The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the East China Sea, March 2017. (Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0) (via: bit.ly)

Both power and hegemony are often defined one-sidedly in terms of a particular theoretical approach. Rather than revisiting these inter-theoretical debates, this paper approaches power and hegemony through two influential and integrative models of power (Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy of power) and hegemony (Robert Cox).

Both take a pluralistic approach, looking at power and hegemony as differentiated or multi-dimensional. In other words, both models recognise that power and hegemony have different dimensions, which together produce certain outcomes but cannot be reduced to one single dimension. The paper seeks to both understand fundamental differences and establish links between the approaches and then to draw lessons from these differences and links.  Surprisingly, bridging hegemony and power is still largely undiscovered terrain. As Mark Haugaard argued, “there is remarkably little literature which theorises both concepts” (Haugaard, 2006, p. 45). Both models will then be used to reflect on the power and (counter-)hegemonic strategies of China and Russia, without envisaging a profound analysis.

Conceptualising hegemony: Material capabilities, institutions, ideas

Hegemony is typically a concept that covers very diverse meanings in different theoretical approaches. Such approaches share a vague idea of dominance but diverge strongly in terms of what makes up hegemony – material capabilities and/or ideology – and who the actors are – states versus non-state actors.[1] Two influential but highly different concepts of hegemony are used in structural realism and neo-Gramscian theory. For structural realism, hegemony refers to the dominant position of a state due to, in the first place, its relative share of material capabilities. In the Gramscian tradition, hegemony is seen as a combination of coercion and consent. While backed up by the hegemon’s material capabilities, a historic bloc guarantees a reproduction of ideas, making them widely accepted by those who are subjugated to the hegemon. This bloc does not consist of states only, but consists equally of non-state actors, such as international institutions or networks of private and public actors (see also Puchala, 2005).

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Unravelling power and hegemony: Towards a differentiated approach

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This paper builds on the approach of Robert Cox (1980) and his concept of “historical structures” (or ‘international orders’). Cox uses a historical materialist angle, but his core elements can also be used outside this context, as this paper will do. For Cox, a historical structure is “a particular configuration of forces” (Cox, 1980, p. 135), “in a particular sphere of human activity” (Cox, 1980, p. 137), rather than representing the world as a whole. It does not prescribe players’ actions in a deterministic way but provides the context of “habits, pressures, expectations and constraints within which actions take place”. A historical structure can be resisted or approved but never ignored (Cox, 1980, p. 135). The structure is formed by the interaction of three forces: material capabilities; ideas; and institutions. There is no a priori hierarchy or unilateral determinism among them. The three forces co-determine each other in a reciprocal way.

Material capabilities refer to factors such as technology and organisational capacity, natural resources, industry, infrastructure, and military force. They make up the material pillar of power.

Cox defines ideas as “intersubjective meanings” and “collective images of social order” (Cox, 1980, p. 136). The first category may, for example, refer to the notion that people are organised into states who have the ultimate authority over territories or subjects. In a case of conflict, certain types of behaviour such as diplomatic negotiations or the outbreak of a war can be expected to occur. The second category refers to what we consider to be just or legitimate. Intersubjective meanings are mainly shared during a certain historical structure and provide the basis for social interaction. Collective images, on the other hand, can be multiple and contested. Clashes of collective images can lead to the rise of alternative or even new historical structures.

Institutions serve the purpose of “stabilising and perpetuating a particular order” and are a reflection of the power relations at the time of their creation (Cox, 1980, p. 136). They provide a forum for dealing with conflicts and therefore contribute to a reduced use of force.

The three forces interact, reinforce each other, and form a “framework for action”, which “does not determine actions in any direct, mechanical way but imposes pressures and constraints” (Cox, 1980, p. 135). Hegemony implies “a fit between power, ideas and institutions” (Cox, 1980, p. 139).

