Cyclical Logic in the Transition of Hegemony: 

 Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory in International Relations and its Weakness






Cui Jian-Shu 

Department of International Strategy,

PLA Institute of International Relations          




Journal of World Economics and Politics”,

No.12, 2007, 24-32”,

Institute of World Economics and Politics,

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.







Modelski’s long cycle theory is one of the most important schools that study the evolution of international politics.   Its fundamental assumptions are:  leadership is needed in the world system; such a role is derived from global war; sea power is a necessary condition for its establishment; the evolution of international politics is based on a cyclical model in which domination by the leading power in the international system normally lasts about 100 to 120 years.   The contribution of this theory is that it offers an explicit macro-paradigm for the study of changes in international politics.


However, its weakness is also obvious.   In particular, it cannot explain some of the important international phenomena over the past 500 years.   In addition, with the development of globalization and the advances of military technology, the mode of evolution of the international political system has changed accordingly.   To some extent, this undermines the predictive capability of the long cycle theory in international relations.






Among the schools of Western international relations theories, there is one school focusing on studying the cycle of the rise of leaders and the global hegemonic wars resulting from the cycle.  For example, at the beginning of Diplomacy,  Henry Kissinger wrote “almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values.”  [1]      An American scholar, George Modelski has theorized the historical phenomenon of the rise and fall of the leading powers and brought out the Long Cycle Theory. However, is this macro-theory convincing enough, especially about the development of international politics, compared to other explanations in a realistic political environment? This article attempts to examine Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory by inspecting the modern history of international politics and some basic international relations theories. I hope this article can provide some useful insights for China’s peaceful development strategy.



I.   The content of Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory in International Politics


Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory in International Politics is based on Western international political history since the Age of Discovery.    Modelski constructs this highly explicit theory by drawing support from systematic analytic methodology in sociology and from Nikolai D. Kondratieff ‘s theory of Long Waves in Economic Development.


First of all, Modelski relies on the theory of The System of Modern Societies from the famous American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, to support his assumption of a need for a leader in the global political system. According to Parsons, “social systems are those constituted by states and processes of social interaction among acting units.”  [2]  He divided the modern social system into four subsystems according to their functions: economy; polity; societal community; and pattern maintenance. [3]  Modelski’s research focuses on the polity aspect in Parsons’ modern social system. He defines “global polity” as a “functionally specific set of relationships concerned with a defined range of problems, those attendant upon the organized pursuit of collective action at the global level.” [4]    There are four components of the global polity: (1) the relationship between the world power and its challenger; (2) the relationship that sub-system maintains with the (super-ordinate) global system, and world system, and with the (co-ordinate) sub-system of global economy, community, and culture-maintenance; (3) the regulatory mechanism that governs it; and (4) the developmental mechanism that accounts for its evolution. [5]   Modelski thinks that the global polity needs a leader to maintain its function, just like the national or local political systems. The relationship between the system leader and its challenger is the main (dynamic?) component of the system. In other words, global polity is composed of two parts: politicking and policy.  Politicking refers to the competition for systemic leadership while policy is the goal that the leader pursues and the means to achieve it. Countries that succeed in this competition become global powers and dominate the system.


Second, Modelski uses the sociological theories and the historical experiences of human beings to prove the generality of the “law of the jungle” principles in international politics.   Although Modelski stresses that “…long cycle (is not) a war cycle but rather a basic political process…”, [6]  the theory concludes that war is the dynamic of the international system evolution. Just like biologists see “natural selection” as the dynamic of species origins and evolution, long cycle theory sees global wars functioning as “social selection” in the international system. [7]   Modelski maintains that the primary way of transforming international system (has been?) through global wars and that all the global leaders of the modern world system have emerged from those wars. [8]


Third, Long Cycle Theory defines countries that endure the test of hegemonic wars as “world leaders.” However, not every big country has the chance to seek the championship status of the paramount world leader. Being a world leader requires four elements: geopolitical conditions (island or peninsular location); domestic politics stable and open to the outside; a lead economy; and a politico strategic organization (in particular, a powerful navy) that can exert its power on a global scale. [9]   Among these four elements,  Modelski puts extra emphasis on the importance of geopolitical location and naval force. He argues that the “four leaders” appearing in modern world history have all been islands or peninsular states: Portugal, located in a corner of Iberian Peninsula,  had no special interests regarding the Continental Europe; while the Netherlands  was not a typical peninsula state, it had a similar condition; geographically; the United Kingdom is an island country; and the United States is a Continental “island” state, whose geopolitical location to Eurasia Continent is like Britain to the European Continent.


