Much has been made of the lessening of interstate conflict over the centuries and surely since World War II. Whether this abstention from war will continue among Great Powers, however, is a function of the cost and benefit of territorial conquest. Historians have argued that Great Powers got little benefit from additional territory after 1815, though imperialist expansion did not end until 1945. Since 1950, imperial powers have had to retreat from their colonies and the world has admitted more than 100 new states to the international system. Even if present-day economic interdependence continues, however, Great Power rivalries, like those from 1890 to 1914, will persist as one major power triumphs over another and alliance systems divide the world.

Since 1500 there have been thirteen cases of one Great Power approaching or passing a hegemonic leader in economic or military terms. Of these, all but three ended in major war. The United States passed Britain peacefully in 1890; there was no war when the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union came to an end, and Japan surpassed the Soviet Union economically without incident in 1983. Two factors seem to be important in preventing war. First, was there a mere balance of power or a favorable overbalance on the side of peace? And second, did the erstwhile hegemon accept the territorial and other demands of the rising power? In 1900 Britain conceded to all US requests; and in 1989, the Soviet Union faced not merely a balance but a huge overbalance of power ranged against it. Somewhat reluctantly, Russia endorsed democratic governments in its erstwhile satellites and gave independence to its restive Western provinces including the Baltic nations,

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Belarus, and Ukraine. In future, China and later India will rise to leading and perhaps hegemonic power status. Will the United States and the West then concede all Chinese demands? Will there be an overbalance against Chinese power, with Europe, the United States and Japan aligned together?

If not, the so-called Thucydides’ problem (where the rising power

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These restraints did not exist in 1914. At that time, all great powers accepted the inevitability of a new clash and did not hesitate when conflict loomed because they thought the war would be quick and it could no longer be postponed. Today, partly because of nuclear weapons, no one thinks a conflict is inevitable. The remaining uncertainty is whether a gradually liberalizing China will adhere to the rules of the game noted above, as it allows its internal provinces to follow more closely the models of Taiwan and Hong Kong.



  • Richard Rosecrance is Director of the US-China Relations Program of the Belfer Center in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at UCLA. Among many other books, he has written, The Rise of the Trading State, The Rise of the Virtual State, and forthcoming, The Return of the West: To Prevent Another World War I (Yale University Press, Spring, 2013).