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Legitimacy, Hypocrisy, and the Social Structure of Unipolarity: Why Being a Unipole Isn’t
All It’s Cracked up to Be
Author(s): Martha Finnemore
Source: World Politics, Vol. 61, No. 1, International Relations Theory and the Consequences
of Unipolarity (Jan., 2009), pp. 58-85
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Why Being a Unipole Isn’t All It’s

Cracked Up to Be

would think that unipoles have it made. After all, unipolarity
is a condition of minimal constraint. Unipoles should be able to

do pretty much what they want in the world since, by definition, no
other state has the power to stop them. In fact, however, the United
States, arguably the closest thing to a unipole we have seen in centuries,
has been frustrated in many of its policies since it achieved that status
at the end of the Cold War. Much of this frustration surely stems from
nonstructural causes – domestic politics, leaders’ poor choices, bad luck.
But some sources of this frustration may be embedded in the logic of
contemporary unipolarity itself.

Scholarship on polarity and system structures created by various dis-
tributions of power has focused almost exclusively on material power;
the structure of world politics, however, is social as much as it is mate-
rial.1 Material distributions of power alone tell us little about the kind

* Comments from all of the project participants helped frame and orient this essay. Additional
comments from Ingrid Creppell, Peter Katzenstein, Kristin Lord, and anonymous reviewers for World
Politics are gratefully acknowledged. Research assistance and thoughtful discussion by Amir Stepak
greatly improved the article.

!The contributions to Paul, Wirtz, and Fortmann are representative of the materialist orientation
of this literature. Only one contribution to this volume, Michael Bartletta and Harold Trinkunas,
“Regime Type and Regional Security in Latin America: Toward a ‘Balance of Identity’ Theory,”
grapples in depth with nonmaterial factors. T. V. Paul, James J. Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann,
eds., Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2004). Ikenberry similarly contains only one essay that explores nonmaterial factors explicitly. See
Thomas Risse, “U.S. Power in a Liberal Security Community,” in G. John Ikenberry, ed., America
Unrivaled: The Future of the Balance of Power (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). The ma-
terialist orientation of the project of which this essay is a part draws on this tradition. See articles by
Wohlforth and by Ikenberry, Mastanduno, and Wohlforth, in this issue.

World Politics 61, no. 1 (January 2009), 58-85
Copyright © 2008 Trustees of Princeton University

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of politics states will construct for themselves.2 This is particularly true
in a unipolar system, where material constraints are small. Much is de-
termined by social factors, notably the identity of the unipole and the
social fabric of the system it inhabits. One would expect a U.S. unipolar
system to look different from a Nazi unipolar system or a Soviet one;
the purposes to which those three states would use preponderant power
are very different. Similarly, one would expect a U.S. unipolar system
in the twenty-first century to look very different from, say, the Roman
world, or the Holy Roman Empire (if either of those counts as a unipo-
lar system). Social structures of norms concerning sovereignty, liberal-
ism, self-determination, and border rigidity (among other things) have
changed over time and create vastly different political dynamics among
these systems.3 Generalizing about the social structure of unipolarity
seems risky, perhaps impossible, when so much depends on the par-
ticulars of unipole identity and social context, but in the spirit of this
project, I will try.

Even a very thin notion of social structure suggests some reasons
why contemporary unipolar power may be inherently limited (or self-
limiting) and why unipoles often cannot get their way.4 Power is only
a means to other, usually social, ends. States, including unipoles, want
power as a means of deterring attacks, amassing wealth, imposing pre-
ferred political arrangements, or creating some other array of effects on
the behavior of others. Even states with extraordinary material power
must figure out how to use it. They must figure out what they want
and what kinds of policies will produce those results. Creating desired
social outcomes, even with great material power, is not simple, as the

2 The type of system states construct may not reflect the material distribution of power at all. After
1815, the European great powers consciously constructed a multipolar system under material condi-
tions that might be variously categorized as hegemony or bipolarity, depending on how one measures,
but are not multipolar by any material measure. See Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention:
Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), chap. 4, for an
extended discussion.

