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Hierarchy and International Relations: Theory and Evidence

Summary and Keywords

The literature on international hierarchy is emerging as a progressive research program. This new theory of international relations is generating novel propositions that are being empirically confirmed. Some propositions, like the hierarchical peace, provide new explanations for previously identified phenomena. Other propositions on defense spending, crisis joining,e trade, and civil wars and repression establish new empirical relationships that—if they are not actually inconsistent with existing theories—were not previously identified. If the measure of progress is the uncovering of new facts, the new hierarchy studies are clearly moving in the right direction. Further progress requires more and better measures of hierarchy and continued testing of propositions derived from the theory.

Keywords: anarchy, hierarchy, power, status, war, trade, civil war, empirical international relations theory


Hierarchy is an enduring feature of international relations (IR). It is impossible to review global politics without noting the long history of empire, the importance of great power status, and the various forms of semisovereign states that have existed in the past and continue today. At the same time, the concept of hierarchy has often lacked analytical clarity and has been used to refer to a wide variety of often disparate inequalities in world politics. Perhaps as a consequence, it was relegated to the margins of the discipline of international relations, providing one of the most salient examples of how our theoretical lenses determine what we see when we look at the real world.1 Already marginalized, hierarchy was expelled from the discipline by Kenneth Waltz’s highly influential Theory of International Politics (1979), in which he defined the ordering principle of the international system as anarchy—the absence of authority over or between states—in opposition to domestic political systems of hierarchy.

It took almost two decades for a significant challenge to Waltz’s assumption of anarchy to emerge. The intuition motivating this challenge was that in fact, hierarchy existed, even if scholars ignored it, and its effects on world politics were important, if often subtle. Although some scholars continue to define the international system as strictly anarchic—and, indeed, to define the field of international relations by this trait—the field of hierarchy studies is now a recognized, if still emergent, research program within the discipline (Bially Mattern & Zarakol, 2016).

Much of the work on hierarchy remains conceptual, and appropriately so, as theory must precede empirics. This article briefly reviews the theoretical trends in the literature (in sections “Anarchy Versus Hierarchy” and “Theories of Hierarchy”) and then focuses on the empirical contributions of the research program to a particular form—namely, authority hierarchy (in section “Empirical Implications of Hierarchy”). This robust empirical research suggests how and why hierarchy in international relations should not be ignored, or assumed away, and what it can tell us about world politics. The conclusion identifies directions for future research.

Anarchy Versus Hierarchy

Anarchy has been a central concept in international relations since the founding of the field as an organized area of inquiry (Schmidt, 1998, 2013). As late as the 1970s, however, the term was not in wide use. Hans Morgenthau, the dean of the realist school of international relations (with which the concept is most closely associated), used the term only a handful of times in the last edition of his textbook Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1978), most often as a synonym for chaos.2 Waltz first elevated the concept as a primary constraint on international cooperation in his classic Man, the State, and War (1959), and then highlighted it in his 1979 treatise as the ordering principle from which all else followed. Whereas Morgenthau rooted the drive for power in human nature, Waltz derived the need for security and the corresponding tendency to balance power from the absence of any authority higher than the state. To his credit, Waltz did not deny that there were elements of hierarchy in the international system—he was well aware of the history of empire, as suggested by his extended critique of Vladimir Lenin’s theory of imperialism—but in his spare focus on great power relations, he simply posited that variations in the ordering principle were unimportant for the few big things that really mattered in international relations.

Most of Waltz’s critics accepted his view of anarchy but challenged its consequences. Inspired by the folk theorem, some questioned Waltz’s bargaining logic and demonstrated that cooperation was indeed possible (Axelrod, 1984; Oye, 1985; Powell, 1994). Others argued that, despite anarchy, institutions could facilitate cooperation (Keohane, 1983, 1984). More deeply, constructivists argued that the meaning of anarchy, as well as the behaviors that might follow from it, were actually socially constructed, and thus variable (Reus-Smit, 1999; Wendt, 1992). Importantly, though, none of these critics questioned whether anarchy itself was a dominant characteristic of the international system. Even scholars who might otherwise have been attentive to variations in international structure largely accepted the conception of anarchy that lay at the center of Waltz’s theory and the field as a whole. Power transition theory (Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980) and hegemonic stability theory (Gilpin, 1981), for example, posited differences in power or the distribution of capabilities, but retained the core assumption that the system was anarchic. Although such works sometimes drifted into or implied variations in the organizing principle of world politics, these insights were not rigorously developed and often produced an unresolved tension in the studies. Most work in the field accepted the anarchy problematique (Milner, 1991).

