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Mike Alexander's War Cycle


War Cycles: Generational Cycles in Conflict and World Leadership

The American political scientist Quincy Wright was the first to describe the phenomenon of regular cycles in warfare. Although wars themselves are scattered more or less randomly throughout history the incidence of major wars is not. Wright identified clusters of major wars spaced about 50 years apart. A good way to see these cycles is by looking at total fatalities in great power wars over time. Today the great powers are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, China and maybe India. These eight nations possess the largest economies or largest populations, and six of them have nuclear capability. Prior to the Gulf War we would delete India. Before World War I we would delete China and Japan and add the Austrian (Hapsburg) empire. Prior to the mid nineteenth century, we would delete Italy and the United States and replace Germany with Prussia. Prior to the nineteenth century we would add Spain, and before 1715 we would delete Russia and add the Ottoman Empire, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Figure 1. Generational average war deaths per 100,000 population*

*Deaths per 10,000 population shown for WW I and WW II.

Using war death data over the 1495-1975 period assembled by David Levy, a generational average in war intensity was constructed from 1520 to 1990. War intensity is measured by war deaths in all great power wars at a particular time divided by total population of the great powers. Figure 1 shows war intensity expressed as death rate per 100,000 population (ten thousand for WW I and II). Successive waves of greater-than-normal war intensity are evident in the data. The waves up to World War I are spaced 46-65 years apart with an average spacing of 51 years.

Wright also advanced the idea that cycles in warfare were related to Kondratiev cycles. Specifically, Kondratiev upwaves show more intense warfare than downwaves. Figure 2 shows that war cycles do indeed line up very well with Kondratiev cycles, peaks in war intensity are associated with Kondratiev peaks. The placement of World War II just 27 years after World War I breaks this neat pattern. Instead of occurring at a K-peak like all the other cycles, World War II occurred at a K-trough. We will return to this "World War anomaly" later in the chapter.

Figure 2. Correspondence between the war cycle and the Kondratiev cycle

Wright also identified a second pattern of unusually big wars that occurred every other cycle. These big wars were associated with the rise and fall of great powers. The historian Arnold Toynbee also discussed the existence of one hundred year cycles of war and peace. The leading proponents of this cyclic view of war today are the political scientists George Modelski and William Thompson. Modelski and Thompson stress naval power (and its modern extension, carrier-based airpower) as the key military underpinning of world political leadership. Their choice of successive world leaders: Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States reflects this bias. All four of these nations projected military power over a world-girdling trading empire through a first rank navy.

Modelski and Thompson measure naval power by noting the number of capital ships possessed by the world-leader as a fraction of all such ships held by all the great powers. Capital ships are defined over the 1494-1654 period as any state-owned, gunned long-range sailing vessel. For the 1655-1859 period, an escalating minimal number of guns carried was employed to qualify vessels as capital warships. From 1860-1945, battleships (also subject to escalating minimal attributes in size and armament) were used as capital ships. After 1945, heavy or attack aircraft carriers, and after 1960 nuclear attack submarines weighted by number of warheads were used in the definition of capital ships. Figure 3 presents this information. Peaks in naval power can be seen about every hundred years, corresponding to the hundred year cycles of Wright and Toynbee. The last peak, the American one following World War II, was a bit delayed, occurring some 130 years after the previous British peak. This delay reflects what we have called the World War anomaly, to which we shall return.

The other major determinant of power is economic, specifically the pioneering of new leading sectors of the world economy. Modelski and Thompson argue that the pioneering fifteenth century voyages down the African coast, begun under Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator, set the stage for Portugal's world leadership period early in the sixteenth century. Similarly, the maritime and financial innovations made by the Dutch in the sixteenth century set the stage for Dutch leadership in the seventeenth century. The pioneering of tobacco cultivation in Virginia and the coming of "Dutch finance" to Britain during the Glorious Revolution set the stage for British leadership in the eighteenth century. Britain won another round of leadership in the nineteenth century by their pioneering of the industrial revolution late in eighteenth century. Finally the spread to America of British ideas of liberal democracy in the eighteenth century and the practice of industrial capitalism on a continental scale in the nineteenth led to American leadership in the twentieth century, which continues to this day.

