Cyclical Logic in the Transition of Hegemony:
Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory in International Relations and its Weakness
Department of International Strategy,
PLA Institute of International Relations
“Journal of World Economics and Politics”,
No.12, 2007, 24-32”,
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.” 
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
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.”  He divided the modern social system into four subsystems according to their functions: economy; polity; societal community; and pattern maintenance.  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.”  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.  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…”,  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.  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. 
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.  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.  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.  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.  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. 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
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 
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.
relevant instances are 19th cent.
cases include 18th cent.
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.  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.  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. 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. . 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. Thus in spite of its overwhelming superiority the world power focuses on long distance interactions among continents, on the seas or even on space,  in the international political system and open free trade system, restoring rather than suppressing other nations’ sovereignty
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.  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.  Kristol
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.  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.”  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”.  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 “  Hegel once argued in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, “War should not be regarded as absolute evil and pure external contingency.” 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 power—no 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 
Period of Cycle
From the War
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
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.  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,
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”. 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”.
in military technology, and globalization decrease significantly the probability
of global war, but that does not suggest that the international system
IV. Is International Power Necessarily Sea power?
mentioned above, Modelski observed that all the listed leaders are
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
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. 
be in the same sense that Marx postulated that “ for a regional system, land is
enough; but for an international system, water is indispensable.” 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
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. 
middle of the 18th century,
widely acknowledged in the field on international relations that the decline of
British hegemony started with the challenge by
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.” 
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.
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
Translation by Mrs.Rui
Xu , Beijing Smart Translation Service Company, and by Ms. Shiuan-Ju
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
2. Talcott Parsons, The System of Modern Societies, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971,p.7.
4. George Modelski, Long Cycles in World
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,
9. ……………… Shumpei Kumon, “The Theory of Long Cycles Examined” in Modelski ed., Exploring Long Cycles, pp. 60-61.
Kondratieff, The Long Wave,
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.
13. Ibid., p.29.
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,
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,
24. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics,
26. Kant, Collection of Critiques of Historical
Reason. Trans. He Zhaowu.
27. Adam Smith, The
Wealth of Nations (Volume II) , Trans. Wang Yanan et al.
28. G. W F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right,
Fan Yang et al.
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
31. A. J. P. Taylor, The
Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848 -1918,
32. Leopold von Ranke,
“On Great Powers”, in Leopold von Ranke, The
Theory and Practice of History,
33. T. N. Dupuy,
The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare.
Trans. Li Zhihua,
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,
36. Robert A.Pastor,
ed., A Century's Journey: How the Great
Powers Shape the World, Trans. Hu Liping et al.,
37. Jules Cambon,
“The Foreign Policy of
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,
40. Modelski and Thompson, Sea power in Global Politics, pp. 16 - 17.
41. Paul Kennedy regards
42. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The
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:
45. For the model see Modelski, Long Cycles., p. 40.
46. Leo Gross, “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648
47. Fernand Braudel,
Civilization and Capitalism, Fifteenth - Eighteenth
Century: The Perspective of the World,
48. Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, ib., pp. 246 - 247.
49. Karl Polanyi,
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins
of Our Time,
50. See Geoffrey Barraclough,
An Introduction to Contemporary History.
Trans. Zhang Guangyong,
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.
Ludwig Dehio, The Precarious Balance: The Politics of Power in
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”,