Last, Modelski combines Kondratieff ‘s theory of Long Waves in Economic Development with Ervin Laszlo’s sociological theories to demonstrate that theoretically, the world leadership changes cyclically. As early as in the 1920s, the Soviet economist, Nikolai D. Kondratieff, started to study the long-term changes of economic prosperity. Based on his observations, Kondratieff published the theory of Long Wave in Economic Development. This theory divides a long-term economic cycle into four phases: prosperity, decline, panic, and recovery. Kondratieff finds that the period of long-term economic rise usually is also a period of war and a period with the most frequent and intense domestic and social instabilities. [10]   The division of phases in Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory is identical or similar to Kondratieff’s.   Modelski divides the growth and decline of the world’s leading countries into four phases:  those of global war; the world power phase; delegitimation; and deconcentration. These four phases constitute what Modeski describes as a specific-cycled phase movement. [11]   In these four phases, phase one and phrase two exhibit a high preference for order. In phases three and four, the consolidation of leading power’s status brings stability and lowers the preference for order. But because of the availability of order, the global power’s domination of the system in phases two and three makes it easier to have a stable international order. [12]   The preference of order reflects the system’s revolution in phases, and the supply of order represents the leading role of the global power in the system’s evolution.


Regarding the dynamics of international political development, Modelski cites Laszlo’s theories in sociology. Laszlo maintains that social systems are constructed by the joint operation of the regulatory and the developmental mechanisms. These two mechanisms compose a feedback system that in its output will re-import the data it requires to correct the functioning of the system. The regulatory or control process constitutes negative feedback. The thermostat of a heating system is the model of negative feedback. The development of growth processes is positive feedback. Population or economic growth are types of positive feedback processes.[13]   Modelski imports these two mechanisms into the system theory of the global polity.. The regulatory mechanism explains the system’s stability while the developmental mechanism explains the system’s transitions. These two mechanisms compose a feedback system that functions to represent the global polity in a cyclical form. The cycle represents not only several processes by which world leaders come to dominate the international system, but also the rise and fall of those leaders.


In short, Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory is composed of the following assumptions: (1) world polity needs leadership; (2) leadership has emerged from global wars and, without any exceptions, its challengers have failed while confronting it. The outgoing global leader is usually replaced by its partner or ally; (3) world leadership requires sea power; (4) the evolution of international politics is based on a cyclical model, in which the domination of the international system by the leading power normally lasts about 100 to 120 years.


Modelski’s explanation of the development of international politics in the last five centuries recalls the writings of Thucydides, of ancient Greece, and his powerful account of the origins of the Peloponnesian war. [14]    However, academic research cannot be satisfied with a macro-explanation.  It requires a more detailed study to determine whether the theory matches the history of international political development and how precisely it can predict the future.


II.   Is Leadership Needed in the World Political System?


As an “American theory”, long cycle theory in international relations directs special attention to what he calls “global leadership” and its function of maintaining world order. To conceal its essence of defending hegemony, however, Modelski compared the long cycle theory to the hegemonic stability theory represented by Gilpin as follows (see Table 1):


Table 1 Hegemonic Stability Theory and Long Cycle Theory Compared [15]


Hegemonic stability theory

Long cycle theory

Central concept is hegemony.

Central relationship is between leadership and challenge.

Hegemony is preponderance of material resources.

Leadership is the function of supply and demand for the solution of global problems.

Two relevant instances are 19th cent. Britain, and 20th cent. USA.

Relevant cases include 18th cent. Britain, Holland and Portugal as well as 19th cent. Britain and 20th cent. USA.

Hegemony creates international order, including international regimes.

Leadership solves global political problems.

Hegemony is required for maintaining international order, including economic order.


Hegemony gives birth to free trade.

The relationship between leadership and free trade is variable, and the trend is toward less monopoly.


To demonstrate the rationality of what he calls global leadership, Modelski formulated two viewpoints:


First, in light of the theory, the global political system requires  leadership, just as a public sector requires a sector leader. [16] This seemingly rational simile proposed by Modelski is irrational indeed. A public sector of domestic politics is restricted by other sectors. For instance, administrative power is restricted by legislative power and judicial power. Therefore the fact that a leader is required in a public sector for the purpose of management of affairs does not imply that an anarchical society characterized by “autonomy” requires a global leader responsible for global affairs as well.


