Racial Anthropology in the World Question, 1897-1942


Western conceptions of world history during the hockey-stick were strongly conditioned by a thick reading of racial anthropology. World order was explained by ‘the natural hierarchy of the races’ not only through static causal maps from systematics to world order, ie from racial anthropology to ‘the orders of rank of the States’, or from racial anthropology to the social order, but also dynamically, via racial catastrophism; a philosophy of history which held that the rise and fall of civilizations and the rise and fall of great powers were explained by population history. The motor of world history was the struggle for survival between races: more vigorous races expanded their dominion at the expense of more primitive races. This was the iron law of history in the discourse of racial catastrophism. The weakest races from ‘the uttermost ends of the earth’ were expected to ‘vanish upon approach’ by the stronger. The once vigorous Asiatic races in decline were expected to come under the rule of the more vigorous races of Europe.

In a roomful of gentleman in New York, London, Paris, or Berlin any time in the period under study, it would prompt a murmur of agreement if one were to remark that the reason why the Anglo-Saxon, and not the Teuton, had ‘world control’ was because he had vigorously displaced the weaker races from the world’s prime temperate lands outside Europe — for, of course, the White race can’t help but eventually lose vigor in the tropics. The doctor in the armchair would wonder aloud whether the darker races — who were, of course, irrelevant to the world question — could be lifted up by the judicious application of scientific eugenics. The conversation would then turn to whether there were any scientific racial/world historic grounds for worrying about a threat (to the Anglo-Saxon world order) from the east. Was the Hindoo far too cross-bred with darker races to be redeemable? Could the Han regain his vigor? Could the evidently vigorous Japanese race organize the Mongoloid races of the Far East? Could Soviet Man defy the iron laws of racial history? These were all speculations for the future. The world question, in the Western discourse with the onset of the hockey-stick from the turn of the century onwards and particularly as it came to bear on grand-strategy at midcentury, was whether the Teuton could kick-out the Anglo-Saxon from the cockpit of history.

The world question was in this way rigidly framed within a paradigm of Germanic racial supremacism anchored on seemingly incontrovertible scientific evidence from physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. This discourse was not only central to the hegemonic ideology of the West, high racialism, it played an absolutely extraordinary causal role at midcentury. The Germans of course attempted to exterminate the Slav and reenact the Anglo-Saxon achievement in western Eurasia in a single act. Earlier, Chamberlain had vetoed a triple alliance that would’ve deterred Hitler because, as he explained in a letter to his sister, ‘I put as little value on Russian military capacity as I believe the Germans do.’ The catastrophic failure of Western intelligence assessments in 1941 attests to the rigidity of this discourse. For there was in fact no disagreement between Hitler, Churchill, and FDR on the rank-ordering of the races or the iron laws of racial history. That the Slav could defeat the Teuton was practically unthinkable. We cannot interrogate midcentury perceptions in the aftermath of the World War without understanding the hold of racial catastrophism on the Western mind.

The cobwebs of racial catastrophism would be dispelled in the American intelligence community by Boasian antiracists working for the Office of Strategic Services — the greatest community of scholars ever assembled; it was all hands on deck at midcentury. Robinson, a Columbia History Professor who led the Eastern European Division, would tell the President and Churchill at Quebec in 1943 that ‘considering the measure of Russia’s power revealed in this war,’ there was no doubt as to whether she had to be given ‘a coordinate place in a three power scheme of world control.’ More urgently, a western front was necessary not because of German strength but because of Soviet strength.

Robinson was relying on the insights of Max Werner, a now-forgotten member of the rare species of the transnational democratic socialist defense intellectual who alone in the West predicted the outcome of the Soviet-German War. As the New York Times noted in his obituary, he briefly became quite famous for his insight. Werner was robbed of a chance to puncture the monoculture of the ‘Megadeath intellectuals’ that would emerge later in the decade for his heart failed him in 1951. But before his death he made a sustained and highly-effective critique of the Anglo-Saxon overreliance on the air weapon, and later the air-atomic weapon that was then being contemplated.


Long before the world question emerged at the turn of the century, in 1848, Retzius had constructed the cephalic index to explain the European Order and the rise of European civilization. The logic was seductive: Physical anthropology could help you track people, pots were people, so you could “show” that higher levels of civilization were achieved with the arrival of more vigorous races. Jon Røyne Kyllingstad explains in Measuring the Master Race: Physical Anthropology in Norway, 1890-1945,

Retzius and Nilsson’s migration theory was not only an account of the origin of the Swedes, it was also a grand theory about the rise of European civilisation. They proposed that the Sami and the Basques were the descendants of inferior Stone Age peoples that had originally inhabited all of Europe. These short-skulled autochthones had later been overrun by successive waves of Indo-European invaders who brought increased levels of civilisation to Europe: the Celts introduced the Bronze Age, and the Germanics the Iron Age. Thus, the growth of European civilisation was explained by the successive invasion of races with increasingly advanced brains. Retzius’ views were extraordinarily influential (see Fig. 2 [reproduced as Figure 1]). The racial-succession scheme shaped linguistic, archaeological and ethnological debates on European prehistory from the 1840s to the 1860s, and the system of classifying skulls and human races into dolichocephalics and brachycephalics had an even greater and more long-lasting impact. Indeed, the cephalic index became a key factor in most of the numerous racial typologies that were put forward by European scientists over the next 100 years.

This was well before 1859 when ‘the theory of the antiquity of man burst upon the scientific world with an irresistible force’ (Thompson 1877) and the races were inferred to have great time-depth; even longer before the mid-1890s, when Massin (1996) [quoted in Glick (2007)] tells us, ‘the fundamental question of the ‘hierarchy of races’ and ‘existence of superior and inferior races’ acquired again a central position in anthropology’. For it is no surprise to find Ripley resurrect the discourse of ‘the races of Europe’ in 1899. Well beyond anthropology, we find geopoliticians in Europe and America marry cartography and racial anthropology from the turn of the century onwards to triangulate and quantify world power. Mackinder’s philosophy of history is a cartographic version of racial catastrophism — the deep order of history is the repeated invasions of the civilized societies of the Eurasian rim by vigorous barbarians from the steppe. Racial geopolitics would be turned into a fine art by Karl Haushofer, whose influence on Hitler can be read off the Second Book. What Mahan had been to the Kaiser, Haushofer was to Hitler. We have to wait until Spykman in 1942 to see the severing of racial anthropology from the logic of strategic cartography.

