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Explaining the Post-Cold War Order: An International Society Approach

Mark E. Pietrzyk

George Washington University

International Studies Association
40th Annual Convention
Washington, D.C.
February 16–20, 1999

Despite the fears of many realists, the demise of the bipolar structure of the Cold War era has not resulted in major instability, but rather a largely pacific international system (albeit with occasional regional flare-ups). Many theorists are inclined to attribute this stability to the triumph of democracy, but there is another explanation rooted in a theoretical tradition different from either realism or democratic peace: the British school of “international society.”

According to international society theorists, anarchy may be the fundamental reality of international politics, but anarchy is not equivalent to chaos. Order within anarchy is possible through the evolution of a variety of norms, institutions, and understandings which regulate conflict, and the dominance of the Cold War in our consciousness has blinded us to the fact that there has actually been increasing order in international politics. The chief sources of order in the post-Cold War era are: the solidification of state borders through agreement and tradition; the institutionalization of norms of sovereignty and anti-imperialism; and great power/superpower leadership buttressed by legitimacy.



The end of the Cold War has brought about a renewed debate over competing theoretical traditions in the study of international relations. Realism and so-called Neo-Realism, which formerly dominated the discipline, appear to be increasingly unhelpful in explaining broad trends in international politics today. Contrary to fears that the collapse of the bi-polar order would result in large-scale instability, the contemporary international system is characterized by a high degree of peace and cooperation among the major developed powers. Certainly, the developing world still contains a good deal of strife, but even here, great power cooperation has often had the effect of checking and moderating such conflicts so that they do not spin out of control. The type of great power conflicts which led to major wars in the past are hardly to be found today, and international cooperative institutions such as the United Nations and the European Community appear to be growing in effectiveness. Traditional realist notions of national interest, power-seeking among states, and pervasive competition and conflict appear to be inadequate in accounting for these developments.

One popular alternative to realism in explaining post-Cold War events is the “idealist” theory of “democratic peace.” According to democratic peace theory, realism may be useful in explaining interactions between non-democratic states, or between a democratic and non-democratic state. But in relations between democracies, realism is obsolescent. Because of their popular input and checks and balances, democratic governments recognize each other as having a common interest in peace, so they band together. Thus it is said that “democracies do not fight one another,” and that the more democracies arise in the world, the larger the zone of peace that is created. 1

However, while mutual democracy can be a causal factor for peace, it is difficult to easily accept the notion that democracy in itself has had such revolutionary effects in international politics as democratic peace proponents have claimed. One can recognize a correlation between democracy and peace in the post-World War Two era, and there are some general but still rather vague causal models which explain this peace by reference to democratic norms and institutions. However, there is a dearth of solid, in-depth case studies which demonstrate that democracy has such powerful effects on international politics that we can confidently expect that democracies do not and will not fight each other because of their common domestic political systems. Even several prominent democratic peace proponents have admitted that there is some truth in the charge that there has not been enough in-depth case-study analysis of the democratic peace proposition, that “process-tracing of decision-making can be enlightening, and not enough of it has been done on this topic.” 2

There is, however, a theoretical school different from both realism and democratic peace which can explain developments in contemporary international politics and which also can account for a number of anomalies that realism and democratic peace cannot—the school of “international society.” International society theorists are primarily British scholars, and perhaps for that reason, they are not well known in America. In brief, international society theorists argue that while anarchy may be the fundamental reality of international politics, anarchy is not equivalent to chaos. Order within anarchy is possible through the evolution of a variety of norms, institutions, and understandings which regulate conflict. In this view, the dominance of the Cold War in our consciousness has blinded us to the fact that there has actually been increasing order in international politics. The chief sources of global order are: the solidification of state borders through agreement and tradition; the institutionalization of norms of sovereignty and anti-imperialism; and great power/superpower leadership buttressed by legitimacy.

It must be stressed that this paper does not purport to provide a thorough description and analysis of all the works of international society theorists. Such an attempt would be a book in itself. Rather, the analysis contained within should be understood as the author’s attempt to apply some important concepts from the international society school to explain certain aspects of contemporary international politics and to demonstrate the advantage of these concepts over those of realism and the democratic peace.


The Meaning of Anarchy and Order

The fundamental premise of the international society approach, as put forth by Hedley Bull, C.A.W. Manning, Evan Luard, and Adam Watson, among others, is that order in international politics is possible even under conditions of “anarchy.” That is, despite the lack of a world government, global politics is not a never-ending war of all against all, but a social order with norms, written and unwritten, which guide behavior. These rules are the foundation of an international society which makes it possible to establish long periods of peace between states, though not necessarily “perpetual peace.”

International society theorists note that there are several problems with the concept of anarchy as it has been traditionally used by theorists of international politics. First, although the word “anarchy” is often used as a synonym for “chaos,” anarchy simply means “without government.” While it is obviously true that international politics is characterized by the absence of an overarching world government, it does not necessarily follow that international politics is without order. All societies have nongovernmental sources of social order—explicit or implicit rules, cultural practices, traditions, etc. Primitive societies in particular are usually characterized by the absence of a government with instruments of enforcement; yet they manage to maintain a tolerable degree of order by means of social norms. Indeed, it is quite possible, as history demonstrates, to have a society without a government, but it is not possible to have a society without norms. The proper way of conceptualizing international politics, then, is not as a Hobbesian “war of all against all” but as a society without government, analogous to a primitive society. 3

Second, international society theorists argue that the absence of a world government in international politics is not quite analogous to an absence of government among individuals. Individuals in a state of nature are nearly equivalent in power capabilities—consequently, every person in a state of nature is potentially vulnerable to harm or extinction, especially when asleep, sick, or otherwise incapacitated. States, however, are powerful and secure in a way that individuals cannot be, because a collective organization can cover for the frailties of individuals. Thus while anarchy among individuals greatly hinders the advancement of a large and complex civilization, anarchy between states still permits the growth and survival of civilization. 4

States which happen to be great powers are even less vulnerable. Indeed, the large disproportion of power between states provides the possibility of a hierarchical order in international politics. Although great powers do not govern the world in the same way as governments rule over populations, they do have a large say in how inter-state relations as a whole are to be conducted. According to Robert Gilpin, “In every international system the dominant powers in the international hierarchy of power and prestige organize and control the processes of interactions among the elements of the system.” Thus the international system can be considered to have an oligopolistic organization. 5 Although there is no uncontested center of authority in international politics, there is some authority in international society flowing from the hierarchy of power and status.

