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Foundations of Power Transition Theoryunlocked

Foundations of Power Transition Theoryunlocked

  • Ronald L. Tammen, Ronald L. TammenDepartment of Political Science, Portland State University
  • Jacek KuglerJacek KuglerDepartment of Politics and Policy, Claremont Graduate University
  •  and Douglas LemkeDouglas LemkeDepartment of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University


Power Transition theory is a dynamic and structural model for analyzing fundamental shifts in global power. The theory itself, while maintaining its core concepts, has metamorphosed over time by adding new dimensions and addressing new topics. It is both data based and qualitatively intuitive.

As a probabilistic theory, it has proven useful in predicting the conditions that forecast both conflict and cooperation at the global, national, and subnational levels of analysis. As a foreign policy tool, it creates historical signposts pointing toward tectonic shifts in nation state and alliance power profiles.


  • World Politics


Power Transition theory is an active ongoing research program spanning over 50 years and four generations of scholars.1 Generally classified as part of the realist school because of its focus on power relationships, it differs substantially from that school in terms of methodology and specific conceptual content.2 Judged by external reviewers, it is a living theory with a pattern of growth, spin offs, and refinements over time (DiCicco & Levy, 1999).

Power Transition logic and arguments have influenced a number of related theoretical propositions including Gilpin (1981) hegemonic arguments, Keohane (1984) liberal arguments about declining hegemony, Nye (1990) status quo and soft power proposals and most recently Allison (more deterministic and simplified argument about the likely Thucydides Trap as China overtakes the United States.

Power Transition deals with the pattern of changing power relationships in world politics. It provides a probabilistic tool by which to measure structural changes that forecast how probable changes in cooperative or confrontational tactics will affect the likelihood of preserving peace or waging war. While based on empirically tested propositions backed by large data sets, the theory has an intuitive feel that maximizes its utility for interpreting current events. Particularly prominent today is the rise of China and India, which could—unless anticipated and managed—induce severe dislocations in world politics.

Power Transition has both a structural and a dynamic form. Structurally, it envisions global politics as composed of a hierarchy of nations with varying degrees of cooperation and competition. It specifies the relative roles of nations within this hierarchy, the system of governing rules, and then outlines how powerful countries attempt to manage global politics. This static picture of structure and rules is altered by dynamic growth patterns that determine how and why change occurs in the international system. Hierarchy, power, and satisfaction are some of the key components of the theory. These dynamic variables link the structural picture with the probability of severe conflict.

Structurally, Power Transition’s central core of concepts advanced in 1958 provides a foundation to understand the basic relationships of world politics (Organski, 1958). Consistent with realist concepts, it uses power to explain how global and regional structures are organized. But beyond that, comparisons with the realist school are misleading. Rather than differentiating between domestic and international politics, Power Transition paints a picture of world politics that is integrated horizontally and vertically. Dynamically, the theory stipulates that political interactions among nations are based on the varying commitment of national elites to the existing status quo, which includes the broad acceptance of international rules and norms. This determines whether a country is satisfied or dissatisfied with its position in the hierarchy. The most powerful nations hold a position at the top of the global or regional hierarchy. The theory designates the leader of the global hierarchy as the “dominant” or preeminent nation. Unlike competing theories, the dominant nation is not a hegemon (Gilpin, 1981; Keohane, 1980). Rather, the dominant nation holds preponderant power within a hierarchy and attempts to manage the global or regional system with a coalition of stable, satisfied supporters. But stability is not always possible, because the dynamics of growth alter power relations and generate potential challengers that, when dissatisfied, can seek to challenge the existing status quo.

To understand international dynamics, Power Transition focuses on differential growth rates across nations. On any given day, some countries are gaining power, some are losing power, and some are standing still. It is this phenomenon, the relative change in power that produces new relationships among nations. One byproduct of differential growth rates is the potential for conflict when a challenger and dominant nation reach the stage of power parity. At parity, the odds of winning or losing a war are even. When the challenger is dissatisfied with the status quo, the risk of war rises. When the challenger is satisfied, a peaceful transition takes place.

Power Transition contains the following major concepts whose aggregation distinguishes it from other structural theories.3


This is the ability of one nation to advance policy goals by altering the policies of other nations. While the concept is transparent, its measurement is not simple. The Power Transition perspective contributes to this ongoing debate by stressing the economic, demographic, and political capabilities of units analyzed. In the original conception of Organski (1958, 1968), power was reflected by the intersection between politics and economics. A much-overlooked argument by Katherine Organski and A. F. K. Organski (1961) places population at the center of power. Tadeusz Kugler and Siddharth Swaminathan (2006) effectively show that population is the basis of power because individuals are both producers of output and required participants to wage conflict. This argument is further extended by Tadeusz Kugler in “Power to the Population,” an unpublished manuscript that shows the size of populations affect power and can be augmented only by migration or fertility.

While population is at the base of power, productivity is required to generate capability to exercise influence at any given point in time. Organski and Kugler (1980) proposed to approximate national power with total GDP.4 Power Transition considers that national wealth reflects power potential5 and is fungible. National leaders can choose to allocate different portions of domestic product to security, growth, health, education, infrastructure, or other priorities as needed, depending on the level of threat perceived by the ruling elite.

An alternative frequently used by scholars in related analysis is the Composite Indicator of National Capabilities (CINC), which aggregates and weights equally six indicators: military expenditures, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population. The advantage of CINC is its availability and common use that offers easy replication. The main drawbacks are, first, the difficulty of effectively assessing societies across time, because the number of actors affects the relative size of societies; second, the difficulty in forecasting the power over time, because components vary and even change over time; and finally, the excessive impact of military capabilities on the overall measure. For example, the USSR’s military prominence during the Cold War overstated its influence.6

Regardless of these differences, the overall relationship between GDP and the CINC measure is high among developed societies but falls off among developing nations (Hamlin & Kugler, 2016; Kugler & Arbetman, 1989b; Organski & Kugler, 1980). From the perspective of Power Transition, the advantage of using GDP as a measure of power is that it can be disaggregated to provincial, local, or even individual levels, providing the opportunity to analyze relations within as well as across nations. It can be forecast for 30 to 50 years. While GDP is a rough indicator of power, it remains the most useful tool when forecasting of future performance, and it has been generally adopted by the applied security community (Lai, 2011; National Intelligence Council, 2000, 2004; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Tammen et al., 2000).

Over time, wealth as a static measure of power was found wanting, because all aggregate indicators, including GDP, fail to account accurately for political performance. Of particular concern is the fact that error in power comparisons is maximized in interactions between the most developed and the less or least developed nations. Recognizing this deficiency, Organski and Kugler (1980) added political performance variables to the power equation. The relative political extraction measure approximates the ability of governments to capture fiscal resources from their populations and allocate those resources to advance government goals. Interacting this measure of political performance with GDP, it is possible to capture the effects that an efficient government has in advancing its goals. Further, the effects of foreign intervention—central in the analysis of regional contests—can be captured by adding the impact of foreign military and economic aid given the political performance of the host government on the outcome of a severe conflict. These measures have been refined and extended by Arbetman and Kugler (1997) and, most recently, Kugler and Tammen (2012). Extensive tests revealed that without including an assessment of political performance, power evaluations are not consistent across levels of economic development.7

The revised version of power now includes population, productivity, and political performance. Tests show that incorporating the political aspect of power is essential to understanding the outcomes of significant conflicts like World Wars I and II. It also is a better tool for anticipating the outcomes of asymmetric conflicts like Vietnam or Afghanistan, where the United States and the USSR unsuccessfully intervened, despite overwhelming power preponderance (Kugler & Arbetman, 1989b; Kugler & Domke, 1986; Kugler & Tammen, 2012; Organski & Kugler, 1980). A final adjustment flowing from Boulding’s (1962) insight led to the addition of a power gradient that discounts the influence of a nation based on the distance to target (Lemke, 1995; Lemke & Reed, 2001b). This adjustment is essential to understanding why Japan overcame Russia in 1905, and why contiguous countries behave differently when physical barriers—such as the Andes mountain range—separate two potential contenders such as Argentina and Chile (Lemke, 1993).

Further extensions of an effective power measure led to the development of political performance indicators that could be used as an independent component to explain economic growth, population changes, even allocations of foreign direct investment (Arbetman & Kugler, 1997; Kugler & Coan, 2008; Kugler & Tammen, 2012; Organski, Kugler, Johnson, & Cohen, 1984).

Kugler and Tammen (2012) summarize a large body of work that conceptualizes the political performance of nations by measuring the government’s material extractive capacity and the reach within populations. Effective governments require resources to advance their goals. The final component of political penetration is allocation, proposed by Abdollahian deals with the optimal use of public resources to advance national growth. This new measure closes an intellectual gap by assessing the allocation capacity of governments to promote economic growth. These political performance measures can be disaggregated consistently from the national to the provincial and local levels.

