be the case when there is still another more powerful player, however, is not made clear.
Before the supposed dawn of unipolarity, another power transition theorist, Robert Gilpin (1981), had focused more on the actions of the declining hegemon, arguing that imperial overreach ‘creates challenges for the dominant states and opportunities for the rising states of the system’ (p. 186). It was a sentiment echoed by Paul Kennedy (1987, p. 515):
… the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what might roughly be called ‘imperial overstretch’: […] the United States’ global interests and obligations [are] nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.
Some argue that the very idea of rise and decline is, by definition, relative (e.g., Olsen 2008). This may be strictly true, but when comparing a state against its own past performance, as Joseph Nye (2010, p. 3; 2012) points out, it is perhaps more useful to consider any rise or decline as absolute. One of the most outspoken critics of ‘declinism’, Nye—who, along with Robert Keohane (1977) founded the neoliberal school of international relations—maintains that the US is in no danger of losing its spot at the top of the world order, because of both its military dominance and ‘soft power’. However, as Gideon Rachman (2015) observes, ‘[Nye] does not fully address the possibility that one aspect of power—the economic—could ultimately be more important than the other two.’
Nye (2012) notes that it is not merely the size, but also the composition of an economy that is important to a state’s economic power. He proposes per-capita income as a better measure of this composition, claiming that, in this regard, ‘China will not equal the United States for decades, if ever.’ Indeed, a common refrain since the 2007–8 Global Financial Crisis has been, and remains, that the US is on track for a ‘strong recovery’, whereas China is headed for a ‘hard landing’ (see, e.g. Scott 2015; Wilson 2016). Actual statistics, however, suggest that China’s growth is slowing only gradually—as is to be expected due to diminishing marginal returns on investment (Solow 1956)—whereas the US is nearing stagnation (Ross 2017). Furthermore, whether or not Nye’s prediction turns out to be correct bears little real-world relationship to the actual composition of either state’s economy. Any figure derived by simply dividing a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by its population speaks only to the necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for the prosperity of its citizens. To suggest that GDP per capita figures are representative of the living standards of the majority of a country’s citizens is to confuse mean income for median income. Although both countries have GDPs sizeable enough to potentially provide abundance to each of its citizens, neither country—so far, at least—has a policy guaranteeing the equal distribution of its wealth. But, whereas Chinese growth and policy has resulted in persistent wage growth and pulled well over half a billion people out of poverty, American wages have stagnated for decades, with the incomes of those in the middle of the distribution having actually fallen (Bivens & Mishel 2015; Han 2017). In other words, the US has experienced absolute economic decline. As a result, observe Blyth & Matthijs (2017):
Large numbers of wage earners now have too much debt in an environment where wages cannot rise fast enough to reduce those debts. And while asset holders got bailed out, wage earners got austerity cuts.
This, in turn, limits workers’ capacity to spend, which further contracts the economy (Blyth 2013). Unlike the Kuhnian (1962) ‘revolutions’ that took place in economics following previous crises—‘New Deal’ Keynesianism in response to the Great Depression, neoclassical ‘Reaganomics’ in response to the stagflation of the 1970s—no such change has occurred since the 2007–8 Global Financial Crisis. Rather than facing any negative consequences—except to their public image—those responsible for causing the crash were first bailed out by the political establishment, and then deemed by them to be the most suitable people to rebuild the system; which they did, exactly as it was before (Hudson 2015, p. 136). The political result is that the American people have become suspicious of ‘experts’ and are rejecting a system that they no longer trust to prioritise their interests over its own, most recently demonstrated by the anti-establishment Trump vote (Blyth 2016). This does not bode well for the ‘ability to attract others by the legitimacy of US policies and the values that underlie them’ (Nye 2010, p. 16). Indeed, voters throughout the Western world are demonstrating that they no longer consent to the ‘liberal world order’ that the US created in its own image (Kagan 2016, p. 11; King 2017). In other words, the US has experienced an absolute decline in its ‘soft power’.
As to Nye’s (2012) claim regarding the superiority of the US military, this is indisputably true; but, less so than it used to be, due to exactly the type of military adventurism warned against by Gilpin (1981) and Kennedy (1987). Of course, the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, have been costly for the military in terms of money, resources, and lives lost. But, importantly for the hegemonic status of the US, they have also massively depleted its ability to project power. As world-systems analyst Immanuel Wallerstein (2007, p. 59) notes:
… by 2007, it had become common currency to talk of the decline of the United States. Military power is feared as long as it is successful. But anything less than overwhelming victory reduces the fear of others, and therefore the effectiveness of expensive and advanced military hardware as an intimidating factor in world politics.
