Power Transition

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Power Transition

Stages of power transition

Effects on the distribution of power



The theory of power transition attempts to account for the shifts of power and the causes of conflict among nations. According to this theory, the spread of industrialization to different nations at different times and at differing rates provides the key to understanding the fundamental patterns of contemporary international relations.

Stages of power transition

An industrializing nation undergoes a number of changes as it modernizes its economy. Typically, such a nation not only increases its wealth and its industrial strength but also grows in population and improves the efficiency of its political institutions. Since economic development, population size, social mobility, and political mobilization are among the major determinants of national power, an industrializing nation also increases its power, i.e., its ability to influence the behavior of other nations. It goes through a “power transition.”

This power transition can for convenience be divided into three stages, although in reality the process is continuous.

Potential power

First comes the “stage of potential power,” a preindustrial stage in which the population may be large or small and is often growing rapidly but in which the economy and the government are backward compared to more developed nations. The economy is primarily subsistence agriculture. Productivity and living standards are low, technical skills are few, and capital is extremely scarce. Governmental institutions are inefficient, and national unity is often, though not always, slight. Countries in this stage are often ruled by foreign conquerors or by small aristocracies; the common people participate little in national government except to pay taxes.

The human and material resources of such a nation are largely unorganized and only partly used; and the power of such a nation is slight compared to that of any industrial nation, although of course it may be greater than that of some other underdeveloped country.

The power of a preindustrial nation is largely potential, to be realized when and if it modernizes its economy and its government. For a nation with a large population, however, the size of its potential power may be great indeed. India, for example, by industrializing fully, would become one of the most powerful nations on earth; and other nations, recognizing this potential, grant India today some of the deference due to the power she may have tomorrow.

Transitional growth

The second stage of power transition is the “stage of transitional growth in power.” During this stage the nation is in transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, and as it industrializes it grows in power.

Fundamental changes take place during this stage. Economic modernization brings higher productivity, increased national income, and higher living standards. Political modernization brings a larger and more efficient government bureaucracy and increases the control of the central government over the nation. The general public is more affected by governmental action and participates more in governmental activities, and nationalistic sentiment often reaches a high pitch. Population size generally increases rapidly, for modern conditions reduce the death rate sharply. Industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and other related changes alter the whole fabric of national life.

Many of these changes have the effect of increasing the nation’s power, relative to both that of the other preindustrial nations it leaves behind and that of the already industrial nations it is beginning to catch up with. The speed of this gain in power and the degree to which it upsets the international community depend in large part upon the size of the nation and upon the speed with which it industrializes.

The Soviet Union provides a good example of a nation in the stage of transitional growth in power, although it is now at the end of this stage. Its rapid industrialization and concomitant rise in power have changed the whole focus of international relations in the mid-twentieth century.

Power maturity

The third stage of power transition is the “stage of power maturity,” reached when a nation is highly industrial, as the United States and western Europe are today. Nations in this stage continue to change and to grow in wealth, efficiency, and size, but at a slower rate. At least, this has been the experience of the Western nations that have already reached power maturity. Presumably, the rate of economic advance will also slacken in the Soviet Union and eventually in China and other nations as they reach this point, but only the future can supply proof of this.

With power maturity the internal characteristics that give a nation power do not disappear, but in a race where everyone is running forward one may lose simply by slowing down. Power, after all, is relative, not absolute. Nations in the third stage lose relative power as other nations in the stage of transitional growth close the gap between them.

The effects of automation may give a further burst of power to nations in the stage of power maturity and allow them to maintain their power superiority longer than would otherwise be the case, but in the end automation will destroy the nation-state and open the way to new and different forms of political organization.

Effects on the distribution of power

Had the entire world industrialized at the same time and at the same speed, there would have been great changes in international relations but no necessary major shifts in the distribution of power among nations. However, the industrial revolution, which began in England two hundred years ago and spread slowly through the West, has only recently swept into eastern Europe and Asia and has still to reach the majority of nations in the world.

The result has been that first one nation and then another has experienced a sudden spurt in power, as in a race where one runner after another goes into a brief sprint. These sudden sprints keep upsetting the distribution of power in the world, threatening the established international order and disturbing world peace. Increased power is constantly passing into the hands of nations who use it to challenge the existing leaders of the international community.

At any given time the nations of the world tend to be organized into an “international order,” that is to say, a system of relationships that is fairly stabilized, with recognized leaders, a recognized distribution of power and wealth, and recognized rules of trade, diplomacy, and war. Sometimes, as during most of the nineteenth century, there is only one international order. At other times, as at present, there may be two or more competing international orders.

The dominant international order is headed by the most powerful single nation on earth, formerly England, today the United States. In the years since the industrial revolution the rule of the dominant nation has been challenged by one newly industrialized nation after another. Sometimes the challenge has come from within the dominant international order, as when the United States took over world leadership from England. Sometimes it has come from the leader of a competing international order, as in the cases of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

A recurring pattern can be seen in which new nations industrialize and experience an accompanying rapid growth in power only to find themselves dissatisfied with the place granted to them by the world leaders who industrialized ahead of them. When peaceful bids for a redistribution of wealth and power prove inadequate, past challengers have turned to war. In the past one hundred years major wars have been started by challengers as they approached, but before they reached, equal power with those they challenged.

Peace, then, is most assured when the dominant nation and its allies enjoy a huge preponderance of power over any possible challenger. War is most likely when the power of a challenger and its allies approaches equality with that of the world leaders who support the status quo.


The major limitation of the concept of power transition is that it refers to a period extending roughly from 1750 to a time in the future (one may guess about 2050) when world-wide industrialization has been achieved. It does not apply to the years before 1750, when no nation was industrial, nor does it apply to a future in which all nations will possess highly developed economies.

The theory of the balance of power, on the other hand, may be more applicable to the preindustrial “dynastic” period, when there were many nations of roughly equivalent power, when nations were kings who could and did switch sides freely, and when nations increased their power primarily through clever diplomacy, alliances, and military conquests. Thus, each nation’s increase in power could be counterbalanced by similar international action on the part of its rivals.

However, it is clear that differential industrialization has created vast differences in the power of nations since the industrial revolution. There no longer exist many nations of roughly equal power, and it is no longer possible to balance power by shifting alliances. In the last two hundred years the usual state of affairs has been a vast preponderance of power in the hands of one leading nation. At most there have occasionally been two leading nations of almost equal power. Modern nations are not free to make and break alliances at will for power considerations (for example, to balance world power), because economic and military interdependence have tied nations together into international orders whose membership they cannot leave without great domestic as well as international changes.

Furthermore, balance of power situations, historically, have not aided the maintenance of peace. On the contrary, the greatest wars of modern history have occurred precisely at times when a challenging nation or coalition of nations has most nearly reached equal power with the leaders of the dominant international order. The great century of Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1914 amply illustrates that peace comes with preponderant power, not with a balance of power.

The theory of the power transition, unlike the theory of the balance of power, assumes that industrial strength is one of the major determinants of a nation’s power and that a nation may therefore increase its power greatly through internal changes in its economy, i.e., through industrialization. By proceeding from this basic assumption the theory of the power transition seems to explain some major developments in contemporary international politics far better than the outdated formulation of balance of power.

A. F. K. Organski

[See alsoBalance of power; International politics; Military power potential; Modernization. Other relevant material may be found underInternational relations; Peace; War.]


Claude, Inis L. Jr. (1962) 1964 Power and International Relations. New York: Random House.

Organski, A. F. K. 1958 World Politics. New York: Knopf

Organski, A. F. K. 1965 The Stages of Political Development. New York: Knopf.