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Figure 1. Ripley, The Races of Europe, 1899. Source: Kyllingstad (2014).


The discourse of racial anthropology did not come to an end in 1942. Neither did the specific discourse of racial catastrophism. For as late as 1969, we find the doyen of evolutionary biology, Sewall Wright, reproducing the logic:

There is also no question, however, that populations that have long inhabited widely separated parts of the world should, in general, be considered to be of different subspecies by the usual criteria that most individuals of such populations can be allocated correctly by inspection (Wright, 1969, vol. 4, p. 439). The initiation of agriculture and livestock breeding was a revolutionary advance from the hunting and gathering way of life, which could hardly occur until the genetic basis for intelligence had reached an advanced grade. It is fair to assume that the regions in which these appeared first were at the peaks in the genetic basis for intelligence (p. 456). … If any appreciable advance has occurred since, it has probably consisted more in the worldwide diffusion of the level attained by the most advanced peoples than in the further progress of the latter (p. 454). … The success of the tribes thus probably depended to a greater extent on capabilities, determined by their genes, than on the possession of techniques not known to their neighbors (p. 455). … The state of culture has been to a considerable extent an index of the rank of populations genetically in the distinctive human line of evolutionary advance in its later stages. Aspects of culture are continually being borrowed, but whether such borrowings are effectively integrated into the existent culture to form new peaks (as most conspicuously in the recent period in Japan), or are adopted only superficially and to the detriment of the previous culture, is also an index of genetic capability (p. 455).

Indeed, even in post-racial anthropology, under the onslaught of the molecular anthropology revolution, it has been resurrected as ‘demic diffusion’. The issue seems to be that since physical anthropology can only track population history, it (together with the paleoclimate) has to do all the explanatory work in paleoanthropology and prehistory. In forthcoming work, I will show that racial anthropology was not abandoned in paleoanthropology until the mid-1980s, whereupon racial catastrophism morphed into demic diffusion for populations classified as Sapiens, while outright racial catastrophism, now disguised as interspecific catastrophism, was projected onto the Neanderthal question.




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?


The Near-Unipolar World Reconsidered Yet Again

The rise of the continental-scale US national economy at the turn of the century made the global balance of intrinsic war-making capabilities considerably more asymmetric that it had been for centuries. As Adam Tooze describes in The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, Europeans recognized the transition considerably after the fact. For if Madison’s data is to be believed, the transformation of the distribution of intrinsic war potential had already been consummated at the turn of the century. The near-unipolar world can be thought of as a bag of potatoes of varying sizes the largest of which is at least twice as large as all other potatoes in the bag. That is, we use Schweller’s criteria for polar powers.

More precisely, we define the near-unipolar world as one in which one great power is at least twice as big in economic size as all other great powers. The French economy had been less half the size of the US economy since 1883; Germany fell below the 50 percent threshold in 1901; and finally, the UK went under in 1905. In 1905, the near-unipolar world was born since for the first time all European great powers’ GDP fell below the 50 percent threshold: France 30.3; Germany 46.6; UK 49.7. In the early interwar era and through the postwar era, the combined GDP of the European great powers never exceeded that of the United States. Figure 1 shows the GDP of the “Big Three in Europe” as a proportion of US GDP in constant 1990 international dollars.


Figure 1. Big Three European great powers.

According to Maddison’s data, Soviet economic size exceeded that threshold in a single year, 1938; Japan never exceeded it at all; and, at least in constant 1990 international dollars, the near-unipolar world came to an end as early as 1996 when China’s GDP in chained international dollars exceeded the 50 percent threshold. But we have more reliable market data for the latter period. In market prices, as late as 2000, China’s economy was just 12 percent of the United States’ so it is hard to get excited about what the international dollars data means. Rather, we can say that the century of American economic preeminence definitely came to an end by 2012 when China’s GDP, even at market rates, exceeded one-half America’s. So the century of American economic preeminence was 1905-2011.


Figure 2. China’s GDP exceed half the US GDP in 2012.

American economic preeminence meant that other great powers could not hope to prevail against the United States in a general war or in an extended rivalry. Once the European great powers had slaughtered each other’s young men at sufficient scale in 1914-1916, they faced a great power secure behind an impregnable moat, with tens of millions of men of military age, and a large and technically-sophisticated economy capable of fielding millions of them on the European battlefield longer than any other great power. They also faced a great power that held all the purse strings. The British got an early taste of American financial hegemony when they went hat in hand to Washington. Once the United States weighed in the balance, the war was decided.

In The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931, Adam Tooze argued that German radicalism in the 1930s was motivated by the specter of the permanent American hegemony. In his unpublished Second Book in 1928, Hitler worried that European great powers would be reduced to the status of Sweden:

With the American Union, a new power of such dimensions has come into being as threatens to upset the whole former power and orders of rank of the States.

A continental-scale Lebensraum for the German people was necessary if Germany was to be co-equal with the United States. So unlike on the western front, in the east, Germany fought a war of extermination against the Soviet Union. The goal of Generalplan Ost was to depopulate vast swaths of land between the German border and the Urals through liquidation and expulsion. As a German military journal explained in 1935, “totalitarian warfare is nothing but a gigantic struggle of elimination whose upshot will be terrible and irrevocable in its finality.” Disorganized survivors were to be enslaved and made available to German capitalism and German homesteaders. The idea being to replicate  settler colonialism at the scale of the United States. Not until the thermonuclear revolution in the mid-1950s would American nuclear war planners develop operational plans estimated to kill upwards of 100 million people in the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were radicalized too. Through forced-pace industrialization, Stalin hoped to replicate America’s war potential. The Soviets succeeded to a considerable degree in forging a military-industrial complex of comparable scale; more so than Germany, which is why they prevailed in the Soviet-German War. An interesting question is whether the radicalism in the German military was driven more by the rising strength of the Soviet Union than the threat of permanent Anglo-American hegemony. Guderian in particular worried much much more about the Soviet Union than the United States. We shall revisit the problem posed by Russo-German relations to the near-unipolar frame at the end of the essay.

