A Realist Peace?

December 22, 2008 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Region: Americas

A Realist Peace?

It may not seem like it, but the world has been pretty peaceful in the past few decades. Why? Liberals say international institutions, while realists think it’s the rise of nuclear weapons. The financial crisis is about to prove which group is rig

For a lot of very boring reasons having to do with "ethics," political scientists are not allowed to conduct real experiments in world politics. We can't tell a head of state, "say, would you mind invading this neighboring country to see if a balancing coalition forms against you?" Our lot in life is hard this way. The best that international-relations scholars can hope for is a "natural experiment." This is when events change the value of a particularly important variable, and we can then closely observe the effects of that change on world politics. We're about to experience a natural experiment on the causes of war, and the results may or may not be pretty.

Afghanistan and Iraq have overshadowed a comforting fact-the world has gotten more pacific in recent decades. Click on the Human Security Report and you will find the data to back up this proposition. In modern history, we are in the middle of the longest recorded period without a great-power war. Since the seventies, interstate wars have been on the decline. Civil wars and other forms of violence have been on the wane since the mid-nineties. Although the United States is embroiled in two conflicts, for most of the rest of the world, it has never been more peaceful.

Why is this the case? There are several possible answers, and it has been hard to determine which explanation is the right one. Liberals will point to the rise of the Kantian triad-democracies, international organizations and economic interdependence. All three of these trends have made war much more costly to leaders than it used to be. During the last decade, the intensification of globalization has merely accelerated this trend. Since the days of Norman Angell, liberals have argued that once states realize that they can profit more from peaceful than violent exchange, war will fade as a policy tool.

Realists offer a different explanation-the rise in nuclear weapons. The logic of nuclear deterrence is inescapable-the prospect of a devastating counterattack is sufficient punishment to prevent a conflict from breaking out in the first place. For all the geopolitical tensions surrounding North Korea, for example, no actual war has taken place, because the prospect of a nuclear exchange frightens all of the major actors in northeast Asia.

For the past several decades, both liberal and realist arguments against war have trended in the same direction, making it difficult to distinguish which cause was the most important. This is about to change, however, because the Kantian triad is about to take a serious beating. The global economic crisis is encouraging beggar-thy-neighbor policies in the form of new tariffs and currency manipulations. The crisis has exposed the powerlessness of international institutions (within a month of the G-20 pledge not to raise new barriers to trade, Russia, India, Brazil and Argentina went back on their word). The longer the recession lasts, the more each major power will turn inward to boost its economic prospects.

Will this lead to more war or not? This depends on whether you think the realists or liberals have been right all along. If war remains a rare event, then the realists will be able to crow about the power of their model. If more wars flare up, then liberals will be able to say that they were right.

Personally, I liked it better when both arguments trended in the same direction.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.