Systemic Leadership, Energy Considerations, and the Leadership Long-Cycle Perspective
Summary and Keywords
System leaders, sometimes referred to as hegemons or world powers, emerge based on a foundation of technological innovation and global military reach. To this foundation energy is now added as a third leg of the power stool. It is not a coincidence that observers posit 17th-century Netherlands, 19th-century Britain, and 20th-century United States as the leading states in political-economy terms of their respective eras. The Dutch used peat and windmills, the British married coal to the steam engine, and the United States added petroleum and electricity to coal to fuel a host of new machines. The greater a country’s lead in technology and energy, the more impactful its tenure as the world economy’s lead economy. These leads, nonetheless, do not make their principal beneficiaries into dominant dictators of world politics. Instead, they focus on policing long-distance commercial routes and the global commons, as well as organizing coalitions to suppress perceived threats to the continued functioning of the world economy. Whether this process, which emerged slowly only in the second millennium ce, will continue into the future remains to be seen. It hinges on the prospects for abandoning carbon-based fuels, adapting renewable energy sources, and retaining the ability of one state to maintain a political-economic lead over its rivals for decades as in the past.
Systemic leadership refers to an older and more traditional form of global governance. Some types of problems in world politics, particularly ones linked to interregional or long-distance trade, can be and have been addressed by states that possess a substantial edge over their competitors in terms of possessing the world’s lead economy as manifested in advanced technology and global military reach. Put another way, the most powerful global powers have transitory opportunities to make rules for world politics. The many international governmental organizations created during or immediately after World War II known as the Bretton Woods regime are only among the most prominent examples, in part because they have persisted for so long. The movement toward this type of behavior began a millennium ago, as one state in East Asia began to find ways to overcome the constraints of agrarian political economies. While Song China did not make the breakthrough, it established a foundation for a sequence of lead economies to slowly move toward industrialization. Energy sources play a critical role in this process. While the argument for a thousand-year development toward systemic leadership has been advanced (Modelski & Thompson, 1996), the original version lacked attention to the role of energy. In this article we seek to make up for that theoretical oversight. We also wish to locate leadership long-cycle arguments within the Gilpinian hegemonic stability tradition and help to make the concept of systemic leadership more prominent, while also providing an overview of the main claims and the pertinent evidence.
Systemic Leadership Concerns
It is argued that system leaders have emerged largely on the basis of possessing the world’s lead economy for a finite period of time (Modelski & Thompson, 1996). On the basis of concentrated technological innovation and global power projection capabilities, system leaders play preponderant roles in managing problems associated with the functioning of the world political economy. They base their leadership on the advantages bestowed by the creation of the most innovative economy (the lead economy). They set examples for others to emulate. They encourage (verbally and materially) others to behave in ways that might correspond to collective interests. They also use coercion on occasion. Scholars disagree about which states have earned this label.1 The further back in time one travels, the more difficult it becomes to compare the emerging predominance of various candidates. As a consequence, few would dispute the United States’ contemporary claim to the distinction—although whether the claim holds true to this day is a different matter. Many would accept Britain’s 19th-century claim to systemic leadership. After that, choices become increasingly more controversial. However, the Netherlands in the 17th century has considerable support among those who have examined the question (see Table 3).
There is a reason why only three states have relatively strong support for the systemic leadership label. These three states have some distinctions that no other states can claim. The unique nature of their claims can be demonstrated quickly by looking at the most liberal slate of candidates. Leadership long-cycle analyses are based on a narrative about modern economic growth. The main technological problem of the last millennium has been to break free of agrarian constraints based on the limitations of human/animal muscle and a focus on relying on solar radiation for growing plants. Song China made the first attempt in the 10th–12th centuries to industrialize but ultimately failed. Information on many of its innovations was passed on to Europe and appears to have played an important role in stimulating later European industrialization. Three of the principal intermediaries for conveying Asian ideas to the West were the states (Genoa, Venice, and Portugal) that successively dominated East–West trade by first organizing new routes from the European end and also monopolizing the distribution of Asian commodities in Europe for periods of time. Their commercial successes were also predicated on harnessing and improving maritime technology beyond the competencies of European and Asian rivals.
The situation in Europe began to change in the 17th century with the Netherlands’ rise to technological leadership in a variety of industries, based in part on an energy foundation of peat and the deployment of thousands of windmills.2 The Netherlands was soon eclipsed by its neighbors and, in particular, the British development of coal-based industries and industrialization. Britain, in turn, was eclipsed by the rise of the United States, which led the way in innovating petroleum-based industries in the 20th century.
Table 1 clarifies the leadership pattern that characterizes the past millennium. Each state had some claim to a commercial lead in at least some territory—with the scope of the trade gradually expanding to encompass the entire globe. Each state had some claim to technological prowess that differentiated it from its rivals of the time. Minimally, their technological leads were concentrated in the naval sphere—building new types of ships, developing navigational skills, and pioneering new trade routes. Increasingly, though, other technological innovations contributed to their ability to develop desired manufactures for trading purposes, especially ones that depended on intensive heat processes for their construction. The intensive heat processes, in turn, were based on harnessing the interaction between new technology and new sources of energy—successively, peat/wind, coal, and petroleum. As a consequence, the Netherlands’, British, and United States’ leads stand out in Table 1. Only these three states were able to combine leads in all three areas—commerce, technology, and energy.3
Table 1: Attributes of Successive System Leaders
Yes (East–West trade for a limited time)
Yes (Europe and East–West trade)
Yes (Europe and Atlantic trade)
Yes (coal, petroleum, electricity)
Leads do not last forever. They are constructed gradually and often erode fairly gradually as well. The rate of erosion, however, may vary, and the slower the rate of erosion, the more difficult it is to discern relative decline. This tendency helps explain the disagreements about the position of the United States. Not only was its concentration of leads more strongly established than those of its predecessors, its relative decline, partially as a consequence, has also been slow. Nonetheless, other states and their economies have been catching up to the U.S. position. Figure 1, for instance, shows the fluctuations in the U.S. share of world knowledge and technologically intensive (KTI) industries as a marker of technological leadership. The United States has maintained its lead, but other states have narrowed the gap. European economies, in general, are closest, followed by Japan, which Figure 1 shows falling back in the competition. China is moving up but still has some way to go. Thus, based on this indicator, the U.S. technological lead is slowly declining relative to what others have been able to achieve in narrowing the gap.4
A second capability dimension in systemic leadership is the ability to project force throughout the system in order to protect predominance in the world economy. Global reach capabilities have varied over time, but prior to the 20th century, they were exclusively naval in nature. More technological change in the 20th century permitted forays into the air and outer space. Consequently, any index of global reach must adjust for technological change. The power projection scores shown in Figure 2 combine distributional information on blue water naval capability (ships-of-the-line, battleships, heavy aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and their ballistic missiles) augmented by strategic bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and military satellites.
