Hegemony in International Society

By Buzan, Barry | Ethics & International Affairs, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Hegemony in International Society


Buzan, Barry, Ethics & International Affairs


Hegemony in International Society, Ian Clark (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 288 pp., $55 cloth.

doi: 10.1017/S0892679412000354

This book is the third in a series, following Legitimacy in International Society (2005) and lnternational Legitimacy and World Society (2007), in which Ian Clark has applied the concept of legitimacy to the English School's way of thinking about both international society (the society of states) and world society (global civil society mainly in the form of nonstate actors). For Clark, legitimacy is what defines both rightful conduct and rightful membership in society. Following the English School tradition, his main focus in terms of rightful conduct is on the primary institutions of international society: such deep practices as sovereignty, nationalism, diplomacy, the balance of power, great power management, and the like that constitute both the actors and the rules of the game of international society. This approach contrasts with the focus on secondary institutions--intergovernmental organizations, regimes, and other consciously constructed, instrumental entities--that is characteristic of liberal approaches to International Relations.

Here Clark's aim is to consider whether and how hegemony can be considered as a primary institution of international society; in other words, whether the primacy of a single state can be legitimate. His main concern is not to advocate or criticize hegemony as such. Rather, he is more interested in norms as social structure--as a way of understanding what is, and can be, understood as legitimate in the society of states. What is legitimate is not always nice: in the past both colonialism and human inequality (slavery, racism) have been primary institutions of international society. As in the two earlier books, Clark's approach is to offer a theoretical framework and then to apply it to a series of historical case studies. In this instance he looks at the Concert of Europe and Britain during the nineteenth century, the Pax Americana from 1945 to 1971 (when the United States abandoned the Bretton Woods arrangement), and three more recent case studies of hegemony in action--namely, reform of the UN Security Council, regional relations in East Asia, and the negotiations over climate change.

Clark's principal target is the materialist logic that dominates all forms of realist and much neoliberal thinking about hegemony. He is therefore at pains to distinguish between primacy (or unipolarity), which covers a material distribution of power skewed toward a single state, and hegemony, which is a social condition in which the right of any actor to lead is acknowledged by a substantial group of followers. Hegemony is not, as the materialists would have it, simply an epiphenomenon of a lopsided distribution of power, but rather a social position given to a leader by its followers. In Clark's scheme, primacy without hegemony is perfectly possible. In principle, hegemony without primacy might also be possible, following the logic of religious leaders, such as the Pope, though Clark does not delve into this in any depth. This is where the English School comes in. One of the primary institutions in its classical literature is great power management. In English School thinking, great power status is itself a social construct, in which leading states both claim and are given managerial responsibilities in relation to international order. It is from this idea that Clark convincingly builds an argument that hegemony might also be legitimate in this sense.

However, his choice of the English School as the context in which to pursue this argument is a brave one because much of its classical literature is hostile to hegemony. So Clark has not only to take on the materialists, but he must also take on his allies in the English School itself. Here the Zeitgeist is with him. The classical English School rooted its concept of international society in an anarchic structure, and mostly wedded itself to the idea that it was only within a balance of power that international society could emerge. …

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