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‘Hegemonic Wars’ can be avoided

November 25, 2014

NB: I’ve recently been doing Coursera’s course “Conditions of War and Peace”. At the end of the course (very soon), I’ll do a recap of some topics of interest from it on the blog and lessons moving forward. Today, because its getting very late, I’m just posting my mid-course essay (wrote in about half an hour). Updates and further context tomorrow. I’ll be returning to personal finance in tomorrow’s article.




Hegemonic wars can most certainly be avoided; this is demonstrated in the lack of a hegemonic war between the US and Great Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Hegemonic wars can be avoided by the presence of three factors. Firstly, isolationist and protectionist foreign policy and economic policies deter challenges to hegemons. Secondly, wars are avoided when the hegemon and rising power are allies; instead, like with the US and Britain, a peaceful transition occurs. Lastly, domestic politics may overrule the power politics required for a rising power to pursue a hegemonic war. These factors led the US and Britain to not be engaged in a hegemonic war, showing such wars can be avoided.

Isolationist and protectionist foreign policies helped deter a hegemonic war between Britain and the US developing. Hegemonic wars develop when a rising power is dissatisfied with the status quo in international relations, and wishes to challenge it. The isolationist foreign policy of the US, however, meant that it wished to stay out of world affairs, and thus did not want to challenge Britain for hegemony. This is demonstrated in the US government’s failure to ratify President Wilson’s desire for the US to join the League of Nations and later the World Court in the 1920s. By adopting an isolationist foreign policy stance in the 1920s, the US essentially avoided the possibility of a hegemonic war with Britain. Furthermore, Britain, as the hegemon and thus more likely to instigate a hegemonic war, also did not pursue war because of its isolationism. Post-WWI Britain was concerned with economic reconstruction, and the re-establishment of British industry. This pursuit of protectionism combined with contractionary monetary and fiscal economic policy to see a period of stagnant growth and deflation in 1920s Britain that curtailed its desire for a hegemonic war with the United States. The Great Depression further reinforced both the US and Britain’s isolationist tendencies, compelling them to turn away from thoughts of external conquest such as a hegemonic war, and towards revitalising their domestic economies. The British pursuit of appeasement during the 1930s reflected this desire to avoid war. Thus, the existence of isolationist foreign policy and protectionist economic policy can make sure hegemonic wars are avoided, as shown by the US and Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.

The presence of an alliance between competing powers for hegemony can help avoid a hegemonic war. When in alliance with the hegemon, the rising power can, in effect, enjoy the benefits of hegemony (eg. Japan’s alliance with the US post-WWII). Furthermore, the incentive to go to war diminishes with allied partners, as the ‘status quo’ becomes favourable to the rising power with not just their military might, but the dominant power’s military might helping create a positive situation. This can be seen in US-British cooperation at the Washington Naval Conference in 1921 to pursue nuclear disarmament and promote naval peace. The presence of the alliance meant that both the US and Britain were not unwilling to reduce their naval forces because they trusted in their ally to not attack them. This would not have been the case had they not been allies. In addition to a plain alliance, however, the presence of historical ties between the US and Britain linking back to the settlement of the US meant that a strong alliance existed between the US and Britain, which deterred both nations from war. Thus, an alliance between the rising power and the hegemon can prevent hegemonic wars from occurring, and this is demonstrated in the US-British alliance which headed off a US-British hegemonic war.

Domestic politics is a third factor that proves that hegemonic war can be avoided, such as that between the US and Britain. As Professor Fujiwara  argues in ‘Can Hegemonic Wars be Avoided’,  “When domestic politics play into power transition… rationality of decision making in foreign policy can give way” , and thus any rational pursuit of hegemonic war can be deterred by anti-war domestic sentiment. WWI, as the ‘war to end all wars’ and demoralising because of the high casualties attributable to trench warfare, created a desire to avoid war in British eyes. The British pursuit of appeasement in the 1930s was tantamount to this, with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reflecting British anti-war domestic politics in his statement “the bomber will always get through”. This domestic pressure on politicians like Baldwin to avoid war, along with the economic pressures of the Depression, limited British military expenditure in the 1930s, and deterred Britain from even considering a hegemonic war against the US, despite the US’ relative rising power. This combined with the conservatism in US domestic politics, which supported isolationism by voting for the isolationist presidencies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, thus ensuring a relatively anti-war stance prevailed in the US. Thus, domestic anti-war politics in the US, but especially Britain, compelled governments to pursue peace and this averted a hegemonic war, showing that a hegemonic war can be avoided by domestic anti-war political positions.

Hegemonic wars can be avoided. Hegemonic wars require a rising power to wish to challenge the status quo, or a declining power to challenge the rising power. When these powers are in an alliance, pursuing isolationist foreign policy, or reacting to anti-war domestic political pressures, war can be avoided. This is shown in the avoidance of a hegemonic war between the US and Britain during the 1920s-1940s, wherein these factors helped avoid war. If other hegemons and rising powers experience similar situations, those hegemonic wars will also be avoided.


From → Foundations

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