Ch.11. What Causes War? - The International System
Cyclical Theories of War
Ch.11. What Causes War? - The International
System - notes by Denis Bašić
Historical-Structural & Cyclical Theories : Background
Proponents of the “historical-structural” theories believe that to
understand the current structure of the international system, one
needs to know how this system has evolved historically.
In many ways the international system of the late 20th century
constitutes merely a modification of the structures and processes of
the international system that existed, say, in the sixteenth century.
Many of the patterns and cyclical processes (including cycles of
war) that are present now can be understood by examining their
origins and development in previous international systems.
Thus, within this scope, we shall examine four theories:
Robert Gilpin’s Theory of Hegemonic War, George Modelski’s “Long
Cycle” Theory, Immanuel Wallerstein’s Theory of the Capitalist World
System, and Charles Doran’s Cycle of Relative Power.
Theory of Hegemonic War
Robert Gilpin’s Theory of Hegemonic War, like Organski’s Power Transition
Theory, is not a general theory of war, but rather a medium range theory that
focuses on wars fought between major powers for leadership in international
system, therefore, hegemonic wars.
Hegemonic wars are direct contests between the dominant power(s) and a
rising challenger over the governance and leadership of the international
system. (Like the Power Transition Theory or Status Discrepancy)
War arises because of an increasing disequilibrium between the political
organization of the system, on the one hand, and the actual distribution of
power, on the other. As the reigning hegemonic state gradually loses the
dominant economic and military position it once held, the distribution of
prestige and the distribution of power are no longer in conjunction.
This state of affairs is largely due to the law of uneven growth, which virtually
assures that the distribution of power in the system will be unstable. Uneven
rates in the growth of national power result in a cycle of growth and decline
for all states and the rise and fall of hegemonic powers.
Theory of Hegemonic War and Neorealism
Robert Gilpin’s conception of the law of uneven growth is somewhat
similar to Lenin’s use of the law of uneven development, which he
asserted would lead to war between capitalist states.
Gilpin, however, is a neorealist; he believes that the clash between
major powers is not primarily economic, but is a more fundamental
clash of strategic and national interests: it is a power struggle, not an
What is important here is the uneven growth of power, not the
uneven development of national economies.
Gilpin recognizes, however, that this uneven growth of power is
created by changes in transportation, communication, industrial
technology, population, prices, and the accumulation of capital, in
other words by “economy,” as well as by changes in military
technology and strategy.
Theory of Hegemonic War and Peace
War, of course, has historically been the primary method of resolving the
disequilibrium between the structure of the international system and
changing distribution of power. Who initiates this war?
In Gilpin’s theory, the rising challenger is expected to be the most likely
culprit, as it attempts to expand its influence to the limits of its new
Gilpin, however, recognizes the possibility that the hegemon itself may
attempt to weaken or destroy the challenger by initiating a preventive war to
forestall its loss of position.
Neither bipolarity nor multipolarity guarantees peace, according to Gilpin.
The most important factor is not the distribution of power, but the dynamics
of power relations over time. In both bipolar and multipolar systems, changes
in the relative power among the principal actors lead to war and change.
Therefore, Unipolar systems (systems of "hegemonic governance") are seen
as the most stable, while instability accompanies the decline of the hegemon’s
Weaknesses of the Theory of Hegemonic War
Historical research does not prove Gilpin right. He is not able either to
demonstrate that all hegemonic wars have resulted from the type of
systemic disequilibrium he discusses, or that all such systemic disequilibria
have led to hegemonic wars.
Edward Spiezio has examined Gilpin’s hypothesis on the case of Britain.
As hypothesized, the frequency of international conflict should be inversely
related to Britain’s relative power during her entire cycle of leadership.
However, although wars occurred more frequently during Britain’s decline
than during her ascendancy, the difference was not overwhelming (54% to
45%). Wars occurred frequently in both phases.
Therefore, it could not be concluded, as Gilpin did, either that the Unipolar
System is the most stable or that the degree of hegemonic power can be
seen as a primary determinant of the occurrence of war.