Figure 3. Share of total great-power capital ships held by successive world leaders

This idea of a nation's pioneering of a new leading sector (what we have called "new economies") leading directly to subsequent world leadership fits in very well with the correspondence between war cycles and Kondratiev cycles (see Figure 2). We have already seen that the development of new economies is closely aligned with the Kondratiev cycle. What is not so clear is why leadership cycles should occur every two Kondratiev cycles (~100 years) when development of new economies and outbursts of great power war occur every Kondratiev cycle (~50 years). The answer, as we shall see later, is closely connected to the concept of the saeculum presented in chapter two. For now we will note that Wright advanced a generational explanation for the existence of 50 year war cycles. Basically, there is a "warrior generation" who experienced the ravages of war firsthand and raises the next generation to have an aversion to war. The following generation grows up during relative peace and so learns to romanticize war, becoming another warrior generation upon entering adulthood, starting the cycle anew. The generational model for the K-cycle and the explicit generational construction of the saeculum all support the idea of an underlying generationally-driven cycle that is behind all three of these cycles.

We will identify this underlying cycle in a later chapter. For now we continue with Modelski and Thompson's model for world leadership change. The shift from one world leader to another occurs during a period of what Modelski calls Global War. Although periods of Global War do tend to contain the biggest wars, what makes them special is that a change in world leader occurs as a result. In general, the reigning world leader is challenged by another power for leadership. As a result of this challenge, one or more coalition wars are fought between the challenger and her allies and the old leader and her allies. One of the countries on the winning side of this conflict emerges as the new world leader. Sometimes it is the old world leader who comes back for a second round of leadership.

The role of challenger typically is played by a continental power, whose major strength is land-based. Ludwig Dehio has developed a view on war cycles that focuses on these land-based powers. He notes a tendency for peaks in land-based power to occur around the time of low points in sea-based power, and vice versa. For Dehio the key powers have been Spain, France and Germany. Land-based power can be measured much as was done with naval strength. A simple measure is the size of the regional power's army relative to all great power armies combined. Figure 4 shows a graph of land power for the four successive regional powers. Since all great powers maintain fairly substantial armies, the degree of dominance displayed by the world leaders in naval power are typically not attained by land-based powers (expect for the case of Habsburg Spain in the early 16th century). Neverthess, a pattern of fairly regular peaks can be seen, each associated with one Dehio's key actors. Comparison of Figures 3 and 4 does show that peaks in land power and sea power do seem to alternate (see Table 1).

Figure 4 Share of total armies held by successive leading land-based Great Powers

Modelskis and Thompson integrate Dehio's powers (which they call regional powers) into their leadership cycle. The country enjoying the naval power peak is called a world power. The war peak immediately preceding the naval power peak is called global war (or general war by Toynbee). During the global war period or immediately before, there is an army peak. The country holding land power dominance at this peak becomes the challenger during the global war. The concept of global or general war accounts for half of the war/army peaks and all of the naval peaks. The other war/army peaks fall between global/general wars. The war peaks between the global wars are called supplementary wars by Toynbee or part of the delegitimation phase by Modelski and Thompson. Typically, an army peak occurs at the same time or immediately after supplementary wars. Supplementary wars can be thought of as contests between potential regional powers that decide who will be the challenger during the next global war.

Table 1. Peaks in war, navies, and armies compared to the world leadership cycle

War Deaths

Naval Power

Army Power

Composite Cycle

World Leadership Cycle


Name of Period


















Global War (France)






Portugal World-Power


















Global War (Spain)






Dutch World-Power


















Global War (France)






Britain World-Power


















Global War (France)






Britain World-Power


















Global War (Germany)






US World Power







The peaks in war, naval power and army share were combined into a composite cycle in Table 1. This composite cycle provides the empirical support for Modelski and Thompson's World Leadership cycle. The cycle begins with Global War, a period of great power conflict in which an economically-advanced sea power and a politically-strong land power struggle for the role of global power. The sea power wins as measured by a rise in its naval share and a fall in the land powers army share following the conflict. Figure 4 shows sharp drops in the army share of the challenger following the Global War conflicts which ended in 1609 (Spain), 1714 (France), 1815 (France) and 1945 (Germany).