The debate over hierarchy in international relations started slowly.3 The key idea is that while the system as a whole is anarchic, it is a fallacy of division to conclude that all relations within that system are also anarchic (Lake, 1996). Hierarchy could—and in fact does—exist “amidst anarchy” (Weber, 2000). This conceptual point, otherwise likely to be of interest only to IR theorists, gained prominence during the Iraq War, which generated a slew of books on the United States as an empire and even prompted senior officials in the George W. Bush administration to acknowledge this status.4 In searching to understand how this war could have happened, the concept of hierarchy gained a wider audience. Despite this resonance, however, the challenge for what has emerged as the new hierarchy studies remains to demonstrate that, contrary to Waltz, hierarchy matters for explaining important patterns of world politics.5

Theories of Hierarchy

All hierarchies are orderings ranked according to some principle, whether it be social norms, status, or authority. As such, all hierarchies are socially constructed, dependent on their members—both superordinate and subordinate—understanding their positions and attendant rights and responsibilities. The rankings may be instantiated in institutions, as in the United Nations (UN) Security Council or the G-7 (Simpson, 2004), but they also may be purely conceptual and not readily observable by outsiders and analysts, revealed only by the close, near-ethnographic study of practice (Pouliot, 2010, 2016).

In the new hierarchy studies, the literature can be grouped into essentially three levels.6 Broad or deep hierarchies rest on social norms of inequality that are often beyond consciousness, or at least have been so thoroughly “normalized” that they typically are left unexamined. Racial hierarchies underlie many international relationships, including the idea of the “white man’s burden” in imperial projects in the 19th century,7 the distinction between First World and Third World states commonly made in the 20th century, and the concept of failed states, nearly all of which can be found today in Africa.8 Gender hierarchies are equally pervasive, both in general and in terms of how diplomats (and scholars) understand, talk about, and treat states; high-status, powerful states are masculinized and low-status, less powerful states are feminized or emasculated (Sjoberg, 2012, 2017).

The literature on broad hierarchies is mostly focused on revealing otherwise hidden inequalities in world politics.9 It has a descriptive or empirical dimension, but mostly with the aim of bringing attention to hierarchies that are sublimated or normalized as part of our everyday world. By calling attention to such hierarchies, especially when they conflict with changing social norms, scholars hope to render them problematic and potentially open to change. The theory of where deep hierarchies come from, such as it is, is generative, with deep social inequalities like race or gender formed at home and then projected onto the international stage, and vice versa.10 As with all generative theories, structure and agency are deeply implicated with one another, with state behavior and normative structures being mutually constitutive and logically inseparable. As a result, the research enterprise here is typically critical rather than positive. For this reason, I do not engage with the rich descriptions of hierarchies and their formation in this approach in the “Empirical Implications of Hierarchy” section of this article, on empirical consequences.

Research on status hierarchies has a longer tradition in international relations than that for other forms of hierarchy, predating the recent “hierarchy turn” in the field. The terms great, middle, and small power were common in the practice of diplomacy from at least the 17th century and have been carried over into the language of international relations. Typologies abound, but few aim to predict the behaviors of states. From the 1970s, scholars have focused less on status per se and more on status inconsistencies as a cause of war.11 Status has recently received new attention (Paul, Larson, & Wohlforth, 2014; Renshon, 2017). This literature is reviewed elsewhere in this volume (see Larson’s “Social Identity Theory: Status and Identity in International Relations” []; Volgy et al.’s “Conflict, Regions, and Regional Hierarchies” []; and Rhamey and Volgy’s “Regional Politics and Powers: Hierarchy and Comparative Regional Analysis in International Relations Theory" []), so my discussion is necessarily brief and aims primarily to place this research in the context of the broader literature on hierarchy.

Status is often understood as a psychological property. Humans have, in this view, an inherent tendency to rank others (and especially other groups relative to themselves), perhaps as a heuristic for how they should be regarded and treated in social interactions. At the risk of anthropomorphization, collectives of individuals organized into states are understood to rank other states in a similar fashion. In international relations, status most often appears to be associated with the distribution of capabilities, as Waltz (1979) defined it. This is an important difference from other approaches to hierarchy, which begin from his first dimension of international structure rather than his third.

