See K. J. Holsti, The Dividing Discipline (1985).
In international relations, a hegemon may be defined as a power that can dictate the policies of all other powers in its vicinity, or one that is able to defeat any other power or combination of powers that it might be at war with. Examples of (potentially) hegemonic states in history are the United States , the united Germany that had existed from 1871 to 1945, or historically the Spanish and British Empire.
The processes by which a dominant culture maintains its dominant position: for example, the use of institutions to formalize power; the employment of a bureaucracy to make power seem abstract (and, therefore, not attached to any one individual); the inculcation of the populace in the ideals of the hegemonic group through education, advertising, publication, etc.; the mobilization of a police force as well as military personnel to subdue opposition.
Antonio Gramsci devised one of the best-known accounts of hegemony. His theory defined the State by a mixture of coercion and hegemony, between which he drew distinctions. According to Gramsci, hegemony consists of socio-political power that flows from enabling the "spontaneous consent" of the populace through intellectual and moral leadership or authority as employed by the subalterns of the State. The power of the hegemony is thus primarily through coercion and consent rather than armed force. Such conceptions are sometimes referred to as "cultural hegemony."
In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe defined hegemony as a discursive strategy of combining principles from different systems of thought into one coherent ideology. Drawing on their ideas, critic Jennifer Daryl Slack's defines hegemony as "a process by which a hegemonic class articulates (or co-ordinates) the interests of social groups such that those groups actively 'consent' to their subordinated status.
The word "hegemony" originated in ancient Greece and derives from the word hegeisthai (meaning "to lead"). An early example of hegemony during ancient Greek history occurred when Sparta became the hegemon of the Peloponnesian League in the 6th century BC. Later, in 337 BC, Philip II of Macedon became the personal Hegemon of the League of Corinth, a position he passed on to his son Alexander the Great.
The concept of "Hegemony" was also present in ancient China, during the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 770 BC - 480 BC), when the weakening of the Zhou Dynasty led to increased autonomy amongst the feudal lords of the period. The hegemons, known as "Ba" (Chinese: 霸), were often appointed by conferences of feudal lords, and they were nominally obliged to uphold the supremacy of the Zhou kings and keep order amongst subordinate states.
The term hegemon is also used to describe Japan's three unifiers in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu each had different titles (and held many different posts during their lifetimes), but each had in common that they exercised hegemony over all or much of Japan. For ease of reference they are collectively referred to as the three hegemons or the three unifiers.
To the extent that hegemony appears as a cultural phenomenon, cultural institutions maintain it. The Medici maintained their hegemony in Tuscany through control of Florence's major guild, the Arte della Lana. Modern hegemonies also maintain themselves through cultural institutions, often with allegedly "voluntary" membership.
The dominance of the Dutch Republic during the 17th Century (1609-1672) can be considered one of the first instances of a "global" hegemon, with a focus on mercantilism. This was due to its development of wind power and shipping which enabled it to develop as a hegemon because of production efficiency. It then gained a commercial advantage through the generation of the 'Four Great Fleets' and later gained financial dominance, with the emergence of the stock market in Amsterdam.
During much of the rather absolutist reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715), France dominated most of Europe economically, culturally, and militarily. Monarchs imitated his court and style, even paying tribute as vassal status in many cases, while the Papacy could not effect even bishopric appointments, let alone secular politics.
In more recent times, analysts have used the term hegemony in a more abstract sense to describe the "proletarian dictatorships" of the 20th century, resulting in regional domination by local powers, or domination of the world by a global power. China's position of dominance in East Asia for most of its history offers an example of the regional hegemony.
The Cold War (1945 - 1990), with its main avenues of coercion, cooperation, and attraction - the Warsaw Pact, led by the USSR, and NATO, led by the United States, is often referred to as a struggle of hegemons and hegemonies. The details of the parties' respective ideologies have no relevance to whether they were hegemonies: both sides featured superpowers, supported by a coalition and/or alliance of their allies, friends, satellites, clients, and vassals, struggling to achieve dominance over the other, in multiple dimensions and multiple forums, including through military superiority, the arena of hearts and minds, cultural superiority, ideological superiority, and technological superiority, and become the dominant hegemony worldwide. Of course, the details of the ideologies of both parties--and the deeds that that each party did in the service of their respective ideologies--for example, the Soviet intervention into the Hungarian revolution, or the United States intervention into the Vietnamese revolution--did come into play to the extent that they determined the persuasiveness and efficacy of each hegemony.
After the end of the Cold War, some analysts used the term "hegemony" to describe the United States' role as the sole superpower (or, in the words of Hubert Védrine, as a "hyperpower") in the modern world. However, many scholars of international relations (such as John Mearsheimer or Joseph Nye) argue that the United States does not have true hegemony, since it lacks the resources to impose dominance over the entire globe. While the United States has dominance on political-military issues, it is equal to Europe on the economic scale, and has very little influence on transnational relations by non-state actors. Also, China, Russia, India, and the European Union are considered by some to be emerging superpowers capable of or already competing with the United States.
Geopolitics influences hegemonies. Ancient hegemonies developed in fertile river valleys (an example of hydraulic despotism): Egypt, China and the succession of states in Mesopotamia. In China during the Warring States Era the state of Qin created artificial waterways (such as the Chengkuo Canal) in order to give itself an advantage over its neighboring rival states. Hegemonic successor states in Eurasia tended to cluster around the Middle East for a period, using either the sea (Greece) or the fringe lands (Persia, Arabia). The focus of European hegemony moved west to Rome, then northwards to the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire. The Atlantic seaboard had its heyday (Spain, France, Britain) before the fringes of the European cultural area took over in the twentieth century (United States, Soviet Union).
Some regions show continually fluctuating areas of regional hegemony: India, for example, or the Balkans. Other regions show relative stability: northern China offers a case in point.