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Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 632/3

War & Change in World Politics Precis

In War & Change in World Politics, Princeton international affairs professor Robert Gilpin examines the problem of war and change in politics. Gilpin argues “major politics changes are the consequences of the conjuncture of unique and unpredictable sets of developments.” (3) The conception of political change he presents is an analytical device to help order and explain the human experience and is not predictive. One of Gilpin’s basic assumptions is the fundamental nature of international relations has not changed over the millennia. Gilpin’s principle argument is “an international system is established for the same reason that any social or political system is created; actors enter social relations and create social structures in order to advance particular sets of political, economic, or other types of interests… Thus, a precondition for political change lies in a disjuncture between the existing social system and the redistribution of power toward those actors who would benefit most from a change in the system.” (9) Gilpin makes fives assumptions: (1) an international system is stable if no state believes it is profitable to attempt to change the system; (2) a state will attempt to change the international system if the expected benefits exceed the expected costs; (3) states will seek to change the international system through territorial, political, and economic expansion until the marginal costs of further change are equal to or greater than the marginal benefits; (4) once equilibrium between costs and benefits of further change and expansion is achieved, the tendency is for the economic costs of maintaining the status quo to rise faster than the economic capacity to support the status quo; and (5) if the international system’s disequilibrium is not resolved, then the system will be changed, and a new equilibrium reflection the redistribution of power will be established. Gilpin identifies three types of change within the international system: (1) systems change – a major change in the character of the international system itself, (2) systemic change – change in the governance of an international system, and (3) interaction change – modifications in the political, economic, and other interactions or processes among the actors in an international system. Environmental, international, and domestic factors and changes in these factors determine the costs and benefits to particular groups and states in trying to change the system. Expansion ceases when the marginal costs of further expansion equal or exceed the marginal benefits. The achieved equilibrium is merely a temporary phenomenon in the continuing process of international political change. Once a state reaches the limits of expansion, maintaining position and arresting decline is difficult. The differential rates of growth of decline and rising states in the system produce a decisive redistribution of power and result in disequilibrium in the system. Throughout the course of history, hegemonic war has been the basic mechanism of systemic change in world politics. Even with recent changes (rise of superpowers, regional integration, and proliferation of new states), world politics is still characterized by the struggle of political entities for power, prestige, and wealth in a condition of global anarchy.


· “This study will argue that a group or a state will attempt to change the political system in response to developments that increase its relative power or decrease the costs of modifying political arrangements and will continue its efforts until an equilibrium is reached between the costs and benefits of further change.” (xi – xii)


· “The concept of political change presented in this book, like almost all social science, is not predictive.” (3)

· “The real task for the peaceful state is to seek a peace that protects and guarantees its vital interests and its concept of international morality.” (8)

The Nature of International Political Change

· “The argument of this book is that an international system is established for the same reason that any social or political system is created; actors enter social relations and create social structures in order to advance particular sets of political, economic, or other types of interests.” (9)

· “An international system is in a state of equilibrium if the more powerful states in the system are satisfied with the existing territorial, political, and economic arrangements.” (11)

· “In time, the differential growth in power of the various states in the system causes a fundamental redistribution of power in the system.” (13)

· “Power refers simply to the military, economic, and technological capabilities of states.” (13)

· “The basic domestic function of the state is to define and protect the property rights of individuals and groups.” (17)

· “The state may be conceived as a coalition of coalitions whose objectives and interests result from the powers and bargaining among the several coalitions composing the larger society and political elite.” (19)

· “Every action or decision involves a trade-off, and the effort to achieve one objective inevitably involves costs with respect to some other desired goal. Thus, whereas political realists are correct in stating that security is a primary objective in the sense that if it is not satisfied, all other objectives are placed in jeopardy, the pursuit of security involves the sacrifice of other desired social goals and a real cost to the society. Similarly, the maximization of efforts to attain economic and welfare goals entails the diversion of resources from national society.” (19)