The norms governing the international society of states have been many and varied over time, but a number of fundamental norms have demonstrated their importance over time. These norms include: (1) Preservation of the society of states against attempts to build a world empire; (2) Maintenance of the independence and equality of states under international law; (3) Peace, except insofar as military action may be required to enforce the previous two norms. 6

Although it is true that there are many examples of the violation of norms and rules of international society, international society theorists note that this does not prove their impotence any more than the violation of social norms and laws in domestic societies prove the impotence of domestic norms and laws. Indeed, the power of many international norms tends to be overlooked precisely because they are usually respected, and therefore taken for granted. The voluntary observance of other states’ borders, territorial waters, and airspace, the observance of international treaties, the respect paid to the principle of freedom of the seas—all these are everyday events. The norms these actions are based on attract public notice only during the relatively infrequent occurences when they are violated. 7

It is true that international norms may abandoned altogether by states during war or as a prelude to war. However, between any two given states in the international system, relations will tend to be peaceful most of the time. In fact, if norms and rules did not restrain states at all, if states never or hardly ever respected borders, treaties, freedom of the seas, etc., violence in the international system would be omnipresent and continual instead of episodic. Because states, like individuals, cannot tolerate pervasive disorder and violence, international norms are usually observed. 8


An Evolutionary Order

An important concept in the international society approach is the idea of evolutionary order. That is, the order provided by norms and rules is a progressive creation, with international society becoming more orderly over time. One example of this phenomenon can be found in patterns of warfare. In general, newly emerging states experience the most warfare, as they establish their sovereignty within particular boundaries and defend their gains from other states. Examples of this include the newly independent states of Latin America in the nineteenth century, Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, and Israel in the post-World War Two era. Over time, however, one can observe states becoming less involved in war as they become firmly established and accepted into international society. Indeed, a broad survey of the international system over the past five centuries indicates that inter-state war in general has become rarer and rarer over time and that periods of peace have become longer.

This long-term trend toward peace was first spotted by two analysts in the early part of this century, who published their study under the title Is War Diminishing? The authors, studying the history of wars in Europe from 1450 to 1900, claimed that historical trends indicated a decreasing prevalence in war, measured in terms of the number of years that a state was involved in war per century. 9 Although the authors had the misfortune to complete their study on the eve of two world wars, their general thesis of a long-term decline in the incidence of war bears some examination. (See Table One).

Table 1: Prevalence of War, Measured in Years per Century

  16th cent. 17th cent. 18th cent. 19th cent.
Austria/Hapsburgs 75.5 73.5 48.5 13.5
Denmark 32.5 30.5 12 15
England 54.5 43.5 55.5 53.5
France 60.5 46.5 50.5 35
Holland   62.5 29.5 14.5
Poland 55 68 22.5  
Prussia/Germany   58.5 31 13
Russia 78.5 57.5 49.5 53
Spain 73 82 48.5 53.5
Sweden 50.5 50 29.5 6.5
Turkey 80.5 89 23 39.5
Average Total 62.3 60.1 36.4 29.7

Note: From Frederick Adams Woods and Alexander Baltzly, Is War Diminishing? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), pp. 28–105. The authors base their calculations on the beginning and end dates of wars cited in several dozen major historical works.

According to the Woods/Baltzly study, nearly every major and minor power in Europe has experienced a substantial drop in the number of years devoted to war over the centuries. Part of this trend can be attributed to the fact that once great powers, such as Sweden and Holland, dropped out of the international competition for power and devoted themselves primarily to defense and commerce. However, there has also been a decline in war among the great powers. The chief exception to this trend, England, is unique in that it has, historically, operated primarily as a seafaring and colonial power, its wars being mostly small in nature and conducted well outside its territory. This decline in war cannot be attributed to the rise of democracy, since it began long before the rise of democracy and the trend holds for autocracies such as Russia, Turkey, and Spain in addition to states which became democracies, such as Holland and Sweden.

More recently, Jack Levy has compiled data on trends in warfare involving the great powers in the past five centuries. Levy concentrates his focus on the great powers because it has been the great powers which have largely shaped and governed the international system through war and the threat of war. According to Levy’s measures, the international system has indeed experienced a decline in the frequency and pervasiveness of war.

Levy measures trends in two types of wars: (1) interstate wars involving at least one great power; (2) great power wars (those with a great power on each side). It has been the latter type of war which has been the most significant type of war, having had the greatest impact on the shaping of the international system. (See Tables Two and Three.)

Table 2: Interstate Wars Involving At Least One Great Power

Century War Frequency Proportion of Years
  (No. of Wars
Per Century)
War Underway (%)
16 th. 34 95 %
17 th. 29 94 %
18 th. 17 78 %
19 th. 20 40 %
20 th. (thru 1975) 15 53 %

Note: From Jack Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495–1975 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 50–76, 88–91, 139. Levy defines a war as an armed conflict between the organized military forces of independent political units which result in at least 1000 battle deaths.

Great powers include France (from 1495 to 1975), Britain (1495–1975), Austria (1495–1519; 1556–1918), Spain (1495–1519; 1556–1808), Ottoman Empire (1495–1699), United Hapsburgs (1519–1556), Netherlands (1609–1713), Sweden (1617–1721), Russia (1721–1975), Prussia/Germany (1740–1975), Italy (1861–1943), United States (1898–1975), Japan (1905–1945), and China (1949–1975).

Wars which do not include at least one great power are excluded, as are civil wars and colonial wars (unless the intervention of another state widens the war).