Second, he stressed the alleged benevolence of the “world power”. The dominant nation in the international system exercises “world leadership” instead of “hegemony”, in order to emphasize that world leadership is legitimate in maintaining world order. [17]   Supporters of long cycle theory maintain  that in addition to surplus political and military security brought by its supreme role, the world power is supposed to fulfill its duties by offering “public goods” beneficial to world order. According to Modelski, world leadership differs from hegemony in that the latter puts emphasis on political and economic aspects of international system while ignoring global problems to be solved by leadership.[18]   Indeed the hegemon is characterized by heavy reliance on military superiority, arrogance, and territory acquisition by imperialism with disinterest in solving common problems in the international system. .[19]  World leadership differs significantly from hegemony since the global political system differs from an imperial system and the former could be viewed as collective action adopted by the whole world with the aim of acquiring common benefits or producing public goods, via the “collective pursuit of collective goals” in Parsons’ terms.[20] Thus  in spite of its overwhelming superiority the world power focuses on long distance interactions among continents, on the seas or even on space, [21] in the international political system and open free trade system, restoring rather than suppressing other nations’ sovereignty


Despite his denial,  the term “world (global?) leadership” coined by Modelski is nothing but what is generally known as “hegemony” in a strict sense, or rather, the term is close to “benevolent hegemony” advocated by popular American neo-conservative scholars such as Kristol. [22]  No significant difference has been found between hegemony in international politics and “hegemony” implemented by a ruling clique over the ruled groups in domestic politics, since both of them are compelling and ideological, that is, characterized by “dominance” and “knowledge and moral leadership” in Gramsci’s terms. [23]  Kristol viewed America as an “invited imperialism” and “benevolent hegemony”, which is the perfect world leader in Modelski’s eyes. 


However, can this alleged “world leader” be expected to provide “public goods” for the international system without obtaining private benefits? The answer is definitely no both theoretically and practically. Lord Acton, the well-known British historian and editor of Cambridge Modern History once said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only approach to preventing corruption is to restrain power by power.  And so in international relations. In his Lectures on Modern History, the historian observed that the hegemonic nations, regardless of their ideology and domestic political system, are not expected to adopt self-restraint policy and only countervailing power counts. [24] François Fénélon, the French theologian and Archbishop of Cambrai once warned us from the perspective of restraining power by power that “a superpower can never be expected to keep un juste-milieu [a happy medium] or fail to use its power and be content with what it can get at its weakest…All this disallows us to believe that a nation capable of conquering other states will take no action forever.” [25]   Though order is a vital value in international society, all the historical facts did and will prove that the order maintained by a super hegemon is nothing but the order of a jail.


Human history also shows that an international system free of hegemony is indispensable to independence, variety and effective competition of human beings, on which Western sages have reached agreement. In his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose” and “Perpetual Peace” Kant convinced us that competition and the most intense form of competition war - does help to promote the “economical principles of nature”. [26]   Adam Smith once concerned himself with the degradation of the nation’s martial spirit by industry and commerce by pointing out that, to maintain the martial spirit effectively, . “even though the martial spirit of the people were of no use towards the defense of the society, yet to prevent that sort of mental mutilation, deformity, and wretchedness, which cowardice necessarily involves in it, from spreading themselves through the great body of the people, would still deserve the most serious attention of the government; in the same manner as it would deserve its most serious attention to prevent a leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease, though neither mortal nor dangerous, from spreading itself among them “ [27]   Hegel once argued in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, “War should not be regarded as absolute evil and pure external contingency.”[28]  In terms of human morality and conscience, the international system free of hegemony is cold, crude or even bloody, but the system is imperative in the background of human civilization, just as the cold market is our best economic system. The attempt to dominate the international system by a global powerno matter whether the power is a hegemon or alleged “world leader”—in order to eliminate turbulence and conflict - is nothing more than the act of dispelling market inequity with a whole plan, which will definitely fail

II   Would the Future International System Transition Follow a Global War Model?


