Violence in International Relations

  • Gerard Elfstrom


It is difficult to say whether international violence is more prevalent at the present than at other times. A recent tally of world conflict shows more than forty wars of one type or another, involving more than forty nations, or nearly one quarter of the nations of the world.1 Since the end of the Second World War, the toll of human life resulting from conflicts of this sort has run to the tens of millions, with more injury and destruction of property than can be counted.2 In addition, small-scale assaults on innocent persons, so-called acts of terror, seem a daily occurrence. While the toll of human life lost in these attacks is comparatively small, far less than caused by automobiles, alcohol or the other ills of modern life, its psychological impact is substantial. The threat of terrorist assault appears to weigh more heavily than the acts themselves. This threat is minor, however, in comparison with the different and more permanent threat of nuclear warfare. Other periods of human history may equal the present in violence, but the great burden of contemporary life is the overwhelming nuclear threat and the way it spills out and charges actual conflict.


Human Life International Relation Nuclear Weapon Terrorist Group Political Group 
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  1. 2.
    In the past decade or so a number of scholars have turned to examining questions of the frequency of wars of various types, and their human cost in suffering and death. The quoted figures are taken from F. A. Beer’s useful recent study and are offered with appropriate circumspection. See Peace Against War: The Ecology of International Peace (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1981) 37–8. Beer notes that the period 1963–4 is the single interlude since the Second World War in which no major wars were underway (p. 34).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    There is, however, growing evidence that terrorist attacks previously thought to be the work of shadowy political groups are, in fact, sometimes the covert operations of governments of nation-states. See ‘12 Months of Terror: The Mideast Connection’ (8 April 1986) and ‘Loose-Linked Network of Terror: Separate Acts, Ideological Bonds’ (28 April 1986), both in the New York Times. For a discussion of the ways in which nation-states support and manipulate terrorist groups, see N.C. Livingstone, The War Against Terrorism (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1982) 9–29.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    An excellent souice on these matters is J.G. Gray, The Warriors (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) 29–69.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    John Somerville has a sensitive and perceptive discussion of this issue in ‘Patriotism and War’, Ethics, 91 (July 1981) 568–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For instance, see C.F. Cortese, Modernization, Threat, and the Power of the Military (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1976) 7 and 21–2.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    N. Ascherson, ‘No Place for Them’, New York Review of Books, 33 (27 February 1986) 5–8.Google Scholar
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    M. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977) 51–3.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    B.M. Blechman is a keen observer of these matters. See ‘Global Power Projection — The US Approach’, in U. Ra’anan, R.L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr and G. Kemp (eds) Projection of Power (Hamden: The Shoe String Press, 1982) 174–86Google Scholar
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  10. 15.
    D. Pipes, ‘Fundamentalist Muslims’, Foreign Affairs, 64 (Summer 1986) 939–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 21.
    See ‘How Assad Has Won’, by S. McLeod, New York Review of Books, 33 (8 May 1986) 26 and 31–4.Google Scholar
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    The classic study of these difficulties is M.W. Boggs, Attempts to Define and Limit ‘Aggressive’ Armament in Diplomacy and Strategy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1941).Google Scholar
  13. 26.
    Empirical studies show that signalling to friendly allies is most likely to be effective when the signal is sent to support a course of action already decided upon, but for which resolve is lacking. B.M. Blechman and S.S. Kaplan, ‘US Military Forces as a Political Instrument’, in C.W. Kegley, Jr and E.R. Whittkopf (eds) Perspectives on American Foreign Policy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983) 74.Google Scholar
  14. 30.
    Again, Livingstone notes the connection between terrorism and political aims (ibid., 4), while A.D. Sofaer analyzes the conceptual and practical difficulties involved in distinguishing common criminal activity from the violence of political groups. See ‘Terrorism and the Law’, Foreign Affairs, 64 (Summer 1986) 901–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    However, no less an authority than Thomas C. Schelling believes that informal agreements can be extremely useful and important under certain conditions. See ‘What Went Wrong With Arms Control?’, Foreign Affairs, 64 (Winter 1985/86) 224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Ronald Steel, ‘Why the Daniloff Arrest?’, in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times (12 September, 1986).Google Scholar
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    Livingstone, op. cit., 97–124 and R.H. Kupperman and D. M. Trent, Terrorism: Threat, Reality, Response (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1979) 48–74.Google Scholar
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    For a quick sketch of the fortunes of various American terrorist groups, see B.K. Johnpoll, ‘Perspectives on Political Terrorism in the United States’, in Y. Alexander (ed.) International Terrorism: National, Regional, and Global Perspectives (New York: Praeger, 1976) 30–45.Google Scholar
  19. 49.
    See Saul Bakhash, ‘Reign of Terror’, New York Review of Books, 33 (14 August 1986) 13.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gerard Elfstrom 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gerard Elfstrom
    • 1
  1. 1.Auburn UniversityUSA

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