Considerable effort has been devoted to operationalizing status and especially status inconsistencies (Renshon, 2017; Volgy, Corbetta, Grant, & Baird, 2010; Volgy, Corbetta, Rhamey, Baird, & Grant, 2014). The most recent empirical findings indicate that (a) the initiation of violent international conflict does increase the standing of states that pursue status, (b) status deficits increase the probability of initiating international conflicts at all levels of intensity, and (c) status-seeking states will target other states with similar or higher status that they are likely to beat (Renshon, 2017, ch. 5). This is a promising research program.

An alternative strain in the status literature—which is more constructivist in orientation and has not, unfortunately, connected with the research on status inconsistency and conflict—examines strategies for building or subverting hierarchy. As suggested by Towns (2010) and others, high-status states may raise standards to continuously separate themselves from status-seeking states that are otherwise catching up in their practices.12 In one striking example, Towns (2010) argues that “advanced” democratic states have begun to adopt norms of gender equality in parliamentary representation as a way of distinguishing themselves from the newly democratic states that have copied their previous institutions, creating a normative “race to the top.” Conversely, written largely from the perspective of subaltern states, Zarakol (2011) focuses on how stigmatized states either attempt to pass by improving their status according to established ranking criteria or undermine the criteria themselves by advocating alternative principles. Conceptualizing the broad array of status-seeking strategies promises a deeper understanding of how states seek to improve their standing in the world system in ways other than war.

Authority hierarchies, or sometimes narrow hierarchies, stratify states by their right to rule.13 As traditionally understood, authority entails the right of one party (the ruler) to issue commands to a second party (the ruled), who has a correlative obligation or duty to comply, if possible. This obligation, in turn, implies a further right by the ruler to enforce her commands in the event of noncompliance. When these rights and obligations are understood and accepted by both parties, authority is described as legitimate. Authority is always limited, in that the range of commands that are legitimate is always finite and dynamic, changing over time through political struggle between the ruler and ruled and between factions within the latter.

In international relations, authority hierarchies range from anarchy, in which neither state in a relationship exercises any authority over the other, to empire, where in principle, the dominant state possesses complete sovereignty over the subordinate but may delegate some limited powers to local elites. Reflecting the long presence of authority hierarchies, there is a rich historical language that captures the variation in the authority exercised by the dominant state over the subordinate polity. This ranges in the security realm from spheres of influence, which merely prohibit subordinates from aligning with other great powers from outside the region, to protectorates, in which the dominant state assumes full authority over the subordinate’s foreign policy; and in the economic arena, from economic zones that, like spheres of influence, exclude others to dependencies that, like protectorates, grant full authority over international trade and investment to the dominate state.

Political authority has multiple origins. The right to rule has been variously understood to derive from the charisma of individual leaders (charismatic authority), tradition that is socially accepted and reproduced through ritualized ceremony (traditional authority), religious deities (religious authority), or law (formal-legal authority) (Weber, 1978, pp. 31–38, 215–254).14 Constructivists identify more social origins of legitimacy based on the interaction of structure and agency and conditioned by ideas and social norms.15 All these sources have played a role in legitimating political leaders and institutions in different historical moments, and they continue to play a role in shaping international hierarchy today.

In modern international politics, however, the principle of sovereignty dominates relations between states. Even though states routinely violate this principle in practice (Krasner, 1999), sovereignty as a norm prohibits relations of authority by one state over another. The normative ideal in contemporary international politics is that each state is formally equal and autonomous. This norm limits relations of hierarchy, largely ruling out permanent or open-ended empires of the form that existed until the 1960s, when colonialism finally ended. Nonetheless, even in the face of this hostile principle, relations of hierarchy continue to exist, although in attenuated and informal forms. In turn, the political authority of the dominant states appears to rest largely on a contract or bargain, the terms of which are colored as expected by constructivists by larger social norms about just and appropriate relationships between supposedly sovereign states.16

Most theories of authority hierarchy in international relations begin from this contractual approach. In these authority contracts, regardless of their specific terms, the dominant state provides a political order of value to the subordinate state that is sufficient to offset the latter’s loss of freedom incurred in its subordination. In return, the subordinate confers on the dominant state the right (legitimacy) to exert the restraints on its behavior necessary to provide that order, and to punish it in the event of noncompliance.17 In equilibrium, the dominant state receives sufficient returns on its efforts to make the provision of political order worthwhile, while the subordinate enjoys sufficient order to offset its loss of freedom. In this way, authority is contingent on the actions and beliefs of both the dominant and subordinate states, and an equilibrium is produced and reproduced through ongoing interactions.

