Introduction and Origin of Debate

Hegemonic Stability Theory associates the stability of the international system with the presence of a single hegemon, creating and enforcing rules-based order. On the other hand, democratic peace theory associates peace and stability with the presence of democratic states in the system, as democracies don’t wage war against each other. The major contributors to Hegemonic stability theory are Robert Gilpin, who coined the term in 1984; Charles P. Kindleberger, who wrote a book in 1973 – A World in Depression, and Robert Keohane, Stephen Krasner, and Robert Jervis. All of these authors explained the role of the hegemon in creating stability and order in the international system. The democratic peace theory derives its essence from the work of German Philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1975 book “Perpetual Peace.” The theory emerged in the 1980s when American scholar Michael Doyle paid attention to Kant’s work and envisioned that democratic peace has become one of the realities as democracies don’t wage war against each other—the hegemonic stability theory and the democratic peace theory debate date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

Democratic Peace Theory:

The theory states that democracies don’t go to war with each other while they can fight with non-democracies. The idea was introduced by Immaneul Kant in the 18th century when he focused on the republican states. Contemporary liberals approve of the idea of Kant and believe that the representative nature of republican government envisioned by Kant resembles liberal democracy. In the 1980s, Michael Doyle, an American scholar, paid attention to Kant’s work and viewed the establishment of Kant’s zone of peace that has become a reality.

The post-Cold War era is characterized as the era where democratic peace has become a reality, with Fukuyama claiming the triumph of liberalism and democracy over all other forms of government in world politics. The assertion that democracies don’t fight with each other also asserts that there should be a spread of democracy throughout the globe as it will promote more peace and stability and reduce the chances of conflicts and war.  There are two perspectives on why the nature of peace exists in democracies.

The Normative or Cultural perspective focuses more on the democratic political culture where resolving disputes through peaceful gestures instead of aggressive or violent means is a norm.

Moreover, this perspective also talks about the role of perception in how others perceive democracy and the nature of democracy in other states. The Structural or Institutional Perspective gives credit to the rule-based institutions in democracies with more checks and balances and separation of power. The political leadership is accountable before the people, and the people avoid the risks associated with war as it directly impacts the people. Hence, the democratic practice makes the war more unlikely because of the free press, rule of law, and competitive party system. Cultural norms impact the evolution of institutions, and institutions create peaceful rule-based norms over time.

The democratic peace theory identifies itself with the liberal paradigm, where anarchy and conflict can be avoided with the help of international institutions and economic interdependence.  Under Bill Clinton’s presidency, the US adopted the same rhetoric in foreign policy as spreading democracy was the main agenda in his FP. He believed that the US and its allies would not contain the conversion of the autocratic state to liberal democratic norms.

Realists criticize the democratic peace assumption and believe in the anarchic environment, which determines the state of war and peace, and refute the internal dynamics of regime type that determine the nature of war. The democratic peace liberals believe in the power of democracy to uplift people and develop common norms of goodwill towards each other. The realists also criticize the bloody process of democratization and the inherent instability attached to it. Moreover, others also criticize the methodology and various interpretations of the relationship between democracy and how peace is associated with it. Realists also believe that the evidence of fewer wars in democracies is not due to common policies and norms but their common interests.

In 2014, Havard Hegre proved through empirical findings that democratic states have less risk of war, and consolidated democracies are more peaceful than semi-democracies. In short, democratic theories have empirically verified their hypothesis, and it’s widely believed that this theory has been successful. Even if there were wars in democratic states like India and Pakistan, their democratic norms would be questioned. Pakistan has failed to implement democratic norms, and there has been a period of dictatorship four times since its inception. Hence, if the essence of democracy and liberalism is followed in a state, then there are chances that the common norms and institutions will help them prevent war and resolve their issues peacefully.

Hegemonic Stability Theory:

Hegemonic Stability Theory deals with the impact of a unipolar system where a single power dominates the international structure. A single dominant actor can enforce its will on others in the unipolar system. The hegemon must possess the capability and credibility to govern the system to impose rules and be willing to bear the costs required to govern the system. The hegemon can deploy various techniques to maintain the stability of the system and can punish the violators. Other states enjoy benefits from these institutions while seeking to avoid paying the costs of maintaining them.

In the book “The World in Depression,” Charles Kindleberger associated the absence of hegemon in the early 20th century with economic instability and depression. Great Britain was economically weak, and despite being able to govern the system, the US was reluctant to lead the world’s political and economic system. He explains that a stable economy can only be achieved by a stabilizer who will be a hegemon.