Following Global War comes the World Power phase of the cycle. With one exception (which reflects the World War anomaly) army share of regional powers falls to a minimum during this time. It is the time of maximum hegemony of the new world leader. In time, army power of potential regional powers rises and a series of wars are fought through which a regional power emerges. The world leader is unable to prevent the emergence of this new regional power, its role as hegemon is said to be delegitimized. Hence, Modelski calls the period of increased warfare during which this happens Delegitimation when considered from the point of view of the world leader. When considered from the point of view of potential world leader, it is called Agenda-setting, as the groundwork for future leadership is laid during this time.

Following Delegitimation/Agenda-setting comes Deconcentration, which is typified by the development of a minimum in the naval power graph. It is the time of minimum hegemonic power of the old world leader and sets the stage for the coming period of Global War. As the power of the world leader falls, the regional power challenger and the future world leader build coalitions for the coming showdown. From their point of view, this phase is called Coalition-building. Eventually a new round of global war breaks out and the cycle is complete.

Political history of Europe from the perspective of the leadership cycle, 1495-1990.

The birth of the modern world occurred during the 15th century. There were two economically-advanced regions in Europe at this time, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The former consisted of a number of independent city-states, of which Venice was predominant. The latter was part of the Duchy of Burgundy and not independent. The rising West European national states were still in the process of developing centralized political control, a prerequisite for any sort of foreign policy. After the end of the Hundred Years War both England went into a periods of internal turmoil, at the end of which a nation state emerged. The French monarch, building on the success against England gradually built a centralized modern state, and as a result emerged as the first regional power by the end of the century. What was to become Spain consisted of the Kingdoms of Castile and a portion of the Kingdom of Aragon. Aragon was really more of a Mediterranean empire, consisting of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia in addition to her Spanish territories.

The closest thing to a world power in the 15th century was Venice. The long-range gunned sailing ship was still in the future and so Venice was unable to project military power in the furtherance of her trade objectives as Portugal was to do in the next century. Nevertheless, the economic and diplomatic roles played by Venice and her Italian rivals during this time presage the sort of real-politik calculations that would come to characterize what today is called foreign policy.

The beginnings of the cycle come during an Agenda-setting period (1430-60) in which Portugal sets the stage for future leadership by development of trading routes along the coast of Africa. These routes led to the development of a new leading sector involving gold, slaves, and spices from Africa. The extension of these routes around the horn of Africa led to the establishment of the first direct sea route from Europe to the Indies. These economic innovations created the economic basis for leadership of Portugal in the early 16th century.

The Coalition-building phase (1460-1494) saw the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to Maximilian of Austria (later Holy Roman Emperor) in 1477, which brought the economically-advanced Low Countries into the Habsburg Empire. Another marriage, between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1469, produced what was to become modern Spain. Finally the marriage of Maximilian and Mary's son Philip with Ferdinand and Isabella's daughter Joan in 1496 produced a dynastic combination that would ultimately combine under their son Charles a vast array of territories: Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Franche-Comté, the Low Countries, Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and Spain. The resolution of the War of Roses in England brought Henry VII to the throne of a united nation in 1485. In Portugal, Bartholomew Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, paving the way for the successful voyage by Vasco de Gama a decade later.

The first Global War began with the 1494 invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France, who claimed the crown of Naples. At the treaty of Noyon in 1516, France and Spain each agreed to spheres of influence; France in the north of Italy and Spain in the South, essentially what the situation had been in 1494. Venetian political ascendency was effectively terminated, leaving Portugal as the default world leader.

