Power Transition Theory

Power Transition Theory

In this article, we shall discuss power transition theory in international relations. We will discuss power transition theory in comparison to balance of power theory, discuss the main characteristics of the theory, and examine the contributions of power transition theory to understanding global issues.

What is Power Transition Theory?

Power transition theory is a theory in international relations that examines the relations between states in the international system. Power transition theory was first argued in the late 1950s by Organski. This theory focuses on the hierarchical nature of states in the international system. So, the attention is not to anarchy in international relations, but rather, how the more powerful state sets the rules of the game (In fact, power transition theory also applies this notion of power to domestic politics) (Organski & Kugler, 1989).

Power transition theorists examine the order of power in the international system, and how states are either satisfied or dissatisfied with the distribution of power. The state on top dictates the resources and conditions based on its power. Other states below it can then decide if they are satisfied or not satisfied with the power. Those satisfied do not challenge the major power. However, a rising power unsatisfied with the current rules of the game, and existing resource structures might be the conditions that could lead to conflict. If states under the major power are satisfied, then they help ensure peace and stability.

However, if states are unsatisfied, this could be a cause of conflict in international relations (Organski & Kugler, 1989). But, being dissatisfied alone is not enough for conflict. They must have the power to actually credibly challenge the major power. So, the biggest concern for a major international war is when a dissatisfied state rises in power to directly challenge the main power. The smaller the gap of power between the most powerful country and the next country (or set of countries), the more the chance of conflict arising (Organski & Kugler, 1989).

How Does Power Transition Theory Compare to Balance of Power?

In this section, we shall compare power transition theory with balance of power theory, discussing any commonalities, and also examine differences in each respective theory of international relations. Balance of power theory has been one of the most popular international relations theories with regards to explaining conflict. The discussion on what balance of power means has existed for many years (Hass, 1953; Sheehan, 1996). Waltz (1988), one of the major proponents of balance of power theory both at the system and unit level of analysis, argues at the system level that bipolarity is less likely to bring about war than multi-polarity since states are unsure of how others are to act/align in a multipolar system, thus bringing about a high level of uncertainty, “miscalculation,” “diffusion of dangers, [and] confusion of responses…” that is avoided in a bipolar system (623-624).

Similarly, Mearsheimer (1990) suggests that bipolarity allows states to read each other with clarity, compared to a multipolar system where states may misread the power capabilities of one another. At the unit level, Waltz (1988) also argues that a main reason for peace during a balance of power is due to nuclear capabilities. With both two opposing powers having nuclear capabilities, Waltz (1988) argues that the costs of conflict due to nuclear weapons are greatly increased, and thus the reason why peace is more likely to occur. Similar arguments of nuclear deterrence and peace in a bi-polar system have been argued by others such as Mearsheimer (1990). Sheehan (1996) argues that it was the presence of nuclear weapons in the bi-polar system following World War II that shaped both the United States and the Soviet Union’s careful actions when interacting with each other.

In order to determine how power transition functions as a rival theory to balance of power, it is imperative to work from Lakatosian criteria for establishing and comparing the “hard core” and the “protective belt” of a research program, as well as using empirical evidence to examine which research program is has more explanatory power . DiCicco and Levy (2003) set out the main hard core assumptions of the Power Transition research program as compared to the Balance of Power hard core assumptions. In comparing the two research programs’ assumptions, they explain that while similarities exist, we do find fundamental differences in some of the assumptions. Similarly to balance of power and neo-realism, the power transition research program assumes that states are the main actors in the international system.

They also agree that leaders of states are rational actors. Where power transition theorists differ from the balance of power position is in their next assumption that the world is “hierarchically organized under the leadership of the dominant power” (120). This differs from the neo-realist position that states operate under anarchy, and that no one state sets the rules or structure of the international system. While neo-realists such as Waltz (1979) (in DiCicco & Levy 2003) suggest that even the anarchical state has “some semblance of order,” he in no way believes that one “dominant” state has influence in setting up the system according to its interests. Thus, this notion of a “dominant state” is not possible according to the balance of power research program since of the “balancing mechanism” that is expected to form and counter the “dominant” state (DiCicco & Levy, 2003).

