George Modelski

















EOLSS Publishers Co Ltd, Oxford, OX1 1BN , U.K.










Long-cycles, world powers, global leadership, challengers,

 global wars, global political problems, democratization,

global leading sectors, evolutionary world politics.









The study of long cycles of global politics


                   What are long cycles

                   Their place in IR literature

                   The ‘existence’ of long cycles


A brief history of global politics:  West and post-European


                   From Eurasia to the Atlantic-Pacific


                   The Dutch Republic

                   Britain I and II

                   The United States


Basic concepts


                   World powers and global leadership

                   Global wars and their alternatives

                   Transitions and challengers

                   Core alliances and coalitions

                   Global agenda and global public goods

                   Innovations and democratic deficit

                   Leading sectors and K-waves

                   Democratization and the democratic lineage


Evolutionary explanation


                   A broader perspective

                   Long cycles drive global political evolution

                   Global politics and world system evolution

                   A chaotic process?


From leadership to global organization








                   The study of long cycles attempts to capture a critical element of regularity in the operation of world politics in the modern era.   In the first place, it offers a description, based on systematic empirical evidence, of the rise and decline of a succession of named world powers since the 16th century:  Portugal, the Dutch Republic, Britain, and the United States of America.    For their time, the global order led by world powers was superior to classical imperial arrangements.   But the working of long cycles is also shown to be closely linked to a series of global wars that have been a marked feature of that period and that were contests between world powers, those aspiring to global leadership and others challenging them.   While the world powers constructing and animating the global political system, and successfully responding to priority global problems have been sea powers of global reach, with open societies and lead economies,  the challengers that rose to oppose them  were regional powers with substantial land armies, and less open societies and economies.   The rise and decline of world powers can be seen to be synchronized with the rise and decline of leading industrial and commercial sectors in the global economy.   It also actuates world democratization, in as much the world powers have constituted the core of the democratic lineage.


                   Secondly, it explains the observed regularities of long cycles as one mechanism of evolutionary world politics and, more broadly, of world system evolution.   In conditions of high evolutionary potential and in response to major global problems that mechanism activates innovation, cooperation, and selection of global policies.   In turn, a sequence of long cycles builds new global structures and effectuates global political evolution.   Such evolution tends toward the replacement of the global leadership-global war sequence by increasingly institutionalized forms of world organization.   In the third place, the study of long cycles therefore offers a prediction of new institutional developments in global politics.





George Modelski is Professor of Political Science Emeritus in the University of Washington, Seattle.










The study of long cycles


                   Long cycles are a pattern of regularity in the operations of global politics that focus in particular on the rise and decline of world powers.   In a realm that is sometimes described as anarchic they represent an element of organization and continuity whose understanding offers much to students of International Relations (IR).  


                   The present discussion of long cycles will consist of four parts:  methodological, descriptive, explanatory, and predictive.



What are long cycles?


                   The concept of long cycle highlights an important pattern of regularity or recurrence in world politics.   It does not connote strict cycles, but it is a regularity of transition, of the fact that the experience of the modern world has been marked by a succession of “world powers” (Portugal, the Dutch Republic, Britain, twice, and the United States) exercising leadership in the global arena.   That is, the focus is not on a global system that achieves an equilibrium around a particular focus of power  but rather on processes that impart movement to politics at this level, movement that is not unlike that observable in a national political system experiencing regular elections.   The most obvious and important recent example of such a transition has been that between Britain and United States in the first half of the 20th century.   At a higher level, the transitions are between forms of global political organization (of which global leadership is one).


The following features of that concept might be distinguished:   regularity,

progressive non-uniformity, global reach in space, and limited reach in time.


                   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.


                   This postulated regularity of period does not involve the assumption of uniformity.  There is no ground for expecting uniform repetition, or identity of agents or transitions. This is not a mechanical clockwork but a social-system transformation that evinces a certain  pattern of form over an ever changing substance.   There is strong evidence that each transition brings new elements into play, such that a distinct progressivity of forms of global organization may indeed be arguable.


                   The long cycle is, moreover, a distinct pattern in planetary space, and not one of regional or national politics.   In particular, a clear distinction must be drawn between global and European politics.   Much of the conventional knowledge of modern history pertains to the affairs of Europe, without much regard to how the world as a whole was being organized at the global level, through exploration, sea power, trade, and key alliances.   It is this transcontinental and oceanic realm that is the prime operational theater of global processes such as this.


                   Finally, long cycles are not some universal principle of world politics but rather also a time-bound process.   It is a process of global politics, and politics has had a global reach basically only in the modern era.   The onset of global-level (oceanic and inter-continental) organization may be dated to about 1500, and only from that period onward can global politics be said to operate in a proper fashion, even if the half-millennium prior to that year might be regarded a preparatory run-up.


Their place in IR literature


                   The study of long cycles may be located among historical-structural approaches to world politics.   These types of analysis characteristically (1)  present the world system as the result of evolutionary and discontinuous historical development;  and

(2) assume that the system’s past must be systematically taken into account in 

unraveling that system’s present and future.   They also attach critical importance to long-term fluctuations in power and value distributions.   In other words, they privilege world-wide institutional structures, and highlight processes of historical transition.


                     Those who  like to consult classical texts may wish to refer to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War  and its account of Greek thalassocracy and the rise and fall of Athenian leadership, with the proviso that this is an account of regional politics without a marked element of recurrence.   But as a contemporary problem,  Historical-Structural analyses rose to full attention only in the 1970s, and while the focus of these discussions has most often been the role of the United States, their net was usually cast wider, and helped to give impetus to the study of long-term processes of change in international relations.   William R. Thompson (1988:Chs.2,3) has distinguished three models of such change, roughly corresponding to major IR approaches:  structural realism,  the world-economy approach;  and long cycle theory.   Each of these gives center place to the role of global leadership (or hegemony),  highlights the links between the position of these powers and major wars, and the economy, presents an account of modern history, and each one also offers food for thought about the future position of the United States.