· “Thus the state will not seek to maximize power (classique) or welfare (moderne) but will endeavor to find some optimum combination of both objectives (as well as others, for that matter) and the amount sought will depend on income and cost.” (20)

o Implications: (1) slope of the indifference curve (satisficing mix of objectives) differs from one society to another, (2) slope of a state’s indifference curve may shift in response to both internal and external changes, and (3) indifference curve selected by a state is to some degree a function of the wealth and power of the society. (21 – 22)

· “The explanation of international political change is in large measure a matter of accounting for shifts in the slopes and positions of the indifference curves of states and in the specific objectives of foreign policy.” (23)

· “Throughout history a principal objective of states has been the conquest of territory in order to advance economic, security, and other interests.” (23)

· “The second objective of states is to increase their influence over the behavior of other states.” (24)

· “The third objective of states, and in the modern world an increasingly important objective, is to control or at least exercise influence over the world economy, or what may more properly be called the international division of labor.” (24)

· An international system has three primary aspects: (1) diverse entities – primary are states, though other transnational or international actors may also play important roles; (2) regular interactions – nature, regularity, and intensity of interactions vary greatly for different international systems; and (3) form of control – condition of anarchy, but degree of control is a function of three factors: (1) distribution of power among states, (2)hierarchy of prestige, and (3) set of rights and rules that govern or at least influence the interactions among states. (28 – 34)

· “The distribution of power among states constitutes the principal form of control in every international system.” (29)

· “Prestige is the reputation for power, and military power in particular. Whereas power refers to the economic, military, and related capabilities of a state, prestige refers primarily to the perceptions of other states with respect to a state’s capacities and its ability and willingness to exercise its power.” (31)

· “Prestige, rather than power, is the everyday currency of international relations, much as authority is the central ordering feature of domestic society.” (31)

· “The eras of relative peace and stability have been those historical epochs during which the prestige hierarchy has been clearly understood and has remained unchallenged. Conversely, a weakening of the hierarchy of prestige and increased ambiguity in interpreting it are frequently the prelude to eras of conflict and struggle.” (31)

· “In international affairs, territoriality is the functional equivalent of property rights… international political change has been primarily a matter of redistributing territory among groups or states following the great wars of history.” (37)

· “Geographic boundaries do natter, in that they affect which other actors and considerations a state must take in account in the formulation of its foreign policy.” (38)

· Three types of international change: (1) systems change – major change in the character of the international system itself (i.e., nature of actors – empires, nation-states, etc.), (2) systemic change - change in the governance of an international system (changes in the international distribution of power, hierarchy of prestige, and the rules/rights embodied in the system), and (3) interaction change – modifications in the political, economic, and other interactions or processes among the actors in an international system. (40 – 43)

· “International political change takes place through the process of peaceful accommodation and limited conflicts at the level of interstate interactions.” (46)

· “The differential growth of power in the system is both the cause and the consequence of international political change.” (48)

Stability and Change

· “Every state desires to increase its control over those aspects of the international system that make its basic values and interests more secure.” (50)

· “The ultimate beneficiaries of efforts to change international systems have more frequently than not been third parties on the periphery of the international system.” (52)

· “An important consequence of economic, military, or technological changes is that they increase (or decrease) the area it is profitable to control or over which it is profitable to extend protection and thereby encourage (or discourage) the creation or enlargement of political and economic organizations.” (53)

· “Whether or not a state will seek to change the international system depends ultimately on the nature of the state and the society it represents.” (54)

· “The material environment (especially economic and technological conditions) and the international balance of power create an incentive or a disincentive for a state to attempt to change the international system.” (55)

· “Improvements in transportation and communications encourage military expansion and political unification.” (57)

· “Unless countered by other developments such as increases in the efficiency of defense, improvements in transportation tend to encourage empire and political consolidation by decreasing the cost and increasing the benefit of conquest.” (58)

· “Military innovation gives a particular society a monopoly of superior armament or technique and dramatically decreases the cost of extending the area of domination, thus providing a society with a considerable advantage over its neighbors and an incentive to expand and to change the international system.” (60)