Table 3: Great Power Wars

Century War Frequency Proportion of Years
  (No. of Wars
Per Century)
War Underway (%)
16 th. 26 89 %
17 th. 17 88 %
18 th. 10 64 %
19 th. 5 24 %
20 th. (thru 1975) 5 25 %

Note: From Levy, pp. 50–76, 141.

Both tables demonstrate a significant decline in the occurrence of war involving great powers. While in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an interstate war was underway about 95 percent of the time, this proportion has dropped to 78 percent in the eighteenth century, and 53 percent in the twentieth century. Looking specifically at great power war, the decline has been even more dramatic, from 89 percent in the sixteenth century to 25 percent in this century.

It must be granted that measuring war in terms of frequency and years is not fully adequate, in the sense that such measures do not take into account the severity of war (no. of battle deaths) and intensity of war (no. of battle deaths as a proportion of the population). In previous centuries, war-making was a lengthy affair, but casualties were generally lower than those of twentieth century wars, both in absolute terms and proportionately. Even so, it must be noted that when one measures war casualties spread out over the years, there is still a slight decline in the yearly amount of war casualties over the past five centuries. 10

If one looks beyond the great powers to countries in the developing world, one can detect a similar long-term trend toward longer periods of inter-state peace. In the case of South America, there was a number of bloody wars in the years following independence from Spain, but state borders subsequently became defined and stabilized, and since the late 1880s, with the exception of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1932–35, South American states have been largely at peace with each other. The states of Africa have also experienced very few wars between themselves since independence, despite the artificiality of their borders. On the other hand, the developing world has experienced a great many bloody civil wars. Although these wars have in many cases brought on foreign intervention, they have originated primarily in domestic disputes. Of all the wars that have taken place since 1945, 98 percent have occurred in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, and the majority of these wars have been civil wars. 11

Thus although civil war is a major problem in the developing world, it is noteworthy that inter-state military competition does not appear to be a pervasive phenomenon, as it was for European states in the past five centuries. According to one scholar:

[S]ince the end of the Second World War, very few Third World states have fought inter-state wars of the type that affected the evolution of European states. The few Third World inter-state wars that have occurred (e.g., India–Pakistan, Iran–Iraq, China–Vietnam) have obscured the fact that the vast majority of Third World states most of the time do not face significant external threats. . . .

Even in Africa, the continent seemingly destined for war given the colonially-imposed boundaries and weak political authorities, there has not been one involuntary boundary change since the dawn of independence era in the late 1950s, and very few countries face even the prospect of a conflict with their neighbors. Most of the conflicts in Africa that have occurred were not, as in Europe, wars of conquest that threatened the existence of other states, but conflicts over lesser issues that were resolved without threatening the existence of another state. 12

One could argue that civil war has somehow displaced inter-state war in the developing world. However, historical patterns have indicated a strong tendency for civil wars to spill over and cause more inter-state wars, rather than displace inter-state wars. Indeed, many theorists posit that states with strong and stable internal structures are an important prerequisite for lasting inter-state peace. 13 Yet, for all the civil wars that have taken place in Latin America and Africa, borders between states have been mostly respected. Even inter-state military competition short of war—arms races, competing alliance formation, etc.—is relatively rare in the developing world.

One can also detect a sharp overall decline in aggressive wars of territorial expansion in international society since the end of the Second World War. Although a great many wars have taken place in the world since 1945, most of these wars have been internal or fought for some limited aims. That is, unlike previous eras in which military imperialism was rampant, most states today have come to accept the existing division of territory in the world. 14 In addition, there has been an increase in the number of international conferences and institutions and an increase in the number of inter-state disputes that have been submitted to an arbitration process since 1945. 15 Finally, one can detect an tendency toward multilateral diplomatic exchange over international issues. Military intervention in states which are unstable or chaotic, for example, is no longer a unilateral but multilateral affair, indicating greater order and political cohesion in international politics. 16

Why is there increasing order in international society over time? For one, the frequency and extent of human interaction around the globe has increased dramatically within the past several centuries, leading to an increase in the formalization and institutionalization of global ties. 17 As increasing socialization within states led to the development of large, cohesive nations, increasing global socialization has led to an increase in understanding and the working out of procedures for enhancing cooperation on the international level. Thus international order is more comprehensive than it once was. Second, social norms by their very nature take time to become rooted, nurtured, and spread. They require inculcation and habituation, so that eventually social actors play certain roles and behave certain ways without even being consciously aware that they are following norms. Today we take it for granted that global territory is divided into sections, each with a recognized authority to rule its territory, conduct diplomatic exchanges, sign treaties, etc. However, we forget that this order is a social creation, that one time it did not exist, and that we accept it today simply because we were raised to believe that such things as states, borders, sovereignty, etc. exist and we have become habituated to these concepts. 18


Why Increasing Order? The War-Making/State-Making Process

Let us take one of the most basic conceptual distinctions in international relations, the distinction between internal (domestic) and external (international) politics. This distinction appears to be one of those unavoidable “facts” of life which all reasonable people must agree to. However, this “fact” is a social creation—in many places in the past, a hard and fast distinction between “internal” and “external” politics did not exist. Today, we recognize this distinction as solid and universal, but only because international society evolved to recognize such a distinction.

If we look at Europe under feudalism, it was quite a different matter. Under feudalism, political authority devolved to local lords, towns, and regions. Individuals identified with and pledged their loyalty to a number of different religious and secular authorities: lord, king, bishop, abbot, town council, or a combination of these authorities; then to the Pope and perhaps the Holy Roman Emperor. The idea that individuals had to pledge their ultimate loyalty exclusively to one authority within a clearly defined territory simply did not exist. According to one analyst:

As with all forms of political organization, feudal authorities occupied a geographical space. But such authority over territorial areas was neither exclusive nor discrete. Complex networks of rival jurisdictions overlaid territorial space. Church, lords, kings, emperor, and towns often exercised simultaneous claims to jurisdiction. Occupants of a particular territorial space were subject to a multiplicity of higher authorities. 19

It was out of this haphazard structure, nevertheless, that the form of political organization known as the national state emerged. A number of feudal princes, beginning with a small extent of territory, gradually extended their domains through war and marriage, eliminating competing centers of authority and building centralized bureaucracies to administer their domains. The first national states developed in Western Europe—England, France, and Spain. Eventually national states covered the entire globe.

