With the coming of behaviouralism, the term system has gained great importance in Political Science and also in International Politics. The meaning of this concept is quite imprecise and vague.

To a traditionalist believing in the balance of power system, it means different things while to a behaviouralist it conveys something altogether different. It is strange that the term system which has no agreed definition, has not lost its popularity.

In behaviouralist conception, the nation-states are regarded as actors always standing in inter­action with each other making the whole world as an organised complexity.

Writing in 1960, James Roseau held that “of all the advances that have occurred in the study of international phenomenon Perhaps none is more important than the ever-growing tendency to regard the world as an international system.”


System defined. Before we discuss the System Approach, it is im­portant that we should have a clear understanding of the concept ‘System’. There is no unanimity on the exact meaning and implications of the term ‘system’.

However, it refers to a structure of its own, having different parts which are inter-related and inter-dependent, which under­goes various processes to maintain its existence.

A system, therefore, implies not only the inter-dependence of parts but also the acceptance of influence from environment and vice versa. Inter-dependence means that when the properties of a component in a system change, all other components and the system as a whole are affected.

There are various kinds of systems. David Easton and G. A. Almond have used this approach for the study of political system while Mortan Kaplan has used it for the study of international system.


International System. Defining international system, Stanley Hoffman regards it as “a pattern of relations among the basic units of world politics, characterised by the scope of the objectives pursued by those units and of the task performed among them as well as by the means used to achieve those goals and perform these tasks.”

Spiro holds that the idea of international system is abstract, descriptive and theoretical. It contributes a perspective. The international system constitutes an expression to stimulate thought about a certain generalis­ed image. Thus the nations of the world are conceived to be in contact and association in a complicated framework of relationships which is formed through the process of interaction.”

In this way, we find that the systems theory regards the world phenomenon in its totality through those processes of interaction operating at various levels. It is on this account that Mc Cleland calls Systems Theory “as a way of thinking having the proportion of a world view.”

The Systems Theory views the world as a system involving an organised complexity. This system is regulative and adoptive. Each system exists for certain purposes. And, it is for the attainment of these purposes that it adopts and regulates itself to the environment.


The Systems Approach conceives of nations which come in contact to form a complicated relationship resulting from the phenomenon of interaction. The activities of a nation are always directed towards the preservation of its national interest.

But at the same time nations live with one another. They live in an international environment and parti­cipate in that environment. The behaviour of a nation is thus a “two way activity of taking from and giving to the international environ­ment.” This process of exchange is called the International System.

Systems Theory in International Politics. Although Mortan Kaplan is the chief exponent of the system theory, there have been many others who have contributed to the system approach. They include Karl Deutsch, Charles Mc Cleland, J. David Singer, Kenneth Boulding, David Easton and Anatole Rapport.

The interpretation given by all these scholars refers to the variables of the international system, which help in a proper understanding of the interaction process.


These variables are :

(a) Structure of the System

(b) Components of the System

(c) Boundary of the System


(d) Interaction among Components

(e) Regulation in the System.

(a) Structure of the System:

Structure of the system refers to the pattern of relationship among the States. The pattern of relation­ship depends upon :


(i) The distribution of capabilities referring to the evenness or unevenness.

(ii) The characteristic configuration referring to un polarity, bipolarity or multi polarity.

(iii) The hierarchy within the system referring to the dominant and subordinate sub-system.

(b) Components of the System:

It means members of the system. The members or actors can be of different types such as sub-national (the Palestinions in Lebanon or Jordan), National (nation states), Transnational (The Zionist Movement), Universal (The U.N.).

(c) Boundary of the System:

Boundary refers to the dividing line between the environment and the system itself. Environment means all that exists or is perceived as existing outside that system. This makes it easier to draft a line between national and an international system.

(d) Interaction among the Components:

The concept of system refers to the fact of interaction among its components. System theorists may differ on anything while defining a system, but they all agree on its aspect of interaction. Interaction is of different forms such as direct governmental (economic collaboration, diplomatic contacts), direct non­governmental (tourism), indirect governmental (adoption of industrialisation).

Interaction may differ in content. It may be collaborative or con­flicting. It is, however, not possible to have a distinct form in its true shape. Reference to one shape only means dominant traits of the interaction.

Interaction may differ in intensity. We find interaction between the actors of the West-European sub-system as of great intensity than between the actors of Africa.

(e) Regulation in the System:

Regulation is “the process by means of which a system attempts to maintain or preserve its identity over time as it adapts to changing circumstances”. Regulation is aided by various factors such as culture, institution etc.

Systems Theory of Morton Kaplan. It is indeed Morton Kaplan who gave most comprehensive and successful characterisation of international politics in terms of systems theory.