Further weaknesses: Applicable only on the conflicts among superpowers.
Overemphasis on politics. (Politics does not seem to be separable from
“Long Cycle” Theory
* According to the “Long Cycle Theory,” there are three principal
structures in the world system: the global political system, the world
economy, and the world cultural subsystem. The global political system is
not entirely anarchic, but possesses a decentralized polity that lacks an
overriding authority. However, according to Modelski, there has always
been a world power that dominates the keeping of order in the system
through its monopoly of military resources.
The rise and fall of these world leaders has been cyclical in nature. Each
cycle begins with a global war, which determines how the system is to be
constituted and which world power will be able to organize the system.
The war leaves military capabilities (particularly seapower) highly
concentrated, at least temporarily, in the hands of a single actor. This actor
also possesses, again temporarily, the world system’s leading economy.
Eventually, the power and the political legitimacy of this state decline and
it attracts competitors. Order gives way to disorder, concentration of
power to deconcentration. Thus, there are four stages of the long cycle:
global war, world power, delegitimization, and deconcentration.
Dynamics of Changing System
Structures : Long Cycles
Long Cycle Theory and War & Peace
Like the Hegemonic War and Power Transition Theories, the Long Cycle
Theory also advocates that concentration of power in the hands of a world
leader is associated with systemic stability, though this does not last.
The long cycle of world leadership endures approximately one hundred
years - three generations. The world power manages the system alone for
the initial part of this cycle, but the system does not remain unipolar; as
the legitimacy and power of the global leader erode, the system drifts from
unipolarity to bipolarity and further to multipolarity, ending in anarchy
Long cyclists maintain that the cause of wars is to be found primarily in
the processes and dynamics of the system, specifically the changing
distribution of power that derives from uneven rates of development
among members of the international system.
Think of this phrase “uneven rates of development” and check the
similarity with the Theory of Hegemonic War.
Weaknesses of the Long Cycle Theory
Like the Theory of Hegemonic War, the Long Cycle Theory
emphasizes the stability of unipolar system, which through
historical research has been proven incorrect. (see, for
instance, Edward Spiezo’s study in the Hegemonic War.)
According to Jack Levy, at least three major, long-lasting
wars among major powers occurred during the very periods
deemed to be most peaceful by the Long Cycle Theory. This
fact undermines our confidence in the theory.
The long-cycle theory is concerned primarily with global wars
- wars that result in the selection of a new world power (or
the confirmation of the previous world power). It ignores
small scale and local wars.
Theory of the Capitalist
Theory of the Capitalist World System
The (capitalist) world-systems perspective is essentially a political economy
approach to international relations that focuses on international inequality
Immanuel Wallerstein, the father of the theory, divides the world systems
into two historical types:
world empires, in which a single political unit controls the world
system’s economy (i.e., the Roman Empire), and
world economies, which are essentially multicentric, with no single
state in control.
Wallerstein argues that although limited world empires existed in the past,
the modern age (beginning about 1450) has been characterized by the
emergence of a European-based capitalist world economy that has
gradually become a truly global economy. Although attempts have been
made by certain states to construct a world empire, in the modern age none
What creates the Capitalist World Economy?
Like the realists, Wallerstein emphasizes the anarchic nature
of the international system, but he points at the political,
not economic anarchy.
Essentially, the competitive nature of the system prevents
monopolization, while the balance of power in the interstate
system prevents anyone state from controlling the world
Political anarchy leads to a particular form of global
economic system - a capitalist world economy with an
international division of labor.
Check this video on Dependency Theory that explains the basic
system of the capitalist world economy.
How is the World Economy divided?
According to the World-System Theory, the world economy is divided into
three segments: the core, the periphery, and the semiperiphery.
Core states are the "haves"; they have the most efficient and productive
economies and are the most technologically advanced. Production in
core states is capital-intensive and uses skilled, high-wage labor. Core
states also have the strongest military establishments. Needless to say,
they also receive a disproportionate share of the world-economy’s
The periphery is made up of economically weak states whose
production is primarily in low-wage, labor-intensive goods. Their
economies are highly dependent on those of the core state to which
they are most closely associated.
