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Power Transition Theory | Hand of Reason

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Power Transition Theory

Power Transition Theory attempts to predict periods of heightened conflict within the international system by differentiating between global hegemons and potential challengers. The graph below gives a simplified overview of Power Transition Theory:


The probability of war will increase during the power transition, the shaded area, and conflict will result from one of two circumstances:

  1. The rising great power attacks the declining hegemon because it is dissatisfied with the current world order.
  2. The declining hegemon preemptively attacks the rising great power to get rid of the challenger early.

The theory was initially developed by A.F.K. Organski in World Politics and has been given further attention in Power Transitions: Strategies for the 21st Century.

The obvious application of this theory is on the rise of China and how the current international order may change in response. While Power Transition Theory does not predict a war between the United States and China, it does state that as China’s influence increases within the international system so too will the probability of conflict.

For an overview of the potential conflict between the United States and China, Steve Chan has published his work on the topic in China, the US and the Power-Transition Theory: A Critique. In short, Chan concludes that China is unlikely to initiate a confrontation with the United States.

Richard Ned Lebow and Benjamin Valentino provide a more general critique of Power Transition Theory in their paper Lost in Transition: A Critical Analysis of Power Transition Theory, arguing that there is little evidence to support the major criteria of the theory since true hegemons rarely emerge. Lebow and Valentino also argue that war produces power transitions instead of being cause by them. Most power transitions occur relatively peacefully.

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