While not demonstrated in Figure 2, the U.S. lead in global reach capabilities was and still is much more impressive than its British predecessor’s position. At the same time, the U.S. lead has hardly been static. Its strategic preeminence emerged abruptly during and immediately after World War II, was maintained into the 1960s, and has been declining slowly relative to attempts to narrow the military projection-of-force gap since then. The Soviet Union made some headway in closing the gap but stopped well short of catching up. Its successor, the Russian Federation, is trying once again, and so is China—although it will take time to become competitive in this sphere.
Figures 1 and 2 demonstrate something similar: a still-predominant United States that is gradually losing its relative technological and power projection leads. Given the impressive heights of concentrated power to which the United States rose, it may not be surprising that the trajectory of its decline is slow. At the same time, relative decline in military capability occurs more slowly than in technology. One of the distinctive properties of our era is that the economies that have made the most headway in narrowing the technological gap have much less interest in narrowing the military capability gap. Alternatively, the economies that have shown the most interest in narrowing the military capability gap have struggled to narrow the technology gap.5 Yet neither gap-narrowing process has ceased, and presumably further inroads to the U.S. leads can be anticipated in the years to come.
Continuing U.S. relative decline, albeit slow, sets up an expectation of eventual succession as system leader. The natural question is who is the most likely candidate, and many observers have put China forward as the state with the best chance to become the next system leader. Much of this estimation, however, is predicated on China’s economy becoming the largest one in the world. Such an emphasis is misplaced and misunderstands the nature of the processes at risk. Possessing a large economy can be advantageous, just as having the world’s largest economy can be an asset, especially when it comes to creating markets for the consumption of commodities. More important, though, is the technological lead, which is not something conferred by possessing the world’s largest economy.
Moreover, the pattern is fairly clear that it is not just the technological lead that is critical. Increasingly in the past few centuries, the radical new technologies produced by possessing the technological lead require relatively inexpensive fuels that are capable of converting organic and non-organic materials into powerful sources of energy. Both the low price and the power of the energy have become critical to successful production and finding markets for products’ consumption.
Therefore, it is not enough to ask who will have the largest economy or even the most technologically advanced economy. It must also be asked whether the most technologically advanced economy will be founded on a new, relatively inexpensive energy base. One thing is abundantly clear. Coal and petroleum, which have fueled the past two systemic leads, will not suffice. Their supply is disappearing (petroleum faster than coal), and, consequently, their price is rising.6 For both reasons, the next system leader—should there be one—cannot depend on either resource to provide cheap and reliable energy. Inasmuch as dependence on coal and petroleum have led to unsustainable environmental costs, the incentive to move to a different, non–carbon-based source of energy seems all that more paramount. Natural gas may seem to be a useful compromise, but it is carbon-based and only somewhat less environmentally harmful than coal or petroleum. By the middle of the current century, it may also possess its own supply and pricing problems.7 Our questions then are two-fold: (1) Which of the likely candidates for technological preeminence in the future are moving toward developing a non–carbon-based economy? and (2) Is any candidate moving fast enough to make a difference?
We do not pursue these last two questions in this essay but do elsewhere (Thompson & Zakhirova, 2017). Yet to make such claims, a strong theoretical foundation is needed, and it should be one that is well anchored in the political-economic fluctuations of the past millennium. A candidate for this foundation—leadership long-cycle theory—has been around for some 40 years. It has its uses, but it needs refinement.
Toward an Improved Theoretical Foundation for Analyzing World Politics
Leadership long-cycle arguments are highly compatible with Gilpin’s (1975) initial articulation of a hegemonic stability theory (Table 2).8 The theory is not complex. Radical technological change is the main vehicle for generating uneven economic growth, which, in turn, leads to wealth concentration and hierarchy. Radical technological change contributes to wealth concentration all the more to the extent that it is monopolized by one country at a time. The greater the consequent edge of this leading economy, the more probable it is that it will be highly involved with the world economy. It also follows that its lead over other states will draw it into various management problems associated with the functioning of the world economy. In doing so, the leading economy constructs a political order for the world economy that is finite in duration. As the leading economy loses its lead or edge over the rest of the world, its political ordering capacity will also wane, subject, no doubt, to some institutionally grounded lag.