In the Venezuelan crisis of 1895, Britain backed down after Washington threatened war. At the turn of the century, the Admiralty informed the War Office that it had no plan for the defense of Canada. By 1900, once the impossibility of fighting the colossus had sunk in, the British surrendered naval primacy in the entire western hemisphere to the United States. Indeed, all three major confrontations of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were rigged from the moment that the unipole decided to join the struggle. And postwar orders in the aftermath of each of these confrontations were dictated by the unipole.

At the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, the United States dictated the distribution of capital ships among the maritime powers. Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan realized the folly of initiating a naval arms race against the colossus and simply acquiesced. The German question, specifically, the problem of French military primacy and German insecurity revealed by French depredations in the Ruhr in 1923, was resolved by US security and market-access guarantees to Germany in exchange for German disarmament and reparations. J.P. Morgan himself saw to the details on the continent. (I’ll write more about the German question in the 1920s after I have read Trachtenberg’s doctoral thesis, French Reparation Policy, 1918-1921. For the French played a more significant role in the German question after World War I than they would do at the end of World War II or the Cold War.)

In the aftermath of World War II, postwar negotiations were ostensibly carried out in a Big Three framework between the Anglo-Saxon powers and the Soviet Union. American intransigence ensured that many important questions were left unresolved. The most important of these related to the future of Germany. It is hard to overemphasize the centrality of the German question in European history. In Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present, Brendan Simms went so far as to frame the entire history of the struggle for mastery in Europe around the German question; as the European great power struggle to control the heartland of Europe, Germany; until, of course, Germany was unified and the question became what to do about German power.

The Big Three had agreed to eventually resolve the German question in detail at the bargaining table. In 1944, the entire future of Germany was open for reconsideration. Was Germany to be broken up into smaller statelets? Into two, three, or four pieces? Was it to be deindustrialized and turned into an agrarian country to reduce its power as envisioned in the Morgenthau Plan? How was Germany to pay reparations? Under whose sphere of influence would specific territories lie? What about the industrial heartland of the Ruhr? Even after they had been agreed upon, were the occupation zones to be run separately by each occupying power as it wished? What was to be their socio-economic system? Were all non-fascist political parties to be tolerated in all zones? Or was a unified German state to be resurrected? And if so, was the Germany army to be reconstituted? And if German power was to be restored, was Germany going to be neutral or an ally of one of the three great powers?

Implicit in JCS1067, the official policy directive to the military government in the US occupation zone in 1945-1947, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko write in The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, was “maximum zonal autonomy that bordered on partition” in violation of explicit US commitments at Yalta. Of “substantially greater consideration in American planning,” was “the value of Germany as a barrier to Soviet power.” America planners had secretly arrived at a consensus on what was to be done with Germany. German power was to be resurrected and incorporated into a US-led military alliance. Moreover, German recovery was essential to hold the tide against the Left in Europe so there could be no question of serious reparations. Remarkably, despite explicit commitments to the contrary and despite the fact that the Soviets had defeated Germany, the United States unilaterally obtained its preferred outcome on the German question. Why?

The problem with the near-unipolar frame is that America’s economic preeminence suggests the wrong answer. For the balance of strategic power became a question of forces-in-being after the Strategic Air Command became a war-winning first-strike weapon. Even in the late-1940s, the Soviet Union was exhausted and in no position to threaten general war. The introduction of a single currency into the three Western zones—a recipe for a West German state that contained 75 percent of German war potential—led to the Berlin Crisis of 1948. The United States prevailed by threatening general war. The Berlin crises of 1948 and 1958-1961 were not about West Berlin, they were about the German question. Indeed, as we shall see, the German question may be the key to the 20th-century as a whole.

At the end of the 1950s, at a time when Soviet ICBMs began to threaten the US homeland for the first time, at issue was the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into Germany. The United States prevailed by threatening a thermonuclear first-strike. Kennedy and his advisors at the RAND corporation had believed that the Soviets would soon field 200 ICBMs. At Vienna, he conceded to Khrushchev that the Soviets had achieved strategic parity. But spy satellite images revealed a few months later that the Soviets only had 4 operational ICBMs. The Soviet Union had never acquired a bomber command capable of penetrating US air-defense. Soviet nuclear strength was mostly regional. They had a thousand short and medium range nuclear missiles that threatened Western Europe. But they could all be taken out in a massive counter-force strike by the unipole.

A purely counterforce attack on all Soviet strategic nuclear forces would kill perhaps 60 million. A countervalue first-strike made little sense; as McNamara explained, the enemy’s cities are our hostages. But SIOP 62, the only US operational plan available to Kennedy insiders, had been perfected by General LeMay’s SAC over the 1950s. It was both counterforce and countervalue; targets had by now proliferated enough to guarantee the obliteration of Soviet urban civilization. In fact, it threw in China for good measure. SIOP 62 called for a massive preemptive strike on the Sino-Soviet bloc that would immediately kill 600 million people and turn both nations into “smoking, radioactive ruins.”

It was later discovered by climate researchers in the 1980s that the detonation of enough thermonuclear warheads to yield 3,000 megatons, as planned in SIOP 62, would very likely precipitate a nuclear winter. Temperatures would drop 30-40 degrees at all the globe’s major food producing regions with the result that almost no grains would grow on the planet for many years. The resulting famine would kill off the vast bulk of the world’s human population in a global holocaust. Human civilization for all practical purposes would end in a spectacular orgy of hunger, chaos and cannibalism.