During the next period, Portugal World Power, Portugal established a trading empire in the Indian Ocean, Africa and Brazil. Charles of Spain became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V upon the death of his grandfather Maximilian in 1519. Ruling territories that would one day become the separate great powers of Austria-Hungary and the Netherlands in addition to Spain, Charles V clearly possessed a vast concentration of power as the graph in Figure 4 illustrates. Equally vast was the problem of strategic defense, these domains were scattered throughout Europe and lacked internal lines of communication. Each territory brought it own problems, the resolution of which usually required more resources than the territory generated in taxes. The rise of heresy under Luther and others in Germany required action by the Holy Roman Emperor. The conflict with France over Italy still simmered, and then there were the assaults by the Ottoman Turks against Hungary and Austria and raids on the coasts of Italy. In general, when Charles dealt with any one of his opponents he was successful. He delivered a humiliating defeat to the French at Pavia in 1525, capturing King Francis I. The treaty of Cambrai in 1529 confirmed Charles as master of most of Italy. A successful invasion of Tunis in 1535 scored a victory against the Turk. But the following year saw an "unholy alliance" between French king Francis I and Ottoman emperor Sulieman the Magnificant. It was not until 1544, that Charles, allied with Henry VIII of England, forced Francis to make peace at Crepy, allowing Charles to secure a truce with Sulieman.

The description Portugal World Power seems inappropriate for this period considering the principal actor throughout was Charles V. But we note that Charles was unable to accomplish any lasting effects by his almost ceaseless warring. Spain did make progress as a great power by its conquest of Mexico and Peru during this time, but these accomplishments took very little in the way resources. Had Charles abandoned his Eastern European and Italian domains and instead concentrated on developing his American possessions, sea power and Spanish-Netherlands commerce, we might have termed this period Spain World Power. But this did not happen, Spain left the extra-European focus that was to characterize all future world leaders to Portugal.

The following period of Delegitimation saw a decline in Portuguese standing, not so much due to Portuguese weakness as due to Spanish successes. The treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 confirmed Spanish hegemony over Italy, ending the sixty-year conflict with France. This treaty confirmed Spain as the regional power in Europe, who would challenge for global leadership in the next global war. In addition, strongly rising imports of American gold and silver was increasing the financial power (and military strength) of the Spanish crown.

The period of deconcentration the saw further rise of Spain and the eclipse of Portugal. In 1555, Charles V abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Austria in favor of his brother Ferdinand, and in 1556 he abdicated as King of Spain in favor of his son Philip. Philip had earlier been granted the rule of Naples and Sicily, the Low Countries, Franche-Comté, and the duchy of Milan. Following the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, Spanish attention focused on the Turks, delivering a crushing defeat at Lepanto in 1571. Upon the death in 1580 of Portuguese king Henry with no heirs, Spain overran Portugal. Philip, whose grandfather was King Manuel of Portugal, did have a good claim to the throne and was recognized as king by the Portuguese Cortes. In one step, Spain became both the old world leader and the challenger for new leader, and the next period of Global War got underway.

In the 1570's, the Low Countries, angered at the religious intolerance and taxation by Philip, revolted against Spanish rule. Spain was able to recover the Southern (Flemish) portion of the Low Countries which came to be called the Spanish Netherlands. The northern (Dutch) territories, which came to be called the United Provinces, were lost. English support of the Dutch rebels and their persistent attacks on Spanish shipping led Philip to plan the invasion of England in 1588. However, his "Invincible Armada" was ignominiously defeated. The Dutch also received support from French Protestants. In 1590, Philip intervened in the French Wars of Religion to aid the Catholic League against the Protestant Henry of Navarre. Philip claimed the French throne for his daughter Isabella but was finally forced by the Treaty of Vervins (1598) to recognize Henry. Unable to made headway against the United Provinces, Spain finally negotiated a truce with the Dutch rebels in 1609 which amounted to a de facto admission of Dutch independence, ending the period of Global War.

Spain had lost her bid for leadership and Portugal, bogged down in a struggle with Spain for self-determination, would lose her African and Asian trading empire in the coming period of Dutch Hegmony. The Dutch seized one West African trading center after another until by 1642 all Portuguese outposts were in Dutch hands. The same thing had happened to the Portuguese trading posts on the Malabar coast in India by 1663. Early on, they struck at several of the more remote Spice Islands seizing Ambon in 1605 and Solor in 1613. Portuguese Malacca fell in 1641. In 1630 the Dutch West Indies company (WIC) captured Pernambuco, Portugal's richest Brazilian sugar colony . By 1640, the Dutch had captured more than half of Portuguese Brazil. Successful on all fronts, the Netherlands were considered the "Asian miracle" by their peers/competitors in the seventeenth century.

