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World Order without Hegemony

Most Western theories presume that a titantic clash will occur during a power transition. But what if rising powers cannot assume the burden of underwriting the world order? We must contemplate alternate futures where a changing balance of power does not necessarily yield a new hegemony or a breakdown in the basic tenets of international order.

At the heart of foreign policy debates today is the question of a changing balance of power. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out recently, “The changes we are encountering in the world are unseen in a century” (Xinhua 2018). In an important speech delivered in June, the Indian Prime Minister too had alluded to global power shifts, uncertainty, and geopolitical competition. “This world is at a crossroad. There are temptations of the worst lessons of history” (MEA 2018a). How do we make sense about power transitions? Is change possible without a violent confrontation?

Evoking a metaphor from the legendary Thucydides, it has been argued that in 12 of 16 cases from the past five centuries in which a rising power has confronted the dominant power, the result has been a violent struggle. The so-called “Thucydides Trap” does appear to be a recurring pattern over a long span of history (Allison 2015). The sources or processes that bring about the power shifts are also a recurring historical phenomenon. The late Robert Gilpin illustrated this cycle with much insight: Uneven growth rates and technological diffusion shifts power from the centre to the periphery of the system. Over time, this results in a disequilibrium between the burden of maintaining the existing world order and the material capacity available to the dominant power to supply public goods and enforce that order. And, “From the perspective of rising powers, the perceived costs of changing the international system have declined relative to the potential benefits of doing so” (Gilpin 1981). The only way to resolve this disequilibrium is through some form of accomodation between the dominant and rising powers, or the functioning of the system itself will be imperilled. For most of history this bargaining process has ensued in a great struggle, often violent and nearly always contentious. The baton then passes to a new contender who resuscitates the overall structure and takes the onus of managing order and the global economy (Gilpin 1981: 185–87).

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