The first stage of state-building was a phase of “primitive power accumulation” in which the state forcibly conquered territory, extracted resources from the population, and defended its domain from predators. Initially, individuals and groups resisted state power, and other states battled for the same space. But eventually a single state solidified and consolidated its power in a delineated territory to such an extent that violent resistance from within and external attack against that territory became increasingly costly and risky. The use of violence on a large scale by the early state was reflective not of the failure of political order but of “movement towards political order on a new scale” 20 (i.e., the national state). The apparent stability of modern Western states as compared with developing states is due to the fact that the violent phase of state-making has been successfully completed for the advanced states of the West, whereas it is still taking place in the developing world.

Sovereignty did not merely pacify states internally, but also reduced the incidence of inter-state war by organizing and mobilizing populations in such a way as to pose immense barriers to conquest. Territorial regions in which sovereign control was weak or ambiguous practically invited attempts at conquest by other states. Regions under firm sovereign control deterred penetration and conquest.

A necessary adjunct to the establishment of sovereignty and an effective distinction between internal and external politics was the creation of stable, defensible borders. The establishment of these borders was a long, violent process, with warfare only gradually diminishing over the centuries as equilibrium set in and borders stabilized. In the early centuries of the state-building process, feudal princes battled back and forth across the expanse of the European continent hoping to establish great kingdoms. Princes in England claimed and fought for territory in France, Sweden made frequent forays on the European continent, Spain fought for the Netherlands, and Poland battled with Russia over the plains of Eastern Europe. Often, the territorial claims of princes were not even geographically continuous, making for a crazy patchwork quilt of kingdoms. Eventually, however, the costs of fighting for and maintaining distant lands became increasingly clear. Princes restricted their claims to modest-sized, continuous territorial areas, and established their authority within those limits.

An important factor in stabilizing the borders of early states was the unalterable facts of geography. Rivers, mountains, forests, swamps, and seas in Europe impeded the movement and operation of armies, and thus served as natural stopping points and defensive barriers. These barriers carved out pieces of land which were ready foundations for viable, defensible national states. The barrier of the sea and its inlets was the most significant kind of geographic feature, carving out the territories which would become Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

Although originating in Europe, the society of states gradually spread from its birthplace, bringing its norms throughout the world. European colonial expansion created the basis for the inclusion of more states into the society of states. Whereas initially, European treatment of territories outside Europe was characterized by domination, colonization, and the imposition of unequal treaties, European diplomats later applied the “standard of civilization” to decide whether or not a non-European country could be admitted as a sovereign equal of international society. Although experts on international law often differed on what precise attributes qualified a state as “civilized” enough to enter international society, in practice, a state could be admitted if it was stable enough to undertake binding commitments under international law and was willing and able to protect the life, liberty, and property of foreigners in that country. Thus, by 1899, the government of Japan was deemed civilized enough to enter interational society as an equal, and European powers renounced their extraterritorial privileges in Japan. 21

Sometimes, the “standard of civilization” would be raised to require that states protect certain basic human rights, adhere to the laws of war, and forbid such backward practices as suttee, polygamy, and slavery. However, the standard of civilization was never raised so high as to exclude non-liberal-democracies, probably because such exclusion would alienate too many powerful states which could be useful members of international society. Russia, for example, though an autocracy, was welcomed as a ‘civilized’ state because it generally adhered to the rules of international society and joined in alliances against countries such as France and Germany which, although ranking higher in protection of basic human rights, threatened the independence of other states. Likewise, Japan was accepted as a full member of international society when it showed itself to have a stable government willing to protect the lives and liberties of foreigners in Japan, not when it instituted a full democracy. Indeed, merely having the capacity for self-defence was understood as being an indicator of “civilization,” pointing to the role of sheer defensive power as a qualification for entrance into international society. 22

At the same time that national states were developing, multi-national empires began to break apart. In centuries past, multi-national empires could offer much in the way of profits and power. As long as imperial subjects were unorganized, ill-educated, and isolated, the amount of coercion necessary to hold together an empire was low enough to make that form of political organization economically viable and militarily powerful. When nationalities began to mobilize and demand self-rule, the cost of continued coercion by the imperial capital rose steeply. In addition, industrialization brought to the fore the benefits of unified, fully-integrated populations in states. In the competition for global influence, multi-national empires declined and fell, while national states survived and triumphed. The Austro-Hungarian empire was dismembered, the Ottoman empire disintegrated into separate states, Great Britain beat a hasty retreat from imperial responsibilities after its heavy losses in World War Two, France abandoned its colonial claims after several bloody defeats, and Russia shed its outer core of nationalities after the collapse of the economic and political system of communism.

The past few centuries have witnessed the final stages of the consolidation of the national state system on a global scale. This consolidation has contributed to peace in two ways: first, by demarcating all (or nearly all) global territory into clearly defined sections, each under the control of one recognized sovereign authority, disputes over territory have been greatly reduced in frequency and extent; second, with each section of territory under the effective control of a single government and national population, a rough equilibrium between states has been created, making the costs of conquest prohibitive in most cases.

In the past, when much territory was weakly held or sovereignty was ambiguous, conditions were favorable for war. As the national state system consolidated, however, several things happened. Borders became more well-defined, leaving less and less ambiguity over territorial claims—in other words, good fences made better neighbors. In addition, integration of populations into national wholes made conquest and changes in sovereignty much more difficult and expensive. Whereas in previous centuries, conquest was a relatively simple matter of incorporating disorganized populations and making them pay tribute (or driving them away), by the twentieth century, nearly all territory on the globe was demarcated into areas occupied by populations capable of organized resistance on a scale which was enough to erase the prospect of any possible economic gain for the conquerer. State borders hardened and national integration advanced to the point at which offensive warfare anywhere was costly and new territory was virtually indigestible. 23

In much of the developing world, the consolidation of viable national states is still problematic. Many states are still experiencing difficulties exerting sovereign control and integrating their populations. This means that warfare is still a common occurrence in much of the developing world. In many ways, the developing world is going through the same war-making/state-making process as European states did in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, 24 with the exception that current state borders, having already been drawn by colonial powers, are largely accepted by all as essential to political stability. What tends to be lacking in these states is a cohesive national identity, which is why the dominant form of warfare among late-developing states is civil war.


