Robert Gilpin on hegemonies and economic crises

I was reading Fifty Key Thinkers on International Relations earlier this week and ran across this interesting quote:

Essentially, Gilpin believes that all hegemonies are transient because the costs of maintaining them rise more quickly than the resources available to do so. On the one hand, the hegemon is unable to prevent the diffusion of its economic skills and technique to other states. On the other hand, the hegemon must confront the rising expectations of its own citizens. Over time, they will privilege consumption over production and resist further sacrifices in order to maintain the supremacy of the hegemon on the international stage. The combination of internal and external factors leads to what Gilpin calls ‘a severe fiscal crisis’ for the hegemon.

It then has a limited choice of options. If it wishes to maintain its power, it can either confront its internal obstacles and reverse the tendency towards complacency, or it can attack rising powers before they mount a challenge of their own. Alternatively, it can seek to reduce its overseas commitments and promote strategic alliances with other states. Gilpin illustrates the former with reference to imperial China, while in the 1930s, Britain attempted the latter course of action. Gilpin is sceptical about the lessons of history, however. While each of these options has been pursued with varying degrees of success in the past, neither has been able to prevent the onset of war to resolve the disequilibrium of global power. In the late twentieth century, such a conclusion raises urgent questions about contemporary stability in the international system and the need to discover means other than war for managing the process of change, as the next ‘systemic’ war is likely to be the last in the context of nuclear weapons.

Now, while this is unsettling reading, I don’t actually think it applies in this case, for one particular reason.  Namely, under current conditions, the economic crisis is globalized.  While the USA is indeed suffering, other nations who could become peer competitors to the US have been hit just as hard, if not harder.  And as we know, a broad economic base is essential to build the military muscle necessary to leap to hegemon status.

However, should one of those potential peer competitor nations recover while the US is still mired in trouble…when then there could be a real recipe for trouble.  It doesn’t seem likely, but it should not be discounted.

Some might suggest this analysis may be too state centric, however I very much doubt any of the current 4GW using organizations either have the capacity to create nuclear weapons in sufficient quantity, or the manpower and economic muscle to fight anything more than a guerrilla war.  In a systemic conflict, such groups would be wiped out with extreme prejudice.

2 thoughts on “Robert Gilpin on hegemonies and economic crises

  1. Interesting/terrifying. It’s a while since I’ve studied IR and I’ve not really thought about the current financial/economic crisis in such a context.

  2. No problem. Daniel Drezner is currently been hired by to blog for them, and if you want a combined IR/economic perspective from someone who actually worked in that field, I highly recommend reading him. He’s been mostly expressing worries about what the return of protectionism might entail, when it comes to war calculations, so its very much in a similar vein as to Giplin’s work.

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