According to Wallerstein, though, the period of absolute US decline began long before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which only accelerated it. He argues that, contra the post-Cold War unipolar consensus—‘which has the reality absolutely backwards’—the truest period of unquestioned American hegemony occurred between 1945 and approximately 1970, since which time the US has been in ‘precipitate decline’ (Wallerstein 2007, p. 54a; 2009). Having emerged relatively unscathed from the Second World War, in 1945 the US manufacturing sector, having been boosted by wartime expansion, was capable of out-competing producers anywhere in the world in their home markets. Further, many countries were in urgent need of economic assistance, which only the US was in a position to provide (Wallerstein 2006, pp. 1–2). In return for this assistance—and because it was the only state in the world with nuclear weapons, which it had just proved itself willing to use—the US received a vastly expanded market for its goods, and it got to set the rules of the system, effectively ‘turning Western Europe and Japan into political satellites’ (Wallerstein 2007, p. 54b).
Rather than accept the public relations version of the Cold War as contained in official documents, delivered in political speeches, and dutifully repeated by media, Wallerstein infers an alternative version of the Cold War’s beginnings from the way its participants actually behaved during the period. While the typical narrative holds that it was the founding of the United Nations in April 1945 that set the world on a peaceful course—after the countries of Europe had finally realised the error of their warring ways—Wallerstein suggests that it was the meeting of the ‘big three’ two months earlier at Yalta that truly determined the geopolitical constraints of the twentieth century’s latter half. Between them, US President Franklin D Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, worked out a tripartite agreement (Wallerstein 2006, p. 2; 2010, pp. 15–16).
The first part of the agreement was that two blocs—or, ‘spheres of influence’—would be created, whose boundaries were determined by the location of the respective armies at the end of the war. This would see the Soviets controlling about one third of the world and the US the rest, and neither power would seek to change these boundaries. The second part of the agreement was that the two blocs would be largely self-contained economically. The US saw no advantage in rebuilding the Soviet Union or its Eastern and Central European satellites, so the Soviets constructed COMECON to secure their zone and the Americans established the Marshall Plan and entered into multiple other economic arrangements with their allies. The third part of the agreement was that each side would build lasting military alliances. However, the reason for the third part of the agreement was not so that either side would ever use that military force against one another. Rather, it was to add the outward appearance of real threat to each side’s sabre-rattling, thus ensuring that neither side’s citizens or allies would deviate from the party line (Wallerstein 2006, pp. 2–4; 2007, p. 55a; 2009; 2010, p. 15-17).
Besides three notable hiccups—the 1948–9 Berlin blockade, the 1950–3 Korean War and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis—this ‘balance of terror’ worked quite nicely to keep the peace internationally, allow uninterrupted growth, and give both sides a means of building national cohesion by providing a credible external threat in the form of an ‘other’ (Wallerstein 2010, p. 4). However, the New Dealers’ Global Plan had been so successful in helping Western Europe and Japan to recover after the Second World War that, by the mid-1960s, US producers were being out-competed both abroad and domestically (Varoufakis 2015, ch. 3). Economic policy became defensive (Anderson 2015, ch. 7). By the 1970s, with the rate of profit plummeting and no ‘global surplus recycling mechanism’ in place, a hefty Vietnam War bill, and all five United Nations Security Council members in possession of nuclear weapons, the period of true US hegemony, in which it could ‘get 95 percent of what it wanted 95 percent of the time’ was over (Varoufakis 2015, ch. 3; Wallerstein 2007, p. 55b). All that remains now is residue.
So, as we have seen, the exact meaning of hegemony remains contested, despite the concept having been with us for roughly 2500 years. Most agree that it contains elements of both coercion and consent, although whether one necessarily comes before the other remains unclear. Somewhat clearer is that the ideological component of hegemony is ‘sticky’, in that there can be a significant lag between the changing of conditions and the catching up of ‘common sense’, to which even analysts are susceptible. The near-consensus opinion among realists, liberals and constructivists equates US hegemony with the post-Cold War unipolar international system, although there is disagreement about whether a return to multipolarity is already underway. Power transition theorists agree that a change will come, but appear split over whether the US or China will be the key actor. World-systems analysis, by contrast, tells us that the true period of unquestioned US hegemony ended over four decades ago, due largely to its own poor economic planning, since which time it has been in absolute decline, a process made all the more rapid by its repeated waging of unwinnable wars.
 French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, quoted in ‘To Paris, US Looks Like a “Hyperpower”’, International Herald Tribune (1999).
 Thereby overcoming an apparent contradiction in offensive realism between seeking hegemony and self-preservation.
 One notable early holdout was John Mearsheimer (1990).
 Keohane (2015, p. 80), by contrast, contends that ‘hegemony is inherently unstable, and … the conditions that facilitated American hegemony in the 1950s are unlikely to recur in this century’.
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