Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons

Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge.
Kristen P. Williams, Steven E. Lobell, and Neal G. Jesse (eds.)

Review originally published in Asian Politics and Polity (2012)

The end of the Cold War introduced a number of significant changes in the study of international relations, including the broadening of security discourse (i.e., nontraditional security) and the emergence of constructivism as a mainstream analytical approach. However, the orientation of the realist and liberal paradigms, with their focus on great power relations, has remained largely unchanged.While a growing number of scholarly works, especially in Asia, have examined the role of middle and smaller powers (secondary states) in the international system, few studies have provided an in-depth and comparative analysis of the different foreign policy approaches available to secondary states during the course of their interaction with great powers. It is here that Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge seeks to make a  contribution.

Coedited by KristenWilliams, Steven Lobell, and Neal Jesse, the book provides a strong overview of the relevant literature on hegemon theory and the growing typology of behaviors that are used to explain the actions of secondary states. This examination includes the role of balancing and bandwagoning, along with more recent additions such as soft balancing, balking, leash-slipping, binding, and bonding. Through the application of three competing frameworks to explain the behavior of follower states (neorealist structuralism, liberal institutionalism, and domestic-level factors), the book examines case studies from the ColdWar to the present and covers countries in South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In so doing, the book seeks to examine “when and why states choose to support, follow or challenge the hegemon and the tactics and grand strategies they use” (p. 2).

The editors’ decision to include a wide range of historical and geographic case studies is to be commended. Much of the study of hegemons and follower states is undertaken by scholars wanting to understand a contemporary security challenge. Yet as this book demonstrates, states may face both regional and global hegemons, and claims about impending hegemonic orders—such as a U.S. unipolar order at the beginning of the 21st century—do not always pan out. The wide range of case studies examined provides an opportunity to go beyond the circumstantial to explore what is common and uncommon in the relationship between hegemons and their followers and address the age-old question of how much choice or independence secondary states have. As a result of the traditional approaches’ focus on hegemons, all other states tend to be defined primarily by their position as secondary “nonhegemons.” Unfortunately, the current book fails to overcome this tendency, as it makes no real effort to examine the hierarchies or variations among these secondary states. Indeed, while the term great powers is found in the title, it is not examined in the conceptual framework, and this generates a somewhat misleading impression that the terms hegemon and great power are synonymous. As such, the analysis provided by the authors misses some important nuances in the discussion of what strategies and tactics secondary states pursue and, in turn, fails to adequately challenge the notion that states are either hegemons or some amorphous “other.”

As noted, while the nature of the book’s focus on the foreign policy options available to secondary states represents an important contribution to the literature, there is growing debate over the usefulness of adding so many adjectives and qualifiers to describe state behaviors. Thus, scholars such as David Kang raise a concern that “terms such as soft balancing and underbalancing make it virtually impossible to falsify the balancing proposition (2009, p. 6). This makes it very  difficult to separate what behavior by secondary states represents a deliberate effort to respond to a hegemon’s power and what is mere disagreement—for example, the introductory chapter’s description of France, Russia, Germany, and China as “balancing” against the United States over the invasion of Iraq. Thus, while the book provides light on how individual countries have acted, it is hard to draw distinct generalizations from the case studies. The debate about whether secondary states have different attributes, power, and potential for independent action reappears when examining the book’s case studies. No clear explanation is given for why these particular countries and examples were chosen from the hundreds, if not thousands, of potential cases where secondary states have made important choices about whether to support, follow, or challenge a much larger or hegemonic state. Given that the history of Asia in the 20th century involves a number of fascinating and significant cases—from broken alliances (New Zealand and the United States) to armed conflict (China and Vietnam)—scholars from the Asia-Pacific will particularly lament the fact that only one chapter is devoted to the region. There is also the puzzling choice of examining the strategies of Western European members of NATO in their relationship with the United States after the end of the Cold War. While a well-written and interesting chapter, it is difficult to make a sensible comparison between the Western European half of a multilateral institution and the actions of small countries such as Romania and Cuba.

These concerns aside, Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons will provide a useful addition to any interested scholar’s library. It demonstrates that hegemony is more than simply a one-way relationship, as secondary states have a significant array of foreign policy tools with which to influence and shape exchanges with other states. In an age when China’s rise is seen as the determining factor in Asia’s future, this book makes an important argument that secondary states will also play an important role in deciding and shaping its rise and the path the region will take.

Kang, David. (2009). “Between balancing and bandwagoning: South Korea’s response to China.” Journal of East Asian Studies, 9, 1–28.

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