The role of leadership in global politics: do leaders make a difference? Essay

The rise and decline of world powers has attracted much scholarly attention in recent years. The theory of long cycles answers parsimoniously the question: why, in the past half millennium, have Portugal, the Dutch Republic, Britain (twice), and the United States risen to global leadership while others failed to do so? This accounts for the success, or failure, of individual states, but to explain the entire sequence we need to employ an evolutionary paradigm that proposes that each of these long cycles is one mechanism in a spectrum of global evolutionary processes.

The leadership succession is an intermediate stage in the evolution of global politics whose next likely major phase, reaching a high point later in the 21st century, will be the gradual absorption of the informal role of global leadership, when embedded in a democratic community, into a network of more formal positions within an emerging global organization of a federalist character.


The rise and decline of global powers has in recent years drawn considerable attention among students of world politics and society, who have mainly focussed on two questions: why do some states rise to a unique position of global leadership while others fail? And why is that those powers that have risen so successfully ultimately also tend to decline? In this paper it is argued that these two questions can now be answered parsimoniously within the framework of the theory of long cycles of global politics.

But the rise and decline of world powers is not all there is to structural world politics. The global political system today is radically different from what it was a thousand years ago – at which time it perhaps did not even exist at all and it also is probably quite different from what it will become, one or two centuries into the future.

It is different not only because it is obviously more complex, but also it is also different in a patterned way that suggests higher performance and greater efficacy, in other words, cumulative learning, but also greater dangers. That is why an explanation of structural change in world politics, while focussing on the fortunes of global leadership, must set its sights higher, and show not only how and why individual states rise and decline, but also what the entire picture adds up to. A structural analysis of world politics must describe, therefore, a basic process whose principal mechanism in recent centuries has indeed been the rise and fall of world powers, but one that has itself been embedded in a larger movement: the evolution of the global polity.

Our work suggests that global leadership succession is an intermediate stage of an evolutionary process that went through several instances of global leadership, but one whose likely next major phase will be the gradual absorption of the informal role of global leadership, embedded in a democratic community, into a wider network of more formal positions with global responsibilities.

Thus it is for us to show in this paper how, on a canvass of a thousand years, the trajectory of world politics shines as a thrust away from failed efforts to establish world empire, through increasingly intricate exercises in global leadership, towards more and more democratic forms of global organization that are mostly yet to be invented.


The goal of this paper is the “existence”, in the past half millennium of global politics, of a role of leadership exercised by a succession of nation-states. While the exact characteristics of this phenomenon remain a matter of debate, the basic fact of a series of leading powers is increasingly taken for granted. An ambiguity inheres in the notion of a program for an evolutionary process. It might mean a set of rules devised and acted upon by participants, and inferred by observers, but it might also be a regularity that inheres in that same process. A similar problem attaches to the notion of calendars that were once the principal programs organizing the emergence of civilization. A calendar might be thought of as a program that orders a temporal sequence and tells us how to act in relation to it or else it might also be the elucidation of a natural order governed by the motions of the planets around the sun. That is how the long cycle could also be regarded as a calendar of world politics.

The long cycle is a century-long stream or time-line of political events at the global level linking the strategies or fortunes of a number of prominent actors, states and others that compete for global leadership. The fact of competition makes it plain that these actors engage in selection, which is, in a process of collective choice. Selection is a mechanism by which a choice is made among candidates for an office, and the policies they propose. Elections compose, one class of selection processes, but there are others as well.

Suffice is to say that, at the global level and in the experience of modern times, some nation-states have competed for the largely informal position of global leadership in major armed conflicts that we call global wars, and have acceded to that position by winning those wars and playing a leading role in the winning coalition. Those wars rendered collective decisions that proved to be, for a time, binding for the whole of the global system. Just as election campaigns and electoral contests punctuate the political life of a nation, so have global wars lent organization to the politics of the global system, and to each long cycle.

That is why the long cycle is a political selection process. It can also be described as a four-phased “learning” process. It is a learning rather than a routine process because it involves coping and adapting to global problems for which there are no routine solutions. Such structural challenges include major threats to global security, general problems of global system organization, and specific political questions arising out of the selection process such as: where is the next global leadership and challenge coming from? This is that global problems might be classified as negative or positive or as threats or opportunities, those arising specifically out of the functioning of global politics, and others that concern wider structures including the economy.

We can notice, finally, that the theory also allows us to differentiate among the winners and losers in the global leadership stakes of the past half-millennium. Those that decline and fail to make it to a second term are those that have failed in their second bid, for reasons specified in propositions for disobeying the instructions and neglecting to bring together the necessary ingredients. In other words, we do not need to separate theories of rise and decline; a good theory of rise has implicit in it a theory of decline. The problem of continuance of global leadership is identical with that of re-selection.