3 See inter alia Hedley Bull and Adam Watson, eds., The Expansion of International Society (Ox-
ford: Clarendon Press, 1984); Gerrit W. Gong, The Standard of ‘Civilisation in International Society
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984); Christian Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social
Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1999); idem, American Power and World Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004); Robert H. Jackson,
The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000);
Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999);
John G. Ruggie, “Territoriality and Beyond: Problematizing Modernity in International Relations,”
International Organization 46 (Winter 1993), 139-74; and Mlada Bukovansky, Legitimacy and Power
Politics: The American and French Revolutions in International Political Culture (Trinceton: Princeton

University Press, 2002).
4 For a related conclusion derived from a somewhat different theoretical perspective and reasons,

see Joseph P. Nye, Jr., The Paradox of American Power: Why the Worlds Only Superpower Cant Go It
Alone (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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U.S. is discovering. By better understanding the social nature of power
and the social structures through which it works its effects, we might
identify some contingently generalizable propositions about unipolar
politics and, specifically, about social-structural reasons why great ma-
terial powers may not get their way.5
In this article I explore three social mechanisms that limit unipolar

power and shape its possible uses. The first involves legitimation. To
exercise power effectively, unipoles must legitimate it and in the act of
legitimating their power, unipoles must diffuse it. They must recog-
nize the power of others over them since legitimation lies in the hands
of others. Of course, unipoles can always exercise their power without
regard to legitimacy. If one simply wants to destroy or kill, the legiti-
macy of bombs or bullets is not going to change their physical effects
on buildings or bodies. However, simple killing and destruction are
rarely the chief goal of political leaders using power. Power is usually
the means to some other end in social life, some more nuanced form of

social control or influence. Using power as more than a sledgehammer
requires legitimation, and legitimation makes the unipole dependent,
at least to some extent, on others.

The second involves the institutionalization of unipolar power. In
the contemporary world powerful Western states, including the U.S.,
have relied on rational-legal authorities – law, rules, institutions – to do
at least some of the legitimation work. Unipoles can create these insti-
tutions and tailor them to suit their own preferences. Indeed, the U.S.
expended a great deal of energy doing exactly this kind of rational-legal
institution building in the era after WWII.6 Constructing institutions
involves more than simple credible commitments and self-binding by
the unipole, however. Laws, rules, and institutions have a legitimacy of
their own in contemporary politics that derives from their particular
rational-legal, impersonal character.7 Once in place these laws, rules,
and institutions have powers and internal logics that unipoles find dif-
ficult to control.8 This, too, contributes to the diffusion of power away
from unipole control.

5 For a fuller exploration of the nature of power in world politics see Michael Barnett and Ray-
mond Duvall, “Power in International Politics,” International Organization 59 (January 2005), 39-75;
and Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, eds., Power in Global Governance (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005).

6G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after
Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. chap. 3.

7 Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1978), chap. 3, esp. 212-15.
8 Michael Barnett and Martha Finnemore, Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global

Politics (Ithaca, N. Y. : Cornell University Press, 2004); and Darren G. Hawkins, David A. Lake, Daniel L.

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These social structures of legitimation and institutionalization do
more than simply diffuse power away from the unipole. They can trap
and punish as well. Unipoles often feel the constraints of the legiti-
mation structures and institutions that they, themselves, have created
and one common behavioral manifestation of these constraints is hy-
pocrisy. Actors inconvenienced by social rules often resort to hypocrisy
proclaiming adherence to rules while busily violating them. Such hy-
pocrisy obviously undermines trust and credible commitments but the
damage runs deeper: hypocrisy undermines respect and deference both
for the unipole and for the values on which it has legitimized its power.
Hypocrisy is not an entirely negative phenomenon for unipoles, or any
state, however. While unrestrained hypocrisy by unipoles undermines
the legitimacy of their power, judicious use of hypocrisy can, like good
manners, provide crucial strategies for melding ideals and interests. In-
deed, honoring social ideals or principles in the breach can have long-
lasting political effects as decades of U.S. hypocrisy about democratiza-
tion and human rights suggests.

