Emergence of a global polity


George Modelski

University of Washington, Seattle WA, USA





1.      The world in 1000 and 2000

          1.1    Global political institutions  

          1.2    The world system

2.      Toward an explanation

          2.1    Globalization

          2.2   An evolutionary learning process

          2.3   What about “group selection”?

          2.4   Society of states, or global polity?

3.      The mechanism:  long cycles

         3.1   Necessary conditions

         3.2   Four phases of the learning cycle

4.      Evolution of the global polity

          4.1   Periods of global political evolution

          4.2   The role of nation-states

5.     Beyond 2000


Keywords:   Global polity (or global political system), globalization,

multi-level governance, evolutionary learning process, global political evolution,

long cycles of global politics; Peace of Westphalia, speciation,

Darwinian individual.




Global politics in the 21at century is much different from what it was 1000 years ago.  A critical difference between these two points in system time is the rise of a global political system as an emergent property of the modern world system.   The driver of this process has been the long cycle of global politics, powered by competition among major political units.   At a higher level of organization, the century-long  long cycle also activates a process of global political evolution in the broader context of globalization, a process that is an ongoing one.   That is why in the decades and centuries ahead further changes are likely. This article sets out to answer the following questions:   How much has the world system changed in the millennium between 1000 and 2000;  how do we explain the emergence of a global polity,  and what does that explanation tell us about likely structural change in the 21st century and beyond.





The human world of today – and the way that people on this earth live and relate to each other in a world system – is the result of major changes in the past millennium.   That much may be obvious to anyone who gives even the most casual thought to that

question.   What might be less obvious is the way the politics of that world, and its organization, are also much different now from what was the rule, or ‘normal’, not so long ago.  One striking change is the rise of the nation-state as the standard form of political organization; the other is the emergence, in the modern era, of global - level political system in step with the mounting rate of interactions of planetary scope.    It is this second strand of developments that is the focus of this article.


1.    The world in 1000 and 2000


 Before 1000, in the ancient and classical eras (say from - 3000 to 1000)   the prevailing form of political organization was, in global perspective, basically regional (and never planetary in scope) and was usually made up of two levels:   In its earlier, simpler, forms the levels were urban and rural, the city being the seat of “civilization”; an early example being the city states of Mesopotamia some 3,500 years ago.   In its more elaborate form it was imperial and local (or provincial), as in the classical examples of China and Rome, some 2000 years ago, with populations of about 50 million people each, both centered on major cities that were the  seat of imperial courts, and hubs of administrative services.   In the first case, Luoyang and Changan alternated as the great imperial capitals, in the second it was Rome, and then Constantinople.  Both Imperial Rome, and Han China regarded themselves as centers of their own “worlds”.   While both maintained contacts beyond the sphere of their immediate interest, that is the Mediterranean, and East and Central Asia respectively, such these contacts were sporadic only, falling in intensity in proportion to their distance from the capitals, and limited in impact.   There was a tentative network of communications between them, later dubbed the “Silk Roads”, but it was long, segmented, unstable, and insecure.   It never reached the proportions of a global system.   Empires were the principal form of large-scale of political organization, even if it is remembered that ‘large-scale’ meant political structures responsible for populations basically ranging between 5 and 50 million people – not so large by contemporary standards.


1.1    Global political institutions


Tables 1 and 2, supply some summary evidence for the proposition that global politics at the start of the 21st century is much different from it was one thousand years ago.   Table 1 compares the political institutions of the two periods and highlights the major differences.   In the most salient point, it is quite evident that the era of the year 1000  harbored no global political institutions.  The diplomatic system was weak, basically one of messengers.  True, the practice of dispatching diplomatic missions – for exploratory purposes, to arrange alliances, or to trade - was well established but it was none too frequent.   Chinese practice combined tribute missions from client states with trading opportunities, but the Song themselves also paid a hefty tribute (in silk and silver) to the Liao Empire (a form of foreign aid that saved on military expenses).    Formal multilateral organizations (such as e.g. NATO), as distinct from bilateral arrangements, are definitely unknown in the world of 1000.   There was nothing like a global war but the 10th century has been called a dark period marked by aimless and anarchic strife: civil wars, raids from the hinterlands, and violence at the centers of power.  The chief burden of organization was borne by a number of empires of dubious capacity shown in Table 1. The Moslem world, once commanded by the Abbasids’ Caliphate and for a time the central precinct of the world system, was now divided, and under challenge from the Fatimids, the Buyid Turks having hijacked Baghdad and the Caliphate.  China had only just recovered from the collapse of the Tang.   By comparison, the global political system of 2000 was principally one of nation-states, but also equipped with a substantial range of global political institutions and capable of constructive development.



 Table 1:  World System at 1000, 2000:   political institutions





Global political institutions



United Nations (189 member states) and

United Nations system;

G-7,G-8 summits;

US global leadership;

Resident diplomacy, International Law

Multilateral groupings



North Atlantic Treaty Org. (1949-)

Shanghai Cooperation Org. (1997-)

Global wars (previous century)   



World Wars I,II 


Forces of global reach



Global reach naval/air forces (USA, 20+ END

  Extended Nuclear Deterrence relationships)

Strategic nuclear forces (USA, Russia (90 p.c. of 33,000  warheads);

Space resources (US, EU, Ru, Ch)

Prominent units of political organization

(m est. population)        

Empires, including

Song (Kaifeng), 60m,

Fatimid Caliphate (Cairo15m)

Buyid ShahinShah (Baghdad),

Byzantium (Constantinople),

Holy Roman Empire, 10m

Cholas (Thanjavur)(10m);

Japan (4.5m);

Umayyad Caliphate (Cordova) (3m);

Mahmoud of Ghazni;

Liao (Lin-huang),

Khmer (2m);

Republics of Pisa, Genoa, Venice


Nation-states, including:

China  (1,346m),

India (1,100m),

United States (281m),

Britain, France, Germany…(European Union 15 mbs.)