Institutionalisation is particularly important to an understanding of hegemony, but hegemony cannot be reduced to institutions. “Institutionalisation is a means of stabilising and perpetuating a particular order. Institutions reflect the power relations prevailing at their point of origin and tend, at least initially, to encourage collective images consistent with these power relations. … Institutions are particular amalgams of ideas and material power which in turn influence the development of ideas and material capabilities” (Cox, 1980, p. 136-137). Institutions play an important role in forging consent, so that dominance can be maintained without necessarily resorting to the use of force. Cox argues, “Institutions may become the anchor of [a] hegemonic strategy since they lend themselves both to the representations of diverse interests and to the universalisation of policy” (Cox, 1980, p. 137). In his dialectical model of historical structures, there needs to be a focus on the emergence of rival (non-hegemonic) historical structures.

A successful international order is thus a relatively stable hegemonic historical structure. It is based on “a coherent conjunction or fit between a configuration of material power, the prevalent collective image of world order (including certain norms) and a set of institutions which administer the order with a certain semblance of universality” (Cox, 1980, p. 139).

Following Keohane’s discussion of hegemonic structure, Cox looks into two examples: the pax Britannica of the mid-19th century and the pax Americana after World War Two. The first was based on Britain’s role as a sea power, its economic power, including the liberal economic ideas and institutions sustaining it – for example the Gold Standard, separation of economics and politics – and its capacity to balance power within Europe. The three reinforced each other, guaranteeing the world order a certain longevity, outliving the decline of British power. The pax Americana, in turn, was based on American nuclear power and military alliances, its economic power, the norms and ideas of revised liberalism, and the Bretton Woods institutions. Again, the three forces reinforced each other. The Bretton Woods institutions reproduced liberal ideas, but were also sustained by them. They reflected American power, but also supported it.

Understanding power in its diversity

Hegemony – as a particular configuration of forces – refers to a state of affairs which is assumed to have a certain durability. World orders have “relative stability” (Cox, 1980, p. 139), even if changing and challenged by rival structures. This assumption of relative stability is not present in Barnett and Duvall’s pluralistic concept of power (Barnett and Duvall, 2005). In their taxonomy of power, they tried to integrate different approaches to power. They show power in it various guises of “compulsion, institutional bias, privilege and unequal constraints on action” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 62). With their taxonomy, Barnett and Duvall seek to overcome the classic dichotomies in approaches to power: between power over and power to; and between agent-centred and structural views of power (see Haugaard, 2006). What their differentiated model of power teaches us is that power and thus hegemony – which it feeds – can only be understood in terms of its multiple, complex dimensions.

Barnett and Duvall define power as “the production in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 42).  They conceptually distinguish forms of power in terms of two dimensions. The first dimension has to do with “the kinds of social relations through which power works” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 42), taking either the form of interaction or of constitution. In the former case power is an attribute. Social actors are assumed to be given, pre-constituted. In the case of constitution, power is “a social process of constituting what actors are as social beings, that is, their social identities and capacities” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 42). Social relations themselves constitute meaning. The second dimension refers to “the specificity of social relations through which effects on actors’ capacities are produced” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 42), which are either socially specific and direct – assuming an immediate connection – or socially diffuse and indirect. Power can thus be seen as variously compulsory (power through direct interactions between actors), institutional (power through diffuse interactions), structural (power through direct relations of constitution), or productive (power through diffuse relations of constitution).

Compulsory power starts from a relational perspective. It refers to direct interaction between actors and their capacity to control another actor’s actions and circumstances. Compulsory power may be exerted on the basis of both material and of “symbolic and normative resources” that an actor possesses (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 50). The latter may, for example, be the shaming of a country for not respecting fundamental norms.

Power as control may also take the form of institutional power (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p.  48). The rules and regulative norms that make up institutions constrain and steer the actions or conditions of action of others. Control is indirect, because institutions are not ‘possessed’ by an actor, but varying institutional arrangements imply, for example, different capacities of agenda-setting or unevenly distributed rewards. Power in this approach is diffuse, producing effects on different actors. It takes different forms and shapes according to the issue area.

