174 – When do hegemons fail? – Part II

Posted on September 27, 2012 by


As conditions change, for whatever reason, adaptation is indicated. Positive deviants are likely to emerge: they show leadership in first devising an appropriate (hence successful) response to changed conditions. Leadership is context-driven and represents the constructive response – the alternative would be many forgotten failures.

Leadership threatens to undermine, however, the established authority, which builds its legitimacy on the status quo and the existing response paradigm. If authority ignores the implicit challenge of leadership, or tries to suppress it, it will in the end be overwhelmed – reality is always on the side of the appropriate response, hence of leadership and roundly ignores unresponsive authority. It is only when authority embraces leadership and responds appropriately that it can survive – a successful politician is one who makes the inevitable happen.

There are many reasons for authority’s rejection of change. Psychology may be behind it all. For one it may be simply denial. Another is continuing to bet on the wrong horse in the deluded assumption that the previous losses were not structural, but flukes. Or authority may be practicing “hedonic editing” – convincing oneself that the mistake does not matter[1]. The path-dependent outcome remains the same. Authority increasingly finds itself out of step with the changing reality, becomes discredited, and will eventually succumb to leadership which, in turn, will become authority.

Another reason is objective blindness – the failure of the existing power paradigm to understand and address change as it emerges. IBM, the mainframe leader, did not realize the import of the emergent PC and let MICROSOFT develop MS-DOS unhindered. By the time IBM realized the error, it was too late. Another reason is that the leader may simply not have the expertise for the next phase of technological development. KODAK was very good with photographic films, but had no experience with digital photography.

In either case the leader would have been impaled on the horns of an insoluble dilemma: how to sustain its current position until it is ready to switch to the next phase. Having to find a compromise between the old and the new it risks doing neither well. Its divided loyalties make it inferior to whoever only has a stake in the new. The hungry one always wins.

This applies also to international relations. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the old paradigm is “hard power” and the new one is “soft power”. Fine. But the current hegemon, as gifted as it may be with hard power, comes to soft power as a neophyte. Whether it has any competence needs to be proven in the field. In fact, the hegemon may suffer from a huge handicap. Soft power is essentially about persuasion and indirect influence. It is the hegemon’s “privilege” to impose its will as last resort. This does not easily predestine him for the soft touch. Just proclaiming “smart power” is papering over deep-seated contradictions, which I have already highlighted: one can hardly show itself both aggressive and peace-loving and be both by turns. Managing the transition becomes a most difficult balancing act and one especially prone to the unwelcome effects of “blowback”.

There is nothing inevitable about hegemons “failing” – yet there are clear propensities for them to do so. Internal factors certainly play a role. The hegemon’s behavior with respect the “rest of the world”, however, seems to me more relevant in this modern world subject to rapid change as a cause of its decline. Hamstrung between its need for “stability” and its role as leader of “change” it is unlikely to fulfill either role very well. It will be perceived by the progressive idealists as the bulwark of the status quo and as a dangerous adventurist by the hardline realists[2].

So what’s in store for a hegemon today? Evolution tells us that adaptation flourishes best in small and isolated niches, where new solutions can be tested and developed. Today’s business giants were yesterday’s venture capitalists. Firms go out of business, when countries do not. But countries can decline rapidly, and states that were ignored or written off a couple of decades ago may suddenly emerge as leaders.

My personal hunch is that if the hegemon wants to have a sustainable role in world affairs it is best off jettisoning any hegemonic ambitions and playing in the concert of nations – after all it has written much of the score itself.

[1]          Tim HARFORD (2011): Adapt: why success always starts with failure. Abacus, London; pg. 250 -254.

[2]          This observation should put paid to the tedious and overlong academic dispute between “realists” and “idealists”. These strategies reflect alternative and mutually incompatible options open to the hegemon.