Table 2: Gilpin’s Initial Hegemonic Stability Theory
The first assumption expressed in Table 2 is critical. Every economic system comes with a political order of some sort. Governance in the world economy is primitive, but its core source can be traced to concentrations of wealth and power. The most wealthy and powerful states in the world economy provide some order, if only to protect their own extensive activities. Piracy, for instance, is a nuisance that needs to be eliminated if at all possible. Rights of passage and interference with transit through international waters is a more fundamental problem. Just how far national sovereignty should extend from the coastline is a related problem. Another fundamental problem is continued access to vital commodities, such as timber (when ships were wooden) or petroleum, needed for the continued functioning of the world economy. Other problems include the provision of surplus funds for investment purposes and containing financial meltdowns that might jeopardize the system if left alone. Resolving these problems invariably requires some political leadership to coordinate or impose preferences. The problems do not simply go away. Nor do they tend to resolve themselves. At the same time, one cannot assume that sufficient leadership will be available to, or successful in, addressing the problems. That is simply one of the reasons that governance in the world economy has been so limited.9
Yet expressing a hegemonic stability theory is not enough. One must test it, and to do that one must develop a historical script that interprets it. Leadership long-cycle theory, therefore, is a version of hegemonic stability theory with a distinctive historical script and a very strong commitment to operationalization and assessment. Its initial historical focus was centered fairly conventionally on the past 500 years of major power activity (see, e.g., Modelski, 1987; Modelski, Devezas, & Thompson, 2008; Modelski & Modelski, 1988; Modelski & Thompson, 1988; Thompson, 1988; Rasler & Thompson, 1994, 2000; Rennstich, 2008; Reuveny & Thompson, 2004; Thompson & Reuveny, 2010). A 500-year perspective may not have been all that conventional by international relations standards, but it did resonate with the Eurocentricity of world politics analysis. A structured, European regional, international relations could be said to have begun emerging with the onset of the Habsburg–Valois feud and the early manifestations of European force extending to non-European theaters. Therefore, it made some sense to begin at the “beginning” of contemporary international relations.
Less conventionally, perhaps, it could also be argued that the distinctions between global and regional layers of interaction were becoming more distinct after 1500. When Portugal entered the Indian Ocean and created a predatory trade regime there, it was not engaged in European international relations in an intense manner. Yet what Portugal did in the Indian Ocean had ramifications for how European international relations played out—as manifested by Venetian opposition to Portuguese movements. The same could be said about the later Spanish discovery of Peruvian silver (roughly mid-16th century). One difference, however, is that the Portuguese movement into the Indian Ocean was an interregional reflection of the decay of what had been a Venetian political order in the eastern Mediterranean. Portuguese decision-makers and adventurers were responding to the decline of a Venetian-Mamluk monopoly on the Western supply of Eastern spices. That same Venetian decline had encouraged French intervention into Italy and a Spanish resistance to the French intervention, which highlighted the regionality of European international relations in the 1490s and thereafter.
Since the world economy was becoming less regionally focused or, alternatively, the regions were starting to become more fused, the global layer began to take on more appeal as a focus of analytical attention. What political order would characterize this emerging global layer? There was no reason to assume that its political order would be identical to any of the regions that nested within the nascent global system. More likely, global politics would be governed by the actors who involved themselves in global activities. These actors, moreover, were not necessarily the ones that were most wealthy and powerful at the regional level. A distinction between regional and global elites had to be made. Leadership long-cycle analysis did this by positing that the minimal threshold for global actors involved the capability to engage in global activities (at least 10% of the pool of global reach resources that were largely naval after 1494) and evidence that actors with these capabilities actually operated outside regional theaters. This last criterion meant that global navies qualified as global navies by operating away from their home regions.
So, it can be claimed that the 1490s was a turning point in the development of a global layer of political-economic activity that needed theorizing about. But does a turning point necessarily provide the best place to begin analysis? Just where that “beginning” point should be located has never been obvious to international relations analysts. Other scholars have favored major events such as Hiroshima or the Industrial Revolution as demarcating the beginning of modern or contemporary world politics. Nuclear weapons and the onset of industrialization both had serious impacts on how international relations worked. Reasonable arguments can be constructed to justify looking only at post-1815 or post-1945 developments as somehow markedly different from pre-1815 and/or pre-1945 processes.10 That the arguments can be plausible, however, does not make them “right.” Questions inevitably arise wherever one examines how beginning structures and processes evolved. What preceded the ostensible beginning? Is what preceded the beginning important enough to bring into the analysis? If so, perhaps the beginning point should be pushed back in time?
The answers to these questions encouraged a reframing of the leadership long cycle’s historical script. Beginning conventionally around the 1490s was always awkward. If one thinks Portugal represented the first manifestation of wealth and power concentration at the global level, it is rather difficult to ignore the near century of developments that led to the Portuguese ascendancy. That is, the Portuguese did not simply or abruptly discover a way around the African continent. They fumbled around the issue for nearly a century before they were successful. That history suggests the 15th century could be interesting for a study of global emergence.
Then there is the question of the Venetian-Mamluk monopoly that the Portuguese managed to break. Where did that come from? It turns out that the Venetian position in the 14th and 15th centuries was the outcome of a Genoese–Venetian struggle to monopolize Asian commodities coming in on the overland and maritime Silk Roads from China and southeast Asia. The rise and fall of the Mongol Empire was important to this story because the rise of the Mongol Empire reduced transaction costs for overland Silk Road activities. Its demise favored maritime Silk Road activities and could also be said to have facilitated the re-emergence of the Ottomans, with its own implications for eastern Mediterranean-based political orders. All that implies is that processes in the 13th and 14th centuries were also significant for the emergence of a global layer of activity.
Once one ventures back to the 13th century in Asia, it is difficult to overlook the precocity of developments in China that were seemingly destroyed by the Mongol assault on Song Dynasty China. Earlier in the 10th–11th centuries, China seemed to have an opportunity to break free of the constraints of agrarian political economy. It did not do so but might have. Moreover, many of its technological accomplishments appear to be linked to subsequent European technological developments. Should not that also be part of the story leading to the 1490s and beyond—especially if Chinese activities a thousand years ago resembled what later global powers do?
It was this kind of reasoning that led to the development of the reframing of the leadership long-cycle argument that is explicit in Modelski and Thompson (1996).
The Modelski and Thompson Argument
Modelski and Thompson (1996) developed an interpretation of world politics that focused on lead economies, growth waves, and the emergence of strong concentrations of violence related to lead economy succession. The interpretation’s historical script begins more than a thousand years earlier with developments in Song China. In this interpretation, Song China ushered in a new phase of politico-economic history by attempting the first serious effort to break out from the economic limitations of agrarian systems. Developing gunpowder, expanding coal and iron production, accelerating economic commercialization with paper money, and developing extensive commitments to maritime trade and sea power, among other notable activities, came close to accomplishing the type of industrial revolution led by Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. But Song China, beset by expanding nomad neighbors, succumbed eventually to the Mongols.