In the case of structural power, the social capacities of an actor are produced through a social process of mutual constitution: actors occupy structural positions in a specific set of direct, structural relations. The actors produce social capacities and identities through their social practices, but these practices are part of direct structural relations (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 52-53 and p. 55) of relatively stable “positions of super- and subordination” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 55). Social practices of domination are continuously reproduced and confirmed. Not only does this create privileges but it may also make subjugated actors ‘accept’ their position and subjectively understand their own identity and interests as a function of this.

When power is seen as productive power, this social process of mutual constitution is seen as diffuse social processes; “networks of social forces perpetually shaping one another” through the creation of “systems of signification and meaning” (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 55). Those are not understood as structures, but rather as diffuse networks. Productive power thus implies historical contingency (Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 56) in constant diffuse social processes of changing (rather than fixed) meanings and social identities. Power is thus intrinsic to daily diffuse discursive practices and systems of knowledge.[2]

An important feature in Barnett and Duvall’s approach is that they do not suppose power to be intentional. Power may exist, in different forms, even without the intention to have power. This avoids one of the major issues in International Relations, namely the difficulty in detecting motivations and intentions in actors.

Furthermore, perception also plays a crucial role. Power exists if there is a perception of power. In the case of power as an attribute, it is not only the perception of capabilities which matters, but also the perception of the willingness to use these capabilities for a particular purpose. This implies that power may play out very differently in diverse contexts, but also that it has a considerably stretchable element, i.e., there may be diverging understandings of power with given capabilities in different contexts, by different actors.

Connecting hegemony and power

If we compare both models, which self-evidently engage in different categorisations, we can summarise the main differences as follows. Hegemony refers to a dominant coherent configuration of forces. What is important is the fit of material capabilities, ideas, and institutions. The latter give hegemony a “semblance of universality” (Cox). A hegemonic structure is relatively stable, but may be challenged by rival structures. Hegemony in this approach is thus something more static: a given configuration of forces over a certain period of time.

Power refers to the continuous ‘effects that shape the capacity of other actors’. These effects result from an omnipresent, non-stop, evolving set of multi-dimensional social relations. This implies power is a complex outcome of many different factors which all undergo continuous changes, but do not necessarily alter relations of hierarchy and subordination. Power in this approach is thus something dynamic: it is power at work through relations of direct/indirect control and of social interaction/social constitution, constantly fluctuating and very complex.

Hegemony is thus not an instance of power, as Haugaard (2006) argues, but the three pillars – material capabilities, ideas, institutions – are all three rooted in and fed by the dynamics of power. Continuously evolving, multifaceted power relations ultimately determine the success and relative stability of certain hegemonic structures. In the same way, it is through complex processes of power that these hegemonic structures may be successfully challenged. Yet, a hegemonic historical structure may also come to an end because the mutually reinforcing links between material capabilities, ideas, and institutions break. This implies that, while power relations fluctuate constantly, hegemonies may collapse rather suddenly.

On the basis of the previous section, a few further lessons can be drawn. First, if perception matters for power, it also matters for a hegemonic configuration of forces. Hegemony is thus not simply the ‘given’ constellation of mutually reinforcing material capabilities, ideas, and institutions, but also exists in the way it is perceived, interpreted, or constructed. In this respect, it is also of importance to whom the hegemony is attributed, for example, to the US, to the Euro-Atlantic community, or to a neoliberal governance network. Also, the resistance to a hegemonic structure is dependent on the perception of the configuration of forces, one’s place in it, and possible strategies of resistance.

Finally, if power is not intentional per se, then a hegemonic (or counter-hegemonic) constellation of forces is also not exclusively intentional. The mutually reinforcing effects between capabilities, ideas, and institutions themselves may be an unintended effect. For example, dominant worldviews may facilitate certain institutional arrangements, even if not explicitly aimed for.

