George Modelski on the Leadership Cycle

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Joshua Goldstein:

"George Modelski (1978), like Farrar (1977), builds on Toynbee's roughly onehundred-year cycle of general war. Modelski argues (1978) that a "global political system... defined as the institutions and arrangements for the management of global problems or relations" has existed since about the year 1500. In contrast to Wallerstein's (1974) contention that the world system arose from capitalism, Modelski's (1981:63) approach is "distinguished by the emphasis it lays on the autonomy of global political [versus economic] processes."

Modelski (1978) defines "world powers" as those units that monopolize the function of order-keeping in the global system. Since 1500 this role has been played by four states in turn: Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States. Each power remained dominant for about a century (except Britain, which repeated for another century), and each of these centuries constitutes one "world leadership cycle."

Each cycle begins with a period of weak organization that gives way to "global war" (roughly corresponding in dating to Toynbee's periods of general war). One world power emerges from the global war as the dominant power and maintains order in the world system. However, "the time comes when the energy that built this order begins to run down" (p. 217) and competitors come forward. The system becomes multipolar, order gradually dissolves, and the cycle returns to its starting point with the coming of the next global war.

Modelski dates the five "global war" periods and the world powers that arose from them as follows:

  • 1494–1517 Portugal
  • 1579–1609 Netherlands
  • 1688–1713 Britain
  • 1792–1815 Britain
  • 1914–1945 United States

Modelski's account of the five cycles since 1500 parallels Dehio's history but emphasizes the winners rather than the losers. Whereas Dehio stresses the role of the unsuccessful aspirants to world hegemony (Spain, France, Germany), Modelski emphasizes the successful powers that built world orders based on control of shipping and trade (Portugal, Netherlands, Britain, United States).

Modelski (1984b:19) argues that a coalition formed in each global war to contain the challenger. In the century after each global war (except after 1710), the winning coalition fractured and one of its members became the new challenger (p. 23). In his historical interpretation of the past five centuries, Modelski (1978:218) writes that around 1500 "the global system was a dispersed one" lacking "provision for self-maintenance and defense against interlopers" despite the system of long-distance trade linking Europe with Asia (controlled at the western end by Venice). Venice, which monopolized trade with Alexandria, was the Mediterranean's "leading power and has since served as the model for later world powers." "The kings of Portugal determined to break into that system," according to Modelski (p. 218). In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India by sea, and, "in the series of swift naval campaigns that followed, a string of bases was established and rival fleets were wiped off the oceans." A series of major wars in Italy drastically curtailed the power of Venice, and by 1515 "a new order had been established.... Portugal rose to global status in circumstances of severe conflict of global dimensions." Portugal monopolized the Asian trade and explored Africa and Brazil.

By the second half of the sixteenth century, "Portugal... was feeling the strain of maintaining this far-flung system on a rather slender home base" (p. 219). Pressure from Spain mounted, and when Spain in 1580 seized Portugal, "the Portuguese global system was merged with the domains of the Spanish Hapsburgs. For a short time (but in truth only for a fleeting moment) the union seemed to be raising an intercontinental structure of towering proportions, but the defeat of the Great Armada (1588) soon punctured this illusion" (p. 219).

With the fall of Portugal and the failure of Spain's drive for dominance, Spain's rebellious subjects in the Netherlands came out on top:

- "These wealthy provinces derived much of their income from trade with Lisbon, and Antwerp had until a short time before served as the banking and distribution center of the Portuguese system. But when the King of Spain, some years after his success in Portugal, banned all rebel trade, the Dutch took matters into their own hands, sailed to the East and proceeded to capture the spice trade from the Portuguese" (p. 220).