The demise of Song China created an opportunity for others to pick up where the Song economy left off. The maritime and land routes connecting China and the Mediterranean gave advantages to northern Italian city-states to become the transmitters of Chinese wealth and technology to western European markets. First Genoa and then Venice created Mediterranean commercial empires with bases and highly systematized fleet movements to move goods coming in via the Black Sea or the Indian Ocean (across the Middle East or up the Red Sea) to European consumers.
Portugal managed to break this monopoly by finding a maritime route down the coast of western Africa, around the Cape, and up the eastern coast into the Indian Ocean. It may not have been able to hold on to its own coerced monopoly in the western Indian Ocean for long, but Portuguese activities altered the reliance on traditional Silk Road routes by completing the maritime circuits. The Portuguese were succeeded by the Dutch, who went the Portuguese route one step further and developed routes across the Indian Ocean (as opposed to staying near the southern Eurasian coastline) to the Spice Islands. The English, forced out of the Spice Islands by the Dutch, eventually managed to take over increasing amounts of South Asian territory and ultimately succeeded in penetrating the Chinese market in ways that the Portuguese and Dutch had never been able to manage to do.
The Modelski and Thompson (1996) interpretation focused primarily on adding another 500 years to the existing long-cycle script. What happened prior to 1494 was not exactly like what happened after 1494, but the pre-1494 developments resembled the post-1494 processes as emergent phenomena often do. Some of the conceptualization that was applicable and already in use for the post-1494 material could now be extended further back in time but only to a point beginning with Song China, and not before then.
Anchoring the historical script are two sets of theoretical conceptualization that predated the 1996 modifications. The common denominator of this string of actors from the Song through the British (and the United States) are their claim to being the lead economy of their times. Lead economies are not necessarily the largest economy or even the wealthiest. They are the most innovative economies and utilize their innovations in specializing in long-distance trade and eventually industrial production. To protect these trade and production activities (the evolving world economy), they also specialize in developing capabilities of global reach, which for much of the time period under consideration meant blue water naval capabilities. The sequence from ships of the line to battleships, nuclear submarines, and aircraft carriers has been the iconic manifestation of global reach for hundreds of years. Air and space capabilities are more recent extensions of the global reach capability sequence.
The lead economy concept is not all that common to international relations discourse. It was explicit in Wallerstein’s hegemonic states and Gilpin’s initial hegemonic stability theory (“leading states”). However, Gilpin was always reluctant to extend the concept beyond 19th-century Britain and 20th-century United States. Yet other scholars have since made similar conceptualizations in which the identification of the leaders tend not surprisingly to overlap, as shown in Table 3.11
Of the five sets of authors, Wallerstein envisaged the shortest tenures but the strongest influence for his hegemonic states. Both characteristics derived from his insistence that hegemons first developed their agricultural lead, then a commercial/industrial lead, and, finally, a financial lead. Hegemony existed only when all three leads were possessed simultaneously—hence the brevity of their tenure.
Table 3: Five Views of Economic Primacy
Modelski and Thompson (1996)
Portugal and Spain
Note: While there may appear to be some chronological progression in this table, it is misleading. Wallerstein, Gilpin, and Modelski were all writing about their versions of structural change by 1974.
Kindleberger begins his argument on primacy by noting that focusing on the leading state of any era can turn economic history into what one economist called a mechanical dog race. Yet he thought that the concept of a race in which economies competed with one another to be first is not a bad metaphor for what takes place, as long as one does not worry too much about precision in dating or causation. Such an assertion, of course, does not make it easy to summarize his argument. However, he does stress Perroux’s dominance concept as part of his emphasis on rivalry and emulation (see, e.g., Perroux, 1979). That is, rivals try to emulate their counterparts to the extent that they seem to be getting ahead in some way. Dominance in this context means that the dominated have to pay attention to whatever the first country did but the dominator can ignore what followers do. From this commentary, he elides into the statement that economic primacy falls short of dominance (and certainly hegemony, which is more familiar in international relations discourse). A state with economic primacy does not dictate what others must do. Rather, it establishes new benchmarks of success that persuade followers to follow the same path. Primacy, therefore, means leading primarily by example.
Primacies go through national life cycles in which the normal course is to move from emphases on, first, trade, then industry, and, later, finance. The trade is aggressive abroad and protected at home. The industry is said to be imitative at first and then more innovative. But the successful innovators become large, resistant to change, and defensive. Finance begins to promote trade and industry but gradually evolves into an emphasis on amassing wealth for its own sake.
Merchants and industrialists graduate from risk-take to rentier status, and conserve flagging energy. Consumption out of given incomes rise, savings decline. Various interests push their concerns at the political level, and if enough do, they block effective government action. Income distribution tends to become more skewed, the rich richer, the poor poorer. With greater access to the reins of political power, the wealthy are likely to resist some ethically appropriate sharing of national burdens, such as the costs of defense, reparation, infrastructure, and other public goods.
(Kindleberger, 1996, p. 213)
Arteriosclerosis thus sets in, bringing the national cycle full circle.12 An opening is created for challengers to replace the declining leader that may or may not be exploited quickly or at all. Maddison’s (2001, p. 18) argument is much more parsimonious than Kindleberger’s. Clearly, Maddison was interested in focusing on the long term. Three interactive processes/variables are put forward to explain “advances in population and income over the past millennium.”
a. Conquest or settlement of relatively empty areas that had fertile land, new biological resources, or a potential to accommodate transfers of population, crop, and livestock.
b. International trade and capital movements.
c. Technological and institutional innovation.
