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4 - Hegemonic decline and hegemonic war revisited

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2014

William C. Wohlforth
Dartmouth College
G. John Ikenberry
Princeton University, New Jersey
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The rise and decline of hegemonic states remains a central concern of scholars and policy makers. To be sure, most international relations scholars long ago abandoned the quest for a simple causal relationship between the distribution of power and major political phenomena like war and cooperation. But as Robert Gilpin wrote three decades ago, one need not “accept a structural or systems theory approach to international relations such as Waltz’s in order to agree that the distribution of power among the states in a system has a profound impact on state behavior.” Witness the outpouring of commentary and analysis following the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent great recession debating the extent and possible effects of American decline. For many, the world seemed to stand before a “Gilpinian moment,” when the basic material underpinnings of the American-led global order were rapidly shifting toward some new as-yet undefined equilibrium.

Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics posited a conditional but nonetheless general relationship between the distribution of capabilities among major states and the stability of any given interstate order. States, Gilpin argued, use their material capabilities to foster a strategic environment congenial to their interests. If conditions permit, especially capable states thus may seek to create and sustain rough forms of political order over an international system. Gilpin identified a tendency for such hegemonic states to do just that, but, he stressed, no state can expect to lock in a favorable position in the distribution of capabilities. Indeed, tendencies intrinsic to being a hegemonic state will cause the distribution of capabilities to shift away to other actors. As a result, the expected net benefits to rising states of challenging the existing order will increase, causing system instability and potentially a major war reestablishing equilibrium between underlying power and the political order.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2014

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