"United Around High Human Values"

Dennis Patterson |

Department of Political Science |

Texas Tech University |

113 Holden Hall | 

Lubbock, TX 79409 | 


The study of international relations has produced numerous insights into why civil and interstate conflicts begin and how their cessation can be hastened. Such insights can help the world’s leaders build a more secure and peaceful world, but what is interesting about much of current international relations theory is that it is based principally on the examination of relations among the nations of Europe and the West. This is not meant to diminish the scholarly insights we have because we have learned much about international relations from existing scholarly efforts. Rather, the point is to suggest that, if we examine international relations in a less parochial manner but with the same eye for theoretical development and broadly applicable insights, we may advance our understanding even more of how better to enhance international security and build a lasting peace throughout the globe.

While any region of the world could be studied with such an intent, this essay will focus on international relations in Asia. This is because Asian international relations, like interstate relations in Europe, has historically been characterized by periods of peace and stability punctuated by periodic eruptions of conflict. However, unlike interstate relations in Europe, Asia’s patterns are neither neatly subsumed by current international relations theory nor thoroughly explained by the parochial focus of international relations scholars who derived their theories from studying relations principally among the state of Europe. As a result, focusing on interstate relations in this region can provide theoretically based and broadly applicable insights that not only advance our understanding of international relations more generally but, more importantly, provide a deeper grasp of those interrelated factors that will help the world’s leaders enhance security and build a lasting peace around the globe.

Balances of Power in Bipolar vs. Multipolar Systems

Numerous examples can illustrate the insights we can obtain, but I focus on a recently challenged but nonetheless accepted result in neorealist international relations theory. A longstanding explanation for how competing nation states avoid the onset of conflict is found in balance of power theory, and among the many insights we have from scholarly work in this area is that some distributions of capabilities across nation states that make up the international system produce more stable balances of power than others. Specifically, international relations scholars in the neorealist tradition have concluded that a bipolar international system, that is, one dominated by two superpowers, is more stable and, thus, enabling of peace and stability than one where the number of great powers exceeds three.

Scholars have offered a number of reasons for this conclusion, and perhaps most important is the manner in which stability is achieved and conflicts are avoided under these two different international systems. According to neorealist theory, for there to be stability in the international system, power among competing states must be balanced, and achieving a power balance in a bipolar system is less difficult than in a multipolar system. The reason for this is that, in a bipolar world, balances are achieved internally, that is, through resources employed by the superpowers themselves. In a multipolar system, on the other hand, a stable balance of power is accomplished through a credible maintenance of alliances that are less durable and, thus, more difficult to sustain.

The difference of difficulty in maintaining a balance of power under a multipolar versus a bipolar international system becomes very clear when one calibrates the loss of military power that would occur if a state defected from an alliance in a multipolar world than in a bipolar world. In the former, the defection of an alliance partner has the potential to carry lethal consequences for the remaining alliance partners because such a loss leaves the remaining state or states much more vulnerable, disrupting the balance of power and creating instability. In the latter (bipolar) case, however, the capabilities of allied states are unequal, and, thus, the loss of an alliance partner is more easily absorbed by the superpowers that are at the apex of their respective blocs. Thus, in a bipolar world, the loss of an allied state does not lead to the increased vulnerability of remaining states, thus, more easily maintaining the balance of power.

We know that the cessation of hostilities at the end of World War II left two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, at the apex of power in the world that was emerging, and we also know that this Cold War period was one of relative stability in international history. This is particularly true when we compare the Cold War period to the world of international relations in the pre-World War I era. Not only was the multipolar system of the pre-World War I period less stable and more conflict prone, but the manner in which nation states endeavored to build and maintain an alliance system that could sustain peaceful relations was also entirely different. Such contrasts certainly encouraged neorealist international relations scholars to deduce that the patterns they witnessed in Europe in these two periods were representative of the international system in general. In other words, the conclusion that the entire bipolar international system was more stable than interstate relations in the pre-World War I era was based on conclusions derived from interstate relations in Europe, meaning that scholars imputed a result to the entire globe from a regional subsample of observations.

Cold War Conflicts: Europe vs. Asia

It is well known that caution is necessary when imputing a property to a population—for example, the international system in general—from observations obtained from a sample—say interstate relations in Europe, and such caution has proven to be well founded in the case of interstate relations in Europe in comparison to the rest of the globe. This is true simply because we know that regions outside of Europe—Asia in particular—have been less able to achieve a stable balance of power than Europe at certain times during the Cold War. Indeed, at two separate times in postwar Asia, the Cold War turned hot. The first was the Korean War and the attempt by the recently established North Korean government, with help from the Soviet Union, to cross the 38th parallel and unify the Korean Peninsula by force. The second was the conflict in Vietnam and the long U.S. involvement there that began when French forces withdrew after failing to reestablish the colonial regime it created there prior to the Japanese occupation.