Indonesia (211m);  Brazil  (191m), Pakistan (145m);

Russia (142m), Japan (127m),  Bangladesh (127m),

Nigeria (115m), Mexico (100m).




1.2   The world system


Table 2 looks at the world as a whole, and shows a world system that has expanded

significantly between 1000 and 2000.  It also suggests, in broad terms why, given such rapid expansion overall, the emergence of global political institutions was to be expected.   That is most obviously so in respect of the world’s population: that grew by a factor of over 20.   Similarly spectacular has been the growth in the total output of the world economy.   If A. Maddison’s recent estimates are to be credited, world GDP rose at an even higher rate than world population, and so did per capita output, albeit somewhat slower.   Both sets of figures suggest an increased complexity of interactions, and a greater degree of interdependence.   Higher urbanization, and democratization, as well as a two-order-of-magnitude increase in the size of libraries, (one index of the stock of information) suggest an enhanced capacity for dealing with the complexity created by demographic and economic changes.  The data on the disparity of per capita product between Western Europe and China and India as stand-in for the developing world, point

to one important set of problems that are still to be dealt with.              


Table 2:   The world system in 1000, 2000.




* World Gross Product   


*WGP/cap  (in US$ 1990)   

  World exports (T$US)   

Multinational enterprises






      37.2              (2001)

           6 049       (2001)

     12.44             (2004)


* World population  (m) 

   Democratization  (democracies as % of world  population)         




   6 150  


Peripheralization  *(GDP/cap)(US$1990)


Western Europe   400

China, India (av)  450

A:B                     0.9

Western Europe  19,256

China, India (av)    2,520

A:B                      7.6

 World urbanization          

·          % urban

·          No. “millionaire” cities






Major libraries (m books)                 

Cairo: House of Wisdom,                 0.2

Kaifeng Imperial Palace   0.08

 US Library of Congress  29

 British Library                25




* A. Maddison, The World Economy 1-2001 AD, at www.ggdc.net/Maddison


Given the changes underway in the world at large, it is little wonder that new forms of political institutions would arise as one set of instruments for coping with these changes.   What needs to be explored is: precisely by what mechanism was the emergence of a global political system mediated, and how, why, when and where, was it





2.   Toward an explanation


2.1   Globalization


In the modern era since about 1000 the world system has become manifestly larger and above all, more complexly organized.  Its population rose by more than an order of magnitude but its productivity, interconnectivity, and above all, organization have surged to an even higher degree (ass shown in the previous section). This tendency has manifested itself most clearly in the elaboration of its organizational structure,   Whereas two basic levels seemed to suffice in a system of 100 to 200 m people, a population of 2 or 8 billion calls for an entirely new set of arrangements.   That is why for the past millennium the world system has been moving toward raising its capacity by expanding from two to four levels of organization.   The purely local level has been splitting into two, gaining a true national level; that process has seen the rise of the nation-state.    The previously imperial layer has been replaced by regional structures that supplement an entirely new global level of organization.  


What has developed is “multi-level governance”. That is a concept that has originated in studies of European integration, but also has obvious application in conceptualizing global politics.   The governing arrangements of each level of organization have their own characteristic forms but are also interdependent.   The local one is most clearly seen in the life and the governance of cities, and urbanization has been a pervasive influence shaping the world system.   The national one has sprouted, over the past several centuries, a growing and increasingly influential number of nation-states in a world system process of nation-building.   The empires that have continued to dominate the world scene until well into the 20th century are now largely (but not wholly) a thing of the past, and their place is being taken by new, regional, organizations, the most successful of which might be the European Union (sometimes known as heir to the empire of Charlemagne).   But the global level of organization is new too and has been in formation all along, basically over the course of the last millennium.   That is the process that is the focus of explanation in this presentation.


The global level (or layer) of organization is composed of agents (or interactors) engaged in interactions of global world-wide scope or impact.   Most broadly, we distinguish economic agents of trade and finance such as multinational enterprises; political actors including global powers and their navies in particular, imperial aspirants, and international organizations; social actors such as religious, humanitarian and other non-governmental organizations, and an emergent global civil society as well as cultural forces such as the media, or the communities of science and learning.  This global layer has been “in the works” for most of the past millennium, has been rapidly gaining strength in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it remains very much a “work in progress”.   That “in the works” process is what constitutes what is now known as “globalization”.   On this occasion the emphasis lies on the processes that form, maintain, and activate global political organization, but the economic, social and cultural aspects can never been ignored either.


2.2   An evolutionary learning process


The global political system is an emergent property of the modern world system. The emergence of global politics is a large-scale, long-term and complex process of structural change.   It is large-scale because it concerns globe-spanning, planetary-scale interactions, and raises questions of universal concerns (such as how might such interactions be organized, e.g. in respect of world peace, or climate change).   It is a long-term because it is millennial, and its periods, and the time-horizons it employs span centuries.   It is complex because it is nested in a hierarchy (or cascade) of processes in the agent (actor), institutional, and human species domains.   It is a learning process because the world system learns to adapt to changing social, demographic, economic conditions.


