[F]ew people dispute that as a general rule, it’s good to be a hegemon. You generally get what you want, if you want it badly enough. Yet for all of its advantages, hegemony comes with its own drawbacks and risks. Indeed, it is, to paraphrase Karl Marx, beset by its own “internal contradictions.” Most important, the same multilateral systems hegemons routinely rely on to advance their interests can also facilitate and even speed their decline. This is in part because multilateral institutions are expensive enterprises to get off the ground, especially when one country, the hegemon, shoulders the burden of institution building. Then, once regimes are up and running, they tend to lull hegemons into making very bad policy decisions. Instead of leveraging multilateralism to bolster their own interests in lockstep with the rest of the world, hegemons tend to squander opportunities for leadership by using multilateral arrangements to finance costly wars or to hide their own poor economic management. Over time, allies become alienated and cooperation becomes harder to catalyze.
But bad habits and shortsightedness tell only part of the story. For the most part, multilateralism over the last two centuries has rested on some basic conception of free trade. This was in part because free trade enabled hyper competitive hegemons to prosper. Not only were their firms usually more competitive than those in weaker or less developed countries, but they also made it a point to negotiate agreements that favored their own manufacturers. That being said, even hegemons rarely captured all of the gains from multilateral agreements. No country is universally competitive across all sectors. Plus multilateral economic arrangements are usually sufficiently complex so that even the most powerful, thoughtful leaders are unable to predict and manipulate the full economic impact of liberalized trading arrangements. So periodically even relatively weak trading partners have been able to muster and deploy the competitive advantages they enjoy, whether it be abundant natural resources or cheaper labor costs. And over time, some countries not only adapt but also prosper. All the while, hegemons routinely remain responsible for underwriting the international systems they create, even as their own power erodes ¬– if not in absolute terms, then at least in relative ones, as other states make gains in the international economy. Economic wealth and power become more diffuse.