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The Decline of Interstate War: Pondering Systemic Explanations

Part of the SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice book series (BRIEFSTEXTS,volume 42)


How do we explain the dramatic decline in inter-state war since 1945? Scholars have offered a variety of explanations that are briefly reviewed here. The selection focuses on systemic characteristics such as ideas, norms, changing power distributions, and modes of learning how to avoid the use of armed force.


  • Nuclear Weapon
  • World Politics
  • International Politics
  • Territorial Integrity
  • Power Theory

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  1. 1.

    This text was first published as: “The Decline of Interstate War: Pondering Systemic Explanations,” chap. 6 in Raimo Väyrynen, ed., The Waning of Major War: Theories and Debates. London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 135–59. The permission to republish this chapter was granted on 26 June 2015 by Laura Templeman, Permissions Administrator, Taylor & Francis Group, Milton Park, Abingdon, UK.

  2. 2.

    J. Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989). For more recent studies that highlight the secular decline of interstate war, see for example N. P. Gleditsch, The Future of Armed Conflict (Ramat Gan: The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 2003) and M. Sarkees, F. Wayman and J. D. Singer, ‘Inter-State, Intra-State, and Extra-State Wars: A Comprehensive Look at their Distribution over Time’, International Studies Quarterly, 47, 1 (2003), pp. 49–70.

  3. 3.

    Peter Wallensteen, “Trends in major war: too early for waning,” in RaimoVäyrynen, ed., The Waning of Major War. London and New York: Routledge, 2006, chap. 3.

  4. 4.

    Mueller is not the only analyst to predict and account for the obsolescence of major war. ‘Globalists’ have explained the phenomenon or trend in terms of (1) interdependence and the transnationalization of production, (a type of ‘war does not pay’ argument); (2) because states are losing authority—upwards, sideways, and downwards—and thus unable to mobilize for mass warfare; and (3) because of democratization and the fact that democracies rarely fight each other. These and other similar explanations for the obsolescence of interstate war can be found in P. Drucker, ‘The Global Economy and the Nation-State’, Foreign Affairs, 76, 5 (1997), pp. 170–2; J. Rosenau, ‘New Dimensions of Security: The Interaction of Globalizing and Localizing Dynamics’, Security Dialogue, 25, 3 (1994), pp. 255–81; and R. D. Lipschutz, After Authority: War, Peace, and Global Politics in the 21st Century (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). For a summary of and rejoinder to these arguments, see T. V. Paul, ‘States, Security Function and the New Global Forces’ (Montreal: Group d’Étude et de Recherche sur la Securité Internationale; Research Group in International Security, Université de Montréal/McGill University, 2001, Note de Recherche/Working Paper 10).

  5. 5.

    S. Woolf, Napoleon's Integration of Europe (New York: Routledge, 1991).

  6. 6.

    Hitler claimed that ‘ [t]he ‘nation’ is a political expediency of democracy and liberalism. We have to get rid of this false conception and set in its place the conception of race. … The new order cannot be conceived in terms of the national boundaries of the peoples with an historic past, but in terms of race that transcend those boundaries.’ H. Rauschning, Hitler Speaks: A Series of Conversations with Adolf Hitler on his Real Aims (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939), p. 229. Hitler’s ultimate goal was, as he claimed to his dinner guests in 1942, to destroy not just the Treaty of Versailles, but ultimately the Treaty of Westphalia. See A. Hitler [N. Cameron (Translator), R. J. L. Stevens (Translator) and H. Redwald Trevor-Roper], Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 66.

  7. 7.

    Cf. R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorian Mind: The Official Mind of Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1965).

  8. 8.

    For an extended analysis of the ideational justifications for imperialism, see W. Bain, Between Anarchy and Society: Trusteeship and the Obligations of Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), esp. chap. 1.

  9. 9.

    Cf. J. Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday, pp. 38 52; K. J. Holsti, Peace and War: Armed Conflict and International Order, 1648 1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), esp. ch. 9.

  10. 10.

    See R. Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, The Atlantic Monthly, 273 (1994), pp. 44–76; S. Hoffmann, ‘Watch out for a New World Disorder’, International Herald Tribune, 26 February 1991, p. 6; and M. Singer and A. Wildawsky, The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (Chatham: Chatham House Publishers, 1993).

  11. 11.

    China’s conquest of Tibet and North Vietnam’s conquest of the south might be included, although there are arguments that neither case fits the criterion of the military and permanent conquest of a sovereign state.

  12. 12.

    R. H. Jackson and C. G. Rosberg, ‘Why Africa’s Weak States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood’, World Politics, 35 (1982), pp. 1–24.

  13. 13.

