Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Strategist's Almanac: Gray Zone War

What is gray zone war? Probably even more useful to focus on the concept of gray zone conflict. Gray zone conflicts apparently are distinguished by certain characteristics such as a primarily (or overriding) political character, longer-term, and slow moving (or slow changing). Michael Mazarr, Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict (Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2015), Are there meaningful connections between gray zone and hybrid warfare? “This monograph [by Mazarr] argues that three elements---rising revisionist intent, a form of strategic gradualism, and unconventional tools---are creating a new approach to the pursuit of aggressive aims, a new standard form of conflict. Evidence from a number of sources, including ongoing campaigns by China and Russia, suggests that gradual gray zone strategies may be becoming the tool of choice for states wanting to reframe the global order in the 21st century.” (4) So called gray zone warfare might be easily confused with political warfare. It is not clear what significant analytical value there is in isolating a concept of gray zone war.

Why is the concept of gray zone war popular? This (from Eric Olson) suggests at least a component of the popularity: “Look around the world: it is hard to find a conflict that is not in the gray zone. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued activities in eastern Ukraine; the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s barbaric control of key parts of Iraq and Syria; Chinese construction on disputed reefs in the South China Sea; Boko Haram’s continued reign of terror in Nigeria; and the ongoing Houthi rebellion in Yemen are just some of the most recent examples.” See Eric Olson, “America’s Not Ready for Today’s Gray Wars,” Defense One, December 10, 2015,

Who is driving the popularity of the concept? Is this primarily a “darling” concept of the special operations community? Consider a subtitle of a recent issue of Special Warfare: “The Gray Zone: The Place between Peace and War is becoming a critical point of discussion.” Special Warfare 28, no. 4 (October-December 2015), A review of the relevant literature does suggest a marked special operations slant. Interesting idea: “The ambiguity making gray zones so vexing also makes them useful to statesmen. In fact, they are crucial to the conduct of international relations in defining the importance of situations to the parties involved. That is, states and non-states can ‘test the waters’ with gray zone activities to determine the relative strength of domestic and international commitment to an endeavor without resorting to the more lethal violence of war. In brief, gray zone conflicts are an immensely better alternative to full-scale wars.” Philip Kapusta, “The Gray Zone,” Special Warfare 28, no. 4 (October-December 2015): 25. Interestingly, in what otherwise looks like a comprehensive and incisive treatment, this article does not clearly establish the origins of the concept. Is it really that obvious? How difficult is defining war? Or peace? What is, or is there any link between “gray zone activities” today and operations other than war in years past? Or small wars? Is the term “gray zone” merely a trendy word for a much older concept? At times it seems gray zone war is yet another variation on unconventional war. Consider Adam Elkus, “50 Shades of Gray: Why the Gray Wars Concept Lacks Strategic Sense,” War on the Rocks, December 15, 2015, Looking over “Unconventional War and Warfare in the Gray Zone: The New Spectrum of Modern Conflicts,” by Miroslaw Banasik, Journal of Defense Resources Management 7, no. 1 (2016): 37-46, would suggest that the attention surrounding the concept is being generated by as few as a half-dozen sources, self-referencing themselves. The concept doesn’t seem to have deep, meaningful theoretical roots. The concept of gray zone war does not appear to have any substantial academic legitimacy (at least not to date).

What are the strategic implications of gray zone war? There may be a suitable role for approaches geared to gray zone war. Joseph Votel, Charles Cleveland, Charles Connett, and Will Irwin, “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone,” Joint Force Quarterly 80 (1st Quarter, 2016): 101-109, “While “Gray Zone” refers to a space in the peace-conflict continuum, the methods for engaging our adversaries in that environment have much in common with the political warfare that was predominant during the Cold War years. Political warfare is played out in that space between diplomacy and open warfare, where traditional statecraft is inadequate or ineffective and large-scale conventional military options are not suitable or are deemed inappropriate for a variety of reasons. Political warfare is a population-centric engagement that seeks to influence, to persuade, even to co-opt.” (102) There are numerous specific discussions in print of what are called gray zone strategies.

Also see Hal Brands, “Paradoxes of the Gray Zone,” FPRI, E-Notes, February 5, 2016,; John Knefel, “The ‘Gray Zone’ is the Future of War: Ongoing, Low-Level, and Undeclared,” Inverse (Online), December 7, 2015,; and Charles Cleveland, Shaw Pick, and Stuart Farris, “Shedding Light on the Gray Zone: A New Approach to Human-Centric Warfare,” Army Magazine, August 17, 2015. What is really meant by “human-centric warfare”?

A central question suggested by consideration of extant thinking about gray zone war: Given the current operating environment, is it most prudent to expend energy and focus on dissecting understanding of war to highlight one apparent area of the phenomenon at the expense of giving attention to the whole?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Strategist's Almanac

Item #1. Consider “George Washington: America’s First Strategic Leader” by Sheila C. Toner (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategy Research Project, 1996). What is a strategic leader? In part, a strategic leader is one who can focus on strategy at the highest level while putting aside personal and narrower interests for the good of a larger, broader effort. The concept of strategic leader is related to the concept of strategic art. The author observes that Washington skillfully matched campaigns to his larger objectives and available resources. Washington was a skilled strategic artist. Of note, the author cites Richard A. Chilcoat, Strategic Art: The New Discipline for 21st Century Leaders (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1995).

Item #2. In Modern Strategy, by Colin S. Gray (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1999), in Chapter 1, “The Dimensions of Strategy,” the author discusses strategic theory and doctrine. What is the difference between strategic theory and doctrine? Strategic theory is essentially about ideas; strategic doctrine is essentially about beliefs. Effectively speaking, strategic practice cannot be separated from strategic theory. Strategic theory is a collection of related ideas which together provide understanding, suggests connections between seemingly unrelated matters, and allows the formulation of useful postulates. Gray observes that while doctrine provides what to think and what to do, theory provides how to think. Most importantly, strategist should understand the different but complementary roles played by theory and doctrine.

Item #3. In “The Issue of Attrition,” by J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., Parameters (Spring 2010): 5—19, the author—a U.S. Army War College professor—reminds strategists that attrition has an undeserved reputation as an inferior strategic approach. Attritional strategic approaches may be applicable against certain kinds of enemies in certain strategic situations. The author notes the roles of impatience and desire for quick strategic outcomes behind the tendency for political and senior military leaders to pick annihilation strategies over attrition strategies. Attrition strategies that focus on eroding the enemy’s will over time may be more prudent than annihilation strategies, considering the value of the strategic object and the will to achieve it. Attrition strategies that breakdown the will of the opposing population and government leaders may have a greater chance of securing more lasting strategic outcomes than quick victories. In other words, attrition strategies may be more effective in forcing defeated populations to actually accept defeat. Interestingly, attrition strategies may favor the attacker since the attacker is in a better position to regulate losses and pain and suffering.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Strategist's Almanac: U.S. Civil Nuclear Power Strategy -- Preventive War and U.S. Strategy -- Iran Nuclear Deal and U.S. Strategy
"The Middle East Nuclear Power Play No One Is Talking About," written by Melissa Hersh for The National Interest. Hersh is a fellow of the Truman National Security Project. According to Hersh, Russia is pursuing long term connections to not just the regime in Tehran, but also Riyadh, Ankara, and Amman. According to Hersh, Moscow is pursuing strategic investment in Middle Eastern nuclear energy development. To the extent that Russia is able to successfully conclude nuclear energy deals in the Middle East, Russia will have gained long-term strategic connections to host nations in the region. While there has been much commentary on a new found energy independence for the United States built on exploitation of shale oil and shale gas, U.S. strategic interests are still closely tied to the Middle East. The need to import oil and secure strategic shipping lanes will not fade any time soon. The author recommends that the United States support the building of nuclear power plants in the region to counter Russian influence, protect strategic relationships with regional allies in light of the Iran nuclear deal, and bolster the domestic nuclear industry. Hersh clearly believes the United States is well positioned to back development of foreign nuclear power plants, remain competitive in the international nuclear industry, and promote economic development in the Middle East. For Hersh, U.S. support of Middle East nuclear energy production in the form of a U.S. nuclear industry strategy is one way to balance Russian regional influence. This would be one way to expand American commercial soft power. Engaging in civil nuclear power deals with states in the Middle East is an opportunity to reaffirm key strategic ties. But any effective U.S. civil nuclear power strategy should be backed up with stronger export controls and verification processes to address the ongoing risks of nuclear proliferation and accidents. Hersh concludes that there is a stark contrast: Russia is following a strategic plan; the United States is not.
Michael Lind published "Preventive Wars: The Antithesis of Realpolitik." Lind asserts that while the repudiation of preventive war as a tool of statecraft has helped the United States and its allies, the distinction between preemptive and preventive war eroded under the George W. Bush administration. Lind observes that much of what is called strategy has a preventive aspect at its core. Lind concludes that preventive war is a foreign policy option that civilized countries generally should not pursue. Responsible states should use available international and legal approaches to preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but should not use preventive war for that purpose.
Michael Singh has written "How Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Affect Broader U.S. Strategy," from The Washington Institute. Singh argues that the Iran deal needs to be effectively integrated into a broader regional strategy. Singh notes that arms control agreements with the Soviets were instruments for a broader strategy of containment. He asserts that the Iran deal does not serve U.S. strategy but overturns it. Specifically, the main provisions of the deal appear to reverse U.S. efforts over the last three decades. Singh notes that despite U.S. insistence that a regional strategy of strengthening allies and countering spoilers remains, some states including Israel and the Sunni Arab countries might interpret a hidden agenda to explain U.S. acceptance of the Iran deal. He concludes that if the Obama administration fails to clearly articulate how the Iran deal fits into a fuller regional strategy, allies and other observers may assume an underlying U.S. realignment or policy confusion.