The second assumption of Modelski’s long cycle theory is that leadership is derived from global war. To test this assumption, Modelski took five large-scale modern wars and their consequences as examples. The five wars are shown in Table 2:



Table 2  Modelski’s Five Global Wars and their Winners [29]



Period of Cycle

Leader Derived

From the War

Global War

Cycle 1






















United Provinces

 of the Netherlands






Italian Wars


Spanish War


Wars against France


Wars against France


Wars against Germany




Whatever the correctness of Modelski’s five cycles, we note that the description of the five global wars is far from being accurate. In terms of scale, only the wars against Germany, that is, the two world wars, are global while all the other four wars are regional or local: The Italian War started by the French King Charles VIII in 1494 was restricted to Mediterranean states. What is more important, Portugal was not a major participant in the Italian Wars, not to mention in its conclusion. In the Spanish War (1581-1608), the United Provinces of Netherlands sought independence from Spanish rule,  and no hegemony is noticed. The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), which was ignored intentionally by Modelski to justify himself, however, is a widely acknowledged hegemonic war. The wars in Europe to prevent Louis XIV’s hegemony over continental Europe (1688-1713) were also far from being global, or even European, since another great war broke out in Europe at the same time, i.e. the Great North War between Russia and Sweden. The Wars against France (1792-11815), which involved most of the European powers doubtlessly, were on the whole European, but the greatest winner was Russia instead of Britain: postwar Russia not only spread fear among continental nations like Austria, Prussia and France but also was envied by Britain. It is obvious that the “world leader” in Modelski’s terms requires modification, and “system leader” sounds more reasonable; “global war” should be renamed as “systematic war”. Only in this way could modern international political history of five centuries before World War II be explained clearly.


If the fact that the system leader is mislabeled as world leader and systematic war as global war in the long cycle theory is merely a flaw,   projecting the future of the international system on the basis of global war is a serious mistake. [30]   Regarding  war as a standard of hegemony does work for traditional political reality indeed. After summarizing European history of the struggle for ‘mastery’ from 1848 to1918, Taylor defined hegemony, meaningfully, as “a power, as its name implies, is an organization for power and organization of wars. It may have other objectives——its citizens’ benefit or ruler’s honor, but the fundamental test for its identity is its capacity for war.” [31]   Leopold von Ranke, the famous German historian, assumed in his On Great Powers” that a great power  is capable of defending against all the other powers even if they were united, it would not be defeated. [32]   Nevertheless, any political phenomenon is the product of its own era.   With the appearance of nuclear weapons, development of military technology and globalization, the destructive power of humans has increased exponentially. Meanwhile, the interdependence of nations is unprecedented. In this case, standard of evaluating powers with military force might be inaccurate.  Since World War II, our military technology has skyrocketed. The researchers observe that the theoretical lethality index of sword and spear in the cold weapon era was 23 while that of a high altitude nuclear explosion in the megaton range surges to 695 385 000. [33]    As such, the cost of war has risen so significantly with the growth of military technology that war has become a “luxury” for the poor and backward nations and even the powers are wary of war. In the 1980s, U.S. President Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Gorbachev announced in a meeting that there could be no winners in a nuclear war and that powers should not wage wars. [34]  Though these are words of good will, they do reflect technological development and the will of common people, to some extent. To predict the next cycle of global war based on Modelski’s long cycle theory is nothing but to predict realization of Kant’s “perpetual peace of the graveyard”.


In addition, the contemporary era is characterized by globalization, not only of trade and finance but also of production, which exerts a potentially revolutionary influence on international politics. As Thomas L. Friedman, a journalist of The New York Times pointed out in a book on globalization, the drive of present international system revolution has undergone fundamental change;  the approach of “heavily relying on the past and predicting future merely on the basis of the past” does not work any more because globalization has turned the world into an “overall dominant international system which shapes domestic and foreign affairs in every state”.[35]   No matter whether we agree with Friedman or not, we have to admit that to investigate international society from the perspective of macro-diplomatic history, the rules of the game of international politics are undergoing tremendous change: while “all the states in the world keep on competition, today’s game differs dramatically from colony acquisition in 1900s. What they pursue today is social and economic benefits. Thus they have to cooperate with each other and abide by international rules…(today’s major powers in the world) usually seek profit by means of international organization rather than gunboat”.[36]


Progress in military technology, and globalization decrease significantly the probability of global war, but that does not suggest that the international system dominated by America will never change. On the contrary, the absolute law of international economic development imbalance will become more prominent with development of globalization. The present international system ruled by USA will shift from balance to imbalance and undergo change eventually, but the change will not follow the long cycle theory, in which the traditional model of global war is established on the basis of human experience. Instead, international system will undergo change in the model of peaceful transformation or else small-scale and low intensity war. After all, survival interests are supreme for a state.


