Wuhan China: Wreck of Chinese naval ship ashore on the Yangtze riverbank. (Credit: Keitma-st/Bigstockphoto.com) (via: bit.ly)

To understand how power relations and hegemonies in today’s world are changing, we need to understand the differences between both concepts. Power is inherently dynamic and complex; power relations change continuously and operate along different dimensions. Hegemony is a relatively stable structure based on a close configuration of mutually reinforcing forces. Cox describes a hegemonic structure as a coherent configuration of material capabilities, ideas, and institutions that give a ‘semblance of universality’. The US-led hegemonic structure is traditionally based on the enlacement of American economic and military capabilities, neoliberal ideas, and institutions such as the dollar and the Bretton Woods Institutions. Today, this hegemonic order is challenged. This paper compares China and Russia, two main challengers of Western hegemony, along different dimensions of power and along their capacity to form alternative hegemonic structures. China is operating from a position of relative and increasing strength but follows a rather cautious and gradual strategy, coined in a rhetoric of non-exclusionary cooperation. Russia, on the other hand, scores low on many power indicators but voices its protest against Western dominance loudly. By using a wide variety of power instruments, it seeks short-term status gains, often de facto punching above its weight. When it comes to hegemonic structures, only China seems to work towards new structures, built on its economic success, an adapted Beijing version of the idea of free trade and alternative institutional networks (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the One Belt One Road initiative). At this point, this is not a challenge for the current US-led hegemony, but it has the potential to put a substitute on the table. In a world that may consist of multiple competing hegemonic orders, China’s role is likely to be drastically different from that of Russia.


Joseph Nye (1990) stated, “Power, like love, is easier to experience than to define or measure” (p. 170). Today, it is clear that the centres of gravity are changing and old constellations are eroding, but it is hard to put one’s finger on the exact nature of change. Power is extremely complex to grasp; it consists of many different dimensions. Whenever experts analyse power, they tend to reduce the concept to one or a few aspects such as military capabilities, trading power, or alliances. But not only is power an inherently multidimensional concept, it is also a matter of action and reaction: the effectiveness of one’s power depends on the reaction of one’s counterpart. This also adds a subjective dimension to power: one’s will to use power matters, as does the way this is perceived by others.

This contribution looks at some pieces of this extremely complex puzzle without any ambition to provide an all-encompassing answer to the question of how global rapports de force are changing. The latter, anyway, is not written in the stars but will be the product of many decisions, many interactions, and a solid amount of coincidence.

First, this paper disentangles the concepts of power and hegemony. It is crucial to understand that changing power relations do not automatically imply a new international order. On the basis of both concepts, we evaluate the position and strategy of two major challengers of the US-led hegemonic structure: China and Russia.

Power and hegemony

Power and hegemony are intrinsically linked but have surprisingly scarcely been theorised jointly (Haugaard, 2006). Power is dynamic by definition; it is complex and continuously changing. Power relations are the function of a multitude of actors and factors and are never stable. Hegemony, by contrast, is static; it is a relatively stable configuration of forces that reinforce each other and produce a “historical structure” (Cox, 1981, p. 98). Without entering into complex theoretical discussions on power and hegemony, this analysis draws on integrative models that take a pluralist look at these two concepts (i.e., accounting for all possible dimensions). It is inspired by Barnett and Duvall’s (2005) taxonomy of power and Cox’s (1980) model of hegemony.