Things started to turn politically against the Dutch in the delegitimation phase (1640-60). British naval power passed that of the Netherlands after 1640 and the Dutch position in the New World degraded. A series of Anglo-Dutch Wars in 1652-54, 1665-67, and 1672-74 sapped Dutch naval power. In Dutch Brazil, the majority of the colonists were Portuguese planters with a different religion and language and who were always ready to revolt against the Dutch "heretics". In October 1642 the province of Maranhão revolted and after a year of fighting the Dutch troops retreated. The highly competent Dutch governor Johan Maurits was recalled in 1644. After his recall the colony was convulsed by rebellion. After the Dutch defeat at Tabocas in August 1645, the Dutch were on the defensive. By the end of the year they were left with Recife and a few neighboring forts. They held out another nine years before capitulating. Similarly, the Dutch lost their foothold in North America when the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664, and renamed it New York.

The Achilles heel of Dutch world leadership was geography. Despite her wealth, she was still a small country right next to the largest and most populous nation in Europe. In 1672, the French under Louis XIV, assisted by the English at sea, invaded the Netherlands. The English efforts at sea were checked by the brilliant admiral de Ruyter and they withdrew from the war in 1674. The Dutch system of defensive waterways and fortifications made French advance extremely difficult, and Dutch diplomacy (and subsidies) were able to find a number of German states willing to attack the French flank. The result was a stalemate.

After the peace treaty in 1679, France continued to maintain enormous armies. In 1683 France seized Luxembourg from Spain without giving rise to an opposing coalition. The Dutch preferred to trade in peace, and the Austrian Habsburgs were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with the Ottomans. After 1685, the situation began to shift. The Habsburgs had successfully driven the Ottomans back and the Dutch and English were becoming increasingly polarized against the French. Fearful of this adverse trend, Louis struck first, invading Germany in 1688. He was opposed by all the major powers in a global war showdown known as the wars of the Grand Alliance. This period of Global War from 1688 to 1714 contained two long and bitter wars (The War of the League of Augsburg and the War of the Spanish Succession) and resulted in the defeat of France and the replacement of the Netherlands with Britain as world leader.

The rise of Britain changed leadership politics significantly. No longer could a reigning world leader, strong in economic terms if not in population, be directly threatened by a land-based assault by an economically inferior, but numerically and militarily superior enemy. For Britain to come under attack required the defeat of her navy, which is the métier of a world power. Since naval power is largely a matter of money and not numbers, accomplishing naval victory against an economically superior world power is a daunting task indeed.

Nevertheless, the next two periods of global war saw continental-based powers attempt to grab control of most of Europe and so withhold European trade from Britain. Had they succeeded they would have obtained the economic base necessary to supersede Britain without having to mount a successful invasion. The eighteenth century cycle saw repeated clashes between France and Great Britain in the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-48), the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the War of the American Revolution (1778-83). The first of two of these defined the period of British delegitimation. The defeat of the British in the third war marked the decline of British power duirng the deconcentration phase. The net effect of these wars was to reduce the size and extent of French extra-European colonies and thus concentrate her focus and power on the continent. The last of these wars, although "won" by France so severely compromised French finances and her economy that the government was brought down by the French Revolution in 1789.

The rise of the dictator Napoleon in the aftermath of the Revolution and the innovation of mass conscription armies during the war of the First Coalition (1793-95) gave a sudden huge advantage to the French in land power. This advantage, combined with Napoleon' brilliance as a military leader, produced an enormous, mostly contiguous empire consisting of France, Spain, Italy (but not Sicily or Sardinia), part of Germany and part of Poland at its peak in 1810. Prussia and Austria had been reduced to French satellites. By withholding European trade from Britain through his "Continential System" Napoleon threatened to displace Britain as world leader without the need for conquest of Britain. The downfall of Napoleon, and for the next would-be world hegemon, was Russia. The Napoleonic system rested upon a contradiction; a nation proclaiming liberty, fraternity and equality was ruling an empire of conquered European subjects. Resentment also flowed from the economic warfare waged against Britain by the Continental system, which was ruining French and other continental businessmen. Following the revolt of Spain, and the withdrawal of Russia from the Continental system British trade was greatly revived, it was not going to be possible to bring down Britain. With the British effectively supporting a grinding guerrilla war in Spain, the resentful Prussians and Austrians in the East and the unpredictable czar with his inexhaustible resources of manpower that could be thrown against Napolean at any time, France was surrounded, with her back against the wall. As time passed her enemies would only grow more powerful. A direct assault on Britain was out of the question due to her overwhelming superiority at sea. The only solution was to eliminate the threat to the east, and in 1812 Napoleon invaded the Russian colossus. The Russian winter defeated Napoleon and the next year saw Prussia and Austria allied with Britain and Russian in an alliance that would bring down Napoleon.

