restricted access 6. Theory and Great Power Peace
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THE GREAT WAR MOTIVATED E. H. Carr and his colleagues to establish the first independent department for the study of international politics at Aberystwyth in 1919. In large part, the field that has emerged since has been an attempt to understand, explain, and ultimately prevent interstate conflict. War is one of the few quasi-quantifiable topics in international relations, and it has been the direct or indirect subject of the majority of the field’s works; it is probably no exaggeration to say that in one way or another war is what motivated most of its scholars to enter the profession in the first place. If the fundamental nature of war were to change, one would expect the repercussions for the field to be rather powerful, to say the least. The obsolescence-of-major-war argument clearly describes such a fundamentalchange ,buttothispointithashadlittleimpactuponmainstreaminternational relations. A number of key questions remain unaddressed and underconsidered : What would a future without major war look like? How would the study of international politics evolve in the absence of a realistic possibility for world war, and an overall decline in all kinds of conflict? How would our theories need to be adjusted and updated to describe accurately an age of great power peace? In other words, what if Mueller is right? In some senses this chapter is an exercise in conjecture and speculation. It asks the reader to accept the argument, if just for a moment, that the great powers have indeed put warfare behind them, at least in their interactions with one another. For some, this will require a near-impossible stretch of imagination; for others, it will be a logical and overdue recognition of modern reality. If it is true that many nations no longer consider fighting such wars, then many of our central beliefs about state behavior will have to be rethought and adjusted to better describe twenty-first-century conditions. The first section of this chapter discusses the central theoretical implications of the obsolescence of major war, including the fallacy of proceeding as if states 6 Theory and Great Power Peace 136 Chapter 6 had uniform motivations and reactions, and the crucial distinction between potential and kinetic power. The second section speculates on the ways in which some of the major theories and debates in the field would be affected if the great powers prove stubbornly insistent upon conducting peaceful relations. The implications would be enormous for some of the most central issues in international relations, such as the balance of power, security dilemma, power transition , offense-defense theory, the relative versus absolute gains debate, hegemonic stability theory, classical geopolitics, and behavioralist approaches to war. In a recent edited volume exploring the debate over the future of war, Raimo Väyrynen noted rather off-handedly that “many theories of international relations will simply cease to exist if the thesis about the decline of major-power wars can be sustained.”1 While that language may be a bit strong, at the very least this chapter hopes to demonstrate that if and when a broad consensus were to emerge that major war has indeed become obsolete, theories of international politics could not remain unchanged. If current trends continue, and more years pass without even the threat of major war, scholars of international relations must prove flexible enough to adjust their theories accordingly. Continued belief in an orthodoxy that is no longer supported by facts is theology, not science. Theoretical Implications of Great Power Peace In 1963 Harold Sprout criticized the field of international relations for its obsessive search for what he called a “master variable” that would unlock the secrets of state behavior.2 Today scholars still seem to be searching Einstein-like for a unifying theory, one that would be able to provide sweeping explanations for why states act as they do. Waltz has arguably come closest to articulating such a metatheory, although others have made valiant efforts.3 Almost by definition, a unifying theory must assume a certain degree of homogeneity in state motivations and behavior across regions and levels of development. In general, international relations theory does not allow much room for fundamental behavioral differences across regions, historical eras, or levels of development in the international system. A widely cited but in some senses not deeply influential alternative conceptualization of the twenty-first-century international system is the “two worlds” framework first discussed by Goldgeier and McFaul, which rejects the common assumption of uniformity in favor of two separate if interacting...


Subject Headings

  • Angell, Norman, 1874-1967.
  • Great powers.
  • World politics -- 21st century.
  • International relations.
  • Peace.
  • War.
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