The agents of emergence are competing political units of global import: empires, world powers, global entities.  In the institutional domain, the selection of these units, powered by competition, decides the long-term shape of political arrangements for the global system: be they imperial structures, global leadership based on sea/air power, or universal organizations.   The issues in the highest, species domain is whether the time is now ripe, for humanity to empower planetary modes of governance that will resolve the existential questions, those of long-term survival.  But the main emphasis of this article is on the interaction of the agent and the institutional processes.


The emergence of global politics has all the marks of an evolutionary process.   It is not a linear process of steady development but rather a non-linear one of successive bursts of innovation associated with its principal actors.   It represents a pronounced transition in world organization, hence significant institutional change, and is a long-term process reckoned in terms of generations; it is marked by a succession of aims (and not a simple ends-means calculus), and it is a trial-and- error learning process characterizing the global system rather than the result of rational choice by individual policy-makers.   That is why an evolutionary methodology is more appropriate than a rational choice approach that looks to (short-term) decision-making and to state behavior as the chief explanatory avenues.


The evolution of global politics may be reckoned in periods of some half-millennium in length.  That process is a Darwinian-evolutionary one, and each period is conjectured to be composed of the four phases of variation, cooperation, selection, and amplification.   In the context of global politics this sequence may be read as a learning process composed of the (century-long) phases of experiments, nucleation, macro-selection, and consolidation.   Each such period marks the exploration of a major form of global political organization, and the process by which it was established; (in turn it also constitutes phases of species-wide political evolution).


Driving institutional evolution at the micro-level in the recent past has been competition for global leadership known as the long cycle of global politics.   The global powers joining in that competition have been the principal agents (or actors) animating that process that is also an evolutionary learning process (of just over one century).   It is composed of the same four phases, this time of agenda-setting, coalitioning, macrodecision, and execution, that are self-similar to those of the institutional evolution but nested within it, such that each long cycle serves as one phase of that process, and four long cycles make up one period of the evolution of global politics.   Phases of the (longer-term) institutional process define the salient global problems of the shorter-term_ long cycle.   For example, the “experiments” phase of the second institutional period, that of “nucleation” (building the nucleus of the global system), was Portugal’s “age of discovery” that innovated the foundations of an intercontinental political network (see Table 3 below).


2.3    What about “group selection”?


Early, and perceptive, applications of Darwinian analysis to human affairs, such as that of Walter Bagehot (1872) (editor of The Economist)  who defined superior societal characteristics in broad terms as ability to wage war, power over nature, “instruments of happiness” [technology], and a sense of morals, art, and religion, all enhanced in the presence of “government by discussion”, and found them much in evidence in the experience of England. had no trouble arguing that societies exhibiting such attributes were likely to hold leadership positions in world politics.   Later, and crude, extrapolations by “Social Darwinists” amounted to little more than the glorification of war and the survival of the strongest, and came ultimately to be discredited.   But both took it for granted that the selective mechanisms of interstate competition favored certain group characteristics.


That position came to be much questioned in the 20th century, with the advent of the Modern Synthesis based on the linking of evolution to genetics.   It was argued that the only proper “unit of selection” was the individual organism whose genetic characteristics  determined its “fitness”.   It was therefore contended that natural selection on individuals would stamp out altruists who sacrificed for the sake of group goals, and would bear fewer offspring of their own.   But even those (such as George C. Williams 1966) whose arguments carried much weight in this debate, later agreed that group selection (or specifically, what Ernst Mayr calls ‘hard group selection” for strongly cooperative groups) had an important role to play in social analysis.


More recently, evolutionists (among others, Stephen Jay Gould 2002) have come to favor a multi-level (hierarchical) concept of evolution, and  point out that cooperators, those who attend to collective problems, also reap significant rewards.   When individuals are in a position to benefit from their own actions, then they are likely to invest heavily in cooperative enterprises.   Their findings make it possible to envisage processes such as the long cycle of global politics driven by competition, in which the characteristics that Bagehot singled out play prominent roles and whose unit of selection have been policies of certain nation-states acting as global powers.   At the institutional level, the unit of selection is one form of global system organization. .


2.4   Society of states, or global polity?


An evolutionary approach to world politics may be contrasted with the “Westphalian” model.  In that conception, the contemporary system of international relations took shape in the conference that produced the peace treaties (1648) that ended the war between Spain and the Dutch Republic, and embodied the result of the Thirty Years War in Central Europe.   Coordination of sovereign states has been the basic ordering conception of that model ever since then, current initially in Europe, and gradually gaining world-wide acceptance, and finding solid support in 20th century practice of inter-governmental organization, and in scholarly writing.   This model is often called “anarchic” because it highlights the absence of world state.   It is fortified by international law, and is also favored in historical accounts of the origins of modern international society.  Its basic questions revolve around the behavior of states, and the systems of rules that tend to circumscribe it, in particular on questions of war and peace.   The approach is primarily descriptive .


The evolutionary approach is, by contrast, not just descriptive but also explanatory.   It identifies the forces that account for the emergence of a global layer of interactions as a response to problems that are of planetary scope and import.   It does offer a plausible narrative of sequences of events that constitute a process, but it doing so it also suggests explanations by way of the learning model.  It regards the onset of that narrative not as a discontinuity with the past bur rather as changes called for by a new situation, roughly a millennium ago, that first took off strongly in East Asia but then transited to Atlantic Europe.   For parts of the story it shares with the Westphalian conception an emphasis on developments in Europe but it is also resolutely concerned with maintaining a global overview.   Its central concept is not behavior of states in general but focus on the policies of nation-states that by innovating means of dealing with global problems in a greatly expanding world system supplied essential elements of order within it.   With such theoretical equipment it also offers a potentially important, and positive, purchase on the future.