In their taxonomy, Barnett and Duvall (2005) define power as “the production in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their circumstances and fate” (p. 42). These effects are not necessarily produced intentionally. They classify different approaches to power along two dichotomies. The first is whether power is considered the result of interactions between different players, with their own pre-given attributes, or rather whether these actors are constituted and acquire a certain identity and capacities in the process of social interaction itself. The second dichotomy is between power as the result of a direct relation between two players versus indirect and diffuse power. These led Barnett and Duvall (2005) to a taxonomy of power with four different dimensions:  1) compulsory power (derived from direct interaction, such as what the military power of state A can force state B to do or not to do, or what a state is forced to do because of its economic dependence); 2) institutional power (derived from indirect interaction, such as how a treaty distributes costs and benefits differently over states); 3) structural power (derived from social capacities and identities produced through interaction, forming structures of super- and subordination, such as the capacity to define states as members of the international community or as failed states); and 4) productive power (derived from the constant diffuse shaping of systems of signification). In the interest of transparency, we will not follow these concepts strictly but will instead focus on key elements: relative capabilities, institutional arrangements, and the capacity to determine identities and hierarchies.

This also constructs a neat link to the concept of hegemony. Cox (1980) used hegemony to refer to a historical structure or an international order with a relative durability.  This historical structure is not all-determining but creates a context of “habits, pressures, expectations and constraints” within which actors operate and that they cannot ignore (Cox, 1980, p. 135). This structure may be resisted and may change, but it retains a relative degree of stability. Cox offered the ‘Pax Britannica’ of the mid-19th century and the ‘Pax Americana’ after World War II as examples. A hegemonic historical structure is made up of the configuration of three forces: 1) material capabilities (e.g., military, economic, technological, infrastructure, and size); 2) institutions (international governance structures but also the practices that have institutionalised the use of a particular currency for trade); and 3) ideas (shared images of how the world is organised and prescribing how international interaction should happen). What creates a stable hegemonic structure is precisely the coherent fit between these three factors: material capabilities, institutions, and ideas reinforce each other in such a way that they form a stable order that presents a “semblance of universality” (Cox, 1980, p. 139); in other words, it appears to be the natural order of things. The US hegemonic structure post-World War II is based on mutually reinforcing forces: economic and military capabilities, neoliberal norms, the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the position of the US dollar. These forces reinforce each other. For example, neoliberal ideas or the use of the dollar as main international currency have helped to maintain the US’s dominant economic capabilities; the Bretton Woods Institutions have promoted worldwide acceptance of neoliberal principles. Inversely, the dominant American position in the post-War years have also made it possible to set up these institutions and have free trade norms be accepted.

In sum, a hegemonic order is a mutually reinforcing, durable configuration of forces. Power is a complex set of evolving, sometimes contradictory relations required for a hegemonic order but only becoming one if such relations develop into a relatively stable, mutually reinforcing configuration of forces, which forms the context in which all states of the world must operate. In today’s world, power relations are changing rapidly along various dimensions. The hegemonic structure, on the other hand, has largely survived–but it is being challenged.

On the basis of this conceptualisation, the rest of this paper looks at the respective roles of China and Russia, in pursuing a counter-hegemonic policy of some sort, and raises a couple of points about the state of the current hegemonic order. Their strategies are analysed on the basis of those power elements that are most relevant to understanding hegemony and counter-hegemony, namely their relative (economic and military) capabilities, institutional arrangements, and capacity to determine identities and hierarchies.

Comparing material capabilities

Both China and Russia are–in distinctly different ways–challengers of the currently US-dominated hegemonic order. Putin has regularly spoken out against the ‘unilateral Diktat’ the West is seeking to impose. Xi Jinping (2017) referred to the need to replace “superiority by coexistence” (p. 53). Both countries are unhappy with the current international structures of governance, which they find unrepresentative and unjust. Yet, the power position and counter-hegemonic strategies of both countries diverge strongly. The next section compares capabilities of the relevant actors before turning to institutional and structural aspects of power.

When looking at economic capabilities, the gap between China and Russia is remarkable. It is even more remarkable if we consider the evolution over time (see Table 1). Back in 1992, the first year following the collapse of the Soviet Union, China and Russia represented a comparable share of the global economy with a GDP of approximately 5% of the world’s total. Twenty-five years later, in 2017, this share has increased for China to 18.22% (at similar levels with the EU-28 and the US) but has fallen for Russia in relative terms to 3.15%.

