Dr. George Modelski, who developed the theory of “long cycles” in world politics, is particularly relevant today.
This is because the international system appears to be moving towards a kind of showdown between the US and China.
And so the link to his homepage is included below the tables. It has a series of articles on the general topic of the rise and fall of great powers.
I will try to summarize his basic approach here, in a nutshell. I should be able to do it. Dr. Modelski was my dissertation adviser at the University of Washington in Seattle.
I’ve sat in his office for many hours, his Socratic method forcing me think about theory. Over and over.
His basic conclusion is that the world does not change randomly; that there is a pace to economic and political change, a pace defined by generational turnover and widescale social learning.
In the economy, he borrows the ideas of Nikola Kondratieff, to identify 55 – 60 year K-waves, cycles of expansion and contraction in leading industries. As Modelski writes:
“What are K-waves? They may be defined as “processes of rise and decline of leading sectors” or, as paradigm shifts in the global economy. K-waves are surges of innovation that create new sectors either of industry or commerce. These sectors are initially of local and national significance but ultimately impact the entire global economy. ”
Table 7: The Co-evolution of Global Economics and Politics
||K-waves (global leading sectors)
||Long cycles(world powers after 1500)
||K1 Printing and paper
||LC1 Northern Sung
||K2 National market
||K3 Fiscal framework
||LC2 Southern Sung
||K4 Maritime trade
||K5 Champagne Fair
||K6 Black Sea trade
||K7 Galley fleets
||K9 Guinea gold
||K10 Indian spices
||K11 Atlantic, Baltic
||LC6 Dutch Republic
||K12 Asian trade (VOC)
||K13 Amerasian trade
||LC8 Britain I
||K14 Amerasian trade
||K15 Cotton, iron
||LC9 Britain II
||K16 Steam, rail
||K17 Electrics, chemicals, steel
||LC10 United States
||K18 Autos, air, electronics
||K19 Information industries
Table 5: K-waves: the sequence of global leading sectors
||Learning society, book printing
||National market formation
||North-south market unification
||Monetization, paper money
||Maritime trade expansion
||Compass, large junks
||European market organized
||Black Sea trade
||Innovations from East Asia
||Venetian galley fleets
||New markets in North Europe
||“Discovery” of African trade
||Operating oceanic route
||Atlantic, Baltic trades
||Dutch East Indies Co. VOC
||New forms of transport
||Invention of invention
||Electronics, autos, aerospace
But there is a parallel dimension that is political; Modelski is not an economic determinist. He identifies great power rivalries to extend global reach. All of which he measures by looking at the sizes of navies. The Age of Empires.
Every century, or so, or every 110 – 120 years, there is a global war. And a new power rises or re-emerges, as did Britain, for two long cycles or more than two centuries of leadership.
This also means that a long cycle of political/military power contains, within it, two distinct economic K-waves.
Modelski’s Five Global Wars and their Winners
“The most striking conjecture is that of rhythmic regularity, stemming from the observation that world power transitions have occurred in the modern world at intervals of about 100-120 years. Each transition was moreover an occasion for contested challenges, and was inextricably linked to a generation-long bout of major hostilities that will be called global war. In other words, a substantial portion of the content of world politics could be seen to be bound up into a long-range temporal rhythm with a long cycle period of some 100 to 120 years that students of this subject simply cannot ignore.”
|Period of Cycle
||Leader DerivedFrom the War
United Provincesof the Netherlands
Wars against France(1688-713)
Wars against France
Wars against Germany
Finally, these conclusions fit into a larger paradigm of evolutionary theory. There is both competition and cooperation as rivals (and their alliances) meet the challenges of markets and wars.
He gets around the “agent-structure” debate, around the “state versus system” debate, by showing how there are evolutionary processes changing everything on ever level, from cities to states to regions to the world system. Everything is evolving at once.
Modelski believes that the winning coalition tends to be the one solving the international system’s larger problems, or providing a model for the future. Yes and no…
Here I diverge a bit. Leadership is not always benign… But I suppose setbacks and tragedies are part of the “learning curve.”
Crucially, Modelski does not insist that there must be a war to determine the next round of global leadership.
There are other factors that could provide a different “selection mechanism.” War does not have to be the only event that “selects” the leading alliance.
Also, it does not have to be a singular nation-state providing global leadership, either, but could be some other political arrangement.
Basically, Modelski is right that things are not happening randomly.
We tend to hear cacophony, but it is actually a kind of symphony, however scratchy, with a certain rhyme and reason.
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