Our Global Neighborhood

Our Global Neighborhood.


Avoiding war is not always an objective of state policy. Some leaders—for example, Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini—have actually glorified it.

We can divide theories of the causes of war into three categories, those that blame human nature, society, or an unforgiving environment. Thomas Hobbes thought war was a product of human perversity; Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that human beings are basically good but society corrupts them; John Locke attributed human aggression to scarcities in nature, including hunger and famine, disease, storms, and droughts (that is, circumstances beyond human control).

All simplistic theories fall short of explaining the variety of factors that cause war—social, political, economic, and psychological. A large, powerful nation that shares boundaries with several neighboring states, is ruled by a risk-oriented leader, has access to modern technology, is experiencing (or expecting) internal conflict, and has a rapidly expanding population is likely to be predisposed toward war.

Under conditions of high tension, war may occur even if none of the principals wants it. Such unintended wars may erupt because of misperception, misunderstanding, accident, escalation, or a catalytic reaction and make it difficult to assign moral responsibility. Often when war occurs, it is not clear who or what actually caused it.

Using war as an instrument of state policy violates international law and morality, but not all wars are equally objectionable. The just war doctrine holds that self-defense and the defense of universal principles are legitimate reasons for going to war. This doctrine is frequently criticized on the grounds of moral relativism, cultural ethnocentrism, and political realism.

International lawyers at Nuremberg developed a new category of war crimes—crimes against humanity. Although the trials were justified, such proceedings contain inherent pitfalls and must be approached with extreme caution.


Terrorism, a political effort to oppose the status quo by inducing fear in the civilian population through the widespread and publicized use of violence, has become an everyday occurrence in the contemporary world. Although it has ancient roots in religious conflict, contemporary terrorism can be traced to the 1960s.

Terrorists seek to create a climate of chaos and confusion in the belief that political instability will hasten the downfall of a government. They form groups that are close-knit, homogeneous, small, and (often) short-lived. Terrorists can pose great challenges to countries facing political and economic problems; Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria provides such an example.

Although terrorists violate the law, they are not criminals in the everyday sense of the term. Nor are they guerrillas or ordinary revolutionaries. All terrorists are revolutionaries, but not all revolutionaries are terrorists. A terrorist is a kind of revolutionary who does not seek to obtain political power, but whose primary objective is to protest and combat the perceived injustice of the existing political order through random acts of violence. Terrorists tend to be young, single males who share a variety of key psychological characteristics, including fanaticism and hatred.

Democracy and terrorism are implacable enemies. Democracy depends for its existence on compromise, tolerance, and mutual trust; whereas terrorists are zealots who seek to radicalize society and destabilize the political system. Furthermore, democratic societies are, by nature, open and vulnerable to terrorist attacks. This vulnerability is both physical and psychological.

The problems democracies face in countering terrorism are complicated by the need to preserve individual freedoms while also protecting national security. Still, various singular and cooperative measures that democracies have undertaken show promise of containing—though not eliminating—terrorism.


The character of international politics differs significantly from that of domestic politics due to the absence of a world government capable of maintaining law and order. The struggle for power, inherent in the international system, is designed to advance national interests. Sovereign states choose a variety of ends, almost always overshadowed by one ultimate aim, to maximize power.

Modern European history saw the rise of the nation-state and the emergence of a multipolar world order sustained by a balance of power characterized by a relatively equal distribution of resources and capabilities among several major states. The traditional balance-of-power system that came into being in Europe in 1648 was limited in size and scope. All members shared certain common values and beliefs; Great Britain acted as keeper of the balance. The system worked because means and ends were limited, alliances were flexible, and crusading zeal was absent.

The demise of the old Eurocentric order following the two world wars fought in the first half of the twentieth century ushered in a bipolar system in the second half of the twentieth century in which two rival “superpowers” were preeminent. In the Cold War, the United States adopted a status quo policy of containment, aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from expanding or upsetting the global balance of power. A bipolar system replaced the old multipolar European system, with ideological differences and the specter of nuclear holocaust characterizing the bitter rivalry between the two superpowers. By the late 1960s, a strategic stalemate based on mutual deterrence made war between these two titans equally irrational for both.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a new international order emerged. Following a brief “unipolar moment” during which the United States was unrivalled as the sole remaining superpower, a new era of multipolarity rapidly emerged characterized by ever-greater interdependence in a dynamic global economy driven by the revolution in information technology; growing concentration of economic power in three regions, namely Europe (the twenty-eight-member EU), northwest Asia (China, Japan, and South Korea), and North America; a deteriorating global economy; the unmitigated danger of nuclear proliferation; climate change and a threatened global environment; and a leveling of the playing field as the share of U.S. GNP in the world economy shrinks.

The world has changed dramatically since the Cold War ended, but U.S. foreign policy has remained basically unchanged. In the Western Hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine was designed to perpetuate the status quo; after World War II, containment in effect applied the same logic to the entire globe. On many occasions the United States intervened militarily to prevent leftist takeovers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sometimes, these interventions caused “blowback”—self-induced policy problems arising from imprudent past actions—as happened in Vietnam. The Bush Doctrine, asserting a U.S. right to take preemptive measures whenever and wherever it deems necessary, provided the rationale for the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Political realists run the risk of underestimating the power of moral principles. Aggression is universally denounced in international politics but difficult to define. Neorealists stress the value “soft power”—power derived from goodwill and good works rather than from threats and the use of force. Critics of recent U.S. foreign policy urge a greater reliance on statecraft, or the skillful and prudent practice of diplomacy, as an alternative to overreliance on military force (or “hard power”).

To what extent have international organizations and international law contributed to a more peaceful world? In the twentieth century, the League of Nations was torn apart by conflicting national interests. During the Cold War, from the early post–World War II period until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United Nations encountered many obstacles, although it had modest success as a peacekeeping institution. Peacekeeping activity expanded in the post–Cold War era when the United Nations authorized collective military action in the Persian Gulf (Iraq), the Horn of Africa (Somalia), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), West Africa (Sierra Leone and Liberia), and Central Asia (Afghanistan), among others. However, the United Nations refused to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

International law facilitates and regulates relations among sovereign and independent states whose interactions might otherwise be chaotic. Examples of international law include the Geneva and Hague Conventions, which set rules for warfare, and the multilateral arms limitations treaties. International environmental agreements, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, are becoming an increasingly important part of international law.

The limitations of international law are starkly apparent in the difficulties encountered by the World Court. The United Nations is similarly constrained by its inability to act against the wishes of the major powers, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Conflict is endemic in the world, always has been and always will be. Apocalyptic visions of the future tend toward alarmism, exaggerating dangers, and focusing on disorder in the world while ignoring evidence of peace and progress.

“If the UN did not exist, it would have to be invented.” What do you think?

Our Global Neighborhood

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