Power transition theory

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The Power transition theory is a theory about the cyclical nature of war, in relation to the power in international relations.[1][2][3]

Created by A.F.K. Organski, and originally published in his textbook, World Politics (1958), power transition theory today describes international politics as a hierarchy, with 4 degrees of power between states. The objective of the theory is to investigate the cyclic condition of wars, and how transition of power in terms of machtpolitik affect the occurrence of these wars.


The principal predictive power of the theory is in the likelihood of war and the stability of alliances.[1] War is most likely, of longest duration, and greatest magnitude, when a challenger to the dominant power enters into approximate parity with the dominant state and is dissatisfied with the existing system. Similarly, alliances are most stable when the parties to the alliance are satisfied with the system structure.[3] This leads to the view that when the balance of power is unstable (i.e. one or two nations have taken a dominant role in geopolitics), the likelihood of war is greater. According to Organski:

An even distribution of political, economic, and military capabilities between contending groups of states is likely to increase the probability of war; peace is preserved best when there is an imbalance of national capabilities between disadvantaged and advantaged nations; the aggressor will come from a small group of dissatisfied strong countries; and it is the weaker, rather than the stronger; power that is most likely to be the aggressor.[4]

There are further nuances to the theory: for instance, the sources of power transition vary in their volatility, population change being the least volatile and political capacity (defined as the ability of the government to control resources internal to the country) the most volatile.[3]

Employing the metaphor of a pyramid, Organski illustrates how there are many weak but few strong states. The very strongest of states is called the "dominant power". This is the one with the largest proportion of power resources. This is commonly defined as the possession of resources. These resources include population, territory, natural resources, military forces, economic size, and political stability, among others. In addition to this dominant and "hegemonic" state, there are also some "great powers," a collection of potential rivals to the dominant state and who share in the tasks of maintaining the system and controlling the allocation of power resources. Then there are some "middle powers" of regional significance similar to the dominant state, but unable to challenge the dominant state or the system structure, and "small powers," the rest.

These dominant powers, or hegemons, commonly arise and use their power to create a set of political and economic structures and norms of behaviour that enhance the stability of the system at the same time that they advance their own security. In other words, this state is interested in maintaining the "status quo" of the international system. Organski and Jacek Kugler defined status quo states as those that have participated in designing "the rules of the game" and stand to benefit from these rules. Challengers, or "revisionist states”, want "a new place for themselves in the international society" commensurate with their power. Revisionist states express a "general dissatisfaction" with their "position in the system", and they have a "desire to redraft the rules by which relations among nations work".

Since the international status quo is defended by the dominant power, only the very strongest of great powers can plausibly threaten to change the status quo. The argument accompanying the power pyramid implies that only the dissatisfied state is roughly equal in power to the dominant state should it perceive that it has the willingness for war. Thus, power transition theory's war hypothesis is that wars among great powers are most likely when a power transition occurs between the dominant state and the dissatisfied challenger.

Such a war can be termed a "hegemonic war". The most important consequence of a hegemonic war is that it changes the system in accordance with the new international distribution of power; it brings about a reordering of the basic components of the system. Victory and defeat re-establish an unambiguous hierarchy of prestige congruent with the new distribution of power in the system. The war determines who will govern the international system, and whose interests will be primarily served by the new international order.