In elaborating what these processes are about, the discussion tends to highlight how each factor advantaged one or more states in distinctive ways. Conquest and settlement benefited China between the 8th and 13th centuries. Trade underwrote the rise of Venice, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain. Technological innovation is described as slow prior to 1820, but Venice also had its Arsenal, Portugal’s preparations for entering the Indian Ocean required extensive experimentation, the Dutch had the fluyt, and British trade also was facilitated by navigational and medical innovations.13
The discussion of the 1996 modifications has been interrupted with this vector on Kindleberger and Maddison for three reasons. One is to clarify that the lead economy concept is not unique. Others employ it under different names. Two, Kindleberger’s views on economic primacy are worthwhile in underlining what lead economies do not do as a rule. They do not necessarily dominate the worlds they inhabit. To be sure, wealthy and powerful actors are likely to dominate in some parts of the world but primarily they lead by doing things first. Yet there is more to systemic leadership than simply providing an economic model to emulate. System leaders also lead by addressing global public goods. They do not always address them intensively and thoroughly or neutrally.14 As a consequence, world order is primitive. But they do address global public goods from time to time, and their impact can be quite significant even if they tend to be restricted to conceptualization of what it takes to maintain the continued functioning of the world economy. As a consequence, they focus on tasks such as policing sea lanes to keep world trade moving smoothly, encouraging free trade, and ensuring open access to critical resources (such as petroleum). Three, Maddison’s argument about the three sources of getting ahead is an excellent partial summary of how states become predominant for a finite period of time. It is missing the critical energy component, however—an issue to which we will return.
In any event, not only are lead economies the most innovative for their time, they are also the principal sources of new technologies. They do not necessarily invent all of these technologies. Rather, lead economies put them into application and reap the lion’s share of the profit benefits. Other economies are able to copy these new techniques, subject to some developmental lags, and may even improve upon them. But only some of these are able to operate close enough to the technological frontier to make use of new technology. Others have to wait to buy the new products when they can. Thus technological diffusion, like economic development in the first place, is increasingly uneven (Reuveny & Thompson, 2004; Thompson & Reuveny, 2010).
Technological production is also uneven in the sense that its introduction is spatially concentrated in the lead economy and is subject to waves of S-shaped emergence.15 A second revision associated with the 1996 reframing is that each lead economy in the sequence has experienced two growth waves. The first one tends to involve more novelty and gives the lead economy a decisive head start in the activities or industries that it is pioneering. This imbalance contributes to a period of increased international conflict that gradually metamorphized into global wars—long (roughly 30) years of intensive conflict—that determined who would make rules governing long-distance trade.16 These conflicts were also fused with conflicts between small sea powers and large land powers in the European region in which one or more land powers would be defeated by a coalition of sea powers and some land powers. Defeating the land powers seen as threatening to become regional hegemons was crucial to the smaller sea powers (most pronounced in the Dutch and British eras) continuing to be able to specialize in long-distance commerce and production.
Each lead economy has experienced at least two growth waves, with Britain enjoying a full quartet. The United States may be going through a third one, but that does not guarantee a fourth. As noted, halfway through the lead economy iteration, global wars (1494–1508, 1580–1609, 1688–1713, 1792–1815, and 1914–1945) began to separate the two waves. Leading the coalition that wins the global war became increasingly helpful in bringing about a second post-war wave. Yet the second-wave era in general tended to be marked by other states eventually catching up to the lead economy’s head start, while the first wave in the set was distinguished by the lead economy’s jumping ahead of the field of rivals.
Also associated with this mid-millennial development is the gradual emergence of the global system leadership status for the lead economy. After the global war has resolved questions of which state/economy has moved successfully to the head of the global hierarchy, the new system leader has a window of opportunity to shape some of the rules and institutions concerning long-distance trade and industrialization.17 Moving more or less in tandem with this status is the tendency for the system leader to have developed a commanding lead in global reach capabilities (Modelski & Thompson, 1988). After all, it is in its own best interest to possess the types of capabilities necessary for policing and protecting maritime trade routes and access to resources deemed vital to the continued functioning of the world economy.
As noted above, the leadership long cycle approach is geared to measuring and testing its assertions. A lot of that has been carried out in other examinations. Our look at empirical evidence in this chapter is confined to three questions: (1) Is there evidence to support singling out the leads of the lead economies—that is, do the lead economies genuinely lead in terms of trade and industrial production?; (2) Is there evidence to support the two spurts of growth associated with each lead economy?; and (3) Is there evidence to support the relationship between economic leads and leads in global reach capabilities? To spoil the suspense, the answer is yes for all three questions.
There are various obstacles to empirically verifying our claims over a thousand years. The biggest one is that the data do not exist. However, relevant data are more available than one might imagine. China’s lead at the beginning of the 2nd millennium ce is not really contested by anyone. There are arguments about how long the lead persisted, but no one puts forward a candidate in the 10th–12th centuries that is competitive with the wealth and power of China, which is just as well because empirical data are not abundant for those centuries. There is also little debate about the edge gained by Italian city-states in Europe during the late medieval period. That there were more Italian city-states involved in the competition for control of Mediterranean trade than Genoa and Venice cannot be denied. At the same time, it is rather difficult to argue that Florence or Pisa was as successful as Genoa and Venice, and few would deny Venice’s status as the leading Italian city-state, especially in the late 14th–early 15th centuries. There are data to measure intermittently Genoese and Venetian trade volumes, but they do not lend themselves to close comparison.
Putting aside the arguments for China, Genoa, and Venice found in Modelski and Thompson (1996), it is possible to be more specific in isolating the leads from Portugal on. Figure 3 plots the ups and downs of the economic leads established by Portugal through the United States. Portugal’s lead was relatively abrupt, peaked early, and was in decline by around 1530. The Dutch lead began to be established after the 1590s, plateaued and peaked in the second third of the 17th century, and then proceeded to decline. Britain did well between 1690 and 1730 and then did even better later in the 18th century, with a peak within the first half of the 19th century. The United States surpassed the British position prior to World War I and peaked in 1960, with an interruption to its relative decline around the beginning of the 20th century. None of this reading of Figure 2 sounds too far off the mark based on what is said in pertinent economic histories. One can certainly quibble about whether the data get every decade exactly right. Roughly, though, the picture that emerges seems fairly accurate. There is evidence for a Portuguese lead, a Dutch lead, two British leads, and, so far, a U.S. lead.
