The Center for Governance and Public Management (CGPM) at Carleton University had the honour of co-hosting (with the Dialogue of Civilizations and East China Normal University as main partners ) a conference on one of the central issues of our time: how is world order sustained and maintained, is it shifting and changing, is it being reinvented and reimagined, or are we on the cusp of global disorder and competition among great and small powers?
The conventional lens used to examine these questions is that of “hegemony” or dominance. For more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the world got used to a hegemonic global order led by the United States, encompassing the western powers, and rooted in the postwar institutions that had provided the architecture for relative stability even during a period of great power rivalry between America and the Soviet Union.
The last years have seen a decline or erosion in that dominance of the “west”, the rise of the BRICS, and under President Trump an American foreign policy that seems comfortable with relinquishing leadership in many areas (even while reasserting it in others).
The conference brought together leading experts from around the world to discuss how hegemony is conceptualized by both theorists and practitioners, what kinds of resources are mobilized (material, discursive, institutional and performative) in maintaining hegemony, and what the current chessboard of geopolitics looks like in terms of rising and falling powers, and reconfigurations and reinventions. Discussions ranged across global institutions, the role, place and ambitions of China, Russia, India and lesser powers, as well as theoretical approaches to understanding the complex patterns and possible futures.
The first tranche of papers explored theory – how is hegemony conceptualized and how does it have to be re-thought? The big divide continues to be between “realist” and “constructivist” approaches, with combinations in between. Realist approaches emphasize military power, security concerns, and geopolitical expansion. Constructivist approaches stress ideology, institutions, norms, and practices. The conference veered away from those dichotomies, and presentations by Jan Aart Scholte, Brian Schmidt, and Tom Casier explored the complexities of modern hegemony and its variable architecture. Their papers focused on theory and conceptualization. Papers that followed by Beverly Silver and Zhang Xin examined hegemony in historical terms, over long cycles, adding a temporal dimension to the conceptual one.
The second tranche of papers then examined concrete hegemonic strategies – how is hegemony build, maintained and defended if threatened? The papers by Li Jing, Leslie Pal, Elena Chebankova and Martin Geiger tended to divided between ideological or ideational strategies, and institutional ones. The most important insight was the hegemony should not be conceived purely in terms of single states – an American, or Chinese, or Russian hegemony. States remain the key vectors of hegemony, but true hegemony is a hegemony of systems of which states (even the leading ones) are themselves members and participants. So, the western hegemony to which we have all become accustomed was indeed led by the United States, but was underpinned by ideas about civil society, patterns of governance, and best economic practices. The reinvention of hegemonies has to take place on this terrain as well, with new ideas (and accompanying institutions) about society, state, and economy. Pal and Geiger’s papers explored the nexus of institutions and the ideas they champion as an entry point to how hegemony is both constructed and projected.
The final tranche of papers considered hegemony in practice on the geopolitical stage. Papers by Ravi Bajpai, Viktoriia Akchurina, Vladimir Popov, Pan Xingming, Li Xiaoting and Jean-Mark Blanchard explored the world: India, Central Asia, the US and the UK, and China. The thread running through the papers was that new configurations of hegemony – if that is indeed the right term to describe how China and India are positioning themselves globally – are not like the hegemonies of old. They do not have the same basis in military power, though security is important; they do not have the same basis in ideological dominance, though ideas and norms are important; they do not have the same basis in brute economic dominance, though trade and exchange are crucial. They are indeed hegemonies of the future, more subtle and possibly more flexible, more focused on primacy than power.
Professor Les Pal, School of Public Policy and Administration, Carleton University