International Relations Power Transition Theory
Ronald L. Tammen, Jacek Kugler, Doug Lemke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0038


Power transition theory is a structural and dynamic approach to world politics. Although due to its focus on power relationships it is sometimes associated with the realist school (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Realism), it differs in terms of its dynamic description of the international system as well as its focus on the importance of status quo evaluations. Unlike realism’s emphasis on anarchy, the power transition perspective envisions politics as a hierarchy of nations with varying degrees of cooperation and competition. Additionally, the theory views world politics as integrated horizontally and vertically. The static picture of structure and rules is complemented by dynamic factors that demonstrate how and why change occurs in the international system. Power transition focuses on differential growth rates and their effect on altering relative power between nations, resulting in new relationships among nations or competing groups and the formation of new political and economic entities. One by-product of differential growth is the high potential for conflict when a challenger and a preeminent or dominant nation reach the stage of relative equivalence of power, and specifically when the challenger is dissatisfied with the status quo. Finally power transition provides a general perspective that does not differentiate between domestic and international politics but proposes that such differences depend on the level of commitment to the status quo under changing structural conditions. Understanding the interaction of the structural and dynamic components of power transition theory provides a probabilistic tool by which to measure these changes, and to forecast likely events in future rounds of change. While based on empirically tested propositions backed by large data sets, the theory has an intuitive feel that maximizes its utility for interpreting current events, including the rise of China and India and the related effects on world politics. Having forecast the rise of China as early as 1958, this aspect of power transition is now fully integrated into the mainstream thinking of most current observers of world politics. In addition, the power transition perspective has been generalized and successfully applied to anticipate civil wars, to understand the nation building process, to account for the consequences of war, and to explore the potential for nuclear conflict. Most recently, power transition scholars have carefully defined and measured the political performance of nations.

General Overviews

Power transition theory was first enumerated in Organski 1968, tested in Organski and Kugler 1980, expanded in Kugler and Lemke 1996 and Tammen, et al. 2000, and summarized in Tammen 2008 and Kugler 2011.

  • Kugler, Jacek, ed. Special Issue: Power Transitions. International Interactions 38.5 (2011).

    This recent summary includes major articles by contributors that summarize the key propositions and updates the evolution of power transition theory until 2012. Much of this work is now ongoing. Online issue only. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kugler, Jacek, and Douglas Lemke, eds. Parity and War: Evaluations and Extensions of the War Ledger. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

    This edited volume empirically expands and tests power transition propositions first explored in Organski and Kugler 1980. In particular, the work tests parity propositions using various formal methods, including econometrics, expected utility, game theory, and differential calculus.

  • Organski, A. F. K. World Politics. 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1968.

    In this book first published in 1958, Organski lays out the foundation for power transition theory, including the notion of a hierarchical international order and stages of transition that affect the relative power among nations. States with significant population bases that industrialize can provide the necessary preconditions for war if the rising state reaches power parity with the dominant state and is dissatisfied with the dominant’s status quo order.

  • Organski, A. F. K., and Jacek Kugler. The War Ledger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Organski and Kugler provide the first empirical test of the theory’s propositions, and confirm that major power conflict is largely determined as challengers approach power parity with the defender. They further articulate the “phoenix factor” of rapid recovery by economically developed states after a war among the major powers. Lastly, they determine that arms race dynamics are not externally motivated, questioning the assumed stability of nuclear deterrence.

  • Tammen, Ronald L. “The Organski Legacy: A Fifty-Year Research Program.” International Interactions 34.4 (2008): 314–332.

    DOI: 10.1080/03050620802561769

    This succinct article summarizes the history of the power transition research agenda, compares the theory to the balance of power concept, and further develops the theme of the Asian challenge. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Tammen, Ronald, Jacek Kugler, and Douglas Lemke, et al. Power Transitions: Strategies for the 21st Century. New York: Chatham House, 2000.

    This work details historical cases of power transitions and compiles advances made in the power transition research paradigm, including the likelihood of conflict based on the speed of transitions and the notion of multiple hierarchies within the global hierarchy, as well as exploring the conditions under which nuclear deterrence is stable. It concludes with policy recommendations for managing Asia’s impending transitions.

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