· “Military innovations also alter the significance of the economic base of state power.” (65)

· “The interaction between economics and politics is a fundamental feature of the process of international political change.” (67)

· “The struggle for power and the desire for economic gain are ultimately and inextricably joined.” (67)

· “Changes in three broad categories of economic factors tend to encourage a state to expand and to attempt to change the international system.” (1) Any development that increases economies of scale will create a powerful incentive for a society to expand. (2) Internationalization of externalities (benefits or costs conferred on political actors for which payment or compensation is not made). (3) Diminishing rates of return (If one factor of production (land, labor, or capital) remains constant, and if there is not technological advance, the rate of growth of output will decline.) (70 – 71)

· New economic history – ‘birth, growth, mutation, and perhaps, death of [social, political, and economic]… institutions’ can be understood through simple tools of economic analysis… social and political changes are responses to the desires of individual to maximize or at least advance their interests. (72)

· “The primary value of this approach [new economic history] to social change is the simple yet powerful idea that the law of demand is applicable to the choice and changing of social and political arrangements.” (73)

· “Marxism maintains that political change is the consequence of the contradiction between a static sociopolitical system and the evolving means of agricultural or industrial production.” (75)

· Law of falling rate of profit – an increase in some inputs relative to other fixed inputs will, in a given state of technology, cause total output to increase; but after a point the extra output resulting from the same additions of extra inputs is likely to become less and less. Every factor of production (land, labor, and capital) must increase together (in the absence of technological advance) if any economy is to escape the threat of diminishing returns.

· Insights from Marxist theory of political change: (1) every society in every age is governed by the law of diminishing returns, (2) economic growth tends to give rise to social and political groups that have an interest in undertaking actions that will remove the social and political fetters to further economic growth, and (3) the law of diminishing returns applies to international society as well as to domestic society. (78 – 82)

· “The desire of groups and states to increase their shares of the economic surplus and the tendency for this surplus to decline as a result of the law of diminishing returns constitute powerful incentives behind expansion and international political change.” (82)

· “The distribution of capabilities and the ways in which this distribution of capabilities changes over time are perhaps the most significant factors underlying the process of international political change.” (86)

· “Both the structure of the international system and the domestic conditions of societies are primary determinants of foreign policy.” (87)

· “The structure of the international system is significant because of its profound effects on the cost of exercising power and hence of changing the international system.” (88)

· “Contrary to Waltz’s assertion that wars are caused by uncertainty and miscalculation, this book argues the opposite; it is perceived certainty of gain that most frequently causes nations to go to war (although these calculations, as Waltz rightly pointed out, may in fact be incorrect).” (92)

· “Changes in relative power among the principal actors in the system are precursors of international political change.” (93)

· “Both political realism and Marxism explain the dynamics of international relations in terms of the differential growth of power among states. Both theories explain the most important aspects of international relations (war, imperialism, and change) as consequences of the uneven growth of power among states.” (93)

· “The critical significance of the differential growth of power among states is that it alters the cost of changing the international system and therefore the incentives for changing the international system.” (95)

· “It is impossible to formulate in a systematic and exhaustive fashion the domestic determinants of the foreign policies of states.” (96)

· “The internal ordering of a society is a critical determinant of its capabilities and of its capacity to overcome environmental constraints and take advantage of environmental opportunities.” (101)

· “The influence of domestic sociopolitical arrangements of individual initiative is of great importance.” (101)

· “The nature of domestic arrangements confers on a society a relative advantage or disadvantage with respect to its capacity to adapt itself to specific environmental changes and opportunities.” (102)

· “It is the congruence between the prevailing conditions in a given historical epoch and the personality types fostered by a society that largely determines the success or failure of a society in the power struggles among states.” (103)

Growth and Expansion

· Three categories of social formations: (1) primitive-communal, feudal, and simple petty-commodity types, (2) empire or imperial system, and (3) modern industrial nation-state. (108 – 109)