Table 1.  Gross domestic product based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) share of world total (US, EU, Russia, and China)

United States19.89%15.26%
European Union24.71%16.51%

Source: International Monetary Fund, 2018

When looking at military capabilities, Russia’s power rests mainly on its nuclear arsenal, which remains on par with that of the US (see Table 2). China’s nuclear stockpile is much smaller, in the same category as France and the UK. When it comes to military expenditure, however, China has well surpassed Russia (Table 3). As the second-highest military spender, China accounts for 13% of global military expenditure compared to 3.8% for Russia.

Lo (2016) has argued that the relations between China and Russia are based on Beijing’s recognition of Russia’s military primacy, balanced by Moscow’s recognition of China’s economic primacy. As Table 3 makes clear, this precarious balance is presently under threat.

Table 2.  Estimated numbers of nuclear weapons in 2017 (five major nuclear powers)

United States6,800
United Kingdom215

Source: Kile & Kristensen, 2017

Table 3.  Comparison of share of global military expenditure of Russia, the United States, and China, 2017

United States35%

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2018

Of course, it should be noted that Russia is one of the world’s key energy exporters, whereas China is predominantly an energy consumer. But some nuance needs to be added. First of all, Russia is one-sidedly dependent on energy exports, facing serious challenges to create a spillover to the rest of its economy and in dire need of modernisation. Second, the EU’s dependence on Russian natural gas is considerable but often exaggerated. Although Russian gas represented around one-third of all EU gas imports over the past several years, peaking at 37% in 2015 (European Commission, 2017), this proportion accounts for only around 6.5% of total energy consumption in the EU (Casier, 2016).

Institutional arrangements

China has invested in the construction of sustainable networks, of which some complement or form possible alternatives for global institutions. This is most notably the case of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It includes 64 members, many of which are European countries. China holds over one-quarter of voting rights, implying that power relations within the bank are distributed in a significantly different way than in the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In terms of trade and infrastructure, the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) has been the flagship. China has also invested in closer economic relations with several neighbours. Overall, it follows a non-alliance policy and regards cooperation as non-exclusionary. Finally, it holds the largest foreign exchange reserves.

Russia, on the other hand, finds itself in a position of relative isolation. It is not part of the main international organisations in Europe and has seen both NATO and the EU extend further to and towards its borders. Its security organisation, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), is incomparable to NATO. The Eurasian Economic Union now includes five members but represents a small share of the global economy overall. It is also strongly imbalanced between Russia as an economic giant and smaller economic players. Moscow is one of the main promotors of BRICS  (Brazil–Russia–India-China––South Africa) consultations, yet this does not represent a close coalition of any sort. The BRICS countries have strongly diverging interests, and the group’s future depends on China’s willingness to participate. The same holds, to a lesser extent, for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has increased its visibility but forms all but a platform for a future counter-hegemonic network.

In sum, this means that China is developing global institutional networks that will further enhance its economic power. It may not yet be in a prime position to influence the ideas, norms, and rules of today’s economy, but the possibility undoubtedly exists for the future. How things develop will depend on many factors, not least the economic conjuncture but also investors’ trust in the American dollar.

Identities and hierarchies

Both China and Russia are status seekers in the international system. Both believe that the current system is biased in favour of the West and the US specifically and have staked a claim for fairer representation. China, which has long been recognised for its global economic position, strives to see this translated into better political representation. Within an international order they consider inimical, both Moscow and Beijing have logically declared themselves ardent supporters of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference.