The second claim is that each lead economy experienced two growth spurts per period of leadership. Table 4 lists the sequence of leads and matches them to periods of predicted and observed growth spurts. The indicators examined are listed by leader. The predicted growth spurts are based on a calendar developed prior to pursuing this question and on a four-phase rhythm for each leadership. A period of global war is preceded by a period of coalition building in preparation for the global war and followed by a period of maximum impact of the global leader in structuring the system’s rules, the execution or world power phase. In between this period and the coalition-building phase is a period of delegitimization and agenda building.18 Since the argument is that the two growth spurts are interrupted by a period of intense conflict (global war), the coalition-building and execution/world power phases are designated as the most likely periods of high growth.19
In this context, Table 4 specifies the indicators examined, the predicted phase of high growth, and the phase in which the growth of the designated activity peaks. The four phases for Northern and Southern Song dynasties in China are not really testable because there are no appropriate series to examine. Cases can be made for the activities peaking as predicted, but since more is known about the introductions of innovations, not much can be said about the timing of maximum impact.
Table 4: Predicted Versus Observed Growth Peaks in Global Lead Economy Industries
Global Lead Economy Indicators
Predicted High-Growth Period (ce)
Observed Growth Peak
Printing and paper/woodblock book printing
National market/Champa rice/Iron casting (coke)/paper currency
Public finance/tribute system reformed
Rise and decline of the Champagne fairs
Second quarter 13th century
Romanian galley fleet traffic
Levantine galley fleet traffic
Guinea gold (volume of imports of gold from Guinea)
Indian pepper (volume of Portuguese imports of Asian pepper)
Asian trade (value of Dutch East Indies Company Asian imports)
Tobacco, sugar, Indian textiles (volume of British imports)
Tobacco, sugar, tea, Indian textiles (volume of British Imports)
Cotton consumption, pig iron production
Railroad track laid (absolute amount and per square kilometer
Steel, sulfuric acid, electricity production
Motor vehicle production, aerospace sales, semiconductor production, and civilian jet airliner seat production
Note: Sources for these indicators are found in Modelski and Thompson (1996).
In the other 14 cases, it is possible to be more empirically specific. In every case, the predicted high growth phase corresponds to the observed high growth phase. The idea that each lead economy experiences two growth spurts before and after a period of global war or intense conflict (prior to 1494) seems supported.
It might look better if it was not necessary to change the indicators by time period. But that is the way technological innovation proceeds. Different sectors of the economy are rising and falling in terms of their novelty, significance, and even existence. Asian pepper was a “hot” and highly profitable commodity in the 16th century. By the 18th century, it had become a more routine sort of product. Steel was iconic in the late 19th-century U.S. economy. By the late 20th century, it was hard to find much steel production in the same economy. Our tests have to correspond to changes in economic production in the same way that examinations of naval technology cannot give the same weight to the ship-of-the-line or the battleship across time. What was first class in the early 19th or 20th century in naval technology was relegated to the scrap yards later in the same century.
The third hypothesis examined here is the relationship between fluctuations in the concentration of economic and global reach capabilities. Figure 4 plots the fluctuations in the share of the global system leader for the post-1494 period for which reasonably good annual information is available. The picture portrayed seems only slightly different from the one plotted in Figure 3. The Portuguese rise is as abrupt as the decline is almost immediate. There is some short-lived reconcentration toward the end of the 16th century when Spain absorbed the Portuguese country and fleet in the early 1580s that is not found in Figure 1. After that interval, though, Figure 3 resembles Figure 2 relatively closely. The Dutch rose quickly and then fell in a step-like fashion. There are two British periods of rise and decline in which the declines seem more protracted than those of their predecessors. The U.S. rise is abrupt, declines, and then gets a second wind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, there are similarities and differences.20 The question is whether they are closely related.
Table 5 offers a quick test of the hypothesis that lead economies and global reach concentration are closely related. Global system leaders emerge just before the global war phase. They should be expected to emerge with their peak global reach capability position between the two growth phases examined for the second hypothesis and probably around the time of the intervening global war. The normal shape of global reach capability concentration resembles the letter “N” without the third leg. Table 5 establishes when a global system leader attains or exceeds a 50% position in global reach capability concentration. The expectation is that the year identified in the third column should fall between the years shown in the second and fourth columns.
Table 5: Global Leadership Timing
First Growth Spurt Peak
50% Naval Threshold Attained
Second Growth Spurt Peak
The hypothesis holds for the last 500 years. Global system leaders peak early in their global reach capability positions and then, barring catastrophes on the part of their enemies, ride out their “tenure” as leaders with a decaying position. Historically, one reason for this pattern is that most global reach capability has been constructed in periods of emergency (global war). Until more recent times, it has been difficult to find the money needed to build increasingly expensive capabilities in peace time. Cold wars help override this propensity. Thus, economic and naval concentration are related overall, but the two spurts in economic fluctuation are not necessarily mirrored in the naval data.
Leadership long-cycle arguments tend to be supported fairly strongly by the data. Such an evaluation hardly means, however, that the interpretation cannot be improved upon. One problem is that all of the lead economies in the Northern Song–to–United States sequence are treated as if they are similar in world politics weight. Yet clearly that cannot be the case. Genoa or Portugal could never be expected to have the same significance for influencing global politics as Britain in the 19th century or the United States in the 20th could. What differentiates Britain II and the United States from Britain I, the Netherlands, and Portugal? One answer, as suggested earlier in this article, has to do with energy bases. The energy foundations of the British and American cases were vastly different from the seven predecessors to Britain II. An appreciation of that difference leads to a better understanding of why it matters and what it tells us about the future of systemic leadership and energy.
As hinted at in Table 6, the central argument is that systemic leadership that is founded on leads in all three categories led to the most impactful global leaders. Less impactful leaderships are based on one or two of the categories and are often characterized by caveats about where these leads were maintained. Genoa, Venice, and Portugal were not unimportant, but they were mainly commercial leaders in the western zone of Eurasia. With hindsight, it can also be said that they were also transitional agents in moving from the early Chinese lead to an eventual European lead. Britain I shares a great deal with these transitional agents, as does the Netherlands in some respects. The movement from medieval China to the 21st century ce has not been as linear as a China–to–United States sequence might otherwise suggest.