A second major different in the hard core assumptions of power transition and the balance of power lies in the expected actions of a state. Now while classical realism (as illustrated in Morgenthau, 1956) believed that states acted for a lust of increasing power for the sake of power, later differences that came out of a neo-realist tradition suggested that states, while concerned with power, were “minimally” concerned with the survival or security of its state (Waltz, 1979). Regardless if we view realism and neo-realism as the same or different research programs,  there is a belief in the realist and neo-realist tradition of balance of power that states will always attempt to gain power either for security or for the sake of power itself.

This strongly differs in the power transition research program however, where while power is minimally necessary in order for a state to exist (DiCicco & Levy, 2003: 122-123), power transition theorists instead argue that not all states if given the opportunity would change the system if the conditions in place are “satisfying” (123). DiCicco and Levy (2003) thus explain that even though power transition theorists still maintain some of the realist assumptions such as rationality of actors, and the importance of the foreign policy of a state without examining domestic politics, because of this belief in a hierarchical structure belief of power transition theorists, along with the assumption that a satisfied rising power will not change the structure of the international system is a clear distinction from original balance of power theory, and thus deserving of its own research program (123). For  power transition theory, it is not about power, but about getting the most net gains (Organski & Kugler, 1989).

Stemming from this, another difference that seems to separate power transition theory and balance of power theoretically is the logical action of the rising state given the assumptions of how states operate. Since neo-realists work from an assumption that states minimally want to preserve their survival (Waltz, 1979), then the power transition theorists must account for the fact that a rising state that risks to challenge the dominant power for a change in the status quo must do so knowing that there is a chance (albeit a small chance) that losing could entail the loss of the rising power as a state. From a neo-realist assumption, it seems that a state would not be willing to challenge the dominant power if there was a chance that losing may lead to the end of the state, since the main objective is to survive. This hard core assumption is very different from a power transition theorist who seems to have to accept that a rising state does at some point possible take that risk of survival for changing the status quo. This is not necessary an issue for the power transition position, but it does seem to suggest a further shift in the hard core assumptions, and yet another reason why power transition belongs as its own research program from balance of power.

Empirical Tests of Power Transition Theory

Having examined the differences in hard core assumptions and the protective belts of both research programs, as Bueno de Mesquita (1985) accurately stated in The War Trap, “a theory’s usefulness can only be judged empirically…” (9). Therefore, in order to examine which research program seems to be more valid in explaining conflict and thus progressive, we must examine the empirical evidence set forth by scholars. One of the first empirical tests of power transition theory is Organski and Kugler’s (1980) The War Ledger. Organski and Kugler, after briefly defining variables such as power and satisfaction find in their analysis that dyads are more likely to go to war with one another at around parity. Since the original work of Organski (1968) and Organski and Kugler (1980), there have been a number of empirical tests done by scholars to test the hypotheses of balance of power and power transition theory. Kugler and Lemke (2000) give an excellent summary of the evolution of the power transition literature since the original work of Organski (1968). In their overview, they explain that “[a] large body of work has been created to evaluate the empirical claims by the power transition research program. The studies are extensive, and in fact virtually all of this evidence is supportive, either partially or entirely” (Kugler and Lemke, 2000: 138).

From Organski and Kugler’s work, Houweling and Siccama (1988), using different data to retest Organski and Kugler also find power transition theory to hold. Moul (1985), in his study of European states between 1815-1939 found that two states were less likely to enter into conflict when their respective power status was clearly far apart from one another, and when states were close in power, “times were dangerous” (528). Geller (1993), upon examining power relationships between 456 disputes from 1816-1986 found that states who were equal in power or approaching equality were “approximately twice as likely to be associated with war…”(173). Moul (2003), in his empirical examination of power transition, looks at the time period from 1648-1815 and also finds support for the power transition theory. Further studies have expanded the protective belt of power transition theory by expanding the generalizability of power transition.

