Hyungwon Kang / REUTERS Chinese and U.S. flags in Washington, January 2011.

The Enduring Legacy of Robert Gilpin

How He Predicted Today's Great Power Rivalry

Robert G. Gilpin, one of the leading realist scholars of international political economy, passed away on June 20. When Gilpin began his career, the field of IPE, which is the study of how politics and economics interact in the global system, was in its infancy. He helped define the subject, and his realist vision established one of the primary lenses through which scholars have studied the field ever since. His clear and precise writing made his ideas accessible to a larger public. Today, the resurgence of nationalism, the rise of China, and the ascension of populist leaders in advanced industrial democracies have given his work renewed relevance.

For Gilpin, realism meant that the state was the primary actor in world politics and economics, that power and the use of force were the ultimate instruments of statecraft, that war was the major mechanism of change in international affairs, and that politics was much more about continuity than change. In each of his books, Gilpin put forward this vision of the world. He contrasted it with Marxism and liberalism, both of which locate the agents and mechanisms of politics elsewhere. For Marxism, social classes are the agents and capitalism and class struggle are the central mechanisms of change. For liberalism, the agents are individuals and domestic politics, while markets and efforts to maximize global welfare drive the motor of history. Gilpin’s realism posited that the primary mover of politics was competition between states trying to maximize their national interests, often by using or threatening to use force. 

This view led him to emphasize many features of the world economy and political system that other scholars downplayed. In contrast to much research in IPE, Gilpin argued that economic interdependence, or globalization, did not matter much. Most governments were not that constrained by it and could indeed use it as a resource to manipulate other countries that depended more heavily on the global system. It had changed politics little, he suggested; states were still far more concerned with competing for power and wealth than they were with pursuing economic efficiency or maximizing welfare. Nor did Gilpin believe that technology had transformed international politics. Even nuclear weapons were not, in his view, radical enough to end the prospect of war. Gilpin viewed military power as the greatest cause of political change, and war between existing hegemons and aspiring ones as the motor of the global system. And because states control territory and military power, they were the main actors in world politics. Rivalry between them, especially the great powers, determined the world order. 

Gilpin’s vision emphasized the deep continuities in politics across the ages. He did not see the twentieth-century liberal world order as having remade international politics. Rather, it was part of the same old cycle that went back to the beginning of human history. Gilpin argued that the open, relatively stable, and prosperous world economy that created globalization and interdependence after World War II was constructed by the United States for its own national security interests. The hegemonic United States set up the liberal world order and underwrote it with U.S. military power. Gilpin predicted that the decline of U.S. power would restart the cycle of competition and chaos as rising powers tried to reorganize the system to their own advantage. In Gilpin’s telling, this process has always involved war between the old hegemon and aspiring ones. But he recognized that because nuclear weapons would make such a war so catastrophic, neither rising nor even declining countries would be likely to choose that path if they could avoid it. 

Gilpin’s vision of the future was not bright. He foresaw the decline of the United States and the end of the liberal order it had protected. A transition to a new world order was coming, and he expected the shift to prove chaotic and violent. The system would likely fragment into regional blocs, each of which would come under the influence of the strongest state in the area. This would mean a return to the kinds of spheres of influence prevalent in the nineteenth century and an end to the globalized world. Gilpin predicted that the transition would bring the return of nationalism, mercantilism, and closed economies. 

In some ways, Gilpin’s realist vision of world politics resembles that of U.S. President Donald Trump. Gilpin saw the United States as a declining power and showed that such countries have few choices. Faced with a fiscal crisis caused by overextended political and military commitments and the loss of competitive economic advantages, the hegemon must pull back or find new resources. Retrenchment involves abandoning foreign commitments and withdrawing troops stationed abroad, as well as accommodating rising powers. Searching for new resources involves trying to rejuvenate the domestic economy and blocking the rise of other countries. 

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” his attempts to pull back from U.S. overseas commitments and spend less protecting allies, and his ideas for accommodating Russia all reflect a realist vision of a declining hegemon. Yet although Gilpin might agree with Trump on the need to reverse American decline, I doubt he would condone many of Trump’s foreign policy choices. Apart from his gentlemanly demeanor, Gilpin’s deeply learned understanding of politics would have led him to oppose many of the decisions and actions Trump has taken, such as antagonizing allies and disparaging international institutions that codify U.S. advantages. In the end, Gilpin thought both retrenchment and reform were difficult and unlikely to succeed. Decline and conflict, he believed, were all but inevitable features of world politics, in the past and the future.

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