Table 6: Attributes of Successive System Leaders
Long-Distance Commercial Lead
Energy Transitional Lead
No, but develops later although delimited to eastern zone
Yes and maintained later at times
Yes but delimited to western zone
No (European maritime lead)
Yes but delimited to western zone
No (European maritime lead that became more industrial)
Yes but delimited to western zone
No (European maritime lead)
Yes (Europe and East–West trade)
Only partial (peat/wind subject to important constraints)
Yes (Europe and Atlantic trade)
United States I
Yes (first coal and then electricity/petroleum)
The interaction between technology and energy helps to explain one analytical disagreement in international relations discourse. Only the leadership long cycle argument makes a case for nine successive lead economies, albeit of uneven significance, over a thousand years. Most foci on the structure of world politics either assume the absence of hierarchy altogether or focus on some combination of the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States as worthy of special distinction. Of these three, the United States is usually viewed as possessing the strongest claim to the system leader/hegemon status, with Britain trailing in a weak second position. World system analysts (and long cyclists) add the Netherlands, but most other schools of thought do not. The reason for these disagreements about historical script have to do with the generalization that lead economies that combine all three types of lead (commerce, technology, and energy) have the strongest foundation for impacting world politics and economics. They are remembered because they made a bigger impression than the other lead economies, and the most recent cases have also made the biggest impression because their foundations for playing strong roles have been so much greater than their predecessors.
Song China made considerable headway in breaking free of agrarian constraints on economic development but ultimately failed to make a breakthrough. Genoa, Venice, and Portugal were transient leaders specializing in long-distance trade, controlling trade routes, and focusing primarily on maritime technology. The Dutch followed their path in dominating European trade and, to a lesser extent, Asian–European trade. But the Dutch also pursued the Chinese path in developing technology that depended on converting heat into mechanized power, thereby enhancing what it had to trade. The Dutch energy combination of windmills and peat, even so, could only do so much in terms of heat conversion. The British initially specialized in Asian and American trade, like most of its predecessors, Heating needs, in some circumstances, can lead to increasing reliance on coal, which, in turn, led to steam engines.21 Coal and steam engines made the breakthrough that had eluded both the Chinese and the Dutch. The United States initially piggybacked on the coal–steam engine breakthrough and went on to make its own energy transition contribution in terms of electricity and petroleum. Unfortunately, the world has to figure out a way to make up for negative side effects of developing carbon-based economies in the next iteration.
Returning to new generalizations associated with revising the older framework, another proposition is that only very enthusiastic advocates of renewables foresee the advent of a new energy transition away from carbon-based fuels prior to the end or near-end of the 21st century. Yet it is not clear what the implications are for the world environment if the transition away from carbon fuels is as protracted as that. It does suggest, at the very least, more unpleasantness as opposed to less due to the acceleration of global warming. It also suggests a lesser probability of system leader transition in the 21st century or, alternatively, a transition to a new, strong systemic leadership, which would require inexpensive energy as a prerequisite (Zakhirova & Thompson, 2015). It may even mean that world politics will work its way free of relying on a rather primitive leadership structure determined by technological preeminence, a decisive edge in energy per capita, wealth, and military-political power.
There are, of course, other reasons for thinking that a singular lead economy might be an endangered species.22 But if the hierarchical structure of the system is changing fundamentally, having no singular lead economy might translate to the introduction of less new technology. Or it might be that new technology will be introduced in a less concentrated way—both temporally and geographically.23 Multiple lead economies in partially autonomous zones once again might set up equally multiple technological life cycles that do not move together in a synchronized, if uneven and diffused, way.
Nonetheless, one of the principal motivations for undertaking the framework revision is to underline the close connection between systemic leadership and energy transitions. If this connection can be made as explicit and persuasive as possible, a novel foundation for speculating about the 21st century and a possible systemic leadership transition will have been established. It would then follow that the likelihood of transition will be pegged to the likelihood of an energy transition. Since this transition currently appears to be forecast for some 80 years into the future, one of the predictions that can advanced is that a transition in systemic leadership, regardless of whether the institution of systemic leadership survives intact, is not likely in the near future and possibly not in this century.
But first it is essential to establish the historical linkages among systemic leadership, technology, and energy.24 Only then will there be more solid footing, however shaky, for speculating about the rest of the 21st century. Even then, it will only be possible to proceed with information believed to be known now that may very well change at some point down the road. However, this approach should provide a better foundation for speculating about systemic leader transitions than comparing the sizes of Chinese and American populations or economies. There is more involved in generating system leaders than has been realized to date.
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(1.) Part of the disagreement is due to the reluctance to disentangle global and regional systems. Global systems (over which system leaders preside) involve transregional transactions and activities, or, essentially, the world political economy. At the same time, Western Europe became for a time the most important region in the system. But not all great powers are capable of maneuvering in multiple regions, and thus one needs to differentiate between regional and global power structures. Analysts often mix global elite states with regional elites. In the late 18th to early 20th centuries, for instance, some great powers did not help matters by being both, as in the case of Britain, Russia, or France. Austria-Hungary was exclusively a regional elite power. Germany and Italy were primarily European regional elite powers that sought to participate in the global system. Italy stayed close to home in northern Africa, while Germany’s non-European forays became more ambitious toward the end of the 19th century. Japan and the United States, initially, were elite powers in other, non-European regions. Thus, one analytical choice that is often made without a great deal of explicit consideration is between conceptualizing a single international system with one set of elites versus an international system with multiple regions in which elites have various standings. In the latter conceptualization, the main distinction is between elite powers that show up in multiple regions as opposed to those that are significant in only one.
(2.) Peat could be said to be an inferior form of coal (or compressed vegetation).
