Hegemony, Counter-hegemony, and Stability

Five Dimensions of the Concept of Hegemony

There are at least five basic dimensions to the concept of hegemony, ranging from gross and obvious to more subtle. Hegemony is much more than simple domination because of its more subtle dimensions found later on this list.

Five Dimensions of the Concept of Hegemony

1. Military: The hegemon has the strongest military in the world, significantly stronger than any of its rivals. Its military alliance system is significantly stronger than any rival military bloc.

2. Economic: The hegemon has the largest and most technologically advanced economy in the world. It is a major trading partner of most of the nations of the world, including most of the major powers.

3. Political: The hegemon has a wide range of political allies and friendly relations with most nations and major powers.

4. Institutional: The hegemon, along with its allies, usually controls most of the international institutions and thus significantly shapes the rules that govern global political and economic relations.

5. Ideological: The hegemon largely determines the terms of discourse in global relations. The predominant ideas about globalization are the ideas of hegemon.


Hegemony Contains Both Coercion and Consent

In international relations, the theory of hegemony is crucial because it captures both the tendency of the worldí»s leading power to forcefully assert its dominance yet at the same time to create alliances, ideas, and institutions that attract the relatively free participation of other states and peoples in a more or less open international system.  Hegemony thus embodies both the coercion of informal empire and the consent of democratic participation.  It combines both the í░hardí▒ power of military and economic empire with the í░softí▒ power of democratic ideas and global institutions. Because the current international system built around U.S. hegemony thus contains both elements of coercion and consent, over time it could evolve in either the direction of an expanded informal empire or a more democratic, peaceful world order.

Counter-hegemony and Counter-hegemonic Alliance Systems

All states have the choice of either siding with or opposing the hegemon, as a general strategy and on particular issues.  In the language of international relations, these choices are called bandwagoning (siding with the hegemon) or balancing (allying against the hegemon).  Even hegemons face resistance from popular movements and national elites who contest the hegemon's plan for globalization on each of the five levels listed above.  States who oppose the hegemon often form a counter-hegemonic alliance system, as did the Soviet Union and China in the early Cold War, Germany, Japan, and Italy in the 1930s, and Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early 20th century.  International political movements also arise to oppose the hegemon.  Communism, fascism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the current anti-globalization movements are examples of movements of resistance against the hegemon.

Theories of Hegemonic Stability and Hegemonic Instability

Most American specialists in international relations (and many of their European counterparts) believe in the theory of hegemonic stability.  Simply stated, this theory argues that the hegemonic power plays a crucial role in maintaining stability and order in the world system.  In other words, the hegemon is the most benign power in the global system.  Because the hegemon is the power that benefits most from the existing world system, the hegemon has the greatest stake in keeping that system functioning.  The military power of the hegemon keeps the peace, discouraging challengers to the global order.  The economy of the hegemon is the engine that drives international economic growth and development.  In order to preserve its network of alliances, the hegemon is the political broker who moderates disputes between other powers, thus keeping them from escalating into serious conflict.  The hegemon seeks to bind other states into the global order and thus plays a leading role in developing global institutions that manage international security and economic relations.  The hegemon is often the source and usually a propagator of ideas about world order and security.  For example, current concepts of í░globalizationí▒ are shaped largely by American intellectuals.  In the words of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the hegemon is í░the indispensable nationíŽ(the one) that walks tall and looks forward.í▒

On the other hand, the theory of hegemonic instability argues that hegemony is a destructive force in the global system.  The hegemon uses its military power to impose its will around the world, raising the level of violence associated with regional political conflicts.  The economy of the hegemon sucks resources from less developed economies and twists development around the globe to fit its insatiable appetites rather than benefit the peoples of the world.  The alliance system of the hegemon virtually guarantees that peoples and states excluded from the hegemoní»s councils will be forced into a series of counter-hegemonic alliances.  Conflict between the hegemonic alliance system and the counter-hegemonic alliance system was the source of the two world wars and the Cold War.  The military competition between the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic alliances turns many otherwise manageable political disputes into violent conflict.  The rules and values of the international institutions constructed by the hegemon are blatantly unfair.  The hegemon represents its own narrow national interests as the interests of global society, while in fact global institutions serve to expand the power and wealth of the hegemon.  Just as a dictator within a nation proclaims himself the protector and voice of the people while actually suppressing and exploiting the people, the hegemon claims to be the protector of international order and the driving force of global prosperity, but in truth the hegemon spreads disorder, repression, and exploitation.

The Potential for World Order or Neoimperialism in the Hegemonic System


The 21st century hegemonic system has a dual nature, combining elements of both neoimperialism and world order.  Over time the hegemonic system can evolve more in the direction of either neoimperialism or more toward world order. 


Hegemony, World Order, and Neoimperialism



World Order




Foundation of

International System




Shared Values


Military/Economic Power +

Shared Values


Military + Economic



Key Way States Interact





Conflict but also





Why States Participate in International System








Consent +






Nature of International System



Based on Rules +



Sometimes based on Rules + Institutions but often Anarchical





Key form of Power



Soft Power


Hard Power +

Soft Power



Hard Power