IV.   Is International Power Necessarily Sea power?


As mentioned above, Modelski observed that all the listed leaders are  Island states or peninsular states. Thus he directed special attention to the geopolitical position and significance of naval forces for international power.  Geopolitical position plays a vital role in the rise of a country. In his works on foreign policy in 1930s, M. Jules Cambon, well-known French diplomat, maintained that “a country’s geographical position is prior to its foreign policies and is the root cause of some foreign policy.”[37] Nevertheless, Modelski’s interpretation of the geopolitical factor is too superficial since he only noted invariability of a country’s geographical position while failed to notice dynamic change of geopolitics and geo-strategic status. The history of international relations proves that geo-strategic status changes with technology innovation or political events. For instance, Germany was  deemed a “death trap” for lack of natural barriers prior to the emergence of the railway network. After establishment of railway network, the country enjoyed convenient transportation immediately. It was also in the same country before its unification in 1871, that German principalities fawned on foreign powers due to political division while countries like France, Russia and Britain took the chance and interfered in its internal affairs. Some scholars attributed the humiliation to an “unlucky geographical position”.[38] After the unification, however, its neighbors, France especially, started to complain about their (?own) geographical position. It is obvious that the geopolitical factor is far from being invariable.


As a firm proponent of “sea power” by virtue of geopolitics, Modelski claimed that during the global war, sea power fulfills at least four functions: first is to “control the sea”. In World War I British naval force bottled up the  German fleet in the North Sea while in World War II the American navy struck a fatal blow at Japanese sea power. Second, sea power prevents domestic bases from being attacked and directly attacks opponents’ domestic bases, the latter of which is the function of power projection. During the Napoleonic Wars, the battle of Trafalgar forced France to abandon its plans of directly invading Britain; In the Second World War, American and British sea forces prevented Nazi Germany from landing in Britain while allied amphibious troops successfully landed on the beaches of Normandy. Third, sea power ensures transportation and trade during wartime and cuts off the enemies’ routes.  Last, sea power ensures effective contact with core allies. For instance,  in World War II American and British sea power safeguarded the lifeline of the two countries in the North Atlantic and supplied Russia via Murmansk. In contrast, contact between Germany and Japan was nearly lost in the face of the joint attack of American and British naval forces. After the global war, world leader had to maintain advantageous international political order by means of sea power and deprive challengers of the opportunity to control the sea. [39] Generally speaking, Modelski assumed that sea power plays a decisive role in global war, and world leadership change is closely related to sea power shift. [40] Thus, Portugal rather than the widely acknowledged Spain  is defined, in terms of sea power, as the first hegemon or “world power” after emergence of the modern world system. [41]


Maritime development is, without question, a priority since sea power is prior to land power due to the fact that three fourth of the earth is covered by water. [42]  It may be in the same sense that Marx postulated that “ for a regional system, land is enough; but for an international system, water is indispensable.”[43] However, we do not totally agree with Modelski’s overemphasis on sea power. First, Comprehensive National Power (CNP) rather than sea power deserves more attention. As is well known, sea power is the most expensive and high-tech among the armed services. In the case of weak CNP especially weak domestic economic foundations, expensive sea power development is nothing but a disaster. Second, powerful naval forces are not everything. At its prime time, Ditch sea power was equal to the sum of that of Britain and France. Its land power, however, was far less than that of France. In 1672 Louis XIV waged a war against the Netherlands,  and marched into Holland toward Amsterdam. Thanks to its low-lying position, Holland broke the dykes and blew down the water so as not to be subjugated. In the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese sea power was no less powerful than that of the neigbouring Japan, but the Beiyang Fleet was totally destroyed in the First Sino-Japanese War. Thirdly, military forces should develop on the basis of the security threat faced by the nation rather than on the basis of the mechanical application of sea power, land power or air power theories. Islands like Britain need a powerful navy to protect their coastline; in spite of being a land country, America has two sides facing oceans and lacks threatening neighbors. Thus it develops a powerful navy as well. Countries with vast territories such as China and Russia want a gigantic land force due to their long land boundaries.  Last and the most important, with the development of technology and establishment of express railway and express highway networks, the  mobility of land power is greatly increased, which will further undermine the significance of sea power. Moreover, the possibility of land country ruling sea countries cannot be excluded as Paul Kennedy posited in his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. [44]


V.   Does the Global Political System Evolve Cyclically or Spirally?


World leadership alternation is a feature of Modelski’s long cycle theory.  He classified the international political history of five centuries since the Great Discovery into five cycles: Portugal Cycle, Netherlands Cycle, Britain Cycles (I, II),  and America Cycle, each of which lasts about 100 to 120 years. [45]


Ever since France invaded Italy in 1494, the wars between Europeans countries became hegemonic instead of local. The relations of European countries developed into a unitary political system that witnessed rise and fall of powers under influence of both international law and balance of power——“laws and power taking effect between nations, or rather upon nations ” [46]   Like the periodic table of elements created by Mendeleev, long cycle theory offers an ‘alternation’ model of world leadership which gives a clear account of hegemony. But a problem arises here as well. The model demonstrates similarity of leadership cycles without noticing their differences. Historically speaking, British hegemony differs from Dutch hegemony as well as from American hegemony.  On the whole, international politics evolves more spirally than cyclically.