After 1815, Great Britain re-emerged as world leader. During the world-power phase (1815-50) of this second British leadership cycle the modern system of international trade first arose. During the subsequent period of delegitimation, the wars of German unification produced a powerful German state that by 1870 had eclipsed France as the leading continental power. The deconcentration stage saw the race for colonies by all the major European powers and the emergence of the United States as a great power. It also saw the development of coalitions, the triple alliance of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary in 1882, the Franco-Russian alliance of 1894 and the entente between Britain and France in 1904.

By the time war broke out in 1914 Germany was the most powerful single state in Europe, but she did not possess a anything resembling the dominance enjoyed by previous challengers. Germany had not sought war, but early on did well. After an initial advance in the west, the German forces settled into defensive positions against which the French and British hammered in vain. Meanwhile German forces struck against the Russians and by the end of 1915, the Russians had been driven from Lithuania, Galicia and Poland and a combined Austro-German army had overrun Serbia. The direct conquest of Russia was impossible and destruction of the Russian army in the field could likewise not be accomplished given the inexhaustible manpower resources available of the czar. In 1916, the Germans attempted an offensive on the western front with no more success that had accompanied previous Allied assaults on German positions. The campaigns of 1916 confirmed that the war had become a stalemate. When the Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war and converted a two front war into a single front war it appeared that the Germans could still prevail, but the entrance of the United States into the war six months earlier convinced the exhausted French and British to hold on. When Foch orchestrated the final counteroffensive in November 1918 he possessed overwhelming superiority with the addition of 42 (doubled-sized) American divisions to the 174 Anglo-French-Belgian divisions arrayed against 197 undersized German divisions.

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, it was undoubtedly the strongest potential power in the world due to its incredible economic output. In actual military strength it was sorely lacking. But with the entrance into the war came the commitment that this vast productive power and enormous reserves of fresh manpower would be thrown against Germans in time. With this commitment the beleaguered French and British fought on, knowing that in time the defeat of Germany was inevitable once the overwhelming power of American colossus could be brought to bear. In the end, Germany was utterly defeated.

The World War anomaly and the postwar era

Here is where our views diverge from those of Modelski and Thompson (see Table 2). They treat World War I and II as parts of the same period of global war. Using the 100-year timing of world leadership cycles they look for the next period of global war to begin around the second quarter of this century. They consider the 1945-1973 period a world power phase of US hegemony and the period since 1973 as the delegitimation phase.

Table 2. Modified World Leadership Cycle after 1914


Leadership Cycle


Global War (Germany challenger)


World Power (US is defacto world power but does not act the role)


US Delegitimation


US Deconcentration


Global War (USSR challenger)


United States World Power

We see WW I as a global war. After the war, a curious thing happened. The United States was clearly the strongest nation in the world after WW I and did decisively defeat Germany. The U.S. certainly had the resources to establish naval dominance after the war, but did not. The U.S. certainly could have joined the League of Nations and when Hitler invaded the Rhineland drive him out (with French and British help) just as Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait. Instead, the Americans turned inward and retreated behind her flanking oceans desiring a "Return to Normalcy". The result was a postwar "world power" phase with nobody filling the role of world leader. As a result, Hitler's ambitions were unchecked and World War I was replayed as World War II, with virtually the same actors. This time, the U.S. did behave as a world leader afterward.