Political performance measures of extraction, reach, and allocation are the latest augmentation to Power Transition theory. What started as an effort to refine the concept of power evolved into research on political performance. This in turn has given us measures that are very similar, functionally, to what GDP or GDP per capita provides economists.8

The concept of power rests at the heart of Power Transition theory but, by including political performance, it is far different from the power concepts traditionally associated with realist theories.

Status Quo: Satisfaction and Dissatisfaction

Power Transition fundamentally departs from theories of world politics that assume anarchy is the distinguishing characteristic of relations among nations. Power Transition views this as a major misspecification in theory and practice. Relations within and across nations are not governed by the two-way street of anarchy; instead, they vary substantially based on satisfaction or its absence.

Satisfied nations enjoy each other’s trust because they consistently support the main components of the status quo. This does not mean that nations are always fully satisfied with each other, but it does mean that nations interact differently based on the degree of shared preferences. The relations between Britain and the United States differ fundamentally from the relations between the USSR and the United States prior to 1989, or between the United States and Iran today. Actions flow from these satisfaction differentials.

Following World War II, the United States transferred nuclear weapons to Britain with the confidence that they would not be used to destroy the grantor. These capabilities were also offered to, but rejected by, Canada. Similar offers were not made to France or any other allied nations.9 The interactions between Britain and the United States were based upon a common agreement about the status quo. In short, both were satisfied, trusted each other, and were willing to take risks to insure their joint security.

In sharp contrast, as the Cold War developed between the United States and the USSR, both nations invested heavily in nuclear arsenals—each hoping to deter the other’s attack. The interaction between the USSR and the United States was based on mutual fear, because they could not agree on common policy to advance the status quo. Such extremes are not typical. When Reagan met Gorbachev to negotiate an arms reduction he famously stated “Trust, but verify,” implying that the United States no longer saw Russia as an enemy but could not yet consider it a friend.

Satisfaction and dissatisfaction are two ends of a complex continuum, along which are arrayed not only elites of nations but also domestic factions. The larger the areas of agreement the more satisfied the parties are with each other. In the domestic context, Fiorina (1978) tells us that “retrospective voting” determines electoral outcomes because, in democracies, voters choose candidates not on what they promise, but on what they accomplished in the past. Likewise, in international politics, leaders gain or lose confidence and trust in allies based, in part, on similar ways of organizing domestic society and, in part, on how partners perform.

Through satisfaction, Power Transition provides a linkage between the concepts of anarchy and cooperation by assessing levels of inter and intra- societal trust. Evidence supporting this notion emerges from long-term assessment of changing preferences in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Cross-national satisfaction reflected by preferences.

The long-term record, based on Euro-barometer measures of Traditional vs Secular and Materialist vs. Post-materialist values, indicates that the international system is arranged very explicitly. The West, including most of the G7 societies, clusters in the upper right corner of Figure 1. Greece is at the periphery of the West, and Poland is moving toward that cluster. Forecasting its challenge to the European Union (EU), Britain is at the border of the West along with the United States. Germany France, and Italy share common values. The East (here data is limited) shows a cluster of China and Russia, hinting at Putin’s shift toward the East. Finally, a very distinct Middle East and North Africa cluster emerges in the lower left corner, indicating the differences between this region and the East and West clusters (Yesilada, 2013; Yeslilada et al., 2017). The Power Transition research program does not challenge the notion that nations will act as if in anarchy when directly threatened or will do so while waging war. But the same assessment does not hold for peacetime. Particularly when nations share the same evaluations of the status quo, they willingly coordinate efforts and cooperate to achieve joint, Pareto optimal goals. The level of cooperation among nations does vary in direct proportion to the proximity to the status quo among competing parties. Indeed, the actions of EU members after World War II differ fundamentally from their choices prior to that war. The key reason for the lasting peace is the emergence of increased satisfaction and the mutual trust that developed over ensuing years.10

Assessments under anarchy work for models of war escalation and termination based on formal game theoretical assumptions that capture the reality of waging war. Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman (1988, 1992) and Bennett and Stam (2000), using expected utility formulations, provide a very plausible and accurate accounting of the escalation of war following a crisis. They are effective because they start with crisis and anticipate to what degree nations will escalate resulting in the act of waging war. Likewise, Filson and Werner’s (2002) theoretical assessment of events once wars begin and when they end provides accurate and plausible accounts of how costs constrain military actions. Yet such models capture only a portion of international reality. As Maoz (1985) shows, such analysis grossly over-predicts wars. Indeed, the absence of conflict among far too many dyads where leaders could choose to advance their net gains through conflict cannot be overlooked. Power Transition proposes that the reason for this error is that commitment to the status quo and the trust that emerges from such relations is not incorporated into standard game theoretical calculations. Werner and Kugler (1996), Lemke and Werner (1996), and Hamlin and Kugler (2016), among others, show that, when models incorporate information about satisfaction and trust, predictions of both initiation and escalation of conflict improve considerably.

The development of measures of satisfaction has become a cottage industry that is yet to reach a commonly accepted single measure. The first systematic attempt emerged from measuring the associations among alliances. The initial alliance similarity measure Tau B (Altfeld & Bueno de Mesquita, 1979; Kim, 1989; Organski & Kugler, 1980) has been complemented with the newer S measures (Signorino & Ritter, 1999). After determining the level of alliance among countries, these measures distinguished between friend and foe by reflecting similarities across the entire portfolio of alliances of each pair of states. Pairs of states that have direct association only with each other are most satisfied; groups with mixed associations receive intermediate scores. Neutrals are those without explicit associations, and dissatisfied nations belong to competing, non-overlapping alliances (Bueno de Mesquita, 1975; Organski & Kugler, 1980). These measures suffer because they are overly static over time and do not reflect real changes in the international system.

Power Transition scholars measuring satisfaction with alliance similarity do so by calculating how similar a given state’s alliance portfolio is to that of the dominant nation. The more similar a state’s alliance portfolio is to that of the dominant nation, the more satisfied the state. The logic is that states form alliances with states with whom they share common interests, and they avoid alliances with states with whom they have profound disagreements. Thus, if a state’s alliance portfolio is the same as the dominant nation’s, the state values the same allies the dominant nation values, and has disagreements with the same states as the dominant nation. The state thus has the same foreign policy priorities as the dominant nation.

Viewing its foreign affairs in the same way as the dominant nation does, it is easy to agree that it is in sync with the dominant nation and is satisfied with the status quo that the dominant nation defends. Thus, Power Transition scholars can use the similarity of states’ alliance portfolios to gauge which states are satisfied with the dominant nation and the status quo. Needless to say, if two states are each satisfied with the dominant nation and the status quo, they are very likely satisfied with each other, because they share similar foreign policy priorities with each other. Thus, S measures can be used in evaluations of states vis-à-vis the dominant nation as well as vis-à-vis each other.

There are some validity concerns that arise when measuring status quo evaluations via alliance portfolios. Many alliances are long-standing arrangements, and forming a new alliance often takes a considerable amount of diplomatic time and effort. Thus, such measures as described here might be slow to incorporate changing evaluations of the status quo—they have to wait until the rigid, institutionalized alliance portfolios catch up with changing circumstances. Also, not all alliances are sincere statements of regard, nor are all absences of alliances indications that states are at odds with each other.

The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty was an alliance that masked the considerable enmity between the USSR and Nazi Germany. At the same time, the fact that there is no current (or historical) alliance between Nepal and Paraguay does not mean they are opposed in their foreign relations. More recent cases in point are the lack of an Israel-U.S. alliance during most of the Cold War, or the lack of variation in the Organization of American States (OAS) in relations between the United States and Venezuela over the last decade. The lack of a regional response for Argentina during the Falkland-Malvinas war is similar. In sum, one might fairly question whether alliances consistently satisfy the assumptions about them implicit in this measure.

A second approach to gauging the satisfaction of states uses the buildup of arms among nations as a measure. A buildup by one such actor implies they are preparing for war, and the assumption is made that it is preparing for war because of growing “dissatisfaction” with the potential rival. This approximation is useful but may very well measure general rather than specific dissatisfaction, or may be the result of internal rather than external pressures (Lemke, 2002; Werner & Kugler, 1996).

A third approach to this problem is to measure transfer of arms from suppliers—mainly the United States, USSR/Russia, Europe, and increasingly, from Brazil and China. The presumption is that major powers would transfer resources to satisfied nations rather than to those who might threaten them with their use (Childs, 2011; Kinsella, 2008). Hamlin and Klempp (2016) show that arms transfers fail to identify satisfaction for nations that produce their own military hardware but are useful to measure commitment to weaker allies. Unlike alliance measures that are static (S score) these measures are very responsive to policy changes, capturing subtle shifts in relations between the United States and Iran and more effectively, the United States and Egypt.

Another approach is to combine aggregate indicators to capture multiple interests associated with the status quo. Benson (1999, 2004) proposes a measure that weights military alliances and economic transfers to identify satisfaction. She concludes that the security component of alliances is the primary measure of satisfaction.