As Shelling has observed, thermonuclear weapons had turned geopolitical competition into a competition in risk-taking. Instead of military skirmishes that now posed an intolerable risk of general war, great power confrontations turned into diplomatic crises. The major nuclear crises of the Cold War occurred before the Soviets achieved a second-strike capability in the mid-1960s. Put another way, the unipole had a splendid first-strike capability for the first 20 years of the so-called bipolar era. In each of these crises the United States brought its nuclear superiority to bear. Once Kennedy had called Khrushchev’s bluff, the latter simply abandoned Soviet hopes on the German question for the time being. The erection of the Berlin Wall signaled that the Soviets had acquiesced to both the partition of Germany and the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the Bundeswehr.

Kennedy may have inadvertently threatened omnicide, but what mattered was that both Khrushchev and Kennedy believed the first-strike threat. While Kennedy mobilized his strategic forces and put Nato forces on high alert, Khrushchev, General Burnical recalled, “never alerted a bomber or changed his own military posture one bit. We had a gun at his head and he didn’t move a muscle.” (Quoted in Trachtenberg, “The Cuban Missile Crisis.”) Nitze talked about the experience in Foreign Affairs in 1976:

…the feared intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “gap” of the 1960 presidential campaign never in fact became reality, but on the contrary the United States re-established a clearly superior nuclear capability by 1961-62. This was the situation at the time of the only true nuclear confrontation of the postwar period, the Cuban missile crisis of the fall of 1962.

[This is] the reading the Soviet leaders gave to the Cuban missile crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Berlin crisis. In the latter case, Khrushchev had briefly sought to exploit the first Soviet rocket firings of 1957—by a series of threats to Berlin beginning in late 1958—but then found that the West stood firm and that the United States quickly moved to reestablish its strategic superiority beyond doubt. And in the Cuban missile case, the very introduction of the missiles into Cuba in the fall of 1962 must have reflected a desire to redress the balance by quick and drastic action, while the actual outcome of the crisis seemed to the Soviet leaders to spell out that nuclear superiority in a crunch would be an important factor in determining who prevailed.

Harking back to the Soviet penchant for actually visualizing what would happen in the event of nuclear war, it seems highly likely that the Soviet leaders, in those hectic October days of 1962, did something that U.S. leaders, as I know from my participation, did only in more general terms-that is, ask their military just how a nuclear exchange would come out. They must have been told that the United States would be able to achieve what they construed as victory, that the U.S. nuclear posture was such as to be able to destroy a major portion of Soviet striking power and still itself survive in a greatly superior condition for further strikes if needed. And they must have concluded that such a superior capability provided a unique and vital tool for pressure in a confrontation situation.

Trachtenberg notes that the Berlin crisis of 1948 was the result of Soviet opposition to the reconstitution of a German state that would be allied to the West; the Berlin crisis of 1958-1961 was the result of Soviet opposition to the introduction of tactical nuclear missiles into the Bundeswehr; but there was dog that did not bark. The reconstitution of the German army and its incorporation into the Western military alliance in the early-1950s did not lead to Soviet ultimatums. Instead Stalin issued the 10 March 1952 Note with its offer of German unification on largely Western terms. Paul R. Willging’s superb doctoral dissertation “Soviet Foreign Policy in the German Question: 1950-1955,” made a compelling argument that the Soviets were indeed willing to accept any and all terms as long as the unified German state would be neutral. Why?

By 1952, the Strategic Air Command had became a war-winning first-strike weapon. The United States’ air-atomic monopoly was no longer just one factor in the balance of global power. It had become the factor. What Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” doctrine meant in operational terms were war plans drawn by the SAC for a massive preemptive first-strike. Incontestable US nuclear superiority was the context of Stalin’s conciliatory offers.  In general, the postwar German question was settled on favorable terms above all because of US nuclear superiority.

We have seen that the revolution in strategic affairs wrought by nuclear weapons meant that forces-in-being that could be expended on the first day or month of a general war instead of the economic-industrial capability to fight a long, drawn-out war of attrition was what really came to matter in great power confrontations. This calls into question the validity of the near-unipolar frame that we defined above in terms of economic preeminence. But there is yet another reason to be skeptical of the near-unipolar frame.

As Wohlforth explains in The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War, the Soviet empire did not simply collapse in the late-1980s; instead, the Soviet leadership capitulated with eyes wide open. What Gorbachev and his advisors were really after was the dream of a greater Rapallo—the Soviet-German treaty of 1922 that fostered military and economic cooperation between the two powers. Third World clients were abandoned outright; Eastern European satellites were let go one by one in 1989; even the “crazy arms race” with America was given up in the hope of reducing tensions with the West. Their only demand was to be welcomed by Germany into Europe. They hoped that with genuine friendship and close ties between the Soviet Union and a unified Germany, the United States could be sidelined. The German question was the only question that the Soviets truly cared about.

The central importance of the German question, of Russo-German relations in geopolitical history, and of forces-in-being in the global balance of strategic power as it came to weigh on international politics suggests that the near-unipolar frame must be thought of as a point of departure instead of the point of arrival.


Does the US Enjoy Nuclear Primacy Over North Korea?

The issue of nuclear deterrence in the Korean peninsula is usually posed in terms of how reliably the United States and its key regional allies can deter an attack by North Korea. That has it exactly the wrong way around. The question is not whether the US can deter North Korea; that’s a triviality. The real question is whether North Korea can deter the United States.

As I’ve explained at length before, strategic nuclear deterrence is extraordinarily stable when both sides enjoy an assured second-strike capability, ie the ability to retaliate with a devastating counterblow after having absorbed a massive first-strike. Under highly asymmetric conditions, nuclear deterrence is much less stable. If the stronger party can expect a splendid first-strike to destroy the deterrent of the weaker party with certainty, it is hard to see how the latter can deter the former. Of course, certainty is unachievable in practice. The question is just how certain the stronger party has to be for deterrence to fail. Of all the asymmetric deterrence scenarios, the confrontation between the unipole and North Korea is arguably the most one-sided. If North Korea can deter the United States, then deterrence is unlikely to fail anywhere else as well.

So does the United States enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea? Concretely, if President Trump demanded a military solution to the “problem”, will the generals be able to put forward a viable operational plan to disarm North Korea without exposing the United States and its allies to catastrophic risk? Can the US take out the entire North Korean arsenal in counterforce strike before they have a chance to retaliate?? As usual, the devil is in the details.

