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Hegemonic Empire
You know the typical portrayal of The Empire: Militaristic, totalitarian, imperialist, immensely powerful and massively dysfunctional. The sort of empire that rules over its occupied provinces with an iron fist, blatantly eradicating all sorts of dissent through mass executions, concentration camps, indiscriminate incarcerations, Big Brother Is Watching and indefinite detentions.

This is not that trope. This Empire works a bit differently.

A Hegemonic Empire doesn't need to rule through its military. It doesn't need to remove and rewrite facts. It has no need to believe a contradiction or destroy the vocabulary. At the same time, it can do all of these, sometimes a bit more subtly. A Hegemonic Empire dominates through attraction, absorption, enthrallment and sometimes Bread and Circuses. Only towards its "enemies" does it utilize coercion, extortion and indoctrination. Common subordinate nations include protectorates, colonies, supported dictatorships, mini-states (designed to reflect their interests as a supposedly independent nation), occupied territories (where they'll force the natives to basically leach off their invaders' resources to survive), satellite states and puppet governments.

A Hegemonic Empire maintains control by making other people want to be part of it, typically by varying combination of Rule of Cool and being the lesser of two evils. Therefore, it justifies all of its potential infringements in civil liberties or human rights as Necessary Evil.

In more extreme cases, their cultural beliefs, values and perceptions will influence, manipulate and dominate the societies of a large number of states that might be "officially" beyond their reach on paper. Imposed as the societal norm, their culture is perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo beneficial to all of society, symbolized by their language being one of the most commonly spoken in The Verse. An Hegemonic Empire isn't necessarily a People's Republic of Tyranny, but it could well be a rejuvenated empire, revived from a Vestigial Empire or The Remnant, and essentially remaining the same as ever, just more subtle in its imperialism.

Whenever the Hegemonic Empire faces a situation where they have to get more hands-on (like the occupied territories), it's not just that the smaller countries are dealing with a Superpower in a direct, country to country struggle; the Superpower meddles in their affairs, corrupts and barters and plays with them, and just flat-out won't let them run themselves. The bureaucratic administration of an Hegemonic Empire can vary; it may be The Republic, The Federation, The Kingdom or even The Alliance.

For skeptics that dislike the title, "Hegemony" is an indirect form of imperial dominance where the hegemon (leader state) rules subordinate states by the implied means of power rather than direct military force. Although a Hegemonic Empire practices soft-power methods, it never means that the empire cannot be evil, corrupt, or at the very least A Lighter Shade of Grey, nor does it mean that the empire is incapable of wielding hard power when provoked.

Also counts as a Meaningful Name - hegemony is Greek for "leadership/rule".

Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • In Crest of the Stars, the Humankind Empire Abh and the Alliance both practice largely differing methods for this trope. Needless to say, the results aren't pretty.
  • In Zero no Tsukaima, Romalia also utilizes a different sort of hegemony over Halkagenia, a continent that consists of five independent nations (Albion, Gallia, Germania, Romalia, and Tristain). Romalia is relatively weak militarily, and it often remains neutral (such as when Albion declared war on Tristain), but the Romalian Emperor, by exerting control over the church, can nonetheless override the other rulers' decisions.

Comics
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, when Jagged Fel becomes Emperor of the Imperial Remnants he launches the "Victory Without War" campaign expanding through aid to planets ruined by the most recent galactic war. It continues until his grandson's reign when the Sith pull a coup. It then resumes when his great-granddaughter restores the Empire.

