International Economic Institutions and Great Power Peace

by Benjamin Fordham 

I enjoyed Jack Levy’s comments on how the world would have looked to people writing in 1912. As part of my current research, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the three decades before World War I. As Levy pointed out, this last period of great power peace has some interesting parallels with the present one. Like today, the international economy had become increasingly integrated. For good reason, some even refer to this period as the “first age of globalization.” The period also saw the emergence of several new great powers, including Japan, Germany, and the United States. Like emerging powers today, each of these states sought to carve out its own world role and to find, as the German Foreign Secretary put it, a “place in the sun.” Like Levy, I don’t think these parallels we are doomed to repeat the catastrophe of 1914. I want to highlight the different institutional rules governing the international economic system today. The dangers discussed in the NIC report are real, but there is reason for hope when it comes to avoiding great power war.

The rules of the game governing the “first age of globalization” encouraged great powers to pursue foreign policies that made political and military conflict more likely. Declining transportation costs, not more liberal trade policies, drove economic integration. There was no web of international agreements discouraging states from pursuing protectionist trade policies. As Patrick McDonald‘s recent book, The Invisible Hand of Peace, explains nicely, protectionism went hand-in-hand with aggressive foreign policies. Many of the great powers, including the emerging United States, sought to shut foreign competitors out of their home markets even as they sought to expand their own overseas trade and investment. Even though markets and investment opportunities in less developed areas of the world were small, great power policy makers found these areas attractive because they would not export manufactured products. As one American policy maker put it in 1899, they preferred “trade with people who can send you things you ant and cannot produce, and take from you in return things they want and cannot produce; in other words, a trade largely between different zones, and largely with less advanced peoples….” Great powers scrambled to obtain privileged access to these areas through formal or informal imperial control. This zero-sum competition added a political and military component to economic rivalry. Increasing globalization made this dangerous situation worse, not better, in spite of the fact that it also increased the likely cost of a great power war.

In large part because of the international economic institutions constructed after World War II, present day great powers do not face a world in which protectionism and political efforts to secure exclusive market access are the norm. Emerging as well as longstanding powers can now obtain greater benefits from peaceful participation in the international economic system than they could through the predatory foreign policies that were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They do not need a large military force to secure their place in the sun. Economic competition among the great powers continues, but it is not tied to imperialism and military rivalry in the way it was in 1914.

These international institutional differences are probably more important for continuing great power peace than is the military dominance of the United States. American military supremacy reduces uncertainty about the cost and outcome of a hegemonic war, making such a war less likely. However, as in the 19th Century, higher growth rates in emerging powers strongly suggest that the current American military edge will not last forever. Efforts to sustain it will be self-defeating if they threaten these emerging powers and set off a spiral of military competition. Similarly, major uses of American military power without the support (or at least the consent) of other great powers also risk leading these states to build up their military capabilities in order to limit American freedom of action. The United States will be better served by policies that enhance the benefits that emerging powers like China receive from upholding the status quo.

Although the differences in international institutions give reason for optimism about continuing great power peace, there are no guarantees. These institutions are not immutable. They rest on major power policy makers’ belief that they have more to gain from participation in the present system than they do from alternative foreign policies. Right now, this belief is well founded but it could be undermined if the system ceases to bring material benefits to powers capable of undermining it. If the predatory and imperialistic foreign policies of years leading up to 1914 once again offer real benefits, I suspect that new ideological justifications for them will not be hard to find.



Benjamin O. Fordham is professor of political science at Binghamton University (SUNY). His research on the role of domestic political and economic interests in foreign policy making has been published in International Studies Quarterly, International Organization, the Journal of Politics, and other journals. He is currently working on a book about the domestic politics of American foreign policy during the 1890-1914 period.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

World War III?

by Richard Rosecrance

            Much has been made of the lessening of interstate conflict over the centuries and surely since World War II.  Whether this abstention from war will continue among Great Powers, however, is a function of the cost and benefit of territorial conquest.  Historians have argued that Great Powers got little benefit from additional territory after 1815, though imperialist expansion did not end until 1945.  Since 1950, imperial powers have had to retreat from their colonies and the world has admitted more than 100 new states to the international system.  Even if present-day economic interdependence continues, however, Great Power rivalries, like those from 1890 to 1914, will persist as one major power triumphs over another and alliance systems divide the world.

