The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC), East China Normal University, and Carlton University had the honour of co-hosting a conference in Shanghai, China on 25-26 April on one of the central issues of our time: the world order. Questions central to this topic include how order in the world is sustained and maintained, how is it shifting and changing, is it being reinvented and reimagined in such a way that give hope to future generations, or are we on the cusp of global disorder and competition among great and small powers? The conventional lens used to examine these questions is that of ‘hegemony’ – or dominance. For more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the world became used to a hegemonic global order led by the United States, and order which encompassed the Western powers, and was rooted in the postwar institutions that had provided the architecture for relative stability, even during the previous period of the great power rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. In recent years we have seen a decline or erosion of ‘Western’ dominance, the rise of the BRICS, and under President Trump, US foreign policy that seems comfortable with relinquishing leadership in many areas (even while reasserting it in others).
The conference in Shanghai brought together leading experts from around the world to discuss how hegemony is conceptualised by both theorists and practitioners, what kinds of resources are mobilised (material, discursive, institutional, and performative) in maintaining hegemony, and what the current chessboard of geopolitics looks like in terms of rising and falling powers, reconfigurations, and reinventions. Discussions ranged from the role of global institutions, the role(s) and ambitions of China, Russia, India, and lesser powers, as well as theoretical approaches to understanding the complex patterns and possible future scenarios.
The first tranche of papers presented approach these questions from a theoretical angle: how is ‘hegemony’ conceptualised within an international relations framework and how does it have to be re-thought? The big divide continues to be between ‘realist’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches, and combinations of the two. Realist theory emphasises military power, security concerns, and geopolitical expansion. Constructivism stresses ideology, institutions, norms, and practices. The conference veered away from those dichotomies, and presentations by Jan Aart Scholte, Brian Schmidt, and Tom Casier explored the complexities of modern hegemony and its variable architecture. The presentations that followed, by Beverly Silver and Zhang Xin, examined hegemony in historical terms, over long cycles, adding a temporal dimension to the conceptual theoretical analyses of the preceding papers.
The second group of paper presentations examined concrete hegemonic strategies – how is hegemony established and maintained, and if threatened, how is it defended? The papers by Li Jing, Leslie Pal, Elena Chebankova, and Martin Geiger were divided between ideological or ideational strategies, and institutional approaches. The most important insight that came from the discussion was that hegemony should not be conceived purely in terms of single states – an American, or Chinese, or Russian hegemony. States remain the key vectors of hegemony, but true hegemony is a hegemony of systems in which countries (even the leading ones) are themselves members and participants. So, the Western hegemony to which we have all become accustomed to was indeed led by the United States, and underpinned by ideas about civil society, patterns of governance, and best economic practices. The reinvention of hegemonies has to take place on this terrain as well, with new ideas (and accompanying institutions) about society, state, and economy. Pal and Geiger’s papers explored the nexus of institutions and the ideas they champion as an entry point to how hegemony is both constructed and projected.
The third and final set of papers that were presented examined hegemony in practice on the geopolitical stage. Presentations by Ravi Bajpai, Viktoriia Akchurina, Vladimir Popov, Pan Xingming, Li Xiaoting, and Jean-Mark Blanchard a range of regions and countries: India, Central Asia, the US, the UK, and China. The common thread was the argument that new configurations of hegemony – if that is indeed the right term to describe how China and India are positioning themselves globally – are not like the hegemonies of old. They do not have the same basis in military power, though security is important; they do not have the same basis in ideological dominance, though ideas and norms are important; they do not have the same basis in brute economic dominance, though trade and exchange are crucial. They are indeed hegemonies of the future, more subtle and possibly more flexible, more focused on primacy than power
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