Schweller  2001
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Schweller 2001

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an empirical question.
In practice, there has been a strong relationship between the growth in

power of a state and its desire to extend its territorial control, political
inºuence, and domination of the international economy.25 Great powers have
tended to expand when they can. They have done so not necessarily to satisfy
an innate lust for power, prestige, and glory—though history is replete with
such cases—but rather because anarchy compels states to enhance their secu-
rity and inºuence over others and their environment whenever it is possible
and pragmatic for them to do so.26 Hegemonic postwar junctures are precisely
when great powers, especially the leading state, can be expected to expand, not
bind, their power. Because nature and politics abhor a vacuum, the victors will
move quickly to ªll the political vacuums left behind by the defeated great
powers. This is predictable behavior because, when presented with such an ex-
traordinary opportunity to expand the state’s territory and inºuence, political
leaders “can be said to act under external compulsion rather than in accord-
ance with their preferences”:27 That is, their actions are driven by irresistible
temptation.
Second, even if decisionmakers believe that hegemonic decline is inevitable,

there are plenty of reasons why they would not and should not act on that be-
lief. First, leaders have few if any domestic incentives to abandon policies of
autonomy and unilateralism in favor of multilateralism and self-restraint. The
incentive structure of elites, even foreign policy ones, is primarily a function of
domestic, not international, politics. No matter how much internationalists
may champion multilateral solutions, elected ofªcials must answer to a do-
mestic audience, and unelected bureaucrats must serve and promote the au-
tonomy and interests of the bureaucratic organization to which they belong.
Second, Ikenberry’s claim rests on an unrealistic assumption about the time
horizons of democratic leaders. Even if we concede the point that the creation
of a constitutional order is a wise long-term investment for the new hegemonic

International Security 26:1 174

25. Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, p. 106.
26. This is the logic behind Fareed Zakaria’s inºuence-maximizing assumption. See Zakaria, From
Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1998), chap. 1.
27. See Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore, Md.:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1962), p. 13. This is the logic behind Wolfers’s well-known “racetrack” meta-
phor for external compulsion in the form of irresistible temptation. See ibid., pp. 14–16.

state, history records few decisionmakers who acted in such a farsighted man-
ner. This is particularly true for leaders of democratic states, because the pri-
mary goal for most elected ofªcials is to ensure reelection. Why, then, should
we expect democratically elected policymakers of a newly hegemonic state to
forgo immediate gains for long-run payoffs that may or may not be reaped de-
cades later—long after they have left ofªce? Finally, the deliberate choice to re-
strain the exercise of power now because of the possibility (but not certainty)
of exerting relatively less power later is like committing suicide for fear of
death. The key question for postwar leaders is not whether but when decline
will come and how much deterioration can be expected. Had American
policymakers, for example, been persuaded by the chorus of scholars in the
1970s to late 1980s proclaiming that U.S. power was in terminal decline, the
Cold War might have continued for decades longer; and it surely would noth
ave ended in total victory for the West. Thankfully, instead of constraining
American power and preparing for inevitable decline, the Reagan administra-
tion began ramping up U.S. power capabilities in the 1980s, arresting Amer-
ica’s relative decline through bold policy choices.28 Consequently, as Ikenberry
himself acknowledges, “American power in the 1990s is without historical
precedent” (p. 270).
It is worth pointing out that even in the late 1980s, few if any foreign policy

experts forecasted America’s current supremacy in a unipolar world. This pre-
dictive failure, however, is not proof of the impoverishment of international re-
lations theories, as many have claimed.29 The (painful for some) truth is that
the future power position of the United States or any other country is simply
beyond prediction. This is because the power trajectories of nations, especially
powerful ones, are not structurally determined; they are the result of wise or
imprudent policy choices. Hence it is impossible to tell whether the United
States has currently reached its power zenith, or is only halfway there, or is
anywhere in between.30 What can be said is that if current U.S. policymakers

The Problem of International Order Revisited 175

28. See George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles
Scribner’s Sons, 1993); John Lewis Gaddis, “Hanging Tough Paid Off,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scien-
tists, Vol. 45, No. 1 (January/February 1989), pp. 11–14; and Robert Einhorn, Negotiating from
Strength: Leverage in U.S.-Soviet Arms Control (New York: Praeger, 1985).
29. For an extended version of this argument, see Randall L. Schweller and William C. Wohlforth,
“Power Test: Evaluating Realism in Response to the End of the Cold War,” Security Studies, Vol. 9,
No. 3 (Summer 2000), pp. 60–107.
30. For the 1990s’ debate between American declinists and triumphalists, see Krauthammer, “The
Unipolar Moment,” pp. 23–33; Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic
Change and Military Conºict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987); Christopher
Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise,” International Security, Vol. 17,
No. 4 (Spring 1993), pp. 5–15; Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing:

act on the belief that Pax Americana is an artiªcial moment, they run the risk of
achieving a foolish, self-fulªlling prophecy. More to the matters at hand, after
ªfty-six years of American leadership of the free world and still counting,
it would have been a terrible mistake for U.S. policymakers to have acted on
this assumption of inevitable decline in 1945, in accordance with Ikenberry’s
prescription.

Binding Institutions: Logic and Evidence

The key to Ikenberry’s theory of constitutional order is the concept of binding
institutions. The logic of the argument unfolds as follows. For the leading post-
war state to transform its momentary power advantage into a durable and le-
gitimate political order, it must ªrst overcome the weaker and defeated states’
fears that it will abandon or dominate them: That is, the hegemon must assure
secondary states that it will remain engaged and will not arbitrarily or coer-
cively exercise its power. The solution, Ikenberry argues, is for the hegemon to
establish binding institutions, whereby states respond to potential threats and
strategic rivalries by binding themselves in mutually constraining institutions
that raise the “costs of exit” for the strong and create voice opportunities for
the weak. For weak and secondary states, binding institutions also function as
an emergency security system; they are a mechanism to protect their sover-
eignty from the arbitrary exercise of hegemonic power.
For binding institutions to perform these tasks, they must possess a high de-

gree of autonomy. Most important, their decisions and ability to enforce them
must be independent of the hegemon’s wishes and power. Otherwise, there is
no reason for other states to believe that the institution can or will exert limits
on the hegemon’s power when called on to do so. This latter condition is crucial
in determining the efªcacy of any emergency system. As Richard Betts puts it,
a “system designed in good times to cope with bad times should be judged