Article Review 132 on “Hegemony Studies 3.0: The Dynamics of Hegemonic Order.”14 min read

In the age of purported American decline, the rise of China and changes in the international distribution of power, this highly ambitious special issue of Security Studies seeks to chart the emergence of new third-wave “hegemonic-order” theories. For John Ikenberry and Daniel Nexon, the editors of this volume, earlier waves of scholarship, including hegemonic-stability theory and power-transition theories, now need to be supplemented in order to respond to a rapidly changing global order.[1] This new direction in hegemony theory defines itself against earlier forms of scholarship in three distinct ways.

H-Diplo | ISSF Article Review 132

Review Editors: Diane Labrosse and Seth Offenbach
Production Editor:  George Fujii

“Hegemony Studies 3.0: The Dynamics of Hegemonic Order.”  Special Issue review of Security Studies 28:3 (May 2019): 395-644.   DOI:

Published by ISSF on 19 March 2020


Review by Doug Stokes, Exeter University

In the age of purported American decline, the rise of China and changes in the international distribution of power, this highly ambitious special issue of Security Studies seeks to chart the emergence of new third-wave “hegemonic-order” theories. For John Ikenberry and Daniel Nexon, the editors of this volume, earlier waves of scholarship, including hegemonic-stability theory and power-transition theories, now need to be supplemented in order to respond to a rapidly changing global order.[1] This new direction in hegemony theory defines itself against earlier forms of scholarship in three distinct ways.

First, new hegemonic order theories place a deeper emphasis on the causal significance of order, with hegemony a means, a medium, and an object of power politics itself. Hegemony and order are not coterminous, but rather interact with multiple forms of international hierarchy

Second, hegemonic order is not characterized by relational power alone, where weaker states are ordered around by bigger states. For the third wave of hegemonic theory, hegemonic orders also act to structure relations between both weak and strong alike. That is, hegemonic states such as the U.S. are also domestically and internationally bound by the norms and rules they help generate and defend. Hegemons are not just order makers but also order takers. Consent and legitimacy are central elements of any successful hegemonic order.

Third, newly emergent hegemonic-order theories also place an emphasis on how forms of international order both shape and constrain the costs of hegemonic order production itself, with explicit and implicit ‘bargains’ that help to sustain leadership and followership. For example, how does America’s global military hegemony help underwrite its economic primacy and therefore the capacity to shape the international preferences of other states; does America’s primacy pay, and, if not, why carry the burden? Are the ‘club goods’ the U.S. supplies worth it, and if not, what are the opportunity costs of moving out of the liberal order ‘club’?

The papers in this special issue are highly eclectic and it is beyond the scope of this short review to elucidate the breadth and scope of these articles in any substantive detail. Subjects covered include topics as diverse as case study analyses of U.S. and British hegemony in the Gulf and Middle East, the use of norms in rising power strategies of regional order contestation, the role that think tanks play in the generation of a purported highly stratified global order through to analyses of America’s military alliance networks and their value in its global economic standing. All of the papers are excellent and provide scholars of international relations and history alike with a thought-provoking reboot on new ways of thinking about hegemonic theory and its application to contemporary questions of world order. The two common intertwining themes that stand out are the importance of norms within international order and the cost vs benefits calculation of status quo and revisionist states. I discuss these below and then move on to some suggestions for further development in this new ‘third wave’ of hegemonic order theory.

Most of the papers in this special issue place a strong emphasis on the role of norms, ideas, and legitimacy in the constitution of hegemony. Drawing on the English School in IR, whilst moving beyond structural realist accounts of material capabilities, Evelyn Goh’s paper, “Contesting Hegemonic Order: China in East Asia” examines the role that shared norms and practices play in the constitution of regional orders in East Asia.[2] Emphasising the consensual nature of hegemony, she argues “that international relations turn on subjective exchanges of values and goods, rather than utilitarian evaluations of gains or losses.” As such, an “explicitly social conception of hegemonic order should center on the negotiation of shared understandings about values, rights and duties between the hegemon and other states” (620). Applying this insight to East Asia, Goh argues that China is currently navigating three areas of social legitimacy as it rises. These are normative assurance to weaker states, a reclamation and projection of its own great power status, and its pushback against elements of the U.S.-led order that it sees as illegitimate.

Similar to Goh’s paper on normative contestation in East Asia, Alexander Cooley’s article, “Ordering Eurasia: The Rise and Decline of Liberal Internationalism in the Post-Communist Space,” examines what we might term the institutional and normative nexus in the former Soviet sphere of influence.[3] He argues that with the expansion of the EU and NATO, the view emerged that history had ended and interstate competition had been pacified in Eurasia. In contrast to theories of a U.S.-led democratic peace and globalisation, Moscow had a different view. Cooley argues that geopolitics is not only back, but is the primary means through which Russia understands its international relations. His paper seeks to examine the logics of post-Soviet regimes and how they react to the Western normative order. Treading a delicate balance, regimes selectively engage with the liberal order when it advances their respective interests, with a resistance to other parts that may offend Moscow and Beijing.