Hegemony and counter-hegemony today

The US-dominated hegemonic configuration of forces is seen by many analysts to be under pressure and to be facing increasing resistance.[3] This resistance is coming from rising or would-be rising powers, which wish to see their economic power translated into political voice and which seek to gain status.[4] The flood of literature about the decline of the West contrasts strongly with the views in the ‘rising’ countries, where the focus is on rapid rise and development as a tale of mass emancipation from poverty and of new opportunities (see for example Mahbubani, 2013).

In the rest of the paper the models of hegemony and power will be used to reflect on the role of two major – but very different – contenders to the current hegemonic order, Russia and China. The purpose is not to conduct an exhaustive, in-depth analysis of the alternative configuration of forces (or counter-hegemonic orders) they seek to build, nor to analyse all aspects of power. What is below rather presents a possible interpretation to illustrate the models above.

China, Russia, and power

When it comes to compulsory power – the capacity to control, directly, the action and circumstances of other actors – the most spectacular change has of course been China’s enormous economic growth. In the two decades after the end of the Cold War, China saw its relative share of the global economy increase from 4% in 1992 to 18% in 2017. Today it is one of three big economic players. If current growth rates are maintained, China is expected to gain a serious advance over the US and the EU. Its military power is growing in the wake of this, but the gap with the US at this stage is still considerable. Its share of global military expenditure is around 13%, compared to 35% for the US (SIPRI data for 2017). The number of Chinese nuclear warheads are far beyond those of the US and Russia, comparing rather to the level of France or the UK. Issues of territorial and maritime control have come up in the South China Sea, but have thus far remained relatively limited.

Of particular importance for China’s capacity for control is technological development. For China, the idea of closing the technological gap with the West is driven by its historical collective memory. Its failure to fight off the invasions of the UK and other Western powers from 1839 is seen as the result of technological backwardness. Eventually, this led to the collapse of the empire and plunged China into a century of semi-colonisation. Today, China is closing the gap at an increasing speed and may have the potential to overtake the West in this field. China has particularly invested in the development of Artificial Intelligence.[5] Also, the increasing economic dependence of other states on China increases its possibilities for control. Beijing has been increasingly active in concluding agreements with neighbours and buying itself into other economies, although the country still lags considerably behind others when it comes to outward FDI.

In Russia, the picture is rather different. Russia has maintained strategic nuclear parity with the US through the START agreements. It felt threatened by the American withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and the development of an anti-missile shield. Recently, Moscow has placed a strong emphasis on its capacity for deterrence and on the development of new weapons that make the anti-missile shield ineffective. But economically, Russia is a very weak player. Despite its wealth of natural resources, its GNP is roughly equal to that of Italy. Its relative share of the world economy dropped between 1992 and 2017 from 5% to 3%. This represents a particularly major long-term challenge. Yet especially regionally, the economic – and in some cases security – dependence of certain countries on Russia creates the potential for control. The long-term effects of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s role in Eastern Ukraine remain to be seen. While this may have delivered short-term gains, there is certainly a long-term price to be paid, not least because Ukraine has become antagonistic towards Russia in a more unified and stronger way than ever before the crisis.

In terms of institutional power – as a diffuse form of power, following from varying institutional arrangements in different areas – we can see a major shift in China’s position. Step by step the country has invested in setting up alternative institutional arrangements which – while not aimed at controlling particular countries – may change the distribution of rewards and capacities for many. The most spectacular examples include the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR). But there are many less frequently reported examples, such as the 16+1 cooperation with Central and Eastern European states.[6] Moreover, many financial analysts believe that China is prepared for an alternative international monetary system in case the US dollar-based system collapses.

Russia, for its part, has been involved in a major competition with the EU over institutional arrangements with their common neighbours. A clash of integration processes occurred and eventually culminated over Ukraine in late 2013. According to Joan DeBardeleben, the paradigm of “competing regionalisms” (DeBardeleben, 2018) between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Eastern Partnership, with its Association Agreements, has itself become a determining factor in EU-Russia relations. The paradigm stands for mutually exclusive integration projects and competing regulatory norms.

