The Enduring Legacy of Robert Gilpin

How He Predicted Today's Great Power Rivalry

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

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

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