e does point out that inter-
a real possibility that may
titutions. K1y point is that
: derived from an approach
es and interests as exoge-

,,” see Barry Buzan ct al.,
)rder Recast (London: Pin-

ce John R,uggic, ” lnterna-
s, and Change: Embedded
nomic Order,” in Krasner,
nd the Limits of Coopera-

·eating cooperative security
nterests, see Robert Jervis,
ner, l11ternario11al Regimes,
.on, ” International Cooper-
rity Affairs,” Vorld Politics

rid Society ….

ng,” see Jon Eisler, Sour
:rsion of Ratio11ality (Carn-
y Press, 1983), p. 117 … .
New Thinking, see Mikhail
, Tlri11ki11g for Our Cou11try
-larper & Row, 1987); Ven-
Cruickshank, T/ri11king New
1g” (Berkeley: Institute of
•); and Allen Lynch, Gor-
ok: Intellecwal Origins and
lew York: Institute for
1989) ….
‘t hese factors, see Jack Sny-
ution: A Waning of Soviet
:cs 12 (Winter 1987-88), PP·
“The Sources and Prospects
:al Thinking on Security,”
111988), pp. 124-63.
al “Conflict Termination:
is .,of International Cases,”
1989) , pp. 233- 55. · · ·

i i Forces, States and V.:?rld
nal Relations Theory, In
Critics, pp. 204-55. See also

Y · Cornell ie11ce (Ithaca, N. ··

d ” la Nurius, “Possible S v~
-ptember 1986), ~P· 95~ ·
;entation of Self in Ev;’)’ ~
Paul Deutschberger, Som
. ” Sociometry 26 (December

I A /1 ES , . RO S EN A L’ / Turbulent Change 459

1963 ), pp. 45 4-66; and Walter Earle, ” International
Relations and the Psychology of Control: Alternat ive
Control Strategies and Their Consequences,” Political
Psychology 7 (June 1986), pp. 369- 75.
83. See Volker Boge and Peter Wilke, “Peace Move-
ment s and Unilateral Disarmament: Old Concepts in a
New Light,” Arms Control 7 (Septemb er 1986 ), pp.
156- 70; Zeev Maoz and Dan iel Felsenthal, “Self-Binding
Commitments, the Inducement of Trust, Social Choice,
and the Theory of Internation al Cooperation,” l11tema-
rio11al Studies Q11arterly 3 1 (June 1987), pp. 177-200; and
V. Sakamoto, “Uni lateral Initiative as an Alternati ve
Strategy,” World F11t11res, vol. 24, nos. 1–4, 1987, pp.
107-3 4.

84. On rewards, see Thomas Milburn and Daniel
Christie, ” Rewarding in International Politics,” Political
Psychology IO (December 1989), pp. 625–45.
85. Yale Ferguson and Richard Mansbach, “Between
Celebration and Despair: Constructive Suggestions for
Futur e Internat ional Theory,” International St11dies
Quarterly 35 (December 199 1), 375.
86. For excellent discussions of this tension, see
Walker, “Sovereignty, Identity, Communi ty”; and R. B.
J. Walker, “Security, Sovereignty, and the Challenge of
World Politics,” Alternatives 15 (Winter 1990), pp. 3-27.
On institutiona l path dependencies, see Stephen Kras-
ner, “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective,” Com-
parative Political S111dies 21 (April I 988 ), pp. 66-94.

Turbulent Change


In this article, excerpted from his book T urbul ence in World Politics, Professor
Rosenau identifies two competing “worlds”- state-centric and multicentric. He
focuses on both micro- and macro-level factors as he explores a world marked by
the uncertainties associated with t11rb11lence. Change is being propelled by the
dynami cs of technology, the emergence of complex issues, the reduced capacity of
states to deal effectively with many conte111porary problems, a11d the emergence
of “subgroupis111” (lltd individuals who are analytically ever 111ore capable and
diverse in orientation.

Doubtless every e~a seems chaotic to the people
who live through it, and the last decades of th e
twentieth centu ry are ··no exception. It is as if
Spaceship Earth daily encounters squalls, down –
drafts, and wind shears as it careens into chang-
ing and unchartered realms of experience.
Sometimes th e tu rbulence is furiously evident as
thunderclouds of war gatl1er or the lightning of
a crisis streaks across the global sky; but often
the turbulence is of a clear-air kind, the havoc it
wreaks unrecognized until after its challenges
have been met or its damage done.

In seeking here to account for this turbu-
lence in world pol itics and the changes that it
bo th reflects and promotes, the analysis will
focus on th e un derlying and end uring dynamics
out of which daily events and current issues
flow. Some of the dynamics are located at micro
levels, where individuals learn · and group s
cohere; ot hers or iginate at macro levels, ·where
new techno logies are operative and collectivities
conflict; and still others derive from clashes
between opposing forces at the two levels-
between continuity and change, between the

From James N. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics. Copyright 1990 by Princeton University Press .
Reprinted by permission.

460 J AM ES N . RO S E N A U / Turbulent Chang e

pulls of the past and the lures of th e future,
between th e requir ements of int erd ependence
and the dem ands for independence, between
centralizing and decentralizing tendencies with-
in and amon g nations.