We call this failure of national will the World War anomaly because it happened after the first world war and led to the second. The anomalous position of World War II with respect to the Kondratiev cycle (it occurred at a trough rather than a peak like all the other war cycle peaks) is a direct result of this anomaly. Another consequence of this anomaly is the overlap of naval and army peaks by the world leader and future challenger right after World War II. In previous cycles, the naval power peak (which defines the world power phase) precedes the army power peak (which helps delineate the delegitimation phase).

This replay of global war did not affect the timing of the cycle, however. Toynbee, Dehio, Modelski and others identified the Soviet Union (before its collapse) as the next challenger. The rise of this challenger was immediate. There was no "world power" period of calm after World War II during which the Americans exercised hegemony. With the Berlin crisis in 1947, the Korean War conflict in 1950, and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Soviet Union was exhibiting behavior typical of the delegitimation phase. Figure 4 shows Soviet (Russian) army share rose to a dominant positions immediately after the war, which is typical of the delegitimation phase, not the world power phase. Although one can argue that the rise in naval share after World War II is characteristic of the world power phase, we argue that it was the United States, not the Soviet Union, that behaved in an anomalous fashion after the first world war. We suggest that anomalous behavior should not be used to define the cycle. We should instead draw our boundaries based on the challenger actions rather than the leader actions. The rise in Soviet (Russian) army share about 25-30 years after World War I is consistent with the behavior of previous challengers at a similar distance from a preceding global war.

Thompson expresses the idea that after the second world war regional leadership in Europe no longer had the meaning it once did, implying that Russian army shares have less meaning. Yet if that is so, why did both superpowers and the rest of the European powers form permanent alliances and maintain huge armies in Europe? For years U.S. military planners took seriously the idea of World War III beginning with a Warsaw Pact strike into Germany. We suggest that the massive army of the Soviet Union (Russia) in the postwar period explicitly reflected a desire on the part of the Kremlin that the Soviet Union be a major player in European events, if only to prevent another attack from the West during a future global war.

After the missile crisis, the United States entered and lost a humiliating war in Vietnam, stood by helplessly as Middle Eastern states waged economic war against her and saw the spectacle of her citizens held hostage by a third rate power while she stood by impotent. President Carter spoke of a malaise that had descended upon the nation. Taking advantage of apparent American weakness, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in an effort to prop up a friendly regime. All these events suggest a decline in perceived American power and influence, even if the actual military power possessed by the U.S. was still comparatively large compared to her rivals. This period has many similarities to the period of deconcentration.

Modelski and Thompson consider the post-1973 period one of delegitimation that will likely end around the year 2000. This period leaves out the Vietnam war, the largest US war in the past forty years, and includes the time of revived American hegemony after the fall of the Soviet Union. The overall trend during this time does not suggest the coming of a period of deconcentration. We propose that the stage of global war was reached in 1983, when the American President Ronald Reagan proposed the construction of the Strategic Defense Initiative, whose specific intent was to neuter Soviet nuclear weapons. After 1989, the U.S. began to act as world leader, first in the Gulf War and later in Bosnia.

This claim is difficult to support using the methods described for characterization of the leadership cycle. Indeed, our view comes from our findings of correlations with other cycles that can explain why the World War anomaly occurred and also predict that the leadership cycle should be about 70 years long now. For now we simply point out that the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic weakness in Japan has given the United States tens years of unquestioned global dominance that very strongly resembles the world power phase. Not only is the U.S. militarily and politically dominant, but economically and financially too.

Our explanation for the World War anomaly centers on what we call the "national will" cycle. This cycle is simply another way to represent the generational cycle called the saeculum that was described in Chapter two. The ability of a nation to undertake national projects (national will) varies with the position in the saeculum. It is at a maximum during the High and a minimum during the unraveling. We define the national will cycle as peaking in the middle of the High and bottoming in the middle of the unraveling. Figure 5 shows a graph of the national will cycle compared to the war cycle and the leadership cycle. The leadership cycle is represented by a trough at the beginning of a period of global war and a peak at the end of global war. Starting from the left side of the figure we see the war peak (in red) associated with the Italian wars from 1494-1516. There was a peak in national will in 1502, during the 1494-1516 period of global war in the leadership cycle. The next war peak, around 1550, was a supplementary war, not a global war. We also note that there was no peak in national will at this time. Looking at the next five war peaks we see the three around 1600, 1700 and 1800 all were associated with peaks in national will. All of these also were global wars. The intervening supplementary war peaks did not show peaks in national will. So far we see a pattern between global wars and national will. Every other war peak is associated with a peak in national will. These wars are also considered to be global wars according to the leadership cycle.