Of note: 1) The United States faces multiple challengers pursuing their own agendas unlike the unified opposing bloc of the Cold War. If the United States cannot pursue civil nuclear power agreements with Middle Eastern partners, other states including Russia may be poised to do so at the expense of U.S. strategic interests. 2) The Iran deal does not define a new U.S. strategy for the Middle East but points to either a lack of comprehensive strategy or poor articulation of U.S. Middle Eastern strategy.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Discussion: Freedman's “The Primacy of Alliance”

Lawrence Freedman, “The Primacy of Alliance: Deterrence and European Security,” Proliferation Papers 46 (March–April 2013).

The nuclear policy expert Elaine Bunn made the interesting observation in 2010 that “After almost two decades in the shadows, extended deterrence is back in the spotlight.”[1] To this one might add NATO deterrence and NATO collective security. Lawrence Freedman, the author of The Primacy of Alliance: Deterrence and European Security, is a British scholar, associated closely with the King’s College War Studies Department, who has been writing on nuclear weapons issues since (at least as far back as) 1975, and who has been considered an international authority on nuclear policy since (at least as far back as) the 1980s. Freedman argues convincingly that it is NATO, as a network of political relationships, rather than as a nuclear weapons arsenal that has allowed NATO to deter threats against Europe, and that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence still play fundamental roles in European security. This is a summary of some of Freedman’s major arguments and an analysis of the paper’s organization and scholarship.

Based on the idea that deterrence may be seen as a spectrum, Freedman identifies three levels of deterrence, and also highlights the concept of “internalized deterrence.” Of note here is that not all deterrence is the same. After some remarks on deterrence requirements including the need for a close connection between a prospective offense and threatened consequences, Freedman explains light, regular, and deterrence plus, which are distinguished according to the interests being served. Light deterrence involves limited stakes (and Freedman points out a related risk of deterrence failure with light deterrence). Regular deterrence, linked closely to nuclear weapons, involves existential interests related to state survival. Deterrence plus involves countering an existential threat with an ally prepared to risk major war. The form of extended deterrence adopted by the United States during the Cold War involved nuclear threats to deter conventional attacks against European allies, which incurred a high risk of retaliation. What became known as extended deterrence grew out of what Freedman calls deterrence plus. Deterrence plus became the core of NATO deterrence. Deterrence worked for NATO, according to Freedman, because deterrence is the default posture of a status quo power (the NATO states were threatened by the real and potential aggression of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact). NATO accepted deterrence by punishment because it was cheaper (than deterrence by denial) and because of the chilling prospect of another devastating European war even if nonnuclear. Freedman provides a useful distinction for understanding deterrence effectiveness, directly linking deterrence to the intensity of the interests being protected. Again, not all deterrence is the same. After distinguishing between immediate and general deterrence, Freedman relates that over time during the Cold War threats that resulted in no nuclear employment tended to increase confidence in the ability of European governments to manage crises and manage deterrence. There was a corresponding drop in the urgency that attached to deterrence—or the “talk lost its bite,” as Freedman puts it. Freedman’s idea of internalized deterrence is important because it helps to explain the assertion that only a small possibility of nuclear escalation should deter major war.

The cumulative effect of various trends has been to marginalize the role of nuclear weapons threats in Western security policies, and the likelihood that a crisis would lead through escalation to a nuclear exchange seems more and more remote. Freedman observes that at least for some commentators the central nuclear weapons issue for NATO has become disarmament not deterrence, and the progressive marginalization of nuclear weapons within NATO. In part because of key advancements in conventional weapons capabilities, NATO no longer needs to rely on a first–strike threat, according to Freedman. He suggests that, for the time being at least, nuclear threat making is highly unlikely except in retaliation against (or in response to) major destruction already done. But Freedman explains that there are serious issues involved in disarmament. (Such issues are sometimes not fully appreciated by advocates of complete disarmament.) There are serious difficulties involved in arranging for mutual arms reductions leading to final disarmament if the security concerns of all states involved are to be adequately addressed. Freedman emphasizes—and this is his most pressing point—that the gradual marginalization of nuclear weapons in Europe poses important deterrence credibility issues for NATO deterrence posture.

It is a key assertion of Freedman’s that NATO is a complex interwoven fabric of political relationships and not just a collection of military forces. In his recounting of how the salience of nuclear weapons in NATO security doctrine has waned, he points out that once the Cold War confrontation “settled down” deterrence became more stable, predictable, and as he puts it, “straightforward.” Though nuclear deterrence is still substantially linked to vital national interests, U.S. threats of nuclear retaliation for “nuclear aggression” still mean something and cannot be easily replaced by another nuclear power such as the United Kingdom or France. Freedman reveals how European governments have found it in their interests to accept faith in extended deterrence and trade some measure of independence for protection under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. For Freedman, the issue of the role of nuclear weapons in European security is inseparable from the issue of NATO’s strength as an alliance.

Though NATO will continue to be examined for its fitness as a security alliance, for Freedman, NATO will ‘muddle through’—so to speak—in part because there is no better alternative for ensuring European security. NATO is not in crisis but, very importantly, its security core is being gradually “hollowed out.” Freedman offers that NATO is in a better position to deter than earlier because only a small threat of nuclear escalation should be enough to activate the “internalized deterrence” against major war in Europe (as mentioned briefly above). He concludes that there have been no significant changes to the U.S. security guarantees on which European democracies have depended for decades but those guarantees and nuclear deterrence guarantees have weakened. Alliance cohesion is still regarded by NATO members as valuable and worthy of protecting and nuclear deterrence is still generally perceived as cost effective. Freedman’s most important conclusion is that while U.S. nuclear deterrence guarantees (or commitments) are still effective in preserving European peace, they are clearly less vigorous than times past. Fundamental questions about NATO’s relevance and purpose still exist and will probably persist (and probably for the same reasons that these questions figured prominently in the Alliance over the preceding decades and during the Cold War).

Freedman’s analysis rests on several assumptions some of which he clearly spells out. The substance of NATO nuclear doctrine and posture has remained fairly stable over a significant period. Deterrence “has not been abandoned” and one can reasonably assume that deterrence (and presumably nuclear deterrence would be included here) continues to play some actual role in European security. One can reasonably assume that the apparently low probability of war in Europe continues to be a product of nuclear deterrence—or, nuclear deterrence still works. Freedman helps the reader by defining key concepts like immediate and general deterrence, and by providing summary historical background to key ideas like deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Throughout this seminar paper Freedman characterizes NATO as a status quo power. Member states are keen to not engage in radical policy course changes. What is important is policy continuity which has been seen as strengthening a common purpose within NATO.

It is perhaps not too surprising that a seminar paper such as this would lack some comprehensiveness. The text is cursory in some parts. Important to Freedman’s analysis is deterrence credibility which could have been dealt with more fully. Freedman does not gloss over or underappreciate the topic, but the student of nuclear weapons policy might desire more detail in this area. On another note, Freedman argues that political relationships are the “heart” of NATO but, by the same reading, U.S. nuclear weapons at least were the heart of NATO when Europe was threatened with Soviet attack (and may still be today). Some of Freedman’s arguments—such as that NATO has stuck together because it has never been in anyone’s interest to break it up—may appear facile to some readers. This is a broad, sweeping if also quite brief treatment. Still, Freedman manages to include references—if only passing references—to a range of issues including sole–purpose, abolition (or global zero), no–first–use, and security issues related to North Korea, China, and the Middle East.

