Evan Braden Montgomery. In the Hegemon's Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016. 216 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0234-1.
Reviewed by Mark Brawley (McGill University)
Published on H-Diplo (October, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Explaining Hegemonic States' Responses To Rising Regional Powers
Evan Braden Montgomery’s In the Hegemon’s Shadow raises an important issue: How do hegemonic states respond to rising powers? To answer that question, Montgomery adopts a realist approach, a sensible thing given the systemic forces that must be taken into account. Yet committing to a single theoretical approach means employing its strengths as well as accepting its limits. Since shifts in the distribution of power are essential, a realist approach makes sense, but realism provides little insight into states’ clashing preferences. While In the Hegemon’s Shadow does not provide a complete set of answers to the questions posed, it should prove a valuable foil for prompting rival approaches, furthering our understanding of these matters.
Montgomery assumes hegemonic states value order across regions, as well as open access to regional resources and trade routes. He also assumes there is a clear great power challenging the hegemonic state for the dominant position in the international system. Regional subsystems figure in the hegemonic state’s calculations regarding its chief rivalry (i.e., versus a challenging great power), as well as in the region’s assets (since the hegemonic state desires continued access). Shifts in the distribution of power within a particular region can pose a threat to the hegemonic state’s interests, so the next consideration concerns the direction, scope, and completeness of the change in the distribution of power. The question comes from the hegemonic state’s response when local power shifts occur; hegemonic states’ responses have ranged from opposition to accommodation.
The terminology employed to label the causal factors creates some friction with their application to particular historical cases, however. As in any good realist argument, great power interactions must be taken into account first. Montgomery refers to the hegemonic state’s calculations concerning the region’s role in the larger great power rivalry as “containment” (pp. 15-16). This may make sense in the Cold War context, but does not travel well to other cases included in the book. This description works well when considering how the United States responded to power shifts in the Middle East in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the threat of Soviet interventions mattered. It seems misleading to term British concerns over Egypt’s rise in power in the 1830s a desire to contain Russia. Similarly, British policymakers presumably considered China a prize in itself in the decades before World War I, not merely a buffer between Russia and India.
Have hegemonic states consistently tried to contain their chief rivals geographically? Containment was a specific strategy the United States employed against Soviet expansion, and even then only for part of the Cold War. Even as the United States developed the Carter Doctrine for the case examined in the book, American approaches to sub-Saharan Africa and Central America varied significantly. These interventions seem harder to square with geographic containment, or with concerns over specific resources found only in their own region. Containment brings an emphasis on the challenger’s geographic expansion, which does not seem particularly relevant in all the cases considered here. This is not to take away the significance of thinking first about how regional politics affect the great power rivalry—that is the correct first step—but “containment” implies too much specificity about the hegemonic state’s concerns.
A region may command strategic significance for a variety of reasons, making this difficult to model. Consider once again British concerns regarding rising Egyptian power in the 1830s. Although British decision makers surely worried about Russian imperial ambitions, this had to be weighed against a variety of problems elsewhere. The possibility of a resurgent France, lingering border disputes with the United States, and colonial disputes were all also on the table. The role Egypt played in weakening the Ottoman Empire figured into a more complex competition between a number of states; the Cold War analogy (a hegemonic state trying to contain a single rival) simply omits too much of the situation.
Likewise, when considering how Britain responded to Japan’s rise at the end of the nineteenth century, is the desire to contain Russia the key? As noted above, did China simply serve as a barrier to Russia’s advance on India? Did the Russians view China primarily in those terms? Many have argued that the British view of Japan changed as the German threat arose. An alliance figured in British calculations because Japanese naval capabilities allowed the Royal Navy to redeploy forces closer to home. The Boer War demonstrated how overstretched British forces were. The alliance eased Britain’s overall strategic position, but clearly worried others concerned about the stability and openness of the East Asian regional subsystem, as evidenced by the statements and actions from both Australian and American leaders at the time. In other words, Britain accepted a greater threat to its preferred regional outcome, in order to boost its overall position versus Germany.
Hegemonic states prefer regions to remain open economically, Montgomery assumes, because they often offer important resources. Rising regional powers (RRPs) may therefore pose a threat to hegemonic state’s interests if they threaten to block access to those resources. While this is a sensible claim, it does not bear out very strongly in the cases. The first examined in the book, Egypt’s rise in the 1830s, involves the significance of trade routes, not any particularly significant resource. The second case, the secession of the Southern states in the American Civil War, concerns cotton, though Britain found alternative sources within a few years. Japan’s rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries does not seem to involve any particular resource, nor does India’s rise in the 1960s. So while it seems reasonable to have included access to resources as a factor in the hegemonic state’s interests, this is not borne out consistently by the cases selected for examination.
