Power Transition Theory

Ronald L. Tammen, Jacek Kugler, Doug Lemke


Power transition theory is a structural and dynamic approach to world politics. Although due to its focus on power relationships it is sometimes associated with the realist school (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Realism), it differs in terms of its dynamic description of the international system as well as its focus on the importance of status quo evaluations. Unlike realism’s emphasis on anarchy, the power transition perspective envisions politics as a hierarchy of nations with varying degrees of cooperation and competition. Additionally, the theory views world politics as integrated horizontally and vertically. The static picture of structure and rules is complemented by dynamic factors that demonstrate how and why change occurs in the international system. Power transition focuses on differential growth rates and their effect on altering relative power between nations, resulting in new relationships among nations or competing groups and the formation of new political and economic entities.  

One by-product of differential growth is the high potential for conflict when a challenger and a preeminent or dominant nation reach the stage of relative equivalence of power, and specifically when the challenger is dissatisfied with the status quo. Finally power transition provides a general perspective that does not differentiate between domestic and international politics but proposes that such differences depend on the level of commitment to the status quo under changing structural conditions. Understanding the interaction of the structural and dynamic components of power transition theory provides a probabilistic tool by which to measure these changes, and to forecast likely events in future rounds of change. While based on empirically tested propositions backed by large data sets, the theory has an intuitive feel that maximizes its utility for interpreting current events, including the rise of China and India and the related effects on world politics. 

Having forecast the rise of China as early as 1958, this aspect of power transition is now fully integrated into the mainstream thinking of most current observers of world politics. In addition, the power transition perspective has been generalized and successfully applied to anticipate civil wars, to understand the nation building process, to account for the consequences of war and to explore the potential for nuclear conflict.  Most recently, power transition scholars have carefully defined and measured the political performance of nations.

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