Freedman seems to be at least in part addressing the concerns of some that NATO is frayed and possibly on the road to breakup (the long–standing chorus of NATO “in disarray”). He sufficiently argues that that is simply not the case. The comparison between Russian hesitation toward the Baltic States (in NATO) as compared to Russian actions against Georgia in 2009 (Freedman writes 2009 but probably meant 2008) is an important example of the enduring relevance of both European nuclear deterrence and NATO deterrence. It is interesting how, at one point, Freedman observes—he relates “a view”—that if the United States completely abandoned its nuclear arsenal it would increase (not decrease) the flexibility of U.S. foreign policy. Freedman does not apparently accept this view but it is something for the American student to consider. Freedman is perhaps strongest explaining how nuclear weapons in European security are not autonomous but an extension of the health of the Alliance. Freedman did well to explain NATO’s Cold War roots—something obvious but a topic that has also receded some from public awareness—and he rightly reminds us that NATO survived the complete collapse of the Warsaw Pact. For Freedman, the answer to the future of European deterrence is found in the future of the NATO alliance, and this paper is worthwhile for elaborating on that point.

Freedman looks at the future of deterrence in Europe and strength of the Alliance, how might NATO deterrence policy fare in a real conflict, and how robust is European deterrence credibility. Freedman argues that NATO is central to European security and nuclear force posture and related declaratory policy statements help hold the Alliance together. NATO deterrence statements, even if mild and unfocused, have served to reinforce NATO alliance commitments and have served deterrence purposes in the past. In a volatile world NATO still matters, and nuclear deterrence still matters in NATO’s defense of Europe. Deterrence isn’t going away anytime soon as evidenced by plans to update nuclear weapons (the B61–12).


1. Elaine Bunn, “The Future of U.S. Extended Deterrence,” Recherches & Documents 3, Perspectives on Extended Deterrence (2010): 35.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Discussion: International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War

When asked whether the Soviet Union was forced out of the Cold War, Marshal Yazov, an anti-reformer in 1991, responded: “Absolutely…. We simply lacked the power to oppose the USA, England, Germany, France, Italy—all the flourishing states that were united in the NATO bloc….. We had to find an alternative to the arms race…. We had to continually negotiate, and reduce, reduce, reduce—especially the most expensive weaponry.”[1] Such an explanation does not immediately suggest a realist or liberal interpretation of the events that culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Why did the Cold War end? A constructivist view suggests that Gorbachev influenced but did not control the outcome of the political and economic developments in the Soviet Union in the late-1980s, movements and concepts were influential beyond domestic groups and individual leaders, and realism, with its focus on the military-security dimension of state preferences, seems least able to explain the end of the Cold War. International relations perspectives are tools and their applicability is tied to the nature of the subject (e.g., the degree to which international structure, alliances, balances are dominant, or domestic political characteristics of states). This analysis will consider what insights realism, liberalism, individual actor, and constructivism bring to the events of the late-1980s; then it will consider in more detail how applicable the core concepts of realism are to understanding the end of the Cold War; and finally, it will suggest why the case of the end of the Cold War is an example for combining the perspectives in international relations.

Insights from realism, liberalism, individual actor, and constructivism about the end of the Cold War

Realism helps to explain the significance of the material pressures that limited the policy choices of Soviet leaders during the 1980s. Waltz discussed the possibilities of systems transformation. He highlighted that wars involving enough major powers may be system-transforming, and in a bipolar world, a major power may seek hegemony or may seek to expand the pool of major powers by engineering the “amalgamation” of several second-tier states.[2] Mearsheimer’s conception of anarchy means that states are caught in an inescapable security competition and in the struggle for power, states will not agree and cooperate in the construction of a peaceful world order.[3] But that is exactly what Gorbachev and Western leaders did in the case of the end of the Cold War. According to realism, a global shift in material structure precluded Soviet leaders from doing anything but scaling back their power and empire, so the ideational factors referred to by Soviet leaders at the time and by international relations researchers afterward were the results of material structure—the material pressures and incentives produced by material factors drove Soviet policy decision-making.[4] Interestingly, Brooks and Wohlforth did not entirely discount the impact of ideational factors, though they argued that “material incentives systematically undermined alternatives to retrenchment” within the Soviet sphere of power.[5] The focus of realism is mainly on existing structure—and in fact some of realism’s most powerful theoretical-analytical material explores static structure and not dynamic change and history—as in the work of Waltz and Mearsheimer.[6] Realism is well-equipped to handle material forces and the strategies for dealing with the economic problems faced by the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. But the end of the Cold War cannot be usefully explained by “narrow calculations of relative power,” to use the words chosen by Mearsheimer to explain why powers do not work together to promote world order, when that is exactly what Gorbachev was trying to do by his own admission.[7] The end of the Cold War was one of the most important geopolitical events of the twentieth century and since it happened fairly unexpectedly, the low premium realism places on changing power dynamics means it seems to miss a lot of important aspects of the historical evidence.

Liberalism can help explain how Gorbachev sought to manage and capitalize on domestic-political developments at home and in Eastern Europe. Most importantly, liberalism can help explain why the Cold War ended peacefully—there was no security threat-response dynamic activated by events in the 1980s. Gorbachev’s policies of political openness and economic restructuring opened the door to democratization trends, especially in Eastern Europe, and liberalism helps understand events with its economic interdependence argument that Gorbachev realized that collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European economies could only be avoided by building economic connections, opening economic relations with the West.[8] Liberalism—with its focus on domestic political systems, democracy, economic interdependence, and international organizations—presents a strong, multi-causal explanation for the events leading up to 1989, a historical train of events that transformed the international-political system even though national security interests were still fully engaged (the Cold War was still going and the Soviet military was intact until 1991).[9] The liberal view of shifting state preferences helps explain Gorbachev’s interest in defusing the Cold War military rivalry. Moravcsik explained that the realist power balancing was only a temporary, propping up of the status quo: “Conclusion of the Cold War proceeded precisely as Kennan’s two-stage liberal model had predicted. Realist power balancing served throughout as a static, interim instrument to maintain the status quo, but shifting state preferences explain the outbreak and eventual passing of the conflict.”[10] Gorbachev saw political advantage in revoking the Brezhnev doctrine, responding to important changes in the domestic-political landscape in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, and thereby changing the political rules within the communist bloc—not as a response to any structural forces and Gorbachev seemed to be liberated by the new thinking rather than constrained by any systemic factors.[11] For liberalism, the Cold War ended the way it did because economic incentives and domestic political pressures for pluralism and political representation created political opportunities for leaders like Gorbachev to react to the demands of societal power groups and to represent new state preferences.

While liberalism focuses on the collapse of Eastern European socialism in 1989 as the radical change that Gorbachev was responding to, the individual actor perspective points to developments starting at least three years earlier. When the Cold War finally ended—recalling that for Thatcher it ended as early as 1988—the prevailing narrative marked the end of Eastern European socialism in 1989 as the decisive turning point, even though earlier events like Chernobyl in 1986 were instrumental in creating the new thinking that Gorbachev helped implement with new Soviet policies.[12] One of the most powerful explanations for the end of the Cold War to come from the individual actor perspective is that, beginning in the mid-1980s, Gorbachev and his circle of policy makers and analysts, collectively arrived at a coherent concept (worldview) that accepted the “mutuality of security in the nuclear age” and interdependence of states—and decided on a policy strategy aimed at avoiding the security dilemma at the heart of Cold War tensions.[13] Soviet thinking didn’t just acknowledge the international community but argued that the Soviet Union should be fully engaged in that “liberal international community”—a paradigmatic shift for communist leaders and a genuinely new national identity for the Soviet Union, which necessitated new formulations of national interests.[14] For the individual actor perspective, the Cold War ended the way it did because Gorbachev had transformed his ideas for the Soviet Union’s role in international politics and was able to enact enough policies to make that new national identity a political reality.

Constructivism links key changes in Soviet security conceptions to ideas and the political strategies suggested by those ideas. For constructivism, ideas can be causally significant in explaining important international-political changes. Risse-Kappen explained that Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev and the Western policy reactions that ratcheted down the Cold War, grew out of a set of “principled” ideas which were conceived of by “a transnational liberal internationalist community comprising the U.S. arms control community, Western European scholars and center-left policymakers, as well as Soviet institutchiks.”[15] Though realism may recognize that state identities react to the international-political structure, realism does not explain how states form their identities; constructivism helps by linking leaders’ ideas with the character of the state they represent.[16] Evangelista concluded that Gorbachev mobilized ideas from various policy sources to expand his political power, exercised power through his control of the domestic-political agenda and the political power associated with the top position in a hierarchical organization, to see the triumph of the ideas and values he believed in—a peaceful end to the Cold War.[17] For constructivism, ideas enable political strategies and the ideas that motivated Gorbachev and his intellectual peers allowed for the relaxing of military competition and engagement with the international economic system including Western economies.