    R. H. Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 207; R. H. Jackson and M. W. Zacher, ‘The Territorial Covenant: International Society and the Stabilization of Territories’ (Vancouver: Institute of International Relations, University of British Columbia), Working paper No.15,1997, p. 5.

  14. 14.

    For a case by case, analysis, see ibid. and M. W. Zacher, “The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force,” International Organization, 55, 2 (2001), pp. 215–50.

  15. 15.

    For a case by case analysis of these practices, see ibid, and M. W. Zacher, ‘The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force’, International Organization, 55, 2 (2001), pp. 215-50. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is an important deviation from standard practice.

  16. 16.

    For a general discussion of the processes of norm diffusion, see K. Alderson, ‘Making Sense of State Socialization’, Review of International Studies, 27, 3 (2001), pp. 415-34; and for the instrumental and ideational sources of the territorial norms in particular, see Zacher, ‘The Territorial Integrity Norm’.

  17. 17.

    Cf. K. J. Holsti, Peace and War, esp. ch. 12; J. Vasquez, The War Puzzle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  18. 18.

    Zacher, ‘The Territorial Integrity Norm’, p. 224.

  19. 19.

    R. Gilpin,War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  20. 20.

    Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday, p. 6.

  21. 21.

    Cf. M. Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Revolution: Politics Before and After Hiroshima (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  22. 22.

    J. A. Vasquez, The Power of Power Politics- A Critique (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983); A. N. Sabrosky (ed.), Polarity and War: The Changing Structure of International Conflict (Boulder: Westview, 1985); C. S. Gochman, ‘Capability-Driven Disputes’, in C. S. Gochman and A. N. Sabrosky (eds), Prisoners of War? Nation-States in the Modern Era (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1990); F. W. Wayman and T. C. Morgan, ‘Measuring Polarity in the International System’, in J. D. Singer and P. F. Diehl (eds), Measuring the Correlates of War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990); and E. Mansfield, ‘The Concentration of Capabilities and the Onset of War’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 36(1992), pp. 3–24.

  23. 23.

    Cf. A. F. K. Organski, World Politics, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968). Classical balance of power theory did not predict variation in the incidence of war as a result of balance or imbalance. Analysts generally agreed that war could be used to redress the balance. The purpose of balancing was to prevent ‘universal empire’, not war.

  24. 24.

    T. V. Paul, ‘States, Security Function and the New Global Forces’, p. 19.

  25. 25.

    C. Layne, ‘The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise’, International Security, 17, 4 (1993), p. 13.

  26. 26.

    M. Mastanduno, ‘A Realist View: Three Images of the Coming International Order’, in T. V. Paul and J. Hall (eds), International Order and the Future of World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 31.

  27. 27.

    J. G. Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

  28. 28.

    The contemporary cheerleaders of American supremacy naturally see it as benign. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, for example, have argued that ‘[T]he United States does not pursue a narrow, selfish definition of its national interests, but generally finds its interests in a benevolent international order. In other words, it is precisely because the United States infuses its foreign policy with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations feel they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power.’ Quoted in Pfaff, ‘The Question of Hegemony’, p. 224. Comments such as these bring to mind E. H. Carr’s view that ‘Utopians argue that what is best for the world is best for their country, and then reverse the argument to read that what is best for their country is best for the world…. British [and today, American] writers… have been particularly eloquent supporters of the theory that the maintenance of British [American] supremacy is the performance of a duty to mankind.’ See E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939 (New York: Harper Torchbooks 1964 [1946]), pp. 79, 72.

  29. 29.

    A more sophisticated treatment of the problem of hegemony, one that balances power considerations with ideas, norms, and culture is T. Knutsen, The Rise and Fall of World Orders (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999).

  30. 30.

    For corroboration, see L.-E. Cederman, ‘Back to Kant: Reinterpreting the Democratic Peace as a Macrohistorical Learning Process’, American Political Science Review, 95, 1 (2001), pp. 15-32.

  31. 31.

    C. E. Vaughan, The Political Writings of J. J. Rousseau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915), I, p 313.

  32. 32.

    Cf. I. Dunlop, Louis XIV (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), esp. chaps. 16, 21.

  33. 33.

    T. L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New York: Random House, 2000), chap. 7.

  34. 34.

    F. Halliday, Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

  35. 35.

    A recent and persuasive analysis of the power of ideas in helping to bring about the dissolution of the colonial system is N. Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  36. 36.

    F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon Books, 1993), p. 263.

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Holsti, K. (2016). The Decline of Interstate War: Pondering Systemic Explanations. In: Kalevi Holsti: Major Texts on War, the State, Peace, and International Order. SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice(), vol 42. Springer, Cham.

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