He lays greatest stress on the pattern of the behaviour of states. But as the character of state has been changing since its birth (in its size, objectives, leader­ship, population, role and so on), so has the International System been changing correspondingly. International System is thus never static. The shape system at a particular time reflects the conditions prevailing at that time.

Thus, systems approach takes into consideration the action of nations, structure and functioning of the system, and the environ­mental factors that not only condition the actions of nations but also the interaction among them and the working of the system itself. The system approach covers both the past and present of the International System.

The international System has various smaller international systems at the lower scale working as sub-systems or dependent systems. Each sub-system or the dependent system affects the functioning of the bigger system and vice versa. Thus each system, in addition to being a system in itself, can be a sub-system of a larger or dominant system.

Kaplin believes that International System is the most important of all the systems. He does not regard International System as a poli­tical system because, in his view, the role of decision makers in the international system is subordinate to their role in the national domestic system affirms that the behaviour of the national actors in the field of international affairs is invariably governed and guided by the basic consecration of national interest.

He divides international actors into two categories. The first category is that of the national actors while the second is that of supranational actors. The U.S.A., India, China etc. are the examples of national actors while the NATO is an example supranational actors. According to Kaplan, International action takes places between international actors. It is the interaction between these two types of actors that ultimately gives birth to the International system.

Mode’s of International System:

Kaplan considers that there are five models major international system : (i) the balance of power system, (ii) the bipolar system, (iii) the universal actor system, (iv) the hierarchical international system, and (v) the unit veto system.

(1) Balance of Power System:

Kaplan’s balance of power system is similar to the one which prevailed in the Western World in the 18th and 19th centuries. The actors who work within this system are international actors. They are also national actors. In this system there should be 5 or 6 essential actors. Before the First World War England, Germany. France, Italy and the United States etc. were the essential national actors.

The operation of the balance of power system, according to Kaplan has six instant rules:

(i) Each actor should try to increase its capabilities but through negotiations and not through war.

(ii) The foremost obligation of each actor must be to itself. It should achieve its national interest even at the risk of war, if necessary.

(iii) The participant who is threatened of its own existence should stop fighting. It is to ensure that no essential participant is eliminated altogether.

(iv) The participant should oppose any coalition of other partici­pants in order to avoid predominance of that group in relation to the rest of the system.

(v) The participant should prevent other participants from sub­scribing to the supranational principles, and

(vi) The defeated participants should be permitted to re-enter the system.

The balance of power system worked in the 18th and 19th centuries as an absolute system and it appeared as a rule of universal applicabi­lity. But this system has undergone a change as a result of the world wars. Mrs. Indira Gandhi also spoke of this concept as a thing of the past while speaking on the role of the U.S.A. in the Indo-Pak War of December, 1971.

When the participants in the system, individually or collectively, do not play according to these six rules, the system becomes unstable. The moment this system becomes unstable, it is bound to be changed into a different system.

(2) The Bipolar System:

According to Kaplan, the unstable balance of power system changes itself into a bipolar system. This change occurs if two national actors and their co-operating actors come to constitute dominance over two different blocs. Kaplan conceives of two types of bipolar system.

(a) the loose bipolar system and (b) the tight bipolar system.

(a) The Loose Bipolar System:

It means roughly what we see in the modern world. The two super-powers are surrounded by a group of smaller powers and non-aligned States. The existence of non-aligned States makes the lower of the two major actors loose. The loose bipolar system differs from the balance of power system in many ways.

(i) Both the supranational actors and the national actors partici­pate in the loose bipolar system.

(ii) Supranational actors are divided into a sub-class of bloc actors like, NATO, CENTO, the Communist Bloc, and into universal actors like the United Nations. In the loose bipolar system, each bloc has leading actor.

(iii) The norms of the system among the actors differ according to their roles.

Thus the loose bipolar system is characterised by the presence of two major bloc actors (Soviet Union and the U.S.A.), non-member actors (the Non-aligned States) and the universal actor (U.N.).

All of them perform unique and distinctive role within the system. This system has a great degree of inherent instability because the action of non-member actors is rarely of decisive importance.

(b) The Tight Bipolar System:

The loose bipolar system will be transformed, according to Kaplan, into tight bipolar system. In this system, the non-aligned states, will disappear and the system will operate only around two super blocs.

But its stability will be guaran­teed only when both bloc actors are hierarchically organised, otherwise the system will again revert to the loose bipolar system.

The most important thing about the tight bipolar system is the virtual disappear­ance of the category of non-member national actors and the universal actor (U.N.)

