Tuesday, November 3, 2015


We're having the second mid-term in my Theory of International Relations class (PS 304). What follows below are some notes to help my students prepare for several of the questions on the mid-term. 

While it's clear that war and conflict are very much a part of our modern world, we can acknowledge that advances have been made. Nation-states do cooperate with one another, and this practice has been picking up steam over the millennium. Specifically, nation-states have learned how to cooperate because of three long-term trends and developments that we don't notice on a daily basis but come to life when we take a long look at history.

LIBERAL REVOLUTION: Contrary to what many pessimists (or "Realists") might want to believe, we have a long series of events and eras that speak to the more positive elements of the human condition. After the Magna Carta and the fight to end slavery (especially by the British), many in the global community embraced the ideas from the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and worked to develop and promote individual rights and liberty. Fighting for both helped create the modern Liberal Republics that promote treaties and the liberal spirit of cooperation between nation-states today.  

TREATIES & THE SHADOW OF WAR: War has cast such a long shadow over humanity that we've learned to agree to disagree, if for no other reason than we've gotten tired of fighting increasingly destructive and ugly wars. Multi-lateral treaties in 1648 (Westphalia), 1714 (Utrecht), 1815 (Vienna), 1917 (Versailles) and 1945 (Bretton Woods / San Francisco) have forged patterns of cooperation between nation-states. These patterns have maintained a degree of cooperation that otherwise would not exist, and breathed constitutional characteristics into the world's post-war treaties.

TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTIONS: As technological advancements have been made we find it much easier and faster to communicate and see one another. This has created problems that many never anticipated. For example, soon after the arrival of the steam train we learned that trains traveling across the continent arrived at uncertain times. They also took longer to arrive when moving west to east. All of this made train schedules both uncertain and even dangerous. Technology forced nation-states to figure out how to cooperate on the issue like time (in this case, leading to the Prime Meridian Conference in 1884) which requires nation-states to work together. 

So, yes, the long roots and driving force(s) of cooperation and institution building between nation-states are tied to the shadow of war, the Liberal Revolutions, and the new realities created by technology. I will discuss the first two only below. 

Before 1776 - when Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published and the
Declaration of Independence was signed - the Western world was still stuck in a feudal mindset where myths, custom, and tradition dominated what the vast majority of society believed. If someone fell on the floor, in what we now know is an epileptic seizure, anyone in the crowd could be singled out for witchcraft or sorcery. 

As well, most commoners had little say over what they wanted to do when they “grew up” and even less control over who would rule over them. Economic feudalism and political monarchies stifled both individual initiative and political freedom. Custom and tradition, rather than individual acumen and personal talent dominated our social and political environment. 

This would change because of three intertwined developments that helped bring about Liberal Revolution ...

The era known as the Renaissance brought knowledge and the creative spirit back to Europe by reopening the classics to society. St. Francis (1181-1226) and others began to challenge the notion that the world was merely a collection of symbols expressing God’s message, waiting to be unraveled by the priests. Universities were established during the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 AD), creating places where conventional wisdom was discussed and even challenged. 

Later, the Reformation - a succession of wars fought to establish religious conformity and “moral universalism” throughout Europe - helped raise questions about the Catholic Church. These wars would end in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. It was at this point that individual monarchs declared that it was better to allow one another to determine how people would worship and pray within their borders. 

The key to the Reformation lay in how Martin Luther’s 95 theses (tacked on a church door in 1517) questioned internal church practices. This, in turn, helped create an environment that would lead scholars and others to question the church’s authority, and veracity on many topics. It should come as no surprise that these development would open the door for many feudal customs and traditions to be challenged. 

Finally, the Enlightenment - a period of scientific discovery and philosophical discourse - raised serious questions about our world views. By questioning and disproving church teachings scientists and scholars helped “secularize” our world by illustrating how and why the church could be wrong. For example, when Galileo looked through his telescope and showed that the earth moved the impact was immediate. 

If the church could be wrong about the earth not being the center of the universe could it also be wrong about the divine right to rule? What about original sin? Should one simply accept their station in life? Better yet, what if peasants and others didn’t have to accept their fate in life? Were the monarchs and the aristocrats really the rulers God wanted? 

These were heady questions indeed. 

The Liberal Revolutions - specifically, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment - would eventually lead to the emergence of new "liberal republics" in America, France and, later, throughout Europe. While it's not readily acknowledged, or even understood, the ideas from the Liberal Revolutions placed a primacy on both liberty and the cooperative spirit that have led to binding multi-lateral treaties since 1648. 

These treaties are the subject of the next section.

The Treaty of Westphalia, 1648

Since the end of World War II the United States has helped u
nderwrite global security. Specifically, what's been called the American Peace - or Pax Americana - has been maintained because the United States openly embraced the creation of multilateral institutions, on many levels (after failing to do so after WWI)

The institutions that were built after WWII (NATO, the United Nations, and those created at Bretton Woods) helped shape diplomacy and maintain order. Perhaps most importantly, while wars have been fought and atrocities committed, there has been no World War III. Just as importantly, the Cold War ended with the Russians deciding against slugging it out, as empires have done in the past when confronted with their demise. 

The Russians saw, as have many other nations, that the halting and even stunted promises of liberty within the post-WWII institutional order provided enough opportunities for them to operate and succeed as an independent nation-state. 

Simply put, in the modern world institutions and treaties matter. Diplomacy and global stability have moved beyond the simple embrace of balance of power, shifting alliances, coercion, and brute force.

This is critical to note because history tells us that global order built on shifting alliances and simple coercion not only break down, but tend to swallow the world into increasingly destructive wars.   

The bloody wars of religion brought on the Protestant Reformation, which reached a climax with the Thirty Years War, which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. These wars were followed by new intrigue and the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), which ended with the Treaty of Utrecht.

The instability and carnage that occurred during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) was brought about by a new distribution of power, and was finally brought to a close with the Treaty of Vienna (1815). This lead to the Concert of Europe, which is known to history for the stability that it brought to the European continent for almost 100 years. 

But the Treaty of Vienna failed to take into consideration new political realities (especially how Napoleon had planted and inspired new ideas that would swamp the continent). The post-Napoleonic era of European stability would be followed by the ugliness and destruction of World War I, which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (1917). 

The United States famously failed to participate in the institutions created after WWI, which insured the Treaty of Versailles would be a failed treaty before the ink was dried on the document. The destruction of World War II would follow, which inspired scholars to think of both WWI and WWII as modernity's version of the Thirty Years War. 

All of this is important to understand because we've learned over time, albeit begrudgingly, that strong and binding treaties have an impact. 

Treaties crafted at Westphalia (1648), Utrecht (1713), Vienna (1815), Versailles (1919), and at Bretton Woods (1944), San Francisco (1945) and Potsdam (1945) have helped to establish international rules, protocols, and global patterns that, in many ways, create the functional equivalent of a global constitution (see G. John Ikenberry After Victory).

Established patterns have created expectations that have built - as we discuss in class - islands of order in a sea of anarchy. This doesn't mean that war can (or will) be eradicated. It simply means that the proclivity towards war can be reduced. This can only happen if other nation-states see institutions, and the nation-states that create those institutions, as legitimate. 

Institutional legitimacy today comes only when responsible leaders are prepared to use force with cause. But it also comes when everyone, including the biggest actors, play by the rules established by the treaties and institutions created.

- Mark

Addendum: For the question on Globalism (and Modernization Theory) you can find additional notes by clicking here

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