A further effort that places emphasis on monetary elements, including interest rates and the movement of money, has also been used to approach satisfaction. Above average interest rates could reflect dissatisfaction with the society, while low rates suggest satisfaction (Bueno de Mesquita, 1990). A concern here is that security is overlooked, that the interest rates are based on structural characteristics of a state’s economy, rather than on its agreement with the status quo. Greece, Ireland, and Portugal today are high interest rate countries, yet it is not clear that other EU nations or the United States consider them less valuable security allies—or consider them to be dissatisfied with the global status quo. The search for a valid and robust measure of satisfaction-dissatisfaction measure is an unfinished item in the Power Transition research agenda.


This term defines the regional and global power structure. Global and regional international hierarchies vary over time, but the most stable power distribution is one where a dominant power has support from a winning coalition of satisfied major allies. The classic representation of such a hierarchical power distribution is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Global power hierarchy.

Satisfied nations coordinate their efforts through alliances and international organizations. In these ways, they peacefully manage competition over scarce resources. This asymmetric distribution is stable because the dominant nation gains support from a wining coalition by drafting acceptable rules that guarantee international security and trade. Unlike realism, peace is preserved by the establishment of a preponderant satisfied coalition (Tammen, 2008, pp. 316–317). This is not to say that satisfied states are the richest or the most secure states in the international system. Rather, satisfied states believe that they are better off with the current status quo than they would be if a different dominant nation established alternate rules and norms to govern the international system.

This point is important, and since it is often misunderstood by critics of the Power Transition perspective (Bussmann & Oneal, 2007; Powell, 1999). Consider the post-World War II international status quo, created and maintained by the U.S.-led western coalition. It featured an international economic order characterized by the Bretton Woods international financial institutions (IFIs), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These IFIs provided exceptional stability to the capitalist international economic order put in place after World War II. The IMF and World Bank made funds available to states in economic distress, but those funds were available with strings—namely, states had to privilege markets as distributors of value within their territories to secure resources from these IFIs. States already favoring market distributions within their domains are thus at a natural advantage in an international economic order of this type. States preferring instead to distribute resources by administrative command, such as communist states, would be intensely dissatisfied with the IFIs created by the United States and its allies and collaborators.

Some states prospered in the post-World War II world despite not being favored by the IFIs. The Soviet Union was the fastest growing economy in the world in the 1950s, and its recovery from World War II owed nothing to reconstruction loans from the World Bank. In contrast, the United Kingdom experienced some decades of slow, even stagnant growth in the post-World War II era. If we were to assume naively that states are satisfied because the existing status quo makes them better off objectively, we would come to nonsensical conclusions—like the USSR was satisfied with the U.S.-led status quo, but the British were dissatisfied.

The British were satisfied not only due to their vast increase in wealth during the period of American leadership, but because they correctly anticipated that, had a communist-oriented Soviet status quo prevailed, the United Kingdom’s security and economic performance would have been at risk. Similarly, rapid growth in the 1950s did not make the Soviets happy with the U.S.-led status quo, because Stalin and his successors could easily believe that, if they could re-write the rules of international engagement, the Soviet Union would have prospered even more (for more discussion see Lemke, 2004; Lemke & Reed, 1998). Satisfaction is a mixture of security, political coordination, and economic performance.

A number of related schools of thought now recognize Power Transition’s insight about hierarchy, but there is disagreement on the effects of hegemony. Interdependence advocates, for example, argue that a hegemonic actor can unilaterally impose rules that secure stability (Gilpin, 1981; Keohane, 1984). At the global level, hegemony is defined when one state produces more than 50% of the global total output. Such level of asymmetry arose during the last 400 years only for the short period following World War II. America was disproportionately powerful due to war devastation in Europe and Asia.

Regional hegemony can be detected in only a few areas like North and South America where the United States, and more recently Brazil, achieved regional hegemony (Lemke, 2010). When speculating about future demographic and economic trends, it is possible to argue that China and India or an integrated Asian community will have the potential to achieve global hegemony. Consistent with Power Transition, there is little dispute that the United States inherited its global dominant status from the United Kingdom, and both built satisfied, winning coalitions whose preferences are reflected in the architecture of the international economy and international diplomacy today. But hegemony is a rare phenomenon in global politics present only for a few years following World War II (Tammen & Kugler, 2018).

Power Transition shares a number of concepts with the interdependence proposals, but hegemony and anarchy are not among them. In Power Transition, a dominant power leads by creating satisfaction rather than fear; cooperation rather than conflict; the sharing of resources rather than fights over resource allocation. The leader is dominant, but no hegemon. In Gilpin’s (1981) version, the hegemon only provides public goods for as long as the rules disproportionately favor the hegemon, otherwise “free riding” allies are left to fend for themselves. In Keohane (1984), interdependence is likewise limited to the point at which the hegemon can no longer sustain the costs of maintaining a stable system. Support for a status quo short of hegemony is excluded.11

Power Transition theory contends that the status quo is an independent element. China and India will continue to grow in power, and one or both of them will become the dominant power in world politics later in the 21st century.12 In asymmetric hierarchies, the dominant nation and its allies can impose a set of rules that are consistent with their preferences. Pax Romana is the most lasting and well documented example of a stable asymmetric hierarchy. In less hierarchical environments, a dominant actor preserves stability not by the imposition of rules, but by gaining support for such rules from allied great powers. In such hierarchies the dominant nation and its allies jointly possess enough power to push back dissatisfied major powers and avoid conflict. However, when an overtaking takes place, war is possible and is waged if the challenger is dissatisfied. These events take place in approximately 50% of the cases. At the global level, these are the stories of the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II (Hamlin & Kugler, 2016; Organski, 1958; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Tammen, 2000; Werner & Kugler, 1996).

Power Transition is not simply a theory about the conditions for war. More importantly in many ways, it addresses the more numerous and longer intervals of world history represented by peace. For example, the peaceful overtaking by the United States of Britain led to a lasting special relationship. We can also see Power Transition dynamics at work in the absence of war between Germany, France, and England after World War II. During the post-1945 period, there have been several overtakings among these one-time foes. However, following World War II they were united in a satisfied coalition, and instead of fighting, they cooperated and created the European Union.

Regional Hierarchies

Lemke (2002) made a major breakthrough moving Power Transition toward a general theory of world politics by demonstrating the applicability of this perspective to regional hierarchies. His careful empirical analysis shows that the same principles that hold at the global level define interactions within regional hierarchies.

Figure 3. Interactions within and between global and regional hierarchies.

Regional and global hierarchies interact. To pick one example, the South American hierarchy has not faced war for nearly a century because Brazil is preponderant over Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and the other states within the regional hierarchy (not shown in Figure 3). Peace is maintained in the South American hierarchy because all the major states are relatively satisfied with this arrangement as indicated by their participation in Mercosur (Lemke, 1993; Lemke & Werner, 1996). Understanding regional hierarchies adds complexity and generality to the Power Transition perspective. Global powers like the United States, EU, Russia, and China can directly intervene to alter outcomes in a region. But regional powers cannot effectively intervene in the global hierarchy. They are able to interact, of course, but on matters of strategic importance it is a one-way street.

Lemke’s contribution generalizes Power Transition’s logic. In a relatively isolated region like South America, the principles of Power Transition operate in direct parallel to their operation in the global hierarchy. In other regions, the picture is more complex. Unlike South America, several global powers have direct interests in the Middle East and Asia. There is more reason and opportunity for global powers to intervene in those other regions (Efird, Yesilada, & Noordijk, 2005; Yesilada, Efird, & Noordijk, 2006). This interferes with the ability of regional powers to operate under the normal rules. Lemke informs us that the rules within regional hierarchies normally match those at the global level but the ability of global powers to intervene does not make this an exact parallel (Lemke, 1996, 2002).

These regional observations have specific conflict outcomes. Conflicts at regional levels tend to stay regionalized. They do not escalate to the global level. The South Asia hierarchy that includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, for example, was once an area of protracted nation state conflict. That region now has been stabilized by the relative preponderance of India. There are various global influences flowing into the region, including the Russian and now U.S.-NATO interventions, but there is no overwhelming fear that this sea of localized conflict will escalate upward to global war.

Dominant powers in asymmetric hierarchies allow supporters of the status quo to challenge core propositions, but reject dramatic changes in rules demanded by the dissatisfied. This is a general pattern. For example, religious societies are more hierarchical and more rigid than secular societies, and authoritarian regimes are more rigid and hierarchical than democratic electoral regimes. We argue that in world politics, like electoral systems, rules can be altered following agreed-upon election rules. Contenders rely on persuasion, rather than imposition, to settle disputes. In world politics, nations satisfied with rules can use persuasion more effectively than coercion to achieve change; while nations that do not share common perspectives—such as Palestine and Israel—attempt to impose their own view on opponents based on relative capabilities. In the last three centuries, the global hierarchy had these characteristics with a short period of hegemonic dominance following World War II (Tammen, 2000).

