The Hegemonic Stability Theory and the Concept of Non-polarity
The perceived decline in power of the United States as the reigning economic and military superpower has attracted great concern from scholars, who are interested in predicting the changes in the international power structure that the waning of U.S. hegemony will lead to. One of the most interesting analyses of the prevailing international system is Richard Haass’ (2008) article “The Age of Non-polarity: What will follow U.S. Dominance.” The author contends that “the principal characteristic of twenty-first-century international relations is turning out to be a non-polarity.” (p. 44) According to Haass, non-polarity is the inevitable result of the weakening of U.S. power and the impact of globalization. Indeed, Haass accurately observes that the United States is experiencing a major downturn in its economy and is unable to use its coercive power in the same ways, a sure sign that the world’s superpower is not as powerful as before. In the same manner, Haass argues that globalization “dilutes the influence of the major powers” by empowering other actors, including non-state agents, to “accumulate and project substantial power.” (p. 47) However, there is reason to believe that a non-polar international system is but an illusion maintained by a dominant state that is struggling to buy time to avert the pressures of competition while it renews its military power and economic strength to ensure a continued global dominance.
Non-polarity and Hegemonic Stability
Haass’ (2008) assertion that today’s international system is moving towards a non-polar distribution of power or the presence of “numerous centers with meaningful power” suffers from several weaknesses. First, Haas’ concept of non-polarity assumes that the weakening power of the United States will leave a power vacuum that will be filled out by regional centres of power and emerging state and non-state actors. However, this assumes that these powers are “meaningful” enough to counterbalance each other, or at least, to achieve a more or less equitable distribution among all actors in the power structure. Second, this is premised on the notion that non-state actors are usually neutral of state-related interests, which belies the fact that apart from secessionist militias and terrorist groups, non-governmental organizations and other non-state actors, often operate based on the framework of state laws and regulations, and some are even dependent on state funding for their operations. Hence, although Haass rightly points out that this is a century where “states are being challenged from above, by regional and global organizations; from below, by militias; and from the side, by a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations,” (p. 44) he also fails to note that some of the most powerful NGOs and international institutions often serve as the carriers of specific state interests. Likewise, transnational corporations are oftentimes transnational only in their operations but maintain close ties with their home countries and often do not have military force. It would be naïve to assume that NGOs and transnational organizations weild their powers as equals of the state, as NGOs and transnational corporations can only influence the behavior of institutions based on existing state framework and legislation. A third weakness in Haass’ argument is that he fails to take into account the diverse impact of globalization. While it may be true that globalization and the resulting integration of international information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures and international markets have “increased the volume, velocity, and importance of cross-border flows of just about everything,” (p. 47) this is only true for advanced industrial economies. The Third World, for instance, has yet to benefit from the promised benefits of globalization in terms of progress and development. This only illustrates how power remains cloistered in a few centers and how globalization has merely reinforced the existing international power structure favoring already powerful state actors.
Clearly, today’s world is showing tendencies of moving away from unipolarity, as Haass suggests, but it is not necessarily going towards nonpolarity or the absence of a dominant player in the international system. On the contrary, the current international power structure shows a return to the multi-polar system of the pre-World War I era, with China, Russia, and so-called regional power centers as the new poles of power. In effect, the current balance of power is characteristic of what Robert Gilpin’s (1981) Hegemonic Stability Theory describes as the redistribution of power that occurs when the dominant power is weakened due to the increased costs of “maintaining the international system” (p. 94) according to its designs and interests. This situtation makes it favourable for rising economies to seize power, traditionally by seizing the defined territories and markets of the waning power through a hegemonic war or a war of massive scale, and to induce changes in the system based on its agenda.
