The Theory of Hegmonic War by Robert Gilpin
Detailed notes And structural summary, below
Gilpin says in The Theory of Hegmonic War:
The great turning points in world history have been provided by these hegemonic struggles among political
rivals; these periodic conflicts have reordered the international system and propelled history in new and
unchartered directions. They resolve the question of which state will govern the system, as well as what
ideas and values will predominate, thereby determining the ethos of successive ages.
The fundamental problem of international relations in the contemporary world is the problem of peaceful
adjustment to the consequences of the uneven growth of power among states, just as it was in the past.
International society cannot and does not stand still. War and violence remain serious possibilities as the
world moves from the decay of one international system toward the creation of another.
The essential idea embodied in Thucydides theory of hegemonic war is that fundamental changes in the
international system are the basic determinants of such wars. The structure of the system or distribution of
power among the states in the system can be stable or unstable. A stable system is one in which changes
can take place if they do not threaten the vital interests of the dominant states and thereby cause a war
among themAn unstable system is one in which economic, technological, and other changes are eroding
the international hierarchy and undermining the position of the hegemonic state (592).
Gilpin highlights three characteristics of hegemonic stability theory from the above quotation. The first, is
that hegemonic stability theory relies on a different set of drivers than does other systemic level theories of
the cause of war: it relies on exploring the broader changes in political and economic drivers. Secondly,
states in an international system, broadly speaking, will interact strategically. Finally, hegemonic war does
change and threaten the stability and structure of the international system.
In summary, according to Thucydides, a great or hegemonic war, like a disease, follows a discernible and
recurrent course. The initial phase is a relatively stable international system characterized by a hierarchical
ordering of states with a dominant or hegemonic power. Over time, the power of some subordinate state
begins to grow disproportionately; as this development occurs, it comes into conflict with the hegemonic state. The struggle between these contenders for preeminence and their accumulating alliances leads to a
bipolarization of the systemAs this bipolarization occurs the system becomes increasingly unstable, and a
monic war, like a disease, displays discernible symptoms and follows an inevitable course. (5945).
Often conflated with Organsk i s theory of power transition, it is referred to as hegemonic stability theory.
Gilpin focuses on how the international order emerges from hegemonic wars, is forged and upheld by
dominant states, and how it comes under pressure from rising powers.
According to Gilpin, a hegemonic war is characterized by three features. First, it is a systemwide conflict:
every great power and most minor powers participate in the war. Second, its a total war: what is at stake is
the nature and governance of the international order. It is at once political, economic, and ideological; is
characterized by the employment of unlimited means, and usually accompanied by religious, political, and
social upheaval. That is, it is simultaneously a systemic crisis. Third, the geographic scope expands till it
engulfs the entire system: it is a world war.
Historically, the wars that meet these three criteria are: the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta
(431404 B.C.), the Second Punic war between Carthage and Rome (218201 B.C.), the Thirty Years War
(161848), the wars of Louis XIV (16671713), the wars of the French revolution and Napoleon (17921814),
the First World War (191419), and the Second World War (193945).
A number of preconditions are associated with the outbreak of hegemonic war. There is a closing in of the
system whereby interstate relations become more and more a zerosum game. The clashes among great
powers over territory, resources, and markets increase in frequency and magnitude. In contrast, the
hundred years of peace of the long nineteenth century was based on continuously expanding territories and
markets. Another precondition is a significant erosion in the relative power of the reigning hegemon. The
dominant state sees that time is working against it and feels that one should settle matters through
preemptive war while the advantage is still on one s side.
Dale C. Copeland contends that in hegemonic stability theory it is the ascending power that is inclined to
initiate war to receive the status and rewards denied by the traditional system. This is Organskis position
and manifestly not Gilpins, as Copeland actually concedes in the appendix. Gilpin, in fact, devotes most of
his attention to the dilemma of the declining power, of which he says: The first and most attractive option is
to eliminate the source of the problem. By launching a preventive war the declining power destroys or
weakens the rising challenger while the military advantage is still with the declining power. [Emphasis
mine.] In what amounts to either pure fabrication or extremely shoddy scholarship, Copeland says that
Gilpin puts most of the blame on the rising state and references pages 33, 9495, and 186187. Nowhere on
these pages does Gilpin ever suggest that the rising power even contemplates initiating war. Throughout the book, Gilpin argues that the rising state or states seek to change the status quo. His position is
considerably more nuanced and Copeland does a great disservice by misrepresenting it. Let me quote
Gilpin at length:
Although prestige is largely a function of economic and military capabilities, it is achieved primarily through
the successful use of power, and especially through victory in war. The most prestigious members of the
international system are those states that have most recently used military force or economic power
successfully and have thereby imposed their will on others. Second, both power and prestige are ultimately
imponderable and incalculable; they cannot be known absolutely by any a priori process of calculation.
They are known only when they are tested, especially on the field of battle. Third, one of the principal
functions of war, particularly what we shall call hegemonic war, is to determine the international hierarchy of
prestige and thereby determine which states will in effect govern the international system.
[A]n inconsistency may, and in time does, arise between the established hierarchy of prestige and the
existing distribution of power among states. That is, perceptions of prestige lag behind changes in the
actual capabilities of states. As a consequence, the governance of the system begins to break down as
perceptions catch up with the realities of power. The once dominant state is decreasingly able to impose its
will on others and/or protect its interests. The rising state or states in the system increasingly demand
changes in the system that will reflect their newly gained power and their unmet interests. Finally, the
stalemate and issue of who will run the system are resolved through armed conflict.