The United States would enjoy nuclear primacy over North Korea if it could be near-certain of destroying North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in a splendid first-strike, or if it could be near-certain that it will be able to intercept North Korean missiles before they stuck populous cities and strategic bases of the United States and its regional allies. So we need to evaluate the capabilities of the both the United States and North Korea. Moreover, in order to assess the likelihood of deterrence failure, we also need to assess the balance of resolve. Having a first-strike capability is one thing; having the willingness to carry out a splendid first-strike quite another—much more is involved than simply hard power capabilities.

According to US intelligence, North Korea has an arsenal of some 60 odd nuclear warheads. More importantly, in the assessment of the intelligence community, North Korea has achieved miniaturization, ie they have figured out how to make the warheads small enough to mount them on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The beleaguered state’s gains in missile knowhow have also crossed a critical threshold. In the assessment of analysts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, the July 4 test launch suggested that the missile had a range of 10,000km, putting the US west coast and midwest within reach. On July 28, North Korea fired a second test missile in a near-vertical trajectory that reached an altitude of 3,500km before falling harmlessly in the Sea of Japan. Analysts reckon that even New York, Boston and DC are now within operational reach of North Korean missiles. It’s still not clear whether they have figured out how to ensure that the warhead doesn’t burn up upon reentry into the dense lower atmosphere. It shouldn’t take long for them to achieve that capability. In any case, US strategists must assume that the North Koreans have the capability to strike the most populous US cities and, a fortori, US military bases in the region and the cities of its regional allies.

Can the United States be near-certain that its theater and intercontinental missile defense systems will be able to intercept North Korean missiles? The short answer is no. Of the last 5 tests of the ICBM ballistic missile defense system, 3 have failed. Theater missile defense (TMD) may perform better under test conditions, but is likely to fare even worse under actual warfighting conditions because North Korea has many more short-range platforms to strike Japan and especially South Korea (where it can even use artillery to deliver nuclear payloads) and they can deploy many more decoys to distract the systems. North Korea also has electronic warfare capabilities that can potentially interfere with TMD systems.

On the other hand the United States has a formidable repertoire of counterforce capabilities. The United States can use low-orbit platforms like satellites, air-breathing unmanned platforms (ie surveillance drones), and manned fixed-wing aircraft to generate near-continuous targeting solutions. The US can utilize a full-spectrum of air-, land- and sea-based launch platforms to take out North Korean targets. Lieber and Press (2017) have shown that North Korea would find it hard to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent against the United States since the US can substitute seamlessly between multiple platforms for cueing, targeting, and strike solutions (“fire-control solutions”). In other words, the United States enjoys nuclear primacy over North Korea in the sense that the US can carry out a splendid first-strike against the North Korean arsenal with near-certainty.



But the problem is that the balance of resolve favors North Korea. No conceivable interest of the United States or its regional allies can be served by exposing themselves to North Korean nuclear strikes even an iota. Even though the US could take it out on demand, the very existence of the North Korean deterrent means that Japan and South Korea would resist a preemptive strike against North Korea. US assurances that the risk is small are quite unlikely to satisfy Seoul and Tokyo. Both allies would expect compelling reasons why they must run even a small risk of a nuclear attack.

Put another way, the United States is deterred because North Korea hasn’t raised the stakes enough to threaten a vital interest of South Korea and Japan. It is in the US interest to prevent a North Korean deterrent capable of striking US cities. But the US would find it impossible to convince Seoul and Tokyo that they need to run the risks necessary to achieve that goal. The United States cannot find a persuasive reason because there isn’t one. So much for nuclear primacy.



Maritime Primacy, Network Externalities and Asymmetric Blocpolitik


Map 1. Great power blocs, independent powers, contested zones.

In an interesting and contemplative article in the current issue of the National Interest, Michael Lind casts a fresh look at world politics. His approach is to reformulate economic and security alliances as carriers of joint information about the world economy and the global balance of power. This frame of reference allows Lind to go beyond both realism and international economics. The former sees military alliances as temporary and flexible outcomes of great power balancing. In the latter, trade agreements and economic partnerships are divorced from great power politics and geared towards purely economic ends. Neither approach captures the real geoeconomics of blocpolitik.

[In theory, a state] can join one set of security alliances for purposes of military protection, a different trade bloc for commercial purposes and a third set of international alliances, perhaps drawn together by political creed and social values. In the real world, this kaleidoscopic complexity does not exist.

By construction, the overwhelming overlap of international security and economic alliances cannot be explained by purely economic logics. Likewise, the survival of the US-led Atlantic and Pacific security alliances 25 years after the capitulation of the Soviet Union is a glaring anomaly of realism. These anomalies stem from mistakenly treating ‘security and trade policy as distinct realms, each with its own internal logic and unconnected to the other.’ Lind’s novel approach allows him to put both economics and international power politics at the center of the frame of reference. He also pays attention to the neocolonial aspects of blocpolitik.

For the hegemonic power that orchestrates a bloc, the bloc multiplies national military power and wealth by adding foreign populations and foreign resources to its own. Given low fertility rates and the difficulty of raising productivity levels by innovation, the quickest and most effective way to boost the overall GDP of a bloc is to add more countries to it. Needless to say, strength based on territorial expansion as well as internal growth was the strategy of past empires. In the modern era, based on the rules of national self-determination and popular sovereignty, incorporation of additional territories by conquest would be resisted as illegitimate. But blocs that are similar to informal empires can be built up by means of security alliances and trade deals, which may be hard to distinguish from de facto colonialism where one partner is a weak protectorate and the other a great or superpower.… [Emphasis mine.]

In a world economy divided among great-power blocs, industries with increasing returns to scale, like manufacturing, are likely to be most productive and dynamic in the blocs with the largest integrated markets—that is to say, the internal markets of populous nation-states and even more populous blocs. Technological and commercial efficiencies enabled by scale can, in turn, permit higher growth, higher per-capita income and the possibility of raising more taxes in absolute terms, even with lower rates of taxation—taxes to be spent on, among other things, the military. This is the successful strategy the larger and richer American bloc used to drive the smaller and poorer Soviet bloc into bankruptcy.