By 1609, when the United Provinces signed a truce with Spain, "the essentials of the Dutch global system were in place." Drawing support from England and France (who opposed Spain), the Dutch "maintained a pattern of global activity as intricate and possibly even more daring than that of their predecessors." The Dutch navy established its clear superiority over the Spanish, and by around 1660 three-quarters of the seagoing merchant ships of Europe sailed under the Dutch flag. "Control of the Baltic trade and a near monopoly of the carrying trade in Europe was combined with influence in Venice, a firm hold over the spice trade of the Indies and substantial interests in Africa and the Americas" (p. 220).

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, however, the Dutch encountered French pressure and had to ally with England to hold back France. The great wars against Louis XIV continued until his defeat in 1713. The Dutch had held their own against the French, but the price was the effective transfer of global power to what had just become Great Britain. As the English navy took over the chief burden of fighting the French on the high seas and the Dutch concentrated on the land campaigns, the Dutch navy lost the impetus of its expansion and began to suffer neglect (p. 221).

The British global system was born in the struggle against the French and was, like the Dutch system before it, "firmly anchored in the control of world trade" (p. 221). Amsterdam, tied in with the British system, retained its position as the center of investment finance but fell behind in maritime strength and trade. Portugal granted important privileges to English merchants in 1703, and the Lisbon-London trade siphoned off gold and diamonds from overseas Portuguese possessions. Even Spanish Latin America was opened slightly to English trade. "Thus without assuming direct control over the colonial territories of earlier world powers England put in place the superstructure whereby the cream might be skimmed off the top and the whole fitted into a global economic pattern" (p. 222).

By 1763 England had gained strength in Asia and the Americas (against France), the English East India Company "had become a great Asian power," and England was playing the role of "power balancer" on the European continent, preventing the rise of any power that aspired to continental supremacy. After the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic wars, "another generation of global warfare was required before a global order was reestablished and reaffirmed by the settlements of 1814–15" (p. 222).

The resulting second cycle of British dominance, according to Modelski,

- "repeated some of the essential properties of the first: the European balance...; the command of the sea, and a controlling position in extra-European and world trade." But novel elements also appeared—"the development of London into the center of world banking and shipping; newly emerging industrial and technological superiority" (p. 223).

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the world order again "began to lose vigor" (p. 223). European and American challengers broke Britain's industrial monopoly; railways cut into the importance of Britain's dominance in shipping. In the world depression that followed the year 1873, "commercial competition grew fierce and put British traders on the defensive for the first time in two centuries. Britain's industrial mainstays, coal and cotton, ceased to be world growth leaders."

By 1900 "it had become clear to many that Pax Britannica was well past its prime and that the world system was swiftly losing its ordering capacities" (p. 223). The ensuing global war period, in Modelski's framework, includes both world wars. The transition to U.S. leadership was not smooth. The outcome of World WarI

- seemed to assure the United States of a leading role in the... laying of the foundations of the new international order. But President Wilson was repudiated at home, and the United States neither took up the position that was its own for the taking nor proffered an alternative scheme for world order. The resulting vacuum of authority attracted another challenge and another cataclysmic clash" (p. 223).

Modelski treats World Wars I and II "as one generation-long period of global conflict forming the world order that emerged in 1945" (pp. 223-24).

The final step in the succession of power "occurred in 1947 when in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan American leaders declared their willingness to step into Britain's place" (p. 224). This sketch summarizes Modelski's (1978) historical description of the leadership cycle. He then discusses (1981) the theoretical underpinnings of that cycle. Modelski's theory connects the leadership cycle with pairs of long waves and stresses innovation as the driving force. He argues that economic and political innovations alternate on successive phases of the long wave.

Modelski distinguishes four phases of the world leadership cycle (p. 73):

  • Long wave upswing 1: Global war
  • Long wave downswing 1: World power
  • Long wave upswing 2: Delegitimization
  • Long wave downswing 2: Deconcentration

The dominant world power has also historically been the leading economy of the world, Modelski argues, and has shaped the international economic order.10In addition, Modelski sees an evolution, in successive cycles, of political structure11and military techniques which he calls "waves of political innovations" (p. 66). Each world power played the key role in both economic and political innovation (p. 68)."