· “During the cycle of empires, the rise and decline of dominant states were governed principally by (1) the tendency for the cost of the best military techniques to increase with time and (2) the fact that the financial burdens of scale were large relative to the cost of the best armaments.” (115)

· “The cycle of empires was broken in the modern world by three significant interrelated developments: the triumph of the nation-state as the principal actor in international relations; the advent of sustained economic growth based on modern science and technology; the emergency of a world market economy.” (116)

· “It was the enduring technological breakthroughs associated with the Industrial Revolution that first caused the great, unprecedented advances in wealth and power.” (123)

· “The market system (or what today we call international economic interdependence) runs so counter to the bulk of human experience that only extraordinary changes and novel circumstances could have led to its innovation and triumph over other means of economic exchange.” (130)

· “The diffusion of the market economy throughout western Europe and the enforcement of private property rights throughout the world vastly increased the role of economic factors as important elements of national power; this enabled the Europeans to mobilize their resources in the interest of growth and power, surpassing all other civilizations.” (132)

· “Although most states tend to benefit in absolute terms from the operation of the world market economy, the more efficient and more technologically advanced economies tend to benefit relatively more than other states.” (138)

· “In effect, the provided the public goods necessary for the functioning of efficient world markets because it was profitable for them to do so.” (139)

· “At least for established states (an important qualification), internal economic efficiency has become the more important source of wealth.” (139)

· “A world market economy does develop the world; yet it does not do so evenly.” (143)

· “First in the European system and then on a global scale, successive political and economic hegemonies have supplanted the pattern of successive empires as the fundamental ordering principle of international relations.” (144)

· Great Britain and the US “have succeeded in this hegemonic role partially because they have imposed their will on lesser states and partially because other states have benefited from and accepted their leadership.” (144)

· “When environmental conditions seem to make it profitable and domestic incentives are sufficiently strong, ambitious states seek to create empires and units the international system by force.” (145)

· Countervailing forces that limit expansion – natural barriers and the loss-of-strength gradient, generation of opposing power, notion that economic, technical, and other factors determine an optimum size for political entities in a particular historical era. (146 – 147)

· “In the contemporary world, economic and technological developments may call for even larger units of political organization.” (149)

· “The most important inhibition against the dangers of suboptimization is the existence of an economic core controlled by the central government or, in the case of a market economy, by the dominant economic power.” (151)

· “The scale of a state, empire, or market is governed by the interaction of two sets of forces.” There are certain benefits of large size. Increasing scale tends to stimulate centrifugal forces and fragmentation on the part of groups that believe they can maximize their own gains through breaking off. (153)

· “The effects and experience of growth and expansion eventually weaken or destroy the conditions that initially favored expansion and rob the society of its sources of political and economic momentum.” (153)

· “As private and public interests diverge from the requirements for further growth in power and wealth, the society loses its forward thrust and thereby provides others an opportunity to catch up and eventually overtake it.” (154)

Equilibrium and Decline

· “Once an equilibrium between the costs and benefits of expansion is reached, the tendency is for the costs of maintaining the status quo to rise faster than the capacity to finance the status quo.” (157)

· “Speaking broadly, the national income of a society is distributed into three general sectors: protection; consumption (private and nonmilitary public); productive investment.” (158)

· Dilemma of rising demands and insufficient resources. (159)

· Law of industrial growth – tendency for the growth impulse of any innovation to come to an end. (160)

· Law of increasing cost of war – tendency for the most efficient military techniques to rise in cost. (162)

· General tendency for both private and public consumption to grow faster than the gross national product as society becomes more affluent. (163)

· Structural change in the character of the economy. (165)

· ‘Corrupting’ influence of affluence. (165)

· “Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this ‘corruption’ (a term used in its classical sense to mean decay) is the generation in the minds of a dominant people of the belief that the world they (or, rather, their forebears) created is the right, natural, and God-given state of affairs.” (166)

· “The tendency is for the rate of consumption to increase at the expense of protection or investment, because it is politically very difficult to suppress consumption and to force a society to decrease its economic expectations.” (168)