Since 1500 there have been thirteen cases of one Great Power approaching or passing a hegemonic leader in economic or military terms.  Of these, all but three ended in major war.  The United States passed Britain peacefully in 1890; there was no war when the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union came to an end, and Japan surpassed the Soviet Union economically without incident in 1983.  Two factors seem to be important in preventing war.  First, was there a mere balance of power or a favorable overbalance on the side of peace?  And second, did the erstwhile hegemon accept the territorial and other demands of the rising power?  In 1900 Britain conceded to all US requests; and in 1989, the Soviet Union faced not merely a balance but a huge overbalance of power ranged against it.  Somewhat reluctantly, Russia endorsed democratic governments in its erstwhile satellites and gave independence to its restive Western provinces including the Baltic nations, Belarus, and Ukraine.  In future, China and later India will rise to leading and perhaps hegemonic power status.  Will the United States and the West then concede all Chinese demands?  Will there be an overbalance against Chinese power, with Europe, the United States and Japan aligned together?

            If not, the so-called Thucydides’ problem (where the rising power of one major state causes fear in lesser rival nations, which turn to war) might emerge once again.  To avert this outcome, the world needs to draw two conclusions:  the stronger the West, the less likely the conflict, and the more China accepts the existing rules of the international order, e.g., rule of law, intellectual property, property rights, and lessening arms races, the better the prospects of avoiding a new major clash.     

            The NIC document on the world in 2030 covers all possible bases without resolving these questions.  It accepts prior judgments about the decline of international conflict but also projects the possibility of war as new powers rise to hegemony, supplanting the United States.  I believe the key is to revivify the West by cementing Europe and the United States together and to tie China and India into the world trading system.  Production chains that link differentiated industries in East Asia with those in the West and Japan are entirely new and gratifying elements in the complex interdependence now in place.  These restraints did not exist in 1914.  At that time, all great powers accepted the inevitability of a new clash and did not hesitate when conflict loomed because they thought the war would be quick and it could no longer be postponed.  Today, partly because of nuclear weapons, no one thinks a conflict is inevitable.  The remaining uncertainty is whether a gradually liberalizing China will adhere to the rules of the game noted above, as it allows its internal provinces to follow more closely the models of Taiwan and Hong Kong.



  • Richard Rosecrance is Director of the US-China Relations Program of the Belfer Center in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy and Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at UCLA.   Among many other books, he has written, The Rise of the Trading State, The Rise of the Virtual State, and forthcoming, The Return of the West: To Prevent Another World War I  (Yale University Press, Spring, 2013).
By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

The Hazards of Forecasting

by Jack S. Levy

International relations scholars have known for years that the last six or seven decades have been the longest period of peace between the great powers in the last five centuries of the modern system, and, depending upon whom and what you count, perhaps since the Roman Empire. Extrapolating from these and other indicators, many argue that this long peace is highly likely to persist for many years into the future. Although I am less confident that other forms of warfare will continue to decline during the next two decades, and although I suspect that peoples in many parts of the world might be puzzled by the description of the period as a “long peace,” I basically share the optimism about the low likelihood of a future great power war. My optimism is tempered, however, by the recognition that political forecasting is a hazardous business, a point that I develop in these comments.

It would be instructive to imagine the dialogue on an earlier blog on the decline of war, say 100 years ago, to pick a round number. Bloggers in August 1912 would presumably have talked about some recent books bearing on this question, including Ivan Bloch’s book subtitled Is War Now Impossible? (1899) and Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion (1910). Each argued that a war between the leading industrial powers would be long, economically devastating, and socially disruptive, and consequently not rational. The strong inference was that a future great power war was unlikely because – reflecting the logic of the Global Trends 2030 report (iv) a hundred years later – “too much would be at stake.” 

Our bloggers might have gone beyond these theoretical arguments to note existing trends in war and to project those trends into the future. Looking back, they had lived through the most peaceful century on record. Perhaps using words similar to those in Allan Dafoe’s introductory comments on this blog, they may have written that “There are fewer great power wars, fewer wars in Western Europe, fewer years during which a great power war is ongoing, and less redistribution of territory after wars.” A long peace between the European great powers had persisted for over four decades, the longest such period in four centuries. A hegemonic war involving nearly all the great powers had not occurred for nearly a century. But it was not just the frequency of great power war that had been in decline. The median number of battle deaths in wars continued to decline, as did the average duration of great power war. The four great power wars since the Congress of Vienna had each lasted less than a year on average, reflecting a significant decline from the wars of previous centuries. Only one European interstate war had occurred in the last three decades (the Greco-Turkish War of 1897), and it only lasted thirty days. The frequency of civil wars had declined by half over the last four decades.