The hierarchical relations anticipated by power transitions are based on micro-foundations. Black (1958) established a basis for the power transition logic though using an American politics argument (Hinich & Munger, 1997). In his elegant demonstration of the parity principle, the median voter theorem, Black identified a universal application to any competitive environment. He pointed out that political elections are contests where voters choose among alternatives, with a majority winning the prize. When distributions of voters are approximately equal, contests are strenuously contested since either side can win. As each attempts to maximize their expected gains, voters seek victory to generate policies consistent with their own preferences. Conflicts are more likely and more serious when norms are weak, and more restrained when norms are clear.

Contrasting elections from the United States and Serbia confirm his insight. In the United States, where electoral norms are well institutionalized, the Gore-Bush contest of 2000 was ended by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court instead of internal conflict. Both parties accepted the rule of law and prepared to compete another day. When norms are unclear—as was the case in Serbian elections in 2000—electoral contests escalate to war. Recall that following the electoral decision in favor of Milosevic, no Supreme Court could make a binding decision, thus precipitating a crisis that led to the downfall of that regime. The severity of a crisis rises in direct proportion to the differences between the parties. With strong legal structures, they are resolved but without such rules contested outcomes lead to conflict (for empirical exploration of the relationship between parity and escalation, see Braithwaite & Lemke, 2011; Lemke & Reed, 2001a).

Black’s median voter theorem provides a convincing explanation of why parity in all international contexts (global or regional) produces severe conflicts. Figure 4 shows two extreme conditions that can emerge among two approximately equivalent groups that support alternate views about how to organize the international system.

Figure 4. Hierarchies, preferences, resources, and conflict resolutions.

The median in the upper condition reflects sharp difference in norms among competing sides. This condition can lead to severe conflict. This hierarchical distribution preceded both World War I and II in Europe. The English- and German-led coalitions held quite different views about desirable international norms. The classic confrontation between Nazi-Fascism and Democratic principles was the most extreme example of divergent views about how to structure the international system. Such events are not limited to the global arena and are now present in the Middle East region. This also was seen in the Iran-Iraq war (Kugler & Arbetman, 1989a).

The lower condition reflects competition among parties that all fall at the median. They do not differ fundamentally in their preferences about international norms. While a contest can still be intense if parties are relatively equal in power, they can negotiate acceptable solutions. Under these conditions, soft power is a very useful means of resolving disputes (Nye, 1990). Both sides aim for equivalent outcomes. Neither wishes to alter the rules of the game fundamentally for future contests. Legal means can be invoked to settle such disputes.

Dynamics of Power Transition

The dynamic aspect of Power Transition links major changes in world politics to the uneven rates of economic growth and political development across states. The source of conflict and cooperation is lodged within domestic politics that influence whether, and how much, states develop and grow. To a large degree, the economic growth of nations is independent of the actions of their elites and third parties. But the levels of national satisfaction with global norms and rules that create the status quo flow directly from decisions made by elites or decision makers in different societies. For this reason, Power Transition not only emphasizes relative power but satisfaction as key influences on international conflict and cooperation. Figure 5 summarizes the three distinct implications of power transition related to changing status quo dynamics.

Figure 5. The three faces of power transition.

Figure 5 identifies the three logical stylized phases of interactions among major powers as their commitment to the status quo varies. This figure outlines the conditions under which nations rush to war, decide to engage in conflict, or reach a cooperative joint outcome. The Y axis represents relative capabilities of major competitors. The X axis indicates changes in relative power over time. The dashed line indicates nations that are satisfied, committed to the status quo, and willing to trust opponents. The bold line stands for nations that do not support the status quo and distrust opponents.

Adding satisfaction to the calculus of peace and war provides a far more robust picture of international interactions than that provided by realist assessments.13 Condition 1 associated with no trust shows that under parity and anarchy, nations will overwhelmingly choose war (not peace, as Realist, Balance of Power purports). Fortunately, joint dissatisfaction with the status quo is a very rare and temporary condition. Most of the time, one nation is dominant and has the support of a large winning collation that supports the status quo. But such conditions are more frequent among regional powers. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988 fits this pattern, and that war produced severe losses for both dissatisfied contenders (Kugler & Arbetman, 1989b).

Condition 2 associated with unilateral trust shows more typical interactions between a satisfied dominant and a dissatisfied challenger. Empirical work shows that this is the condition when conflict is used to resolve disputes half of the time so peaceful interactions are equally likely (Hamlin & Kugler, 2016; Tammen, 2000; Werner & Kugler, 1996). The parity conditions lead to global war only when the challenger is dissatisfied (World War I or II); otherwise, parity produces peace when support for the status prevails (U.S.-Britain overtaking in 1870).

Finally, Condition 3 shows high mutual trust intonations when the preferences of two contending nations are aligned. Under these conditions contenders seek to preserve the status quo and cooperate. The integration of the European Union shows that it is possible to seek a joint status quo that may limit the sovereignty and may even constrain the self-interest of individual parties, provided the members trust that, in the long run, gains will be evenly distributed (Yesilada et al., 2006; Yesilada, Kugler, Genna, & Tanrikulu, 2017). When trust fails, cracks appear in integration and cooperation, as we have seen with the EU.

The motivation for changes in the relative power of competitors is that every country is growing, declining or stagnating at different rates. Over time, relatively poor nations have high fertility rates that enhance their large populations. At some point they can grow faster than the more advanced nations. If a fast-growing nation finds itself within striking range of a regional or global dominant power, the issue of conflict will be predicted by the level of satisfaction of the challenger. Is it satisfied with the current rules of the road with the international system orchestrated by the dominant power? If so, the probability of war will be low. On the other hand, if it views the world as hostile to its interests, then the probability of war increases dramatically.

When a dissatisfied challenger overtakes a dominant power, the region of overtaking generates the necessary but not sufficient conditions for severe war. This rare event is generated by the differential rates of growth among competing powers who vie over the rules and norms that govern the international system. Conflict takes place after the overtaking because the dominant nation generally controls the larger winning coalition prior to the test by fire (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman, 1992; Kim, 1991; Kim & Morrow, 1992; Organski & Kugler, 1980).

In the original conception, Organski (1958) did not include the effects of alliances and believed that the dominant power would pre-empt in anticipation of an overtaking. However, this condition did not test out empirically and is not consistent formally, because if there is to be any preemption, it logically should come very early when the dominant nation is in control, not late when the challenger can wage a long and brutal conflict (Alsharabati, 1997; Alsharabati & Kugler, 2008). This point is not settled, however. Some scholars still argue that a declining nation has incentives to initiate a preventive war (Doran, 1991; Doran & Parsons, 1980; Levy, 1987; Levy & Thompson, 2010; Rasler & Thompson, 1994), but such action requires differential behavior prior to parity and after the transition is completed.

There are very few empirical investigations of preventive war. Some scholars see preventive motives as frequently or even primarily causing wars (Levy, 1987; Taylor, 1954). Indeed, the logic of prevention is persuasive enough that it emerges as one of Fearon’s (1995) three rationalist explanations for war.

For Power Transition theory, the question is particularly acute because it is not difficult for the dominant nation and a rising challenger to anticipate a power transition in the future. Therefore, declining dominant nations must be foolish for not destroying rising, dissatisfied challengers. Power Transition scholars have dealt with this question at some length (Lemke, 2002; Tammen, 2000), and a number of plausible explanations have emerged for the restraint observed among dominant nations under threat.

First, the related Power Transition literature about the Phoenix Factor (summarized in Arbetman & Kugler, 1987; Kugler, 1993; Organski & Kugler, 1977; Tadeusz Kugler et al., 2013) demonstrates that it is quite common for a great power defeated in war to recover to its prewar growth potential within 20 years. This well-established empirical regularity suggests that preventive war (war waged now in hopes of avoiding a future war fought under worse conditions) might be difficult to wage successfully. If the declining dominant nation struck a developed rising challenger early and defeated it, the rising challenger would recover from its war losses within 20 years. Having been punished while weaker, the now stronger challenger is sure to be dissatisfied with the dominant nation. This could lead to a repetition of war. Only if the dominant nation completely destroys the rising challenger (perhaps requiring nuclear warfare), or if the status quo is adopted by the loser (European Union), is there any reason to believe the rising challenger will not wage war once it recovers.

Second, while overtakings are reasonably straightforward to predict, the extent of any rising challenger’s dissatisfaction with the status quo is more difficult to gauge. Faced with uncertainty about dissatisfaction, but recognizing the Phoenix Factor pattern, a defender should know that a preventive war would not foil the challenger’s rise. It makes more sense for the dominant nation to work on improving the challenger’s evaluation of the status quo rather than attempting to destroy it.

These theoretical issues are consistent with the only empirical evaluation of the frequency with which states give way to “the preventive motive.” Lemke (2003) constructed a data set of pairs of states indicating both whether they fought wars and whether the power differential in the dyad was changing such that one dyad member was declining in power relative to the other. He then estimated the statistical influence of this preventive motive on the probability of war, and found it was completely unrelated. In that same data set, both parity and status quo dissatisfaction were associated with a higher probability of war. Thus, simple decline relative to another state does not make war more likely. States do not fall prey to the preventive motive. It is no surprise then, that Power Transition’s dominant nations do not wage preventive war against their rising challengers.