Great Power Management and Hegemonic Stability

Broad trends in the spread and inculcation of norms, solidification of borders, and the decline of imperialism have contributed to the stability of the post-Cold War world. However, another important factor is the configuration of the great power hierarchy in international politics.

Statistical studies have indicated that great powers have had a significantly higher incidence of war than minor powers and that great powers which decline to minor status usually experience a sharp decline in war participation. It is not hard to see why this is so. Great powers have the resources and capability to assert themselves in global inter-state competition. Minor powers avoid involvement in military conflict because of their weakness and vulnerability. It is not just that minor powers are afraid of great powers—minor powers are also aware that if they war against another minor power, there is a good chance that one or more great powers will intervene and decide the contest.

However, while great powers tend to be war-prone, there are times in history when the configuration of great powers in the international system is such that a long period of international peace is made possible. As pointed out earlier, the wide variance in power among states in international society creates the possibility of a hierarchical order in international politics. When there is a single state which is clearly the most powerful state in the international system, or there is a tightly bound group of great powers (a collective hegemony, such as the post 1815 Concert of Europe) a high degree of governance of the international system is possible, and international politics is characterized by stability and peace. The existence of hegemony in the international system is not quite equivalent to the monopoly of force possessed by an actual government in domestic politics, but it is an approximation.

Historically, it is rare for great powers to have such a high degree of cooperation as to make a collective hegemony possible. In fact, great powers usually compete for higher status in the global hierarchy through war and threats of war. It is usually only when one state is clearly predominant over the rest that a stable hegemonic system is established, as under the nineteenth century Pax Britannica.

As long as a hegemon maintains a preponderance of power, other states are inclined to accept its leadership (though much also depends on the hegemon’s legitimacy, a concept which will be discussed later), since challenging a hegemon can be a high risk project. However, historical change dictates shifts in power preponderance over time. Other states begin to rise in power, due to uneven rates of economic growth and technological advance, and the hegemon declines, relatively or absolutely. When a rising power or powers sees an opportunity to challenge and displace an existing hegemon, the risk of major war is high. Thus, when British hegemony declined in the face of the rising challenge from Germany, the stage was set for the First World War.

In international society, an established hegemony helps the cause of international peace in a number of ways. First, a hegemon deters renewed military competition and provides general security through its preponderant power. Second, a hegemon can, if it chooses, strengthen international norms of conduct by punishing violaters. Third, a hegemon’s economic power serves as the basis of a global lending system and free trade regime, providing economic incentives for states to cooperate and forego wars for resources and markets. Such was the nature of British hegemony in the nineteenth century, hence the term Pax Britannica. After World War Two, the U.S. has performed the roles Britain once played, though with an even greater preponderance of power. 25 Thus, much of the peace between democracies after World War Two can be explained by the fact that the political-military hegemony of the United States has helped to create a security structure in Europe and the Pacific conducive to peaceful interaction. 26

Traditional balance of power theory rejects the notion of hegemony as a means to peace; it claims that any state that aims at preponderance causes other states to ally against it out of fear of being conquered or bullied by the aspiring hegemon. However, there are states which, though preponderant in power, generally respect the independence of other states. Historian Paul Schroeder distinguishes between “predatory” and “benign” hegemons (perhaps better labels would be “offensive” and “defensive/status quo” hegemons), pointing to the late Soviet Union as an example of the former and the United States as an example of the latter.

Defensive hegemonies often arise out of the unequal alliances of states formed to stop offensive hegemons—witness the rise of Britain against Napoleonic France and the rise of the U.S. against Germany and Japan. According to one theorist of international society,

[T]he propensity to hegemony in a system of multiple independences cannot simply be equated with the urge to conquer and dominate. . . . Defensive as well as offensive reasons may impel a single power (in the European society the Hapsburgs, for instance) or the great powers in a society collectively (the Concert of Europe) to institute a hegemony—that is, to introduce a greater degree of order into the system, to lay down the law on the relations between the component states and even to intervene in the domestic government of some of them. 27

Today, U.S. hegemony is welcomed by many states in Europe and Asia, not because the U.S. is particularly beloved, but because of the perception that the absence of a U.S. presence might result in aggression by aspiring regional hegemons.

It is true that hegemonic stability theory can be classified as belonging in the “realist” tradition because of its focus on the importance of power structures in international politics. The problem is that power alone cannot explain why some states choose to follow or acquiesce to one hegemon while vigorously opposing and forming counter-alliances against another hegemon. Thus when international society theorists employ the concept of hegemonic stability, they supplement it with the concept of legitimacy.

Legitimacy in international society refers simply to the perceived justice of the international system, as viewed by the states able to pose a challenge to that system. As in domestic politics, legitimacy is a notoriously difficult factor to pin down and measure. Still, one cannot do away with the concept, since it is clear that all political orders rely to some extent on consent in addition to coercion.