Since Spain signed the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, the Netherlands became the European hegemon due to its sea power and trade advantage. Fernand Braudel, a representative of the Annales School of historiography, once viewed Dutch hegemony as a watershed, “it lies between two successive phases of economic hegemony, on the one hand the age of the city, on the other that of the modern territorial state.” [47]   Dutch  hegemony was based on commerce and banking. The immense wealth accumulated in the wartime appealed to those European states long obsessed with the war. It is a natural consequence that all the war participants swarmed into the Netherlands for a loan. “By the 1760s all the states of Europe were queuing up in the offices of Dutch moneylenders, the  emperor, the elector of Saxony, the elector of Bavaria, the insistent king of Denmark, the  king of Sweden, Catherine II of Russia, the king of France, or even the city of Hamburg”. [48]


In the middle of the 18th century, Britain replaced the Netherlands as the new leader of European system. Whereas both Netherlands and Britain were based on an international trading system centered on metropolitan territory, the former lacked a backup of industry and empire while the latter was not only an commercial center but also an industrial power, i.e., with a mechanized commercial transportation and production system. Britain acquired vast colonies and controlled traffic arteries between colonies and the metropolis. Thus, British hegemony, and especially its 19th cent. version, was constructed differently from 17th cent. Dutch hegemony,  with a wider and more complex structure. According to Karl Polanyi, a famous American economist and expert on economic history, in the Dutch era the European international system was a true anarchic system, that is to say, the system lacked a ruler; while in the British case,  the reestablished system of the Vienna Settlement was no longer anarchic. Instead, a balance of European powers became an informal tool utilized by Britain in the new system balance of power viewed as policy rather than a system. [49]


It is widely acknowledged in the field on international relations that the decline of British hegemony started with the challenge by Germany. But a close investigation convinces us that the hegemony was destroyed by the spread of industrialism and imperialism.  The prevailing industrialism deprived Britain of its role as ‘world factory’. As early as 1883, J. R. Seeley even predicted that the transportation revolution and war industrialization would “dramatically change strategic geography”. The scholar claimed that Britain will degenerate into an “unsafe, insignificant and secondary” state if it fails to change the colonial empire into a “greater Britain” while America and Russia with their vast territory fully developed “steam engines and electricity” and railway network. [50]   Meanwhile, the spread of imperialism “will make powers realize that they rely on an increasingly unreliable global economic entity.  Thus they prefer imperialism and are ready to adopt a (closed-door?} policy.” [51] In particular, the popular “new navalism” of the 1890s destroyed Britain’s maritime hegemony. The naval competition between Britain and Germany forced the former to stick to strategic contraction after 1902. Britain was reluctant to abandon the traditional naval policy and sought alliances with other regional sea powers such as the United States, France and Japan so as to return to a balance of power system in Europe. The English Channel did not isolate Britain any more while the Atlantic still separated it from America. What is more important, with innovations in transportation and communication, spatial barriers were gradually removed. From a commercial and military perspective, the long distance to Eurasia was no longer a weakness for the United States. “Certainly as the Pacific region emerges as an economic enemy of the Atlantic, America’s role is centralized——it is a continental island and has easy access to the two great oceans”.[52]   Compared with that of America, the vast territory of the British Empire, dispersed over the world, was too difficult to integrate. America and Britain differed also in the way hegemony was established: British hegemony was launched in a bottom-up model and Britain reinforced its role as trade center by balancing power in Europe.   On the contrary, America established its hegemony in an top-down model by taking active measures: to establish international organizations (/before) the turbulence caused by the final collapse of the balance of Europe; to associate its economy with that of other Western states by means of free trade principles.