Continuing this emphasis on the role of norms, Daniel Drezner’s paper, “Counter-Hegemonic Strategies in the Global Economy,” examines revisionist state strategies and the ways in which normative contestation on the part of rising powers can act as a useful and low-cost proxy to engage in systemic contestation.[4] Drezner argues that while balancing in a multipolar system is a normal function of world politics, in a unipolar system balancing takes on added risk, as by its very nature it is a system-altering challenge to the unipolar state. For Drezner, the key question is “how counter-hegemonic actors would proceed to lay the foundations of their own structural power without triggering premature blowback from supporters of the current hegemonic order” (513). Adopting a rational actor model, Drezner argues that both Russia and China are challenging American unipolarity, whilst China has pursued a more confrontational approach than Russia. Noting the importance of legitimacy however, Drezner argues that the key challenge to the American-led liberal world order now comes from American domestic forces, most notably the actions and policies of President Donald Trump himself: “one must conclude that the most rational revisionists of the current moment do not reside in any hegemonic challenger to the United States. They reside in Washington, D.C.” (531).

Building on this point, Paul Musgrave’s article, “International Hegemony Meets Domestic Politics: Why Liberals Can Be Pessimists,” places domestic politics and institutions at the heart of international hegemonic orders.[5] For Musgrave, a prerequisite for America’s global hegemony and order-maintenance role has been domestic consent. The vagaries of American domestic politics and political parties “affect the conduct of American foreign policy” and “domestic processes in the United States can erode the American political system’s ability to commit to hegemonic maintenance” (454). Musgrave identifies a range of ways in which domestic politics and parties can undermine America’s global leadership, including appealing too strongly to economic elites or using identity politics to help undermine long-standing foreign policy traditions of at least rhetorical support for international liberal norms and multilateral institutions (“America First!”).

In expounding third-wave “hegemonic-order” theories, Michael Mastanduno’s historically rich article, “Partner Politics: Russia, China, and the Challenge of Extending US Hegemony after the Cold War,” develops a theory of lynchpin states within America’s postwar hegemony.[6] Developing a four point taxonomy, Mastanduno argues that lynchpin states are crucial to hegemonic orders, with Germany and Japan occupying this position during the Cold War. Both were offered ‘partner bargains’ by the U.S. in the post-War period as embedded economic sub-hegemons whose domestic and international preferences were fundamentally shaped by the U.S. Second, what he terms ‘status quo states’ are hardwired into the U.S. order, and as such are hegemonic followers. Whilst benefiting from that order (for example, in terms of security guarantees or trade), these states are not foundational to it and are thus dispensable. Third, what he terms non-lynchpin, revisionist states seek to challenge the prevailing order, but often lack sufficient material or ideational power to overturn the order itself. He gives the example of Russia as a contemporaneous example. Fourth, and the most worrisome for U.S. planners, are so-called lynchpin/revisionist states as their support is not only crucial to regional or global orders, but sufficient opposition from them may well derail that order entirely. China, which is rapidly developing “into a lynchpin state in the East Asian regional order” and may now be “sliding from status-quo partner to revisionist challenger,” is the obvious example here (487).

Gregory Gause’s case study approach to hegemony in the Middle East compares the U.S. and British experiences. His piece, “‘Hegemony’ Compared: Great Britain and the United States in the Middle East,” roots the respective differences in the growing autonomy of Middle Eastern actors under American hegemony, and the crucial relationships between local elites, international institutions and the hegemon itself.[7] Continuing in this theme, but developing a more substantive theoretical framework, Inderjeet Parmar’s article outlines what we might term the ideology-institutional power nexus at the heart of U.S. foreign policy formation.[8] Drawing on a critical theory mash-up of Gramscian IR theory and Kautskian theories of imperialism, Parmar argues that U.S. elite foreign policy discourse has been highly racialised and predicated around international hierarchy. Elite common-sense formation, which is itself rooted in a U.S.-led transnational elite networks and think tanks, has generated a “hegemonic common sense” as to the way the world works and the inevitability and desirability of the U.S.-led liberal international order. The liberal international order, for Parmar, is in fact that latest stage of international capitalism with elite networks forcefully defending “US hegemony against perceived domestic challenges, including challenges from the Trump administration.  The liberal international order is a class-based, elitist hegemony with significant racial and colonial assumptions” (533).

The final paper is Carla Norloff and William Wohlforth’s “Raison De l’Hégémonie (The Hegemon’s Interest): Theory of the Costs and Benefits of Hegemony,” which draws out the relationship between protection and production (or military and economic power).[9] Arguing for the continued utility of America’s deep engagement and the relative durability of U.S. unipolarity, they argue that the United States being at the center of a “system of defensive alliances offers distinct rewards in the form of fewer constraints, more opportunities, better bargains, greater influence, and even deference and attention from those in less favored positions” (449). They seek to unpack this relationship and situate it within a cost-benefit analysis that locates the American experience within historical patterns. They argue that the U.S.-led alliance security system benefits it in ways that mitigates more conventional critiques of U.S. deep engagement that posit the U.S. declining as a result of its growing and unsustainable public goods provision and of security free riding by its allies. U.S. network centricity helps it structure the international preference of other states, raises the opportunity costs of revision of the global economy that reflects U.S. preferences, and helps pacify interstate competition, thus providing stability for global markets. In short, the paper outlines how the close interrelationship between America’s global security and economic regimes are in fact symbiotic, and argues that it is this close symbiosis that makes U.S. hegemony more durable that is commonly assumed.