How does one identify the most important insights? Realism, with its focus on international structure, is well-suited to highlight the material forces that shaped the strategies Soviet leaders had to consider for dealing with systemic economic problems relating to military spending and fiscal mismanagement—but factors of relative power with the United States and the West, in the traditional power sense, were not paramount in the events that ended the Cold War. For liberalism, the end of the Cold War resulted because economic incentives and domestic political pressures for political representation and reform create opportunities for leaders like Gorbachev to mobilize power by representing new state preferences. For the individual actor perspective, Gorbachev was intellectually open and capable enough to transform his ideas for the Soviet Union’s role in international politics and was able to enact enough policies to fashion a new national identity that rejected the East-West military-power conflict. For constructivism, ideas enabled the political strategies and the ideas that motivated Gorbachev and his intellectual peers allowed for the relaxation of military competition and engagement with the international economic system including Western economies. To understand the most important factor, Gorbachev was central or at least instrumental to all international relations interpretation but the realist one. Gorbachev was reacting to constituencies to maintain power, and absorbing new ideas about the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West and making them into a new Soviet national identity. While Gorbachev was important, most important were the ideas held by influential and politically active groups, organized transnationally.

Realist assumptions and insights into the end of the Cold War

The realist conception of anarchy might explain the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union’s shrewd adjustment of means and ends to achieve its fundamental security interest in a hostile world. For realists, there is no escaping the “self-help” imperative that guides states in a hostile world. Though ends and means may change, without a hegemonic power to keep stability, a state must “search for the most appropriate means of obtaining security.”[18] By this interpretation, Gorbachev found the most appropriate solution to the Soviet Union security problem in economic liberalization. The liberal response to realist anarchy is that it is not so all-imposing. While conflict may exist, it is more the normal course of state affairs that interests can be integrated to the point that the effects of anarchy are mitigated, sources of conflict reduced, and means for increasing collective gains found.[19] Realist anarchy does not allow for such a powerful state as the Soviet Union to peacefully exit the anarchical organization of powers. Given realism’s concept of self-help, it is hard to explain the Soviet Union’s desire to improve its economic conditions by opening to the West given the overt military hostility between capitalist and communist blocs. Anarchy and its closely related concept of self-interest (narrowly defined) clash directly with the universalist and internationalist values Gorbachev was self-proclaiming.

For realism, the United States was responding to the Soviet Union’s capability to threaten the political independence and security of Western Europe during the Cold War, and both powers needed to rely on internal balancing against the other. For realists who focus on the international distribution of power, the United States could not ignore what appeared to be the Soviet Union’s ability to subjugate all of Europe, deemed a vital national interest by U.S. leaders, and therefore the United States had no choice but to counter Soviet power capabilities until the means of threatening the “other industrial centers of the world” no longer existed.[20] This realist conception of capabilities and balancing provided a likely scenario for how the Cold War would end. In a bipolar international system, each superpower had to rely on internal balancing, and if one superpower was more efficient than the other at harnessing national power for the competition, and the other was not able to match, because of the bipolar arrangement, there would be no option to bring a powerful alliance into play—the Soviet Union could not compete because it managed allies poorly and had economic management problems that precluded it from matching the economic output of the Unites States and the West.[21] Gorbachev’s actions did not conform to a realist interpretation. Instead of finding solutions to the problem of internal investment, finding ways to increase economic efficiency and execute internal balancing better, he opted to change the political terms of the Cold War power game with the ideas of international interdependence and transnational values. This argument highlights a central problem of realism: arguing that international structure causes state behavior is both descriptive and prescriptive, and therefore anomalous actions by leaders are inexplicable by realist theory alone.[22] U.S. leaders appeared to be responding to what they understood to be Soviet leaders’ intentions. Soviet hard power capabilities, still very evident in the 1980s as illustrated by the military occupation of Afghanistan, did not factor in as primary considerations for American foreign policy.

The realist concepts of power and power accumulation would suggest that the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union admitted a patent inability to defend itself against possible Western military action against it or its satellites. Soviet leaders were able to pursue a more ambitious—in hard power terms—foreign policy approach than the United States based on a willingness to fight (and therefore be continuously prepared militarily for) general war, because the Soviet Union was a statist power, not tamed in any way through dynamics of domestic politics.[23] Realism both recognizes the centrality of power and the general imperative that state aims must be trimmed to be in line with what the international-political system will allow—states may pursue the aims that are within the possibilities of the given system.[24] Gorbachev was not all-powerful, even though he was at the head of the Soviet political system. He had the power to deconstruct the Soviet system but not to entirely replace it.[25] By a realist conception of power, one would assume for the Cold War to end the Soviet Union would have to accept some kind of formal and explicit defeat. On the contrary, Gorbachev acted like he believed the new ideas he represented had won.

As with liberalism, realism assumes rational state behavior. For states to react to structural forces requires state leaders who understand security and the implications of anarchy, and this understanding must, for realism, be essentially uniform for state leaders across the system. Rationality is a fundamental assumption of realism; it cannot be violated for realism to work.[26] Assuming rationality is useful for explaining certain static elements like strategies, given preferences, and common knowledge, but does not appear as useful in explaining preference variation, and what strategies are available to choose from—variables that are needed to explain Gorbachev’s behavior in the mid- to late-1980s.[27] As has been argued by Legro and Moravcsik, rationality and its related concept of an anarchical international system, assumed to be uniform and constant, explain very little about how states arrive at different preferred outcomes, or define policy preferences.[28] A realist view of the Cold War international system does not explain how Gorbachev moved to downplay military competition ahead of the Western powers. It is also important to note that there was no direct causal chain between Western political demands and the demands that Gorbachev chose to place on the Soviet system and bloc.

How well does realism explain the end of the Cold War? Although realism may allow for a power to fall out of the major power system—history, of course, is full of fallen great powers—and out of the clutches of the anarchical system, it is much harder to understand how such a powerful actor as the Soviet Union could step down from major power conflict without war. Very different than realism would predict, U.S. leaders seemed more tuned to Soviet intentions than strict military-power capabilities. Though realism assumes Gorbachev could only win or lose the Cold War, it seemed he changed the rules of the game instead. A realist perspective does not explain Gorbachev’s determination to deemphasize the military competition with the West; to actively make the Soviet Union appear less militarily threatening and more like an economically viable partner. Realism is least effective at explaining the end of the Cold War because it offers no insights at the individual leader and bloc-political levels.

International relations interpretations of the end of the Cold War and the international relations field

The development of different international relations perspectives has led to distinct research camps that have sometimes competed with each other. The dominant theme of twentieth century international relations was the competition between the categories of realism and idealism (which has not entirely gone away). This duality has been at times accepted uncritically as almost a given, even if it is more accurately a “founding myth,” and many of the most prominent theoretical disputes have been defined using these terms.[29] The realism and idealism dichotomy reduces theoretical perspectives to a simple contrast between realists who value prudence, rationality, and the overriding logic of self-interest, and idealists who insist that there is a fundamental “harmony” of state interests, and that power can mix with altruism.[30] Mearsheimer may be correct that realism has dominated international relations discourse since Machiavelli.[31] The question is if this is good for international relations theory and research, or does having one very dominant, paradigmatic approach hurt the field? Does it help the field to have such a dominant tradition, especially if it is the least capable of explaining the end of the Cold War? The problem lies in the hostility expressed at times between the perspectives. The characterization that liberalism is an “anti-realist ideology” is simply not analytically helpful, and the characterization that realism causes war, costly arms races, and “secret” diplomacy, at odds with democracy and economic prosperity, is hard to take seriously.[32] Realism charges that liberalism is essentially utopian—even though the connection is not so compelling—because of the naive belief that democratic peace counteracts anarchy and removes cause for war above the level of states.[33] A dichotomy between rationalist and sociological—i.e., constructivist—theory has also been identified. Some writers seem to want to perpetuate the duality between realism and structuralism even though a blending of the two might produce fruitful research opportunities.[34] Simplistic dichotomies between research approaches have exasperated theoretical divides and disputes between international relations theorists.

Parallel to the development of different international relations perspectives has been the ongoing tension between efforts to establish international relations theory as a social science and efforts to distance international relations theory from social scientific tools. International relations theory in America has become more methodologically rigorous over the last several decades.[35] International relations theory attempted to embrace “hard” sciences at around the same time the hard sciences were adopting such “soft” science concepts as “indeterminacy, irregularity, and unpredictability”—a situation John Lewis Gaddis referred to vividly as two ships passing in the night.[36] There have also been attempts to unseat realism in international relations theory by attacking its positivistic and rationalistic foundations. There was a “critical movement” committed to restoring “the historical, the particular and the contingent” in the study of international politics by returning self-regarding agents to the core of the field.[37] While perhaps understandable given the predictive power of the hard sciences, and given that social scientific tools may continue to strengthen quantitative aspects of international politics research, the field of international relations theory could learn from newer scientific methodologies that embrace post-positivist concepts. To the extent that international relations theory deals with international politics, the field should try to recapture its historical emphasis on human agency.