Implications for the Current Liberal Economic Order
Undoubtedly, Haas (2008) is correct in predicting that the lack of a dominant power would have tremendous effects on the stability of the international system, particularly on the prevailing economic order. The weakening of the United States would make the world economy more unstable as emerging powers battle for dominance in the international system. Gilpin (1981) notes, for instance, that “as its relative power increases, a rising state attempts to change the rules governing the international system, the division of the spheres of influence…and the international distribution of territory.” (p. 94) In this line, the future of the current liberal economic order would rest on the outcomes of a hegemonic war. In a sense, Haass’ observation about the inability of emergent powers to directly challenge the United States on both an economic and military level in the same way that Japan did in the 1940s may be too early to tell. For instance, China is still in its development phase and has been cautious in its implementation of globalization policies. Thus far, the only thing that can be deduced from China’s action is that it has abandoned the path of socialism and has chosen the dominant liberal economic order.
Consequently, there is a high chance that the current liberal economic order will survive despite a hegemonic war between today’s powers. This is because there has yet to emerge a formidable mass movement comparable to the ideological and technological ferment of the French Revolution which overthrew the feudal system in the 18th century. China’s return to capitalism and the integration of major powerholders to the dominant liberal order more or less ensures that this economic system will prevail for a long time even though the international system may be restructured and re-aligned to mirror the interests of the new powerholder. The rise of globalization as a dominant development paradigm is itself based on how it enables faster capital accumulation through better business processes and more efficient means of reaching consumers. However, there is also the possibility that the current liberal economic order will wane with the decline in U.S. power as the staunchest promoter and defender of the dominant capitalist system. Likewise, the growth of immense global resource problems, from the degradation of the environment to the depletion of oil resources, is likely to force the world to search for a more sustainable economic framework. This is evident in the current focus by both state and non-state actors on the promotion of sustainable business activities and corporate responsibility.
Meanwhile, the inevitability of resource scarcity and global climate change has the potential to provoke an international movement that could threaten the stability of an economic order that is dependent on the wanton exploitation of both human and physical resources. The development of such a movement would take a long time, however, since the majority of powerful non-state actors, especially NGOs, are more interested in ensuring the stability of the international capitalist system than in actually changing it. Not surprisingly, the work of international NGOs emphasizes business and government collaboration on poverty alleviation and in pressuring corporations to adapt sustainable strategies. In this manner, China’s return into the socialist path or the rise of a socialist bloc would present another scenario, one that could pose a significant threat to the capitalist system. As things currently stand, however, this scenario is still far from the truth.
A More War-Prone International System
In any case, both a non-polar and a multi-polar international order that arises from the decline in U.S. power points towards a more war prone nature of international system as emerging states battle for the reconfiguration of territorial boundaries and increased competition over declining, finite resources. Already, the world is witnessing what Gilpin (1981) observes as the symptoms “associated with the outbreak of hegemonic war,” which are the increased hostilities between states due to the clash in geo-political interests; the heightened sense of impending doom on the side of major powers, which compels them to launch preemptive strikes to crush probable challengers; and the inability of the dominant power to control and direct the events of war, leading to escalation of conflicts. (p. 102) It is in this light that the renewed eruption of violence in many parts of the world must be seen, particularly the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq and the breakdown of the WTO talks in the DOHA rounds. Likewise, Iran and other rogue states’ tendency to pursue a nuclear weapons program, their refusal to cooperate with the United States, and the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism shows how the U.S. is slowly becoming more vulnerable and powerless to perform its role as the world’s major police power. Even the United States’ costly war on Iraq, which has escalated into a full-blown invasion, resembles the desperate measure of a former superpower to maintain its prestige and its clout in the international system.
Unfortunately, the United States’ pretentions of force and power are unravelling due to high military expenditures. Although the U.S. government is obstinate about its Iraq policy, it is clear that the war has taken too long and is taking its toll on the U.S. economy, which more than satisfies Gilpin’s third precondition for the onset of a hegemonic war. It is also likely that the U.S. military is being further stretched and its force diluted by too many peacekeeping commitments on various parts of the world, particularly on safeguarding its vital interests on the oil industry in the Middle East.
