Systems Structure Essay

Neither the concept of system nor that of structure is original or unique to political science, yet each is a core concept in the field. The notion of the international system is crucial to the study of diplomatic history since the work of the historian Leopold von Ranke in the 1800s. In international relations, the system—normally divided into a central system of leading states and regional subsystems—is composed of states, organizations, and nongovernmental actors (NGOs), with the bulk of the power residing in the states.

Structure in international relations underlies the type of international system present in an historical interval. Britain, Russia, France, Prussia-Germany, and Austria principally composed the nineteenth-century balance of power system. The United States and the Soviet Union featured in the bipolar system (1945–1989). In a more controversial claim regarding the present system, unipolarity is sometimes equated with hegemony.

Neorealists argue that the number of leading states, the relative power of those states, the presence of ideological difference, the nature of balance or equilibrium among these states, and the perceived “rules of the game” are the irreducible minimum characteristics that determine systems structure. Liberals, neoconservatives, and constructivists would add that the domestic political identity of states is crucial, and in particular whether they are democracies.

An important legacy of neorealism is the view of the system as a structure of dynamically interrelated parts. Systems structure was defined by Stanley Hoffman (1968) as the “distribution and hierarchy of power,” or equivalently by Kenneth Waltz (1979) as the “distribution of capabilities across the units,” operationalized as percentage share of systemic power. According to David Dessler (1989), systems structure places bounds (constraints) on international political opportunity and behavior.

Another legacy of neorealist thought is the view that the type of systems structure determines the degree of world order. In an influential article in 1964,Waltz argued that bipolarity was for structural reasons more stable than multipolarity and, in a remarkable prophecy, that the international system would remain bipolar at least until the end of the twentieth century.

But does international system type determine the degree of stability? Where does unipolarity fit in this interpretation? First, there are serious limits on the degree to which hierarchy exists within the system, especially regarding the capacity to maintain order and to encourage progress from the top of the international system.

Second, perhaps the causal relationship between structure and world order does not operate through type of international system, with one type of system being more stable than another. Rather, the causal relationship to world order may operate through change in structure across time (see Systems Transformation). Movement from one type of international system to another may be the true source of structural impact on world order.

Third, as John Mearsheimer has argued (2001) and as many liberals as well as conservatives also claim, hegemony does not now exist, nor has ever existed, internal to the central system. Soviet hegemony existed in Eastern Europe. Other actors have imposed hegemony in regional terms, but never within the central international system, which remains decentralized. Hence, the structural equation between unipolarity (which does exist) and hegemony (which does not) is deceptive and false.


  1. Dessler, David. “What’s at Stake in the Agent-structure Debate?” International Organization 43 (1989): 441–473.
  2. Doran, Charles F. “Economics, Philosophy of History, and the ‘Single Dynamic’ of Power Cycle Theory: Expectations, Competition, and Statecraft.” International Political Science Review 24 (2003): 12–49.
  3. Hoffmann, Stanley. Gulliver’s Troubles: Or, the Setting of American Foreign Policy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
  4. Keohane, Robert O., and Joseph Nye Jr. Power and Interdependence. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.
  5. Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton, 2001.
  6. Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1979.

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