The desire for parsimony and predictive power expressed so succinctly by Waltz in Theory of International Politics—and a fixation on scientific methods by some in the international relations field—seems fueled at least in part by a desire for policy relevance and influence in Washington circles. There have been attempts to establish international relations as an objective science on the grounds that international politics itself is based on instrumental rationality, and that by removing values and raising instrumental calculations to a universal level, both theorists and practitioners can calculate, if not predict, the actions and reactions of actors. Williams wrote in 1993: “This form of action, once understood, is applicable to all times and in all places, and thus allows international relations to be subsumed under, and comprehended within, the framework of a positivistic science.”[38] There has been a long tradition of applying mechanistic concepts, models, and analogies to international relations theory, especially in concepts of balance of power and systems analysis.[39] Critics of attempts to establish international relations as a positivistic science argue that the epistemological ideal of parsimony is misguided, and that preoccupation with social scientific methods draws the attention of theorists and research away from the “actual international game.”[40] It might be more useful to think of international relations as a field that draws from history, sociology, psychology, and economics, but not as an independent discipline—a full-blown social science.[41] International politics as human activity based on such things as bargaining dynamics seems to suggest only limited roles for scientific methods. Social scientific tools may be applicable for some analysis (testing theories) but not for using theories.

Historical continuity suggests that international relations events are the product of both structural forces and the impact of particular leaders at the time.[42] The end of the Cold War which set the stage for the continuing economic globalization and wars of the 1990s, and transnational terrorism of the early twenty-first century, was the result of both systemic economic tides turning against the Soviet Union and the ideas and human agency of Gorbachev (and other key leaders). The impact of individual actors cannot be overlooked. Gorbachev’s tactics combined creative ideology with an unusual (for Soviet politics) diffusion of authority, and this is most important for understanding how the Cold War ended peacefully.[43] Risse-Kappen concluded that to understand the “sea change in world politics” brought about by the end of the Cold War requires the conceptual power of combining structural, domestic-political, and ideational models.[44] Using bargaining theory as an analogy, Moravcsik explained well the sense of combining international relations approaches to arrive at “synthetic” explanations for behavior and outcomes.[45] International relations theory should combine the perspectives to arrive at richer, synthetic explanations for state preferences and behavior. Objective relationships between different states in an international system, the power groups that define a large part of states’ foreign policies, individual leaders, and powerful ideas all make up international politics and should be given due attention.

How does one arrive at the most useful approach? Simplistic dichotomies between research approaches have exasperated theoretical divides and disputes between international relations theorists. While perhaps understandable given the predictive power of the hard sciences, and given that social scientific tools may continue to strengthen quantitative aspects of international politics, the field of international relations theory could learn from newer scientific methodologies that embrace post-positivist concepts. International politics as human activity seems to suggest only limited roles for social scientific methods, as tools for some analysis (testing theories) but not for using theories (which requires human intuition and judgment). International relations theory should combine the perspectives to arrive at richer, synthetic explanations for state behavior. International relations theory will probably always tend toward analytical sterility as long as it is allowed to be dominated by an overly-powerful, single paradigmatic approach. It might be useful to look at international relations perspectives as layers of the same phenomenon. Ideas influence behavior of individual leaders and actors; individuals influence groups and movements; groups and movements influence political processes; political processes are reacting to international-political factors as multiple states act and react.


To understand the most important factor, Gorbachev was central or at least instrumental to all international relations interpretation but realism. Gorbachev was both reacting to constituencies to maintain power, and taking new ideas about the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West and making them into a new Soviet national identity. Realism is least effective at explaining the end of the Cold War at the individual leader and bloc-political levels. International relations theory will probably always tend toward sterility as long as it is allowed to be dominated by an overly-powerful single paradigm. The end of the Cold War can best be understood as the result of Gorbachev’s aims, the domestic-political forces at work in Eastern European socialist states, and the global economic trends that made centralized state-planned economies less and less efficient.

It is interesting that realism, which focuses so exclusively on great powers, should so underrate the impact of leaders of great powers, but that is exactly what Mearsheimer does.[46] Powerful ideas changed, if only briefly, the norms governing great power politics between the Soviet Union and the United States just long enough for Gorbachev to enact political changes at home and kick start political reform in Eastern Europe—political changes significant enough to reinforce American views that the Cold War was moribund.


1. Quoted in Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “Power, Globalization, and the End of the Cold War: Reevaluating a Landmark Case for Ideas,” International Security 25, no. 3 (2000–2001): 46.

2. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 199.

3. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 49–50.

4. Brooks and Wohlforth, “Power, Globalization, and the End of the Cold War,” 7–8.

5. Ibid., 50.

6. R. B. J. Walker, “Realism, Change, and International Political Theory,” International Studies Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1987): 70.

7. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 49.

8. Bruce Russett and John Oneal, Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 31–32.

9. Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics,” International Organization 51, no. 4 (1997): 547.

10. Ibid., 546–547.

11. Rey Koslowski and Friedrich V. Kratochwil, “Understanding Change in International Politics: The Soviet Empire’s Demise and the International System,” International Organization 48, no. 2 (1994): 228.

12. Robert English, “The Sociology of New Thinking: Elites, Identity Change, and the End of the Cold War,” Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 2 (2005): 78.

13. Janice Gross Stein, “Political Learning by Doing: Gorbachev as Uncommitted Thinker and Motivated Learner,” in International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, eds. Richard Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 10.

14. English, “The Sociology of New Thinking,” 74.

15. Thomas Risse-Kappen, “Ideas Do Not Float Freely: Transnational Coalitions, Domestic Structures, and the End of the Cold War,” International Organization 48, no. 2 (1994): 212–213.

16. See Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, “Shortcut to Greatness: The New Thinking and the Revolution in Soviet Foreign Policy,” International Organization 57, no. 1 (2003): 104.

17. Matthew Evangelista, “Turning Points in Arms Control,” in Ending the Cold War: Interpretations, Causation, and the Study of International Relations, eds. Richard K. Herrmann and Richard Ned Lebow (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 103.

18. Brian Ripley, “Psychology, Foreign Policy, and International Relations Theory,” Political Psychology 14, no. 3 (1993): 409.

19. Robert Jervis, “Realism, Neoliberalism, and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate,” International Security 24, no. 1 (1999): 45.

20. Mark L. Haas, “The United States and the End of the Cold War: Reactions to Shifts in Soviet Power, Policies, or Domestic Politics?” International Organization 61, no. 1 (2007): 150.

21. Robert Jervis, “Unipolarity: A Structural Perspective,” World Politics 61, no. 1 (2009): 190.

22. Robert Jervis, Systemic Theories: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 118.

23. Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, “Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited,” International Security 25, no. 3 (2000–2001): 143.

24. Robert Jervis, “Realism in the Study of World Politics,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 986.

25. Jack Snyder, “The Domestic Political Logic of Gorbachev’s New Thinking in Foreign Policy,” International Politics 48, no. 4–5 (2011): 565.

26. Ripley, “Psychology, Foreign Policy, and International Relations Theory,” 408.

27. Peter J. Katzenstein, Robert O. Keohane, and Stephen D. Krasner, “International Organization and the Study of World Politics,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 682.

28. Jeffrey W. Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, “Is Anybody Still a Realist?” International Security 24, no. 2, (1999): 20.

29. Walker, “Realism, Change, and International Political Theory,” 69.

30. Legro and Moravcsik, “Is Anybody Still a Realist?” 54.

31. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 369.

32. Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Two Concepts of Liberty: U.S. Cold War Grand Strategies and the Liberal Tradition,” International Security 37, no. 2 (2012): 11.

33. Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security 25, no. 1 (2000): 8.

34. Andrew Moravcsik, “Liberal International Relations Theory: A Scientific Assessment,” in Progress in International Relations Theory: Appraising the Field, eds. Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 45 (page number from proof).

35. G. John Ikenberry, “Liberalism in a Realist World: International Relations as an American Scholarly Tradition,” International Studies 46, no. 1–2 (2009): 205.

36. John Lewis Gaddis, “International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War,” International Security 17, no. 3 (1992–1993): 53–54.

37. Michael C. Williams, “Neo-Realism and the Future of Strategy,” Review of International Studies 19, no. 2 (1993): 120.

38. Ibid., 108.

39. Walker, “Realism, Change, and International Political Theory,” 74.

40. Koslowski and Kratochwil, “Understanding Change in International Politics,” 222.

41. Fred Halliday, “International Relations Theory and the Post-Cold War Period,” METU Studies in Development 27, no. 3–4 (2000): 259.