So it makes economic and strategic sense for great powers to expand their blocs and grow their retinue of protectorates. Small and weak nations too gain from admission into great-power blocs.

The exporters and importers of small nations can be guaranteed access to bloc-wide markets and suppliers, and incorporated into bloc-wide supply chains. As de facto protectorates of the bloc’s dominant nations, weak countries can engage in “free riding” when it comes to defense, spending relatively little on the military.

The reference frame immediately solves the mystery of the endurance of the Western alliance. Indeed, the end of the Cold War led not to a dismantling of Nato but rather an American bid to convert ‘hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence.’ This bid failed ‘thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public.’

‘There is not the slightest chance,’ Lind insists correctly, ‘that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders.’ Whether or not Russia’s near-abroad and the South China Sea are turned into contested zones of Cold War-style military standoffs, ‘the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass.’

There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.

One can quibble with Lind’s position on the European Union. The possibility of a great power based on the continent ought not to be so easily dismissed. But there are bigger issues with Lind’s prognosis.

My main beef is with Lind’s underemphasis on the extreme asymmetry of great power blocs. Russia’s sphere of influence in its near-abroad is a faint echo of the Warsaw alliance. China’s sphere is nearly non-existent. The only country firmly within the Chinese sphere is North Korea. Even Mongolia and the nations of the central Asian steppe are not yet in the Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, the United States has a retinue of some sixty protectorates; including almost all the great industrial nations of the world—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, and Canada. Moreover, the United States remains the preeminent foreign power in Central America, South America, Africa, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. Even lesser powers that pursue stridently independent foreign policies from Washington—Vietnam, India, Iran, Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela—are likely to seek admission into the US bloc.

Instead of a world ‘divided among great-power blocs’ what we have is a near-unipolar configuration of global alignments. The US bloc militarily, economically, and technologically dwarfs the rest of the world combined. Due to the diffusion of reconnaissance-strike capabilities, the US can no longer impose primacy on China or Russia in their immediate neighborhoods. In particular, China is now in a position to hold all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk. In the event of a major confrontation, the US will no longer be able to send aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Straits to intimidate China. It will instead have to rely on less effective long-range and undersea platforms to project power.

As China closes the power gap, the exit from the unipolar world approaches. Even in a multipolar world, however, the US bloc would continue to enjoy decisive advantages. Above all, the United States would continue to enjoy maritime primacy until another great power becomes at least somewhat competitive in open ocean warfare. We are so far from that scenario that no other power has even contemplated mounting such a challenge. Because the plumbing of the world economy is sea-based, maritime preponderance gives the US bloc a decisive advantage against other blocs.

A second advantage that is no less decisive is that blocs enjoy network externalities. Beyond the economies of scale, blocs are also containers of technology and situated knowhow. To put it bluntly, the US bloc contains the entire tripolar core of the world economy. From an international politics perspective, these externalities generate a bandwagon effect whereby states outside face tremendous incentives to seek admission into the US bloc. This is why, for instance, Kerry got his opening in Myanmar.

So while I agree with Lind that international politics will become more contested as this century progresses, I seriously doubt that Russia or China will be able to forge a bloc even vaguely comparable to the US bloc. They will definitely try—China’s development bank and the New Silk Route are efforts in precisely this direction—but it will be uphill all the way. Blocpolitik is a useful frame of reference but we should not implicitly endow it with false symmetries.



The Near-Unipolar World Reconsidered

Above 200

Figure 1. Countries rescaled by the number of people earning more than $200 dollars a day in 2002. Source: WorldMapper.Org.

This is an ongoing conversation with Ted Fertik.

Thanks for the link man. Tooze (2014) was an amazing read! I want to talk about two things. First, I am going to shamelessly insist that I was right about the role of near-unipolarity in Tooze’s schema. Second, I want to talk about how near-unipolarity relates to the history of the twentieth century. All quotes are from Tooze (2014) unless otherwise specified.

“In the wake of World War I think the stakes were higher.” Why were they higher? “What was at stake was a new global order under the sign of what has been variously referred to as ultraimperialism, American hegemony, or Empire”; that Churchill described as “the pyramids of peace” (quoted in The Deluge). [Emphasis mine.]

The “central challenge facing the German political elite” was the “sheer scale of twentieth-century Anglo-American economic predominance.” Tooze shows that the interwar order was one of unabashed Anglo-American cohegemony. The “main question” of the international politics of the interwar era is “how to understand the insurgency against the order.” More pertinently, the question facing the Germans was should they “conform and assimilate themselves to its power” or “mount an insurgency against it”?

“We must view that struggle as more asymmetric, and thus as an expression of the combined and uneven development of the international system…” [Emphasis mine.]

“Neither the international relations of the interwar period, nor World War II itself are well-described by models…derived from the more truly multipolar world of the late nineteenth century.

I contended that the world from the close of the nineteenth century to the rise of China in the 2000s was secretly near-unipolar. I presented GDP numbers and argued that GDP was a good enough measure to detect near-unipolarity. But I also have strong historical reasons to think carefully about near-unipolarity—as the quotes from Tooze above suggest.

When I say near-unipolar, I mean that there is a especially strong state in the system such that no state could hope to prevail against it in a war or an extended rivalry; that there is no doubt about the identity of the strongest state in the system; and that when statesmen evaluate great power war and great power military alliances they had to care a great deal about the unipole’s position—computations on the outcome of great power war and confrontation premised on the unipole’s disinterest have to be thrown out of the window if the unipole weighs in the balance.

Note again that this is a weak definition. It just means that there is a football in a pile of tennis balls. The unipole may not even have a standing army. It may or may not exercise influence abroad. A lesser great power may run the maritime world and lesser great powers may worry much more about each other (especially their strong neighbours) than the unipole. In fact, if the unipole is insular and isolationist, it may not cause the other great powers any headaches at all. Indeed, they may even make fun of its extant weakness.