3.   A mechanism: the long cycle


Humanity is a Darwinian species that is, a large population of interacting (actually or potentially interbreeding) organisms transferring information between generations by biological and cultural means.   It is subject to evolutionary processes by which species adapt to their environment, or bring about the formation of new species in a process known as speciation.  It was indeed the main thrust of Charles Darwin’s original thesis  that species, the basic units of biological classification, were not fixed entities but, over time, in fact changed, and branched out, and gave rise to new forms of life.


The evolutionary processes centered on variation and natural selection remain the centerpiece of Darwinian analysis.  But evolutionary change takes time, numbers of generations, and is therefore difficult to observe, and the evidence for it is not always clear.   Importantly, homo sapiens, at least over the past 100,000 or so, does not seem to have been subject to speciation that is, it has not produced any new species.  Therefore the processes relevant to understanding the functioning of the human species are principally those of adaptation to the environment, both natural, and human, by favoring organizations and policies answering to such problems.


Charles Darwin titled the third chapter of his major work (“On the Origin of Species” 1859) “Struggle for Existence” and detailed in it the competitive pressures leading to   adaptation.  He meant to use that phrase mostly as a metaphor but he was also responding to the Malthusian argument about the high rate of unchecked population growth, where more are born than can survive.   The examples he gave included plants that produce a plethora of seeds of which maybe just one survives, or that of fishes bearing multitudes of eggs that are likely to encounter a similar fate.   In such conditions it might be plausibly argued that the “struggle for existence” will “almost invariably be the most severe between the individuals and varieties of the same species”   because “they frequent the same districts, require the same food, and are exposed to the same dangers”.   He cited Malthus, and tended to imply that the argument also applied to humans.


But does this general statement actually hold for homo sapiens?   The Malthusian thesis, while commanding respect, no longer has unqualified support, and world population growth is not one uncontrollable population explosion.   For instance, in the millennium before the modern era, that is the years 1 to 1000, world population showed no growth whatsoever.  It is also expected to plateau within a foreseeable future, after 2050.  The ‘struggle for existence” while hardly unknown in many times and many places seems a dramatic exaggeration of the overall condition of human existence.   Humans do practice territoriality, and while dispersed all over the globe, also choose to live in increasingly large cities.   They might struggle for food but have for millennia past invented effective methods of raising crops cooperatively.   When exposed to dangers, they often team together in raising walls or dams, or forces of protection.   While portions of the world population did remain isolated for long as e.g. in Australia, on the whole the sum of human experience has had the effect of breaking down of isolation, and increasing interdependence.  


This suggests that in the life of humanity (as distinct from other species) the Darwinian processes of struggle and conflict, while no doubt significant (conceptually ranging from ‘existential” to ‘ritualized” and/or “institutionalized’) could be moderated, given the importance of social organization in human affairs, by significant doses of cooperation, such that e.g. advantages gained via competition might in time diffuse through entire populations.  Some organized portions of humanity might manifest higher degrees of adaptation to challenges facing it, via innovations in economic development, political success in controlling violence and ushering eras of peace, forging new solidarities, or excelling in educating its young, and are likely to raise their position in relations to others, such that their higher numbers might be less subject to random drift and experience selection based on relevant differences in selective values.   Populations organized as nation-states will increasingly be favored, and, by succeeding will be universally imitated.   This is no longer the “preservation of favored races in the struggle for life” (Darwin’s subtitle) but a prescription for cooperative organization better to cope with common problems - problems than cannot be remedied by individual action, however rational.

Social organization on a global scale becomes an alternative, and a substitute, for speciation, and evolutionary change, a means to achieving adaptation.


All this makes it likely that the processes that Darwin identified as adaptive might, in suitable conditions, lead to launch, and then the spread of innovations throughout the human species.   That is, a range of developments advantaging some populations (‘hard groups’, such as nations) will in time diffuse species-wide.   The conditions promoting such institutionalization (and the formation of a preferred form of global organization) include the moderation of modern conflict, with the possible exception of Mongol wars of the 13th century, and the global wars of the 20th), and a strong tendency toward sustained interactions, making isolation unusual.   Such processes work in all dimensions of the world system, possibly since its origins or even earlier.  In politics since about 1000, innovation was driven by actor-level competition (long cycles), and was effected at the institutional level as global political evolution. 


What are the conditions conducive to competitive success at the global level?   Here is what we can say about the experience of the past millennium more generally but in particular in relation to global leadership that evolved since the 15th century and is still current in the 21st, even while reaching maturity (consult Table 3).    A  political unit will exert leadership at the global level by

1.  exhibiting or acquiring the qualifications need for selection to, and the exercise of, that role,  

2.  undergoing a sustained, four-phased, selection (or learning) process. and.

3.  prevailing over challengers that lack the necessary qualifications, and fail in the selection process.