Arguably, the change of regime in Ukraine in 2014 was seen by the Kremlin as a major defeat in this struggle and prompted Russia to change its strategy, investing more heavily in other forms of power. In as much as the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine can be seen as attempts to prevent control by the West, it could be argued that Russia exerted a form of “negative” compulsory power (Casier, 2018). In other words, it aimed to ensure that Ukraine siding with the West would become a liability rather than a strategic benefit

Finally, we consider constitutive, structural power relations – the production of social capacities and identities that create relatively stable positions of super- and subordination. Both China and Russia are active status seekers that use a discourse of emerging powers posing a threat to the current Western hegemony and the imposition of its norms. China has followed a gradual but determined strategy of growth and development in diverse areas. Ideologically, this is firmly anchored in a Communist Party discourse of reversing the humiliation of China (Wang, 2012). Russia has changed strategies over time. In the 1990s, it opted for a strategy of social mobility, seeking to achieve great power status by gaining admission to and recognition from the community of Western states. Later on, it resorted to a strategy of social competition with the West (Larson and Shevchenko, 2014). Today, it profiles itself very strongly in terms of a counter identity vis-à-vis the West, as a genuine defender of European values, but simultaneously holding a Eurasian identity. Both China and Russia take on the identity of defenders of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference. In an international system where they feel underrepresented, sovereignty can be seen as a protection against an unwanted Western or US hegemony.

An alternative hegemonic structure in the making?

Russia is following a counter-hegemonic strategy and has taken on the assertive rhetoric of profiling itself as a key challenger of the existing order and as a defender of a genuine sense of ‘Europeanness’. It marshals material capabilities through its nuclear deterrence capacity, military force, energy exports, and regional position. In terms of ideas, it is seeking to influence the intersubjective meanings of the current world order, profiling itself as the true defender of international law against a “unilateral diktat” of the West (Putin 2014). At the global level, Russia has been the most active promoter of the BRICS consultations, although the significance and durability of these arrangements are widely doubted. Yet overall, when compared to current US/Western hegemony, Russia has little to equal the forces underpinning the historical structure. It is far from developing matching economic capabilities or institutional arrangements. Even more importantly, there is a weak coherence of the three forces in Cox’s model: ideas; institutions; and material capabilities.

China is a very different case. It has gradually built up its material capabilities, ideas, and institutions to the extent that they have not only become strong, but also closely interconnected and mutually reinforcing. In this sense, it has much greater potential for offering an alternative or rival historical structure as a coherent, mutually reinforcing configuration of forces. The Chinese approach has been a gradual, generally cautious but determined approach under the official banner of ‘peace and development’, contrasting strongly with the vocal and assertive Russian approach. Looking at the economic sphere, the US-dominated hegemonic structure and the alternative Chinese historical structure in the making could be presented in a simplified way, drawing on the Cox description, as in figure 1.

Figure 1: US hegemony in the economic sphere and Chinese counter-hegemonic structure

China’s material capabilities mainly result from its continuously high rates of economic growth, putting it in a position to take the lead in the world economy. They are also underpinned by the steady extension of infrastructure and trade networks such as the One Belt One Road initiative and strategic positioning in many countries around the world. In terms of major economic ideas, China subscribes to the idea of free trade, but this may be moulded by a different format – the Beijing Consensus – than the currently dominant deregulatory idea. Finally, with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China has created a major financial institution that forms an alternative to the World Bank. It has 64 members, including many European countries. In the AIIB, China holds 28.7% of the votes, compared to 4.59% in the World Bank. Finally, China holds the biggest foreign exchange reserves of all countries in the world. Its currency, the Renminbi (RMB), may not be in a position to rival the US Dollar yet, but the Dollar’s position ultimately depends on the trust of investors.

