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Revolution and world order: the case of the Islamic State (ISIS)

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Scholars have studied revolutions mostly as domestic events while neglecting their transnational character. From the French to the Chinese Revolution, revolutionary ideologies and networks have never been confined to national boundaries. As transnational events, revolutions can create ruptures in global politics and challenge world order. Some young revolutionary states have perished. Others such as Iran have endured, but tensions persist. Given the importance of the topic, the literature is surprisingly limited. We propose a theoretical framework that explains the evolution of the relationship between anti-Western revolutionary states and the global order and apply it to the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Our framework explains why some revolutionary states are accommodated or tolerated, whereas others are opposed, isolated, and destroyed. Using the Islamic State to illustrate our framework, we explain the main reason for the demise of the Islamic State (ISIS): its own radicalism.

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  1. World order is defined by its relatively stable distribution of capabilities, its dense networks of alliances, and its well-established international norms, laws, and institutions.

  2. “The West” can be understood broadly as comprising countries in Western Europe and North America that are economically capitalist and culturally secular. We do not assume that the West is monolithic and will discuss the implication of this later.

  3. The Taliban has since revived as a guerrilla movement but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to restore their revolutionary state in Kabul.

  4. Major works include: George Lawson, “Revolutions and the International,” Theory and Society 44: 4 (2015), 299–319; Jeff Colgan, “Domestic Revolutionary Leaders and International Conflict,” World Politics, 65: 4 (2013), 656–690; Fred Halliday, Revolution and World Politics: the Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); Mark Katz, Revolutions and Revolutionary Waves (London: Macmillan, 1997); Robert S. Snyder, "The U.S. and Third World Revolutionary States: Understanding the Breakdown in Relations," International Studies Quarterly 43: 2 (1999): 265–290; Stephen Walt, Revolution and War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Patrick Conge, From Revolution to War: State Relations in a World of Change (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); J. D. Armstrong, Revolution and World Order: The Revolutionary State in International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993); Theda Skocpol, “Revolutions and Mass Military Mobilization,” World Politics 40: 2 (1988), 147–168; Peter Calvert, Politics, Power, and Revolution: An Introduction to Comparative Politics (Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books, 1983); and Kyung-won Kim, Revolution and the International System (New York: New York University Press, 1970). Earlier works, such as Martin Wight, Power Politics, eds. Hedley Bull and Carsten Holbraad (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1978), 81–94; and James Rosenau, International Aspects of Civil Strife (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964) discussed but not focused solely on the issue. Two important works by the same author who focuses in part on transnational revolutionary networks and on the West’s relationship with radical movements (including political Islam) are John M. Owen IV, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010); idem., The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510–2010 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010).

  5. A “big power” is defined here as a country of large size and population such as Russia and China.

  6. We are not the first to treat ISIS as a revolutionary state or regime. See, for example, Stephen Walt, “ISIS as Revolutionary State,” Foreign Affairs 94: 6 (Nov/Dec 2015), 42–51; Brian Mello, “The Islamic State: Violence and Ideology in a Post-Colonial Revolutionary Regime,” International Political Sociology 12 (2018), 139–155.

  7. Western powers may be hostile to radical revolutions but they have not automatically and immediately opposed every revolution because they might lack one or a combination of the following factors: information (the U.S. in regard to Fidel Castro in 1959 and in Iran in 1979), interest (the U.S. regarding Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and regarding the Taliban in 1996), or power (the U.S. in regard to Chinese communists in 1949).

  8. For similar definitions, see Halliday, Revolution and World Politics, 21; Walt, Revolution and War, 12–14; Goodwin does not view revolutionary movements as necessarily aspiring to radical social and cultural changes. Jeff Goodwin, “Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements,” in Thomas Janoski et al., The Handbook of Political Sociology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 404–405.

  9. Tuong Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

  10. Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 18–22.

  11. Halliday, Revolution and World Politics, 58–59.

  12. As Halliday states, “much as revolutionary states may deny it and [their] liberal friends downplay it, the commitment to the export of revolution, i.e., to the use of the resources of the revolutionary state to promote radical change in other societies, is a constant of radical regimes.” Ibid., 99.

