Power Cycle Theory, the Shifting Tides of History, and Statecraft

Interpreting China's Rise

Chinese Dragon
Power Cycle Theory, the Shifting Tides of History, and Statecraft : Interpreting China's Rise - Charles Doran


Integrating China into the global balance of power and the community of nations is the greatest challenge facing statecraft in the 21st century. According to power cycle theory, the “single dynamic” that has always mapped the structural trends of history is shaping China’s power cycle. This cycle will contain the same “critical points” of suddenly shifted trends that challenged every other rising power historically, all too frequently ending in major war. Viewing history’s dynamic through the lens of meanings embedded in the power cycle trajectories, this article argues for careful management of the future systems transformation that will occur.

Introduction and Definitions

Today, as throughout history, a single dynamic of structural change is shaping the power cycles of all the great powers – and the expectations that each state has about its future security and foreign policy role.1 The overriding concern of statecraft today is the quintessential problem that a century ago preoccupied the founders of the field of international relations and world statesmen negotiating international regimes, witnesses to history’s plunge into the First World War. At issue is integrating an increasingly powerful great state into the existing global balance of power and community of nations experiencing the challenges of structural change. This is something that has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. Today China is the state ascending to great power status. China has been accelerating up its power cycle for several decades now, and like rising great powers throughout history, China has begun to push for a greater foreign policy role. 

I will interpret this issue from the perspective of power cycle theory. Its lessons are striking. In 1989 the world anticipated that skyrocketing Japan would become the new “Number One.” I could assert on the contrary that Japan’s peak on its power cycle was imminent because China’s much smaller yet ever-increasing gains in absolute terms were severely constraining Japan’s further gains in relative share. Today I emphasize a lesson of power cycle theory regarding ineluctable structural constraints on China’s ascendancy in the global system. The very same principles of relative power change that have always mapped the structural trends of history are shaping China’s power cycle, and that cycle will contain the same “critical points” of suddenly shifted trends that have challenged every other rising power historically and that, all too frequently, have ended in major war.

What is the “power cycle”? What is a “shifted trend” on the cycle, and what do I mean by the “shifting tides of history” in the title of this paper? During the past decade, the related term “power shift,” the theme of this issue, has appeared in the title of numerous articles and books with very broad differences of conceptualization. Those meanings go well beyond the classical notion of a “shift in the balance,” a notion that has a long and familiar tradition in the literature on diplomatic history and the balance of power. The term sometimes refers to a general sense of changing relative power, wherein some states are rising, some states declining. Other authors use the term to mean a change in the hierarchy (a so-called transition). Elsewhere power shift refers to a state’s shift from rise into decline, although not necessarily at the state’s peak or irrevocably. In this essay I will explain the other two concepts, the “power cycle” and history’s “shifting tides,” for they are my own, have precise meaning, and account for much of the variance in the onset of major war. We will use a schematic across 600 years of history that I conceptualized over 45 years ago in assessing historically the very same issues that confront us today in facing the rise of China. What do we mean by the rise and decline of states, and why has it been so traumatic historically? What is the “foreign policy role” both as a conceptual category and as a practice in statecraft?

Power cycle theory offers a dynamic understanding of history which is anchored in and speaks to the particulars of state power and foreign policy behavior as they evolve, moment by moment, across long periods of history. Everything is emergent; nothing is deterministic. The theory establishes and discloses meanings embedded in the power cycle trajectory, meanings that capture at once the structures, concerns, and behaviors of international politics experienced at each moment in statecraft. Thus, the full meaning of power cycle theory emerges within the particulars of history itself. My presentation of the theory will move back and forth from the analytic and general to the historical particulars.

From the power cycle perspective, power is what government officials and diplomats perceive it to be. Perceptions of power have been shown to be highly correlated with a bundle of indicators of national capability – variables such as GDP, per capita wealth, size of armed forces, military spending, population size, and the capacity for technological innovation – that together facilitates a state’s ability to carry out a foreign policy role and, hence, compose the state power cycle. Most importantly, the power cycle is a cycle of “relative” power in a very specific sense. Each state in the central system (or a regional system) possesses a percentage share of overall power in that system at any given time. States in the system “compete” for relative power share, where the “competition for share” depends on the differing levels and rates of absolute growth among the states comprising the system at each moment in time. But there are undercurrents within this structural dynamic that create the “power shifts” at issue in power cycle theory. To discern history’s dynamic, we must understand how historical trends and suddenly shifted trends on the state power cycles impact the expectations and behaviors of statecraft.

