In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Systemic Theories of International Politics

  • Introduction
  • Core Readings
  • Extensions

Political Science Systemic Theories of International Politics
Bear F. Braumoeller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0173


Systemic theory in international relations is an attempt to capture the relationship between the units of the international system (generally, the states) and the elements of the structure of the international system most relevant to their behavior. The goal is to capture the essence of international relations in the same simple and powerful manner that the heliocentric Copernican model captured the essence of astronomy. In practice, largely due to the complexity of the international system, systemic theory has been elusive in modern international relations. While systemic theorizing in international relations, in the form of balance-of-power theory, is centuries old, the theoretical complexities and empirical challenges of the scientific study of international systems are exceptionally daunting. Accordingly, very few attempts at a logically coherent, empirically supported systemic theory have been made, and far fewer are seen as unproblematic. Certainly no single model has achieved the degree of consensus that the Copernican model has in astronomy. At the same time, systemic theorizing is influenced to a much-larger degree than other forms of theorizing by systemic traditions in other disciplines—sociology, economics, and history, to name just a few. Because the origins, examples, and tests of systemic theories in international relations are so diverse and fragmented, this article will be broader than it is deep—an attempt to survey the landscape rather than to mine any one part of it comprehensively.

Core Readings

Systemic theories are among the most influential and durable theories in the international-relations canon, largely because they seek to capture the most comprehensive understanding of their subject matter possible. Something substantial is lost, scholars in this tradition argue, by theorizing without taking into effect the behavior of all the major actors in the system—just as an understanding of astronomy built up from many partial theories of the behavior of individual planets would be much less intellectually satisfying and useful than the current, coherent systemic explanation. This comprehensive understanding of international relations is the great promise of systemic international-relations theory, and the authors of each of these works seek to realize it in different ways. Kaplan 1957, Wendt 1999, and Braumoeller 2012 focus most directly on the fundamental nature of the agent-structure relationship while remaining relatively agnostic about the forces that drive it, while Waltz 1979, Organski and Kugler 1980, Gilpin 1981, and Modelski 1987 more explicitly theorize about the drivers of state behavior. At the same time, Moravcsik 1997 takes the systemic realists among the latter group of authors to task for their one-dimensional view of state preferences.

  • Braumoeller, Bear F. The Great Powers and the International System: Systemic Theory in Empirical Perspective. Cambridge Studies in International Relations 123. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511793967

    This book lays out a fully systemic theory—one in which agents have an impact on structure and vice versa—that connects domestic theories of the state, which focus on the preferences of leaders and constituencies, to the structure of the international system. The book is also noteworthy for its formal mathematical logic and for the extensive evaluation of the theory it proposes, using both statistical methods and detailed historical case studies.

  • Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511664267

    This book focuses on the relationship among relative power, prestige, and conflict—which generally emerges between the hegemon and the second-most-powerful state. Often overlooked, but one of the smartest and most nuanced systemic works in the realist school.

  • Kaplan, Morton A. System and Process in International Politics. New York: John Wiley, 1957.

    A very early attempt at systemic international-relations theory, this work describes six ideal-typical international systems and the main characteristics of the actors that might inhabit them, before deriving conclusions about the likely behaviors of those systems.

  • Modelski, George. Long Cycles in World Politics. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-09151-5

    Argues that long cycles, corresponding to long-term shifts in economic and social activity, are responsible for the cyclical pattern of hegemonic war in the modern world.

  • Moravcsik, Andrew. “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics.” International Organization 51.4 (1997): 513–553.

    DOI: 10.1162/002081897550447

    Without calling it a systemic theory per se, Moravcsik lays the intellectual groundwork for a liberal theory of international politics—one that incorporates not just the capabilities of actors but their preferences as well.

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

    A book that describes Organski’s “power transition theory,” a minimally systemic theory that predicts the timing of hegemonic wars on the basis of the relative capabilities of the two most powerful states in the system.

  • Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House, 1979.

    Soon after its publication, this book became the bible of systemic theorizing in international relations. In contrast to earlier “human-nature” realism, it emphasized the importance of the structure of the international system and derived a range of (arguably) testable hypotheses from the realist micromotives of states—to wit, their interests described in terms of power. Reprinted as recently as 2010 (Long Grove, IL: Waveland).

  • Wendt, Alexander. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511612183

    A seminal work in constructivist international relations and international relations in general, this book breaks away from the materialist mainstream of international-relations theorizing to establish a cultural theory of international politics. Building on his earlier claim that “anarchy is what states make of it” (p. 6), Wendt explores the implications for international relations of a range of different “cultures of anarchy.”

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