Review: Understanding International Conflicts

Understanding International Conflicts
Understanding International Conflicts
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., New York, 1997

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — September 29, 1998, 6:00pm; September 30, 1998, 3:30pm

How do you decide which book serves as a good introduction of a particular subject, if that subject is completely unfamiliar to you to begin with? I personally use several criteria. First, if I am taking a formal academic course on the subject, I check the syllabus to see which book(s) are mentioned most frequently. Then, examining the book itself, I am impressed with those books that cover a wide range of aspects, make generalizations while at the same time presenting objections and alternatives to the ideas given, are understandable, short, and assume nothing is known by the reader about the subject. In the field of international relations, I find Understanding International Conflicts by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. meets almost all of these criteria.

Although the "conflicts" part of the title may lead you to assume that the book covers only one aspect of relations between states, namely disagreements, wars, and other conflicts, Nye’s work covers a broad range of topics dealing with international relations in general. Indeed, history seems to bear out (see Guns, Germs, and Steel for more information on the pre-state aspects of human conflicts) that the relationships between states largely consist of conflicts and their resolutions; by enumerating and dissecting international conflicts and their reasons, one can start to form a broader framework, or theory about how states interact and how conflicts begin. In this aspect, I found Nye’s assertion that his work is a "dialog between theory and history" (ix) to be quite accurate, which is in my opinion one of the book’s strengths which makes it accessible to those with limited knowledge both of world history and international relations theory.

Nye begins with a quick explanation of three forms of international compositions which in itself may come as a surprise to the many who have just assumed that there have always been countries similar to those of recent times and that they all interacted as they do today. In reality, the world imperial system illustrated by such examples as the Roman Empire is quite different than the feudal system of the middle ages (think Robin Hood) where peasants had certain obligations to certain lords or religious leaders (compare the economic situations in Economics Explained) that were had a separate existence from the political interactions of political rulers such as monarchs.

The system most important in contemporary times is the anarchic system of states where there are many independent political entities when have boundaries marking a specific geographical region. Moreover, these states have more or less complete control (in theory) of what happens within their borders and do not have to answer to a higher political organization — hence the "anarchy." Modern international relations theory seeks to describe how the elements of this anarchical system "live" with each other, if there is no higher authority than that held by each state over its territory.

There are several approaches to describing how states interact; the two general positions covered by Nye are the realist and liberal approaches (4). Basically, realists see all interaction as being performed by and among the states themselves, with war being the dominant theme. Liberals, on the other hand, stress the fact that there are various other factors, such as international institutions (the United Nations, and Non-Government Organizations, for example), that influence relations between countries. The important point that Nye makes here and throughout the book is that neither position is completely accurate; the actual situation that exists encompasses aspects of both realist and liberal world views.

After starting with that fundamental bit of theory, Nye begins analyzing historical conflicts by examining the Peloponnesian War, a conflict between the city-states of fifth-century Greece. Nye tries to use this as a jumping-off point to more recent conflicts and furthermore refers back to the situation throughout the book. The situation itself, despite Nye’s "short version of a long story" (9), is a bit complicated, so I didn’t read it closely enough to be able to give a summary. I found that the details can be ignored without anything being lost from the majority of Understanding International Conflicts.

In analyzing international conflicts, the concept of morality inevitably comes up. Nye explains three major views concerning ethics in international relations. Skeptics say that what we normally consider "morals" on an individual basis has no meaning at the state level. In other words, "might makes right" as the hackneyed expression has it. This outlook seems quite bleak; in fact, Nye dismisses it completely in its pure form. He presents other options: state moralists believe that the actions of a state represent the composite morals of that state’s population, and cosmopolitans tend to give less attention to the state overall and instead look at world policies as being justified or not by whether the actions fit individual moralities — in other words, individual moralities are elevated directly to international actions (19-24). Nye here sometimes reverts to such terms as "realist" and "liberal" which, although they do not refer to views on morality specifically, realists tend to be more on the skeptic side of the scale, while liberals lean towards the other.

Having covered these basic terms and concepts (and attempted to set the tone with a specific albeit remote event in history), Nye turns towards the twentieth century. Before analyzing any events, however, he sets forth three levels on which an event can be analyzed: Kenneth Waltz’s the individual, the state, and the international system (29). I personally found these levels of analysis one of the most interesting and potentially the most useful parts of the book; these concepts are later used to examine World War I, World War II, and several other conflicts.

