Curves, Conflict and Critical Points: Rethinking Power Cycle Theory for the 21st Century

Teoría de las RRII Working Paper No. 9

156 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2010

See all articles by Dylan Kissane

Dylan Kissane

Centre d'Etudes Franco-Americain de Management (CEFAM)

Date Written: 2005


Power cycle theory, arising primarily from the work of Charles F. Doran, determines a sovereign state’s relative share of total power within a wider system of like states. Using unweighted measures of national material capabilities across five indicators, the power cycle method allows the analyst to estimate the relative hierarchical position of each state in a defined system or set of states, the rapidity of each state’s rise and decline in relative power and to forecast the likely future for each state in the system under review. The mapped ‘curve of relative power’ for a state also allows the analyst to determine ‘critical points’ on the curve. These points usually correlate strongly and positively with the incidence of conflict initiated or encountered by the state in question.

Power cycle theory, however, is a product of its time and may have less utility in post-Cold War and post-twentieth century analysis of international relations. The power cycle theory of Charles F. Doran does not account for innovation in technology or weapons systems, nor does it include significant non-state actors in its calculations of relative power. The five indicators of material capability, measured only every five years, are not equally weighted across the broader elements by which international analysts understand power today: military, economic and soft power. Finally, the methodology of Doran is in itself too difficult for the analyst to incorporate easily into investigations of international affairs, working against the utility of the power cycle method as a tool of the scholar of international relations.

This thesis considers these problems and presents a reformulated power cycle model which maintains the strong correlation between critical points and conflict but addresses the shortcomings of Doran’s method. Firstly, the indicators of material capability are modified to include innovation and broadened to evenly weight the military, economic and a surrogate for soft elements of international power. Secondly, the analysis is broadened to include significant non-state international actors. Thirdly, the measurements for each indicator are taken annually instead of only twice a decade. Finally, a simplified mapping technique, inspired by the work of Brock Tessman, is used to fit the curves of relative power for each actor. This new technique, coupled with the other elements of the methodological reformulation, is shown to have little effect on the ultimate shape of the power cycle curves, the location of the critical points on those curves or the strength of the correlation between the critical points and international conflict.

Keywords: power cycle theory, world systems, major powers

Suggested Citation

Kissane, Dylan, Curves, Conflict and Critical Points: Rethinking Power Cycle Theory for the 21st Century (2005). Teoría de las RRII Working Paper No. 9, Available at SSRN: or

Dylan Kissane (Contact Author)

Centre d'Etudes Franco-Americain de Management (CEFAM) ( email )

47 rue Sergent Michel Berthet
Lyon, Rhone 69009

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