                   A good example of structural realism is Robert Gilpin’s  War and Change in World Politics (1981) for it  combines a strong dose of International Political Economy with an account of the significance of major wars in the modern world.   Basic to what Thompson describes as Gilpin’s “interpretation of hegemonic stability” are the propositions that hegemony brings stability, and that hegemonic decline undermines world order.   Consistent with structural realism is Paul Kennedy’s  The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers 1500-2000 (1987),  that is centered on the interplay of military and economic power in the rise (and decline) of Spain, Britain, and the United States through a trajectory of great coalition wars and economic transformations.  Its comments on the dynamics of decline for the United States aroused world-wide attention at its time of publication.  Most prominent in the world-economy school have been the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, in particular  The Modern World-System (3 vols., 1974-1989)  whose central argument concerns the rise of capitalism, and the moving force of which are the three core hegemonies of the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States, and their relationship with their peripheries. 


            Together with the long-cycle line of analysis that was launched with George Modelski’s (1978) paper, all three of these approaches have a great deal in common.   By the 1990’s, though,  interest began to shift from studies of decline, to elaborating the role of leadership, primacy, and hegemony.


           But because this area of inquiry is of considerable significance it also has room for a variety of treatments.    The three approaches just mentioned therefore also differ in their conceptual frameworks, in the data they draw upon, and in various particulars.    The distinguishing characteristics of long cycle analyses have been an emphasis on clarity of basic concepts, the regularity of the process and its phased nature;   a sustained effort to provide social-science type of data to document it, and its capacity to mesh in with evolutionary explanations.  Those exploring long cycles placed their bets on studying rise, rather than decline, and have been in a position to offer some reasoned accounts of future world politics.


Do long cycles “exist”?


                   For students of these matters, the “existence” question of long cycles has been of fundamental importance, and unsurprisingly has absorbed much of their attention.   They invested a great deal of research effort in demonstrating that long-term regularities can indeed be shown in the historical record of world politics.   Table 1 summarizes the principal results of research aimed at showing such regularities, in three realms:  those of global political economy, of sea power concentrations, and of acts and occasions of leadership in global affairs of the past half-millennium. 


                   (Table 1 about here)


Table 1:   Evidence for long cycle regularity



(1) First K-wave



(2) Global war

(3) Occasions for

global leadership


(4)   By

(5) Sea-power




(6)  2nd K-wave peak



Wars of Italy and the Indian


1494 Treaty of Tordesillas

1499 Design for Cape route






Dutch-Spanish wars

1585 Anglo-Dutch alliance

1609  Truce of Antwerp

Dutch Republic




Wars of Grand Alliance

1689  Anglo-

Dutch Alliance

1713-4  Peace of Utrecht

Britain I




Revolutionary and Napoleonic


1793  Britain

opposes aggression

1814-5 Vienna settlement

Britain II





World Wars

I and II

1917  14 Points

1941 Atlantic


1943-5- Summits












*     Based on Modelski and Thompson 1996

**   Based on Modelski and Modelski 1988

*** Based on Modelski and Thompson 1988



                   What does it take to establish the existence of long cycles?   Basically, it is to show that certain significant events, or clusters of events, repeat themselves at regular intervals.   Of course, mere repetition helps but it is also important to establish a theoretical rationale for such recurrences.   What is the pattern of return performances that can now be established?


                   Consider the empirical information reported in Table 1:   “Evidence for long-cycle regularity”.   Column (1) sheds light on surges in leading economic sectors in order to demonstrate how economic power supports political power:  it reports the decade/s in which a (global, that is one whose innovation impacts the global economy) leading commercial or industrial sector attained peak performance, thus laying the foundation of economic strength for the country of that sector.   In the first row, the decade of the 1480s saw the peak of Guinea gold trade (on K-waves, see below).   In its turn, that made it possible to launch the oceanic, around-the Cape, enterprises that led to the next K-wave of the spice trade (column (6), 1500s/1530s).   In the fourth row, the decade of the 1780s is the high point of the cotton-steam K-wave of Britain’s industrial revolution.   The peaks of 1870s-1900s are those of the electric power, chemistry, and telephone waves that shifted the center of industrial power from Britain to the United States.    A similar high for the information industry might be expected in the 2000s.


                   Column (2) lists the global wars that have punctuated the modern experience.    If it is admitted that these, and only these were the global wars of that period (which is a matter of debate;  for instance John Arquila 1992:26, would add two others, the three Anglo-Dutch wars, 1652-74, and the Seven Years’/American Wars, 1756-83),  then a distinct regularity of 100-120 years emerges in the incidence of such major conflicts.   William Thompson raises this question and argues that global wars must be shown to have a positive transformative effect on the structure of global politics.  His tests (1988:108-110) show that the five choices shown in Column (2) alone have such effect (his tests for the Seven Years’ War are positive but less so than for global wars).


                   The global wars of the West European era were in fact the most notable occasions for the exercise of, and for effecting transitions in, global leadership..   Column (3) lists a sample of such leadership events, drawn from a qualitative documentary collection spanning the period 1500-1950.    The wars highlighted here are the backdrop for displays of leadership qualifications, especially in diplomatic, military, and strategic affairs, and in assembling and maintaining winning coalitions.   At the conclusion of such wars, leadership is exercised in fashioning peace settlements that shaped the global structure for the decades ahead.   The series Tordesillas, Antwerp, Utrecht, Vienna, and Tehran-Potsdam-Yalta  (strongly fashioned by the powers listed in Column (4)) have determined the structure of the system still in play at the start of the 21st century.


                   A final quantitative index of a repetitive regularity concern sea power and its concentration.   This measures the strength of the naval forces at the disposal of powers competing for global leadership.   Column (5) shows the year in which the world power (of column 4) attained absolute superiority in global naval forces  (50 per cent or more of capital ships).   Striking, again, is the regularity with which that threshold has been crossed every 100 years or so by the world powers.


                   Such is the state of evidence for asserting a pattern of regularity.   This is not a mechanical repetition of events affecting a single state but rather a pattern characteristic of the global political system, specifically in its Atlantic-(or West-) European and early in the Atlantic-Pacific periods.   It lends itself to constructing a story of that system.