· “This process of political decline involves two related developments: the increasing costs of political dominance and the loss of economic and technological leadership.” (168)

· “The diffusion of military and economic technology from more advanced societies to less advanced societies is a key element in the international redistribution of power. Although technology is expensive and not easily created, once it is created it usually diffuses relatively easily.” (177)

· Advantage of backwardness – imitators, who have lower standards of living and less wasteful habits, can use the imported technology more efficiently. Moreover, they can adopt the most advanced and most thoroughly proven techniques, whereas prior research-and-development costs and vested interests deter the more advanced economy from substituting the very latest techniques for obsolescent techniques.” (178 – 179)

Hegemonic War and International Change

· “The invariable symptoms of a society’s decline are excessive taxation, inflation, and balance-of-payments difficulties as government and society spend beyond their means.” (188)

· Methods of retrenchment – (1) unilateral abandonment of certain of a state’s economic, political, or military commitments, (2) enter into alliances with or seek rapprochement with less threatening powers, (3) make concessions to the rising power and thereby seek to appease its ambitions. (192 – 193)

· “Throughout history the primary means of resolving the disequilibrium between the structure of the international system and the redistribution of power has been war, more particularly, what we shall call hegemonic war.” (197)

· “Hegemonic wars have (unfortunately) been functional and integral parts of the evolution and dynamics of international systems.” (198)

· How does it differ from more limited conflicts among states? “Such a war involves a direct contest between the dominant power or powers in an international system and the rising challenger or challengers… (2) The fundamental issue at stake is the nature and governance of the system… (3) A hegemonic war is characterized by the unlimited means employed and by the general scope of the warfare.” (198 – 200)

· Three preconditions associated with the outbreak of hegemonic war: (1) intensification of conflicts among states is a consequence of the ‘closing in’ of space and opportunities, (2) perception that a fundamental historical change is taking place and the gnawing fear of one or more of the great powers that time is somehow beginning to work against it and that one should settle matters through preemptive war while the advantage is still on one’s side, (3) course of events begins to escape human control. (200 – 202)

· “Peaceful international change appears to be most feasible when it involves changes in an international system and to be most difficult when it involves change of an international system.” (208)

· “Although men desire peace, it is not their highest value. If it were, peace and peaceful change could easily be achieved a people need only refuse to defend itself.” (209)

· “In the absence of shared values and interest, the mechanism of peaceful change has little chance of success.” (209)

Change and Continuity in World Politics

· “The threat of war and the use of force and war have historically been governed by a fundamental relationship between the destructiveness and probability of war: the more potentially destructive a war seemed to be, the less the probability of its occurring, and vice versa.” (216)

· “The history of war and weaponry indicates that the great changes in international systems have been due not to weapons innovations by themselves but to the use of these weapons by political and military geniuses who have learned how to apply new weapons to gain advantages over other states.” (217)

· “In the modern world, economic welfare, rather than narrow national security, is said to have become the principal objective of all societies. This objective can best be achieved, it is argued, through economic growth, international cooperation, and rational use of the world’s scarce resources, rather than through war and competitive struggle.” (219)

· “Economic interdependence and the promise of mutual gain have not eliminated the efforts of nations to advance their own interests at the expense of others and at the expense of the overall economic efficiency of the global economy.” (220)

· “One should not confuse the physical unity of the globe with moral unity; the human species remains deeply divided by race, religion, and wealth.” (225)

· “World politics is still characterized by the struggle of political entities for power, prestige, and wealth in a condition of global anarchy.” (230)

Epilogue: Change and war in the Contemporary World

· Destabilizing aspects of the 1980s – (1) danger that one of superpowers will fail to play its balancing role, (2) danger of the rise of a third party to upset the bipolar balance, (3) danger of polarization of the international system as a whole into two hostile camps, (4) danger of entanglement of the major powers in the ambitions and difficulties of minor allies, and (5) danger of loos of control over economic, political, and social developments. (235 – 237)

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