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Unipolarity theory vs. liberal hegemony











Brody A. Taylor

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American Foreign Policy


October 01, 2017






            In this essay I will argue that
Monteiro’s theory and argument for unipolarity with American as the unipole is
superior to that of Ikenberry’s theory of a liberal international order because
it will have more durability and stability in the post Cold War world due to it
being a more realist approach to how the world interacts and operates. I argue
that in a realist world where all states are looking out for their own
self-interest Monteiro’s approach will work better because of the power
predominance that America holds on the other countries. In this essay I will
first explain Monteiro’s argument and then Ikenberry’s argument. I will then
compare and contrast them to show what the authors have in common. Finally I
will argue my point of view and why I think Monteiro lays out a better argument
and theory of how our world works and how we can seek durability and relative
peacefulness in the coming times.

            In Monteiro’s book, “Theory of
Unipolar Politics” he is seeking to answer three questions about a unipolar
world. His three questions are whether a unipolar world is durable, whether it
is peaceful and what is the best grand strategy for the United States to use.1
What he means by durability is the ability to withstand a transformation in the
distribution of powers or in short the ability for the main power to maintain
its status as the unipole. He argues that in a unipolar world durability is
definitely possible but only under certain conditions. His two variables for
this are systemic and strategic.2
His belief is that in a unipolar world the higher the cost of a conflict from a
challenger the more durable it is because it is too much to risk for the
challenger. The way to make the cost of war for a challenger high is through
technology, great military strengthen and the necessary economy to support a
war for enough time to crush the challenger. He says in todays world of nuclear
power the costs are high and so durability could be very high so long as the
unipole keeps up with the advancement in nuclear power.3
The other large factor of durability is the strategy of the unipole on other
powers economic growth. If the unipole can encourage other countries economic
success to the point that they are more incentivized to grow economically
rather then militarily there would be more durability. What the unipole does
not want is for the other great powers to develop nuclear strength to the point
that would cause great cost on the unipole.4 

            Monteiro then gives the reasons why
a unipolar world is not peaceful. He thinks that due to there being only one
unipole there is less of a balance of powers like one would see in a bipolar
world. This leads to a lot of asymmetric and peripheral conflicts according to
Monteiro. He also blames this especially on the U.S. since they are the unipole
he is speaking about. This leads into what he thinks about the United States
grand strategy. He believes that the grand strategy of a unipole comes from his
two first points of durability and peacefulness. He thinks that the U.S. needs
to adopt a grand strategy of defensive accommodation, which he says is
maintaining the status quo internationally. The problem with this strategy is
it will get America involved in almost all peripheral conflicts and disputes
between lesser powers. Another issue with this is it would need a strategy that
allows economic growth in major economic powers, which could lead them to
surpass the United States economically. This is Monteiro’s view on the
post-cold war world, which aligns well with a realist view of the world.5

            Ikenberry has a much different take
on the post cold war world. He believes that the United States has a liberal
hegemonic order on the world.6
He believes that power is most durable when there are rules and systems in
place and when the rules are made through a consensual process with a means to
He argues that this is what America did after the cold war but has strayed from
in more recent years. Thus, America has to try and bring back this order and
keep the liberal hegemonic order strong. Ikenberry believe that international
order only comes through institutions, alliances, relationships, and organizing
rule based cooperation. The catch here is the America is the one in charge of
this liberal hegemonic order and so it controls and manages the entire world. One
of the big topics in Ikenberry’s book is the durability of a liberal hegemony
even in the face of many crises like the war on terror during the Bush
administration. He believes that during the war on terror and Bush
administration America changed the world order to be more unipolar. 8
Ikenberry has four claims in his book of which I will briefly explain. The
first is that after World War II America came out as the leading state and thus
played a huge roll in stability and order in the world that emerged. It was
very hierarchical but America was kept in check by rules and institutions put
in place because of World War II. Ikenberry’s second claim is that America
transformed into a more unipolar world where the most powerful state rules.

