A. F. K. Organski's Power Transition Theory

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Joshua Goldstein:

"While Toynbee's generation cycle embodies the psychological elements in Quincy Wright's approach, other scholars have been more interested in the material or economic elements that might lead to a regular recurrence of war. These approaches have drawn on the "power transition" theory of A. F. K. Organski in which the relative growth of national economic capabilities is seen to affect the conditions for war. While Organski's theory is not explicitly cyclical, it becomes integral to later cyclical theories.

The power transition theory is an offshoot from the general approach of "realism" in the study of international politics, of which Hans Morgenthau became the preeminent spokesperson after World War II. Realism "maintains the autonomy of the political sphere" from economics (Morgenthau [1948] 1967:14). The purpose of realism is to contribute to the development of the study of politics in terms of its own standards, based on interests and power and not on either economic or moral standards (p. 14).

Power, according to Morgenthau, derives from three psychological influences of one actor over another: expectation of benefits, fear of disadvantages, and respect or love for people or institutions (p. 27). Elements of national power include such economic factors as resources, industrial capacity, and population ([1948] 1967:chap. 9). Thus, as in classical mercantilism, national wealth and economic strength serve politics.52A nation's wealth directly affects its ability to wage war as well as to give or respond to other incentives and threats short of war.

Organski (1958) follows on Morgenthau and the realist tradition in emphasizing power:

- "Shifts in the international distribution of power... create the conditions likely to lead to at least the most important wars, and power is the most important determinant of whether a war will be won or lost. And power, again, is the resource that leaders hope to preserve or to increase by resorting to armed conflict (Organski and Kugler 1980:4).

And like other realists, Organski sees economic factors as crucial in building national power.54 But Organski parts company with the traditional realist balance of power theory. Balance of power theory assumes a set of roughly equal nations that form alliances based on power considerations and that maintain peace by maintaining the "balance" and preventing predominance by one nation. Organski, however, finds this to be historically inaccurate. "Balance" is unusual; it is more common for one country to dominate the international system.55Thus Organski assumes a hierarchical world order in which there is a "most powerful nation" at the "very apex of the pyramid" (Organski and Kugler 1980:19). Just below are other great powers that have less ability to influence other nations and that receive fewer benefits from the international order.

Organski argues that differentials in national economic growth affect the rise or fall of different countries'relative capabilitiesin this international hierarchy and that these changes underlie major wars:

- "The manner and speed of national growth and development change the pools of resources available to nations.... If one nation gains significantly in power, its improved position relative to that of other nations frightens them and induces them to try to reverse this gain by war. Or, vice versa, a nation gaining on an adversary will try to make its advantage permanent by reducing its opponent by force of arms. Either way, changes in power are considered causae belli (Organski and Kugler 1980:8, 13).

According to Organski,challengesto the world order arise from changes in relative national power: The powerful and dissatisfied nations are usually those that have grown to full power after the existing international order was fully established and the benefits already allocated.... The challengers, for their part, are seeking to establish a new place for themselves in international society.... They have reason to believe that they can rival or surpass in power the dominant nation, and they are unwilling to accept a subordinate position in international affairs when dominance would give them much greater benefits and privileges. Thus, Organski argues, the greatest danger of war lies not in the preponderance of one nation but in a balance of power, since equally distributed power encourages challenges to the status quo. War is most likely when challengers catch up to or surpass the dominant power, and peace is most likely when one nation or coalition predominates so clearly as to make a challenge to the status quo impractical. It is not hard to put together Organski's theoretical "challengers" with Dehio's historical "challenges," which, as discussed above, correspond roughly with Toynbee's war cycles. Organski and Dehio represent conservative approaches in terms of the prescriptions flowing out of their theories. Protection of the status quo is the best guarantee of peace; erosion of American predominance should be resisted."


The Power Transition School of Hegemonic Studies

Joshua Goldstein:

"The third major school of the current war/hegemony debate, which I call the power transition school, is descended from Organski's (1958) approach.

Charles DoranandWes Parsons(1980; Doran 1983) remain essentially within Organski's framework but add a cyclical component. They assume a regularity in the rise and fall of a nation's relative capabilities in the international system, which they call a "power cycle." Like Organski, they assume that a state's relative power position46affects the likelihood of war.47 As shown in figure 6.3, Doran and Parsons (1980:949–53) fit regularized curves to data for each of nine great powers, indicating each country's relative power (that is, share of total capability) for 1815–1975 (or however long the country was a "great power").

Countries seem to (more or less) follow logistic curves, gradually gaining or losing their share of world power.48Doran and Parsons conclude that "major powers pass through a cycle indexed by relative capability" (p. 952). They hypothesize that "at critical points during this cycle where change is most rapid and disruptive of past trends, namely, at the inflection and turning points, the probability is highest of major power initiation of extensive war" (p. 953), because "it is at these points that the government is most vulnerable to overreaction, misperception, or aggravated use of force which may generate massive war" (p. 949).49 Doran and Parsons analyze seventy-seven cases of war initiation by major powers. Using simple statistical groupings of wars by "critical periods" versus "remaining intervals, "they conclude that indeed "a major power is more prone to initiate a war that becomes extensive (i.e. escalates) during one of the critical periods on the cycle of relative power than at other times" (p. 960).

Further, they find that the inflection points (where the rate of growth or decline shifts rather suddenly) rather than the turning points (where the level of relative capability is maximum or minimum) were most conducive to war.50I am somewhat skeptical of these results because of ad hoc elements in the methodology.

Robert Gilpin (1981)also follows the main thrust of the power transition school, though not in a cyclical framework. He argues that war is a resolution of systemic disequilibrium resulting from a differential growth of power among the actors in the international system. Gilpin integrates this theory with that of another neorealist, Waltz(1979),who makes an analogy between international politics and microeconomics. According to this approach, states act like firms and the international system like a market, so the "rational actor" model of economists can be applied to world politics. The nation-state, according to Gilpin, behaves "rationally" and seeks to change the international system only when the perceived benefits of doing so exceed the costs (p. 11).

Hence the system is stable only when no actor thinks the benefits of change exceed the costs. The principle method of systemic change through history has been hegemonic war war to reorder the international system (p. 15).51Gilpin's theory suggests a "power transition" explanation of the hegemony cycles periodic hegemonic wars arising from (and correcting) systemic disequilibrium. But Gilpin's theory is not explicitly cyclical.

The distinctions between the three schools discussed in this chapter are captured by Modelski (1983:2), who distinguishes his approach from realist and neo-Marxist approaches as follows:

- "In contrast to realism,[it] strives not for universal generalizations about the behavior of states but only for propositions about time and space-bound system's. It represents politics not as something eternal or unchanging but subject to innovation and learning.... It also rejects the characterization of world politics as anarchical but is particularly sensitive to the role global wars have played in its organization. On the other hand, in contrast to the world-systems approach, [it] eschews economic determinism and has a fuller conception of the role of the political process, and in particular global war, in the shaping of the modern world. It does, however, share with it a systemic and evolutionary perspective, a concern for space and time, and attention to global economic processes."