The traditional European states society, for example, rested at least as much on the appeasement of various states’ claims as it did on pure power calculations. The historian Paul Schroeder has argued that nineteenth century European diplomats usually employed the term “equilibrium” in their writings as a goal of policy (“equilibre des droits” or “equilibre europeen”) and that this term has been inaccurately translated by British and American analysts as “balance of power.” In fact, Schroeder argues that in terms of power, the 1815 Vienna settlement was enforced by a joint Anglo-Russian hegemony, and that “the stable, peaceful political equilibrium Europe enjoyed from 1815 to 1848 rose not from a balance of power but from ”a mutual consensus on norms and rules, respect for law, and an overall balance among the various actors in terms of rights, security, status, claims, duties and satisfactions rather than power. 28 It is not insignificant that European diplomats often employed the phrase “just equilibrium” in their writings as a prerequisite for peace. 29

Historically, hegemonies have been most stable when they buttressed their power with legitimacy. That is, in addition to relying on superior military force, they granted a degree of autonomy to other nations and provided some important public goods to the areas they dominated. The Roman Empire, for example, earned loyalty among its subjects by allowing local autonomy, building roads and other public facilities, providing security for commerce, and eventually expanding citizenship rights to residents of outlying provinces. Ancient China buttressed its regional hegemony with its reputation as the center of civilization. Great Britain upheld peace on the seas and aided economic development in other countries by means of loans and trade. Past attempts by Napoleonic France and Germany to dominate Europe, by contrast, provoked counter-alliances by other states, since their military campaigns demonstrated an unlimited appetite for control and they offered little in the way of benefits for subject nations.

Thus hegemony without legitimacy is insufficient to deter violent challenges to the international order, and may provoke attempts to build counter-alliances against the hegemon. Hegemonic authority which accepts the principle of the independence of states and treats states with a relative degree of benevolence is more easily accepted. 30


Competing Explanations: The Value of an “International Society” Approach

An international society approach would emphasize the following points in explaining the nature of the post-Cold War world: First, the international system may be anarchical, but anarchy is not equivalent to chaos. There are sources of political order other than government which bring a degree of coherence, predictability, and peace to the international system. Second, order in international politics is evolutionary. The existing arrangement of borders and sovereignty in the world today developed as a result of a series of military campaigns and diplomatic agreements, gradually solidifying through tradition. Likewise, norms and rules of inter-state conduct have expanded in number and scope, in some cases becoming formalized in international law and institutions. As a result, international politics is becoming more orderly over time. Third, although world government still exists only in the imagination, there is something of a great power hierarchy which regulates international affairs to an extent. In general, the international system is most orderly when a single power or tightly bound group of powers is clearly predominant. Finally, as with a domestic government, international order must be undergirded with legitimacy as well as power. In the absence of a general consensus on the basic justice of the structure of the international system, both norms and hegemonic authority will be challenged.

How, then, does the international society approach compare with the theoretical outlooks of realism and democratic peace as a means of explaining the post-Cold War order? It has become increasingly clear that realism is limited in accounting for many characteristics of contemporary international politics. It would be rash to dismiss the realist theoretical tradition altogether. But many of the fundamental concepts of realism—self-help, clashing interests, power-seeking, the emphasis on a sinful and unchanging human nature—are inadequate or insufficient in accounting for a number of developments in international politics, including the long-term decline in the incidence of inter-state warfare, the decline of imperialism, the (sometimes grudging) acceptance of American hegemony by much of the world, and the high degree of cooperation among many states on economic and security matters.

Can democratic peace theory do a better job? At first glance, democratic peace theory appears to be plausible. Relations between the democracies since the end of the Second World War have been remarkably peaceful, and it is not unreasonable to attribute at least part of this peace to the institutional restraints and common ideals possessed by democratic states. In addition, the fact that the collapse of communism and the rise of democracy in the former Soviet Union has effectively ended the Cold War would seem to further support democratic peace theory (though realists counter that Russian quiescence is due to its attempts to restructure and revive itself as a great power and that the eventual recovery of the Russian economy and military will result in new wave of Russian expansionism.)

There is still a huge question, however, as to whether democracy in itself has had such revolutionary effects on international politics that we can speak of “perpetual peace” and the “end of history” among democracies, as some have. After all, it is one thing to state as an empirical fact that “democracies have not gone to war against one another.” It is quite another to state that “democracies do not go to war with one another.” The first claim is a mere statement of fact (dependent to some extent, of course, on how one defines a democracy); the second claim is a theoretical statement with an implied prediction—democracies have not and will not fight one another because they are democracies. (In fact, one scholar has gone so far as to claim that “democracies will not fight one another).” 31 For such a claim to hold, one would have to demonstrate that democracy is not merely a causal factor for peace, but that democracy is so important that it overrides all other factors which might otherwise push states toward war.

Unfortunately, democratic peace theory at the moment is still woefully underdeveloped. As I noted in the introduction, there is a dearth of in-depth case studies which establish a detailed cause-and-effect chain linking mutual democracy to peace. Among those case studies that have been made, many do not support democratic peace theory. They tend to show that democracy had little to do with preventing war between states, that other factors such as power preponderance or geographic distance played the predominant role. 32 Some studies have even found evidence of reverse causation, of peace causing democracy. 33

Most significantly, democratic peace theory does not account for the fact that the long-term trends in war and peace noted previously appear to apply broadly to states, not merely democratic states. As international society theorists have pointed out, warfare is most frequent for newly emerging states, which have to establish borders and sovereign control amidst surrounding states. After a state is established, the incidence of warfare for that state declines, as it is accepted into international society. In the developing world, inter-state wars in the post-1945 period have been relatively rare, especially when compared to the record of pre-1945 Europe. The legitimacy of existing borders and states has been broadly accepted, despite the fact that democracy has not been a pervasive or consistent phenomenon in the developing world. 34

Much of this can be attributed to the sharp decline in the legitimacy of imperialism in international society. Once, states gathered at conferences to carve up regions amongst themselves in an equitable manner, or if diplomacy did not work, they went to war over imperial rights. Today, the legitimacy of imperialism itself has been rejected. Democratic peace theory attempts to explain this development by pointing to the nature of liberal ideology, arguing that democratic states may have engaged in aggressive wars in the past to bring civilization to backward areas, but that as liberal ideas spread to these areas, the contradiction between liberal ideals and imperialism led democratic states to abandon their empires. The problem with this explanation is that it too easily equates liberal domestic ideals with anti-imperial ideas, as if authoritarian states could not also adopt an anti-imperialist position. In fact, most of the newly emerging states which were once part of colonial empires have not been consistently democratic—yet, as the patterns of war discussed above have indicated, these states have for the most part rejected imperial wars of expansion. Rejection of the legitimacy of racism and imperialism is not restricted to the democracies, but rather is held by the authoritarian states of the developing world as well.