A brief history of global politics


                   One clear advantage of the long-cycle approach is that it offers a coherent story of the past millennium of global politics (as do other structural-historical approaches).   After all, there has been, and there is to this day, only one global political system and moreover, that system is a constructed one, with its own beginning, its own path (or trajectory) being followed in the form of co-action of all its participants, and one that continues to change in significant ways.   That is why its story matters in its own right, and must continue to matter to all who study this field.   By contrast, those who think of IR as preoccupied with the “behavior of states” have no such clearly delimited historical domain;  the number of stories of state behaviors that could be told is in fact unlimited, hence cannot be managed.   Nor is there merit in viewing global politics as a series of “world orders  defined by the identity of its lead powers because such view suggests fragmentation whereas the great and overriding fact of this story is continuity. 


From Eurasia to the Atlantic-Pacific


                   When and where does this particular story begin?   On this question, two answers are plausible.   On one view, global politics begins about 1500, when the opening of oceanic routes not only transformed world trade but also brought the Americas into what up to that time was a Eurasian realm, and put in place a global political system.   On the other view, such a system could already be seen emerging half-a-millennium earlier, about 1000, when the classical “balance of Eurasia” began to crack, and new ways of organization started to be explored with the help of such innovations as printing, gunpowder and compass.  For analytical purposes, the second approach is more fruitful, and will be pursued here, though in practice much emphasis will be laid on developments since before 1500.


                   The world system of the classical era (-1200 to 1000) was basically Afro-Eurasian,  with the Silk Roads, both overland and southern maritime, serving as its (low-intensity) communication arteries, over which both goods and ideas traveled.   Silk was the prominent product that flowed from east to west, and Buddhism the system of beliefs that impressively spread from west to east, both by the northern and the southern routes.    In the 13th century, the Mongols’ attempt to build a world empire upon the Silk Roads, while for a time spectacularly successful, ultimately ended in failure and chaos, and it devastated, and decisively weakened, large parts of Asia..  By 1400, Venice controlled the western end of that system, extending its reach as far as the North Sea.   Egypt, and Moslem traders organized its middle reaches, right into the Indian Ocean, and China was its Eastern anchor. But the system was beset by weaknesses of fragmentation, political insecurity, and frequent interruptions.  It had no conception of common identity, or common interest.


                   The social and political organization of the classical world was two-tiered: a top layer, frequently imperial, upholding a great tradition, and a layer of often autonomous local communities, also based on cities.   Its states were imperial, tribal, or city-based.   It was simple, but in the long run, proved incapable of meeting the demands placed upon it by rising  populations and expanding production.   The modern world, by contrast, is organized more complexly, gradually adding to the two-original tiers two more layers, of national, and global interaction.   Another way of putting this is to argue that modernity has witnessed two processes, those of nation-state formation, and those of rising global organization.


                   Nation-state formation is a major process of the world system that has shaped the political organization of the human species through much of the past millennium.  Starting with a few such formations in Western Europe (and Japan) this form of social and political cooperation has increasingly spread around the globe.   Actual or aspiring nation-states now are the universal form, and the process may now be seen as approaching completion.


                   The equally significant process of organizational formation of the global layer has so far been accorded a secondary priority, but will also be coming into its own.   Note in particular the interrelationship among the two processes:   The world powers of global politics introduced in Table 1 above have all been nation-states.   Their success at the global level has been a boost to this form of organization at the national level.   The world-wide diffusion of autonomous nation-states in turn makes possible enduring forms of cooperation at the global level.


                   The story of global politics then becomes that of a succession of nation-states assuming global leadership by responding to global problems with a series of innovations that in turn serve to reshape the global system.   Table 2 summarizes this story, and it is to be read at two levels:   Each world power taking up two sets of global problems:  more specifically those of challenge and opposition, and the more general ones that drive a succession of structural changes.   Once a set of such structural changes is completed, the global system moves toward a new form of organization.   Specifically, in the Atlantic-European period   (III A in Tables 2 and 3 below), the innovative form of global organization is the global leadership of the world powers;  in the Atlantic-Pacific period (III B) global leadership persists but new forms of global organization are gradually taking shape.








Global problems:







Creating a (non-imperial) global system


Global leadership as focus of world order







Silk Road status quo

Portugal’s oceanic routes (fleets, bases, allies); à global political system





Nucleus formation; Spanish world monarchy;

Dutch-English alliance;

Freedom of the seas






Political stabilization; French challenge

Britain holds the Balance of Power;

Mature global leadership





Economic expansion;

French challenge

Britain’s Industrial power;

Freedom to trade





global order



Global organization








knowledge; German challenge

U.S. information revolution;






Global public interest;


Nucleus of democratic community;







Global order;

(Reform vs. status quo?)


Global governance;


LC = long cycle





                   As possibly the world’s first nation-state (having reached its present extent of national territory in 1249) Portugal was in an ideal position to become a platform for responding to the global problems  that were then about to arise out of Eurasian chaos, and the weaknesses of the Silk Road system.    Those  brought up on European history have a hard time conceiving of Portugal in a major role for it is a fact that most of the time the country was not a great military power in Europe.   While well-connected on the continent, (it operated in coordination with the Hapsburgs, then an emerging power house)  its principal efforts were played out at the global level, as for instance in the far-flung sailings of its great ships plying the world ocean but largely unknown in Northern waters.


                   The Kings of Portugal were well aware of the global problems then coming to the fore:   the inefficiencies of the Silk Road as the principal trade artery of Eurasia (and the profits Venice and Egypt derived from exploiting it), against the background of Eurasian troubles (most recently, the depradations of Timur).   Armed with the assets of oceanic location, maritime background, and familiarity with the Venetian trade network, Portugal gradually moved into the position of supplanting that network by executing an end run around it.   After first exploring the African coastline, and then exploiting the Guinea gold trade, they proceeded to sail, in the generation that followed, to India and build there a network of fleets, naval bases and trading posts, and alliances with local rulers of such powers as Persia.  By defeating an Egyptian-Gujerati fleet at Diu in 1509 they gained command of the Indian Ocean, while almost simultaneously a Hapsburg-led coalition inflicted a severe defeat on Venice in Northern Italy.   The status quo forces were thus outflanked and outgunned,  and Portugal seized control of the larger portion of the oceanic space.