3.1   Necessary conditions


Experiences with long cycles to-date demonstrates that four ‘ingredients’ are necessary for the ‘production’ of political institutions of global scope.   These are open society, politico-strategic organization for global reach, a lead economy, and responsiveness to global problems.  An open society inclines toward democracy, and serves as model for the world, and an animator of coalitions; domestic failure, as in the Great Depression of the 1930s, negates such an asset. Its base is a vibrant party system, and its capital, its democratic experience.  Nation-states (as distinct from empires) have been particularly accommodating.   Politico-strategic organization for global reach is the basic military element of strength.   Earlier in the modern age, navies, and sea power were the essentials of this condition because they won global wars, and maintained control on the world’s oceans;  more recently they need the support of aviation, and space resources.   World powers have consistently maintained a monopoly share of the world naval power that was also closely bound up with diplomacy, and with trade, and a source of commitment to global action.  Lead economy, that is an economy hosting global leading sectors in industry and trade, is also a source of GDP growth and support for the global projects, and is a role model of the economy.  Early in the 21st century, the  most relevant leading sector is the information industry.   Responsiveness to global problems is a sine qua non of global leadership, and a primary necessity for legitimation.   It calls for free and active media, establishes state-of-the-art knowledge of the world, and thus helps to lead world opinion.  


The ‘ingredients’ just listed are, of course, those most relevant to the emergence of a global sector of interdependence.  Broadly, they characterize those that have exercised leading roles in shaping global politics:   Portugal, the Dutch Republic, Britain, and the United States that might be called the oceanic powers;  the first two representing  tentative trial runs, with Britain’s two cycles demonstrating the mature form of that institution, even while the American one set in motion a slow transition to global organization.  Those that played the role of challenger, Spain, France, Germany, also contributed to the formation of the system but their prominent characters were those of a continental orientation:  tending toward closely controlled societies, large armies, large economies, and weak media with little attention to global issues.  Overall, the long cycle is not just a rivalry of power but at bottom, a contest between competing forms of world organization:  an open world system, or world empire.  It is not a cycle of ‘hegemony’ because the early cases of Portugal and the Dutch Republic can hardly be called hegemonic.   Nor is it purely a ‘leadership’ cycle because, as shown below, the global leadership sequence since the 15th century constitutes only one period in the evolution of  global political structures.


3.2   Four phases of the learning cycle


Section 2.2 above  introduced the notion of the four phased evolutionary learning cycle, each phase lasting up to 30 years and the entire sequence roughly traceable back for the entire millennium.  They rest on the premise that ascent to leadership is not an overnight event of spectacular achievement but a process that is the product of a program, of sustained preparation lasting some two-three generations  and constituting a learning process.  In respect to the long cycle of global politics, the four phases are those of agenda-setting, coalition-building, macrodecision, and execution, all linked to a set of global problems.   The first phase, of agenda-setting, is one of a pause in which old agendas are fading, the peace settlements of the last macrodecision are losing legitimacy, and new problems come to the forefront: such as environmental, or nuclear (that are the products of earlier cycles), together with questions about future leadership.    In the phase of coalition-building, that is also one of deconcentration, new powers come to the fore and  multipolar arrangements might be coming into play.   The selection of political structures for the next cycle is the main topic for the phase of macrodecision   selection being the prominent focus of every evolutionary process. .In earlier cycles this was the phase marked by global warfare, at least since the end of the 15th century;  there was no global war in the 9th century or earlier.   The great question for global politics in the 21sst century is whether the renewal of global leadership can be managed without resort to global war.   The issues resolved in the macrodecision phase are then implemented by new global leadership in the phase of execution that in the post-1945 period was one of rapid reconstruction and tremendous economic growth. 


An ‘executor’ conception of global leadership carries a restrictive, and specialized, rather than an expansive definition of responsibilities.  It does not stand for world dominion, or for the role of ‘world policeman”.  In a rapidly growing world it stands  in the first place, for carrying out the results of ‘macrodecision”, and the issues that informed that phase, and in the second place, for a more narrowly defined conception of order chiefly at the global (e.g. on nuclear issues) rather than the more demanding tasks that might arise in national or local contexts.   Equally relevant is the point that global leadership has now become a transitional, not-very-strongly institutionalized instrument of world organization that over system time will evolve into a more fully institutionalized forms of governance at the global level.   That is why the entire process is the not just a leadership, or hegemonic, cycle but one that is evolutionary and transformational.  Table 3 is an abbreviated list showing the modern era’s eleven long cycles and their phases.


Table 3:   Long cycles of global politics 930-2080




















Song dynasty


 War with Liao


Northern Song




1060   Reformers v. Conservatives

1120  War with Chin


Southern Song



       World   empire?

1220     Mongol   confederation


Fall of  S. Song

1280   Mongol

world empire



        Maritime trade


Venice galleys


Mongol collapse

1385  Timur










 1460 Burgundian


1494  Wars of Italy, Indian Ocean






1580  Calvinist International

1580  Dutch-Spanish wars


     Dutch Republic


1640 Political      framework

1660   Anglo-Dutch alliance

1688   Wars of the Grand Alliance


           Britain I


1740 Industrial  


1763  Trading



Wars of Napoleon


           Britain II







1850 Knowledge Revolution

1873  Anglo-American sp.rel.


World wars I, II






2000      Demo-cratic community

2026   (Global war substitute?)



2080  Political organization





LC1-11:  long cycles of global politics; A,B,C:  periods of global political evolution



4.   Evolution of a global polity


The table of Long Cycles 1-11 shows the evolutionary process at work at the level of principal actors.   It shows, in the fourth column, the leading powers that led this process, and added to that list should also be a list of those powers that challenged them, and confronted them in the major wars of that period, in cycles 5-9 in particular,  Spain, France, and Germany.   What we now need to take a look at the institutional level of the evolutionary process, that is at the evolution of the global political system (or global polity, for short).