42. Marc Trachtenberg, The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 249.

43. Snyder, “The Domestic Political Logic,” 563-564.

44. Risse-Kappen, “Ideas Do Not Float Freely,” 213.

45. Moravcsik, “Liberal International Relations Theory,” 42.

46. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 369.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Discussion: Economic Globalization and its Consequences

Some researchers see globalization as hundreds of years old while others see it as only decades old. If globalization is equated with “internationalization” then it certainly appears to be nothing new at all.[1] This has to do with whether one is looking at political, social, or economic globalization. The narrower concept of economic globalization was an outgrowth of economic challenges that threatened to swamp advanced Western economies in the 1970s and early 1980s. This analysis will look at how and why economic globalization—trade and market liberalization—was promoted after the 1970s, by what organizations, and what the intended and unintended consequences of economic globalization on state and society were. It will also present some competing interpretations of globalization. Economic globalization was promoted after the 1970s through an aggressive agenda of structural adjustments meant to open national and subnational markets to international competition. The agenda was pushed on many developing countries that were already facing crushing debt and stagnant growth.

Like the terms state and class, the term globalization has been used in very different ways. For some sociologists, globalization (or structural globalization) refers to the “density” of interactions between states as compared to local and national levels.[2] For other authors, globalization broadly speaking refers to the increase in integration of states into a global economic framework.[3] For Jonathan Friedman, globalization does not necessarily mean anything more than the integration of world markets.[4] Economic globalization, as economic liberalization, refers to the process of removing official barriers, such as trade barriers, foreign exchange restrictions, and capital controls, to the movement of resources between states to create a borderless market economy.[5] The transfer of many liberal economic practices associated with the United States, the United Kingdom, and several other advanced economies to parts of the developing world had profound consequences for the governments and populations in many parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

Economic globalization, which began in the late 1970s as a reaction to stagnant growth in parts of the world, forced increased integration by spreading economic liberalization policies that linked national economies in new ways. The current era of emphasizing free market economic policies can be dated to the late-1970s, before that, most Western economies followed Keynesian policies associated with the post-World War Two era.[6] The change in economic ideology can be traced to the 1970s oil crisis and economic slowdown, followed by the global debt crisis of the 1980s.[7] Economic globalization may be thought of as the globalization of capital (the loosening of commodity and labor markets have lagged far behind financial market liberalization).

Economic globalization was aggressively promoted after the 1970s based on the belief that some developing economies had stagnated behind protectionist barriers. From 1973 (the oil crisis) until 1998 real global GDP grew annually at a rate of 3 percent, down from 4.9 percent in the period 1950-1973, and over the same period since 1973, growth in Africa dropped 38 percent and in Latin America the decrease was 43 percent.[8] At least initially, economic globalization and the Washington Consensus were promoted in response to the sluggish Latin American economies of the 1980s, which saw contracting GNP due to counterproductive public policies, high budget deficits, and bloated state sector subsidies.[9] Many of the economic liberalization recommendations could be characterized as “instantaneous” market adjustments.[10]

There were major players behind the post-1970s globalization effort who were pursuing specific economic interests, primarily trying to get underperforming developing economies to expand and repay loans. The Washington Consensus was a project that included many actors including the IMF, the World Bank, the advanced Western economies, the United States Executive Branch, and like-minded members of the U.S. Congress, among others. One of the strongest motivations for the IMF in economic globalization was to aggressively combat inflation which was seen as both “costly” and prone to spiral out of control if it got too high.[11] Powerful Western economies including the United States and United Kingdom played a dominant role in setting the rules of international economic activity and directing the process of economic globalization.[12] The power of states like the U.S. and United Kingdom to impose practices on other states was based on Anglo-American traditions and laws—the U.S. imposed standards on other states as a hegemonic power.[13] Increasingly multinational corporations in Western Europe, the United States, and Japan reversed their previous opposition to liberalization and lobbied for more open international markets, in the interest of their own market expansion.[14] This process, driven by U.S. and British commercial interests, was closely associated with the conservative Reagan and Thatcher administrations.

The Washington Consensus began as a series of economic recommendations, including fiscal discipline, tax reform, competitive exchange rates, trade liberalization, and removal of barriers to foreign investment, to spur growth and control inflation in newly industrialized economies as well as ailing mature economies. Even though the Washington Consensus aimed to promote development and growth by focusing on liberalization of trade and investment regimes, deregulation of domestic markets, and privatization of public enterprises, it led to various major economic shocks which created a degree of backlash by 1999 and 2000. Some researchers have called the Washington Consensus a hegemonic, neoliberal, ideologically-driven agenda that “proclaims marketization and privatization as solutions to the world’s problems.”[15]

The intended consequences of economic globalization, as codified in the Washington Consensus, were domestic liberalization, free market orientation, and conservative macroeconomic policies. Still, some saw the economic recommendations of the Washington Consensus as a veiled democracy promotion agenda. By increasing the mobility of global capital and removing protectionist barriers, states would be in a position to maximize their natural resources and labor capabilities through competition. The theory behind neoliberal economic globalization projected that through competition and open markets, states would specialize in a global market by exploiting their comparative advantage and thus maximize growth through increased trade.[16] Financial markets, as opposed to commodity and labor markets, responded dramatically to liberalization: in 1980, total cross-border transactions of the advanced economies was still below 10 percent of their GDP, but by 1995, the total had surpassed 100 percent.[17]

There were unintended consequences as well which proved that globalization could be especially disruptive at the national and subnational levels. According to Sassen, globalization did not directly challenge territoriality but it was transforming the “exclusive territoriality of the nation state”—there were real effects of economic globalization on nation-state sovereignty.[18] It has been argued by some that economic liberalization contributed to a string of currency crises, stock market collapses, and financial panics in the 1990s.[19] The research of Li and Reuveny found that reduced trade barriers and portfolio investment inflows could negatively impact democracy, and foreign direct investment positively impacted democracy but the effects lessened over time.[20] Economic globalization may hurt democracy because states that compete actively for foreign investment may shape policies that attract global corporations but counter the interests of their populations (and the situation is worse if the governments are not answerable to the people through elections).[21] As capital was freed to move more freely across national borders, corporations became more unstable and exhibited increasing turnovers in management, especially as corporations were bought and sold more regularly—this process was most on view during the hostile takeover trend of the 1980s. Economic globalization apparently hurt labor interests. Workers had difficulty competing with multinational corporations employing global business strategies, and many governments in developing states had more of an incentive to cater to multinational corporation wishes (to win lucrative foreign direct investment) than the interests of their own citizens.[22] Although it is unclear if this was really unintended, the competition for foreign investment drove many governments to abruptly and dramatically change the social contract between policymakers and the governed. Social safety nets were scrapped or vastly reduced, economic hardships generally increased for the poor, and many forms of social protection like gender discrimination policies and environmental protection policies were tossed aside as “barriers” to economic growth.

The consequences of economic globalization including the Washington Consensus period and the post-Washington Consensus period were many and it appears that in many ways the changes to the state, interstate relations, and global markets are still playing themselves out. It should be pointed out that the effects of trade conflicts and financial instability are correspondingly worse on smaller, open, lower-income states which are adhering to the principles of economic liberalization.[23] In general, economic globalization increased the pace of change for populations in many different states in both advanced economies, such as in Europe and parts of East Asia, and developing economies, and in the process of expanding international economic interaction, there appeared to be some “homogenization” of culture. Still, dramatically different social and political systems remain in the world, as well as different economic systems, so it is possible that local and national political systems are stronger at managing external influences than was thought before.[24] As Sassen argued, one of the roles of the modern state in today’s global economy is to mediate between national law and foreign interests, meaning firms, markets, or “supranational organizations.”[25] It is still too early to declare that globalization spelled the end of the modern state.

There are competing views on globalization and economic globalization. Many states up until the 1970s used economic barriers to protect indigenous markets from international competition. For Robinson, economic globalization significantly restructured the international labor systems, reorganized national production systems, seriously altered the internal social and political makeup of states, and eroded national boundaries and promoted social uniformity (presumably a bad thing).[26] Wallerstein would argue that the globalization of capital is nothing but another attempt by some in the capitalist classes to maximize profits—since their markets have evolved to the point that barriers no long help their interests—in the global economy.[27] Scholte advocated a definition of globalization as a respatialization of social life, emphasizing the advent of supraterritorial connectivity, and downplaying the economic dimension of globalization.[28] Financial integration is not new since there was at least two centuries of this based in Europe before the 1980s, but of course the degree to which financial integration grew and penetrated nation-states under the Washington Consensus was unprecedented. There are reasons to see the globalization of the late-twentieth century as not entirely new, but it does appear that this most recent wave of globalization created much deeper levels of global interconnectedness.

Many questions about economic globalization remain to be explored. Does economic globalization undermine the state or strengthen the state? According to Shaw, globalization of the second half of the twentieth century has seen the decline in the power of the state, not because of economic integration, but because of “nation-states’ own projections of military power.”[29] Prima facie it would seem that economic globalization would undermine the state by weakening territorial sovereignty and weakening political sovereignty by expecting national policymakers to adjust and implement policies from outside bodies, and weakening the concept of state citizenship. Scholte is probably premature in calling the current period an end of territorialism, though it would seem reasonable that current concepts of national-territorialism are changing.[30] Instead, it appears that states—as they undergo the pressures of outside competition—are changing by emphasizing different aspects of state sovereignty. To stay relevant in the field of governance, states that have undergone the economic globalization transformation successfully have become more nimble and better able to respond to the needs of their citizens because they have been forced to adapt. One possible unforeseen effect of economic globalization based on market liberalization is that states appear to recover from financial disasters quicker than pre-1970s.[31] It is also not clear that multinational corporations today—that really operate in many different countries—can really be compared to multinational corporations of the pre-1945 era, for example.

