The Security Benefits of Hegemony

8 June 2005, 2038 EDT

Dan Drezner briefly reconsiders the security benefits of hegemonic orders. The reason? A recent AP report that global military expenditures are on the rise. After digging a bit deeper, though, Dan finds that most of the rise can be accounted for by increased US defense expenditures since 9/11.

What are the normative implications of this? We go back to the AP report:

“It’s hard to put the United States in the center, or blame everything on the U.S.,” said Alyson Bailes, the think tank’s director. “Despite all the ongoing problems, the state of world security is a great deal better than it was in the Cold War.” (emhasis added)

Dan doesn’t go far enough, however. The key question is counterfactual in nature: whether world defense spending would be higher than it is now if the US weren’t a military hegemon.

The Cold War comparison is useful, but not as much as Dan implies. After all, we should expect that during periods of superpower rivalry military competition – in many places in the globe – will be more intense. Whether or not this is an inevitable impact of a bipolar distribution of power is a different matter. Put differently, hegemonic-stability theory could be wrong if bipolar (or multipolar) comity (1) was possible and (2) also dampened military spending.

Furthermore, these kinds of comparisons – of aggregate world military spending – are pretty superficial indicators of the security benefits that follow from having an unrivaled great power. David Lake’s ongoing research program, which looks at variations in hierarchy in international politics, reminds us that the effects of power asymmetries are not always going to be consistent across different states and regions. Depending on the specifics of the relationship between, for example, a hegemon and a particular state, we would probably see differences in the weaker power’s defense expenditures. Regions in which no states have security guarantees from a hegemon, such as sub-saharan Africa, are likely to respond differently to hegemony than areas, such as East Asia, where at least one potential rival for regional power is part of the hegemon’s security architecture.

Indeed, at the American Political Science Association Annual Convention in 2004 Lake presented a very interesting paper (link is to .pdf) on the subject. Lake attempts to model the effects of differential integration into the American security system on a state’s military spending. He finds that, in general, the more “hierarchical” the relationship between the US and another state, the less that state spends on its own defense compared to what it would have otherwise spent. There are some problems with his coding procedures, but I suspect Lake is correct: both in his findings and in how he approaches the issue.

All of this is not to say that the existence of a global hegemon won’t dampen aggregate military expenditures, nor that it won’t have diffuse effects across most states. Rather, if we really want to understand whether hegemonic powers create a more secure world, we’re probably going to have to look more closely at the nature of the hegemonic order and the specific ways it plays out in different regions of the world.

Filed as:, , and