Contrary to the traditional “Balance of power theory”, with its power parity hypothesis, which claim that an equality in power is conductive to peace, “Power transition theory” reach the opposite conclusion claiming the probability of war between the rising challenger and the dominant state peaks near the point of power transition between them. Power transition theory also diverges from traditional "balance of power" theories in asserting that states can achieve growth in the amount of power held by the state based on internal economic, population, and political developments rather than through forging new alliances with other states in the system, making the power transition model more dynamic than pre-existing models.[5] Prior to attaining parity, the rising, dissatisfied great power has little incentive to attack a dominant power that is still viewed as too powerful. The challenger essentially lacks the capability to do something about its dissatisfaction. Long after surpassing the once-dominant power, the rising, dissatisfied great power no longer has much incentive to attack a now inferior, former rival. Thus, the greatest risk of warfare is when the two states have attained rough equality in power (parity), after one state that is dissatisfied with the international order has caught up with a formerly more powerful state (overtaking) that was most responsible for creating the status quo. According to Rapkin and Thompson (2003), this is the dangerous zone of power transition. The probability of conflict between the dissatisfied great power and the dominant power will be greatest when the relative capabilities of these two states are characterized by parity—the “zone of contention and probable war” wherein the ratio of the dissatisfied great power’s and the dominant state’s capabilities lies between 4:5 and 6:5, according to Tammen et al. (2000).


Organski organized the world into four types of states. The transition of power occurs between a dominant state and a great power (in most cases), leading to a war.[1][3]

  1. a "dominant" state, the one with the largest proportion of power resources (population, productivity, and political capacity meaning coherence and stability). In modern days such a state is often termed a superpower, or in the case of unipolarity, a hyperpower. Prior to the Cold War, no term was used universally to describe such a power.
  2. "great powers," a collection of potential rivals to the dominant state and who share in the tasks of maintaining the system and controlling the allocation of power resources. Great powers tend to exhibit power projection beyond their geographic region.
  3. "middle powers" of regional significance similar to the dominant state, but unable to challenge the dominant state or the system structure
  4. "small powers," the remainder of nation states, which possess little power in their geographic region and have notably insignificant influence and projection outside of it.

While Organski's hierarchy initially referred only to the entire international system, Douglas Lemke later expanded the hierarchy model to include regional hierarchies, arguing that each region contains its own dominant, great, and small powers. Thus regional hierarchies exist embedded into the larger international hierarchy.[6]

Historical application[edit]

The Royal Prince and other vessels at the Four Days Fight, 11–14 June 1666 by Abraham Storck depicts a battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This period marked the beginning of a significant threat to Dutch hegemony in Europe

The theory leads to the long cycle theory of war and seeks to explain trends between warring states in the past 500 years. The general trend is that a nation achieves hegemonic power and then is challenged by a great power. This leads to a war which, in the past, has created a transition between the two powers. Eugene R. Wittkopf explores past wars and their relation to Power Transition theory in his book World Politics: Trend and Transformation. He explains this using George Modelski's Seapower Concentration Index.[2]

At 1518, Portugal assumed a hegemonic position in world politics. However, as the Netherlands (which was experiencing the Dutch Golden Age) rose in power, a series of struggles led to the destruction of Spain's power and a transition to Dutch hegemony. Dutch hegemony was brought into question again in 1688 with the Wars of Louis XIV, which resulted in what is referred to as the "Britain I Cycle", the Napoleonic Wars interrupted this cycle and questioned the hegemony Britain possessed. However, Britain's victory resulted in maintenance of power and the "Britain II Cycle".[2] This cycle ended with the World Wars and Wittkopf shows the period of 1914-1945 as one of particular turbulence in which no power maintained hegemony, even after the Treaty of Versailles.[2] After the second World War, a drastic increase in seapower concentration by the United States was experienced and it (along with the Soviet Union) became the world's first superpowers.[2]

In general, hegemonic periods last approximately 60 to 90 years and conflicts which result in a period stabilization of power distribution last approximately 20 years.[2] This can be explained through war-weariness and the tendency (although this was broken in the first half of the 20th century) for nations not to engage themselves in another conflict after being involved in a power transition.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Organski, AFK (1958). World Politics. New York. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Wittkopf, Eugene R. (1997). World Politics: Trend and Transformation. New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d Tammen, Ronald L. (2000). Power Transitions: Strategies for the 21st Century. Seven Bridges Press. 
  4. ^ Organski 1980, 19
  5. ^ 4
  6. ^ Lemke, Douglas, (2002). Regions of War and Peace. Cambridge University Press (January 21, 2002)

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