Turning to other dynamics, Kim (1989) incorporates alliance conditions into Power Transition and drops the purely dyadic assessments prominent in most power transition analyses. He applied expected utility calculations to estimate the best times for war between states, but measured their power as being augmented by the likely contributions of their allies. Thus, for Kim parity does not refer strictly to the calculations of relative power between states A and B. Rather, for Kim, parity exists when the capabilities of state A plus those of its allies, are roughly equal to the capabilities of state B plus those of its allies. Importantly, just as traditional dyadic power transition analyses support the main hypothesis of parity and dissatisfaction being leading causes of war, Kim’s alliance work shows that parity makes war more likely when taking into account the likely contributions of allies. Parity and dissatisfaction are thus robustly shown to correspond with war.

Extensive statistical tests spanning the last two centuries, and the last six centuries in somewhat sketchier detail, support the various expectations outlined above (Kim, 1996; Kugler & Organski, 1989; Werner & Kugler, 1996; Hamlin & Kugler, 2016). These global patterns re-emerge within regions (Lemke, 2002).


The theory is useful when thinking about integration (Efird, Kugler, & Genna, 2003; Feng & Genna, 2003; Genna, 2002; Genna & Taeko, 2002; Yesilada et al., 2006). The recent work by Yesilada, Kugler, Genna, and Tanrikulu (2017) shows that outcomes that lead to conflict and to cooperation are part of the same process. Instead of accounting only for severe conflicts, as realist theories do, and separately for integration, as neoliberals do, this Power Transition specification accounts for cooperation and conflict across global and regional hierarchies (Figure 6). In the specific application to the European Union, adding trust to the power transition structure shows how integration expands and contracts driven by the participants’ commitment to the status quo. Empirical assessments show that the dynamics reported are consistent with ongoing developments. Indeed, the Brexit events were structurally anticipated in earlier work and effectively accounted for in the more recent assessments (Kugler et al., 2015; Yesilada et al., 2017).

Figure 6. Power transition: Conflict-cooperation and hierarchical power and status quo.

The conflict-integration interaction processes can be integrated because Power Transition assumes that, while sometimes anarchy exists, it can evolve into cooperation as rules and norms of the status quo shift across dyads. The empirical work on Power Transition shows that satisfaction is key. Satisfaction leads to cooperation, which in some circumstances encourages integration. This makes the role of the satisfied dominant state critical in this process of creating the conditions for peace. The dominant power has many management responsibilities, but at the top of its list is the spread and deepening of satisfaction with the status quo.

The complex dynamics linking power, policies, and conflict have been investigated with an agent base approach utilized by Abdollahian and Kang (2008). Their demonstration focuses on the relationship between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War in the simulated challenger-defender dyad results for system dynamics equations. The Cold War was confrontational but did not lead to conflict largely because parity was not achieved.

Figure 7. Challenger’s power and conflict severity trajectory given status quo and time.

Abdollahian and Kang (2008) show in Figure 7 that, as the challenger’s power share changes, conflict severity varies depending on the policy adopted. This simultaneous interaction provides a comprehensive understanding of options and outcomes. Given the simulation results in both time and phase space, the hyper-surfaces anticipate various available paths for the dominant nation to select in response to the challenger’s behavior. War is not predetermined by structures, but structures set the necessary conditions for war.

Consider the scenario in which a challenger adopts a highly hostile foreign policy stance. If the dominant nation’s foreign policy response is also hostile, the competition moves from accommodation to hostility as both sides approach parity and then declines even under hostility when the challenger is weaker. The solution for crisis is, of course, conciliation where systemic power shifts do not have a detrimental impact on challenger and defender relations. As the defender begins to question the rise of the challenger, small increases toward hostile policy stance produce sharp increases in dyadic conflict. Hence, the structural stage is set for prompting an early conflict initiation and war escalation. At the other extreme, a conciliatory foreign policy stance by the challenger toward the defender leads to cooperation.

Parity and Civil War

Another strand of research shows that Power Transition theory promises to predict when civil wars will occur within states. Benson and Kugler (1998), now being extended by Benson, Hamlin, and Kugler apply Power Transition theory to the study of civil war. In their study, they demonstrate that, when there is rough balance of capabilities between the government and the rebels, civil wars are more violent and death totals are higher. The role of the government’s political performance is central to this process, suggesting once more that politics and economics are the dual drivers of instability. The exact same phenomenon is observed in wars fought between states.

From a related perspective, Lemke (2008) used Power Transition theory to predict the onset of wars within states. He finds strong support for the Power Transition hypotheses about parity and differing evaluations of the status quo. In Lemke’s study, attitudes about the status quo are defined as opinions about how to unify a territory into a single state—whether to unify at all, to unify with a centralized single government, or to unify under a federal structure. To predict civil war onset, Lemke employs data about groups before they become rebels and about groups that chose not to become rebels at all. This is the first study of its kind using Power Transition Theory to predict war onset that leads to integration, and the results are very encouraging.

Toft (2007) shows that ethnic groups at power parity face increased likelihood of civil war. Following on such insights, Cederman and various coauthors have approached the question of predicting civil war onset by constructing a dataset about parity among ethnic groups (Cederman, Buhaug, & Rød, 2009a; Cederman, Girardin, & Gleditsch, 2009b; Cederman, Wimmer, & Min, 2010). They then study ethnic group-government pairs (or dyads). This approach is able to predict when civil wars will occur among ethnic factions within a state (provided that one ethnic group controls the government) potentially extending the empirical domain of the Power Transition perspective to group interactions.

Although Cederman and his colleagues do not explicitly test Power Transition theory, they do consistently find across all their studies that power parity within ethnic group/government dyads makes civil war more likely. A test of escalation, by Koubi, Kugler, Kugler, Tobias, and Zagorowski (2011), shows that there is a direct relation between conflict escalation and power transition elements, and so does the work of Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan (2010) relating parity and duration of civil war. Thus, there is now increasing evidence that the factors central to Power Transition Theory’s ability to predict interstate war also help predict intrastate, or civil, wars.


While Power Transition is a general statement of relations in the international system, in a number of instances it has been applied to forecast or explain specific policy events. Here are a few that provide new and tantalizing general insights supported by empirical reality.

The Emergence of Asia

Despite enormous tensions, proxy wars, the threat of nuclear war, and claims of Soviet military advantages, Power Transition anticipated that American preponderance following World War II would insure that there would be no global war. While Balance of Power advocates campaigned for insuring equivalence of power between NATO and Warsaw Pact, Power Transition advocates recognized that the United States and Western Europe, in concert, held overwhelming power preponderance. This preponderance provided a base condition that insured stability (Organski & Kugler, 1980). When the USSR imploded with barely a whimper in 1990, the world recognized what Power Transition had realized for two decades. First, the United States and its allies enjoyed a preponderance of power at the global level; and second, it was that fact, and not some calculated nuclear balance of power, which had preserved the peace throughout the Cold War and permitted it to end non-violently (Tammen et al., 2000).

After the fall of the Soviet Union and a ten-year interregnum, patterns of growth in Asia forced scholars and policy makers to contemplate a “new” dimension in international politics—the rise of China and India. Unlike other scholars, this was not a new development for Power Transition. A. F. K. Organski had foretold of the importance of the rise of Asia as early as 1958:

The question is not whether China will become the most powerful nation on earth, but rather how long it will take her to achieve this status.

(Organski, 1958, p. 446)

Today it is clear to everyone, just as Soviet power was the unambiguous galvanizing fact in 1958, that China has matched the United States in terms of GDP (purchasing power parity). Lagging badly in per capita income, the complete ascendancy up the power ladder will not occur until early mid-century.

Feng and Kugler (2015) show that Russia’s shift to the East prompted by the invasion of Crimea has rekindled dissent among Western Europeans and Russia. From a global perspective the danger is not Russia, now far too small to challenge for global dominance, but the Russia-China alliance that with weapons transvers can increase competition with the West. Of serious concern is the growing dissatisfaction generated by the removed technological transfers essential to Russia’s growth. Stagnation in Russia can transfer into dissatisfaction and further dependence on China as the overtaking takes place. This is a recipe for potential conflict by midcentury.

Within the Asia region, India is expected to follow China’s rise with a one or two-decade lag. As these Asian giants develop, a global and regional transition will take place. Present trends suggest that neither is likely to take place under the umbrella of support for the status quo (Feng, 2006; Feng & Kugler, 2015; Kugler & Tammen, 2004; Lemke & Tammen, 2003; Raghavan, 2006; Tammen, 2006). At the global level the key overtaking will be between China (PRC) and the United States. Figure 8 shows the anticipated relative capabilities of the great powers through 2065. Russia and Japan are excluded because they are far too small and declining (Hamlin & Kugler, 2016)

Figure 8. Dynamics of major powers in transition: 1950–2050. The height of the circles indicates each state’s relative power; the diameters of the circles indicate GDP/capita, hence productivity.