According to neorealist theory, the occurrence of these two wars in Asia was unexpected, and this was not just because neorealist scholars concluded that the bipolar international system of the Cold War would be more stable and less conflict prone than the period of international history that preceded it. At the time, international relations analysts were most concerned that, if World War III were to break out during the Cold War, it would do so in Europe. This is because it was on the border between East and West Europe that the armies of the Warsaw Pact and those of the nations of NATO faced each other. Consequently, international relations scholars observed that any military action that would violate the border between East and West Europe would be unacceptably destructive because it carried a high probability of superpower engagement, and, thus, the potential for a nuclear conflagration.

Despite the manifest differences between Cold War Europe and Asia, there are good reasons to conclude that interstate relations in Asia during the Cold War have not been as different as a perfunctory examination might suggest. Indeed, the same balance of power logic appeared to operate in Asia as in Europe which should have reduced to likelihood of conflict in the region. Indeed, like Europe, boundaries in the two countries that experienced Cold War conflicts, while not enthusiastically supported by the region’s powers, were clearly demarcated and sanctioned by the United Nations, and both sides of these boundaries were occupied by military forces that were supported visibly by the superpowers. In spite of such similarities, these borders in Asia were violated and destructive conflicts ensued, leading us to inquire not simply why these conflicts occurred but more importantly what we learn by answering such a question.

There is clearly more than one way to proceed here with no single approach being entirely correct. On the one hand, since these conflicts appear to violate the essential tenets of neorealist theory, one way to proceed is simply to abandon neorealism altogether in favor of some other theoretical perspective. Such an approach would rest on the notion that interstate relations in Asia are different enough that the assumptions and concepts of neorealism simply cannot subsume the patterns we witness there. A less extreme approach would be to take a second look at neorealist theory and determine if there is something missing in the theory itself, that is the way it was developed by scholars who focused on interstate relations in Europe, or if there have been problems in the way international relations theorists have imputed properties to the global international system from the changing dynamics of interstate relations in Europe.

I have chosen the latter course in the remainder of this essay and discuss three lessons we derive from the study of international relations in Asia. These lessons will help us build a more comprehensive theory of international relations that can then help lead the way to a more secure and peaceful world.

Lesson 1: Borders Separating Sovereign Nations vs. Divided Countries

My discussion of the Cold War conflicts that occurred in Korea and Vietnam begins with the fact that both were divided countries. The end of World War II in the Pacific left the Korean Peninsula divided into a Soviet- and Chinese-supported regime north of the 38th parallel in Pyongyang and a U.S.-dependent regime south of that line in Seoul. The Geneva Accords that ended the first Indochina War between the French and Vietnamese resulted in withdrawal of French forces but left a regime north of the 17th parallel that was supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and one in the south supported by the United States and its allies. These two within country borders were not universally supported, but they provided clear dividing lines between two hostile regimes that had military support from the Cold War’s two superpowers.

This description might suggest that this area was sufficiently like the East from West Europe in terms of borders, supporting the conclusion that it should possess the same level of stability. However, upon closer examination, we see that there were features of these lines of demarcation that rendered them very different from those in Europe. We know that borders are important, but we also know that not all borders share the same level of legitimacy and are, thus, contested. This is important because a border’s legitimacy is directly proportional to how strictly competing states are willing to adhere to them. With the exception of Germany and the City of Berlin, which were divided into zones of occupation, the interstate problem in Europe was not so much the East-West border but whether or not countries on the eastern side of the divide would be free to choose the political and economic models under which their respective citizens would live. In Korea and Vietnam, the issue was significantly different because the division was within the same country and not between what were formally sovereign nations. Thus, the conflicts that occurred were between members of the same population within the same nation state, the influence of outside powers notwithstanding.

This is important not simply because it has not been considered in sufficient detail in the neorealist discussion of stability in different international systems. Rather, it is more important because what we learn here is that the most dangerous situations we face in international relations today, those most prone to erupt into conflict, involve territorial boundaries, especially when territories are divided and involve competing claims of sovereignty. This was true of Korea and Vietnam, and it is also true for other areas in Asia and the rest of the world. For example, current island disputes in Asia, like those in the South China Sea, are illustrative as are the many land-based border disputes that currently exist in Asia. These include such conflict-prone areas as the disputed boundary in the Kashmir region which separates India from Pakistan. These are potential flash points are very prone to conflict regardless, and this is true whether the international system in multipolar, unipolar, or bipolar.

Lesson 2: The Power and Impact of Nation States as an Empirical Problem

The next lesson provides a both deeper understanding of why the two Cold War conflicts we are discussing here occurred in Asia as well as a reinforcement for approaching Asian international relations in a way that does not abandon neorealist international relations theory, its parochial derivation notwithstanding. This is because this second lesson reveals that, while neorealist theories may appear narrow and, thus, inadequate in the range of phenomena they cover, their problem may rest more with the fact that they have not been applied correctly. In the case of Asian international relations, the reference is to the assumptions neorealist scholars made about the congruence of regions throughout the international system in terms of the distribution of the capabilities of across nations and, thus, the structure of international relations in the world’s sub-regions. Specifically, neorealist scholars assumed that, throughout the Cold War period, bipolarity was a global phenomenon, which meant that Asia was just like Europe in terms of the number of great powers that defined interstate relations there at that time.

