The Arrow of Time in World Politics

Structures don’t live out there in the wild; they are explanatory schemas that live in the discourse and in men’s minds as mental maps. Temporal structure is made of diachronic patterns (roughly, time-variation) as opposed to synchronic patterns (roughly, cross-sectional variation). An example of the former would be the relative decline of Britain in 1895-1905. An instance of the latter would be the pattern of diplomacy during the July Crisis. What historians in the tradition of Braudel are interested is slow-moving temporal structure. Synchronic pattern are of concern to historians interested in the history of events, that Braudel characterized as mere ‘surface disturbances’ that ‘the tides of history carry on their strong backs.’

Koselleck says every concept has its own “internal temporal structure.” I think, let’s try this at home. Here I locate the variable that’s doing most of the work in explaining the diachronic pattern of international politics in some IR theories I find interesting, and find a representation as an internal temporal structure inherited from the logic of the theory. It turns out to be surprisingly useful in thinking about the Chinese question.

In the discourse of realist IR, the explanandum is the historical pattern of relations among great powers at the center of the world-system beginning in Europe c. 1494 or c. 1648 depending on the scholar. Waltz’ main achievement was to isolate the systemic security interaction of great powers as a separate level of analysis and successfully claim disciplinary autonomy for international relations within political science. He did that by importing the trick from microeconomics where the market interaction of firms had been isolated as an independent disciplinary domain of enquiry within economics. In neorealism, systemic security interaction between homogenous units differentiated solely by a scale parameter called power is posited as a theoretical model of an international system. Waltz identified the structure of an international system with the distribution of power among the units. In the familiar metaphor, great powers are considered to be like billiard balls differentiated only by size. Time has no place in Waltz’ admissible class of abstract international systems. The result, predictably, is ‘rigor mortis’ (Walt, 1999).

Kenneth Waltz (1924-2013)

But Waltz was not done yet in painting himself into a corner. No sir, he proceeds to throw out almost all the information in the distribution of power, that he had identified as the structure of the system. Polarity, the number of great powers in the system, is, Waltz argued, an efficient explanation of the stability properties of the international system in that bipolar systems are stable whereas multipolar systems are unstable. The de facto structure in Waltz’ theory then is not what he had declared to be the structure of the international system, the distribution of power. It is not even polarity per se. In his main arguments about system stability, all the work is done by a Boolean variable. Systems are either bipolar or multipolar. Moreover, the record of great power relations from c. 1648, is a single sample path; according to Waltz only two system structures have ever existed. Waltz thus cornered himself into an explanatory impasse that proved impossible to escape, which would be impressive if getting stuck in degenerate paradigms were uncommon.

Waltz withdrew into a sullen silence as the bipolar world, whose stability he had explained with great authority, evaporated into thin air on account of the unanticipated capitulation of the weaker party. With great conviction, he then proceeded to pronounce the unipolar world to be so unstable as to be not worthy of the attention of a serious student of world politics. But the unipolar world simply refused to lay down and die. It was 24 years old and going strong when Waltz passed away in 2013. Poor fellow must have been painfully conscious of his lost wagers with world history.

In contrast to Waltz one-dimensional explanatory scheme or structure, Gilpin’s is two-dimensional. The distribution of power is projected onto a time-axis and allowed to evolve. This decisive discursive move reveals a cyclic, punctuated equilibrium-type pattern in world politics. Hegemonic wars punctuate long periods of system stability. These periods of system stability exhibit stable patterns of international politics that are reenacted over and over again, and tend to change very slowly. For example, the identity of the maritime hegemon (a natural monopoly); the identity of the dominant politico-military actors in different regions; the territorial order; the diplomatic rank ordering; national questions (eg, the Kurdish question); and, with apologies to WG Sebald, no doubt the cabinet of zombie curiosities: dead treaties, agreements, multilateral coordinating bodies, aid programs, and peace processes et cetera; they stand frozen in the instant they came to grief, waiting to be toppled over by strong winds and consigned to the storage rooms of museums and libraries. The reproduction of world order is founded on the absence of a reconsideration of the world question rather than just the military position of the dominant power. To be precise, the stability of world order rests on the fear of world war. It rests on the unwillingness of potential insurgents to reopen the world question.

Robert Gilpin (1930-2018)

Gilpin’s motor of world history, the law of uneven growth, is a particular instance of the Second Law which states that the entropy of any system increases over time. For international systems, entropy is defined as the dispersion of power. Hegemonic war eliminates some great powers, weakens others, and strengthens only a few, so that when world time resets to zero at the close of the hegemonic war, power in the system is highly concentrated, ie entropy is low. The system deconcentrates over time in accordance with the Second Law. The expected dispersion of power in the system is thus maximal on the eve of a hegemonic war. The Second Law in the form of the law of uneven growth thus endows the system with a temporal structure. We define world time in terms of this temporal structure. More precisely, world time can be identified with the entropy of the international system.