However, in a near-unipolar world, such disdain is contingent on the foreign policy of the unipole. Were the unipole to mobilize its war potential and be willing to use force on the world stage, the lesser great powers would have to eat their insulting words. Moreover, lesser great powers threatened by each other can be expected to try to secure the protection of the unipole. An alliance with the unipole is, after all, very useful given the rule of force in world affairs. The unipole may therefore get pulled into other people’s fights despite itself. Even insularity and isolationism thus do not completely thwart the gravitational pull exerted by the unipole.

One could write a convincing history of the twentieth century in this frame of reference. The philosophy of history that such a work requires is almost insultingly straightforward. The basic fact of near-polarity serves as the single explanatory variable. That is, the twentieth century as the story of the clarification of the real balance of forces. Or history catching up with the secret topology of the world.

In this frame of reference, the outcomes of the main great power confrontations of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—were more or less known in advance. The game had, in fact, been rigged from the get go.

What explains the British surrender of naval preponderance in the Western Hemisphere in 1900? What explains the results of 1918? What explains the Washington Naval Conference of 1922? The stability of the interwar European order in the 1920s? The breakdown of that order and the turn to radicalism in 1931? The startling fact that not the winner but the power that basically sat out the Second World War dictated the postwar order? The outright capitulation of the second ranked power in the so-called bipolar world in 1989? All these questions have a single answer: The fact of the asymmetric size of the football.

Is it possible to construct a tighter, more parsimonious narrative frame? Is it not, then, a quite compelling frame of reference?


Tooze, Adam. “The Sense of a Vacuum.” Historical Materialism 22.3-4 (2014): 351-370.


The Distribution of Global Power (1870-2008)

War-making capabilities of states are very hard to measure. Even sophisticated metrics of national material capabilities are wildly insufficient to predict the outcome of wars. Some states punch far above their weight, while others routinely underperform expectations based on national material capabilities.

Prussia and later Germany in the classical European balance of power, and Israel in the post-colonial Middle East are in the first category. Surrounded by hostile states and with neither the resources nor the manpower to win long, drawn-out wars of attrition, the militaries of both states cultivated an art of war that sought to front-load conflicts and seek the decisive victory. At the geostrategic level, both sought the patronage of wealthy maritime powers—Great Britain for Prussia and the United States for Israel—who bankrolled their arsenals and provided economic and diplomatic support. These comprehensive strategies for survival allowed these modern day Spartas to prevail against gangs of larger and more populous neighbors.

States that punch below their weight include Spain in the seventeenth century and Russia in the late nineteenth. Imperial Spain made it a habit of losing to ostensibly weaker powers after a much smaller English fleet sunk the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1905, Russia lost the first great power war of the century to Japan, a state with a vastly smaller material endowment. In the present day, all concerned agree that, if it ever came to blows with Iran, Saudi Arabia would lose hands down, despite its almost 2-to-1 advantage in economic size.

Despite these anomalies, it is still largely true that states with greater war potential can expect to prevail against states that are relatively less well-endowed. By war potential, I mean the size and sophistication of the economy, size and skill-set of the population, and national endowments of arable land, iron ore, rubber, coal, oil and gas et cetera.

In the Second World War, once Hitler failed to capitalize on the July results of Operation Barbarossa and the US emerged as an ally of the Soviet Union, the outcome was overdetermined by the Allies’ crushing advantage in material capabilities. The United States and the Soviet Union could field many more rifles, tanks, field guns, warplanes and fighters than the Germans. On the Pacific front, Japan had no choice but to surrender, precisely because of its material inferiority. Similarly, in World War I, the Americans’ credible promise to land a million troops on the continent directly led to the November Crisis of 1918 and with it the capitulation of Germany. The Germans simply did not have the wherewithal to mount another Spring Offensive.

But let me not belabor the point. Material advantage matters. The question is how to measure it. Organski has argued that GDP is an excellent metric. The reason is that it captures a number of things that are relevant to the war-making capabilities of a state. Unless a state has well-functioning institutions, large material endowments, and a large, skilled populace, it is unlikely to have a very large economy. Obviously, this doesn’t work at every level. For instance, a middle power with a very large GDP due to a especially large endowment of crude oil is unlikely to be very powerful—think Saudi Arabia.

But GDP is unlikely to catapult a state to the top ranks of global power unless it is broadly representative of national capabilties. Indeed, there are no counter-examples to be found in the modern period. And because the global balance of power is a game played by only the chosen few, it doesn’t matter much if our metric doesn’t apply to every state. Moreover, it can be shown that more complicated metrics do not materially alter our findings.

Many metrics include standing armies and military spending. For instance, the COW Index is a simple average of normalized indices for GDP, military personnel and military spending. Such metrics are good for capturing the military balance in the short run but are at best irrelevant, and at worst misleading, for the medium and long run. If you live in a tough neighborhood, a powerful standing army is certainly a must. But if you are offshore or if you are ‘hiding your strength and biding your time,’ you can afford to keep your power latent and call it forth as needed.[1] For instance, in 1939, the United States had the smallest standing army among the major powers. Yet every great power statesmen was well aware that the US was the strongest power in the system and that its weight would decisively alter the course of the war. What truly matters for the balance of global power is war potential, not extant military power.

We are used to thinking in terms of polarity—the number of great powers in the system, i.e., the number of states that can that can put up a fight with the strongest state in the system. With some quibbling, most realists would accept the usual characterization of the post-Soviet world as unipolar, the Cold War era as bipolar, and the European-dominated era before the end of the Second World War as multipolar.

In what follows, I will contest this characterization. I will argue that the world since the close of the nineteenth century has been near-unipolar; that if one studies the distribution of global power with a finer tool than counting the number of states that can put up a fight with the top-ranked power, one can discern continuity and change to an extraordinary degree; and that the near-unipolar world is coming to an end.