Stylistic choices do not quite mesh with the desired argument on another count: the choice of titles. The manuscript’s title, In the Hegemon’s Shadow, suggests an emphasis on the choices of the RRPs, yet the theory centers on hegemonic responses. The chapter titles also imply a focus on each RRP, rather than the hegemonic state’s policy. This is not a major problem, but it does point to an alternative way of framing this question. Rather than ask about the hegemonic state’s response, one could look more closely at the dyad—how do these two states interact? One could even focus primarily on the decisions made by the RRP. (For an example of this alternative view, see Steven Lobell, Kristen Williams, and Neal Jesse, eds., Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow or Challenge ).
Several other issues arise from the desire to stick with a realist approach. As noted above, there are several rather critical assumptions at work regarding the hegemonic state’s preferences. These shape how the hegemonic state interprets the RRP’s actions. Since the cases revolve around British and American hegemony, it may well be fair to assume both wanted free and open economic access to various regions, and that challengers desired closure of regions—though neither assumption is very well rooted in realism. (The first case, Egypt’s rise in the 1830s, occurs before Britain adopted free trade, it should be noted.) This matters, since some RRPs accept the hegemonic state’s version of local order, while others seek something more consistent with the challenger’s preference.
Another issue concerns the role of individual decision makers in the cases. If this were a purely realist argument, why would decision makers in the hegemonic state disagree strongly over how to respond to a RRP? This sort of problem emerges in several cases. Lord Palmerston’s position on Egypt in the 1830s was not shared by others in the British government—why not? Palmerston noted the religious aspect to questions involving the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Russia’s territories in eastern Europe; he used the religious aspect to appeal to public opinion in ways unlike other British foreign ministers of the mid-nineteenth century. In the case of Britain’s response to the Confederacy’s secession, slavery figured prominently. Palmerston again relied on his popularity with the British public, and that entailed adopting the moral position. The same issue arises in the chapter on the India-Pakistan rivalry, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger challenged views from US government agencies. The author recognizes these aspects to the cases—he discusses the evidence. (Montgomery handles all the historical material in depth and with honesty.) The difficulty rests with how we reconcile the role of individual decision makers in a realist framework.
The author takes the position that the United States is not only still hegemonic, but will remain in that dominant position for the near future; more importantly, he also assumes no other state has made it to the position of true challenger. China, India, and Brazil are RRPs—they have the potential to be a great power on par with the United States, but have not yet attained that position (p. 4). Why then worry about modeling containment at all?
Plenty of people consider China and India great powers already, capable of challenging the United States, or as more than regional powers the United States will seek to manage. Moreover, American military intervention would hardly be effective in these instances, due to nuclear weapons, or to the relatively large size of the RRPs’ military forces. For current policy considerations, perhaps a different set of cases might be relevant.
The issues addressed in this book are complex; Montgomery has made particular choices about assumptions, about how to break the questions down, as well as how to sequence them. Using a realist framework makes sense on many levels, but entails certain costs. Focusing on the hegemonic state’s policy options is an obvious choice, since this potentially entails the greatest costs for all involved. Montgomery defines the stakes involved in sensible ways as well. Some of the cases fit persuasively (especially the one regarding Iraq), whereas others much less so.
Alternatives exist; the final judgement on the significance of Montgomery’s work will depend on how well rival theories develop persuasive answers to these same questions. Consider how someone adopting a liberal approach might tackle these same questions. A liberal framework would address the particular preferences of the hegemonic and challenging states, using domestic interests to explain RRPs’ preferences as well. By placing state preferences first, a liberal approach might place the RRPs’ role in the broader systemic competition in a more accurate way, changing the later steps in the model. Neoclassical realism could also offer potential ways for modeling these relationships, by explaining the simultaneous strategic choices made by the hegemonic state and the RRP, in order to understand how the strategic interaction produces specific regional outcomes. Either the liberal or neoclassical realist approach can offer competing answers for the questions raised here. Whether those alternatives are relatively more persuasive remains to be seen.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Mark Brawley. Review of Montgomery, Evan Braden, In the Hegemon's Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.