The is a critical transition because, for the first time, a far less productive society will match and eventually overtake the leading developed society. The issue of war versus peace will turn on satisfaction. And satisfaction may turn on the perception of average Chinese workers.14

The number of potential disagreements about how to organize the international system is substantial but not complicated at present by ideology or territory.15 Currently there are U.S.-PRC disagreements over trade, fiscal and monetary policies, patents, the legal system, human rights, and certain foreign policy issues. Reconciliation of these issues will be critical during a period when China gains power and the United States loses in relative terms. Previous Power Transition work suggested that the creation of a large super bloc, to include the EU, the United States, and India, and perhaps even key regional leaders (Tammen, 2000, ch. 8) would help offset the risk of war associated with China’s rise. Other management techniques have been explored using the theory, including solutions to the Taiwan problem, and creation of an alliance composed of the United States, India, Russia, and the EU if the world was faced with a dissatisfied, hostile China that wished to change the international system (Tammen, 2000, ch. 7).

In the near term, however, alliances will only have marginal outcomes. In the next few decades we will witness China’s output continuing to grow larger than that of the United States or the EU. China will also dominate in terms of population, with India on its heels. Russia will remain very small in both categories. But even a China-Russia alliance would be less powerful than a U.S.-EU+U.K. alliance. A united West will continue its dominance over a potentially united East. Despite arguments that a new Cold War is emerging because of Russia’s shift toward China, it is more accurate to argue that current conditions will remain in place for a while, and Russia is likely to emerge as a much smaller partner of China, increasingly dependent on trade from this large but single source.

From the Rationalist perspective, the most dangerous element is destruction of trust. The relative stability that resulted from the emergence of the United States as the single dominant super power will dissipate if the EU and the United States links are weakened. While confrontational politics by Russia in Ukraine and Syria, or by China in the South China Sea are dangerous, the underlying structural stability of the international system will be stable. If this trend continues, and Beijing and Moscow form a new Sino-Russian coalition highly dissatisfied with the existing status quo, parity among the contenders will be reached by mid-century—thus, the importance of creating satisfied coalitions now.

Long range forecasting represents an important value of the Power Transition approach. The theory provides a decades-long perspective that allows policy makers to develop and deploy strategies designed to head off impending points of crisis. The interval of the pre-transition is critically important to both sides, as this is the only period when satisfaction can be managed and potential disputes resolved prior to war. That means both the United States and China must use the next two decades very wisely to avoid creating irresolvable future points of contention. The alternative, masked in the failure to address these issues today and tomorrow, is the prospect of a devastating conflict by mid-century.

Regional Conflict

Regional transitions seldom have a direct impact on global stability, but the India and China dyad (see previous Figure 8) promises to be an exception. These two major Asian powers will reach parity roughly by 2075, raising the very rare possibility of a major regional conflict that may well diffuse like World War II, from that region to engulfing the global hierarchy.

A second region that may face serious conflict is the Middle East. Russia will remain the dominant power, but Turkey, and Iran are all expected to reach parity by mid-century (as shown in Figure 9).

Figure 9. Dynamics of regional powers in transition: 2000–2050.

If these countries find means to adjust to each other’s demands, then regional stability can be achieved. If they fail to find mutually agreeable solutions, then a major war could come out of this region. Readers may be surprised to see Russia included as a Middle Eastern state, rather than as a global power. Such, however, is the future for Russia given its persistent decline since the 1980s. Signs that Russian foreign policy focus is shifting to the Middle East from the traditional Russian focus on great power politics are abundant. Why the Middle East for Russia? Given conflicts with Muslims within Russia and across former Soviet central Asia, and given Russia’s role in the supply of oil to world markets, the Middle East is the most likely re-direction for Russian foreign policy interests. A re-direction that would center on securing and expanding its borders South and West.

Note that even if Russia is not included in forecasts about the Middle East, Iran and Turkey are still at parity for a prolonged period of the 21st century. And if Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership continue to be foiled, it is quite reasonable to speculate about Turkey playing a larger role in the Middle East. That would bring it into contention with Iran.

What might they fight over? There are many potential triggers that could incite conflict. Competition over areas held by the Kurds, influence in the new Syria, religious differences, oil, water, and general competition for regional dominance offer sufficient grounds for disputes. The main concern is that the twin conditions for war, parity and dissatisfaction, likely will be present. Under these scenarios, the Middle East rivals East Asia and South Asia in its potential for intense conflict. But not for the reasons commonly associated with the Middle East—the Arab-Israel conflict or Israel-Iran standoff. Israel now holds less than five percent of the output amongst the large Middle East Powers and this proportion will decline with time and relative population. For this reason, Power Transition forecasts that the Turkey-Iran relationship represents the greatest threat to Middle East peace (Kugler & Tammen, 2006; Yesilada et al., 2006).

Generalizing more broadly, Power Transition anticipates that the most developed societies will be directly challenged by the less developed societies in the next half century. Figure 10 displays this coming challenge by aggregating the power of the traditional developed countries against that of the rapidly growing less developed societies.

Figure 10. Dynamics of most and less developed powers in transition: 2000–2050.

Just as in the case of the United States and China, the less developed BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are expected to overtake the G7 (United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada) in power between 2035 and 2050. Combined with the anticipated competition between China and the United States, there will be no lack of opportunities for conflict.

Of course, just as opportunities for conflict rise, so too do opportunities for cooperation. Power Transition research is consistent with theories and arguments advocating that periods of peace should not be squandered, but rather used to build cooperative global structures like the World Bank, the IMF, or the World Trade Organization, which provide means to limit conflict.

These and other similar global organizations represent the status quo constructed by the United States and its allies since the Second World War. These organizations provide value to other members of the international system, and thus increase other states’ acceptance of the status quo. Common status quo evaluations are the most effective way to prevent interstate conflict. Likewise, regional structures, such as the European Union or Mercosur, diminish the likelihood of conflict among members because they create a formal mechanism to negotiate solutions to disputes.

Deterrence and Proliferation

Power Transition theory challenges classical deterrence theory but supports commonly accepted propositions about nuclear proliferation, although with a twist.

Classical deterrence theory is built upon the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. This is a condition created by a balance of nuclear weapons among contenders that insures peace because the costs of war are too high to contemplate (Brodie, 1946, 1959; Intriligator & Brito, 1984). Power Transition challenges this hypothesis by arguing that stability is based on the asymmetric possession of nuclear capabilities by a satisfied dominant power. Stability was maintained during the Cold War because the United States and Europe held a combined nuclear, conventional, and economic superiority over the USSR and Warsaw Pact.

Because this is such a vast field, we have used Intriligator and Brito’s (1984) representation of classic balanced deterrence and have built upon that framework the Power Transition perspective. The balanced perspective, as represented in many forms, proposes that Massive Retaliation (MR) and Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) are both ultra-stable (Fearon, 1997). In sharp contrast, the Power Transition asymmetric perspective infers that MAD is tenuous, while MR is unstable when held by a dissatisfied challenger and ultra-stable when held by the satisfied defender (Figure 11). These results are presented in a number of formats (George & Smoke, 1974; Kang, 2011; Kugler, 1984, 1996; Kugler & Zagare, 1987, 1990; Organski, 1968; Zagare & Kilgour, 1993, 2000).

Figure 11. Power transition: Casualties, proliferation, and the probability of nuclear war.

Classical deterrence derived from a balance of power perspective implies that stability requires increasing nuclear arsenals to assure mutual assured destruction levels. Facing credible retaliatory destruction, no nation would initiate a conflict against another nuclear power. This argument, of course, was called into question by China’s actions in Korea and by Soviet interventions in Hungary. In the former case, the Chinese risked nuclear annihilation in opposing American arms. In the latter, the Hungarians courted certain death by resisting the nuclear-preponderant Soviets. In both cases we see instances where nuclear weapons did not influence state policies as classical deterrence theory expects (Kugler, 1984).

Over time, it became clear that attaining MAD did not inhibit nuclear nations from hostile engagements against other nuclear states, nor did it inhibit smaller nations from using their conventional capabilities to advance desired goals. The actions by North Vietnam against the United States, or Afghanistan against Russia and then the United States are not consistent with Classical Deterrence.

A central implication of Classical Deterrence is that nuclear proliferation increases security. Intriligator and Brito (1981), Waltz (2003), Bueno de Mesquita and Riker (1982), or Berkowitz (1985) argue that, as nations acquire balanced nuclear capabilities, the stability of the international system increases. If we accept MAD logic that high costs deter wars, then the more states that possess nuclear arsenals, the more states there are that can inflict high costs, the fewer wars that should occur. This is an argument for unrestricted nuclear proliferation. Today it is an unpopular argument, and many deterrence theorists ignore the logical connection between what they say about deterrence and what they deny about proliferation.