The semiperiphery constitutes an intermediate category of states, with
some production that is similar to that of core areas and some similar
to that found in the periphery. Thus, the semiperiphery acts in some
respects as an exploiter (of periphery states) and as an exploited area
(by the core states).
How are the core states further divided?
The core itself is divided between hegemonic powers and regular
A hegemonic power is a core state that develops a position of
dominance throughout the entire world economy.
Wallerstein sees this dominance primarily in terms of
comparative advantage: the concentration of certain kinds of
enterprises (called lead industries) within the core state.
The hegemonic state holds a decisive superiority in agriculturalindustrial productivity, in finance and investment, and it
dominates world trade, amassing the largest single share of the
world market, and therefore the largest economic rewards.
As a result, the hegemonic state is able to impose a set of rules on
Rise and Fall of a Hegemon
World wars result in the crowning of a new hegemonic power; however, the
victor’s hegemony does not last.
According to world-systems theorists, the demise of a hegemonic power has
much more to do with economic factors than military ones. Maintaining
hegemony is expensive in terms of military and bureaucratic overhead, and tax
burdens rise within the hegemon.
Uneven capitalist development leads to a change in the distribution of
productive capabilities among the core states, and the hegemonic power loses its
competitive edge in the production of leading industries; agricultural and
industrial production declines.
Wages in the hegemonic state tend to rise, reducing competitiveness, and profit
rate differentials change, leading to the export of capital from the hegemon.
The free market results in the flow of capital and technology to other states;
Innovations that have given the hegemonic power a competitive edge can
always be copied by others. Hegemonic core states simply can’t control this
The World System Theory and War
The World-systems theorists place war in the framework of the development
and expansion of the capitalist world economy.
At bottom, “the capitalist system is a system that has pitted all
accumulators of capital against one another.”
Wallerstein argues that war can be seen as “struggles to shape the
institutional structures of the capitalist world economy so as to construct
the kind of world market whose operation would automatically favour
particular economic actors.”
Christopher Chase-Dunn says, “world wars and the rise and fall of
hegemonic core powers . . . can be understood as the violent reorganization
of production relations on a world scale,” so as to increase the
internationalization of capitalist production.
World wars are essentially attempts to restructure the interstate political
structure to reflect changing economic realities and to convert the politicalmilitary strength of rising challengers into a greater share of the world
How to break the War Cycle?
If the cycle of war is inherent in the basic logic of uneven
development, exploitation, competition, and conflict found in the
capitalist world economy, how is the war cycle to be broken ?
Presumably, the chances of peace will be enhanced with the
dissolution of the present system and its replacement by a socialist
In one version (that of Chase-Dunn), a socialist world system would
essentially mean that capitalism would be replaced with a collectivist
economic rationality, and systemic leadership would be provided by
a democratic and federal system of world government.
* Notice that the World System theorists do not advocate revolution,
but rather evolution, like John Hobson, the British liberal economist.
Even their idea of the world government might have come from
Hobson directly. (See Hobson, Towards International Government,
Kondratieff Waves, aka. Supercycle
Both Long Cyclists and World-Systems theorists have incorporated certain
economic cycles called Kondratieff waves into their theories of the cycle of
The Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff claimed in the 1920s to have
discovered fifty-year waves (or cycles) in prices, production, and consumption
in the economies of the major capitalist nations. He argued that these cycles
were indicative of rhythms within the international economic system as a
His research also suggested that upswings in economic long waves were related
to the occurrence of major war.
He tentatively speculated that wars were due to the increased economic
struggle for markets and raw materials that accompanied the accelerated pace
of economic activity, rising prices, and growth in production that took place in
Kondratieff was a Russian, Marxian economist who perished in Stalin’s
purges in 1938. He tried to promote small private, free market enterprises in
the Soviet Union. (Does this latter piece of info make you think again about
socialism and social market economy?)