The global polity (or political system) may be defined as the ensemble of organizations and individuals engaged in monitoring or attending to, problems of order and security at the global level.   These might be empires or some nation-states, international organizations, navies, armies, diplomats, think tanks, media workers, or human rights organizations.   More recently, this is sometimes called, in diplomatic practice, “the international community”.   But it is not to be equated with the concept of a “society of states” where the emphasis is squarely, and primarily, on states and their behavior.    What is certain is that the size and composition of this population has changed significantly over the modern period and in ways that can be chartered.  The global polity has continuity and constitutes a lineage, yet exhibits variety; it interacts with other levels of organization (as in confronting national interests), has grown over time in scope and complexity, and remains a work in progress.   The trajectory of its experience can be shown as undergoing an evolutionary process (it is, in Stephan J. Gould’s terms, a “Darwinian individual”, subject to natural selection). 


Each period of the evolution of the global polity may be expected to pass through sequences of a learning process that is self-similar to that shown to operate in long cycles,  at the agency level.   In turn, each long cycle serves as a phase of that evolution.  In the first column of Table 3, the box for “agenda-setting” indicates the central global problem of each cycle ).  For instance, for LC10 starting in 1973, that box suggests “community”, indicating that for that cycle, a major problem is the emergence of a structure of global solidarity on the basis of which a stronger political organization might emerge in LC11, and be stabilized in LC12.     . 


As noted earlier (in 2.2) each period of global political evolution nests within, and is at the same time a phase of the species-wide world politics process.   But as the focus of this article is on global political evolution, consider each one of these periods as shown in Table 4 below.


Table 4:  Periods of global polity:

(phases of the evolution of world politics)


Periods of global polity

Active zone

Defining global problem





Failure of world empire




Atlantic Europe

Global leadership

Balance of Power in Europe


Global organization


Shape of global organization






Stability of world organization


4.1   Periods of global political evolution


The period labeled here as ‘experiments” (also sometimes as ‘preconditions”) was launched by Song China.  By 960 a new dynasty had united the country and launched in on a period of rapid growth that made it the largest, and the then most  advanced economy in the world (cf. Table 2) (LC1-2). William McNeill calls this the period of “Chinese supremacy”;  it can be also called the time when the basic preconditions for world organization began to emerge there including “a learning society” based on printing (Jacques Gernet), a national market economy, gunpowder, and oceanic navigation, combined with a concept of Mandate of Heaven to rule over the civilized world.   The Song exercised this mandate in a rather mild manner, expending important resources on keeping peace.   But it was the Mongols who under Genghiz Khan – meaning Universal Ruler – translated that mandate into a driver to conquer Eurasia (LC3).   They came close to building a continental world empire based on the Silk Roads, probably the largest ever – because their well-organized cavalry armies swept everything before them, from Central Asia, to Russia, and to China.   But their work was surprisingly short-lived, lasting just over a century, and also damaging to the Moslem world, and also to China, while sparing Western Europe and Japan.  In 1000 average per capita income in China and India was higher than in Europe, but that was no longer the case by 1500.   And Timur, claiming descent from Genghiz, failed even more decisively (d.1405).   An ambitious experiment in world empire building proved a spectacular failure (LC4).


As the continental version of the global political system collapsed under its own weight, an oceanic alternative began to form in Atlantic Europe, and evolved the systemic role of ‘global leadership’.  At first, Portugal and Spain, followed a century later by the Dutch Republic, and then Britain and France, laid down the foundations of a system that was, in fact, oceanic.  From early on, in its Portuguese version (LC5), it was made up of ‘fleets, bases, and alliances’, and disavowed interest in territorial conquests, and that has remained its essence right through this second period of global politics.   In its European aspect, at the zenith of the Dutch phase (LC6), it wrought the Westphalian peace settlement (1648) that basically laid to rest the pretensions of the Holy Roman empire and laid down the rules of a system of sovereign states for Europe that were ultimately extended world-wide.  In its first British phase (LC7), the maintenance of a ‘balance of power”, a term originating in the practice of Italian republics of the 15th century, became an anti-imperial rule in Europe in the 18th, when Britain came to be the ‘holder’ of that balance but cooperated with other European powers in enforcing successive settlements of wars that threatened to upset it.  In the world at large,  the global network, first designed by the Portuguese, and extended around the globe by Spain,  was then duplicated by the Dutch, and consolidated by Britain, whose navy came to ‘rule the waves’ in the 18th century.  Global leadership, of which the Portuguese, and the Dutch systems were early trial runs, became, in its British form, the characteristic, and by then mature institution, serving, with its coalitions and counter-coalitions, as the nucleus of an emerging global polity.


These first two periods of the global polity laid down the foundations of more universal organization.   Nation-states gained prominence as the global powers were each rooted in stable national communities.  Residential diplomacy, from about 15th century gave rise, to a diplomatic corps that, in each capital, sparked a possibly broader vision of common interests.   International law codified the rules of interaction.  Multilateral peace settlements, such as those of Westphalia, Utrecht (1713), and Vienna (1815), incrementally solidified the conference habit.  The shadow of the Holy Roman Empire was finally extinguished in 1803.  


These were largely European developments yet they were based on rules (such as sovereignty) that had a wider application, and ultimately came to be seen as universal.  In large proportions this was still a world ruled by empires, just as it was in 1000; in 1876, even Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India.  But that meant that for a sustained period innovative developments in political organization were concentrated in an Atlantic Europe that came to serve as the center of a world system, and the ‘hinterlands’ turning into passive peripheries, becoming more or less “peripheralized”, a tendency that took off in the 18th, and reached a high point on the eve of the 20th century. 