This was due to the fall of the Soviet Union during the cold war. The third
claim is to understand the future of liberal order we must understand the types
of order and the sources of authority. He explains how the shift in
multipolarity to unipolarity led to America not having to follow the global
rules and institutions set in place after WWII. The fourth claim is that
liberal hegemonic order is not over and that America can go back to a liberal
international order if America renegotiates and creates it. Ikenberry believes
if America does not seek to do this they might not be the unipole for long as
many other great powers will seek to become equal to or better then America.9

            In short Monteiro argues that
America is a unipole with unchecked power that could be durable and peaceful
with the right strategy of maintaining the status quo world wide, however, this
could lead to a lot of minor conflicts between small states. With this argument
America pretty much rules the world in an unchecked way, which could be
potentially dangerous and possibly easy to over throw if another state were to
gain a stronger nuclear capability. Ikenberry’s argument is that America used
to be a liberal hegemony with lots of international order through institutions
and rules that kept everyone in check however, the problem is America has been
the one setting these rules and managing these institutions which has led to a
more unipolar world. Ikenberry thinks it will not sustain itself very long and
thus America needs to forgo some of its power in order to maintain peacefulness
and order through a international rule based order. Both books are saying that
the unipolarity of America is not going to last much longer if America does not
change either its strategy or its international influence through a more institutionalized
order. In the post world war world nuclear power has played one of the biggest
roles in world order and both authors discuss this. The two other big factors
are economic power and military conventional forces through power projection
capabilities. Both authors believe America is at the forefront in these areas
but think that this may not be a good thing.

            While the two arguments from the
book are different in that they argue two different types of world orders they
both are seeking an end goal of a more peaceful world and how to achieve that. The
variables that both arguments have in common are peace and durability among the
states. Both arguments see America as the leading power in the world. In
Monteiro’s argument his variables are nuclear power, conventional power and
economic power. In Ikenberry’s argument the variables are rules, institutions,
and cooperation. Another difference is that Monteiro believes we have been in a
bipolar system since the end of the cold war and Ikenberry believes we started
a liberal hegemony after World War II that started with international order
through institutions but slowly became much like an American hegemony or
unipolarity. One of the factors both authors agree on is the nuclear weapons
have given America a lot of the power they have as well as kept stability
between great powers due to the deterrence that it generates. Nuclear weapons
have made war less likely. In Ikenberry’s argument of international order he
believes that it will provide room for shared leadership, shared interest,
international rules and a lot more cooperation that will not let any one become
the unipole while still making sure America has a big influence. Monteiro has a
more realist approach and thinks America must just change there strategy to one
that allows other nations to grow economically and to not go offensive in any
of their areas so as to give the other countries no reason to increase their
military capabilities so that American can continue being the unipole. 10

            As far as durability both arguments
believe there is a going to be a lack of durability if America does not change
something or do what they suggest in their arguments. Monteiro believes that
while it may not be completely peaceful due to the smaller states fighting
amongst each other the durability of the American unipole would be pretty high.

Ikenberry believes that the durability of the liberal international order would
be high if America went back to how it was right after WWII where there were
lots of international rules and many new institutions were formed to keep the
world safe. One threat to the durability of an American led international order
is China’s cooperation because China has risen in power very quickly in the
past several years. The biggest threat to America as a unipole is one of the
greater powers surpassing America in nuclear capability and military power
projection. However, as long as America can maintain the worlds status quo the
other powers do not need to worry and thus can focus on their own economic
success and other internal benefits. The cost of conventional or nuclear war
would be very high and not worth it if they have the freedoms and abilities
that they want. The U.S. then only has the choice to maintain the status quo in
order to stay in power as the unipole. As soon as America would try to
interfere too much into the affairs of other countries they would try to
increase their military and nuclear capabilities to a point that would match
Americas. 12

            The argument that I find most
effective and accurate is Monteiro’s argument. His argument is more aligned
with realism while Ikenberry’s is closer to liberalism and I tend to think like
a realist. In a perfect world Ikenberry’s argument may work better and be more
durable and peaceful. The problem is our world is not perfect and it is hard to
trust other nations even if they sign a treaty or join an institution. I think
the biggest thing that liberal theory leaves out is that states ultimately are
looking out for their own best interest. Ikenberry’s proves this himself by
saying how after World War II there were institutions and rules that everyone
had to follow and peace ensued. Then he says how eventually America turned into
the leading power and other nations stopped following the post WWII rules after
the Cold war and this was due to the natural tendency for a state to always
want to be the most powerful. In Monteiro’s argument America does not have to
submit any freedoms or rights. Ikenberry says America has to submit a little in
order to have shared leadership. Why would a state want to submit anything if
they are the leading power? In my opinion they should not.

already has a very good government within its own state due to the constitution
and the way the founding fathers set it up. America is the only country who has
a system with so many checks and balances to keep it from becoming tyrannical
and so there is not a serious threat of America becoming tyrannical and forcing
all the other countries into submission. Most all of the other countries
realize this and that is why Monteiro talks about maintaining the status quo.

