There are various approaches, both simple and complex, to systemic conflict. The simpler ones include balance of power, polarity, concentration, polarization, and democratization. More complex systemic approaches to conflict range from power transition and relative power cycle to leadership long cycle and world-systems. Some of these programs continue to generate scholarly interest and produce new findings, while others have been beset with little activity. Yet, none of these research programs have captured enough scholarly attention to be fully “mainstreamed.” That is, they have not been co-opted as central interpretations of international politics. The theoretical literature on simpler approaches to systemic conflict persists today but was more common prior to the mid-1970s. Since systemic analyses were not well developed in the first two or three decades after World War II, scholars grappled with what systemic analyses meant. One question is whether we should differentiate between a global system and its multiple regional subsystems. Complex systemic research programs have declined in analytical popularity after peaking in the 1980s, in large part because perceptions of the world situation changed in the 1990s. Whether “traditional” system dynamics will regain its lost status in light of the globalization processes perceived to be at work remains unclear, but there is cause for optimism about the future contributions of systemic theory as research programs in this area have expanded to include new topics and issues, along with new theoretical developments in other areas that will be pertinent to systemic perspectives.
Systemic Theories of Conflict
Karen A. Rasler and William R. Thompson
Great Power Leadership
Wesley B. O'Dell
The notion that Great Powers fulfill a leadership role in international politics is old, influential, and contested. As the actors in the international system with the greatest capacity for taking action, Great Powers are assumed to think both further ahead and in broader, more systemic terms than other states; they then use their preeminent positions to organize others to promote public goods, reaping benefits along the way thanks to their direction of events. At the core of this understanding is the assumption that Great Power actions are, or ought to be, inspired by something more than simple self-interest and the pursuit of short-term gains. As an organic creation of international practice, Great Power leadership was traditionally the domain of historians and international legists; early students of the topic utilized inductive reasoning to derive general precepts of Great Power sociology from the landmark settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The framing of Great Powers as a leadership caste originated in the struggle against Louis XIV, was given tentative institutional form through settlements such as the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), and deepened considerably in both institutionalization and sophistication in the 19th century Concert of Europe. The return of France to full Great Power status, the Congress (1878) and Conference (1884) of Berlin, and the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) all demonstrated the willingness and ability of the Powers to cooperate in the management of international change. In the early 20th century, the leadership of the Great Powers was both challenged as an unjust agent of catastrophe as well as increasingly formalized through recognition in new international institutions such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Theorists of international relations began to formulate theories based on Great Power management at the time of the discipline’s beginnings in the early 20th century. Realists and liberals frequently utilize Great Power concepts to explain processes of equilibrium, hegemonic competition, and institution building, while approaches influenced by constructivism focus on the role of ideas, statuses, and roles in the formulation of Great Power identities and policies. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a 21st-century manifestation of the application of Great Power leadership to international problems; though hailed by some as the future of Great Power management, it provokes controversy among both theorists and practitioners. Similarly, extensive scholarly attention has been devoted to the management and accommodation of “rising powers.” These are states that appear likely to obtain the status of Great Power, and there is extensive debate over their orientation toward and potential management of international order. Finally, the position of Russia and China within this literature has provoked deep reflection on the nature of Great Power, the responsibilities of rising and established powers, and the place of Great Power management amidst the globalized challenges of the 21st century.