Figure 5. Comparison of the leadership, war and "national will" (saeculum) cycles

This neat pattern breaks down with the next war peak, associated with the U.S. Civil War and the Wars of German and Italian unification. There is a peak in national will at this time, but these wars are not global wars since they occurred at the wrong time in the leadership cycle, during the period of delegitimation, when the old world power is still too strong to be challenged. The misalignment between national will and global war reflects the shortening of the saeculum, which Strauss and Howe call the Civil War anomaly. As a result of this shortening, the peak in national will came about three decades early. It is not until the next war peak, that for WW I, that to correlation of forces is consistent with a new bout of global war. But World War I did not play out as a global war, which of course is the phenomenon of the world war anomaly that we are trying to explain.

Figure 5 shows that World War I occurred at a time of minimum national will, Had the saeculum not shortened, the peak in national will would have occurred around the time of WW I. We advance the idea that had this occurred the response of the U.S. after WW I would be more like what it did after WW II. That is the U.S. would have taken on the role of world leader and the peak in U.S. naval power would have been seen in the 1920's and 1930's. We are saying that the Civil War anomaly of Strauss and Howe is directly responsible for the World War anomaly of the leadership cycle. Evidence for this view is that after World War II, when national will was high, the role of leadership was then acceptable to Americans.

What these observations suggest is that what makes a global war are two things, the proper correlation of forces, which is determined by the leadership cycle, and the proper national will, which is determined by the saeculum. In order for a period of war to establish a new world leader, the nation taking on this role must be in a time of high or rising national will, that is, in a Crisis or High turning. Also, the correlation of forces must be appropriate, (i.e. the position in the leadership cycle must be right). Hence we see that the mid-nineteenth century war peak, although associated with a peak in national will, was not a global war. The wars of German unification were fought with singular purpose and effectiveness, though, characteristic of a peak in national will. But Germany was not yet ready to consider issue of European hegemony, much less challenging Great Britain for global leadership. By the time conditions for the reemergence of global war had arrived, national will was at an ebb. The almost accidental development of World War I is characteristic of wars fought during periods of low or falling national will (i.e. Spiritual Awakenings and Unravelings). The failure of the war to resolve anything, much less the leadership question, is also characteristic of supplementary wars that occur during Awakenings or Unravelings (e.g. Thirty Years War, Seven Years War). Since nothing was resolved, the conditions for a global war remained in place, and so during the next war, when national will was high, finally resolved the issues of the global war.

Despite this derailment of the normal leadership cycle, the progression of the leadership phases continued as one would expect with WW I as global war, not WW II. Hence World War II was followed immediately by the delegitimation phase. And since the saeculum (national will cycle) has shortened to about 72 years, we would expect the leadership cycle to have shortened to this length as well. Thus we would expect to see the next global war in the 1986-1990 period, 72 years after World War I. As we have described above, we see the collapse of the Soviet Union as the aftermath of this global war.

Here is where we see an advantage of the combination of the different cycle types to answer questions. The World War anomaly, we mentioned earlier, can be seen to be due to the saeculum shortening, or what Strauss and Howe call the Civil War anomaly. The appearance of "anomalies" during the same cycle in both cycle traditions is supportive of an underlying connection between them.

If our construction of the recent leadership cycle is correct, this means that the nature of conflict between great powers has changed. During the 1980's global war, there was no hot war, just a cold one. National will was at a low ebb, but since no change in leadership was required by the leadership cycle, the U.S. just continued on it this role. In a way, the global war was simply a matter of fiscal endurance and the Soviet Union lost. It is entirely possible that great power war is no longer conceivable by any of the great powers because of the existence of nuclear weapons. This idea and the experience of the end of the Cold War suggest that future global wars may not involve hot wars either. In this case, measurement of the leadership cycle's progress may have rely on the other cycles, such as the saeculum and the Kondratiev cycle.

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Last update: 05/01/2003; 6:19:10 PM.