In the presence of a strong hegemon, states will cooperate economically.  In the 1980s, Robert Keohane stated that order in world politics can only result in the presence of a strong hegemon. According to Robert Gilpin, Charles Kindleberger gave the concept of hegemon, later named by Robert Keohane as Hegemonic Stability Theory. As per Robert Gilpin, the absence of a leading power managing the world economy will result in economic instability. The theory was developed by the contributions of various scholars like Robert Keohane, Robert Gilpin, and Susan Strange.  As per theory, a hegemon in the international system is the dominant power who is thus willing to share the disproportionate costs of maintaining such international institutions.

Hegemonic Stability theory explains that international institutions fully develop when a single power dominates the international system.

The highly integrated world economy can result only in the presence of a hegemon because of their willingness to pay the price of leading the system. The theory views Great Britain as the hegemon of the 19th century, whereas in the 20th century, the US dominated the world and was willing to become the hegemon. As there was no hegemon between these two eras of hegemony, there was instability, and the world faced economic depression. Various theorists like Joseph Nye advocated the US power even after the Vietnam War and rejected the growing notion of a decline in US power.

In 1984, Robert Keohane rejected his assumption of a single hegemon. He advocated that a coalition of states should lead the system, which (according to him) will be less problematic as the overall burden will be shared evenly by all actors and will reduce the burden on a single power. The liberals focus on how a hegemon supplies collective good that helps to remove. The liberal perspective of hegemonic stability theory believes and emphasizes the ability of a hegemon to supply collective goods and accommodate free riders that foster cooperation and provide collective goods easily. The mercantilists or economic realists deal with how the hegemon provides security to other states, and in return, they cooperate with the hegemon in maintaining order. Moreover, they focus on the gains that a hegemon gets due to its central position.

Hegemonic Stability theory has been criticized and viewed as unstable because the hegemon alone put more efforts into preserving the status quo, regulating the security matters of the international system where it has to bear extended costs of military spending, stationing troops and forging alliances that result in its decline and instability. Moreover, with the free-riding problem, many other economies get space to develop economically and try to replace the hegemon. As the power of the hegemon declines, power is transitioned and shifts to other states as there are always dissatisfied states that aim to challenge the status quo.

Moreover, constructivists criticize that hegemonic leadership is what states make of it, and different leadership has played different roles in the Global Financial Crisis and the Euro Crisis by the US and Germany, respectively. While the US tried to bear the burden of the crisis as per Kindleberger style and gave a $700 bailout to stabilize the economic system, Germany, contrary to the US, avoided any such adjustment and imposed the burden of adjustment on states present in Europe’s periphery which were already crisis-ridden. Hence, some problems are associated with hegemonic stability theory. As Charles Kindleberger, in his article Unipolar Moment views the post-Cold War era as unipolar in the presence of US hegemony, he also highlights the challenges associated with maintaining that hegemony. Maintaining hegemony seems challenging in the presence of unsatisfied powers who constantly seek to challenge the status quo.


In short, both the democratic peace theory and hegemonic stability theory have different views on how stability will prevail in the international system. The former focus on creating and exporting democracy to non-democratic states leads to stability as the inherent norms developed in democratic states refrain them from taking part in any war-like activity. In contrast, the latter focuses on the presence of a hegemon in bringing stability.

The contemporary period is marked by multi-polarity where the relative decline of US power is seen, and a dis-satisfied power in the face of China is continuously booming to challenge the status quo. The declassified documents presented by the US in 2022 reflect that the US sees China as a potential actor with both willingness and capability to change and challenge the US power. While the US is determined to integrate all its technologies and power capabilities to counter China, China is continuously rising on a positive trajectory, highlighting that uni-polarity or hegemony cannot be sustained for a long period.

Democratic peace theory holds credentials because it provides empirical data that democratic states have cooperated after the major wars in 1945 and believe in reducing conflict and war as more states joined the democratic camp. Even those who criticize the US intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan are countered by democratic peace theorists. They view those non-democratic practices adopted by the US as creating a zone of peace in the Middle East by supporting democratic practices and toppling the governments of autocratic or non-democratic leaders like Saddam Hussain.

President Bush saw the democratization of Iraq as a step towards spreading democracy in the whole Middle East. Democratic peace theorists don’t claim that stability and peace are inherent characteristics of a democracy. Still, they view that the norms and institution building in democratic states reduce the chances of conflict and war between two democracies. A democracy can fight with a non-democracy on incompatible goals.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email