Therefore, an inquiry into leading states, or the ‘hegemonic alternation” in the history of world politics, reveals that under the double drive of industrialization and technological development, every cycle changes the spatial pattern in the former international system and hegemons rise spirally in turn, which pave the way for new power moving further eastwards or westwards and spread the sovereign state system centered on Europe ultimately to the whole world. The prominent German historian Ludwig Dehio even claimed that “the reason why the western powers kept balance is that new balancing powers emerged from the margin alternatively and confronted the power pursuing hegemony…in World War II the power driving Europe…returned to where they were from unexpectedly… the young giant dwarfed the old pluralistic system of small states which were obliged to seek help from the former…the old framework covering the whole Europe thus…collapsed. The gradual shrunken stage was no longer suitable for the old pluralistic system of small states, which gradually lost its importance and was brought into a wider stage. The two world giants are heroes on their own stage…The old European trend was abandoned and a new unified global trend took its place.” [53]


When the basis of hegemony changes substantially, the cost of international conflict surges high and weapons are more destructive than in an autonomous military structure; the traditional balance of European power is unlikely to recur, and will instead be replaced by the trend of centralization of global military force.  Predictably, with the great increase in the scale of military equipment, and in the requirements for technology and capital, fewer and fewer states are likely to dream of world leadership and may be capable of exercising it.



VI.    Summary


Having now investigated five centuries of events in international political history, we draw the following conclusions: all the four fundamental assumptions in Modelski’s long cycle theory in international relations have weaknesses, even serious mistakes. In particular, with the revolution in military technology and further development of globalization, the predictive function of Modelski’s long cycle theory diminishes greatly.  An interpretation of the prospects for China’s rise and for the relations between China and America, the only super power in the world, in the perspective of long cycle theory would be misleading.  Although China is not a sea power in Modelski’s terms, it is a continental, mixed, sea-land power with an independent geographical structure.  With the double advantage of abundant land resources and convenient maritime transportation, China will rise inevitably. In addition, differing from France and the second German Empire in history, the rising China, instead of dominating the international system in place of America,  adopts an international strategic notion of advocating multipolarity that is approved by the majority of the world and conforms to the historical trend [54]  . Of course, with an increasing CNP (Comprehensive National Power) and transformation into sea power, it is natural that Chinese sea power rise worries American and other Western strategists. The strategic situation with neighboring powers means that China cannot blindly pursue sea power. Besides, the background of Chinese sea power rise is globalization rather than colonization. Just as Ni Lexiong has claimed “Globalization, the unprecedented factor…will probably introduce new ideas in modern sea power notions. Now that all the nations can only survive on the basis of global economic integration, their military efforts including their sea power strategies will share the same object——to maintain global economic integration. The historic moment suggests that perpetual peace of (humanity is irreversible and that Mahan’s sea power theory will quit the historical stage in the near future.” [55]   The words could be viewed as his criticism of Modelski’s long cycle theory and a proper comment on the background of strategic peaceful development in China.








Translation by  Mrs.Rui Xu , Beijing Smart Translation Service Company,  and by Ms. Shiuan-Ju Chen,  Elliott School of International Affairs,  George Washington University. Invaluable assistance in achieving this translation was provided by Ms Jing Zhong, China Librarian, George Washington University. . 


1..   Henry Kissinger,   Diplomacy,  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1994, p.17……….

John L. Gaddis,   “International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War” in Sean M. Lynn-Jones and Steven E. Miller eds.,   The Cold War and After:  Prospects for Peace, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991, 364.

2.   Talcott Parsons, The System of Modern Societies, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971,p.7.


4.   George Modelski,  Long Cycles in World Politics,  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1987, p.7.

5.   Ibid., p.12.

6.   Ibid., p.93.

7.   ………………….   George Modelski, “Evolutionary Paradigm for Global Politics”, International Studies Quarterly, No.3, September 1996.

8.   George Modelski and William R. Thompson  Testing Cobweb Models of the Long Cycle” in  George Modelski ed.   Exploring Long Cycles,  Boulder:  Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1987,p.87.

9.   ……………… Shumpei Kumon,   “The Theory of Long Cycles Examined” in  Modelski ed., Exploring Long Cycles, pp. 60-61.

10.   Nikolai Kondratieff,   The Long Wave,   New York:  Richardson and      Snyder, 1984,  …………………..

Richard Rosecrance,   “Long Cycle Theory and International Relations”, International Organization, Vol.41, No.2, 1987.

11.   Modelski,   Long Cycles in World Politics, op. cit., p.31.

12.   Ibid.,

13.   Ibid., p.29.

14.   …………………..

15.   Modelski, Exploring Long Cycles, p. 13.

16.   Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics, p. 13.