The bloggers of 1912 may have emphasized that although militarized disputes between the great powers continued to occur – over Morocco in 1905, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, and Agadir in 1911 – each had been resolved peacefully. This increased political leaders’ confidence that they would also be able to peacefully resolve any dispute that might arise in the future. True, some military leaders had advocated a preventive war, but those pleas had been rejected by statesmen like Bismarck. No European great power had incorporated preventive war into its national security strategy or publically used preventive logic to justify military action.

The statesmen of 1912 had other grounds for optimism. A détente continued between Great Britain and Germany, the two leading European powers in the system. That détente was motivated in part by the strong commercial and financial relationships between the two countries. In fact, Europe as a whole benefited from historically unprecedented levels of economic interdependence. This further reinforced the peace, based on the increasingly popular arguments of Norman Angell and others, that wealth was based on credit and commerce, and that territorial conquest was no longer an efficient strategy for increasing wealth.

Thus the bloggers of 1912 had reasonable grounds for forecasting a continuation of the long peace.  In fact, in many respects the quantitative trends pointing in that direction were stronger than those observed by bloggers a century later. Compared to the bloggers of 2012, the bloggers of 1912 could point to a more sustained decline in great power war and a longer period without a destructive hegemonic war.

I believe and certainly hope that the parallels between 1912 and 2012 end there. But the occurrence within two years of the Great War – which resulted in over eight million battle fatalities and which is often described as “the seminal event of the 20th century,” should be a constant reminder of the limitations of both trend-based and theory-based forecasts of the future.



Jack S. Levy is Board of Governors’ Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. He is past president of the International Studies Association and of the Peace Science Society. His most recent books include Causes of War (2010) and The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation, and Transformation (2011), each co-authored with William R. Thompson. He is co-editor (with Leonie Huddy and David O. Sears) of the second edition of the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (forthcoming, 2013), and he is organizing an edited volume on the First World War.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

The Arc of War

–by William R. Thompson      

           Forecasting the level of conflict two decades ahead is not something we political scientists are very good at – in part because we lack appropriate theories and in part because it is hard to tell how the world will look in the future.  The 2030 report appears to use a combination of projecting current trends and relying on some key indicators such as demographics to predict declining or no conflict between great powers, states in general, and within states, subject to some reservations about the possible impact of climate deterioration, resource scarcities, ascending powers, and new weapons.       

       I would probably make a similar but not identical projection based on different theoretical premises.  My forecast would be based on arguments developed in The Arc of War (University of Chicago Press, 2011), an examination of the evolution of warfare since its initial appearance and co-authored with Jack S. Levy.   Levy and Thompson make six general arguments.  The first one is about the origins of war and need not concern us here.  The other five do appear to be germane.

  1. War co-evolves with other activities, including military and political organization, political economy, threat environment, and weaponry.
  2. Major changes in politico-economic complexity, in particular have led to occasional transformations in warfare.  Yet, the expansion of warfare is not inexorable. An important constraint in the escalation of warfare are its costs which have influenced strongly and negatively the probability of warfare between industrialized states in the contemporary era.
  3. The pace of change/transformations in warfare has significantly accelerated three times – first in the late fourth to early third millennium BCE, then in the last half of the first millennium BCE, and again in the second half of the second millennium CE.
  4. The attempt to centralize regional political-military power is one of the major drivers of periods of acceleration and transformation, especially in the third acceleration, which was concentrated in the Western trajectory.
  5. Much of the world did not experience the third acceleration directly (other than as targets) and remains more agrarian than industrial.  As a consequence, states outside of the western trajectory tend to be weaker, vulnerable to internal warfare, and prone to fight fewer and shorter interstate wars.