An alternative to this contractual approach is a network model of international hierarchy in which ties between states and elites in one and elites in another play a central, constitutive role (MacDonald, 2014; Nexon, 2009). Here, it is not so much the bargains that get made that matter, but rather the structure of relationships that determines the extent and nature of the authority exercised by dominant states. This strain highlights the how of authority hierarchies, but produces fewer implications for the behaviors of both dominant and subordinate states, to which I now turn.

Empirical Implications of Hierarchy

As discussed previously, the literature on broad hierarchies has focused more on revealing the existence of structural inequalities in international relations than in identifying the consequences of those hierarchies for the behaviors of states.18 The literature on status highlights the hypothesis that status inconsistencies lead to conflict and is discussed elsewhere in this volume. In this section, I review the relatively robust results found in the recent literature on authority hierarchies. The key idea behind these theories is that the dominant state provides political order in exchange for subordination and legitimacy. The subordinate yields some measure of its sovereignty in return for external and internal security guarantees. This exchange implies several consequences that have been confirmed empirically.

Measuring International Hierarchy

Before turning to empirical propositions, however, it is necessary to introduce the indirect indicators used to measure authority hierarchy and how they differ from cognate concepts. Like coercion, authority is a form of power—the ability of A (the ruler) to get B (the ruled) to do something that he otherwise would not do (Dahl, 1957). Unlike coercion, however, which is a function of A’s ability to inflict pain or offer rewards, authority rests on an intersubjective set of rights and duties, as explained previously. It is the obligation to comply or the legitimacy of the command that separates authority from other forms of power. Scholars of international relations consensually accept a set of physical attributes as proxies for coercive capabilities: gross domestic product (GDP), population, military personnel, military spending, and so on, individually in some cases and as an aggregate index in most others.19 Although these indicators perhaps deserve more scrutiny than they typically receive, there is broad agreement that they capture a state’s ability to impose costs or offer rewards to other states. The intersubjective character of authority means that it is much harder to capture in externally observable traits at the state-to-state level. Indeed, even in the study of domestic politics, where the concept of authority is more broadly acknowledged as important, scholars do not have a consensus measure (Gilley, 2006a, 2006b).

To date, security hierarchy has been measured by military bases or troop deployments and some index of alliance ties and economic hierarchy has been operationalized through trade dependence and exchange rate regimes. These observable traits capture something of the underlying concept of authority, in that they can be changed by the subordinate state (at least in principle), meaning that if troops are deployed or exchange rates are fixed to the other’s currency over extended periods, this suggests the subordinate’s acquiescence to, and perhaps the embrace of, the dominant state’s influence over its foreign and economic policies. I developed a set of indices based on these variables which have some face validity, correlate together (convergent validity), but do not correlate with other measures of coercion or power (discriminant validity), and appear to predict behaviors relatively well (predictive validity) (Lake, 2009a, ch. 3). Several of the studies reviewed in this section use these indicators.

Although valid on several dimensions, these indicators are not perfect and likely contain some significant measurement errors. The underlying data, moreover, are available for the United States only from 1950–2000, and thus are unfortunately limited in scope. Finally, the measures are also context specific, applying most clearly to the conduct of U.S. hierarchy and likely not being appropriate for even the case of European imperialism in the 19th century (for which the index of independent alliances, for example, would be irrelevant since few subordinates were sufficiently sovereign to ally with the metropole). Over longer periods of time, and for other dominant states, other analysts have used just military bases (Allen, VanDusky-Allen, & Flynn, 2016) or great power alliances (McDonald, 2015). This is clearly an area where, if empirical studies of hierarchy are to blossom, additional measures will need to be developed and coded over longer periods of time.