Weaknesses of theWorld System Theory
Some critics suggest that Wallerstein tends to neglect the
cultural dimension, reducing it to what some call “official”
ideologies of states, which can then easily be revealed as mere
agencies of economic interest.
(The critics may imply, for instance, that the “national role
conception” might have become a part of the US culture, i.e.
collective psyche. The question remains how much culture can
be influenced through politics and media.)
The World System Theory of War has been criticized for the
same or similar alleged omissions for which the Liberal,
Leninist, and Marxian Theories have been.
For the full list, see chapter 5, seven slides with comments
entitled “Is there any evidence that the Imperialist/Marxian
theory of war is valid?”
Theory of the Cycle
of Relative Power
Theory of the Cycle of Relative Power
The main proposition of Charles Doran’s Theory of the Cycle of Relative
Power is that the power capabilities of states, relative to other members of
the Great Power central system, follow a cyclical path of growth,
maturation, and decline. This cycle is largely due to uneven rates of
internal economic development. (think of Lenin’s view)
Since major powers tend to get involved in large wars, these power
dynamics would seem to be helpful in explaining the timing of the larger
wars in history, or what Doran calls extensive wars.
Relative Power Cycle Theory maintains that the policies and behaviors of
states depend largely on their position in the system - in this case on their
position in the cycle of relative power.
War is most likely to occur as a state reaches four critical points along the
cycle. At each of these points an abrupt inversion occurs in the path of
relative capabilities. A complete cycle contains two inflection points and two
turning points, as indicated in Figure 9.1. (aka 11.1 in the textbook)
(For the description see Cashman pp. 446-453) Note that the graph is not properly drawn.
The historical interval at the Low turning point should look much steeper, as it does in the
First inflection point. The historical interval at the Second inflection point should look much
less steep, like the historical interval at the Upper turning point. See the other graph.
National behavior is based in part on the leader’s conceptions of
the state’s role within the system;
Furthermore, this national role conception is based primarily on
the state’s position within the system in terms of its relative
power capabilities. A change in relative capabilities will mean a
change in roles (from leader to follower, for example).
These transitions in role, triggered by passing through the critical
points in the power cycle, are difficult for states to make.
While the previously mentioned critical points (see the graph)
call for major role transformations, their sudden appearance
eludes advanced detection; uncertainty is therefore high and
national leaders are most vulnerable to overreaction and
misperceptions that might lead them to choose war.
Power Cycle Theory: The Cause of War (part 1)
The key to war causation in power cycle theory is what happens to a
state’s expectations of future security and role at critical times in its
power cycle. Doran argues that governments project their
expectations forward in a linear sense from past experience. In most
periods of history, structural change “continues prior trends and
hence is fairly predictable,” providing “a rather certain political
setting” for foreign policy and international commerce (2001: 1-2).
However, each of four critical points on the cycle (lower turning
point, first inflection, zenith, and second inflection) represents a
break in the previous trend. Because of its non-linear, relative nature,
the occurrence of the critical points is unpredictable; the state’s
leaders (and the system) are suddenly confronted with their false
assumptions about the trend when such critical points are identified.
The stark contrast with normal periods of statecraft deepens the
sense of uncertainty (think fear). Existing gaps between power and
role come to the surface of awareness and demand adjustment.
Power Cycle Theory: The Cause of War (part 2)
Thus, “discordant messages” and “discontinuity of expectations” at
critical points, together with a sense of threat and of perceived
injustice regarding state demands and/or systemic response, make
this interval of history highly unstable and provoke the movement
to major war.
According to Doran, "Concerns internal to the state ricochet across
the system as states seek redress or redefinition of the systemic
equilibrium according to their own perceived condition of internal
disequilibrium between power and role.”
(See, Franz Kohout, 2003)
In short, war results from changing power relationships among
states, lags in adjusting to these changes, differential expectations,
and efforts to resist or promote those alterations.
The weakness of the theory is that, like the Power Transition Theory,
it focuses only on superpowers and overemphasizes misperceptions.