Does this mean that a clash over hegemony between the US and China is inevitable? One should be careful not to jump to conclusions. First of all, progression towards competition and conflict is not an automatic or inevitable course of events. The choices of certain agents and third actors (see also Gries, 2005) will ultimately be key. However, the risk is real that an overly strong American focus on the rise of China and a Chinese focus on competition with the US will lead to an attribution bias, whereby Chinese behaviour becomes predominantly understood as driven by the negative intention to weaken the US and to gain hegemony (see Kowert, 1998 on attribution bias).

Furthermore, China may suffer from the weakness that it is not the leader of any solid bloc or alliance. It has been suggested that China and Russia together may form a counter-hegemonic bloc. While both countries share concerns about American dominance, there are many reasons not to expect this. Current relations between Moscow and Beijing are based on a fragile balance, whereby China recognises Russia’s military primacy and Russia recognises China’s economic primacy (Lo, 2016). With China’s military power growing, this balance will likely come under pressure. Moreover, there are important concerns about China’s growing influence in Central Asia. Overall, Russia needs China much more than the other way around. Also, the BRICS consultations can only survive with China – as an economic giant – on board.

Finally, a clash for global hegemonic dominance is only one possible scenario. Trine Flockhart has argued that we are rather moving towards a “multi-order” international system, in which different orders will co-exist (Flockhart, 2016). The liberal order may continue to exist but without its global reach, making way for a complex patchwork of orders and dividing lines.


Power and hegemony are intrinsically linked but have usually been theorised separately. This paper has looked at two influential models, based on different categorisations, but sharing a pluralist, integrative approach and not reducing power or hegemony to one determining factor. The Robert Cox model understands hegemony as a historical structure based on a relatively stable configuration of forces – material capabilities, ideas, and institutions – which form a perfect fit and reinforce each other. In Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy, power operates continuously in different dimensions, producing diverse and changing effects. Power is the complex, evolving dynamic which ultimately determines the possibility of ‘static’ hegemonic and counter-hegemonic historical structures.

This approach was illustrated by looking at the major contenders to the current hegemonic US/Western order: Russia and China. Both countries are found in a complex dynamic of power relations in terms of all the power dimensions in Barnett and Duvall’s taxonomy. Both share concerns over a lack of representation in current international governance structures. Yet only China has the potential to form an alternative historical structure. In the economic sphere, it has combined continuous growth with a strategy of building networks, infrastructure, and alternative financial institutions, while maintaining the idea of free trade. Interestingly, while Russia uses a much more vocal and assertive anti-Western discourse, it does so from a position of relative weakness. China is opting for a more cautious discourse of ‘peace and development’ and maintaining stability, but it does so from a position of strength.


Tom Casier

Reader in International Relations, Kent University



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Casier, T. (2018). The different faces of power in European Union – Russia relations. Cooperation and Conflict, 53(1), pp. 101-117.

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Flockhart, T. (2016). The coming multi-order world. Contemporary Security Policy37(1), pp. 3-30.

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[1] According to Owen Worth, hegemony has mainly been understood as “a leading state and a form of ideology” (Worth, 2015, p. 1).

[2] Because of our interest in relatively stable structures and because of the overlap between productive and structural power (noted by Barnett and Duvall, 2005, p. 55), structural and productive forms of power generated through ‘social relations of constitution’ will be considered jointly.

[3] The idea is certainly not new. From the 1970s on, there was already a considerable amount of literature dealing with Western decline or threats to American hegemony. During the 1990s, these views faded to the background and discussions focused on unipolarity to describe a world in which the US was the only remaining superpower.

[4] Some authors have suggested that hegemony is also threatened from within, with an administration that does not seem to uphold beliefs in the key ideas at the heart of its own model, such as free trade (see also Kupchan, 2018).

[5] According to Pedro Domingos (Scheuermann and Zand, 2018), an authority in the field, the country leading in Artificial Intelligence will have the potential to produce a thousand times more knowledge than other countries.

[6] See the Secretariat for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (2018).


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