While equat ing the turbu lence of world
affairs to sto rmy weather captures well the cur-
rent huma n condi tion, its use here as a metaphor
may divert from my larger purp ose. The goal in
ident ifying a hitherto unim aginable scheme is to
facilitate empiri cal explanation rather than to
provide poetic expression. What is needed is a
concep tion of tur bulence that deno tes the ten-
sions and changes that ensue when the structures
and processes that normally sustain world poli-
tics are unsettled and appear to be undergoing
rearran gemen ts. Tu rbul ence is thu s more than
the commotion that accompanies shifts in major
variables. Such fluctuations make up the day-to-
day life of any system , be it social or meteorolog-
ical. Just as shifts from cloudiness to showers to
sun shine constitute normal weather patterns, so
do electoral shifts from right to center to left or
ind ustrial shi fts from high to mo derate to low
produ ctivity form standard political and eco-
nom ic patterns, thereby allowing the analysis of
such shifts to proceed by treating the system’s
boundaries as constant and the range within
which the variables fluctuate as a measure of
und erlying stability. When the system’s bound-
aries no longer contain the fluctuations of the
variables, however, anomillies arise and irregu-
larities set in as structures wav’er, new processes
evolve, outcomes become transitory, and the sys-
tem enters a period of prolonged disequiJibrium.
These are the hallmarks of turbul ence. Meteoro-
logically, it appears in the form of hur ricanes,
tornadoes, tidal waves, droug hts, and other
“abnormalities” of natur e that transform the ter-
rain across which they sweep. Socially, it is man-
ifested in technological breakthroughs, authority
crises, consensus breakdowns, revolutionary up-
heavals, generational conflicts, and other forces
that restructur e tl1e hum an landscape in which
they erup t.

It follows that uncertainty is a prime
characterist ic of tu rbu lent polit ics. While the
fluctu ations of variables usually adhere to recog-
i1izable patterns, regularities disap pear when
turbulence sets in. At such times, the struct ures
and processes of world polit ics enter a realm
without prior ru les or boundaries . Anything
may happen, or so it seems, as dema nds are
intensified, tensions exacerbated, relations hips
transfor med, policymaki ng paralyzed, or out-
comes otherwise rendered less certai n and the
future more obscure.

Closely related to the uncertain ties associ-
ated with political turbulence . is the pace at
which it moves. Unlike conven tional dip lomatic
or organizational situations, which evolve in the
con text of formal procedures, cautious bargain-
ing, and bur eaucrat ic iner t ia, those beset by
turbu lent conditions develop rapidly as the re-
percussions of the various participants’ actions
cascade through their networks of interdepen-
dence . Sustained by the complexity and dy-
namism of diverse actors whose goals and
activities are inextricab ly linked to each otl1er,
and facilitated by technologies that tra nsmit
information almos t instantaneously, tu rbulent
situatio ns tend to be marked by quick responses,
insiste nt demands , temporary coalitions, and
policy reversals, all of which propel t he course of
events swiftly if erratically along the fault lin es of
conflict and cooperation .

Viewed in th is contex t, it is not surprising
that … pro tests and uprisings [have] followed
quickly upon each ot her in Soviet Armenia, the
West Bank, Poland, Burma, and Yugoslavia, or
that the same time span was marked by regimes
being shaken up in the Soviet Un ion, Chile,
Haiti, and Lebanon. Likewise, and no less con-
spicuous, [ the world has] witnessed cascades of ·
cooperation: within weeks of each oth er, negoti-
ations to end wars were initiated in Afghanistan,
Angola, Central America, Cambodia, the West-
ern Sahara, and the Persian Gul f.1 The winds of
tur bulence, in short, can prop el postinterna-
tional politics in many direct ions, thro ugh the

ncertainty is a prime
lent politics. While the
. usually adhere to recog-
larities di~appear when
Jch times, the stru ctures
:I politics ent er a realm
r boundaries. Anything
seems, as demands are
:acerbated, relationships
.king paralyzed, or out-
:red less certain and the

the uncertainties associ-
rbulence is the pace at
conventiona l diplomatic
·ions, which evolve in the
! of their followers will
intens ify and lend further credence to the per-
ception ol cit izens as und ergo ing an expa nsion
and redirection o f their skills and or ienta tions.

The Technologica l Dynamic

Gi,·cn the concept ion of tur bu lence as a process
of paramet er realignm ent , a furth er qu estion
arises as to th e sour ces of t urbu lence. Except for
the dyn am ics u nlc.::ashcd by tech nological inno-
vation s, those noted !, O far are embrace d by the
three pa ramet ers of th e global political system
and arc thu s endo genou s to it. But th ere may be
exogen ous sour ces in addition to those that
deri’e from techn o logical developme nt s. That
is, \’hilc tur bu lence pa rtly feeds on itself, as each
para metric alteratio n gives rise to circum stances
tha t exert pressur e for furth er alteratio ns, polit-
ical systems arc also subject to a broad array of
changes or iginating in th e economy and society,
all of which MC also ·ufficicn tly dyna mic to spur
till further change once they have been ab-

sorbed b y the polity.
Following the insightful formulation of ·

Cho ucri and ort h, thr ee dynamics are coJ)-
ceived to be especially relevan t as exogenous
sou rces of glob al turbu lence.5 As indicated in
Figur e l , one i th e pressures created by exten-
sive changes in the stru ctu re and size of popula-
tio n in recen t d ecades. A second involves the

into a situation any-
,se information about
. immediately at hand.
nsuing analysis exag-
h the skills and orien-
nlarged, the ability to
rientations is so much
1 in the past that the
1ded capacity for iden-
lf-interests and partic-
ctive action. And if, as
ead organizations rec-
:apacity on their lead-
·n their sensitivities to
of their followers will
r credence to the per-
lergoing an expansion
;kills and orientations.


:urbulence as a process
1t, a …

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