The truth is that the number of great powers that exists in a sub-region at any given time is an empirical problem and not simply an assumption that can be applied in blanket fashion without a thorough investigation of a region’s interstate dynamics. This is extremely important because whether a region’s international relations are defined by two or more great powers will have a profound impact on that region’s stability and potential for conflict. As stated above, neorealist theorists contended that a truly bipolar system is more stable than a multipolar system, but a system with three great powers possesses even more potential instability. Again, this is because, under a three-power system, two of these great powers can combine forces and essentially gang up on the third, elevating that power’s perceived threats and rendering it much more insecure.

We noted that conflicts that broke out in Cold War Asia can be partially explained by the fact that they occurred in divided countries where the boundaries separating the hostile camps had lower levels of legitimacy. This second lesson adds another layer of explanation and shows that Asia’s Cold War conflicts were even more likely because this region during the Cold War was not truly bipolar. Different sub-regions may have different numbers of consequent powers, and there is very good reason to conclude that international relations in Asia were defined by three consequent powers during the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China. While neo-realists did not make this point, there is good reason to argue that China was indeed a power of consequence in the region. The PRC was not, at the time, a true superpower like the Soviet Union and the United States, but it was nonetheless a power of consequence in East and Southeast Asia. It clearly had to potential to combine with the Soviet Union against the United States in a meaningful enough way to render the assumption of bipolarity untenable.

Evidence for this point is witnessed in the fact that China had a truly large and well-seasoned military that was terribly destructive when it intervened in the Korean conflict. Also, when you combine this with the fact that the Soviet Union was also influential in assisting the forces arrayed against the United States in Asia, it is quite easy to see why the U.S. responded with great force to the border transgressions that occurred. Indeed, despite the existence of arguments that the U.S. could have ignored these transgressions, it responded in a way that reflected it being threatened directly by the military actions of the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese.

In addition to this, the second lesson of Asia’s Cold War conflicts is that evaluating the capabilities and impacts of nations states in a region’s interstate relations is a process that must proceed empirically and not by assumption. This is important because it reminds us that when leaders are formulating policies to protect their nations’ interests, they must be sure that they take into consideration all nations of consequence, which may be a higher number of actors than a perfunctory assessment would suggest.

Lesson 3: The Necessity of U.S. Leadership

The final lesson we derive from studying international relations in Asia starts on the positive note that, while the two Cold War conflicts we discussed here occurred in Asia, the last four decades in this region have registered the highest levels of economic growth on the globe and witnessed more people moving out of poverty into prosperity than any other region in the world. Certainly, one reason for this is the fact that major conflicts have been avoided in the last four decades, allowing the region to enjoy the benefits that peace and stability provide for economic development. However, given that there are territorial disputes in the region and that interstate relations are defined both superpowers and other nation states that qualify as powers of consequence, the potential for instability remains which can threatened all the economic progress that has been made.

To ensure that peace and stability are not threatened by current problems and endure in this region, the cooperation of all regional powers is essential, and this can be assured only with the leadership of the region’s great powers. The United States has already signaled that it is on a path to provide that leadership as, in 2011, the Obama Administration announced that the direction of American foreign policy would change and become more focused on Asia. This reorientation of U.S. foreign policy is generally welcome because U.S. commitments in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and elsewhere rendered its leadership level in Asia less than what is necessary to deal adequately with the challenges it faces there. Indeed, such ongoing problems as the numerous territorial and boundary disputes that exist across the region, both land-based and maritime, as well as the unpredictability associated with North Korea require constant U.S. engagement. This becomes especially important in light of the fact that the economic and military rise of China represent a notable power transition in the region, a development that carries potentially destabilizing implications.

The foundation of peace and security in Asia throughout the postwar period has been the system of individual treaties that the United States developed with Korea and Japan. These alliances remain intact and will be well served by the U.S.’s recent pivot to Asia. In spite of this, the power transition that is occurring in the region, although being managed by China in peaceful ways thus far, will nonetheless negatively affect the U.S.’s ability to coordinate its efforts with South Korea and Japan, threatening the alliance system on which postwar peace has rested. In light of this, constant U.S. engagement is necessary to ensure that these alliances remain healthy and effective. In addition to this, peace and stability in the region will also require that the United States engagement involves dealing with all the region’s consequent powers. Only with this level of contact can the United States help manage extant territorial disputes so that whatever settlements are rendered are legitimate and supported by all affected parties.



Last modified: July 7, 2023