The Battle of Waterloo,
by Clément-Auguste Andrieux (1852)
Public domain via Wikipedia

In an earlier post in my “long waves” series I wrote briefly about the war school and the different theories that existed within it. After this post, I plan mostly to move on from Joshua Goldstein’s 1988 book, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. In summary, there are three “war” theories: The leadership cycle school, based on the work of Modelski; the world-system school, led by Wallerstein; and the power transition school, which has emerged from the research of Organski. Goldstein summarises these differences well:

The leadership cycle school focuses on the role of global war in establishing a new international order under a world leader roughly every century. The neo-Marxist world-system school focuses on hegemony and rivalry in the core of the world economy, linking hegemonic cycles to pairs of long waves. The power transition school focuses on changes in national power and their effects on war and hegemony.

The idea of hegemony

The idea of hegemony is central. The core idea of the leadership school, which was influenced by the work of Arnold Toynbee, is that a country will assume leadership of the international economic and monetary system, and in doing so will also carry an “undue share” of the costs involved. The idea is associated with the rise of world trade; Goldstein quotes Kindleberger:

The international economic and monetary system needs leadership, a country which is prepared, consciously or unconsciously, under some system of rules that it has internalized, to set standards of conduct for other countries ; and to seek to get others to follow them, to take on an undue share of the burdens of the system.

Early on, Modelski tried to connect the leadership cycle to economic long waves, but moved away from that. The model here is of century-long cycles, in which a new leader supplants the old one after a war. There is a common thread: the leaders controlled trade through naval power, and, from the Dutch onwards, also led the world in finance. And while leadership follows military victory, it also follows innovation – institutional and political, as well as military. One of the clearest examples can be seen in Britain in the late 17th century, with the political settlement of the 1688 Revolution and the invention of the central bank. It may also be more than a curiosity that Britain co-opted a Dutch king at the time.
Long waves - Goldstein - war theory.003And it’s worth noting that there’s some nuance here. Each war was fought against a challenger, which also aspired to hegemony, and these can be identified to some extent in the work of Dehio, who influenced Arnold Toynbee. And actually, it’s a little more complex again: the powers that won each of the wars typically did so in a coalition, and the new challenger usually emerges when the coalition fractures after victory – except in the 18th century.

So: Modelski argues that geopolitical leadership is entwined with economic leadership. Goldstein notes that the basis for this theory is weakened by the way Modelski selected the list of innovations and because his dating of long waves is out of sync with other scholars after 1890. And a sample of five is maybe too small to be wholly convinced of patterns.

The core and the periphery

Modelski’s theory is very much about the leadership of the core, advanced economies, and that’s a good link to the world-system school, which focusses on core/periphery relationships. The work here is principally by Wallerstein and Hopkins, and it connects the “war school” much more explicitly with economic cycles. They argue that long economic waves come in pairs that affect the core and periphery differently.

Long waves - Goldstein - war theory.002As with Modelski, the hegemonic power is the leader because it has built significant advantages, in commerce, finance, and production (agricultural and industrial). But there’s still a problem here – as with Modelski’s early work – in linking the economic waves with the leadership waves. And the hegemonic waves look like a better fit with the historical evidence than do the economic waves.

As with Modelski, the emerging hegemonic power builds its power through sea (later sea and air), avoiding the expense of large land-based armies. But eventually, it has to take on the cost of a land army to head off the threat of a land-based challenger. Wallerstein sees three hegemonies, as opposed to Modelski’s five: the Dutch, 1625-72, the British, 1815-73, and the United States, 1945-67. Each fought a thirty year was for superiority, which ended with the large-scale reorganisation of the international order (The Treaty of Westphalia, The Concert of Europe, the United Nations/Bretton Woods.)

Leading edge innovation

Nicole Bousquet, who worked with Wallerstein, argues that the emergence of hegemonic power reflects a short-to-medium term advantage in leading edge innovation, which is eroded as it is is diffused and copied. The seeds of decline come when the hegemonic power looks for incremental innovation in processes that have historically served it well rather than looking for “major changes in the methods of production.” Of course, this is an argument that is common these days in discussions of organisational change.