Literature
  • The Star Empire of Manticore in the later Honor Harrington novels is apparently heading in this direction, having acquired a certain taste for expansionism and imperialism, but still remaining The Kingdom / The Republic good guys they started as. At the same time, Solarian League, despite quite obviously cracking at the seams, is still it big time.
  • The Culture engages in covert social engineering missions on other planets and civilizations to help them see the benefits of joining the Culture.
  • Ankh-Morpork on the Discworld is one of these. It used to be the more traditional type of Empire, but this way was more sustainable. The city-state only directly controls a small portion of land, but its economic influence throughout the continent is almost limitless, and its production is so great no one dares invade for fear of being deprived of the very tools needed for invasion. It's also the center of all information trade, giving unequaled political clout in the region.
  • The Foundation was supposed to create one following the fall of the Galactic Empire by using their preserved knowledge of advanced technology as leverage against the neighboring systems.
    • The first book is all about creating and maintaining such an empire. Leaving aside a temporary and extremely unlikely setback, the main reason why it is less prominent in later books is that it is so successful a policy (well, policies — the Foundation goes through several variations of 'use their superior technology and science as leverage') that by the last shown period, the Foundation proper has grown from a single world to over a tenth of the Milky Way.
  • The nation of Panem in The Hunger Games. It exists After the End in what used to be North America, consisting of a wealthy Capitol and twelve outlying districts, each of which provides a specific industry for Capitol's citizens (such as coal, fish, electronics, lumber, transportation, energy). The primary means of enforcing its rule is through an annual tournament known as the "Hunger Games," in which two teenagers from each district are forced to fight to the death in an outdoor arena, as punishment for a previous uprising. As President Snow says in the film, the games are a more effective means of maintaining order because it gives the districts a bit of hope, whereas rounding up 24 random teenagers and executing them merely installs fear.
  • While the One World Order in Ender’s Game is called The Hegemony, it is more in the vein of a necessary evil: there's a Bug War happening and someone needs to take control. At the end of the Shadow series, Peter Wiggin replaces it with the Free People of Earth, which governments opt into voluntarily and are only allowed to opt into voluntarily. It works, at least for a while (supposedly it collapsed somehow and was replaced with the Starways Congress of the later Ender books).
  • The Tamul Empire from The Tamuli (the sequel series to The Elenium) by David Eddings is one of these - they conquer other countries by usually only needing the threaten war as they have one of the finest fighting forces in the world in the shape of The Atans - a people who through centuries of selective breeding are the biggest, strongest and most skilled soldiers ever. They then exercise authority through the existing power structures, don't interfere with the existing culture, religion customs or social order, impose minimal extra taxes and the only real rule they enforce is banning war between provinces. Not for nothing are they known in universe as "history's finest imperialists". They don't even punish revolutionaries - if revolutionaries appear in a province they take this as a clear indication that something has gone seriously wrong in the local governance and will usually offer the job to the revolutionaries - who will discover that this is a Poison Chalice as no-one likes the provincial government!
  • The titular empire in Malazan Book of the Fallen was formed mostly by way of military conquest, but its constituent states have all mostly realised that remaining in the Empire means not constantly feuding with neighbours.
  • The Instrumentality of Mankind in the eponymous series by Cordwainer Smith. However, the Instrumentality is very, very unusual. In fact, trying to give an encyclopedic explanation of how it governs, its structure, its people's, history or even its policies wouldn't explain it with any justice.
  • This is how the current iteration of the Fjordell Empire in Elantris works. Centuries ago, Fjorden was a traditional empire, but it was unable to hold onto its military conquests and eventually fell apart. Fjorden's current rulers, being rather more Genre Savvy than their ancestors, are dedicated to expanding their power through cultural and religious dominance instead, and are successful enough that, despite being small when looked at on a map, their nation has gained effective control over more than half of the continent of Opelon. Having their emperor also be the head of the Derethi church helps, since it means that people who convert to Shu-Dereth are technically answerable to the Fjordell government regardless of national affiliation.
  • The Norgolian Empire in Cannon Fodder. While definitely an empire and definitely expansionist, they're pretty fair to their own citizens.

Live-Action TV
  • In Andromeda the Vedran Empire was the more traditional type until non-Vedran species began to vastly outnumber the founders and it evolved into the Systems Commonwealth. When it contacted humanity thousands of years after becoming a constitutional monarchy we joined voluntarily.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Eddington accuses the Federation of being this.
  • The Klingon Empire seems to operate this way, especially in the TNG era. Personal freedoms are fairly pervasive and military conquest was rare, and overall Klingons default to problematic allies. This briefly changed during the latter half of Gowron's reign, but appeared to be back on track by the end of Deep Space 9.

Tabletop Games
  • The Third Imperium of Traveller is halfway between one of these and The Empire. It doesn't care much how member planets run things and only gets involved when interstellar trade is disrupted.
    • The Sylean Federation as well, which provided the resources for it to be evolved into the Third Imperium under Emperor Cleon I.
    • The First Imperium initially expanded through economic domination, but the Second was a straight-up military conquest.
    • The Hiver Federation acts like this towards minor races, manipulating them towards space travel and then joining them.
  • The Empire of Abel in Anima: Beyond Fantasy is fueled by this trope, especially before it broke up, letting each nation (which were all those human in the world of Gaļa) under its control to have its own governments, etc.
  • Unlike its far future counterpart, The Empire in Warhammer is ruled by a genuinely benevolent Emperor. While there are times when bandits and rebellious lords have to get put down, the armies generally spend their time protecting the Empire from invasion by external forces. Life there is far from nice, but it beats the Hell out of everywhere else in the setting, as you can generally find some sort of job, a place to live, and something vaguely resembling food. Just stay away from the sewers and avoid anyone with physical deformities or unfamiliar iconography.
    • After all it is basically a fantasy version of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • The New Commonality of Humankind in Mindjammer incorporates the scattered Lost Colonies through a variety of means. Some few worlds are all too happy to join when recontacted, but most resist assimilation in some way. They emplace Mindscape instances enabling access to the Commonality's collective memory, send SCI Force teams to destabilize hostile governments, allow Corporacies to establish branches on world, eventually the planet either joins the Commonality or declares war and gets curbstomped.