These three mechanisms almost certainly do not exhaust the social
constraints on unipolar power, but they do seem logically entailed in
any modern unipolar order. Short of such sweeping social changes as
the delegitimation of all rational-legal forms of authority or the estab-
lishment of some new globally accepted religion, it is hard to see how
a unipole could exercise power effectively without dealing with these
social dynamics. Each mechanism and its effects are, in turn, discussed

The Legitimacy of Power and the Power of Legitimacy

Legitimacy is, by its nature, a social and relational phenomenon. One’s
position or power cannot be legitimate in a vacuum. The concept only
has meaning in a particular social context. Actors, even unipoles, can-
not create legitimacy unilaterally. Legitimacy can only be given by
others. It is conferred either by peers, as when great powers accept or
reject the actions of another power, or by those upon whom power is
exercised. Reasons to confer legitimacy have varied throughout history.
Tradition, blood, and claims of divine right have all provided reasons to
confer legitimacy, although in contemporary politics conformity with

Nielson, and Michael J. Tiemey, eds., Delegation and Agency in International Organizations (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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international norms and law is more influential in determining which
actors and actions will be accepted as legitimate.9
Recognizing the legitimacy of power does not mean these others

necessarily like the powerful or their policies, but it implies at least tacit
acceptance of the social structure in which power is exercised. One may
not like the inequalities of global capitalism but still believe that mar-
kets are the only realistic or likely way to organize successful economic
growth. One may not like the P5 vetoes of the Security Council but still
understand that the United Nations cannot exist without this conces-

sion to power asymmetries. We can see the importance of legitimacy by
thinking about its absence. Active rejection of social structures and the
withdrawal of recognition of their legitimacy create a crisis. In domes-
tic politics, regimes suffering legitimacy crises face resistance, whether
passive or active and armed. Internationally, systems suffering legiti-
macy crises tend to be violent and noncooperative. Post-Reformation
Europe might be an example of such a system. Without at least tacit
acceptance of powers legitimacy, the wheels of international social life
get derailed. Material force alone remains to impose order, and order
creation or maintenance by that means is difficult, even under unipolar-
ity. Successful and stable orders require the grease of some legitimation
structure to persist and prosper.10

The social and relational character of legitimacy thus strongly colors
the nature of any unipolar order and the kinds of orders a unipole can
construct. Yes, unipoles can impose their will, but only to an extent.
The willingness of others to recognize the legitimacy of a unipole s
actions and defer to its wishes or judgment shapes the character of the
order that will emerge. Unipolar power without any underlying legiti-
macy will have a very particular character. The unipole’s policies will
meet with resistance, either active or passive, at every turn. Coopera-
tion will be induced only through material quid pro quo payoffs. Trust
will be thin to nonexistent. This is obviously an expensive system to run
and few unipoles have tried to do so.

More often unipoles attempt to articulate some set of values and
shared interests that induce acquiescence or support from others, there-
by legitimating their power and policies. In part this invocation of val-
ues may be strategic; acceptance by or overt support from others makes

9 Ian Hurd, After Anarchy: Legitimacy and Power at the United Nations (Princeton: Princeton Uni-
versity Press, 2007); and idem, “Legitimacy and Authority in International Politics,” International
Organization 53 (April 1999), 379-408.

10 Ibid.; Reus-Smit (fn. 3, 1999); and Thomas M. Franck, The Power of Legitimacy among Nations
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

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exercise of power by the unipole cheaper and more effective. Smart
leaders know how to “sell” their policies. Wrapping policies in shared
values or interests smoothes the path to policy success by reassuring
skeptics.11 Rhetoric about shared interests in prosperity and economic
growth accompanies efforts to push free trade deals on unwilling part-
ners and publics. Rhetoric about shared love of human rights and de-
mocracy accompanies pushes for political reforms in other states.

In their examination of debates leading up to the 2003 Iraq war
in this issue of World Politics, Jack Snyder, Robert Shapiro, and Yaeli
Bloch-Elkon provide an example of unipolar attempts to create legiti-
macy through strategic use of rhetoric. They show how “evocative and
evasive rhetoric” allowed proponents of the war to imply links between
the 9/11 attacks, weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Husseins
regime. Potentially unpopular or controversial policies were rational-
ized by situating them in a larger strategic vision built on more widely
held values, as when the authors of the 2002 National Security Strategy
memorandum wove together the global war on terror, the promotion of
American democratic values abroad, and the struggle against authori-
tarian regimes to create a justification for preventive war.12 Indeed, as
Ronald Krebs and Patrick Jackson argue, rhetorical “sales pitches” of
this kind can be highly coercive. Examining the same case (the selling
of the Iraq war), Krebs and Jennifer Lobasz show how the adminis-
tration’s “war-on- terror” discourse, which cast the U.S. as a blameless
victim (attacked for “who we are” rather than anything we did), was
designed in such a way as to leave opponents with very few arguments
they could use to rally effective opposition in Congress.13

