WPTPN: Will Populist Nationalism Lead to Great-Power War?

6 December 2016, 0900 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Louis F. Cooper. His online writing includes “Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog (July 16, 2014). His Ph.D. is from the School of International Service, American University.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, which one historian has labeled “the first total war,” engulfed basically the whole of Europe. A century later, a war broke out in Europe that extended beyond the continent to become global in scope. One can think of the two enormously destructive world wars of the twentieth century as a “thirty years war” (1914-1945), interrupted by what can be viewed in retrospect as an uneasy lull marked by the Depression and the rise of fascism.

Those who see history as essentially cyclical might have expected another global war to occur in or around 2014. The idea of ‘long cycles’ of war and peace, explored by several scholars, could have suggested this. And if one believes, as Robert Gilpin wrote some years ago, that “even though some states occasionally come to appreciate the mutual benefits of international cooperation, unfortunately all states have yet to learn the lesson simultaneously,”[i] then the occurrence of another world war would not have been out of the question. Obviously, however, it didn’t happen on the centenary of World War I. Why not?

Several reasons present themselves. First, nuclear weapons have given the prospect of a global war, or any great-power war, a possibility of civilization-ending finality that it did not have in the past. Second, the security architecture created under U.S. leadership after World War II has arguably worked to reduce the likelihood of major armed conflict among the great powers. Third, the existence of a network of international institutions, both inside and outside the UN system, has pushed in the same direction. Fourth, it is very possible that, as John Mueller and Christopher Fettweis have argued, decision-makers have to come see great-power war as “subrationally unthinkable, or not even part of the option set for the great powers.”[ii] The extreme destructiveness of the twentieth century’s world wars, fueled partly by developments in technology, might well have produced long-term effects on how leaders and publics think about global or great-power war, in a way, for instance, that the Napoleonic Wars, for all their horror and bloodiness, did not.

Phil Arena’s recent contribution to this series argues that if the U.S. under a Trump administration signals an unwillingness to defend its allies, then Putin might be tempted to gamble on an invasion of the Baltics or Kim Jong-Un similarly might gamble on an invasion of South Korea (and that would drag in China). Putting aside Kim Jong-Un for the moment as a special case, let’s consider Putin. As long as NATO exists – and Trump, despite his statements about the unfairness of the distribution of cost burdens, has not suggested, as far as I’m aware, that he wants to dissolve the alliance – then Putin would have to assume that an attack on the Baltics would trigger a NATO response. Even if Putin does not see great-power war as unthinkable or outside his “option set,” one would assume that for reasons of pure self-interest he would not want to risk a nuclear war. Nor, one might think, would he want to jeopardize the prospect of better (from his standpoint) relations with a U.S. administration less concerned with, among other things, his commission of war crimes in Syria or his annexation of Crimea than the Obama administration has been.

For these reasons, I’m not too worried that the advent of the Trump administration will lead to a war with Russia over the Baltics. The Korean peninsula is, perhaps, a more worrisome situation. Chances are, however, that Trump, after taking office, will be prevailed upon to make reassuring noises about the U.S. commitment to South Korea, and that should suffice to deter Kim Jong-Un from doing anything too rash. The cautionary point here, admittedly, is that it’s not clear whether Kim can be counted on to behave in a minimally rational fashion. Putin, whatever one might think of him, is rational. It’s not entirely clear whether Kim is. However, if Kim is irrational then all bets are off regardless of what U.S. policy pronouncements are forthcoming.

World politics is not invariably cyclical and states can learn from experience (as even Gilpin acknowledged). If one admits this and pays due attention to history, then it is plausible to think that the force of populist nationalism, as expressed in more erratic and/or less ‘internationalist’ official policy, will not, whatever its other effects may be, increase the low likelihood of a global war.

Of course, that does not remove all grounds for concern, especially in light of the obvious fact that even “limited” wars can produce a huge amount of misery and devastation. One can look for examples not only at the war in Syria but also at the war in Yemen, where a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, is using U.S.-supplied weapons to kill combatants and civilians indiscriminately and contribute to the conditions for mass starvation. In general it would be good if U.S. allies took more responsibility for their own defense, stopped acting irresponsibly if, like the Saudis, they are currently doing so, and embraced more fully the principle that maintenance of global peace and security is a joint task for all the major powers, not simply one of them. However, if the U.S. tries to implement a redistribution of burdens with its allies too abruptly and without adequate consultation with them, it might, in some cases, encourage regional arms races, intensify security dilemmas, and increase the risks of conflict in areas that are now fairly quiet.

To succeed with this aspect of its foreign-policy agenda, the Trump administration will thus have to move carefully and avoid undermining international and regional institutions. Diplomatic skill, rather than blustery speeches, will be required. In Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau wrote that the quality of diplomacy, in the broad sense of “the formation and execution of foreign policy on all levels,” is the most important element of a country’s power.[iii] We will see whether the incoming administration realizes this, or whether the ultimate verdict on Trump’s policy toward U.S. allies will be that a reasonably sound conception was badly executed.

[i] R. Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge U.P., 1981), p.228.

[ii] C. Fettweis, Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace (Georgetown U.P., 2010), p.48.

[iii] H.J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 6th ed., revised by K. Thompson (McGraw-Hill, 1985), p.158.


The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.