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Unipolarity, Status Competition, and Great Power War

  • William C. Wohlforth (a1)

Most scholars hold that the consequences of unipolarity for great power conflict are indeterminate and that a power shift resulting in a return to bipolarity or multipolarity will not raise the specter of great power war. This article calls into question the core assumptions underlying the consensus: (1) that people are mainly motivated by the instrumental pursuit of tangible ends such as physical security and material prosperity and (2) that major powers' satisfaction with the status quo is relatively independent of the distribution of capabilities. in fact, it is known that people are motivated powerfully by a noninstrumental concern for relative status, and there is strong empirical evidence linking the salience of those concerns to distributions of resources. If the status of states depends in some measure on their relative capabilities and if states derive utility from status, then different distributions of capabilities may affect levels of satisfaction, just as different income distributions may affect levels of status competition in domestic settings. Building on research in psychology and sociology, the author argues that even capabilities distributions among major powers foster ambiguous status hierarchies, which generate more dissatisfaction and clashes over the status quo. and the more stratified the distribution of capabilities, the less likely such status competition is. Unipolarity thus augurs for great power peace, and a shift back to bipolarity or multipolarity raises the probability of war even among great powers with little material cause to fight.

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* I would like to acknowledge with thanks contributions made by fellow participants in this project and colleagues who discussed presentations of this paper at the University of Washington's Political Science Department and the ir/Foreign Policy Workshop at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. I am particularly indebted to Stephen Brooks, Bridget Coggins, David Kang, Elizabeth Keir, R. Ned Lebow, Roger Masters, Jonathan Mercer, Brent Strathman, and Benjamin Valentino.

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World Politics
  • ISSN: 0043-8871
  • EISSN: 1086-3338
  • URL: /core/journals/world-politics
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