This special issue impressively signals the emergence of new ways of thinking about international order, hegemony, and American power in the context of deep changes in the international system. Given the theoretically and empirically eclectic nature of the special issue, in drawing out sympathetic observations, one must operate at a high level of approximation and identify broad ‘meta-themes’ that can possibly signal areas for further development. I will do so before concluding.

First, there is a tension between the claims of the importance of norms and legitimacy and material power shifts in world order. The papers are right to signal that hegemony is more durable when embedded within an overarching legitimating discourse that helps cohere relationships, structure relations, and generate norms that themselves act as social constraints of both weak and powerful alike. However, more theorisation needs to be done between the often complex material and ideational elements of international hierarchy, power, and hegemony. Whilst all of these excellent papers avoid forms of mono-causal reductionism, all broadly agree that a hegemonic precondition is the generation of a viable ‘story’ for leadership and followership. Indeed, these stories are so powerful that they often form the primary modality for systemic revision that is available to revisionist powers. As such, hegemony thus derives from, but is not reducible to, its material and ideational conditions of emergence. What then are the constitutive feedback loops between these forms of mutually imbricated structure and agency and how do these help produce the conditions that allow ordering and its contestation within the international system? All of the papers place differential weight on this scale that, crudely put, oscillate between more materialist versus ideational approaches. This oscillation itself is interesting, and would be worth theoretically exploring, perhaps with a deeper discussion around questions of structure and agency.

Second, this would also provide clarity between the tension between the different approaches in this special issue to the ideational itself. On the one hand, we have English-School and liberal-theory approaches to hegemonic order that treat norms as benignly emergent and that act to constrain state agency and, whilst sometimes contested, are ultimately underpinned by consent. On the other hand, we have the more instrumentalist conceptions of both the more critically orientated neo-Gramscians and the structural realists. For these scholars, norms are part of a broader ideological package that acts as both a legitimating discourse and as an elite worldview to justify domination, hierarchy, and rival Empires. The neo-Gramscians interpret this as morally and politically wrong, but offer little in the way of viable alternatives, especially in the context of rising illiberal powers that are the most likely beneficiaries in a post-unipolar age.  The structural realists note this too, but in proposing broad scale American retrenchment, have yet to grapple with the problems by papers like those by Mastanduno and Norloff and Wohlforth in this special issue, and that centre around the utility of America’s deep engagement when considering questions of political economy. An over-emphasis on security, absent a discussion on the mutually imbricated nature of U.S. security and economic regimes, is simply a one-sided account, not least as retrenchment is put forward as a way to respond to relative economic decline. Given the internationalised nature of the U.S. economy, who or what would replace America’s superintendent role within the liberal economic order? Perhaps China can be trusted to do so?

The editors and contributors of this special issue should be commended for their ambition. This special issues points to emerging trends in hegemonic theory and how we may ‘map the future’ of American power, changes in international relations, and new forms of great power rivalry and cooperation.


Doug Stokes is Professor in IR at the University of Exeter, UK. His research examines the political economy of US grand strategy.

©2020 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] John G. Ikenberry, and Daniel H. Nexon, “Hegemony Studies 3.0: The Dynamics of Hegemonic Orders,” Security Studies 28:3 (May 2019) [Hereafter SS 28:3]: 395-421.

[2] Evelyn Goh, “Contesting Hegemonic Order: China in East Asia,” SS 28:3: 614-644.

[3] Alexander Cooley, “Ordering Eurasia: The Rise and Decline of Liberal Internationalism in the Post-Communist Space,” SS 28:3: 588–613.

[4] Daniel W. Drezner, “Counter-Hegemonic Strategies in the Global Economy,” SS 28:3: 505-531.

[5] Paul Musgrave, “International Hegemony Meets Domestic Politics: Why Liberals Can Be Pessimists,” SS 28:3: 451-478.

[6] Michael Mastanduno, “Partner Politics: Russia, China, and the Challenge of Extending US Hegemony after the Cold War,” SS 28:3: 479-504.

[7] Gregory F. Gause, “‘Hegemony’ Compared: Great Britain and the United States in the Middle East.” SS 28:3: 565-587.

[8] Inderjeet Parmar, “Transnational Elite Knowledge Networks: Managing American Hegemony in Turbulent Times,” SS 28:3: 532-564.

[9] Carla Norrlof and William C. Wohlforth. “Raison de l’hégémonie (The Hegemon’s Interest): Theory of the Costs and Benefits of Hegemony,” SS 28:3: 422-450.

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