In a sense, the world is currently experiencing the short period before the threshold of war, wherein states silently but surely strengthen their economies and build up their military capacities to prepare for the outbreak of hostilities. Hence, it would be foolish to assume that the rise of non-state actors would in fact deter state actors from using military solutions to economic and political problems. This has, in fact, been belied by the U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iraq, wherein the United States, with help from the British and other allies, rendered the United Nations inutile when it decided to enforce its unilateral decision to wage war. In the same manner, despite the United States’ refusal to admit its weakened status, its actions already show signs of trying vainly to prolong its dominance using the method described by Gilpin (1981) as “political, territorial, or economic retrenchment.” (p. 97) Apparently, this is what Haass mistakes for the decline between the link between power and influence when he notes that “China proved to be the country best able to influence North Korea’s nuclear program.” (p. 45) On the other hand, it is easy to see that the United States’ declining economic power would lead to its degenerating international standing. By relegating the North Korea issue to China, the United States is simply employing the tactic of reducing its international commitments in order to conserve force.
Transnational and Non-State Actors in the Emerging International System
Nevertheless, the absence of a dominant world power and the impending hegemonic war would enable other actors to strengthen their position vis-à-vis state actors. Unlike the latter, non-state actors such as transnational corporations and other organizations are not bound by geographical interests. Likewise, the breakdown of the international system and the outbreak of war would entail the redistribution and remobilization of resources.
Clearly, transnational corporations are both adversely and negatively impacted by war, depending on what business they are in. In the same manner, other organizations are virtually enlivened by the heightened sense of despondency and conflict in the world as this is usually when humanitarian activities increase. Given how the roles and power of non-state actors are increased during times of conflict, the reconfiguration of territories and economic activities, based on the outcome of a hegemonic struggle also has the potential to grant more power to non-state actors to pursue their interests. The eruption of war between the United States and an emergent power, for instance, would make the former highly vulnerable to the terrorist action of the Al Quaeda.
Nonetheless, a caveat must be offered in the sense that non-state actors’ power would be delimited by their own state resources. This is evident in how the decline in U.S. power would most likely have an impact on U.S. affiliated organizations and non-state actors. Without the power and influence enjoyed by the United States, American NGOs and institutions would also lose some of the power that was traditionally accorded to it by its mere association with the U.S. In this aspect, Haass (1981) is correct in observing that transnational actors and multilateral organizations would be better poised to take advantage of either a trend towards non-polarity or multi-polarity in the international system. His observation, that multilateralism “must be recast to include actors other than the great powers” (p. 48) is undoubtedly an effort to recognize that transnational organizations are a necessity if state actors are to prevent anarchy in the international system. However, it also exposes the extent to which non-state actors have access to traditional decision-making venues despite their perceived possession of a “meaningful power.”
Thus, the current status of international relations appears only to point towards the diffusion of power to other actors, while in reality it points to the redistribution of power among traditional state actors. Although Haass would like to believe that the twenty-first century has enabled non-state actors to be emerge as significant power holders, this is undermined by the fact that major political and economic decisions are still made by the group of most powerful countries. Likewise, Haass’ notion of a non-polarity is premised on the assumption that non-state actors can actually compete or even challenge with state actors. However, current events have shown that non-state actors usually have limited resources and limited capabilities because majority of them ultimately have to work within the framework of the state.
In contrast, Gilpin’s theory on hegemonic stability appears to be better suited in analyzing the trends in international system development. Accordingly, Haass’ fears that the world is moving towards greater chaos is right, but not because of the imminent movement towards non-polarity but towards the beginning of another multi-polarity. This is because non-state actors cannot be considered as operating on an even playing field with state actors. Although technological innovation and the advent of globalization has undoubtedly enabled non-state actors to improve their capacities and abilities to engage state actors in both the political and military arena, most of these groups continue to be at the periphery of power and decision-making structures to be considered an equal of the state.
Gilpin, R. (1981). Hegemonic war and international change.
Haass, R.H. (2008). The age of non-polarity; What will follow US dominance? Foreign Affairs, 87(3):44-49.