                   Portugal’s main innovation consisted in creating the unprecedented and world-wide deployment of its fleets, bases, and alliances, from the North Atlantic, through Brazil and East Africa, to the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and even Japan.   (It was also, of course,  an exclusive trade and shipping monopoly for the sole benefit of the Portuguese Crown and to that extent it was subject to wide criticism and attack.)   But it was maintained for a century, and its creation amounted to the establishment of the world’s first global regime, that instituted by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), one that regime was shared with Spain.   It set the rules for the first, albeit rudimentary, global political system, both conceptually, as outlined in that treaty, and organizationally, in the way it regulated intercontinental trade and the access to the world ocean.   What is more, Portugal’s is also the first trial of a new political institution, that of global leadership.   It is an early and far from well articulated model, but it does begin to carry its essentials, and in particular,  the role of the forces of global reach as then embodied in its sea power.  


                   Portugal’s cycle peaked at about 1540, and soon after Spain assumed preponderant weight in the relationship, as its economy gained strength on the profits of American silver, and as its land army became the most powerful in Western Europe. In a swift land and sea operation Spanish forces seized Portugal and its global assets (including itss fleet) in 1580, presenting a new challenge for global politics:  that of Spanish world monarchy.


The Dutch Republic


                   Opposition to the Spanish world monarchy first raised its head within its very own domains.   The Netherlands had been under the rule of the Hapsburgs since the 1480s, and in the 1555 division of the realms of Charles V (born in Ghent, Flanders) they were assigned to the Spanish branch the family, now represented by Charles’ son, Philip II (who was born in Spain and ruled from Madrid).     Through Antwerp, the northern outlet of the  spice trade, the Netherlands had been switched into the Portuguese global network since the end of the previous century.   More recently they also came to profit from the American silver trade.   That is, they knew the system, but they did not control it.


                   About the same time as Spain was gaining over Portugal, the Low Countries became one of the principal theaters of the European Reformation.   When the Dutch Revolt (prompted by both political and religious grievances) broke out in earnest in 1572, it took, initially the form of a struggle for national independence from Spain.   But when Philip II conquered Portugal (arguing dynastic considerations) the struggle for national freedom also became one for the control of the emerging global political system. 

The problem for global politics thus became:  would that system be organized by Spain leading the forces of the Counter-Reformation, or by the Dutch as the then focal point of the Reformed (Calvinist) Churches.


                   Within a generation, the Dutch Republic, in alliance with England (1585) first saw the destruction of  Spanish-Portuguese sea power (Armada 1588), and by 1595 took to the world ocean and sailed for the Americas, Africa, and the Indies, establishing trading posts and naval bases, and building alliances.   They erected their own global network such that in a matter of decades the Spanish Crown, while keeping the bulk of its land possessions, was first contained and then lost control of the seas.


                   The Dutch innovations responding to global problems consisted in the continued development of the role of global leadership,  in superior naval strategy and construction, and in expanding the openness of ocean space, by launching the principle of freedom of the seas (and by implication, also of trade).   Most importantly, they laid the groundwork  for the nucleus of the global system on the basis of Calvinist affiliation, consisting of Holland, Zealand, England, Scotland, Geneva, the Huguenots, even the American colonies.   Around that nucleus, the global system would continue to be organized for the next several cycles.


Britain I and II


                   If the transition from the Portuguese to the Dutch global system was a contested one, the transfer of power that  occurred in the last quarter of the 17th century between the Republic, and England soon to become Britain must be called basically  consensual and took the form of co-optation within the global nucleus now in place.  

When the English settled their civil war, and the French under Louis XIV emerged stronger from the Thirty Years’ War, they both grew quite powerful and resentful of the Dutch.   The Republic fought three bitter wars, with England, and one with France, and was never actually defeated, but realized that a choice had to be made, and they chose to throw in their lot with England.    When the Dutch Stadholder William of Orange landed in England “in the Protestant interest” and ascended to the throne in 1688, he not only reaffirmed the Anglo-Dutch alliance of the Dutch cycle but also initiated a transition of global leadership to England.


                   If the Portuguese and Dutch cases might be described as unformed trial runs, Britain’s performance showed global leadership in its mature form that lasted not one but two cycles.   First and foremost, under William’s leadership, Britain took up resistance  to Louis XIV’ designs for European supremacy.   France now fielded the continent’s largest land army, considered a number of overseas enterprises (India, Louisiana, Egypt), and later also planned for a Bourbon union with Spain that would lend these designs a global dimension.   In response, William urged his subjects to “hold the balance of Europe” and organized the coalitions that ultimately thwarted these designs.    In the Treaties of Utrecht the Balance of Power was proclaimed to be the guiding principle of European politics.   No single power would be allowed to dominate the continent, making sure that Europe would remain an ensemble of sovereign states.   And Britain would serve as the ‘holder’ of that balance, deciding when that principle would be infringed and needed to be acted upon.  In this way, British leadership shaped the political structure of Europe in a form that ultimately extended to the entire global system.


                   The Balance of Power was re-tested, and found in good working order in the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.   Once again, France and its the armies dominated the continent and its power seemed to be vast and unconquerable.   But Britain skillfully deployed the tools at its disposal:  fleets, bases, and alliances, and by 1815 had secured Napoleon’s defeat.  Its global leadership won a repeat engagement;  the Balance was restored in Europe and the Navy continued to “rule the waves”. 


                   Britain’s leadership in the second cycle was greatly assisted by the productive capacity, and the wealth, generated by the first two waves of the industrial revolution (steam, cotton, and rail).   The allied armies that defeated Napoleon were armed and financed by British subsidies.   The growing abundance of new industrial products stimulated the export trade, and increasingly put ‘free trade’ at the top of the political agenda, such that by the 1840s it became the center piece of commercial policy, and a new principle of foreign relations.   The country’s industrial structure came to be emulated, at first in North America and Western Europe, and then worldwide.   Having in its first cycle given a decisive turn to the shape of world politics, Britain’s example  proceeded in the second cycle to reshape the world economy.


United States of America


                   Much the same dilemma that the leaders of the Dutch Republic faced in the 1650s-1660s - what to do about the rising power of England and France - also confronted British political leaders about 1900:  how to respond to the new economic strength, and  growing political influence of the United States, and Germany (the latter now fielding Western Europe’s largest land army).   Without too much hesitation, they went for the American option, initiating a process of consensual transition that might again be regarded as co-optation.   Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (whose mother was American, just as William of Orange’s mother was English) served as the prime agents of that process.   That transition could have taken off in 1917 but was soon put on hold, only to be firmly resumed in 1941, in the leadership of the war-time coalition meeting the German challenge, and it was fully accomplished by 1947.