Empirical Results on the Behavioral Consequences of Hierarchy

Although the first systematic tests of the behavioral implications of authority hierarchy are less than a decade old, there are a number of empirically robust findings that have already accumulated in the literature. First, since under an authority hierarchy, subordinates are not solely responsible for their own security, they should spend less on defense than similar states that are not subordinate to any dominant state. Examining a sample of 126 countries from 1950–2000, I find that countries subordinate to the United States in the security arena spend significantly less on defense than countries that are not subordinate, controlling for previous levels of military spending, the level of threat as measured by previous involvement in militarized interstate disputes (MIDs), the number of other allies who might come to their aid, income per capita, democracy, and other robustness checks (Lake, 2009a, Tables 5.1 and 5.2, pp. 144–147).20 Indeed, the average country in the sample spent approximately 2.57% of its GDP on defense during the period examined. Moving from a condition of no hierarchy to the level of hierarchy between the United States and Panama in 1995 reduces defense spending in subordinates by 1.1% of GDP, or 43% of the baseline average.

This estimate likely understates the true effect of hierarchy. Data are available only for the hierarchies controlled by the United States during this period, but the sample includes countries in Eastern Europe subordinate to the Soviet Union and some former colonies of Britain and France in Africa that also likely benefit from the protection of their former metropole. The omitted variable of “other hierarchies” likely reduces the estimated effect of U.S. hierarchy on defense effort.

Likewise, using a measure of hierarchy based only on U.S. troop deployments, Allen, VanDusky-Allen, and Flynn (2016) find that nonallied subordinate states reduce their defense expenditures, while subordinate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies increase their expenditures. Their idea is that while subordinates overall reduce their defense expenditures, formal alliance structures can be used by the dominant state to reduce free-riding and mobilize collective defense efforts. Suggesting that hierarchy correlates spatially, they also find that U.S. troops elsewhere in a region have much the same effect on defense spending in a country as if U.S. troops were stationed on their soil. Overall, the effect of hierarchy on defense expenditures is statistically significant and substantively large, albeit contingent on the specifics of the authority relationship.

The same logic implies that dominant states must actually come to the aid of their subordinates in military crises. The failure to aid subordinates would likely undermine the credibility of the exchange of order for legitimacy. At the same time, this relationship is complicated. In a form of moral hazard, security guarantees for subordinates may encourage them to be more aggressive or make larger demands on opponents. For this reason, dominant states offer security guarantees only in return for a degree of control over the subordinate’s foreign policy, typically manifested in troops stationed on the subordinate’s soil. Having constrained the subordinate’s sovereignty, however, the dominant state is increasingly bound to come to its aid in the event of a conflict.

Using the set of MIDs in which it was not an originating party to the crisis during the same period as given previously (and for which data are available), I find that the United States is significantly more likely to join a crisis the higher the level of hierarchy in the states involved (Lake, 2009a, Tables 4.1 and 4.2, pp. 108–109). Moving from a position of no hierarchy to the 75th percentile of the hierarchy distribution increases the relative risk that the United States will join a MID by between 75% (on security hierarchy) and 103% (on economic hierarchy). Similar results are obtained when examining the set of crises identified by the International Crisis Behavior project (Lake, 2009a, Table 4.3, p. 110) and in an independent study by Nieman (2013).21 These results strongly confirm that the United States is more likely to come to the aid of its subordinates than other countries, and that this likelihood increases based on the level of hierarchy.

It also follows from this core proposition (that order is exchanged for legitimacy) that a dominant state will seek to preserve peaceful relations between states that are both subordinate to it. Mutually subordinate dyads, in other words, ought to experience fewer episodes of violence than other dyads due to the efforts of the dominant state to protect both clients.22 This would constitute a form of hierarchical peace, equivalent to the democratic or capitalist peace findings. In an interesting qualitative design, Butt (2013) examines conflict patterns in Latin America, where the United States has been almost universally dominant since 1898, and leverages variation in interest and effort by the dominant state in mediating disputes. He finds that U.S. isolationism in the 1930s, when it likely reduced its role in providing order, correlates with a larger number of wars in the region during that period. This is an indirect test that exploits a proxy—isolationism—for hierarchical effort, which itself has ambiguous theoretical standing. Nonetheless, this is suggestive of a hierarchical peace and a plausible interpretation of conflict patterns in Latin America.