For didactic reasons, it is useful to inventory some key features and concepts of the theory at the outset, assisted by the graphics in Figure 1 and the historical dynamic depicted in Figure 2. Power cycle theory establishes and explains:

  • the “single dynamic” of state and system which sets the power cycles in motion – namely, the competitive dynamic whereby, at each point in time, each state’s absolute growth rate contributes to and differs from the system’s resulting average absolute growth rate (the “systemic norm”);
  • the “first fundamental principle of the power cycle,” which holds that a state rises (or declines) in relative power if and only if its absolute growth rate is greater (or less) than the systemic norm;
  • the “second fundamental principle of the power cycle,” whereby a rising state accelerates up its power cycle (as its “growth rate advantage” increases with size) until it reaches a level at which its own absolute growth begins to increasingly weight the systemic norm (decelerating its “growth rate advantage”), so that thereafter the state increasingly “competes against itself” as well as against other states for a larger share of power (feeling for the first time the effect of the “bounds of the system”);
  • the “bounds of the system,” which effectively both limits a state’s growth in relative share – even, counterintuitively, when the state continues to have dynamic absolute growth and its gains in absolute power continue to be far greater than the absolute gains of competing states – and contours the nonlinear change on its power cycle;
  • the resulting “nonlinear pattern” of the power cycle, wherein the state’s accelerating rise abruptly shifts (at an inflection point) to decelerating rise until it reaches a peak level of relative share, followed by accelerating decline that abruptly shifts (at an inflection point) to decelerating decline;
  • the state’s “competitiveness” in the system as reflected in the “slope” of its power cycle – that is, in the direction of change on the power cycle indicated by the line drawn tangent to the cycle at each succeeding point.

This line tangent to the power cycle at a given point in time gives us access to the perceptions and expectations of the historical moment. Like the statesman in history, the analyst grasps the full significance of systemic bounds in the “discordant expectations” that arise with no warning as the state traverses its cycle. Power cycle theory further establishes and explains:

  • the “trend of the power cycle” (conveyed by its changing slope) as reflecting “the tides of history” and “the perspective of statecraft,” providing a foundation for the state’s future security and foreign policy “expectations;”
  • the abrupt and irrevocable “shift in the trend of the power cycle” that occurs at a “critical point” (experienced as the “shifting tides of history”) when powerful “structural undercurrents” in the single dynamic make the state’s long-developing historical trend suddenly shift direction – exposing the “structural bounds on statecraft” that, counterintuitively and without warning, alter what is possible and likely in statecraft itself, in particular establishing ineluctable structural constraints on the ascendancy of a great power;
  • the abrupt “shocks to foreign policy perception” that occur at those critical points when – amidst radically conflicting messages in absolute and relative power change – the state is abruptly pulled onto a new, unexpected, and uncertain course; 
  • the “foreign policy expectations” tied to the slope of the state power cycle at each point in its historical experience as providing the basis for planning and carrying out effective foreign policy roles;
  • the sudden “discontinuity in foreign policy expectations” that occurs at a critical point, and therefore the moment in statecraft when “everything changes” – when the “shifting tides of history” impact the ability to act in foreign policy terms;
  • “systems transformation,” where the undercurrents shifting the tides of history force several states to pass through critical points at about the same time, causing huge political uncertainty to ricochet throughout the system, forcing revision of foreign policy expectations, and greatly increasing the probability of major war – wars of long duration, intense battlefield casualties, and the highest magnitude in that it involves most, if not all, of the great powers fighting for highly-valued stakes;
  • a strong positive correlation between critical change on the power cycle and major war, both for individual states and during systems transformation.

This dictionary of concepts, dynamic principles, meanings, and implications reproduces the lessons and the logic of history that underpin the power cycle interpretation of statecraft.

In brief, power cycle theory establishes the fundamental principles of the “single dynamic,” whereby absolute growth rate differentials across states in the system set the power cycles in motion (via alterations of the systemic average growth rate) and create a particular nonlinear pattern of change on each state’s relative power trajectory, which is interpreted as reflecting the “perspective of statecraft” – giving thereby a very specific meaning to the concern that the “tides of history” have changed, a meaning absent from balance-of-power assessment. This competition for power share produces powerful undercurrents that contour structural change via critical shifts in the state power cycles, and each of these so-called “critical points” matter in an existential sense as the state traverses its cycle:

  • a lower turning point beginning a state cycle: “birth throes of a major power”
  • an inflection point on its rising trajectory: “trauma of constrained ascendancy”
  • an upper turning point: “trauma of expectations foregone”
  • an inflection point on its declining trajectory: “hopes and illusions of the second wind”
  • a lower turning point at the end of the cycle: “throes of demise as a major power.

Each critical point corresponds in the state’s experience to a time when the tides of history have shifted in the international system.

Viewing History’s Dynamic

Let us turn to the power cycle view of history’s dynamic in Figure 2, moving gradually to ever more detailed fact and analytic meaning. Like waves in some ocean sweeping forward across the international politics of time, the power cycles of individual states in the central system are distinct, implacable, and enduring. Across these six centuries, states have competed for power share, attempted to establish and advance their foreign policy roles, and struggled against the “bounds of the system” that limits and contours their cycles of relative power and role possibilities. This “single dynamic” of state and system establishes the number of players in the central system, which player has power when, where, and how, and how the rules of balance emerge. Rising and declining states interact conjointly and cooperatively as well as competitively.