Another problem with democratic peace theory is that it has difficulty explaining how relations between the democracies have changed from the pre-1945 period to the post-1945 period. Though it is not often remembered today, before 1945, relations between democratic states were not always friendly. Democratic states frequently competed with each other militarily, and on several cases came to the brink of war. In the late nineteenth century, relations between Britain and the U.S. were quite tense, and there was much talk of a war between the two states. Crises between the two powers arose over territory in the Northwest, British involvement in Latin America, and freedom of the seas. In the 1920s, the U.S. and Britain competed with each other in the post-World War One naval arms race as vigorously as they competed with Japan. 35

Britain also engaged in a heated military competition with France in the late nineteenth century. In 1898, French–British competition over Egypt came to a head at Fashoda, a city on the upper Nile. Britain threatened war if French forces were not withdrawn from Fashoda. France, facing a marked British military advantage, capitulated. When Britain fought the Boer War in 1899, France sided with the Boers, increasing tensions between the two powers. Fears arose in Britain that France would take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with the Boers to attack Britain in conjunction with other powers. France, fearing the possibility of a war with Britain upon the conclusion of the Boer War, drew up contingency plans for war which included a possible attack on British colonial holdings and even an invasion of Britain itself. 36

After World War One, relations between democratic France and the Weimar Republic were so hostile that only the disarmament of Germany prevented a new war. The Versailles Treaty had imposed massive reparations demands on Germany, and when Germany fell behind in its payments, French military forces occupied portions of Germany. At the same time, Britain grew apprehensive of French dominance of the European continent and the continuing French arms buildup. British policy-makers began to feel that German rearmament might be necessary in order to balance out France. This concern was one major factor in Britain’s subsequent policy of appeasement toward Germany. 37

Since 1945, however, military competition between the major democracies has practically vanished. The prospect of any crisis arising which could bring democracies to the brink of war with each other seems remote. So what has changed?

It has been claimed that the reason democracies do not engage in arms races and go to the brink of war with each other as they used to is that norms of peaceful relations between democracies have gradually strengthened over time and that democratic states have further expanded rights to their populations, including women and minorities. 38 However, there has been no specified causal mechanism which clearly links developments in domestic politics to the changes in relations among the democracies.

A more plausible explanation for why democratic states occasionally confronted each other in the pre-World War Two era would point not to domestic political structures but to certain characteristics inherent in the international political structure of that time. First, imperialism was still a normal mode of international conduct, and issues of sovereignty and borders were still ill-defined in much of the developing world. These factors tended to lead to great power clashes over colonies. Second, there was a relative equality of power potential between a number of different democratic and semi-democratic states, setting the stage for a competition for global hegemony, or at least regional hegemonies. By the late nineteenth century, British hegemony had begun to decline, and countries like France, Germany, and the U.S. were beginning to challenge British dominance on the seas and in colonial areas.

Since 1945, however, two major developments have taken place which have helped to pacify relations between the major democracies: (1) a norm of anti-imperialism has taken root in international society; and (2) the United States has become the predominant world power, a position which has been further enhanced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because imperialism is no longer a normal mode of international affairs, clashes over colonies between the democratic states no longer take place. And because the U.S. is so clearly predominant, other democratic states have acquiesced to U.S. leadership, rather than choosing to compete.

It is noteworthy that while peace and cooperation between the European democracies since the end of World War Two has become more firmly established over time, this peace was aided and guided by a substantial U.S. military presence in Europe. Many of the most important developments in European cooperation on security matters and economic were aided by U.S. leadership in the wake of the Second World War. Even with a common fear of Soviet aggression, the states of Western Europe found it difficult to trust one another without the security guarantees provided by the U.S. Today, Europe prefers that a U.S. military presence continue because of fears of the consequences of a total U.S. withdrawal from the continent

The importance of U.S. hegemony in maintaining peace in Europe is admitted even by certain prominent proponents of the “democratic peace” idea. Michael Doyle argues for the continuing presence of U.S. troops in Europe and Asia, claiming that “independent and more substantial European and Japanese defense establishments pose problems for liberal cooperation.” The decline of U.S. political-military leadership and presence, in his view, might lead to new rivalries which could destroy the democratic peace. 39 Francis Fukuyama also agrees with this assessment, arguing that it is important for the U.S. to continue to maintain a substantial forward military presence while preventing the military independence of Germany and Japan. 40 However, if hegemonic stability is a vital co-factor in guaranteeing peace between democracies, then this amounts to a significant qualification in democratic peace theory. If “democracies don’t fight each other” is to retain its status as an empirical law of international politics, as democratic peace proponents claim, it must hold even in the absence of a hegemonic arbiter—and this remains to be seen.

Democratic peace theorists argue that U.S. hegemony is easily accepted by other countries precisely because the U.S. is a democracy. There is some truth to this, but it exaggerates the importance of democracy as compared to legitimacy. As pointed out above, hegemonies in international society may be accepted if the hegemon is largely defensive, respects the norms of international society, and provides important public goods in the way of security and trade. Democratic institutions in the hegemon may help other (particularly democratic) states recognize the hegmon’s leadership, but democracy in itself is not sufficient. To see why this is so, one should compare the different results of the post World War One order as compared to the post-World War Two order.

After World War One, the U.S., along with Britain and France, composed a peace settlement at Versailles which sought to end the problem of war by encouraging democracy in Germany and instituting a new international organization, the League of Nations. However, the Versailles settlement was resented from the beginning by the new democratic government in Germany because of its punitive conditions, conditions which violated a number of President Wilson’s pre-truce promises. At Versailles, German territory and colonies were taken, the German army was reduced to the level of a police force, and astronomical reparations payments were imposed, all in an agreement definitely not “openly arrived at,” as Wilson promised.