Usually this articulation of values is not simply a strategic ploy. Deci-
sion makers and publics in the unipole actually hold these values and
believe their own rhetoric to some significant degree. Unipole states,
like all states, are social creatures. They are composed of domestic soci-
eties that cohere around some set of national beliefs. Their leaders are

11 Ian Hurd, “The Strategic Use of Liberal Internationalism: Libya and the UN Sanctions, 1992-
2003,” International Organization 59 (July 2005), 495-526; and Bruce W. Jentleson and Christopher
A. Whytock, “Who ‘Won Libya?: The Force-Diplomacy Debate and its Implications for Theory and
Policy,” International Security 30 (Winter 2005). For more on the intertwined relationship of legiti-
macy and effectiveness in power projection, see Erik Voeten, “The Political Origins of the Legitimacy
of the United Nations Security Council,” International Organization 59 (July 2005) 527-57; and Mar-
tha Finnemore, “Fights about Rules: The Role of Efficacy and Power in Changing Multilateralism,”
Review of International Studies 3, supplement Si (December 2005), 187-206.

12 Snyder, Shapiro, and Bloch-Elkon in this issue.
13 Ronald Krebs and Patrick T. Jackson, “Twisting Arms/Twisting Tongues, European Journal of

International Relations 13 (March 2007), 35-66; and Krebs and Jennifer Lobasz, “Fixing the Meaning
of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies 16 (July 2007), 409-51.

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products of those societies and often share those beliefs. Even where
leaders may be skeptical, they likely became leaders by virtue of their
abilities to rally publics around shared goals and to construct foreign
and domestic policies that reflect domestic values. Even authoritarian
(and certainly totalitarian) regimes articulate shared goals and function
only because of the web of social ties that knit people together. Certainly
all recent and contemporary strong states that could be candidates for
unipoles – the U.S., China, Russia, Germany, and Britain – do.14
Thus unipole states, like all states, find naked self-aggrandizement

or even the prescriptions of Machiavellian virtu difficult to pursue.15
Unipoles and the people who lead them pursue a variety of goals de-
rived from many different values. Even “national interest” as most
people and states conceive of it involves some broader vision of social
good beyond mere self-aggrandizement. Americans like to see democ-
racy spread around the world in part for instrumental reasons – they
believe a world of democracies is a safer, more prosperous world for
Americans – and also for normative ones – they believe in the virtues
of democracy for all. Likewise, Americans like to see markets open
in part for instrumental reasons – they believe a world of markets will
make Americans richer – and also for normative ones – they believe
that markets are the ticket out of poverty.
Much of unipolar politics is thus likely to revolve around the degree

to which policies promoting the unipole s goals are accepted or resisted
by others. Other states and foreign publics may need to be persuaded,
but often influential domestic constituencies must also be brought on
board. Channels for such persuasion are many and varied, as is evident
from past U.S. diplomatic efforts to sell its policies under bipolarity.
The shift from laissez-faire to what John Ruggie terms the “embedded
liberal compromise” as the basis for the U.S. -led economic order after
WWII required extensive diplomatic effort to persuade other states
and New York’s financial elite to go along. The tools of influence used
to accomplish this were sometimes material but also intellectual and
ideological. It was the “shared social purposes” of these economic ar-
rangements that gave them legitimacy among both state and societal
actors cross-nationally.16
14 Note that, like rhetoric, social ties can be very coercive. Social (and nonmaterial) forms of coer-

cion include shame, blame, fear, and ridicule as well as notions about dutv and honor.

15 Machiavelli understood very well how difficult his prescriptions were to follow. That is why a
book of instruction was required for princes.