Power Transition contends (see Figure 10) that both MR and MAD deterrence statements are incorrect and that in most cases proliferation is dangerous rather than beneficial. In the Power Transition world, deterrence is conditional. A satisfied nuclear nation will not initiate nuclear war, for it prefers the status quo to conflict. In contrast, a dissatisfied nuclear nation will avoid conflict when it anticipates a conventional defeat followed by a nuclear retaliation. However, a dissatisfied nuclear nation at parity may wage war, anticipating the defender will not take the risk of escalating to nuclear war. Recent extensions by Kang and Kugler in Conditional Deterrence unpublished show that limited nuclear wear is also likely under extreme power asymmetry if nuclear weapons were to fall into the hands of terrorists.

Figure 12. Consequences of nuclear terrorism on conditional deterrence.

Figure 12 shows, consistent with the results in Figure 11, that that a total nuclear war remains a likely prospect at parity among dissatisfied parties. More disturbing is the revelation in Kang and Kugler’s recent work that if or when unexposed terrorists acquire such weapons they would use them against far stronger defenders. Note further that deterrence is only stable among nuclear nations like North Korea and the United States, where exposure to nuclear devastation is assured for one side only. Power Transition provides a consistent perspective on all levels of nuclear involvement and suggests strongly that the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) cannot be dismissed simply because of the severe anticipated consequences. Kang and Kugler also show the solution is not, as many in Balance of Power advocate, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but rather that nuclear arsenals should be reduced, and eliminated regionally to limit the risk of nuclear war. A nuclear free world is not feasible unless all are satisfied. Further, the value or threat generated by nuclear proliferation hinges on satisfaction with the status quo, trust and exposure. Nuclear proliferation to satisfied states (for example, to France and the United Kingdom), does not increase the probability of nuclear war. But, proliferation to states that either are dissatisfied or could move in that direction (for example, North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan), is a global threat. At some point, parity combined with dissatisfaction can trigger the use of nuclear weapons. For terrorists, there is no credible threat of retaliation because such groups are not exposed to retaliation, and there is no geographic home base to target. Nuclear weapons fit the terrorist’s predisposition to utilize force multipliers, given their lack of standing armies and conventional power.

The Costs of War—the Phoenix Factor

Power Transition is concerned with the costs of war for two reasons. First, there is the empirical question represented by the fact that sometimes states fight all-out wars separated by only a few years, as in the case of World War II rapidly following upon World War I. This suggests a recovery or rebound effect at work. Second, the duration of waging war is generally shorter than the recovery period from such conflicts. While war is studied in great detail, the recovery period is less often explored, even though the aftermath of war has far more important impact on the future of a society.

Kugler (1993) and Organski and Kugler (1977, 1980) show that the most developed nations recover, like a “Phoenix” rising from its own ashes, following major wars. They regain their overall population, productivity, and power within one generation of waging even the most severe wars. Populations are severely depleted by war in the short term, but postwar baby booms manage to replace the lost generation. Yet, the composition of the population is dramatically altered generating lasting variability in cohorts that subsequently affect education, employment, and retirement patterns (Frumkin, 1951; Kugler & Kugler, 2010; Kugler, Tammen, & Thomas, 2011).

Figure 13. The Phoenix factor: Average outcome for belligerents in World War II.

World Wars among the great powers generate patterns, as shown first in Figure 13. The economic performance of active belligerents does not differ much from that of non-belligerents. In the short term, there is a clear difference between winning and losing, but within one generation that difference disappears and patterns of pre-war performance reappear. Consistent with Solow’s (1960) neo-classic model of growth, nations devastated by war recover because war resets the conditions for a more effective utilization of cheap labor given existing technology even with minimal investment.

This optimistic view of conflict suggests that such disasters only affect one generation. This surprisingly rapid recovery from even the worst wars (the trajectories graphed in Figure 14 are based on the empirical experience of belligerents in World War II—the most destructive war in human memory) explains why wars among great powers for control of the international system can follow each other even in close temporal proximity.

This optimistic view of recovery has been challenged by analysis of war consequences in less and least developed societies, where the costs of war persist and in many cases lead to a poverty trap that devastates societies long after the end of a conflict. This restatement of war costs is based on the overlapping generations (OLG) perspective advanced by Samuelson (1958), developed by Lucas (1975), and extended into the political arena by Feng, Kugler, and Zak (2000). The new argument by Kugler et al., 2013 here is straightforward and incorporates, in part, the early Solow (1960) results.

Figure 14. War cost and recovery: The Phoenix factor revisited.

Consistent with the Solow perspective, the OLG approach shows that relatively affluent nations will recover rapidly from the ravages of war (or natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or floods) because capital losses will accelerate the rate of growth of such societies. The elements that contribute here include technological level, human capital, foreign and domestic investment, and the political capacity of the government. A key point is that foreign aid is not the key to recovery—rather, the prewar performance and structures of a society determine the path of recovery to a large extent. Japan, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union recovered following each of the World Wars (Arbetman, 1996; Kugler & Arbetman, 1987; Organski & Kugler, 1977; Organski & Kugler, 1980). So did South Korea and Vietnam following severe regional wars.

The Phoenix factor pattern is not universal. Two additional outcomes emerge (see Figure 15):

Figure 15. Average outcome among developing belligerents.

Kugler, Kang, Kugler, Arbetman, and Thomas (2013) report that developed societies recover economically within a generation from severe conflicts, but developing societies frequently do not. The more developed societies recover partially, while the least developed suffer further losses and retrenchment long after the conflict is over. In other words, economic recovery is a conditional, rather than universal, phenomenon.

Tadeusz Kugler et al., 2013 show the negative side of nonrecovery takes place when a less or least developed society is so devastated by war that if falls into the poverty trap. Instead of recovering after the conflict these societies continue their descent into poverty as population growth exceeds the growth rate of productivity. Each successive generation in this environment is poorer than the previous one. Extreme examples are found in Afghanistan, Angola Cambodia, Liberia, or Rwanda. This analysis also shows that foreign aid only marginally advances recovery among the developed societies and is even detrimental for the lead advanced societies (Fisunoglu, 2014; Kang et al., 2017; Kugler et al., 2013). Note that these changes are not driven by culture. Starting from a very similar base, North and South Korea show very different patterns of recovery following their conflict in 1950. Both nations recovered population losses quickly, but only South Korea recovered pre-war productivity and joined the developed societies; while North Korea still lingers in dire poverty.

Monetary Implications

Power Transition arguments provide insights beyond conflict and cooperation. One of the key elements that allow a dominant nation to affect international interactions is control over the global currency. Britain was powerful not only because its navy ruled the sea-lanes, but also because the British pound remained the preferred international currency until the end of World War II. The Bretton Woods System, created in 1944, ushered in a system of monetary management that established new rules for commercial and financial relations among the world’s major industrial states.

That negotiated new order was intended to govern monetary relations among all nations. Not surprisingly, however, the dollar emerged as the global currency used in most international transactions among non-communist states. The dollar replaced the pound because America’s economy was strong enough that it could exercise the discipline necessary to retain the dollar as the global anchor currency (with an ounce of gold set at a value of $35), providing a firm foundation for the fixed exchange rate regime central to Bretton Woods.

The United States was the least damaged global economy, and thus it was the initial primary contributor to the World Bank tasked with reconstructing devastated European economies. The dollar’s overtaking of the pound in international importance coincided with American ascension to the summit of the international power pyramid. Now the emergence of the euro within the European Union provides a potential competitor, along with limited scope for the British pound, which still remains in use particularly among commonwealth countries.

Power Transition posits that the dominant nation will seek to control the international norms securing monetary and trade transactions internationally. Therefore, it is anticipated that, with the rise of China, the dollar will have to share preeminence with other currencies. This is precisely what Mundell (1961) argued after tracing the evolution of international currency after Bretton Woods. He concluded that there will be a movement away from the dollar as the most commonly used form of international currency beyond 2020, just prior to the anticipated power transition. The dollar will have to share its place of dominance with two other currencies (Figure 16).

Figure 16. Anticipated relative importance of international currencies in global trade 2020.

In this new world, the dollar remains a major currency along with the euro and China’s RMB. This representation has a very close connection to the anticipated power transitions in the global system. As China rises, both the dollar and euro areas are likely to shrink, and a mixed currency based on these three main currencies could replace the single dollar system now in place (Mundell, 2009). A challenge for monetary control of the international system is coming—the remaining question is whether it will be competitive (dollar replaces pound), cooperative (euro and dollar and RMB base) or confrontational (dollar limits RMB and euro or vice versa). Current development in the European Union suggests the competition may be limited to the dollar and RMB.

Power Transition and Democratic Peace

Power Transition can help us understand other areas of IR theory, in particular the widely accepted empirical finding—the democratic peace. The democratic peace refers to the observation that no two democracies have ever waged a war with each other. Less extreme presentations of the democratic peace contend only that militarized conflict among democracies is very rare. Regardless of which version of the democratic peace we accept, Power Transition theory can help understand why democracies live at peace with each other.

The empirical evidence in support of all democratic peace claims cover the years from 1816 to the present (the limits within which extensive, systematic data about international relations are available). During that time period, the international system’s dominant power was first Britain (until 1945) and then the United States. Both of these dominant powers have been liberal democracies. Power Transition contends that the dominant power creates the set of rules and norms to govern the international system reflected by the status quo. Thus, for the past two centuries, the rules of the international system have been written by democratic dominant powers.