China has embraced the free trade norms of the Western hegemonic order and thrived on it as an export-oriented economy. Yet it has done so on the basis of a revised version of the neoliberal model. Some have referred to this as the ‘Beijing consensus’, suggesting an alternative for the Washington consensus.  The term was coined by Joshua Cooper Ramo (2004) to refer to a model of innovation-based development, an emphasis on sustainability and self-determination for China, independently from the US. Others have used this and similar terms to refer to state capitalism and the role of an authoritarian regime in creating economic development and export-based growth. The latter implies deviance from the US model where free trade and liberal political principles are traditionally professed as part of one and the same philosophy. In this sense, it could form an attractive alternative development model for other, non-democratic countries. Often this has been presented as a contrast between normative Western policies and Chinese non-normative policy. This is erroneous; Chinese official discourse puts a strong emphasis on normative principles, as represented in ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ or the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ (see, for example, Xi, 2017: Xi Jinping’s address to the 19th Party Congress).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has slowly integrated itself into the world economy. It has done so on the basis of a system of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’ (Sakwa, 2010), where the state protects weak industries in a competitive global economy and maintains control over strategic sectors such as energy. When it comes to political and social values, Russia has profiled itself as the defender of ‘genuine’ European values against a (Western) Europe that has betrayed its own traditional family and religious values. It goes without saying that this is a very conservative interpretation of what European values stand for, which in some elite circles has taken the form of a “paleo-conservative ideology” (Morozov, 2018, p. 36). It is a deliberate positioning against the idea of a decadent Europe.

What we can conclude from this is that there is definitely important repositioning going on when it comes to the norms and basic rules of international economic and political interaction. While the Chinese model may inspire leaders in other states as a blueprint for development, it remains doubtful whether considerable power is derived from this. For this to be the case, the model and associated norms should weigh heavily on international institutions and global practices. Moreover, although this model contests some principles of neoliberalism and applies different accents, it does not object to the core idea of free trade, which is in itself essential for China’s export-oriented economy. Nor can we say that China and Russia are in a strong position to define the identities of others or to overhaul existing hierarchies; creating categories and hierarchies of ‘acceptability’ remains largely the prerogative of the West. However, the emphasis on alternative models (divorced from political liberalism) and on sovereignty have created a potential platform for contestation.

Comparing Chinese and Russian strategies

All of the above confirms that power relations are changing–and rapidly. Yet a new, alternative hegemonic structure is not necessarily in the making. As outlined above, the latter would require a coherent fit between material capabilities, institutions, and ideas in such a way that they are mutually reinforcing.

Beijing’s strategy may be to work towards a potentially counter-hegemonic structure, following a cautious and long-term strategy. On one hand, China is building up its capabilities economically as well as militarily. It has framed development of technology and infrastructure as key priorities. It is establishing alternative global institutions and steadily extending its networks. On the other hand, it is doing so within a rhetoric of non-exclusionary cooperation, win-win situations, and responsibility within a ‘community of shared destiny’.

But power is also a function of subjective developments. In the case of China, much will depend on how its economic influence will balance out against the distrust that exists among some direct neighbours and in some circles in the West. Particularly in the US, there is a near obsession with the rise of China and a tendency to project bipolar Cold War schemes onto this. As Gries (2005) indicated, there is a risk of competition escalating into conflict, but whether this will happen depends on psychological mechanisms and the choices of decision-makers. Perceptions of rivalry and the attribution of negative intentions to China may foster containment strategies that seek to inhibit China’s further rise in power. In sum, China is proclaiming a cautious approach aimed at stability and mutual gains but is doing so from a position of relative strength.

In terms of strategy, Russia has gone through an interesting evolution. During the 1990s, its strategy was mainly one of social mobility, wherein it strove to gain status by imitating the Western model, hoping this would lead to its integration into the leading community of (Western) states (Larson & Shevchenko, 2014). This approach was replaced by strategies in which Russia aimed to gain status through competition and by challenging the dominant position of the West. Repeatedly and loudly, it voiced its opposition against the West that sought to impose its ‘unilateral Diktat’. As Putin (2014) stated, “Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries.” In foreign policy rhetoric, Russia has profiled itself as an alternative to the West and has done so with an assertiveness that is hardly substantiated by its real power. In other words, Russia is loudly voicing its opposition to Western domination but is doing so from a position of relative weakness.