Patrick McDonald (2015) has subjected this same proposition to more systematic analysis. The democratic peace, he argues, is really an artifact of underlying international hierarchy. Following Ikenberry (2001) in understanding that postwar orders are epochal events, McDonald argues that “peace is an artifact of historically specific great power settlements. These settlements shape subsequent aggregate patterns of military conflict by altering the organizational configuration of the system in three critical ways—by creating new states, by altering hierarchical orders, and by influencing regime type in states” (McDonald, 2015, p. 557). In other words, regime type is endogenous to relations with dominant states, with both democracy and peace being codetermined by great power hierarchies. Thus, the well-known relationship between democracy and peace, he argues, is spurious. McDonald then shows that the so-called democratic peace is historically contingent, holding after World War I but not before, and that the relationship between democracy and peace is subsumed by joint hierarchies. Why dominant states try to project their own regime type onto their subordinates remains undertheorized, especially in light of the discussion that follows later in this article.23 Overall, though, hierarchy appears to exert profound effects on the security policies and conflict patterns of states.

If subordinate states exchange some degree of sovereignty for political order, and they do in fact enjoy a measure of protection provided by the dominant state, it follows that such states should also be willing to specialize according to their comparative advantage—violating Waltz’s (1979) prediction that states will not differentiate themselves by function. This implies that subordinates will trade more with the dominant state and, importantly, trade more with other states that are subordinate to the same dominant state. Employing a gravity model of international trade flows that controls for a host of determinants, as well as a near-universal sample of states from 1950–1999, I demonstrate that subordinate states indeed trade more overall and trade more with other mutually subordinate parties (Lake, 2009a, Tables 5.3 and 5.4, pp. 155 and 158–159).24 The substantive effect of both states in a dyad being subordinate to the United States is roughly equivalent to both being members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This suggests that not only do countries benefit in real terms from giving up some measure of their sovereignty over security and economic policy, but that the United States as a dominant state is credibly providing sufficient order that subordinates are confident not only in reducing their defense expenditures, but also specializing within the international economy.

If authority hierarchy is an exchange of order for compliance and legitimacy, we would also expect subordinate states to act in various ways to legitimate the policies of the dominant state. As discussed previously, legitimacy is unobservable, as it depends on the agreement of individuals within the subordinate state that their relationship with the dominant country is appropriate and right. Such agreement is observationally equivalent to the suppression of disagreement.

One possible way of capturing legitimacy indirectly, however, is through acts of symbolic obeisance, or compliance with the desires of the dominant state in the absence of explicit demands and threats. As one possible example of such obeisance, no Latin American country had broken relations or declared war on Germany in either World War I or II prior to the entry of the United States into these conflicts. Within days of the U.S. entry in both wars, however, virtually all Latin American countries at least broke relations, and in many cases also declared war on Germany and other Axis countries.

More systematically, examining all U.S.-led military coalitions from 1950–2000, I find that countries subordinate to the United States were significantly more likely to join coalitions than nonsubordinate states (Lake, 2009a, Table 5.4, pp. 170–171). The substantive effect, moreover, is quite large, with countries at the level of security hierarchy of Panama or the level of economic hierarchy of Canada in 1995 being 2.5 times more likely to join a U.S.-led coalition than nonsubordinates. Whether part of the authority contract or another act of symbolic obeisance, Srdjan Vucetic and Atsushi Tago (Tago & Vucetic, 2013, 2015) find that countries subordinate to the United States are also more likely to procure military equipment from U.S. suppliers than nonsubordinates.

Finally, the most recent work in empirical studies of hierarchy has begun to examine how authority is exercised through domestic political systems. As McDonald and others have argued, dominant states often seek to export their own regime types to subordinate countries, in the case of the United States after World War II exporting democracy to Europe and eventually Northeast Asia (Clapton, 2014). At the same time, however, hierarchy appears to have a very different effect outside the consolidated democracies. The core idea behind a range of studies is that the security guarantee extended by the dominant state also protects domestic leaders from internal challengers, insulating them from competition and creating a host of pernicious consequences. In a series of case studies, Jamal (2012), Yom (2015), and Zimmermann (2017) show that except when popular movements commit to maintaining their place within the hierarchy (see also McKoy & Miller, 2012), external support helps keep autocratic leaders in power and breeds corruption by the leader and anti-Americanism in the population—ultimately destabilizing the subordinate countries.25