       Thus, warfare between industrialized major powers should continue to be regarded as too costly and therefore not very likely in the next few decades.  Interstate warfare should also continue to be infrequent mainly because most states lack the resources to engage in it for very long.   But we would expect intrastate warfare to continue more or less at current levels because so many states are vulnerable to coercive challenges at the domestic level.  Since drought and oil/water shortages seem likely and most likely to occur in places that are least able to cope with such problems, anticipating limited interstate warfare may prove to be optimistic.  But the increased problems caused by climate and scarcities may at least tell us which parts of the world are most likely to experience conflict in the near future.


William R. Thompson is Distinguished Professor and Donald A. Rogers Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.  He also is Managing Editor of International Studies Quarterly. Recent books include Asian Rivalries: Conflict, Escalation, and Limitations on Two-Level Games, Handbook of International Rivalries, 1494-2010, and The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation and Transformation.  Forthcoming next year are How Rivalries End and Transition Scenarios: China and the United States in the Twenty-first Century.

By allandafoe Posted in GT2030

Will the Long Peace Persist?

We live during an era of historically unprecedented peace. Whether we look over timescales of decades or centuries, wars have become less frequent. Figure 1 (data drawn from Pinker’s excellent new book, original sources include here and here) illustrates the downward trend in five measures. There are fewer Great Power wars, fewer wars in Western Europe, fewer years during which a Great Power war is ongoing, and less redistribution of territory after wars. Other trends, not as readily quantified, are evident. Countries no longer covet each other’s territory, or fear invasion and military coercion, like they have throughout most of history. National identities and aspirations are based less on martial glory, honor, and dominance. The relative absence of war, and especially Great Power war, since the end of WWII has been referred to as the Long Peace. As unbelievable as it may seem to readers of history, these and other trends suggest to many scholars that the Long Peace is likely to persist. 

Figure 1




But unlike the robust decline in interpersonal and domestic governmental violence (again, see Pinker), it is not as obvious that the human costs of war have declined over time. Figure 2 illustrates two other important measures that don’t show a decline: except for the most recent few decades, battle deaths in Great Power wars and battle deaths as a proportion of population in Europe don’t show an obvious decrease. While recent decades do seem particularly peaceful given these long-term trends, we would hardly want to be complacent about this trend. Many previous decade-long spans of peace ended in devastating wars. 

Figure 2


It may be, then, that wars have become vastly more destructive, especially with the invention of nuclear weapons, leading countries to be more cautious about their use of military coercion. The net costs of war on humanity, however, may not have decreased. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended with little bloodshed; however, it could have ended with hundreds of millions of deaths. Such a counterfactual would add a massive spike to the right end of the lines in Figure 2, and mute any discussion of a Long Peace.  

Aggregate data like the above gives us some, but not a lot, of confidence that the world has moved beyond war. To probe the persistence of this Long Peace, it would be helpful to know what factors have made the world more peaceful, and the extent to which these factors are likely to persist into the future. Potential causes of the peace include increases in trade, democracy, the difficulty of coercing wealth, global empathy, Great Power stability, the empowerment of women, and the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons. Global Trends 2030 identifies a number of other factors pertinent to the future probability of war, including power transitions, declining US military superiority, resource scarcity, new coercive technologies (such as cyberweapons, precision-strike capability, and bioweapons), and unresolved regional conflicts. 

Wars are rare, but when they occur they alter the course of history. Any projection of what the world will be like decades into the future needs to evaluate the probability and character of war, and especially Great Power war. This week we can look forward to a set of eminent scholars sharing their thoughts about whether the Long Peace will persist. Contributors include: Erik Gartzke, (UC San Diego), Benjamin Fordham (Binghamton), Joshua Goldstein (American), Steven Pinker (Harvard), Jack S. Levy (Rutgers), Richard Rosecrance (Harvard), Bradley Thayer (Baylor), and William Thompson (Indiana).



Allan Dafoe is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University. His research examines the causes of war, with emphases on the character and causes of the liberal peace, reputational phenomena such as honor and tests of resolve, and escalation dynamics. 



Pinker, S. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Group. 

Levy, J. S., & Thompson, W. R. 2011. The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation, and Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levy, J. S. 1983. War in the Modern Great Power System 1495–1975. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Long, W. J., & Brecke, P. 2003. War and Reconciliation: Reason and Emotion in Conflict Resolution. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Zacher, M. W. 2001. The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force. International Organization, 55, 215-250.