The global polity began a take-off into its third period, that of “global organization” (Table 4 above) only in mid-19th century, and the most important features of global political organization shown in Table 1 are products of the 20th century, including the United Nations, multilateral alliances, and strategic weapons.  Nation-states, and not empires, are the dominant forms of organization, now at the national level, but their preoccupation with national interests does not make them ideal vehicles for conducting global politics.   Yet this analysis does suggest that the movement toward an appropriate-scale organization for the global level, while ongoing, is necessarily slow.   For this third period (global organization)  that may be expected to extend over four phases, only the first phase has been completed, led by the United States(LC10), one that might best be characterized as one of having laid down the knowledge and technical bases for global politics.   Science and technology have taken off since 1850, both in the positive sense of vastly enhanced industrial productivity and enhanced communication and information systems, but also in the negatives inherent in the problems of population growth and pollution but even more obviously, in the dangers of destruction of unimaginable scope.   Currently the global polity is in the second phase (of the period of global organization), that of integration, that might be marked by democratization attaining majority status in the world system, tackling problems of peripheralization and giving rise to a zone of peace to serve as the global polity’s  social foundation.  It is only later, after 2100, in the third, crucially selective phase, that global organization might acquire a more complete political framework that will dispense with global leadership in forms that have become familiar.


The evolution of the global polity may be recounted as the story of successive long cycles.   Yet it is also plain that the process has a distinct shape, of three periods, in each one a distinct form of organization is either rejected (as in the first period), or selected (as in the second) and likely third periods.  


4.2   The role of nation-states


The theme of this article obviously lies at the top of the conjectured quadri-level system of world governance.   But that is not intended to belittle the role of nation-states, or of the nation-state system that they now form.   For this concerns not states in general - not tribal, or city, or feudal, or imperial states -   and not the behavior states that have been around for several millennia.   Nation-states are par excellence a phenomenon of the modern age and need to be recognized as such.   How did they come to be an emergent property of the world system?   At this point, three of their characteristics need to be noted:   they are products of the working of the world system; they emerged in step with the evolution of global politics, and they remain hugely important in the functioning of the global polity.


In the first place, the leading actors of the long cycle have been nation-states.   Portugal completed its territorial domain by 1249, and is regarded as the the first nation-state of the modern era.   The Dutch Republic gained its independence from Spain after a prolonged struggle of national liberation.  Britain became a nation-state as the same time, and the United States was formed in its war of independence.   Their challengers, Spain, France, and Germany too followed the same route, to a formation that, in contrast especially with earlier forms, emphasized independence, self-determination, territoriality, and cultivation of a national community with a proclivity toward a democratic form of organization.


Secondly, forged in the competitive context of the long cycle, nation-states proved a superior alternative to city and imperial states in particular, and became models to be widely imitated.  The number of nation-states has risen steadily over the half-millennium since about 1500, until to-day it is the preferred, and prevalent form of mid-level political organization, having been selected in by the evolutionary process.   Selected out, empires, and imperial aspirants, have fared particularly badly in global wars that marked the periods of the long cycle.  In Eurasia, the Mughal, the Qin, and the Ottoman Empires ultimately collapsed under their impact, and in 1918-9 Europe saw the near-simultaneous collapse of  three of its great imperial structures:  those of the Hapsburgs, the Romanoffs, and the Hohenzollerns, followed by the winding down of colonial empires, the British in particular, after 1945.  The nation-states that sprang up in their stead were hardly perfect; many had, and continue to experience, problems with ethnic minorities, and difficulties with nation-building but the overall thrust has been toward bounded states tied to an envisaged national community that, as such, has no inherent propensity for expansion, hence tends toward stability unknown in earlier times.


Third,   given their role in the long cycle, and in view of the inchoate form of the global polity over long stretches of system time, nation-states have played, and continue to exert a major role in world political arrangements.  Over the past century, the global political system has grown in significance, and gained considerable strength, but the cooperation of leading nation-states, as the continued salience of the institution of global leadership, retains a prominent role for many nation-states at the global level.   That is why the global polity remains a work-in-progress, and particularly so in the long cycle phases when global leadership begins to lose its momentum, and nation-states gain increased attention.


5.   Beyond 2000


The global polity continues to be a work-in-progress.   It remains an emergent property of the modern world system, and will continue on that path for a long time along the trajectory described in the present analysis.   At this stage of the discussion, two points may additionally be clarified:   the shape of the approaching macrodecision phase of the long cycle, and the likely structure of the political framework of the global polity one century from now, early in the 22nd century.


At the time of this writing (2010) the global political system is in the midst of LC11 (see table 3), in its phase of ‘Coalition-building’ that also entails “deconcentration”.   Coalition-building concerns the possible emergence, in world politics” of a community of democracies that might be positioning itself as a ‘majority party’ in the world system;

deconcentration recalls the possible crystallization of a multipolar system,  entailed by the rise of China and India, and the financial crises of 2008-9, that stand for

challenging the leadership role of the United States.  It also means that over the next two or three decades (according to this theory) the global polity will be moving into the phase of ‘macrodecision’, to clarify these questions, and to “select” and then “confirm” a new leadership structure, or else to continue the status quo.   In the experience of the past five long cycles, that macrodecision took the form of a global war or wars, and there is a chance that the inertia of the system could lead to a similar result.   But it is also probable that the approaching selective process might assume the form of an “institutionalized” contest, marked by organizational and public confrontations but avoiding recourse to large-scale violence that might bring entirely foreseeable, and catastrophic, results.  The global polity has reached a stage where the past century’s system growth, rise of connectivity, and of awareness of common interests in survival, products of the information revolution, and of democratization, might offer opportunities for averting the worst and yet yield a workable result.