I’m not going to spend much time here on the third school, the “power transition” group, since much of the thinking behind it appears to be largely empirical, with only a modest causal story behind it. Gilpin suggests that the nation-state behaves “rationally” and that states attempt to change the international system when the perceived benefits to them exceed the perceived costs. Conversely, the system ins stable only when no actor believes this to be the case. Put like this, it seems to be a subset of other theories in that it sees hegemonic wars as the principle driver of change, but with a more limited theory sitting behind it. And the purpose of a good theory is to help us to model the world better.

Looking at evidence

It turns out that there is good data on war, starting with Levy’s taxonomy of 119 wars, published in the early ‘80s. 64 of these are “Great Power” wars. In Chapter 11 Goldstein uses a number of measures to assess the intensity of wars, including the number of battle fatalities, which is an index of severity; the ratio of fatalities to population, an index of intensity; the presence or absence of war in a given year (incidence); and the number of wars of a given type in a given year (frequency).

Long waves - Goldstein - war theoryFrom the “severity” time series, Goldstein identifies a fifty year cycle of war in which wars typically coincide with the late stages of the upswing, but only every one hundred years do competing great powers take each other on. He hypothesises that this is because war is expensive and you need to build resources to wage it. But there is a bug in this story, which is that the timing of World War II is off; it happens at the end of a downswing. There are two, related ways of looking at this. The first is to say that it is the unfinished version of World War I. The second is to observe that at the start of the 20th century, the core grew, from a European scale to global scale, as Japan, the United States, and, effectively, Russia/USSR were drawn into the core system, and that World War II was part of this adjustment process.

Three eras of war

The second observation is that there are effectively some “super-cycles” running alongside these long war cycles. Goldstein’s analysis of intensity suggests three eras. The first is to 1648, in which Great Power wars fluctuate up and down with around 10,000 casualties per year, and the peaks are identifiable but not truly distinctive. The second, between 1648 and 1815, sees an order of magnitude shift, to a casualty level during Great Power wars that run at about 100,000 a year, with distinctive differences in intensity between Great Power wars and others, and periods of peace afterwards. The third, after 1815, involves less fighting, but with huge, short, peaks, and another jump in the order of magnitude to around two million fatalities per year. As it happens, these three “eras” correspond to Wallerstein’s analysis.

And cutting through his pages of analysis, Goldstein is confident enough of the relationships between the data to argue that wars occur just before the end of an up-cycle, when states are richest. In Chapter 12, he sketches out a causal diagram.

Screenshot 2015-07-01 19.02.09Source: Joshua Goldstein

The argument as to why wars occur at the end of an upswing hangs on three points.

  • The biggest wars occur only when the core countries can afford them, which is after a sustained period of stable economic growth (p.261)
  • Upswings cause several great powers to grow at the same time, leading to more competition for world resources and markets. The “lateral pressure” increases the propensity towards conflicts between the core countries (p.262)
  • Economic growth has a psychological effect on a society, creating a more “gung-ho” social mood. (p.262)

‘Total war’ and after

In practice, of course, wars have a complex impact on society and economy, playing out through taxation, earnings, capital investment, innovation, inflation, and so on. Arguably, the experience of the “total war” of 1939-45, and the development of far more destructive weapons since then, has also changed our view of war as an instrument of hegemonic transition. (Toynbee talked about the social memory of war as influencing future war behaviour). This might be a way of understanding both the heavy social investment in our culture of memory, as the generations that fought the last world war die out, and also the new military doctrines about asymmetric warfare.

More fundamentally, we may be moving (back) to a new era under which our wars are fought on our behalf by mercenaries, and with low casualty rates, as they were in the first of Wallerstein’s three eras.  It is, though, too soon to be sure: if the cyclical theories are right, we are just moving into the foothills of next hegemonic conflict, and will watch them playing out over the next 30 years or so.