Lemke and Werner (1996) in their analysis of power transition and balance of power, make a new contribution to the field of conflict studies that adds to the explanatory power of power transition. Since the previous work has focused on power transitions among major powers, Lemke and Werner (1996) attempt to expand power transition by examining conflict powers at regional levels that are competing for “regional superiority.” They suggest that the world is not only made up of a major power hierarchy but also regional hierarchies where states vie for regional superiority. Therefore, examining the timing of conflict in South American regional hierarchies they found that in fact conflict is much more likely when parity exists between a rising regional state towards the regional power and when the rising power is increasing the size of its military—an operationalization of dissatisfaction. They warn us however to be careful of their findings since they only examined a few cases.

Later studies by Benson & Kugler (1998) also expand the theory of power transition to fighting between the government and rebel groups within a state and find that fighting is in fact more likely to occur when resources are at parity, a finding that is consistent with the power transition research program. Reed (2003), explains that since states are likely to go to war due to incomplete information, as states become closer in strength, the likelihood of conflict is increased due to higher “information asymmetries” (633) than states that are further apart in power.

Measuring Power Transition Theory

While we have seen a large amount of research supporting the power transition research program, there are also measurement issues that need to be addressed when dealing with empirical tests of power transition. For example, there has been large discussion on the issue with adequately operationalizing variables, and particularly the “power” and “status quo variable used in power transition analyses (DiCicco & Levy, 2001). We have seen various discussions of power in general (Baldwin, 1979; Guzzini, 1993) and a number of different operationalizations of the concept of power and “perception of power” (Wohlforth, 1987) in examinations of the balance of power and power transition research programs as well as other areas of international politics (Matsubara, 1989). Organski and Kugler (1980) in their empirical study began by measuring power using Gross National Product (GNP).

Later studies by Houweling and Siccama (1980) (in Soya, Oneal, & Park, 1997) use a different measure created by “Doran and Parsons (1980) based on five variables indicating national size and development (in Soya, Oneal, & Park, 1997: 515) and find larger support for power transition theory. Soya, Oneal, and Park (1997) re-test Houweling and Siccama’s using other measures of power such as “the Correlates of War (COW) composite index and GDP” (510), find evidence that supports power transition, even though the relationships are less than the previous studies they reviewed due possibly due to measurement errors and case selection (526). While power is heavily discussed in international relations, and best attempted to be operationalized through a number of measures, Barnett and Duvall (2005) for example explain that different measures should not be seen as “competing,” but rather should be seen as “connecting” so that we are able to use different operational measure of power to ensure findings are consistent (39). Therefore, results supporting power transition theory seem to be robust with various measurements of power.

Kugler and Lemke (2000) explain that accurately operationalizing status quo satisfaction/dissatisfaction has also been an issue in the work of power transition theory. DiCicco and Levy (1999) (also cited in Danilovic & Clare, 2008) point out that one major weakness with the power transition research program is related to the lack of sufficient operationalization of status quo satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Danilovic and Clare (2008) explain in their overview that different measurements of dissatisfaction have been used (Kim, 1991; Lemke & Reed, 1996; Lemke & Werner, 1996). Danilovic and Clare (2008) point out however that this issue is more serious than mere validity of operationalizing a status quo variable. They argue that there is a lack of clarity on a theoretical conceptualization of what would cause a rising state to be satisfied or dissatisfied with the system set forth by the dominant power.