17.   Viewpont proposed by Modelski was similar to that of Robert Jervis, another famous American researcher on international relations, with the only difference that the latter adopted the concept of primacy. See Robert Jervis, International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle? in Sean M. Lynn - Jones and Steven E. Miller, eds. , The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace, cited..

18.  Modelski, Long Cycles, op.cit., p. 17.

19.  ib. pp. 17 - 18.

20.   George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Testing Cobweb Models of the Long Cycle, in George Modelski, ed. , Exploring Long Cycles, p. 85.

21.   William R. Thompson, On Global War: Historical - Structural Approaches to World Politics, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988, p. 45.

22.   William Kristol and  Robert Kagan, Toward a Neo - Reaganite Foreign Policy”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.75, No.4, 1996.

23.   Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: International Publishers, 1971, pp. 57 - 58.

24.   Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, p. 111.

25.   Ibid.,

26.   Kant, Collection of Critiques of Historical Reason. Trans. He Zhaowu. Beijing: The Commercial Press,1990; see also Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.1903, and the long preface by the English translator.

27.    Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Volume II) , Trans. Wang Yanan et al. Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1974, p. 344 (Modern Library edition 1937, p.739)

28.    G. W F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Trans. Fan Yang et al. Beijing: The Commercial Press, 1961, p. 340.

29.    George  Modelski and William R. Thompson, Testing Cobweb Models of the Long Cycles”, in Modelski, ed., Exploring Long Cycles, p. 87.

30.    Long cycle theory viewed the challenger between 2000 and 2030 as the Soviet Union, see  Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics, p. 40.

31.   A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848 -1918, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, p. xxiv.

32.   Leopold von Ranke, “On Great Powers”, in Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History, Indianapolis: The Bobbs - Merrill Company, Inc., 1973, p. 86.

33.   T. N. Dupuy, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare. Trans. Li Zhihua, Beijing: Military Science Press, 1985, pp.116-117.

34.   Karl Kaysen, “Is War Obsolete?” in Sean M. Lynn - Jones and Steven E. Miller, eds., The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace, p. 81.

35.   Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, p. 7.

36.    Robert A.Pastor, ed., A Century's Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World, Trans. Hu Liping et al., Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2001, p.5, p.2.

37.   Jules Cambon, “The Foreign Policy of France” in Council on Foreign Relations, ed. , The Foreign Policy of the Powers, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935, p. 3.

38.   Robert A. Pastor, ed., A Century's Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World, Trans. Hu Liping et al., Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2001, p.98.

39.   George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Sea power in Global Politics, 1494 - 1993, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988, pp. 11 - 13.

40.   Modelski and Thompson, Sea power in Global Politics, pp. 16 - 17.

41.   Paul Kennedy regards Spain as the first international power. See Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, New York: Vintage Books, 1987, Chapter 2.

42.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Problem of Asia: its Effect upon International Politics, Trans. Fan Xiangtao, Shanghai: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2007, p. 62. See the preface by Francis Samaipata in a journal for the book.

43.   Karl Max, Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century, Trans. Bureau to Translate and Edit the Writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Beijing: People Press, 1979, p. 80.

44.    See Zhu Tingchang, Theory of Western Geostrategy, Xi An: Shaanxi Normal University Press, 2005, p. 64.

45.    For the model see Modelski, Long Cycles., p. 40.

46.   Leo Gross, The Peace of Westphalia, 1648 – 1948”, in  R. A. Falk and W. H. Hanrieder, eds., International Law and Organization, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968, pp. 54 - 55.

47.   Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, Fifteenth - Eighteenth Century: The Perspective of the World, New York: Harper and Row, 1984, p. 175.

48.   Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, ib., pp. 246 - 247.

49.  Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, p. 259 - 262.

50.    See Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History. Trans. Zhang Guangyong, Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 1996, p. 94.

51.   Polanyi, The Great Transformation, cited, p. 217.

52.   Joshua Goldstein and David Rapkin, After Insularity: Hegemony and the Future of World Order”, Futures, Vol. 23, No. 9, 1991, p.946.

53.   Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: The Politics of Power in Europe, 1494 - 1945, London: Chatto & Windus, 1963, pp. 264 - 266.

54.   Some American experts on international relations have investigated the trend toward multipolarity. See Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise”, in Sean M. Lynn - Jones and Steven E. Miller, eds., The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace, cited..

55.    Ni Lexiong, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow of Sea Power”, China Book Review, 2006, No. 8.