Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Gilpin: The Theory of Hegemonic War

Gilpin, R., 1988. The Theory of Hegemonic War. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18(4), 591-613.

“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 them…An 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 system…As this bipolarization occurs the system becomes increasingly unstable, and a monic war, like a disease, displays discernible symptoms and follows an inevitable course.” (594-5).