Danilovic & Clare (2008) address this issue, offering strong theoretical insight from deterrence theory to suggest that major power rising states determine their satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the structure set forth by the dominant power based upon their satisfaction/dissatisfaction in their regional “areas of strong interest…[since] clashes of these interests can be a major source of dissatisfaction” (294). This theory seems to be consistent with work that suggests great power states do often engage in conflict over outside regions, even if they are geographically distant from the said major power state (Taliaferro, 2004). In Danilovic and Clare’s (2008) empirical examination of major power states using Danilovic’s (2002) dataset on a major powers’ regional ties, they find that a state will be more likely to challenge “if there is a conflict of regional interests for major powers in the dyad, both in the specific area of dispute and their overall regional interests” (298).

Extensions of Power Transition Theory

Thus, not only have we seen a large amount of empirical support for power transition theory—with various robustness checks of variable measurements, but extensions of power transition theory have also shown to further progress the research program. In fact, there have been a number of extensions of power transition studies testing hypotheses in the protective belt (in Benson, 2007a). For example, Benson (2007b) argues and finds that satisfaction/dissatisfaction is important not only for a relationship between a rising challenger and the dominant power (as explained in power transition theory), but also for non-major states. She finds that satisfication/dissatisfication does play a role in conflict between non-major states and related also to issues “short of war” (1, WP).

Swaminathan (1999) also extends the application of power transition theory by using it to examine when domestic democratic transitions occur in South America, and finds that fighting is most likely to occur between the government and the opposition when they are roughly at equal strength and when the opposition is least satisfied (188). Zagare (2007) examines power transition and argues for a unification with perfect deterrence theory. Toft (2007) extends power transition to shifts in ethnic group populations within a state and finds that as a “rising power” ethnic group approaches the “dominant power” ethnic group, conflict between the two is more likely.


Today, there are continued conversations about the role of power transition theory in explaining international relations. Amongst other international issues, power transition theory is applied to the rising power of China, and the relationship with the United States (Morrisey, 2010; Lai, 2011). However, this is not to say that there are no critiques of power transition theory. For example, Lebow & Valentino (2009) have argued that the European and international systems almost never have been characterized by hegemony. No state has achieved a position that allowed it for any extended period to order the international system to suit its interests at the expense of the other major powers.”

In addition, they go on to say that “Power transitions are remarkably rare, they seldom occur as the result of differential rates of economic growth, and have most often occurred peacefully. Power transitions are more often the results of wars, rather than the causes of them. Wars between rising and dominant powers are infrequent and are not waged by either side primarily in the effort to defend or revise the international order in their favor. Finally, we find that war rarely resolves the fundamental conflicts of interest caused by power transitions” (389). Others, writing more recently, have also suggested that power transition theory is incorrect on calling conflict after changes in power between countries (Harris, 2014).

Power Transition Theory References

Benson, M. (2007). Extending the Bounds of Power Transition Theory. International Interactions, Vol. 33, No. 3, pages 211-215.

Danilovic, V. & Clare, J. (2008). Global Power Transitions and Regional Interests. International Interactions, Vol. 33, No. 3, pages 289-304. 

Harris, P. (2014). Problems with Power Transition Theory: Beyond the Vanishing Disparities Thesis. Asian Security, Vol. 10, No. 3, pages 241-259.

Kugler, J. & Organski, A.F.K (1989). Chapter 7: The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. Handbook of War Studies. Available Online: https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~fczagare/PSC%20346/Kugler%20and%20Organski.pdf

Lai, D. (2011). The United States and China in Power Transition. U.S. Army War College. Strategic Studies Institute. December 2011, pages 1-265. Available Online: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub1093.pdf

Lebow, R.N. & Valentino, B. (2009). Lost in Transition: A Critical Analysis of Power Transition Theory. International Relations, 23, No. 3, pages 389-410.

Morrisey, E.L. (2010). Lessons from the Past: Power Transitions and the Future of U.S.-China Relations. Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Georgetown University. Available Online: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/553544/morriseyEvan.pdf

Swaminathan, S. (1999). Time, Power, and Democratic Transitions. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 43, No. 2, The Democratic Transition Process, pages 178-191.

Toft, Monica Duffy. 2007. “Population Shifts and Civil War: A Test of Power Transition Theory”.

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