Unable to tackle the nuance of Gilpin s framework, Copeland erects a straw man: hegemonic stability theory
has no deductively consistent theory of war initiation. There is no logical reason why a state should attack
while it is still rising, since simply by waiting, the state will be able to achieve its objectives more easily and
at less cost. His account of the origins of the First World War thus casts Germany as the dominant state in
decline. This does explain why Germany engineered the war when it did: Russia had much greater war
potential due to its large population and territory. It was rapidly industrializing and had just started an arms
buildup that would ve enabled it to surpass Germany as the dominant military power on the continent by
However, Germany was in no way the dominant power in the international order. The reigning hegemon
was Great Britain. Both authors agree on Britains response to relative decline. As Germany surpassed
Great Britain in industrial strength, it launched on a naval buildup to challenge the Royal Navy for command
of the seas. The Kaiser inaugurated a strategy of coercive diplomacy to extract concessions from the
imperial powers. This strategy of calculated risk and brinksmanship called Weltpolitik alarmed Great Britain.
She immediately started resolving her conflicts with other great powers and forging alliances: agreed to
Japanese supremacy in northeast Asia, American dominance of the western hemisphere, gave over the
western Mediterranean to France, and made diplomatic overtures to Russia.
The reason why Great Britain did not consider preventive war with Germany is clear. What counts in the
balance of power is landbased military power. Germany had been a stronger military power than Great
Britain since 1870. Even if she had been able to forge an alliance with France and Russia to attack
Germany, they wouldve found it difficult to bring it down. The strategy of containment and encirclement that Britain pursued was thus optimal. Great Britain continued to preside over the international order.
The issue is a subtle one: a dominant military power in irreversible relative decline faced with a geopolitical
rival with greater war potential will consider preventive war to be necessary if no other option is available to
ensure its longterm survival. In a multipolar system, their course of action would immediately make it a
potential hegemon. The balance of power dynamic will kick in, all the other great powers would coalesce to
check it, and it would have to make a run for the entire system. It would thus only launch a preventive war if
it was at least as strong as its geopolitical rivals put together.
This was precisely Germanys position before both the world wars. Since such a situation is harder to obtain
in multipolarity than bipolarity, the former is more stable than the latter. In the bipolar system on the other
hand, even if the declining power is somewhat weaker than the rising power it would still make sense for it
to launch a preventive war to shore up its waning longterm security. Thus, bipolar systems are inherently
less stable. Here, the logic of Copelands theory of dynamic differentials is impeccable and superior to
neorealism. Since neorealism is a static theory, it misses the central role that the law of uneven growth
plays in precipitating war. Neorealism therefore sees bipolarity to be inherently more stable than multi
Hegemons and the governance of the international order
The reigning hegemon has, with the exception of the United States, not been the dominant military power in
the system. However, it has, by necessity, been the dominant naval power. Since the sixteenth century,
when the European world economy spread its tentacles around the globe, the principal determinant of the
financial and economic fortunes of the great powers have been their positions in the global trading system.
Since every great power benefits in absolute terms from the global trading system, it endows the sea power
that protects the sealanes with an enormous degree of power and prestige. They have, as a rule, promoted
free trade, provided the investment capital, run the financial system, and supplied the international currency.
The key to controlling this maritime realm is sea power, which is quite distinct from landbased military
power. Indeed, when we speak of war potential and dominant states, we are implicitly talking about the
latter. The former is determined by factors that are quite distinct. Naval supremacy depends in the first
instance on having a skilled merchant navy and ship building industry. It also depends quite critically on
securing control over strategic control points, what Admiral Lord Fisher called the five keys that lock up the
world: Gibraltar, Dovar, the Strait of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope, and Alexandria. To update this list
we may add the Panama and Suez canals and the Strait of Hormuz. The sea power that controls these is
more often than not the reigning hegemon of the world economy.
Since the trade between East Asia and Europe has been such a crucial piece of the global trading jigsaw,
naval control of the Strait of Malacca serves as the truest bellwether of established hegemonies: Iberian
(Portuguese) (15111640), Dutch (16401780), British (17801945), and American (1945).
All hegemonic wars in history were initiated by dominant military powers who were not only facing relative
decline (as Copeland demonstrates admirably) but also fighting against the secular trend of the world economy. Sparta was threatened by the maritime trading empire of Athens. Carthage, the hitherto dominant
sea power feared Rome s growing strength at sea: the Punic wars were precipitated by Romes conquest of
strategically significant islands in the Mediterranean, which posed a direct threat to Carthages naval
supremacy and trade primacy. Spain tried in vain to prevent Hollands rise to primacy in global trade and
finance. The wars of Louis XIV were as much about wrestling Dutch trade as establishing France as the
dominant power in Europe. The Napoleonic wars were intended to reverse Britains rise as the dominant
trading and maritime power. Napoleon was, however, a few decades late to the party. Germany tried twice
in a generation to secure the mantle of the world economy and the international order even as it was silently
crossing the Atlantic.
Carthage and Rome Map
The lessons to be gleaned from this exercise are manifold. The balance of power and the maritime world
economy are distinct. The principal determinant of a great powers position in the former is landbased
military power, while in the latter it is sea power and economic prowess. War potential is determined by
territory, population, advantageous geopolitical location, and resource endowment (Iron, coal, oil et cetera).
Successful maritime powers need to be economic powerhouses, have a highly skilled and productive
populace, and substantial naval potential (ample coas