By near-unipolar, I mean something weaker than the statement that there is only one great power in the system. More precisely, by near-unipolar I mean that there is one especially strong state in the system so that there is absolutely no doubt about the identity of the top-ranked power.[2] And that the gap between the strongest state and others is so great that no state can hope to prevail against it in a war or an extended rivalry. Importantly, unlike the definition of unipolarity, near-unipolarity does not require the absence of other great powers. Lesser great powers can and do exist in a near-unipolar world—they just have to worry a great deal about what the unipole has to say before they decide on any matter that has a bearing on the world situation. A near-unipolar world is a heliocentric system—the international system is centered on a single power.

The tool that I have in mind is the Ray-Singer Index.[3] It is effectively a normalized version of the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index that is used to measure concentration in a system (such as an industry or a balance of power system). The Herfindahl–Hirschman Index is the sum of squared percentage shares of the units in the system. The Ray-Singer Index normalizes it such that it takes a value between 0 and 1. It attains the value 0 if every unit has an equal share, and the value 1 if a single unit accounts for 100%. It has the property that any upward redistribution of shares from lower-ranked to higher-ranked units increases the value of the Index. And it depends continuously on the share of very unit and treats them symmetrically. Formally, it is given by


where N is the number of units in the system, which for us will be the number of major powers. The numerator corresponds to the observed deviation from equality and the denominator corresponds to the maximum possible standard deviation from equality.

For a system with just two units, a little bit of algebra shows that the Index equals the difference of the shares of the two units. That is, RSI = s – (1-s), where s is the share of the larger unit. Note also that, for two power systems, the Index is a linear function of the share of the larger state. Figure 1 shows a schematic typology for two-power systems.

bipolarFigure 1: Ray-Singer Indices for Two Power Systems.

Figure 2 shows the evolution of the Index during the Cold War. According to our typology, the Cold War-era was decisively near-unipolar: The Index averaged 44% during 1948-1989. Equivalently, the United States accounted for 72% of total great power GDP. The lowest value reached by the Index was 39%, equivalent to a US share of 69% of total great power GDP. We can see that the tide began to turn against the Soviet Union in the late-1970s. By 1989, the United States had reattained the primacy it lost in the mid-1950s.

RSIColdWarFigure 2: Ray-Singer Index, US and USSR (1948-1989).

How does Schweller’s tripolar interwar system fare by our measure? Figure 3 shows a schematic typology for three power systems. We see that the index is not enough to identify the polarity. But if the broad contours are known, then the evolution of the system may be examined by charting the Index.

Figure 3: Ray-Singer Indices for Three Power Systems.

Figure 4 shows the evolution of the Index for Schweller’s three power system during the leadup to the Second World War. Where Schweller sees tripolarity, the Index shows unambiguous near-unipolarity.

Figure 4: Ray-Singer Index for the Interwar Three Power System.

Figure 5 shows the Index for world powers (US, UK, USSR, Germany, Japan and France) and Eurasian powers (UK, USSR, Germany, Japan and France) in 1928-1940. We see that Eurasia was by itself quite competitive. But the inclusion of the United States dramatically increases our measure of concentration for the world system as a whole. That is, during the 1930s, the world as a whole was considerably more concentrated than Eurasia. In other words, it was a near-unipolar world.

Figure 5: Ray-Singer Index for 1928-1940.

What about the classical world? Surely, the world was decidedly multipolar before World War I? Not quite. The Index reveals that the world was indeed very competitive in the 1870s. But starting in the 1880s, the United States reshaped the structure of the international system. Even as Europe remained decidely balanced, the world itself became more and more imbalanced. By 1910, global power potential was twice as concentrated at the world level as at the European level.[4] And the reason was clear: A continental-sized superstate of hitherto unimaginable power potential had suddenly arrived on the world stage. The world was already near-unipolar before the collective suicide of Europe began on the fields of Flanders.

PreWarRSIFigure 6: Ray-Singer Index for 1870-1927.

In the throes of the Belle Époque, Europeans marveled at the astounding scale of American wealth but were generally sanguine about the geopolitical threat from across the Atlantic. Once they had slaughtered each other’s young at sufficient scale, they finally awoke to the dawn of a new order—Adam Tooze shows how dramatically European attitudes changed in 1916.[5] Europe, for centuries the unabashed master of the planet, had finally been provincialized. Victor and vanquished alike marched to Washington to take orders. Henceforth, Washington would be calling the shots.

Examining the entire postwar period through this lens and considering a broader set of major powers—US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, China and Japan—we see that the US share of major power GDP tracked the Index closely until 1990. (See Figure 7.) Concurrently, the Index for the rest of the major powers was essentially flat until then—Eurasia was very competitive even as the world remained tightly centered. Then, in 1990, the Eurasian Index took off dramatically and kept climbing, taking over the World Index in 2006. After 125 years, Eurasia had finally become more concentrated than the world.

Figure 7: Ray-Singer Index for 1950-2008.

In order to see what’s going on after 1990, we decompose the Eurasian Index. Figure 8 displays three Ray-Singer Indices. The blue one is for the seven major powers (US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, India, China and Japan). The orange one excludes the US. And the yellow one excludes both the US and China.

PostWarExRSIFigure 8: Ray-Singer Indices for 1950-2008.

We’ve seen this film before. It’s the same pattern we saw a hundred years ago and for the same reason: The rise of a continental-sized superstate that dramatically changes the distribution of global power. But this time, instead of a multipolar world giving way to a near-unipolar one, a near-unipolar world is giving way to a bipolar one. Perhaps this essay should’ve been titled The Rise and Fall of the Near-Unipolar World.


[1] The Chinese like to strategize with pithy slogans. As far as they can go, ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ was better than most.

[2] In multipolar systems on the other hand, there is often disagreement as to which power is the dominant one. This is because states differ along different capabilities. In the classical era (1871-1914), Britain was the dominant maritime power but Germany had the most powerful land army on the continent.

[3] Ray, James Lee, and J. David Singer. “Measuring the concentration of power in the international system.” Sociological Methods & Research 1.4 (1973): 403-437.

[4] Unfortunately, Russian GDP data is only available from 1948 onwards.

[5] Tooze, Adam. The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931. Penguin, 2014.