                   The United States was now launched on a course of global leadership for which the British experience supplied a well-tested role model.  Indeed, the so-called “cold war” that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union during most of the second half of the 20th century bore an eerie resemblance to the conflicts that after the Napoleonic wars ranged Britain, in a ‘liberal’ camp with France, against a conservative bloc of East European powers led by Russia, , and that culminated in the Crimean war of 1855-6.    But there were differences too.  The ”cold war” unfolded under the shadow of the new weapons of mass destruction, creating problems of hitherto unimagined dimensions.  The role assumed by the United States heralded a shift from a West-European focus of global politics to an Atlantic-Pacific centered, world-oceanic system. 


                   The extra-European shift of world power was first signaled by the weight of the American economy in the second half of the 19th century.   But it was not the sheer power of that economy, or the vitality of the society, that made a difference.   What mattered was the kind of innovations it sprouted (such as the telephone, or the film industry),  the scope and quality of its science, and range and creativity of its media that helped to illuminate not only America but soon the entire world system.   The science/knowledge revolution that followed clarified the nature of our world, laid the foundation for wholly upgraded ways of dealing with its problems, political and structural, and placed the quality of global order squarely on the world’s agenda.  



Basic concepts



                   The descriptive narrative just presented nevertheless employs a number of concepts that require clarification.   This section offers definitions, and explanations, and

points to the questions that they open up.


World powers and global leadership


                   World powers, the chief characters of this account so far, are those states that have exercised singular leadership in global politics.   Since the global political system was first put into place in about 1500,  the position of world power can only be identified since that date.   It may be contrasted with that of “great”, “global”, or “major” powers, commonly states with large military forces, or with the concept of “hegemony” that carries with it the connotation of domination.


                   The important question to ask is:  what are the attributes of, or qualifications for, global leadership?   Knowing these, is it possible to tell which of the “great” or “global” powers will be selected to global leadership?    The answer is, yes, long cycle analysis offers four basic qualifications for that position, viewed as potential for generating global leadership:   forces of global reach;  lead economy, open society, and responsiveness to the global agenda of the time.


                   Global reach refers to the ability to undertake world-wide deployments of naval and, more recently air and space, forces.   In past global wars, global reach in the form of command of the sea (based on fleets, bases, and alliances)was a necessary condition of victory.   Victory was made evident by a condition of strong sea power concentration and, as seen in Table 1, Column 5, that in turn was an indicator of global reach.   Lead economy connotes one that,  by virtue of its leading sectors (surging in a K-wave, Table 1, Column 1) creates the wealth that funds a bid for global leadership.   Open society refers to the social prerequisites of cooperation:  democratic potential in the democratic lineage, and a capacity for forging coalitions, both within and without.   Responsiveness to global problems stands for ability to respond to world opinion and to shape innovative policies in response to changed in the global agenda.   All four world powers scored high on these criteria.


Global war and alternatives to it


                   Global wars have marked the progression of long cycles to-date;  they have been generation-long armed struggles that reshaped the global political system.   As shown in Table 1, Column 3 and 4, such wars have not only selected for global leadership but also provided the most spectacular occasions for the exercise of that role.   The peace settlements that terminated such wars have laid down not only new territorial arrangements;  they also instituted new rules and created institutions that would promote them.   Principles such as freedom of the seas, balance of power, or national self-determination have been products of such settlements, as have  the growth of international law, and the creation of international organizations.  The ‘cold war’ was no global war but rather a form of ideological competition without armed hostilities among the principals.


                   The global war à global leadership sequence has so far laid at the basis of long cycles.   Is it a necessary condition of global politics, or is it a feature of one of its periods?   For if global wars select for global leadership - just as national elections select a country’s next government - might there not be alternative solutions to resolving the question of world organization?   What might be the alternatives to global war that might otherwise be “expected” in the next generation?


Transitions and challengers


                   The story of  long cycles records four transitions, or transfers of power from one world power to the next:  a contested one (also involving an attempted ‘coup’ by Spain), two cases of co-optation (Anglo-Dutch, and Anglo-American), and one self-selection (the Britain I to II case).   That is, since about mid-17th century, the power transitions from the ‘retiring’ incumbent, to successor, have been basically smooth, arguably because they occurred within the democratic lineage  (will the next transition be within that lineage too?)  On the other hand, these several transitions all occurred in the context of global wars, and it is the outcomes of these wars that clinched the selection process.


                   Challengers are states that contested the transitions as leaders of the

opposition alliance.   In addition to the status quo party that opposed Portuguese designs, the challengers were the Spain of Philip II, France (twice), under Louis XIV and Napoleon, and the German Reich, in the second round in alliance with the Empire of Japan.   Like world powers, challengers too had a distinct set of attributes but with an opposite sign:  they were states usually with the most powerful land army in Europe, an economy that was large but not leading;  a society that was short on democratic potential, and states that cast their policies primarily in self-oriented, national terms.   States with those characteristics played a large role in continental terms, but invariably lost in global wars.  A good question is:  why did challengers persist in engaging in conflicts that experience indicated they would lose (as German historians warned in the 1900s)?




Core alliances and coalitions


                   Core alliances have been those binding incumbent and aspiring world powers.   The relevant cases are the Portuguese-Spanish link (launched by the Treaty of

Tordesillas), the Anglo-Dutch Alliance, and the Anglo-American special relationship.   These served as mechanisms of co-optation to facilitate power transitions.   More significantly still, they also served to alleviate the impact of unipolarity that marked the initial stages of global leadership (as shown in Table 1;  and as measured by sea power concentration, unipolarity is a condition of power monopoly).   In other words, they broadened the political base of global leadership away from domination, toward a “division of labor” and “separation of powers”. 


                   One of the tasks of global leadership has been to assemble coalitions for the solution of urgent systemic problems.   Most prominently, these coalition played a central role in the global wars of their time.   One critical reason for winning in global wars has been the ability to assemble a coalition, a task that challengers were generally less successful at.   But they were significant not only at those times.   In the period leading up to global war, coalitions could already be seen to be assembling, often based on some generalized concept of common interest, be it dynastic, religious, or ideological. Open societies have greater capacity for cooperation than closed ones.     The winning alliance of World War II became, after 1945-7, the basis for post-war cooperation in the non-Soviet world.   Will an emerging democratic community become the platform for the winning coalition of the 21st century?