Sure China and Russia are not going to be happy that America is the leading
power but China cares more about their economic success and as long as America
is the leading power China is safe to continue being successful. America does
not need to hold the world’s largest economy because ultimately it comes down
to nuclear capability and power projection. America has surpassed every other
country in this by a colossal amount. The biggest threat to America then is
another country increasing their nuclear capability to the same level as
America. As long as America accommodates for other nations to advance
economically they shouldn’t want to spend all their resources on creating
nuclear power, as it is very costly, thus they will not increase their nuclear
capability. In Ikenberry’s American International order America may have to
give up some of their nuclear capabilities if not all of them to ensure other
countries did the same in order to get peace and durability. They may create an
institution or rule to do this but more then likely it would not be followed by
every country and that could end up being very dangerous for everyone.

            The reason that the unipole is not
the most peaceful is it does not completely solve the problem of the minor
powers that do not have any significant capabilities or nuclear power. The
reason for this is because they do not really have anything to lose. In a
realist world there goal is to become a major power. They can only do this by
gaining defensive capabilities strong enough to defend or deter the other major
powers from pushing them around. The easiest way to do this is to gain nuclear
warheads like in the case of Pakistan. The goal would be to be able to inflict
enough pain or cost on the enemy that it would deter them from ever trying to
attack or cause harm. With nuclear power this could be easy but it still does
not solve the problem entirely. This is why china will never be able to become
the leading power. America is so far ahead militarily that even if China beats
America in economic success it would be impossible to ever catch up militarily
to America without America noticing and questioning it. On top of that China
has no real reason to increase its military capabilities so long as America
stays out of their way and keeps order among the minor powers. In my opinion
the situation looks good for just about everyone when America is in control
because there is order due to America maintaining the status quo. As soon as
America tries to pass off or share some of that authority is when another
country could easily slip into power or gain the upper hand.

            Monteiro’s approach and argument is
overall better because it is more realistic and takes into account the nature
of the state, which is to look out for their own best interest.  While Ikenberry is very knowledgeable and
puts up a good argument for American international order he does not seek to
explain the possibility of America giving up to much of its power which could
easily put some other state in power. While something like a worldwide
constitution could keep a lot of peace and prosperity the chances of getting
cooperation from all the states and having states give up certain rights or
freedoms they may have enjoyed when unchecked is not likely. While both authors
argue that there theory is more durable and peaceful I believe the theory of
Unipolarity that Monteiro lays out is more durable and relatively peaceful. On
the other hand Ikenberry’s theory of a liberal international order would be
more peaceful if everyone cooperated and everything went right. However, in
reality it would probably not be very durable in the long run and eventually
lead to a lot of chaos and war. In the past these institutions and rules that
Ikenberry thinks would cause peace and durability have not worked due to many
countries not joining or just blatantly breaking them (i.e. the United Nations
and League of nations or countries developing weapons of mass destruction or
nuclear warheads such as Iran and Pakistan). In past history global world order
and peace does not have much durability. This is why I believe that Monteiro
lays out a much better theory and argument for a unipolar world with American
grand strategy in defensive accommodation as the primary method to maintain the
status quo and thus maintain order and keep relative peace.

















            Monteiro, Nuno P. Theory of Unipolar Politics.

Cambridge University Press, 2014.


            Ikenberry, G. J. (2012). Liberal
leviathan: the origins, crisis, and transformation of the American World Order.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1 Monteiro, Nuno P. Theory of Unipolar
Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pg. 3-4

Monteiro, Pg. 4

Monteiro Pg. 85

4 Monteiro

5 Monteiro

6 Ikenberry, G. J. (2012). Liberal
leviathan: the origins, crisis, and transformation of the American World Order.

Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pg. 3-4

7 Ikenberry

Ikenberry Ch.6

9 Ikenberry


10 Monteiro

11 Ikenberry

12 Monteiro

13 Ikenberry

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