Although Germany was militarily defeated, it was never fully reconciled to the new international order Wilson tried to create, because of the perceived illegitimacy of that order. Indeed, the only thing which prevented a new war from breaking out was the near-total disarmament of Germany. Coercion was the chief tool used to keep Germany under control—and when the victors grew weary of maintaining forces in place to control a resentful Germany, the results were disastrous. (Even before the rise of Hitler, the Weimar Republic was cheating on the disarmament provisions of the Versailles Treaty.)

The post-World War Two order, by contrast, emphasized not merely the importance of democracy, but generous treatment for the defeated, economic rejuvenation rather than punishment, and the provision of general security rather than the one-sided application of force. The military forces of Britain, France, and the U.S. disarmed and de-Nazified West Germany, but it was widely known that force alone could not reconcile the population of West Germany to the democracies. The economic revitalization of West Germany, the restoration of sovereignty to the West German government, and the active interest of the U.S. in the security and well-being of West Germany, expressed in both words and deeds, succeeded in bringing West Germany to acknowledge American leadership. The combination of U.S. hegemony with legitimacy created the basis for an international order which to this day remains largely peaceful.

Overall, then, many of the concepts employed in the realist tradition and the democratic peace school still retain some value. However, in terms of providing a broad and comprehensive understanding of the origins and nature of the contemporary international order, the international society approach is generally superior.



Note 1: Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 12 (Summer 1983): 205–35; “Part 2,” (Fall 1983); “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review 80 (December 1986): 1151–69; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992); Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993). Back.

Note 2: Bruce Russett, “And Yet it Moves,” International Security 19 (Spring 1995): 165; See also John M. Owen, Liberal Peace, Liberal War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 5, 10–11. Back.

Note 3: Evan Luard, International Society (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 6, 201–3. Back.

Note 4: Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 47. Back.

Note 5: Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 28–30. Back.

Note 6: Bull, pp. 1–21. Back.

Note 7: For example, during the investigation into the Pueblo incident of 1968, in which North Korea forcibly seized an American intelligence ship, the commanding American admiral argued that he did not foresee the need for military protection of the Pueblo, since the law of freedom of the seas had been largely observed by states during peacetime and no American ship had been illegally seized for over 150 years. Back.

Note 8: Alan James, “Law and Order in International Society,” in The Bases of International Order, ed. Alan James (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 61–69. Back.

Note 9: Frederick Adams Woods and Alexander Baltzly, Is War Diminishing? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915). Back.

Note 10: Jack S. Levy, War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495–1975 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 131, 170. Back.

Note 11: Evan Luard, War in International Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 59, 68. Back.

Note 12: Jeffrey Herbst, “War and the State in Africa,” International Security, 14 (Spring 1990): 123. Back.

Note 13: Kalevi J. Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. xiii. Back.

Note 14: Evan Luard, Conflict and Peace in the Modern International System (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 30–45. Back.

Note 15: Ibid., pp. 202–204, 242–43. Back.

Note 16: Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). Back.

Note 17: Michael Banks, “Charles Manning, the Concept of ‘Order’, and Contemporary International Theory,” in The Bases of International Order, pp. 200–205. Back.

Note 18: C. A. W. Manning, The Nature of International Society (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975), pp. 11–27. Back.

Note 19: Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 12. Back.

Note 20: Youssef Cohen, Brian R. Brown, A.F.K. Organski, “The Paradoxical Nature of State Making: The Violent Creation of Order,” American Political Science Review 75 (December 1981): 901–910. Back.

Note 21: Gerrit W. Gong, The Standard of ‘Civilization’ in International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 3–36. Back.

Note 22: Ibid., pp. pp. 3–16. Back.

Note 23: Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990 (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 203; Luard, War in International Society, pp. 90–96, 154–55, 397; Evan Luard, The Blunted Sword: The Erosion of Military Power in Modern World Politics (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988), pp. 1–3. Back.

Note 24: This point is made in Darryl Lamont Roberts, The Origins of War in the Periphery of the International System, Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, 1984, pp. 1–5, 254–65. Back.

Note 25: It is usually said that the post-World War Two order (before the collapse of the Soviet Union) was bipolar rather than hegemonic. In terms of conventional land power and later, nuclear weapons, this is true. However, hegemonic stability theorists assign greater importance to naval power and economic power, and in these respects, the U.S. was supreme. Back.

Note 26: Gilpin, pp. 1–49. Back.

Note 27: Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society (London: Routledge, 1992) pp. 313–14. Back.

Note 28: Paul W. Schroeder, “Did the Vienna Settlement Rest on a Balance of Power?,” American Historical Review, 97 (June 1992): 683–706, 734–5. Back.

Note 29: Edward Vose Gulick, Europe’s Classical Balance of Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967), p. 128. Back.

Note 30: Watson, p. 315. Back.

Note 31: Spencer Weart, Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. Back.

Note 32: Christopher Layne, “Kant or Cant: The Myth of the Democratic Peace,” International Security 19 (Fall 1994): 5–49. Back.

Note 33: William R. Thompson, “Democracy and Peace: Putting the Cart Before the Horse?,” International Organization, 50 (Winter 1996): 141–74; Brian M. Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). Back.

Note 34: Luard, Conflict and Peace in the Modern International System, pp. 38–45, 288–90. Back.

Note 35: Christopher Hall, Britain, America and Arms Control, 1921–37 (London: MacMillan Press, 1987), p. 35. Back.

Note 36: Stephen R. Rock, Why Peace Breaks Out: Great Power Rapprochement in Historical Perspective (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 91–93. Back.

Note 37: Stephen A. Schuker, The End of French Predominance in Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), pp. 249–55; Raymond J. Sontag, A Broken World 1919–1939 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 98–99, 133, 136–37. Back.

Note 38: Russett, p. 22. Back.

Note 39: Michael Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” p. 233. Back.

Note 40: Francis Fukuyama, “The Beginning of Foreign Policy,” The New Republic, August 17 & 24, 1992, pp. 30, 32. Back.