Global agenda and global public goods


                   The agenda of global problems may be defined as the prioritized schedule of demand for global public goods.   Global public goods are those collectively provided that potentially benefit the entire human species.   Peace, a functioning trade system, or the creation of international organization are examples of such goods (conversely, exploitation, or pollution are examples of public bads).   Global leadership is one form of supplying global public goods;  fully formed global organization is another.   States exercising global leadership have had a large influence over the shaping of the global agenda.


                   The global agenda is one element of an ongoing global political system and it is shaped by world opinion that in turn reflects (1) the quality of information about the global system, and (2)  the current state of that system.   The quality of information is a function of the educational system including the universities; of science and the relevant epistemic communities (such as that of climatologists), and the effectiveness of media of all kinds.   The modern era has witnessed a rapid expansion of all of these, hence a broadening of the influences shaping world opinion.   The agenda also mirrors the state of the system, in as much as it reflects changes in global politics, calls for relevant innovations, and suggests solutions to contemporary problems.  


                   Global leadership provides mixed global public/private  goods.   Portugal and Spain explored the world ocean and the routes to Asia and America.   They attempted to secure the fruits of these explorations as private goods, but the external spill-over of these activities was profound, and also i.a. transformed general knowledge. The British Navy, among other things,  fought pirates, and closed down the slave trade.   Most importantly, in five global wars,  global leadership spearheaded coalitions to defeat the imperial designs of the challengers.   In doing so they certainly promoted their national interests but also helped to maintain a non-imperial global order that has been the basis of world development.   The innovations listed in Table 2  are global public goods of a mixed character.



Innovations and democratic deficit


                   The sequence of long cycles may therefore be described as a series of major institutional innovations.   In contrast to the conventional IR view depicting international affairs proceeding in the largely static framework of a system of sovereign states born in Westphalia in 1648, the long cycle perspective alerts the observer to gradual emergence of an increasingly complex global political system.


                   The major innovation after 1500 was global leadership itself.   It served as an alternative to the imperial prescription that was basically unworkable at the global level.   Global leadership reconciled the existence of autonomous political units with basically a minimal degree of global organization.   But it was also a vehicle for advancing that organization and allowing it to move forward along a steady path, in such a way that each new cycle marked a step forward over the last one.   With Britain, the system of global leadership achieved its maturity.   The United States thus stepped into a well-defined role.   But by this time again the first signs appeared signaling the approach of another major cluster of innovations, again extending over close to half millennium, one that would lay, in the following cycles, the foundations for a more firmly institutionalized global order.


                   Long cycles brought about increasing returns to scale;  the more encompassing the global system, the greater benefits it was producing,  the more entrenched it became, and the more difficult it was to launch an alternative.   But it also raised increasingly important problems.   It lacked firm institutionalization;  it produced free riders and it lacked predictability.   It was suffering from rising ‘transaction costs” or, more accurately, the surging costs of decision-making, because global war as a necessary selection process and the threat of nuclear war that is associated with it were coming to be viewed as excessively costly.   All in all, it was increasingly experiencing on several fronts a democratic deficit (that is, lack of responsiveness to its basic constituencies, and lack of continued linkage with its participants).   What will be the exact shape of the next major innovation?


Leading sectors and K-waves


                   The long cycle of global politics is a process transforming the world’s political framework.   To answer the question:   how is the long cycle  related to global economics?  use can be made of the concept of K-waves viewed as the rise and decline of leading industrial and commercial sectors transforming the global economy.   K-wave peaks were shown in Table 1, Columns 1and 6, as those surges of innovation that built up future world powers;  but they also transfigured the world’s economic landscape.   Suffice it to say that K-waves are synchronized with long cycles, such that two K-waves account for one long cycle.  They are  moreover systematically related.   One of the K-waves prepares the ground for the rise of a world power and builds the base of the lead economy that is a necessary condition of global leadership;  the next wave peaks in the post-global war period.   (Modelski and Thompson 1996).   The question is:   what will be the effect of the current K-19, and what form will K-waves assume in a more institutionalized global order?


Democratization and the democratic lineage


                   Democratization may be defined as the process by which the human species learns to live together.   It has made spectacular progress in the past two centuries, such that in 2000 more than one half of the world’s population lived in democracies.   The long cycle likewise is related to this major process of world socialization.   The backbone of the spread of democracy have been the last two world powers :  Britain and the United States.   The take-off may be described as the moment about 1850 when both societies seemed to be firmly and maybe even jointly embarked on the democratic path.   But the origins may be traced back further, where open societies were the requisites of global status, from Britain’s Glorious Settlement of 1689, that elevated Parliament over the monarchy, to Dutch Republican Revolution, and via Portugal’s representative institutions, to the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa.   This might be called the democratic lineage within which a transmission of cultural and social norms occurred that gave rise to world democracy and that is the foundation of the emerging democratic community.   It appears that democratization is double the period of the long cycle (that is ca. 240 years).



Evolutionary explanation


A broader perspective


                   The emphasis of this article so far has been on description, and on staking out a good claim that long cycles do in fact ‘exist’.   But that is not all that can be said on this subject that cries out for explanations.   What accounts for regularity in a subject so notoriously uncontrollable?   What theoretical resources can be deployed in a quest for

firmer knowledge of this important topic?


                   The approach that promises the greatest explanatory power for long cycles is labeled evolutionary world politics.   It is based on the twin premises that global politics is subject to evolutionary processes, and that these processes are best understood with the help of evolutionary concepts that capture key characteristics of social evolution without giving hostages to biological determinism.   Its essence is a focus on long-term, institutional and trial-and-error change and contrasts nicely with rational-choice approaches that illuminate shorter-term, ends-means decision-making.   Components of such an approach might be found both in the realist, and the liberal schools of IR, but an evolutionary approach combines these in a broader framework.   (Modelski 1996)


                   As shown and argued in Table 2, long cycles can be regarded as primary-level mechanism by which innovative solutions for global problems are found and diffused.   But innovation is a form of mutation, that is a generator of variety,  that is then subject to selection pressures;  if and when selected, innovations then surge (in a non-linear process),  diffuse, and amplify.   That means that a more fundamental process is at work here, namely evolutionary learning because evolution is innovation-diffusion.   Along such lines, the long cycle can be viewed as a social evolutionary learning process.  