  13. Owen, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics.

  14. Cited in Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution, 20.

  15. Mohsen Milani, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy to the Islamic Republic (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), 308.

  16. Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years 1919–1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Thomas Engelbert and Christopher Goscha, Falling out of Touch: A Study on Vietnamese Communist Policy towards an Emerging Cambodian Communist Movement, 1930–1975 (Clayton, Vic., Australia: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1995); Christopher Goscha, “Vietnam and the World Outside: The Case of Vietnamese Communist Advisers in Laos (1954–1962),” South East Asia Research, Vol. 12, No. 2 (July 2004), pp. 141–185; idem., Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885–1954 (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999).

  17. Merle Pribbenow, “Vietnam Covertly Supplied Weapons to Revolutionaries in Algeria and Latin America.” Cold War History Project e-Dossier No. 25, 2 November 2011. (accessed 8 May 2016); Merle Pribbenow, “Vietnam Trained Commando Forces in Southeast Asia and Latin America.” Cold War History Project e-dossier No. 28, 3 January 2012. (accessed 8 May 2016).

  18. Armstrong, Revolution and World Order, 3.

  19. Stephen Krasner, however, views the so-called Westphalian order as a mere “organized hypocrisy.” See Krasner, “Rethinking the sovereign state model,” in Michael Cox, Tim Dunne, and Ken Booth, eds. Empires, Systems and States: Great Transformations in International Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17–42.

  20. See Armstrong, Revolution and World Order, chapter 1, for discussion of alternative concepts of world order.

  21. Robert Jervis, “Socialization, Revolutionary States and Domestic Politics,” International Politics 52: 5 (2015), 609–616.

  22. Wight, Power Politics, 90.

  23. Ibid., 92.

  24. Walt, Revolution and War, 1, citing Zeev Maoz.

  25. Walt, Revolution and War.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Robert Snyder emphasizes domestic politics as a major cause of wars initiated by revolutionary states. See Snyder, “The U.S. and Third World Revolutionary States”.

  28. Theda Skocpol, “Revolutions and Mass Military Mobilization,” World Politics 40: 2 (1988), 147–168.

  29. The Valmy Effect is in reference to the Battle of Valmy in 1792. French revolutionaries beat a counter revolutionary coalition and ‘saved’ the revolution and republic.

  30. For a discussion of this dynamic in the case of the Iran–Iraq War see Pierre Razoux, The Iran–Iraq War (Harvard University Press, 2015), specifically chapter 8.

  31. Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution, 88.

  32. Razoux, The Iran–Iraq War, 121–122.

  33. According to Stanley Karnow who does not cite any sources, Ho said the above to a French visitor. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, a History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), 197–198. The authenticity of this statement cannot be verified.

  34. Maurice Halperin, The Rise and Decline of Fidel Castro: An Essay in Contemporary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 191.

  35. For a thorough discussion of the literature on socialization, see Alastair Ian Johnston, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1–20; on Iran’s failure to socialize, see Maximilian Terhalle, “Revolutionary Power and Socialization: Explaining Revolutionary Zeal in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” Security Studies 18: 3 (2009), 557–586.

  36. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Relations (New York: Addison Wesley, 1979), 128. Alastair Ian Johnson argues that what Waltz means is not “socialization” but “homogenization.” See Johnston, Social States, 3.

  37. See Johnston, Social States, 15–17.

  38. Obviously the U.S. is partially to be blamed for the tensions, but Cuban leaders are not innocent either.

  39. Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution, ch. 10.

  40. For Iran, see Terhalle, “Revolutionary Power and Socialization;” for Vietnam, see Vu, Vietnam’s Communist Revolution.

  41. In studying radical religious movements such as Al-Qaeda and Hizbut Tarir that challenge the Westphalian world order, Barack Mendelsohn argues that “couriers of a challenge to a global political order are not completely detached from the order they seek to overthrow; they are in fact constituted, at least partially, by this order.” Barack Mendelsohn, “God vs. Westphalia: Radical Islamist Movements and the Battle for Organizing the World,” Review of International Studies 38 (2012), 599.

  42. There exist communists who are not strongly attracted to material culture such as Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, but these are a small minority.