16John G. Ruggie, “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in
the Postwar Economic Order,” in Stephen D. Krasner, ed., International Regimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell
University Press, 1983), 195-231; and Harold James, International Monetary Cooperation since Bretton
Woods (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

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A unipole’s policies are thus circumscribed on two fronts. The poli-
cies must reflect values held at home, making them legitimate domes-
tically. At the same time, in order to induce acquiescence or support
from abroad, they must appeal to the leaders and publics of other states.
Constructing policies across these two spheres – domestic and inter-
national – may be more or less difficult, depending on circumstances,
but the range of choices satisfying both constituencies is unlikely to be
large. Widespread disaffection on either front is likely to create signifi-
cant legitimacy costs to leaders, either as electoral or stability threats
domestically or as decreased cooperation and increased resistance in-

Creating legitimacy for its policies is thus essential for the unipole
but it is also difficult, dangerous, and prone to unforeseen consequenc-
es. Domestically, the need to cement winning coalitions in place has
polarized U.S. politics, creating incentives to exploit wedge issues and
ideological narratives. As Snyder, Shapiro, and Bloch-Elkon describe,
neoconservatives, particularly after 9/11, used these tools to great effect
to generate support for the Bush administrations policies. Such ideo-
logically-driven persuasion efforts entail risks, however. Constructing
coherent ideological narratives often involves sidelining inconvenient
facts, what Snyder and his coauthors call “fact bulldozing.” This is more
than just highlighting some facts at the expense of others. It may (or
may not) begin with that aim, but it can also involve changing the facts
people believe to be true, as when large numbers of people came to
believe that weapons of mass destruction were indeed found in Iraq.
Thus, to the degree that these persuasion efforts are successful, if their
ideology does not allow them to entertain contrary facts, policymakers
and publics may make decisions based on bad information. This kind
of self-delusion would seem unlikely to result in smart policy. To the
extent that ideological narratives become entrenched, these delusions
may extend to future generations of policymakers and make them vic-
tims of blowback. Even if successors come to terms with the facts, they

may be entrapped by the powerful legitimating rhetoric constructed by
their predecessors.17

Internationally, this need to construct legitimate policies also creates
important opportunities for opponents and potential challengers to a

17 Snyder, Shapiro, and Bloch-Elkon in this issue. On blowback, see Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire:
Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 39-49.
Terms in quotation marks are from Snyder 1991. Note that in making these arguments about the
power of ideology and persuasion to create political effects, Snyder, Shapiro, and Bloch-Elkon, too,
are departing from the materialist orientation of this project.

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unipole. As Stephen Walt notes in this issue, opportunities for conven-
tional material balancing are limited under our current unipolar situa-
tion and, by definition, one would expect this to be so in most, if not all,
unipolar systems. What is a challenger to do? With material balancing
options limited, one obvious opening for rival states is to undermine
the legitimacy of unipolar power. A creative rival who cannot match or
balance a unipole’s military or economic strength can easily find strat-
egies to undercut the credibility and integrity of the unipole and to
concoct alternative values or political visions that other states may find
more attractive. Thus, even as a unipole struggles to construct politi-
cal programs that will attract both domestic and international support
with an ideology or values that have wide appeal, others may be trying
to paint those same programs as self-aggrandizing or selfish.
Attacks on legitimacy are important “weapons of the weak.”18 Even

actors with limited or no material capability can mount damaging at-
tacks on the credibility, reputation, and legitimacy of the powerful. The
tools to mount such attacks are not hard to come by in contemporary
politics. Information and the ability to disseminate it strategically are
the most potent weapons for delegitimating power in all kinds of situ-
ations, domestic and international. Even non-state actors like nongov-
ernmental organizations (ngos) and activist networks whose material
capabilities are negligible in the terms used in this article have been
able to challenge the legitimacy of policies of powerful states and the
legitimacy of the states themselves. The International Campaign to
Ban Landmines (icbl) is one prominent example. Civil society groups
and like-minded states were able to attract signatures from more than
120 governments to ban these devices in 1997 despite opposition from
the unipole (U.S.) government. The fact that the ICBL received the
Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts is suggestive of its success at dele-
gitimating unipole policies on this issue. If legitimacy were irrelevant,
the U.S. would have ignored this challenge; it did not. The Pentagon
has begun phasing out these weapons and replacing them with newer,
more expensive devices meant to conform to the treaty requirements.
Indeed, that the U.S. began touting the superiority of its new mine
policy (promulgated in February 2004) over the icbl s Ottawa treaty
requirements highlights the power of this transnational civil society
network to set standards for legitimate behavior in this area.19 Similar

18 James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1985). See also the discussion of “delegitimation” in Stephen Walt, Taming American
Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: Norton, 2005).
19The U.S. Department of Defense has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 1998 and has

requested hundreds of millions more for the development and procurement of landmine alternatives

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