                   Evolutionary learning thrives in conditions of high evolutionary potential.   Conditions conducive to the emergence of world powers discussed above, global reach, lead economy, open society, responsiveness to global problems, have been those that constitute evolutionary potential (because innovation flourishes in open societies that have the resources and the global reach to act on global problems).   The challengers have been plagued by dearth of such potential.


                   Social learning occurs through the phased operation of the four evolutionary mechanisms of variation, cooperation, selection, and amplification, with each phase of the process maximizing one of these mechanisms.    That conception depicts each long cycle (of a duration of some 100-120 years) as a sequence of four phases of a societal learning process, the phases being those of (1) Agenda-setting;  (2)  Coalition-building; 

(3) Macrodecision;  and (4)   Execution.   The first of these four generation-long policy

domains suggests the rise of new conceptualizations of global problems;  the second refers to the alignments that start building up around the new agendas;  the third is a phase of systemic decision-making (not unlike an election campaign) that selects new leadership, and the agenda of the winning coalition, and proceeds to implement it in the fourth.  


                   Table 3 presents the past millennium of (modern) global politics as a sequence of long cycles, each row showing a learning cycle passing through the four phases of this basic learning process.   In turn, four long cycles constitute a period, that too has the structure of a learning process and therefore is self-similar to that of the long cycle.    The first cycle (of the West European period) clarifies information, the second consolidates a cooperative nucleus, the third selects a political framework, and the fourth (Britain II)  consolidates the economy.    


         The table starts with a Eurasian period the most spectacular instance of which was the attempt at forming a world-wide imperial system, the Mongol empire.   That attempt failed spectacularly and disastrously, was an early demonstration that the imperial solution to problems of world order was a fatally flawed one, but also ultimately paved the way to the formation of a specifically global system.   The Mongols’ failure tilted the balance of Eurasia toward Western Europe, and set in motion a process that can be described as path-dependent.




III.   MODERN ERA (world organization)


(global problems)






(after 1500:

(WORLD POWER next challenger)









Song founded


War with Liao

1020            LC1 Northern Song





Reform parties


War with Chin

1160            LC2 Southern Song


World empire?


Mongol confederacy


Mongols conquer


1280            LC3 Genoa

Mongol empire




Shipping links


Genoa, Mongols


1380            LC4 Venice



(global nucleus)







Hapsburg link


Wars of Italy and

Indian Ocean

1516            LC5 PORTUGAL





Calvinist Inter-





1609            LC6 DUTCH REP.









Wars of Grand


1714            LC7 BRITAIN I










Napoleonic wars

1815            LC8 BRITAIN II



(global organization)








spl relationship.


World Wars I,II

1945            LC9 USA








2050          LC10


Political framework




2170          LC11




2290          LC12

                                                 LC   (learning)long cycles of global politics (numbered)





























Long cycles drive global political evolution               


                   Table 3 retells the earlier story of global politics in the theoretical setting of evolutionary world politics.   In amplifying evidence displayed in Table 1, it also offers support for the phasing just suggested.   It shows that the global wars (such as World Wars I and II) having acted as a selection mechanism invariably fall into the Macrodecision phase of the learning cycle;  that world powers enter into their role fully in Execution;  and that crucial alignments (e.g. those that foreshadowed World War I) are to be expected in the second phase.   Each row tells the story of the rise of one power, and by implication, the failure of another.   Each column offers opportunities for comparative diachronic analysis.   This phasing can be projected into the future, and serves as a forecasting tool for evolutionary world politics. 


          Long cycles are the micro-level of the global political process, where states devise policies, compete for leadership, arrange alliances and engage in wars, and where political agents may or may not rise to the challenges of global statesmanship.   But the rise and decline of world powers is not just an endless coming and going.   For long cycles are in fact the drivers of global political evolution:   the innovations animated by each cycle and the competition thus fostered cumulate in such a fashion as to bring about systematic structural change.   “Evolution of global politics”  shows how the sequence of global problems that drove the Atlantic-European era  (B):  discoveries, nucleus, political and economic consolidation - put in place a new global system, that in turn calls for new global organization that reaches beyond global leadership.  In other words, four long cycles add up to one period of global political evolution (that is therefore self-similar - having the symmetric “learning” structure  as the long cycle, except on a scale four times greater).  Or else, the long cycle is “nested” within global political evolution.


                   Table 3 shows global politics to have described, over the past millennium, a distinct path, both in space and in time.   That would suggest that the global political system is path-dependent.   It is critically sensitive to initial conditions (those of its formation in 1000-1500).   Because evolution can take place only in the direction of the time’s arrow, the future shape of that system is always constrained by structures already in place.   That means that the costs of switching (founding a different United Nations?;  replacing global leadership?)  are high, the demands of satisfied constituents need to be overridden, and the co-evolving processes (economic, social) need to be adjusted.   Because the global system now in place embodies evolutionary requirements, it benefits from built-in gains from cooperation, and is subject to the positive feedback of amplification.   Even though, because it builds on structures in place, its solutions may not always be optimal.


Global politics and world system evolution


                   Global political evolution (propelled by long cycles) is not a stand-alone process.   That is, the assumption of ceteris paribus is not an acceptable part of its analysis.   “Other things” do not remain equal because global politics is  synchronized with (at the minimum) the evolution of the global economy (propelled by K-waves of the rise and decline of leading sectors) and that of the global community (propelled by social movements including democracy).   More broadly structural changes in world politics can be seen as a component part of world system evolution. (Modelski 2000).   In sum, world system evolution is the encompassing reality of global politics as one of a cascade of nested, self-similar, and synchronized evolutionary learning processes.


A chaotic system?


                   Students of large-scale social processes are well aware of the concern that their analyses might tend to adopt a deterministic position, one that holds that all events, including human choices, are completely determined by preexisting causes, a position that would deny free will.   Evolutionary theorists, on the other, have been inclined to maintain a position favoring randomness, that everything is possible and nothing can be anticipated.