(3.) Some authors (see Table 3) insist on nominating Spain as a system leader in the 16th century. Yet its claim rested on providing silver needed in Europe and Asian trade and military preeminence in Europe. It could not be said to lead in commerce (aside from the Latin American–Manilla–Seville trade network), technology, or energy at any point.
(5.) From a conflict perspective, both characteristics are beneficial for world peace.
(6.) Such statements are always subject to qualification to cover short-term fluctuations in carbon fuels.
(7.) Another possibility is nuclear power, but its history of accidents works against widespread development unless its bad public relations (and high expense) can be overcome. As a consequence, economic forecasts rarely pay much attention to its potential and tend to predict that its future prominence will be no greater than its current status. Even if new technology that permits safer functioning reactors could overcome the reluctance in some parts of the world to expand this energy source, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel existing nuclear reactors. For example, in the period between 1995 and 2005, the gap between supply and demand for uranium was almost 50%. While some of the gap is currently being filled by recovering uranium from military stocks and old nuclear warheads, these stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. For a greater discussion on the uranium supply-demand gap, see Bardi (2014).
(8.) Readers will not find a succinct expression of hegemonic stability in Gilpin (1975), but it is there nonetheless. One has to reconstruct it from shards of argument found in different parts of the text. In his later work, a different variation appears in Gilpin (1980) but this one re-emerges, still somewhat ambiguously, in Gilpin (1980). Lake (1993), of course, wrote a celebrated epitaph for hegemonic stability theory (HST), but his internment of the argument was probably premature. Cohen (2008, pp. 67–79) offers an interesting history of the HST argument. Much of the relevant literature of that time was focused on how to organize the world economy in the aftermath of hegemony. But these types of interpretation assumed that “hegemony” disappeared in the 1970s. It is probably more accurate to say that it declined significantly but also lingered well past its “due date.” Hegemony is a variable that is difficult to operationalize as either present or absent. While dealing with the H part of the HST has been problematic, a second problem is that much of the criticism of the theory is pretty much beside the point. That is, a number of early critics (e.g., Snidal, 1985) argued that public goods were not dependent on a single leader—they could be generated by multiple actors acting collectively. Thus, the HST argument has experienced a checkered history that has revolved around what might best be interpreted as errors of analysis in the sense that the main criticisms proffered to date should not really matter to an assessment of the theory’s utility. The real question is how far one can go with an exceedingly simple, univariate theory. Because it is simple and univariate, we should anticipate limits on its explanatory value. Yet it is not yet clear that we know enough to write off the theory as lacking in utility.
(9.) Leadership long-cycle theory is not a derivation from hegemonic stability theory. Yet, as theories go, they are close cousins. They both emerged about the same time in response to the post-1973 disorder in the world economy, just as international political economy as a recognizable subfield and other approaches such as world-systems analysis also all emerged at this time for similar reasons.
(10.) Admittedly, some post-1815 analysts are more impressed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars than they are by the British Industrial Revolution as the demarcation event.
(11.) Some of the overlap is due to the sheer prominence of the actors, perhaps becoming less “sheer” as one moves back in time. But Modelski and Thompson read Gilpin and Wallerstein. Kindleberger was familiar with Gilpin and the pre-1996 version of leadership long cycle. Maddison did not reveal what he had read to create his list of lead states.
(12.) External shocks such as war and discoveries can accelerate the cycle, depending on the response to the developments.
(13.) The Venetian Arsenal was essentially an early factory for turning out warships rapidly. The Dutch fluyt was a flat-bottomed ship that could transfer bulk goods from the Baltic to the Atlantic inexpensively with a small crew.
(14.) A naïve version of public goods would have the leader supplying them because the system needs it to function. A more realistic (or cynical) version would suggest that goods are supplied to keep a system functioning that primarily benefits the supplier of the public goods.
(15.) S-shaped emergence means that the growth of new activities and industries starts off slowly, accelerates, and then levels off before declining. The waves of growth are thus really sequences of S-shaped activity.
(16.) Global wars did not take place prior to 1494 and may have ended in 1945. Phenomena that emerge need not persist. Whether global wars truly ended in 1945, however, remains to be seen.
(17.) Note that the global system is not a synonym for the whole world. Global politics are about regulating and preserving interregional transactions that stem in large part from long-distance trade and commerce. Protecting and cultivating the world economy is the prime directive of the states that have the most to gain from a stable economic environment. In contrast, a respectable proportion of international relations is entirely intraregional and often oriented toward territorial control. We have tended to fuse these two different universes in international relations analysis to our analytical disadvantage. To be fair, however, the activities of decision-makers intermittently fuse the different types of activities as well. For example, periodic attempts to establish European regional hegemony have been seen as indirect threats to the functioning of the world economy. If the aspiring European regional hegemons were to be successful, they would have created a foundation for a direct assault on the world economy that might be difficult to resist.
(18.) This perspective assumes that systemic leadership must be legitimized at the outset to be effective. However, there is no assumption that the legitimacy received is a constant. On the contrary, it tends to dissipate and be lost over time.
(19.) To make an implicit point explicit, the phases were designated well in advance of developing the hypothesis that each lead economy experienced two growth spurts. It was not a matter of fitting the phases to confirming the hypothesis. At the same time, the initial phase identification was certainly a subjective undertaking except for periods of global warfare.
(20.) The global reach indicators examined in Figure 3 are restricted to naval capabilities. The U.S. portion of this figure shows less relative decline than that portrayed in Figure 2 because the earlier figure focuses instead on a combination of naval and non-naval capabilities.
(21.) This outcome did not occur in China despite decreasing access to firewood, increasing emphasis on coal for heating purposes, and the shared problem of too much water in coal mines. In Britain, steam pumps were developed to cope with the water problem. In China, water problems in coal mines seem to have encouraged miners to move to other, drier sites. We do not reduce the alternative trajectories to simply this factor, but it seems to loom large in accounting for different reactions to a similar problem.
(23.) A number of analysts, for instance, have the impression that the pace of introducing new technology has accelerated in recent years.