OUP user menu

World Power and the Strategic Trap of Territorial Commitments

William R. Thompson, Gary Zuk
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2600417 249-267 First published online: 1 September 1986


Long cycle theorizing argues that systemic leadership depends upon the creation and maintenance of a global network of bases to support sea, and later aerospace, based capabilities of global reach. Control over, and responsibility for, extensive amounts of territory tends to be counterproductive to the extent that territorial commitments drain attention and resources from the global network. After briefly illustrating the existence of this strategic dilemma in the 16th and 17th centuries, we concentrate on the empirical relationship between onsets of British imperial warfare and the ratio of navy to army budgets between 1671 and 1913. As anticipated, the longitudinal relationship between imperial warfare, an indirect indicator of expanding territorial commitments, and the budgetary primacy of sea-power concerns is found to be negative and statistically significant. We interpret this finding to be supportive of the view that expanding territorial commitments can constitute a strategic trap for system leaders, and as such, a partial explanation for the decline of their ability to function as leaders. We conclude with some suggestions about how this historical problem may relate to the contemporary foreign policy problems of the current system leader, the United States.

Sign in

Log in through your institution

Sign in as a personal subscriber

Log in through your institution

Purchase a personal subscription