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Project: Rising and Fading Powers: International Order in Transition

The objective of this project is to understand more fully the process of international power transition and the modalities and challenges of ensuring peaceful change in the international system. This challenge is extremely important and timely as international politics confronts a historical intersection and a new international order is in the midst of taking shape. The nature of this evolution hinges, to a large extent, upon the order defined and constituted in the policies and relationships of the leading states.

An important literature exists on the rise and decline of leading states and on power transition. Most of this work, however, overlooks the substantive content of negotiation over the recasting of international order. This project will attempt to fill this gap by examining how power and ideas interact with each other to shape the trajectory of transition. It explores the meaning and consequences of the "passage de témoin" (handing-over) of power and leadership from fading powers to rising powers

In comparing historical cases of violent transition with cases of peaceful transition it focuses on a host of issues which may influence the ongoing reformation of international order: the material distribution of power and its effect on international stability; the convergence of ideas and the role of contested norms in affecting a mutually acceptable outcome; domestic political preferences and the constraints they impose on state behavior; the timing and speed of power transition; and differences in state strategy (such as power accretion versus power management) and their impact on transition.

In looking to the future, the project will use the lessons drawn from the historical and theoretical inquiry to examine not only strategies, but also the institutional consequences of a shifting of the distribution of power. It will also examine, in view of the current shift of global power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, how a greater Asian role in shaping international order will affect the security agenda, security paradigms and security institutions. These issues will be addressed by focussing upon a number of themes and variables which condition power transitions: causes of violent power transitions; lessons for managing the current power transition; shifting notions of legitimacy and their implications for the normative underpinnings of a stable transition; and changes in the identities of relevant state and nonstate actors.

Specifically, the objectives of the research are:

  • to shed light on the current era by examining the history of power transitions;
  • to evaluate options for the current era and develop analytic tools for doing so;
  • to produce concrete policy recommendations for managing today's power transition and erecting - through peaceful means - a new order.

The direct outcome of this project will be a published book. In addition to this, it is hoped that there will practical, policy-relevant implications. The research should produce concrete policy recommendations for the UN's ongoing efforts to facilitate peaceful transition and shape a stable international order, and stimulate a debate which may condition the attitudes of political leaders and publics alike.

Project Team:
Charles Kupchan (project director) Professor of International Relations, Georgetown University; Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, USA

Jean-Marc Coicaud, Senior Programme Officer, Peace and Governance Programme, UNU Professor Yuen Foong Khong, Nuffield College, University of Oxford, UK

Professor Emanuel Adler, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of International Relations, Israel