Dominant powers select rules and create and enforce norms that they prefer. They externalize governance characteristics that have been useful to them domestically. Thus, democratic dominant powers have created international political organizations based on voting and consensus. They have built alliance networks that are explicitly defensive in nature. And when it comes to international economic interactions, they have favored solutions that leave a lot of power over outcomes in the hands of lightly regulated markets. The United Kingdom and the United States have institutionalized a status quo with these characteristics because voting, defensive military postures, and market exchanges “work” for them. They have prospered under these rules and so have externalized them.

But just as the United Kingdom and the United States benefit from such interactions, so too have other liberal democracies. Thus, democracies other than the United States and the United Kingdom benefit from the international status quo and want to see it maintained. Like the United States and the United Kingdom, they are satisfied with the international status quo. Satisfied states do not fight with each other, and thus Power Transition theory explains the democratic peace by identifying it as a subset of the peace shared among satisfied states.

An empirical test of this claim was reported by Lemke and Reed (1996). They analyzed statistically the competing explanatory power of joint democracy and joint status quo satisfaction on the probability of wars and militarized disputes among pairs of states across the entire international system over the past two centuries. They found that joint satisfaction is an empirically more potent predictor of peace than is joint democracy. That is, a dyad (pair of states) composed of satisfied states (as indicated by the alliance similarity measure described above) is less likely to experience militarized conflict than is a dyad composed of two democracies. This study supports the observation that the democratic peace is a subset of the Power Transition satisfied peace characterized by high trust and cooperation.

Foreign Policy Implications—Socialization

Many of the foreign policy prescriptions flowing from Power Transition theory rest on one operational imperative: the socialization of dissatisfied potential challengers. The objective of socialization is to persuade challengers to adopt principles embedded in the status quo before the conditions for war are ripe. The term socialization has a distinct meaning in recent Power Transition literature. Being a late addition to the theory’s discourse, it is not found in the earliest works. Not to be confused with accommodation, concession, or appeasement, socialization refers to the efforts a dominant power can make, over time, to buy in a potential challenger, and by so doing, to establish increments of satisfaction that blossom over time into acceptance of the established rules and norms of the existing international system.16

Socialization was not possible during the Cold War. Given the lack of trade and other reciprocal ties that bind plus fundamental ideological differences, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could seduce the other toward its system. But that is not true today, when a potential challenger—China—has modified its ideology, adopted a form of the enterprise system, and is now actively engaged in a vast array of multidimensional international organizations. The process of socialization is well along with China. But it is subject to manipulation.

For the successful application of socialization, China must socialize itself. If the effort appears to be coming from the United States, it will backfire and raise concerns about foreign manipulation. If the effort for engaging the world on existing terms comes from China, the socialization process will be successful, and the benefits will be felt by the world community. Yet there is a distinct and productive role for the dominant power, the United States, in this process.

First, the United States should be careful about meddling, preaching, or advocating for domestic change in the potential challenger. That role should be left to others, particularly the neighbors in its region and its partners in the various international fora on which it sits. Pressure from neighbors and associates is far more effective than pressure from the dominant power.

Second, the United States, in this example, should take care not to deliberately ignite a wave of dissatisfaction in China. Taiwan and Tibet both represent sensitive trip wires that could, if not handled properly, reorient China away from its socialization path. At the same time, responsibility rests with the Chinese government. The government has vast capabilities to inflame public opinion, as seen in various anti-Japanese demonstrations over the years. A misstep by Chinese officials could lead down the path to internal dissatisfaction with its region and global role. For example, Chinese officials must pay close attention to their huge floating worker population. If this mass of 100–150 million, mainly males in central cities, finds itself without meaningful work, this could create instability not only hard to control domestically, but also more importantly, it could alter China’s view of the world.17

Trade and the reciprocal roles of the business communities in China and the United States are the key components of the socialization process. Already, there are signs that the business communities on both sides of the Pacific are influencing and even managing the emerging U.S.-PRC relationship. As China further engages the world, first through its economic interests, followed by diplomatic and even military support systems, multiple layers of relationships will be needed by China and the Western alliance.18 Military-to-military engagement, economic coordination, person-to-person relationships at all levels of society from academic to cultural exchanges—all these webs could cocoon a challenger if managed with subtlety and sophistication.

A more detailed analysis of the foreign policy implications of Power Transition theory is in production. Regional Politics, by Kugler and Tammen (2018) will review every major region of the world through the lens of Power Transition theory.


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  • 1. See Tammen (2008), and Levy and Thompson (2010), for a discussion of the origins of Power Transition theory and the contributions of A. F. K. Organski. Also, see the introduction in Tammen et al. (2000), for details about generations of Power Transition scholars. See Yesilada, Kugler, Genna, & Tanrikulu (2017) for extensions of Power Transition logic from conflict to integration. All authors of this article are part of the Power Transition generational research program.

  • 2. Power Transition scholars prefer the theory to be called “rationalist” rather than “realist.” Tammen (2000).

  • 3. The authors wish to thank several generations of Power Transition scholars who helped in the preparation of this document including Allison Hamlin, Tadeusz Kugler, Kyungkook Kang, Fahrettin Fisunoglu, Zining Young, Ayesha Umar Wahedi, Marina Arbetman-Rabinowitz, Mark Abdollahian, Yi Feng, John Thomas, Birol Yesilada, Kristin Johnson, Hal Nelson, Fred Clarke, Masami Nishishiba, Gaspare Genna, and Siddharth Swaminathan, all associated with the TransResearch Consortium.

  • 4. The original measure proposed was gross product (GDP), which roughly reflects the size and productivity of a population -Power = GDP/Capita * Population. For an assessment of limitations and advantages of this measure, see Organski and Kugler (1980), Arbetman and Kugler (1997), and Maddison (1991).

  • 5. Using Knorr’s (1956, 1970) terminology, the attempt here was to reflect power potential rather than actual power.

  • 6. CINC is calculated using six selected indicators, where each component is a dimensionless percentage of the world’s total. CINC is the summation of each country’s proportion of total population, urban population, iron and steel production, primary energy consumption, military expenditure, and military personnel over the corresponding world total. The final CINC is divided by 6.

  • 7. The new formulation proposal is Power = GDP*RPE, where RPE is the relative ability of a government to extract resources from the population. The computation can be extended to include foreign aid (Organski & Kugler, 1980, chapter 3).

  • 8. This research effort is led by the TransResearch Consortium, founded by Claremont Graduate University, La Sierra University, and Portland State University.

  • 9. There has been speculation about the United States covertly providing nuclear technology or materials to France; this was recently confirmed by declassified documents from the Nixon Administration, by Agence France Presse, in Defencetalk, May 26, 2011.

  • 10. In a 2016 ISA debate over the validity of Balance of Power and Power Transition, Mearsheimer acknowledged that the counter to Realist assumptions of anarchy, the European Union was only possible because of U.S. “benevolent” hegemony. Such arguments contradict the proposition that great powers seek hegemony (Mearsheimer, 2001)

  • 11. The strong influence of game theory, which assumes anarchy among greedy competitors only interested in self-aggrandizing and fearful of all, is evident in these arguments.

  • 12. Power Transition has recorded a number of specific predictions regarding the rise of China and India. Organski and Kugler (1980) anticipated that China, not Russia would challenge the United States for dominance. In Tammen (2000), there is a calculation, based on World Bank data (on purchasing power parity, or PPP) that China will match the GDP of the United States around 2015 (Tammen, 2000, p. 210, fn. 7). This is a preliminary but important signpost along the road to applied power.

  • 13. Condition 3 reflects the anarchy assumptions of Balance of Power. However, Balance of Power, unlike Power Transition, proposes that parity always leads to stability, because at this point war costs are maximized. This deduction is not empirically supported nor consistent with formal deductions (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman, 1992; Hamlin & Kugler, 2016; Organski & Kugler, 1980; Tammen, 2000)

  • 14. Will Chinese workers be satisfied with their country’s movement to the top of the GDP global hierarchy and be proud of this progress, or will they be disillusioned that equivalent workers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and Europe will be far better off on a per capita basis? The outcome of that question may determine nothing less than the prospect of war if China becomes a dissatisfied nation as a result of internal pressures. This is an issue for the Chinese to manage, as an emerging global power, and for the United States, to influence, indirectly by not inflaming passions.

  • 15. Taiwan is a territorial issue from the Chinese perspective, but not from the perspective of the United States.

  • 16. The first reference to the concept of socialization, without using the term itself, is in Organski and Tammen’s The New Open Door Policy (1996).

  • 17. Unstable populations are subject to mass manipulation and redirection (displacement) of hostility for domestic political purposes.

  • 18. China’s quiet but deep penetration into the Middle East and Africa is the first sign of the economic-diplomatic-security cascade. Its territorial consolidation in the South China Sea and its new Silk Road strategy are evidence that China recognizes its new power base.