                   Recent work in the natural sciences on the temporal evolution of non-linear systems has shown that the relationships of variables in them are unstable, and that changes in relationships are subject to positive feedback, with amplification, refashioning existing structures and creating new ones, and showing uncertain connection between cause and effect.   This has become the field of chaos theory, whose processes partake both of determinism and of chaotic behavior.   The realm of the social sciences, it is argued, also shows instability, non-linearity, and unpredictability, and might be subject to chaotic process.   Are long cycles a chaotic process?


                   Long cycles are known to be strongly dependent on initial conditions, show non-linearity (bursts of innovation), discreteness, and feedback, such as amplification.   

An analysis carried out by Diana Richards (1993) has demonstrated that the evolution of sea power (referred to in Table 1) that mirrors the long cycle has the characteristics of a chaotic (rather than a stochastic) system.   The results of the test on the sea power concentration index for 500 years  show a limiting value v of between 3.34 and 3.69, indicating a chaotic system. In this test,  the system has a fractal attractor of that dimension.



From leadership to global organization


                   At this time of writing, early in the 21st century, what is the best way to describe the state of global politics?   The analysis presented here suggests that the state

of the contemporary global political system is the product of three sets of conditions:

(1) the recent consolidation of national states world wide;

(2) the new salience and rising potential of global organization; and

(3) the advanced maturity of the institution of global leadership;


                   In the past century, world politics has moved toward a world covered by nation-states.   Where long before there were tribes, empires, and city-states, , they have now been replaced by a fairly uniform type of political organization,  states whose social organization presupposes a nation.   These mostly did not exist 500 years ago, and their emergence and newly found strength is the result of the process of nation-state formation that has accompanied modernity.   But while the past millennium has constructed the nation-state as its first priority,  a task now close to completion, it appears as though the creation of the complementary layer of global organization is to be the task of say the two-three more  centuries to come.   The rudiments are now moving into place:  the beginnings of a world market and transnational corporations;  the rise of a global civil society, nudged on by non-governmental organizations and nourished by a growing democratic community; and since 1945, the rise of a family of international organizations around the United Nations.   If the time schedule in Table 3 proves accurate, then the consolidation of such elements into a viable political framework of the federalist type at the global level is coming but is not to be expected until the next century.   The basic reality is the current viability and persistence of the institution of global leadership.


                   The result is a mixed system.   While the basic trend is “from leadership to organization”, its full implementation is, in a long-cycle framework,  a matter of the long run.   The recently created but now well-entrenched nation-state oriented system will resist the prerogatives of global organization.    While the trend toward the strengthening of the global layer of interaction is well nigh irresistible in the perspective of a century, on shorter time scales it is sure to run into a variety of resisting forces.   The global political system is still dominated by the “established” system of global leadership that is now passing through the long-cycle phase of coalition-building toward the more conflictual selection phase of Macrodecision in the next generation.  New conceptions of global solidarity are being forged around the issues of nuclear and environmental security but it will take time, and another cycle, for them to find their anchors in new political institutions.









Arquilla,  John   (1992)   Dubious Battles:   Aggression, Defeat, and the International System,   Washington:  Crane Russak  [Why losers initiate wars, and why sea-land wars are different from land wars]


Goldstein, J.   (1988)   Long Cycles:  Prosperity and War in the Modern Age,   New Haven:  Yale University Press. [Survey of literature and a war-economy theory of long cycles].


Harkavy,  Robert J.   (1999)   “Long Cycle theory and the hegemonic powers’ basing networks”   Political Geography   18:941-972.


Kennedy,  Paul M.   (1987)   The Rise and Fall of Great Powers 1500-2000,   New York:  Random House.   [A historian’s rendering of the history of the Great Powers].


Knutsen, T.L.,   (1999)   The Rise and Fall of World Orders,   Manchester:  Manchester University Press.   [A cyclical account of modern world politics].


Modelski, G.   (1978)  “The Long Cycle of Global Pollitics and the Nation-state” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 20:214-35;  reprinted in A.Linklater ed. (2000)  International Relations:  Critical Concepts in Political Science,  London:  Routledge, 1340-60.  {The initial statement of cyclicality].


Modelski, G.   (1988)   Long Cycles in World Politics,   London:   Macmillan.  

[An introductory account).


Modelski, G.   (1996)   “Evolutionary Paradigm for Global Politics”   International Studies Quarterly,   40: 321-342.   [The evolutionary perspective on long-cycles.]


Modelski, G.   (1999)   “From leadership to organization:  The evolution of global politics” at pp. 11-39 of V. Bornschier and Ch. Chase-Dunn eds.   The Future of Global Conflict,   London:  Sage.


Modelski, G.   (2000)   “World System Evolution” at pp.24-53 of  R.A. Denemark, J. Friedman, B,K. Gills and G. Modelski eds.   World System History:  the Social Science of Long-term Change”,   New York:  Routledge.   [Long cycles shown to be a mechanism of world system evolution].


Modelski,  G. and S. Modelski eds  (1988)   Documenting Global Leadership,   London:  Macmillan.  [How world powers saw themselves, in their own words and in primary documents].


Modelski, G. and W.R. Thompson   (1988)   Sea Power in Global Politics 1494-1993,   London:  Macmillan.   [Empirical data showing cycles of sea power concentration].


Modelski, G. and W.R. Thompson (1989)   “Long cycles and global war” at pp. 23-54 of Manus Midlarsky ed.   Handbook of War Studies,  Boston: Unwin Hyman.   [Research puzzles and continuing questions].


Modelski, G. and W.R. Thompson  (1996)   Leading Sectors and World Powers:  The Co--evolution of Global Economics and Politics,   Columbia:   University of South Carolina Press.  [An international  political-economy perspective on the last millennium].


Rasler,  K.  and W.R.Thompson   (1994)   The Great Powers and Global Struggle 1490-1990,   Lexington:  The University Press of Kentucky.  [A model of global war causation; data for regional army concentrations;  Appendix B: Identifying systemic wars].


Richards, D.   (1993)   “A chaotic model of power concentration in the international system”   International Studies Quarterly, 37:55-74,


Thompson, W.R.   (1988)   On Global War:   Historical-Structural Approaches to World Politics,   Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press.  [Thorough overview of structural change literature, with focus on global war.]