Systems Transformation Essay

The thesis that systems transformation is a structural discontinuity caused by major war has been at the heart of much international relations theory. For classical realists, an international system is created by conflicts and destroyed by conflicts. Hegemonic stability, power transition, and long cycle theories identify major war as the vehicle whereby a new systemic hierarchy is born.

In all of these theories, each system possesses the identity and regime preferences of the reigning hegemon, the state with the greatest power. For Robert Gilpin (1981), systems transformation occurs when the dominant state is surpassed in power by a challenger, causing the declining hegemon to strike out at the challenger in massive warfare. The challenger is defeated, but the hegemon is replaced by a third power that enjoyed an increase in power as a result of the war. A new system is born. A. F. K. Organski and Jacek Kugler (1980) describe the same process involving pairs of states at the top of the system as a power transition, but argue that the challenger uses force to displace the hegemon. For George Modelski (1978) and William Thompson (1988), global war became a mechanism to resolve policy-leadership disputes in the fifteenth century. Systems transformation occurs when the dominant maritime, trading state defeats a large continental power, enabling another maritime state to become the new global leader. Each of these theories holds that systems transformation involves violent confrontations between two principal powers at the top of the system vying for systemic leadership: war causes systems transformation.

Power cycle theory, developed by Charles Doran (1991), argues that causation works in the opposite direction, from structural transformation to trauma of adjustment, to war (see Power Cycle Theory). The power relations that will prevail in the new system were created by shifting tides of change within the structure of the system. Based on the assumption of a pluralist, competitive system of several leading states rather than of a dominant hegemon, and of balance among these actors rather than hierarchy, Doran argues that systems transformation results when several leading states experience sudden, unpredicted, high-stakes change on their power cycles in a rather short interval of history. Tension and uncertainty ricochet throughout the system as states confront dramatic alteration of foreign policy expectations. Failure to adjust to systems transformation causes massive warfare. In contrast to the other interpretations, Doran argues that war is not necessary for systems transformation.

History, nonetheless, reveals a very high correlation between systems transformation and war. Since the origin of the modern state system, six systems transformations have occurred. Five of these systems transformations led to warfare that was intense, broadly encompassing, and of huge magnitude: The Thirty Years War (1618–1648), Louis XIV’s Wars (1660–1713), Napoleonic Wars (1795–1815), World War I (1914–1918), and World War II (1939–1945). Only the most recent systems transformation, that taking place in 1989 at the close of the cold war, has ended peacefully.

Systems transformations are created by structural undercurrents due to the differential growth of nations. The task of the scholar and the statesperson is to disengage systems transformation from the catastrophic events that in the past have often accompanied it.


  1. Doran, Charles F. Systems in Crisis: New Imperatives of High Politics at Century’s End. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  2. Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  3. Liska, George. War and Order: Reflections on Vietnam and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.
  4. Modelski, George. “The Long Cycle of Global Politics and the Nation-state.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (1978): 214–235.
  5. Organski, A. F. K., and Jacek Kugler. The War Ledger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  6. Thompson,William R. On Global War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

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