Economic globalization is a concept that has sparked intense debate—not least for its close association with the controversial policies of the so-called Washington Consensus—but at the same time, growing interconnectedness across the world of ideas, programs, and policies is hard to deny. What is unclear is whether economic globalization will wind up more harmful than good. For now, states appear to be transforming to operate more effectively in the new environment.


1. Jan Aart Scholte, “What is Globalization? The Definitional Issue-Again,” CSGR Working Paper No. 109/02, Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation (CSGR), 26 February 2009, 9.

2. Christopher Chase-Dunn, Yukio Kawano, and Benjamin D. Brewer, “Trade Globalization since 1795: Waves of Integration in the World-System,” American Sociological Review 65, no. 1 (February 2000): 78.

3. Quan Li and Rafael Reuveny, “Economic Globalization and Democracy: An Empirical Analysis,” British Journal of Political Science 33, no. 1 (January 2003): 29.

4. Jonathan Friedman, “Globalization: Dis-Integration, Re-Organization,” in Globalization, the State, and Violence, ed. Jonathan Friedman (Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman Altamira, 2003), 6.

5. Scholte, “What is Globalization?” 10.

6. Seeraj Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement: Changes in the Global Economy from the Golden Age to the Neoliberal Era, Global Labour University Working Papers, Paper no. 1 (Berlin, Germany: Global Labour University, February 2008), 1.

7. Ibid., 12.

8. Ibid., 3.

9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “More Instruments and Broader Goals: Moving Toward the Post-Washington Consensus,” Revista de Economia Politica 19, no. 1 (73) (January-March 1999): 96.

10. See Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement, 2.

11. Stiglitz, “More Instruments and Broader Goals,” 14.

12. Gao Shangquan, “Economic Globalization: Trends, Risks and Risk Prevention,” CDP Background Paper no. 1, Committee for Development Policy, 2000, 3.

13. Saskia Sassen, “The State and Globalization,” in Readings in Comparative Politics: Political Challenges and Changing Agendas, ed. Mark Kesselman, 2nd ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010), 91.

14. Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement, 12.

15. Chase-Dunn, Kawano, and Brewer, “Trade Globalization since 1795,” 77.

16. Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement, 22.

17. Shangquan, “Economic Globalization,” 2.

18. Sassen, “The State and Globalization,” 92.

19. Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement, 20.

20. Li and Reuveny, “Economic Globalization and Democracy,” 30.

21. Ibid., 36.

22. Mohamed, Economic Policy, Globalization and the Labour Movement, 6.

23. Michael D. Bordo, Barry Eichengreen, and Douglas A. Irwin, “Is Globalization Today Really Different than Globalization a Hundred Years Ago?” NBER Working Paper no. 7195, National Bureau of Economic Research, June 1999, 58.

24. David Brady, Jason Beckfield, and Wei Zhao, “The Consequences of Economic Globalization for Affluent Democracies,” Annual Review of Sociology 33 (August 2007): 327.

25. Sassen, “The State and Globalization,” 90.

26. William I. Robinson, “Globalization, the World System, and ‘Democracy Promotion’ in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Theory and Society 25, no. 5 (October 1996): 633.

27. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16, no. 4 (September 1974): 402.

28. Scholte, “What is Globalization?” 33.

29. Martin Shaw, “The State of Globalization: Towards a Theory of State Transformation,” Review of International Political Economy 4, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 500.

30. Scholte, “What is Globalization?” 22.

31. See Bordo, Eichengreen, and Irwin, “Is Globalization Today Really Different,” 5.


1. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, "The Development of Development Theory: Towards Critical Globalism," Review of International Political Economy 3, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 541-564.

Discussion: Development of the Modern State in Western Europe

In 1943, Franz Mueller suggested a definition of the state as made up of “expert officials” (or bureaucrats), based on rational laws, and enjoying an unchallenged monopoly over the legitimate use of force within defined borders of a territory.[1] Many definitions of the state have been advanced but Mueller’s is still valid after seven decades. How did the modern state develop in Western Europe and how was the modern state model transferred to other parts of world? What is meant by “modern state”—as distinct from ancient and medieval concepts of the state—developed sometime between 1100 and 1600 in Europe due to the interaction of multiple patterns of resource accumulation, competition, security, and power alliances.

There are three dominant comparative politics research approaches: rationalist, structuralist, and culturalist. Each of the three schools—ideal-type research approaches—may engage in some cross-boundary interaction, but each is mostly concerned with advocating a particular intellectual world-view and championing an underlying intellectual tradition.[2] For rationalists, larger units like states are not significant beyond the group of individuals that make up the larger unit, and all explanations of behavior and decision-making and social change can only be understood in terms of individual decision-making based on the concept of rational choice.[3] For rationalists, the state reflects a society made up of individuals pursuing their interests according to rational criteria given the information available. For rationalists, the state developed to enhance the pursuit of power and wealth by individuals.

Both the rationalist and structuralist viewpoints are concerned with material interests. Structuralists interpret entities only in relation to other entities that are part of the same system—they are concerned with relationships among individuals, institutions, and organizations—so when looking at the state and society, they are concerned with the social, political, and economic interactions and relationships between members of the larger whole.[4] Structuralists, unlike rationalists, do not reduce explanations of social phenomenon to the individual level.[5] According to Lichbach, structuralists are like culturalists only in the sense that they take large organizations as a whole, and not as collections of individuals.[6] Because structuralists focus on institutions, they tend to view the state as having developed from groups allying with each other against other groups to pursue interests and power. Outside groups progressively gain power and representation in the center by allying with center groups. From a structuralist point of view, groups with power will sustain the state in order to both protect and expand their power.

The rationalists view culture functionally, as “expressive material” to reinforce the power of individuals.[7] In contrast, culturalists approach state and society in a methodologically holistic way, to borrow Lichbach’s idea, and perceive culture as permeating social organizations; culture imparts insider knowledge to members and culture is also the basis of social control.[8] States are “exogenously constructed,” including actors who are less independent agents than “actors of scripts.”[9] According to the culturalist school, the state reflects cultural norms and values, but culture is also dynamic. States and societies follow cultural rules not clearly known or understood by outsiders.[10] When it comes to the study of comparative politics, rationalists focus on the individuals using rational choice to serve their interests, structuralists focus on the institutional and other group relationships that make up the larger community, and culturalists focus on the insider rules that govern group identity.[11]

There are different conceptions of the state but functionalist definitions are most common. From the Weberian tradition, the state claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Territoriality is an aspect of the modern state: set and enforceable boundaries. The modern state exercises sovereignty and state sovereignty is a form depersonalized power—it developed as a distinct concept from ruler and ruled. The modern Western state exercises its sovereignty through laws (rational laws as opposed to divine laws) and the state itself is a legal entity.[12] The concept of sovereignty is translated into power through natural laws. The modern Western state imposes law and order over defined territory.

The modern state represents an impersonal power because while it developed to enhance the effectiveness of centralized rulers, over time it developed its own power through its ability to redistribute goods and services, and provide security independent of the rulers. Moreover, the more absolute the power of any ruler became, as states developed in Europe, the more the ruler became dependent on larger and larger bureaucratic entities to oversee military, economic, and legal affairs, and “transmit” the will of the ruler over the population—and over time, these bureaucracies—the state—became powerful in their own right and tended to seize power from the ruler.[13] The modern state was similar to medieval and ancient conceptions in that it was made up of a complex pattern of political, social, and ideological factors, but it was unique because it merged the abstract concept of the state with the “doctrine” of popular sovereignty independent of any individual ruler (who exercised royal sovereignty); the modern state is so powerful because it combines physical structure (institutions and bureaucracy) with conceptual structure (primarily based on rational-legal foundations).[14] Critical to any understanding of the modern state is bureaucracy. The term bureaucracy may be applied to the “servants and functionaries” who tended the military, fiscal, and legal affairs of some powerful individual like a king, emperor, or pope.[15] According to Tilly, market economies and “monetized agriculture” contributed to the development of industrial capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state.[16] Tilly’s theory of European state formation as a monopoly over the means of violence within a specified territory defined by boundaries is indebted to Weber and can be summarized as: war leads to need for extraction of resources which leads to repression which spurs state-building, since efficient extraction and efficient repression require centralized planning and coordination.[17] The modern state is the product of the competition between society, and the “natural rights” enjoyed by all members of the society, and the state, which enjoyed absolute sovereignty based on the common interests of all but requiring the management by a centralized power (a ruler).[18] Many different processes contributed to the development of the modern state including military organization and effectiveness, taxation, technical services, policing, control of food supplies, and manufacturing.[19] There is an important link between expanding economic activity, accumulation of wealth (resources), improved taxation ability, rising taxation, and rising expectations for representation in the taxation process.[20]