Effectiveness is in part a function of power concentration. War victory leaves the world power commanding a lion’s share of military and economic power in the global system. “Every execution phase to date the world power has enjoyed a healthy monopoly of seapower . That meant unchallenged control over naval communications, and a powerful assist to installing and “locking-in ” the post-war order. However, monopoly also ultimately leads to complacency, to “resting on one’s laurels.” (

Production of global order has in recent years been taken as the basic output of global leadership, the claim being that order in world politics is typically created by a single dominant power and that the maintenance of order requires continued hegemony. Order, in this context, has meant peace and a liberal economy. In our perspective this is too expansive a view, and the expression needs qualification, since the proposition generalizes only from the most recent British and American cases. Global leadership has in fact consisted of carrying out a program of action, executed via a post-war settlement. Such a settlement could be said to have helped to mould an order, but did not create order as such, and represented only one step in the evolution of the global system. Past the phase of execution a new agenda began to emerge, but though the legitimacy of global leadership was coming into question order never completely dissolved, even in times of global war.

Political-strategic organization for global reach is what wins global wars. In all the past five such wars , strong oceanic navies, rather than large armies, were the necessary conditions of victory and of attaining global leadership. Without superiority on the sea, armies alone could not have been deployed where and when needed.” At the end of each global war, the “incoming” world power could therefore be shown to be commanding the world’s greatest navy. In between “macrodecisions”, global reach forces deterred global war, that is, protected the global status quo. An early, yet insufficiently well known example of such an organization was the navy of the King of Portugal in the l5th and 16th centuries.” (

The global level is not military power in general, and armies in particular – though the latter do matter greatly, especially at the regional level, but the availability of globally mobile forces. In the past these have meant navies, and today and in the near future they mean navies allied to air, space and information power.

Navies are “observables”: warships are a form of military hardware that is measurable and therefore, for our purposes, exceedingly useful as indicators of global purpose. But the use of that indicator is not intended to imply that fleets in and of themselves are all that matters to organization for global reach, for they are only one crucial component. Obviously, they must be combined with other elements of military political power, as well as with diplomacy and good intelligence, and they must be well led.

For it is political leadership at the highest level that combines these forces with the inputs of resources from economy, society, and culture to create the conditions that lead to the attainment of global leadership.

In the future global reach might increasingly take the form of space power, specifically the power to deny the use of near space to one’s opponents, that is to their ability to operate communication, navigation, weather, and intelligence satellites for purposes of conventional and/or nuclear warfare. A monopoly of space power could be technically possible in the 21st century.

Maintaining a lead economy is the second basic condition of global leadership. In order that an economy aids in the “production” of leadership it must, of course, be an economy that is fiscally sound, of some weight and substance, and also a growing one at that, for only a substantial and a growing economy can be expected to fund the budgets that make it possible to mount forces of global reach. But the size of the national product alone does not suffice as a claim to leadership, and preponderane of material resources’ is not a defining element of such an economy. A large but stagnant economy cannot support worldwide enterprises. An economy will only be a reliably growing one if it is an economy that nurtures and brings forth leading industrial sectors.

Long cycles in global politics are more than a churning of great states, the rise and fall of global powers. If they were, such cycles would be meaningless or worse for the world at large, or even for the players themselves. According to our argument, though, these processes possess a wider meaning and inhabit a more expansive universe, that of the construction of the global polity via the stages of preconditions, nucleus, and organization. That is what gives them long-range significance and accounts for the success of some and the failures of others. For it is those whose efforts contribute to the creation of a global order that have a good chance to garner broad support, and have better odds for success.

“We also assume “sensitive dependence on initial conditions;” the beginning forms have an important effect on the course of development, in that they help cumulate the results of earlier changes. This is a basic reason why it is necessary to carefully examine the temporal path of structural change that we also describe as path-dependent.” (

Even though we need not invoke the postulate of progress, we do not believe that evolution is a random process, a matter of lucky accident. Rather we assume that in the presence of certain specifiable conditions, in particular those of information, openness, variety, and complexity of interaction, political evolution will indeed occur. That is why we have paid such attention to specifying these kinds of conditions with care.

Conditions favoring political evolution are those in which evolutionary mechanisms operate most successfully. The first of these mechanisms is Darwinian “variation”. Over time, some global political strategies will be reproduced in a routine fashion by copying; but others will undergo change, by mutation or combination. Additionally, new ones will be proposed as innovations for policy agendas in response to demands for the solution of global problems. Such combinations and recombinations are more probable in free societies, hence are not as random as mutations are thought to be in Darwinian biology. These are the sources of variation in the population of strategies.

The political and social environment of this population of strategies, including specific institutions, should then be regarded as comprising a selective factor or mechanism that helps to determine which parts of the program will persist, and which policies shall be substituted for by new programs. In global politics this has been most directly the mechanism of macrodecision, which in the past five centuries assumed the form of global war but which might evolve new forms in the future. In global economics, on the other hand, the competititve environment of the world market has served as the basic mechanism of selection.


The global political process will continue on its time path, following the same temporal structure as it was outlined this assignment. What we might expect to change is the specification of the necessary conditions of that process. While remaining defined by our four basic categories, the content of these conditions changes with the eras of global politics. Therefore, it is observed that a distinct global political structure corresponds to each period of global politics.