A Short Comment on the Long Peace

by Erik Gartzke

The Long Peace is not an “it,” produced by a single monolithic cause or set of causes, but is instead a “they” of different, coincident factors.  Perpetuating such a peace in its current complex form will indeed prove daunting.  However, this does not mean that the world need descend again into darkness and carnage.  We can benefit from elements of the Long Peace.   The task is to identify which elements of the peace perpetuate where, and why. 

The Long Peace can be parsed into at least four distinct empirical relationships:

1.)   The hierarchical organization of the most powerful nations in the period into two competing ideological blocs anticipated, but failed to produce, major war.

2.)   Developed democracies have been much less likely to fight each other.

3.)   Developed democracies have not proven less willing/able to fight non-democracies.

4.)   Every other combination of states behaved more-or-less like they always have. 

Let’s take on the first relationship here, since arguably it is the most important.  The peace among democracies would scarcely have been noticed if major war had broken out among the East and West in that past 60 years.   At the same time, war between developing states is either nothing new or the product of what used to be called neo-imperialism and is now more fashionably described as policing the global commons.  The fact that powerful nations attack the weak, but that weak nations seldom initiate such contests is hardly remarkable.  The manner in which developed/powerful states deter or coerce conflict in the developing world is a subject worthy of attention, but is something that must be addressed elsewhere.  

The key feature of the Long Peace is really that the Cold War never got hot.  Most scholars point to structural (bipolarity) or strategic (nuclear deterrence) factors to explain Cold War stability.  The structural conditions of the Cold War are unlikely to repeat themselves in the coming decades, implying that Cold War stability should not persist.  This was pointed out by realists in the 1990s (Mearsheimer, Waltz).  Yet, the Long Peace of the Cold War period has persisted for twenty years, implying that structural/strategic factors are not necessary for stability.  Lieber and Press in The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy suggest that the United States could today conduct a successful first strike against Russia, China, or both.  If Cold War opponents were held in check by MAD, or bipolarity, then nuclear primacy/hegemony should imply the opposite.  We observe that the Long Peace persists regardless of primacy.

A different explanation for Cold War stability lies in the ideological nature of the struggle. Stability results when no nation perceives a benefit from acting aggressively.  Nations could be inhibited by war risks (bipolarity), or costs (nuclear deterrence), but these theories tend to run into logical problems stemming from the zero-sum nature of conflict, and from the ability of actors to forge bargains preempting fighting; if cost inhibits me, it encourages my enemies, and so on.  It is much easier to account for a lack of aggression by arguing that neither side sees a sufficient benefit in the outcomes likely to result from war.  The United States and Canada neither deter nor balance one another.  They just lack reasons to fight, perhaps because neither covets the other’s territory and each prefers an organization and disposition of international politics that looks similar enough to what the other prefers. 

In contrast to the actions of previous world powers, the United States in particular has not been much interested in accumulating additional territory.  Instead, it desires to influence the politics of other nations, and the conditions under which nations interact and decisions are made in world affairs.  This shift in emphasis from competition over land and tangible goods to attempts to influence made it possible for the United States to adopt containment (e.g.,  Kennan’s long telegram).  For its part, the Soviet Union — after an initial conquests to create buffer states — was able to substitute the export of domestic revolution for direct confrontation with the West.  The fact that the conflict was over states of affairs rather than stuff meant that both sides were able to, in effect, wait out the collapse of the other.

The United States and the Soviet Union clearly envisioned very different world orders.  This could have led to war.  Yet, it was unclear how a general war would bring about conditions either side preferred.   It is much more difficult to change the preferences of people and societies than to simply occupy land, as both sides discovered in various fruitless and expensive “proxy wars.”  Given the intractability of each side’s goals to a military solution, both were willing to wait-and-see.  Ironically, the Soviet Union’s initial attempt to pursue security through territory meant that it faced economic burdens that hastened its downfall. 

It seems unlikely today that any nation will adopt a grand strategy similar to that of the Soviet Union, or indeed pursue territorial aggrandizement, as is so common in history.  If for example China adopts aggressive territorial objectives, it will no doubt prove counter-productive just as it did for the Soviet Union.  This seems to have been one of the insights of Deng Xiaoping, who recognized that China’s future lay in commerce rather than conquest.  It is very possible that growing Chinese prosperity will both reduce the basis for territorial conflict between China and the West, and increase mutual interests.  Even if differences remain, both sides may well conclude that there is little point in acting them out through military force.  The insignificance of territory as a basis for war in the modern world, and the different nature of policy conflict, sometimes more intense but also the opposite, is a major change in world affairs, something that is worth pursuing as its own blog segment. 



Erik Gartzke is an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. Gartzke’s primary area of study involves the impact of information and institutions on war and peace. He applies bargaining theory, rational choice institutional theory, concepts of power and social identity, and statistical analysis to four substantive areas of interest: 1) The liberal peace, 2) international institutions, 3) diplomacy, and 4) the system overall.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

3 comments on “A Short Comment on the Long Peace

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  2. Pingback: “Global Trends”- CIA: Asia will as before be the center of economich development – Europa and US will losse their postions. Middleclass will be soon most important globally, but consume more and more, which will be a big problem for envi

  3. Pingback: Linktipp: Zur Zukunft des “Langen Friedens” « Bretterblog

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