Russia does this on the basis of a “full spectrum approach” (Monaghan, 2017, p. 3). It displays and pushes the limits of its power on many different fronts at the same time: in its rhetoric; through military action in Syria; through surprise actions ‘by denial’, such as the green men in Crimea (Allison, 2014); by showcasing its new weapons; by promoting conservative values; and through internet trolls, election meddling, and other means. Again, subjectivity is crucial: a country’s power is as great as it is perceived to be. It can be argued that Russia has been quite successful in being perceived as far more powerful than its real power base suggests; in other words, Russia has been punching above its weight. Whether this is temporary or has the capacity to last remains to be seen. Most likely, Moscow’s approach is more tactical maneuvering than a strategic master plan (Monaghan, 2017). In contrast to short-term gains, Russia has clearly also lost long-term opportunities. Its role in Ukraine, for example, has undoubtedly burnt many bridges and opportunities for influence in this country for years to come. Moreover, one should not forget that behind this muscle flexing looms a large degree of pragmatism. It is striking that, despite the Ukraine crisis, energy trade between the EU and Russia proceeded as usual, and energy was largely kept out of the mutual sanctions.

One last reflection is pertinent here. If the current Western hegemonic structure displays cracks, is that not because the biggest threat is coming from the inside? With the Trump administration in the US, we have a president who does not seem to believe very much in the Western model his country has heralded. This is exceedingly clear in the protectionist measures that undermine free trade. Trump is the first American president in the White House who has an openly inimical attitude vis-à-vis the EU. With Brexit, a major ally in the defence of Western structures may have weakened both itself and the EU–already facing considerable internal contestation. Dividing lines seem to be on the move and at times, it may appear as if the gap between the US and the EU is much bigger than that between Brussels and Beijing. But it is too early for conclusions about structural changes: as Trump’s ascent to power has demonstrated, a great deal may change with one election.


Power relations in international affairs are extremely difficult to grasp, both because of the speed with which they change and because power operates along many different dimensions. The centres of gravity are clearly shifting today, and power relations shift rapidly and unpredictably. Yet more time is needed to see the current Western hegemonic structure collapse. Following Cox’s (1981) conceptualisation, this paper looked at a hegemonic structure or international order as a coherent configuration between material capabilities, institutions, and ideas. The three reinforce each other and create a solid structure that appears to be universal and stands stronger than the actual power base on which it is built.

Both China and Russia have challenged this hegemonic structure. They object to unrepresentative, Western-dominated governance and seek to enhance their status. Beijing, operating from a position of relative strength, has coined this a rhetoric of non-exclusionary cooperation and international stability and operates mostly cautiously. Russia, from a position of relative weakness, continues to voice this loudly and assertively; its unpredictable use of a wide range of power means it seeks to punch above its weight and obtain short-term status gains. Neither Russia nor China provides an alternative hegemonic structure, but China may have the potential to develop one: through its long-term, gradual approach, the country works towards a stronger configuration of forces (material capabilities, ideas, and institutions). The US hegemonic order today consists of superior economic and military capabilities, a global economy based on American neoliberal ideas, and a powerful institutional framework (IMF, World Bank, the dollar). China’s rise is built on three pillars: spectacular economic growth and increasing material capabilities in general, support for free trade but with a Beijing emphasis on state capitalism (and a disconnect from liberal political ideas), and expanding institutional networks (AIIB, OBOR, and the position of the Renminbi). Stating this is stating nothing more than the fact that China may have the potential to put an alternative in place over time, not that it will successfully bring down current hegemonies. If we follow Flockhart’s (2016) argument that a world is arising in which multiple orders coexist, this potential may turn out to be of great significance.


Tom Casier

Chief Reader in International Relations at Kent University



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Tom Casier

Reader in International Relations,

Tom Casier is a reader in International Relations at Kent University and holds a Jean Monnet Chair. He was the academic director of the Brussels School of International Studies from 2014 to 2017. He is the deputy director of the University of Kent's Global Europe Centre and a visiting professor at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven).