Amongst the various theories of International Relations, the supporters of the World Systems Theory claim that the theory most accurately describes the international system. This essay examines the basic premises of the World Systems theory and its validity in explaining the dynamics of state to state relations in the international arena.
The World Systems theory views the world as comprised of a core and a periphery. According to the theory, the core group of nations comprises of the developed world and the underdeveloped world is the periphery. The periphery exports raw materials to the core which produces the finished goods. Therefore in global economics, according to Wallerstein there existed two basic types of goods; the core-like products and the peripheral products (28). In this interaction, the core employs all means necessary to maximize its gains and thus keeps the periphery dependant upon it. These means included military, technological or organizational superiority, through a long distance exchange mechanism controlled by the core that in turn decided the politico-economic dynamics of the periphery (Kardulias and Association 154). In such a case, the periphery is just a means of acquiring raw materials for the furtherance of prosperity of the core state. This is a Marxists view of world systems and is used to explain the occurrence of poverty in the Third World in relation to the enrichment of America and Europe (Jackson and Sorenson 25). The dominant capitalist system installs a hierarchy of nations divided into a core and periphery, where poorer nations can graduate to the core if they manage their affairs correctly. However, since the exploitative core at the apex has very few vacancies, such a system can never be a just system which would always lead to strife and disorder. The world systems theory was further refined to state that the system not only contained a core and a periphery but also a semi-periphery. The world systems theory is used to explain the plight of Latin America, which theorists claim has been treated as a periphery by the core- The U.S. since the 18th century. The United States even proclaimed a Monroe Doctrine, which essentially declared the Americas to be off limits for European interference. The Monroe Doctrine is likened to be a measure by which the U.S. as the core state was trying to protect its interests in its periphery by denying other core states from venturing into the periphery. The theory also reasons that the continued poverty of Latin America derives in large parts because of its periphery status and economic interaction with the core, the U.S. that is preventing its economic progress (Schoonover 2). The theory explains European domination of Africa (Kardulias and Association 155) quite succinctly and thus has a predictive quality in describing international relations. The fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of a Capitalist leaning China has robbed the theory of much of its credence. Also, the World Systems theory is an economic theory of international relations which does not explain the other dynamics of state to state relations that mainstream Realist theories so clearly elucidate.
Morgenthau’s explanation that the human need for power and its manifestation in state to state relations where national interests supersedes any kind of morality (Morgenthau 161) is more plausible than the World systems theory because there has been historical evidence to prove such a thesis. Nor does the World systems theory explain the anarchic nature of the world, dominance of national security rather than economic security and the prevalence of balance-of-power (Waltz 102-128) as the Realist theories do. The fact that the U.S. has used traditional Realist and Neo-Realist policies since its independence and succeeded in achieving superpower status provides greater credence to Realist formulations of Morgenthau and Waltz rather than the World systems theory. Theories such as Power Transition theory which describes the world comprising of a pyramidal structure of a dominant power at the apex, great powers forming the next tier, followed by regional powers, minor powers and the subjugated (Organski 330-336) more accurately describes the international order than does the world systems theory.
In conclusion it can be stated that while the World systems theory does provide explanation of state to state relations in the field of economic interaction, and possibly the imperial period, the theory fails to explain the larger issues of state to state relations such as need for power, anarchic nature of the world system, national security and power politics, which realist theories like those of Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz and Organski so clearly explain. The chief weaknesses of the theory lie in its Marxist origins, a theory that has lost much credence with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The very fact that the last bastion of Marxism, China has moved away from Marxist principles and has imbibed Capitalism in full vigor robs the World Systems theory of its universal applicability. In the final analysis, it can be reiterated that the World Systems theory has lesser applicability than the time tested and empirically proven Realist theories of Power politics and national security.
Jackson, Robert H and Georg Sorenson. Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Kardulias, P. Nick and American Anthropoligical Association. Wordl-Systems Theory in Practice: Leadership, production, and exchange. NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.
Morgenthau, Hans. Politics Among Nations. NY: McGraw Hill, 2005 7th edition.
Organski, A.F.K. World Politics. NY: A.A. Knopf, 1960.
Schoonover, Thomas David. The United States in Central America, 1860-1911: Episodes of Social Imperilaism and Imperial Rivelry in the World System, Vol 1. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. NY: McGraw Hill, 1979.