Video Games
  • Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls games one through four, while initially forged with the iron fists of Imperial Legions, is held together only through massive schemes of the last Emperor. It finally falls apart prior to part five.
  • The New California Republic in the Fallout series is a borderline case. They can and have annexed regions by military force, but they prefer to expand through peaceful settlement and through inviting existing frontier settlements to join them. By the time of Fallout: New Vegas, it is engaged in a three-way power struggle over control of New Vegas, a very advanced, prosperous, and independent settlement.
  • The concept of a Cultural Victory in 4X games such as Civilization and Galactic Civilizations is supposed to represent this.
    • Economic Victories are usually a less pure version of this — you might not dominate culturally, but your economy is so strong and influential that anyone trying to attack you would find their economy crippled and their industries failing.
  • Paradox Interactive titles such as the Europa Universalis series include mechanics for expanding through peaceful vassalization and annexation. Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun also has the "sphere of influence" mechanic, where countries are integrated into the domestic market and are more willing to accept (or in fact unable to refuse) diplomatic offers, while still nominally sovereign. In exchange, you have to protect them from rebellion and outside aggression.
  • In Sword of the Stars 2 the Morrigi see themselves as self-appointed protectors of the "younger races", as such their Confederation incorporates many more species than most of the other factions and players of any faction can annex minor races peacefully.
  • In the civilization stage of Spore, while military cities conquer other cities and religious cities convert them with a giant preaching hologram, economic cities trade with others until they're dependent on them, then buy 'em outright.
  • In Tears To Tiara 2 The Empire was originally one a long time ago. But especially since it changed its name to The Holy Empire it has become The Empire. After Hamil and the Canaanites rebel and forms The Alliance to take on The Holy Empire, he wants to recreate the old Hegemonic Empire centered around Hispania.

Web Comics
  • Girl Genius: Baron Wulfenbach's empire acts a lot like this. All "The Baron's Peace" requires is "don't make me come over there."

Real Life
  • The earliest example would be the Delian League of city-states c.477 B.C., making this one Older Than Feudalism. The League was even the Trope Namer, since the position of leadership within the league was referred to as "hegemon". This hegemon, to nobody's surprise, was Athens, to the point where the League was often called the Athenian Empire.
  • The Romans were masters at this, and many client states/vassals had already been so 'romanized' that when the Romans actually moved in to annex them, the people didn't notice (or realize they were, until then, technically still independent).
    • They were so good that the one time it backfired, which resulted in the Social War (as Rome's federates were called socii in Latin), it was because they refused to annex their Italian vassals: the socii had the duty to provide half the legions for any given campaign, but obtained little of the profits and had no say in the external politics, and when the Senate kept refusing to grant them Roman citizenship they finally revolted. The Romans managed to win militarily, but quickly passed a law that made all the loyalist Italian communities into Romans and another that allowed people from the excluded communities to obtain Roman citizenship on an individual basis.
    • Augustus reputedly wanted and worked hard at making Rome this, thinking of it as a more practical and cheaper option than holding northern Europe by force.
    • The predilection among many countries today to have imitations of Greco-Roman culture such as "democracy", "senates", and so forth is an example of this. Even the European nations that weren't actually part of the Empire were still affected by it, and that got passed on to their colonies, which became entirely new nations.
  • The United States of America counts as a contemporary example. Interventions in Latin America and the Middle East often result in regime changes, assassinations of world leaders, assisted coups, installing of dictatorships and establishing puppet states to service fruit companies. Many countries in the world utilize the dollar, many American corporations have turned multinational, English is the third most spoken language in the world, and even NATO is often seen as a mere extension of US military might as opposed to an international coalition.
  • Third-world countries that were part of European colonial empires qualified as well.
  • Feudal Japan, as the vassal states were held together more out of reverence for the Emperor than by any direct control.
  • The Republic of Venice.
  • The Dutch in the seventeenth century.
  • The Holy Roman Empire during most of its reign, owing to the difficulty in getting most of the elector princes and other lords to back many serious military campaigns after the Crusades.
  • Vladimir Putin's policy towards the former Soviet republics is essentially creating one of these as a replacement for the USSR. To date it's gotten a pretty cold reception though Russian media did play a major role in Kyrgyzstani President Bakiyev's overthrownote .
  • Some of the most effective Empires start as this according to some historical theories. And even while empires, they often have what might be called a "penumbra", a sort of sphere of influence in which their culture is either admired or just accepted because everyone else seems to.
  • Related to this is a fairly popular idea in international relations, hegemonic stability theory, the gist of which is "hegemonic empires create institutions and stability that often outlive the hegemon, unlike direct empires."
  • The Persian Empire of Cyrus The Great could be considered the Trope Maker. Cyrus was quite tolerant towards other cultures. After invading Babylon he sent the Jews back home and gave orders that the Temple of Jerusalem be rebuilt, meaning he is portrayed very positively in Jewish scripture. However the attempted invasion of Greece seems to have given Persia a reputation of being The Empire.
  • Australia, in regards to its immediate neighbours.


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