The long-term problem concerns the shape of the political framework to be anticipated as the culmination of the current, third, phase of global political evolution (Table 4), early in the 22nd century.   If, in the (second) period, that of ‘global leadership’ as the major global institution, the necessary conditions included a nation-state base, a navy for global reach, a lead economy, and open society, then in the approaching period the need will probably be, in a multi-level governance system,  for a federalist-type global organization, with an autonomous revenue system, reliant on the world market and without a monopoly of violence, armed with a global monitoring capacity combined with rapid reaction forces, anchored in a democratic community, and responsive to world opinion i.a. via opinion polls, and a world parliament.


In final summary,  on a canvass of a millennium, the trajectory of world politics shines as a thrust away from failed moves for world empire, through increasingly intricate exercises of global leadership, toward more and more democratic forms of global organization that are mostly yet to be invented.




Further reading


Attina, Fulvio   (2008)   Theories of long-term change and the future of world political institutions, at pp.108-130 of G. Modelski, T. Devezas, and W. Thompson eds.   Globalization as Evolutionary Process,  London: Routledge. [Compares theories of long-term political change].


-----------------   (2010)   The global political system   London:  Palgrave. 


Devezas, T and G. Modelski   (2003)   Power law behavior and world system evolution:  A millennial learning process, Technological Forecasting and Social Change,  Vol.70, 819-859.  [World system evolution as learning process; and evidence reviewed].


Gould, S. J.   (2002)   The structure of evolutionary theory,   Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.  [A massive revision of Darwinian theory, best consulted via the index of such terms as levels of selection, group and species selection, hierarchy theory).


Holsti, K.J.   (2004)   From states systems to a society of states:  The evolution of international relations, in International Relations: eds. Jarrod Wiener and R. A. Shrire, Eolss Publishers, Oxford UK.  [A ‘Westphalian’ narrative of changes in the rules of state



Man, J.   (1999)   Atlas of the Year 1000,   Cambridge:  Harvard University Press. [Maps, and an account of the world one millennium ago].


Mayr, Ernst (2001)   What evolution is, New York:  Basic Books.   [An introduction to evolutionary analysis].


Modelski, G.   (1996)   Evolutionary paradigm for global politics   International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, 321-342, [A theoretical statement]/


----------------    (2000)   World System Evolution, at pp.24-53 of R. Denemark et al. eds.   World System History, London:  Routledge.  [Global political evolution is one dimension of world system evolution].


----------------   (2002)   Long Cycles in Global Politics.   In International Relations, eds. Jarrod Wiener and R. A. Shrire, Eolss Publishers: Oxford UK.  [


--------------- (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;    (2005) The evolution of global politics,  POLIS : Politicheskie Issledovanya,  Nos.3, 62-82 and 4,124-142 (in Russian). [A basic statement of the evolutionary thesis].


-------------- (2009)  From leadership to organization: The evolution of global politics, in

G. Ziccardi Capaldo ed.   The Global Community:  Yearbook of International Law and Jurisprudence, (New York: Oxford University Press), Vol.I, 43-76, [An updated

version of (1999)]. 


--------------     and T. Devezas  (2007)   Political globalization is global political evolution,   World Futures   Vol. 63 (5-6)  (July-September), 308-323. 


Rodrigues, J.N. and T. Devezas   (2007)  Pioneers of Globalization,   Lisbon:  CentroAtlantico.pt.  [Portugal’s role in early globalization].





Darwinian individual   selective agency, or unit capable of experiencing selection, and an evolutionary learning process; includes organism, political system, and species.


Globalization:  a set of processes by which global institutions, economic, political, social, and cultural, emerge to handle a rising load of global problems and transnational interactions.


Global polity (short for global political system) is an emergent property of the world system.   It is the public space in which a variety of actors compete for informal and formal positions of leadership, by identifying, proposing, and activating, creating global public goods as solutions to problems, such as world peace and order, rules for trade and/or finance, nuclear arms control or climate change, global social inequalities.           


Global political evolution:   a long-range process of the formation of the global polity, exemplified by structural change in the global polity, from leadership to organization.


Evolutionary learning process:   evolutionary processes of the world system take the form of self-similar, nested, four-phased learning processes that replicate the Darwinian essentials of variation and selection. 


Long cycle of global politics:  mechanism of global political evolution; a learning process of the modern era, renewing global political structures at intervals of some 100-120 years, as exemplified by the rise and decline of world powers.


Multi-level governance:   concept originating in studies of European integration, examines relations between local and national, to regional, and global levels of organization; has subsidiarities as one of its principles.    


Peace of Westphalia 1648:   treaties ending the Eighty Years’ War of Dutch Independence, and the Thirty Years’ War centered on Germany, negotiated at Osnabruck (Protestant delegations) and Munster (Catholic delegations), two towns just east of the Dutch border.   Major treaties were those between Spain and the United Provinces, and France and the Holy Roman Emperor.   The present international system is said to have taken definite shape in the peace conference that produced these treaties.


Speciation:   competitive development of new species, usually by divergence between subpopulations of an original species, after geographical separation.  



George Modelski   is Professor Emeritus, Political Science, in the University of Washington.   He co-edits the “World System History” Theme of the Encyclopedia

of Life Support Systems.