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Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics

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Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics

- State will attempt to change the international system if expected benefits exceed expected costs. The tendency is for the economic costs of maintaining the status quo to rise faster than the economic capacity to support the status quo.

- Three types of international order: hegemonic, bipolar, three or more states.

- Prestige is a function of power

- Law of diminishing returns as hegemonic power

- International Change: SYSTEM (nature of actors) versus SYSTEMIC (governance of system) versus INTERACTION (interstate processes)

- “Dominant arguments in security studies expect these changes to be the result of material factors such as alterations in the balance of power or in the offense-defense balance.”

- Bipolar is more stable than multi-polar


  • Dr. Robert Gilpin, Eisenhower Professor of Politics and International Affairs Emeritus at Princeton University. Gilpin at Princeton since 1962. Has been a congressional fellow, a Guggenheim fellow, vice president of the American Political Science Association and twice a Rockefeller fellow.


  • What drives international political change? Interests….
  • Some things are defined as vital interests, which have to be maintained and protected. If too much is defined vital….difficult. (redefine “vital”)’
  • Is our standard of living a vital interest, yes probably?
  • Most changes had come through a war, except USSR…
  • Will US as the hegemon give decline peacfull
  • Realist examination of the consequences of change in the underlying distribution of power in the international system. Hegemonic powers arrange the system to their advantage, however due to diminishing returns, rising costs, diffusion of power to rivals, and decline in polity, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the status quo. If the challenger is not accommodated, a hegemonic war ensues and the system is rearranged by the victor.
  • International relations are a recurring struggle for wealth & power among independent action in a state of anarchy (p.7)
  • An international system is established by actors in order to advance particular sets of political, economic, or other interests. The interests that are favored by this arrangement reflect the relative powers of actors involved. Over time, the interests and the balance of power change as a result of economic, technological, or other developments. Actors who benefit most from a change will seek to alter the system to favor their interests (p.9).
  • Framework for understanding change (p.10)
  1. An international system is stable (in a state of equilibrium) if no state believes it profitable to attempt to change the system
  2. A state will attempt to change the international system if expected benefits exceed the expected cost (there is an expected net gain)
  3. A state will seek to change the international system through territorial, political, and economic expansion until the marginal costs of further change are equal to or greater than the marginal benefits
  4. Once an equilibrium between the costs & benefits of further change and expansion is reached, the tendency is for the economic costs of maintaining the status quo to rise faster than the economic capacity to support the status quo
  5. If the disequilibrium in the international system is not resolved, then the system will be changed, and a new equilibrium reflecting the redistribution of power will be established
  • Types of structure: (i) hegemonic or imperial; (ii) bipolar; (iii) multipolar (p.29).
  • Types of change: (i) systems - change in the nature of the actors that compose a system; (ii) systemic - change in the form of control or governance of a system; and (iii) interaction - change in the regular interactions or processes among the entities in a system (p.40). Change can be either incremental or revolutionary (p.45).
  • The principle mechanism of change throughout history has been war, or what we shall call hegemonic war (i.e., a war that determines which state or states will be dominant and will govern the system) (p.15)
  • t is the perceived certainty of gain that most frequently causes nations to go to war (opposed to argument that war is caused by uncertainty & miscalculation) (p.92)
  • States make cost/benefit calculations in the determination of foreign policy. A goal of a state’s foreign policy is to change the international system in ways that will enhance the state’s own interest (p.50)
  • States seek to change the international system through expansion until the costs of further change and expansion exceed the benefits (p.155)
  • Mechanisms for expansion & change: territorial conquest (pre-modern) & economic expansion (modern age)
  • Once a society reaches the limits of its expansion, it has great difficulty in maintaining its position & arresting its eventual decline. Further, it begins to encounter marginal returns in agricultural or industrial production. Both internal & external changes increase consumption & the costs of protection & production; it begins to experience severe financial crisis. The diffusion of its economic, technological, or organizational skills undercuts its comparative advantage over other societies, especially those on the periphery of the system. These rising states, on the other hand, enjoy lower costs, rising rates of return on their resources, and the advantages of backwardness. In time, the differential rates of growth of declining & rising states in the system produce a decisive redistribution of power & result in disequilibrium in the system. (p.185)
  • Hegemonic conflict, arising from an increasing disequilibrium between the burden of maintaining an empire or hegemonic position and the resources available to the dominant power to carry out this task, leads to the creation of a new international system. The distribution of territory, the pattern of economic relations, and the hierarch of prestige reflect the new distribution of power in the system, as they did in the previous system. The emergent dominant states in the system attempt to extend their dominion to the limits of their economic, military, and other capabilities. In time, these powers will also mature, and new challengers will arise on the periphery of their power & influence. Then the process of decline, disequilibrium, and hegemonic struggle will resume once again. (p.210)

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