  43. However, the Islamic philosophical tradition which deeply influenced Khomeini actually originated from Greek thoughts which held that a community with shared purposes was essential for the development of human beings. See Vanessa Martin, Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000), 34.

  44. Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 169.

  45. Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, 165–167.

  46. Note that this third logic is about attitudes, which are different from the beliefs of revolutionaries (the second logic), even though the two may be related at some levels. For example, one may believe in radical changes but are prudent enough to implement them gradually with less violence to reduce potential resistance.

  47. David Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot's Secret Prison (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 76.

  48. This history of ISIS is based on Fawaz A. Gerges, ISIS: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), ch. 2. For recent reviews of important works on ISIS, see Daniel Byman, “Understanding the Islamic State,” International Security 40: 4 (2016), 127–165; and idem., “Explaining Al-Qaeda’s Decline,” Journal of Politics 79: 3 (2017), 1106–1117.

  49. Gerges, ISIS, 23.

  50. Quintan Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 184.

  51. Mark E. Stout, Jessica M. Huckabey, and John R. Schindler, The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of Al Qaeda and Associated Movements, ed. Jim Lacey (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 9, 11.

  52. Ibid., 11.

  53. Morten Storm, Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, Hardcover edition (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014), n.p.

  54. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 185.

  55. Gerges, ISIS, 25.

  56. Stout, Huckabey, and Schindler, The Terrorist Perspectives Project.

  57. Gerges, ISIS.

  58. For an insightful analysis of ISIS’ relationship with these affiliates, see Barack Mendelsohn, The al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of al-Qaeda and Its Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), esp. chs. 7 and 8.

  59. Gerges, ISIS.

  60. Ibid, 49.

  61. In contrast, radical Islamist thinkers like Mawdudi and Qutb who have inspired ISIS fighters did owe an intellectual debt to the communist doctrine. David Cook, Understanding Jihad, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 100.

  62. Abdel Bari Atwan, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, 1st edition (University of California Press, 2015), 12.

  63. See Atwan, Islamic State, 18–25.

  64. Ibid, 27.

  65. Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror, Reprint edition (New York: Ecco, 2016), 88.

  66. Gerges, ISIS.

  67. Stout, Huckabey, and Schindler, The Terrorist Perspectives Project, 176–77.

  68. Ibid., 179.

  69. Ibid.

  70. Ibid., 177.

  71. Cook, Understanding Jihad, x. Cook also writes that “[u]nwillingness to take Muslim radicals at their word when they clearly state that they are defending Islam, are carrying out jihad, or view the non-Muslim world as a potential target is still widespread throughout the media and policy worlds.” Ibid., x–xi.

  72. Michael Walzer, “Islamism and the Left,” Dissent 62: 1 (January 2015), 107–117.

  73. Ibid., 248.

  74. Ibid., 182.

  75. Gerges, ISIS, 191.

  76. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, “Proclamation of the Caliphate,” June 29, 2014. In Cook, Understanding Jihad, 236.

  77. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, 38.

  78. Ibid., 39.

  79. McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse, 139.

  80. Gerges, ISIS, 243.

  81. Stout, Huckabey, and Schindler, The Terrorist Perspectives Project, 13.

  82. Ibid.

  83. See Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 181.

  84. Ibid., 181.

  85. Gerges, ISIS, 273–78.

  86. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising, 183.

  87. Stern and Berger, ISIS.

  88. Gerges, ISIS.

  89. Ibid., 86.

  90. Comparing Calvinism and jihadism, Andrew Phillips proposes a different assessment of jihadism from our argument here. In particular, he argues that “jihadism’ narrow ideological appeal, together with jihadists’ inability to exploit the mobilizational capacity of existing transnational religious networks, fatally constrains their potential to exploit existing vulnerabilities within the global state system.” Andrew Phillips, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Jihadism—Transnational Religious Insurgencies and the Transformation of International Orders,” Review of International Studies 36 (2010), 276.

  91. Rukmini Callimachi, “Last ISIS Village Falls, and a Caliphate Is Erased,” The New York Times, March 23, 2019.

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Vu, T., Van Orden, P. Revolution and world order: the case of the Islamic State (ISIS). Int Polit 57, 57–78 (2020).

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