In an important cross-national study, Cunningham (2016) has demonstrated that leaders in subordinate states are significantly less likely to face challengers willing to initiate civil wars against their regimes. With aid from the dominant state tipping the military balance toward certain defeat, domestic opponents choose not to challenge the state directly. In turn, leaders become more repressive, increasing public opposition to their rule and the dominant state’s supporting role. This concurs fully with the case study evidence just noted. Cunningham further shows that dissent is channeled into other forms of protest, including nonviolent campaigns and terrorism, the classic weapon of the weak.26 This research indicates that hierarchy matters not just for relations between states, but also for politics within states.27 Future theory and empirical research will need to explain when hierarchy leads to democracy and peace, on the one hand, and autocracy, repression, and potentially terrorism on the other. I suggest some avenues for future work on this question in the conclusion of this article.

Taken as a whole, this empirical research—though still in its early stages—provides important evidence to counter Waltz’s presumption that, even though it might exist, international hierarchy does not matter for understanding the big questions of international relations. Rather, hierarchy exerts important effects on defense spending, crisis behavior, and war, not to mention the supposedly low politics of international trade. Perhaps even more important, hierarchy appears to have profound effects on the domestic politics of subordinate states, paradoxically suppressing civil wars in autocratic subordinates while expanding grievances, repression, and other forms of dissent, including terrorism. Although further research is needed, there can be little doubt that authority hierarchy, at least, matters in consequential ways for state behavior.


Scholars of international hierarchy have several exciting and difficult theoretical challenges before them if they are to push the research frontier further outward. The first theoretical task is to integrate (or at least understand) the interactions between the different forms of hierarchy discussed in section “Theories of Hierarchy” of this article. What makes some commands by some countries legitimate at times is undoubtedly shaped by the norms embodied in broad hierarchies in international society. Even if the exchange of order for subordination posed in authority hierarchies has a material foundation, the terms of the exchange and how they are evaluated obviously will be shaped by deeper normative structures. It is impossible to understand European imperialism, for instance, without understanding the deep racism that allowed some peoples to claim the right to rule others.

It is equally difficult to understand the problem of state failure and the assertion of rights to protect vulnerable peoples without also recognizing the still-prevalent racial hierarchy that sees some regions and countries as deficient in governance (Anievas, Manchanda, & Shilliam, 2015; Jones, 2008; Vitalis, 2000). At the same time, authority hierarchies, by creating law and structures of practice, can shape norms and deep hierarchies, perhaps over a longer time scale. Although treated separately in this discussion and by many scholars, the levels of hierarchy are ultimately cut from a single piece of cloth. To make further empirical progress, even in operationalizing hierarchy, requires a better understanding of how norms shape what is and is not appropriate or legitimate infringement on the sovereignty of a state, and how this has changed over time.

A second theoretical challenge is that authority hierarchies, even by themselves, are dynamic, transformative structures. Entering a hierarchy changes the units in fundamental ways, which in turn alters the nature and way in which authority is wielded. In any international hierarchy, the dominant state develops an imperial apparatus. In Britain, this meant a colonial office and military, as well as investors dependent on rents from the colonies. In the United States, this has meant the rise of a military-industrial complex oriented toward, and in fact dependent on, projecting force across the globe and international businesses deeply integrated into global supply chains made possible by freer trade. As its hierarchy has grown, in turn, the domestic constituencies in the United States benefiting from the governance of the international order have likewise grown and become vested in sustaining U.S. authority.

The domestic politics of subordinate countries are equally realigned over time. In countries where policy preferences are relatively similar to those of the dominant state, or sufficiently plastic that they can be reshaped to fit those preferences, as in postwar Germany or Japan, democracy is possible; following McDonald (2015), the security umbrella permits the development of a social welfare state, and international openness allows export-led growth to flourish. Over time, the subordinate society becomes vested or locked into the international political order as well.