Victorious powers forge a world order from scratch. But underneath the stable patterns of world order, pace Foucault, world time continues its relentless march. World time can be thought of as the clock of the rise and fall of the great powers. World time measures the erosion of the dominant power’s relative power and influence. World time enters world history at two levels of causation, at the level of the discourse and in extradiscoursive reality. Great power statesman are in effect trying to read world time when they try to ascertain the changing balance of world power. World time also enters history through brute facts about the relative distribution of war potential. The tick-tock echoes between the steel factories and the minds of statesmen. The motor of hegemonic war in Gilpin is identical to the one identified by Thucydides 2400 years ago. Under the tick-tock of world time, the declining hegemon discovers merit in the logic of preventive war. Perhaps it is best to reach a decision while time is still on one’s side. Knowing that the dominant power might succumb to the seduction of preventive war, the rising power too is alarmed by the tick-tock of world time. Rising powers know that they must accumulate power fast or they will be crushed.

In Gilpin’s theory, world time is cyclical. The tick-tock of world time announces the approach of the time of the great reckoning when the fates of great civilizations will once again be determined. World time is then quite literally set to zero, and starts afresh with the creation of a new world order forged by the victors from the smoking ruins of the hegemonic war. Until, of course, world time signals autumn. The fundamental problem with cyclical time is the temporality of world systems. Sequential world orders cannot be assumed to be independent. Hegemonic wars are fought precisely over the terms of the world order. World orders are forged in the shadow of hegemonic war from the ruins of the previous world order. They are often consciously constructed in light of the lessons of the failure of the previous attempt at world order. In any event, they are informed by what went before even if the old hegemon is eliminated from the roster of great powers. So the reset of world time is quite problematic from a historical point of view.

Ashley Tellis introduced the theory of hard realism in his doctoral dissertation, where we find a very different temporal structure. Tellis starts with the observation that the first-best solution to the threat posed by a great power rival is to eliminate it. Starting with a given roster of great powers, Tellis reasons that repeated struggles between the great powers would eliminate the weakest in each round thereby introducing a temporal structure in great power history that we can call system time. Put simply, the roster of great powers would feature a larger number of great powers earlier in system time compared to later. With each subsequent round the number of great powers would dwindle until it is reduced to a singleton.

Ashley Tellis (1961-)

System time here can thus be operationalized as the polarity of the system over the very long run. Whereas world time is cyclical, curling round like a Riemann surface, system time is linear but finite. It begins with the emergence of an international system and culminates in a unipolar world once all but a single power have been eliminated from the roster of great powers. The temporal pattern suggested by system time not only captures the deep temporal structure of Western history and the contemporary world-system, it is also consistent with the evidence of other international systems across time and space, as Kaufman, Little, and Wohlforth document.


While system time and world time are ahistorical but not teleological since they are derived from the logic of the theory. Both operate simultaneously under the surface of international relations, the first even more slowly than the second. Yet another temporal structure, a third arrow of history, is associated to the hockey-stick, that we may call exponential time. Put simply, the hockey-stick introduces a temporal logic of escalation in world politics. World struggles that take place later do so at levels of destruction and power potential an order of magnitude higher than the previous tournament. Exponential time is the temporal representation of the hockey-stick. It is nonlinear but bounded from above. What happens is that the destructive power eventually becomes so great that a world struggle spells the final and irrevocable coda of human history.

World time, system time, and exponential time exist in every instant of world politics. But they are not symmetrically situated. System time continues to unfold even as world time is reset with each hegemonic war. Even as system time increases linearly, exponential time increases exponentially. In the end exponential time catches up with both world time and system time. For when exponential time hits the upper bound, the iron logic of mutually-assured destruction frustrates the historical logic of both world time and system time by eliminating the very possibility of world war. For the dominant power can no longer eliminate the rising power through preventive war for fear of nuclear annihilation so the temporal logic of world time is frustrated. And since no first-rank power can be eliminated in a world struggle, the logic of system-time is frustrated as well.

Should the United States follow world time and launch a cold war against China? Should the US obey system time and eliminate China with a splendid first-strike while it still can? Or should the United States buy into the notion that the iron logic of mutually assured destruction has repealed the laws associated with world time and system time, and seek a modus vivendi with China in the secure knowledge that neither can be eliminated from first-rank? If we are guaranteed to end up in the impasse of strategic stalemate then why not skip the security competition and go straight to détente?


One thought on “The Arrow of Time in World Politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s