Key to the development of the modern state in Britain and France was rise of a capitalist class. Through the extraction of key political resources (means of power) and distribution of resources, such as for war, within a defined territory helped consolidate and centralize power (through the needs for centralized planning and individuals to operate such extractive activities, or bureaucrats). Such centralization and consolidation of power gave the territory and its dominant political unit—the state—a strength and durability significantly more than other kinds of organization like clan or tribe. The war-making activities of powerful classes required the extraction of taxes from the peasantry to pay for armies and administration, and as competition between early states increased, states employed various coercive and violent means to consolidate and protect power from lower classes. Whenever power in the center failed to protect itself from challenges around the periphery, deals were usually made to expand the center and expand representation in the center. Durable states will tend to develop where there is commercial activity (to tax) and where powerful classes may carry out ongoing extractive activities. Britain was a strong state with a weak “central bureaucratic” core, whereas France was strong bureaucratically but went through periods of being a weak state.[21] The British state usually fared well in paying for a military (though usually small) and carrying out taxation, but the state developed differently in in different parts of Europe depending on local conditions and the particular compromises arrived at by rulers and social classes.

Britain was a sea-based state which meant its rulers looked to urban classes for resources and power, whereas France was a land-based state which meant its rulers looked to the landed aristocracy for resources and power. The modern French state up through the seventeenth century was both centralized and decentralized, patrimonial and “professionalized,” financially strapped but still able to mobilize enough resources when crises arose.[22] France faced two problems which put it at a disadvantage as compared to Britain: a large number of tax exemptions placed the highest tax burden on “surplus-producing” peasants and tradesmen, which limited the amount the state could extract, and the French economy produced much less per capita surplus that was taxable as in Britain, which meant the French crown was often in debt.[23] Taxation systems in early modern states were the result of constant bargaining between powerful rulers who wanted resources to pay for war and expansion, and peasants and commercial classes that wanted protection (and later representation, when basic living needs were regularly met). The early modern British state had greater ability to mobilize resources but less “infrastructural power” than France, whereas France was the opposite, having difficulty extracting resources but more powerful control over the population, and its state authority was more pronounced along the peripheries.[24] Both Britain and France had an advantage in creating homogenous cultural populations by expulsions or conversions.[25] The Western European state was progressively centralized as monarchs became increasingly absolutist which required the progressive domination of previously independent groups including townsfolk, guilds, magistrates, “and, most importantly, the system of estates.”[26] Britain followed a relatively smooth transition to modern statehood but the move in France was more sporadic and linked to waves of rebellion.

Early modern states developed in Western Europe due to economic conditions. Modern states will not normally develop where there is an absence of free flowing and excess capital, and therefore no middle class. The Renaissance state was based on the merger of legal and religious authority “in sovereignty,” sovereignty exercised through bureaucracy, and once modern institutional bureaucratic method had replaced ‘royal household’ methods.[27] What is referred to today as the modern state—in the Western European sense—is the product of a long-term process of landed upper classes consolidating power through taxation and other coercive means, growing and fielding armies to ensure further taxation, suppressing popular rebellions, and forming beneficial alliances. In the state-formation process, some of the most important alliances were those between the royal rulers and the economic classes (which could be tapped for resources), and between royal rulers and nobility (those able to enforce and extend royal power). As centralized power grew in resources and capabilities there were challenges from outside the center and demands for greater representation. The Western European modern state model survived where other organizations like feudalism, multinational empires, and theocratic federations did not (or did not thrive).[28] A powerful church in the European context may have helped state formation by providing trained administrators, and by contributing to workable systems of law and large-scale organization.[29] The modern state developed in Western Europe as an especially effective social organization that could influence the creation, accumulation, and redistribution of wealth, concentrate power for military activities, offer representation to various internal groups, maintain order, and provide security.

Early-forming states primarily from Western Europe (colonizers) exported the modern state model to late-forming states (colonized territories) for reasons including control and exploitation. Creating modern states in colonized regions facilitated colonial control because state-to-state interaction was efficient. Modern state structures also facilitated the extraction of colonial resources. The new states were created by imposing state structures from the top-down; they did not resemble the early modern European states like Britain and France. The European states like Britain and France grew and consolidated power primarily through competition—at times very intense and violent—with one another. New states developed out of and reacted to very different circumstances given the forces of colonization.

In the first half-century after 1945, the number of states worldwide more than tripled. Western colonial powers tried to impose a modern state structure (according to Western political and economic norms) onto other populations with little success. Exportation of the Western state model has been only moderately successful in Latin America where many states have been unable to “put all of their people under the rule of law, nor establish firm civilian control over the military and the police, nor discover a durable balance between order and freedom,” and sovereignty in many parts of the region is especially weak.[30] In addition to active export in the form of colonization, there was also a process of “deliberate borrowing” by other sovereigns in Europe after observing the success of power consolidation and administration in France—a model for others to follow—not just the motivation to emulate to reap the same rewards but also to survive in competition (i.e., copy the competition in the hopes of surviving in competition).[31] Borrowing happened outside of Europe as well. In the nineteenth century, Japan deliberately copied successful Western state forms.[32] The transfer of the modern state to parts of Asia has been quite successful where it was able to build on ethnic homogeneity, literate elites, and—as in the case of Japan—strong local governance.[33]

The early development of the modern state in Europe was not mono-causal and did not proceed smoothly in all cases or in a linear process. But its development was helped greatly by the efficient control mechanisms a separate bureaucracy could bring to the social interactions of various classes in society. Lichbach recommended that comparativists should understand and appreciate the structure-culturalist-structuralist ideas, interests, and identities.[34] This analysis of the evolution of the modern state has relied primarily of a structuralist lens based on material factors and group relationships. Individual rulers and leaders are present but more important to this interpretation are the roles of bureaucrats, commercial groups, and peasants.


1. Franz H. Mueller, “The Development of the Modern Dualism between State and Society,” The American Catholic Sociological Review 4, no. 4 (December 1943): 189.

2. Mark I. Lichbach, “Social Theory and Comparative Politics,” in Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure, eds. Mark I. Irving and Alan S. Zuckerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 241.

3. Ibid., 245-246.

4. Ibid., 247.

5. Ibid., 248.

6. Ibid., 247.

7. John W. Meyer, John Boli, George M. Thomas, and Francisco O. Ramirez, “World Society and the Nation‐State,” American Journal of Sociology 103, no. 1 (July 1997): 149.

8. Lichbach, “Social Theory,” 246.

9. Meyer et al., “World Society,” 150.

10. See John W. Meyer and Ronald L. Jepperson, “The ‘Actors’ of Modern Society: The Cultural Construction of Social Agency,” Sociological Theory 18, no. 1 (March 2000): 100-120.

11. Lichbach, “Social Theory,” 249.

12. Brian R. Nelson, Making of the Modern State: A Theoretical Evolution (Gordonsville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 19.

13. Martin Van Creveld, Rise and Decline of the State (Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 125.

14. Nelson, Making of the Modern State, 138.

15. Tom Burns, “Sovereignty, Interests and Bureaucracy in the Modern State,” The British Journal of Sociology 31, no. 4 (December 1980): 491.

16. Peter H. Merkl, “Review: The Study of European Political Development,” World Politics 29, no. 3 (April 1977): 471.

17. Brian D. Taylor and Roxana Botea, “Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World,” International Studies Review 10, no. 1 (March 2008), 29.

18. Burns, “Sovereignty, Interests and Bureaucracy,” 493.

19. Merkl, “Review: The Study of European Political Development,” 463.

20. Ibid., 465.

21. George M. Thomas and John W. Meyer, “The Expansion of the State,” Annual Review of Sociology 10 (August 1984): 463.

22. Samuel Clark, State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in Western Europe (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 51.

23. Ibid., 50.

24. Ibid., 134.

25. See Thomas and Meyer, “Expansion of the State,” 470.

26. Nelson, Making of the Modern State, 92.

27. Burns, “Sovereignty, Interests and Bureaucracy,” 492.

28. Merkl, “Review: The Study of European Political Development,” 464.

29. Ibid., 467.

30. Van Creveld, Rise and Decline, 314.

31. See J. P. Nettl, “The State as a Conceptual Variable,” World Politics 20, no. 4 (July 1968): 567.

32. Meyer et al., “World Society,” 164.

33. Van Creveld, Rise and Decline, 332.

34. Lichbach, “Social Theory,” 241.