In countries where policy preferences are more distant, the dominant states must support sympathetic elites who, because they are at odds with their own populations, must rule authoritatively and sometimes repressively, stimulating political opposition and possibly terrorism. Even here, though, integration into the international political order may over time transform the domestic political economies of these societies through specialization. Understanding the dynamics of hierarchy will require a significant investment of time and effort by a broad range of scholars. With the empirical record already compiled in the literature, however, this appears to be an investment that will pay high dividends.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (1.) On paradigms as blinders, see Kuhn (1970). Few graduate syllabi in the 1980s and 1990s included readings on imperialism. The only significant work in international relations on empire during this period was Doyle (1986).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (2.) This was the last edition that Morgenthau wrote himself. The index does not include the term anarchy. I have identified three uses of the word anarchy in the actual text (p. 195, 280, 393), and in each case, it is paired with or a synonym for disorder, violence, or war. Note that this edition is almost coterminous with Waltz’s 1979 book, portions of which appeared in earlier essays. The idea of anarchy as the absence of authority and a distinguishing characteristic of international relations was certainly available to Morgenthau, had he wished to employ it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (3.) The earliest critiques are from Onuf (1989) and Onuf and Klink (1989), in the then-developing constructivist approach, and Milner (1991), in a more rationalist tradition.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (4.) Among other sources, see Bacevich (2002), Cox (2004), Ferguson (2002), Lal (2004), Mann (2003), Munkler (2007), and Odom and Dujarric (2004); to place this literature in perspective, see Nexon and Wright (2007) and Pitts (2010). On the Bush administration official’s statement “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” see Suskind (2004).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (5.) The phrase new hierarchy studies has been popularized by Daniel Nexon but has not yet, to my knowledge, appeared in print; see, among other posts,

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (6.) For a more extensive discussion, see Lake (2009b) and Bially Mattern and Zarakol (2016).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (7.) For explicitly racialized hierarchies of states, see Reid (1932) and Willoughby and Fenwick (1974), originally part of the inquiry handbooks prepared for President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles conference. On race in early international relations theory, see Vitalis (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (8.) On these points, see the essays in Anievas, Manchanda, and Shilliam (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (9.) On structures as forms of hidden power, see Ashley (1984). On hierarchy in particular, see Onuf (1989) and Onuf and Klink (1989).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (10.) On the interaction between American racism and international politics, see the discussion of the Howard school in Vitalis (2015). On gender hierarchies and international structure, see Sjoberg (2012).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (11.) See East (1972), Volgy and Mayhall (1995), and Wallace (1971).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (12.) For a similar but more rationalist argument, see Hyde (2011).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (13.) On authority hierarchies from various perspectives, see Clark (1989), Cooley (2005), Cooley and Spruyt (2009), Dunne (2003), Goh (2013), Hancock (2001), Hobson and Sharman (2005), Kang (2003/2004), Lake (1999, 2009a), and (Weber, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (14.) Nye’s (2002) notion of soft power overlaps with charismatic, traditional, and religious forms of authority.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (15.) See Bukovansky (2002), Hurd (2007a, 2007b), Reus-Smit (2004, 2005, 2007), and Wendt and Friedheim (1995).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (16.) For a defense of this assumption, see Lake (2009a, ch. 1). For a similar approach to domestic authority, see Barzel (2002), Levi (1988), and North (1981). For an attempt to link principles of legitimation to authority contracts, see Lake (2017).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (17.) On the theory and empirics of punishments for noncompliance and rewards for compliance, see McCormack (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (18.) There are, of course, exceptions. For example, see the various works by Enloe (1990, 2000).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (19.) Most directly, see the Composite Index of National Capability score developed by the Correlates of War project to measure power. See Singer (1988).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (20.) There are, surprisingly, few good baseline models of defense expenditures. One recent study is Nordhaus, Oneal, and Russett (2012); the test of hierarchy in Lake (2009a) and summarized here ought to be reestimated within this model.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (21.) Following a similar logic, Fariss and Meernik (2013) find that the United States is also significantly more likely to give economic (but not food) aid to its subordinates.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (22.) Parent and Erikson (2009) also posit an indirect mechanism of incompetent intervention, rooted in informational asymmetries, which prompts antagonists to settle disputes before the dominant state becomes involved. On the role of the dominant state in conflict management in the Chinese tributary system, see Shu (2011). On hierarchy and arbitration in ancient Greece, see Grynaviski and Hsieh (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (23.) On the export of regime type, see Khong (2013).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (24.) See also Nieman (2013, ch. 4).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (25.) The dominant state also may be able to pick leaders who are sympathetic to the authority hierarchy and its preferred policies. See Lake (2011, 2016) and McCormack (2015).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (26.) On hierarchy, aid, and terrorism, see Boutton and Carter (2014).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  (27.) These same domestic traits may affect growth rates. See Flechtner and Panther (2015).