Starting from the top, the international system level looks at causation based upon the situations of different countries (geographic location, foreign alliances) as a whole. The state (or domestic) level, on the other hand, analyzes events by looking inside countries on a state-by-state basis: whether a certain country’s economic was doing well, for example. Lastly, the individual level takes into consideration the effects of the actual people involved, including the personalities of rulers. In discussing the international system level, Nye brings up the difference between structure and process (30). Structure refers to the distribution of power (e.g. the structure of the Cold War was bipolar, with two superpowers existing). Process refers to how these units interact (e.g. nuclear threats between superpowers during the Cold War). These two concepts are not discussed as such at length in the book, but their use in analysis is implied and important during the discussions.

Having dispensed with a potpourri of theoretical terms, Nye applies them to three major events in recent history: World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. In general, Nye does not assume you have an extensive knowledge of history — as long as you can put those three events in order, and know more or less when they occurred, you shouldn’t get lost during his recounting. Nye does an excellent job of explaining the actions and conditions that led to each of these major events, interspersing them with appropriate dates (but not too many), all the while applying the theoretical concepts already covered.

Even thought the first two chapters are mostly theory, while the rest of the book is mostly history, Nye stays true to his commitment of weaving a mixture of the two. In discussing World War I, Nye explains the concept of balance of power (50), which can confusingly be used to mean the status quo, the action of keeping other countries from gaining power over others, or especially when referring to the Cold War, a multipolar system in which two or more superpowers take actions and positions that those of the other(s).

Of course, power itself can be ambiguous. In short, power is the ability to do things and to control others" or, according to Robert Dahl, the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do (51). Since knowing exactly what the other would do without your "power" is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, countries may measure their power in technology, resources, or military.

Getting to the thick of historical analysis, Nye uses the three levels of analysis to determine the causes of World War I. At the system structural level, Nye sees World War I resulting from the rise of German power and the increased rigidity in the alliances between European countries. The processes he recognizes includes rising nationalistic tendencies that overrode normal international interactions.

At the domestic level, Nye analyzes events occurring inside countries. It is at this level which Lenin’s argument (which Nye rejects, with sound reasoning) that the war was caused by financial capitalists. Nye prefers instead to look at social problems in German society. At the individual level, many of the leaders were incompetent.

Both of these latter levels of analysis, the individual and the domestic levels, seem much less useful for World War I than they do for World War II. In the most recent World War, it is quite easy to see the influence of one individual, Adolf Hitler, the cause of many calling World War II, "Hitler’s War" (83). It is also to read domestic-level economic collapses and internal US isolationism. When analyzing on the system level, it is tempting to see World War II conditions as simply extensions of those present in World War I — in other words, "World War I did not solve the German problem" (88). In short, it is in the Nye’s analysis of World War II that I personally find the three levels of analysis, including structure/process analyses, most interesting and relevant.

In both of these conflicts, Nye asks the question, "was war inevitable?" It doesn’t take long to see that Nye’s answer to this will always be, "no, but it was extremely likely." He makes the distinction between inevitable and overdetermined, the latter of which means that there are several causes, each of which could be significant (65). To illustrate how war becomes more or less likely as time passes, with new alternatives coming or going away, Nye presents a "funnel of choices," which shows that, at any certain time, war could have been avoided but that option was more or less likely by the available choices at any particular time.

Nye then turns to an analysis of the Cold War, considering, for example, such questions as who caused the Cold War conditions to occur? While traditionalists see the Soviets as causing the Cold War, revisionists see US actions as bringing those conditions about, and postrevisionists claim that no one was to blame, Nye predictably explains that the actual conditions (like most of international relations analysis and economy, it seems) are a product of all of these theories (100-101). He does, however, describe Roosevelt’s and Stalin’s policies, which shed some light on the situation, and the levels of analysis used before are again useful in the study of this era of history.

In the last chapters, Nye examines various smaller events in recent history, explaining such terms as sovereignty and discussing instances in which intervention is necessary. (As usual, there are different schools of thoughts on each of these subjects.) Nye also explains changes that have come about since the end of the Cold War. His historical explanations are, as usual, quite good and accessible to those with limited knowledge.

The last part of the book, however, does not seem to have the punch that the earlier parts do. On a system level, this could be because more recent conflicts have not been as widespread and all-encompassing as the earlier events — indeed, they have been more regional in scope. On a domestic level, this could be because theorists have not had enough time to fully analyze the events to such an extent as those of previous decades. Finally, on an individual, maybe Nye was just getting a bit tired during writing — or maybe I was getting a bit tired during reading. Most likely, as Nye would point out, it’s probably a mixture of all of these.

Is it inevitable that you will find this book useful in your education of international relations? No. But highly likely. Nye has produced a good introductory text that is short, clear, and reasonably complete for even those without a strong knowledge of international relations — you could say that your finding Understanding International Conflicts useful is not inevitable, but surely overdetermined.