(3) The Universal Actor System:

The Universal Actor System comes into existence with the extension of functions of essential actors in a Loose Bipolar System. The most striking feature of this system is that even though the national actors constantly try for more power, they are prevented effectively from going to war with each other by the U.N.

So this system envisages that the universal actor (the United Nations) is sufficiently powerful to prevent war among national actors. But the national actors retain their individuality. The universal inter­national system will be an integrated system.

It will possess integrated mechanism and will perform judicial, economic, political and adminis­trative functions. National actors will try to achieve their objectives only within the framework of the universal actor.

The national actors will use only peaceful means to get their objectives in view of the fact that the universal actor will be quite powerful to prevent national actors to resort to force.

National interest will have to be subordinated to international objectives like peace and existence of humanity. This system is not likely to be achieved under the present circumstances. A long spell of instability is bound to precede the establishment of this type of system.

(4) Hierarchical International System:

It is a system in which practically the whole of the world, except one nation, is brought under the control of one universal actor.

So, in this system; the universal actor absorbs practically the whole of the world except only one nation. The hierarchical international system can be both directive and non- directive.

It will be directive if it is formed as a consequence of world conquest by a national actor like Nazi system. The national actors lose their primary function of transmitting the rules of the national systems.

The states become merely territorial sub-division of the system instead of being independent political systems. Once established, it will be impossible to displace this system.

On the other hand, it will be non-directive if it is based on political rules generally operative in democracies. As a result, there will be great tension in a directive hierarchical system than in a non-directive system.

(5) Unit Veto System:

In this system weapons play the most important role. Unit Veto System is possible only under the condition that ail actors (states) possess such weapons individually as to destroy any other actor even though it cannot avoid its own destruction.

It conceives of weapons of such a nature that any national actor can destroy any other before being destroyed itself. This is a very peculiar system, and corresponds to the State of nature described by Hobbes in which interests of all are opposed and in which all are at war with one another.

The essence of this system is that each State will be equally able to destroy each other. The only condition in which such a system is possible is the possession by all actors of the weapons of such a nature that any actor is able to destroy any other actor, even though at the risk of its own destruction. In this system, however, universal actor cannot exist.


1. The balance of power system worked in the 18th and 19th centuries and is still working in some form or the other. Like-wise, the loose bipolar system is also in operation. But the other four models pertain to future and may never come into opera­tion. Kaplan makes only a prediction and to this extent his theory is defective.

2. Kaplan believes that the balance of power system passes into loose bipolar system and then into tight bipolar system which in turn transforms itself into universal, international and then into hierarchical international system.

But at present, in the age of loose bipolar system the trends are in favour of the stability of non-aligned States rather than in that of their disappearance. The Super-power blocs are experiencing intra-bloc dissensions represented in the most acute form by China’s defection from the Soviet bloc and the critical attitude of France adopted towards the U.S.A.

Similar is the attitude of Great Britain. So in the present state of international politics, small powers are gradually asserting themselves either individually or collectively. China is also asserting itself to form one bloc.

Japan also wants to assert itself. So the chances of the development of a tight bipolar system would be very dim. The transformation from loose bipolar system will be into multi polar system and not tight bipolar system as Kaplan holds.

3. Kiplan’s theory appears to be wrong also because he envis­ages the transformation of the universal actor system into the hierar­chical international system in which only one nation will be left as the universal actor.

Such a transformation is possible only in the revival of imperialism and colonialism. The possibility of such a revival means misunderstanding the entire process of international politics.

4. Kaplan does not discuss the forces which determine the scale of nation’s behavior. He omits altogether the forces and factors at work wit i in the State. He also does not take into account the factors and conditions which lead nations to behave collectively.

He also ignores how national interests affect the behavior of States. This is a serious omission from the point of view of the completeness of the system.

5. The theory fails to give the exact number of international systems. It is not clear whether all the nations form one international system or they form several participating systems. We also hear of the Communist System, Latin American System and so on. Our approach is likely to be affected by our own views in this regard.

6. Suppose there is only one international System. Then it must react with the environment. But what is the environment in that case- only outer space ? Is it possible for this international system to react with outer space ?


Kaplan is not the only scholar who has done work on systems theory. These are others like Charles Mc Cleland, Stanley Hoffman, Kenneth Boulding and Harold Guetzkow who have empha­sised the significance of the system approach.

If Kaplan is associated more than any body else with the systems theory, it is mainly because Kaplan has made a full attempt at a rigorous, systematic and highly abstract thinking on the subject whereas others have mostly studied it by criticizing Kaplan.

More and more systematic attempts are now being made to study international politics in terms of international systems. This is proof enough if it is at all required about the place of this theory in International Politics.