602 Democratization

Discuss the varying perspectives on democratization given in your readings.

Lesson Overview

This is the first of two weeks we will spend on inter-state conflict.


From the beginnings of our current state system through the 20th century the most constant threat to global security was inter-state warfare. It was a threat not only because of death from violence on the battlefield but also because of the other consequences like famine and spread of disease.

In studying conflict and security, there have been numerous explanations offered for the outbreak of war. In The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, Thucydides (460-400 B.C.E.) provides a history of the 27-year war in which Sparta and its allies brought down the Athenian Empire. From Thucydides’ perspective, it was a struggle for power that led to the war. As he writes, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear it caused in Sparta” (Thucydides, trans. Rex Warner 1972). To this day, military students still read Thucydides’ book because of the universal truths about alliance systems, balance of power, and the issue of insecurity. During the Cold War, the same issues were present in the Soviet-American relationship. Rather than engage in war, the two states entered into an arms race and engaged in proxy wars. The reason for this was the accepted consequences of warfare in the nuclear age.
From various academic disciplines, there have been different explanations for war. As you learned in your core courses, scholars will privilege different levels of analysis. Some may focus on the system level, others on the state level or even the individual level. For example, some of the major causes of war that have been studied in the literature include the following:
Resource Scarcity
Structural Violence
Ethnic or Religious Schisms
Psychological Factors
Power Transitions

As we saw last week, the security dilemma is really an unintended consequence of a state’s efforts to increase its own security (Tang 2009). It starts from the realist assumption that states seek to increase their own power and security in an anarchic international system. Seeking to increase its own security, State A might take certain measures, such as an arms build-up or the formation of an alliance with another powerful or influential state, that have the effect of making other states feel less secure. State B, in turn, might respond in a similar manner (perhaps increasing its own military strength). The result is that tensions increase between State A and State B, and can potentially lead to conflict, despite the fact that neither state wants it.

It is clear that the security dilemma stems from misperceptions that arise from the desire of states to increase their own security (Tang 2009). In what follows, we will briefly examine Robert Jervis’ original conception of the security dilemma, and how it can ultimately make the involved states less secure.

The balance of power, one of the oldest concepts in international relations, is all about checks and balances at the international level. The theory has many different variants, but the main idea is that when there is an imbalance of military or material power among the great powers of the world, they will work to check those imbalances in order to restore a type of equilibrium to the system (Waltz 1979). Ultimately, balancing the power of other states ensures the survival of the major powers. According to the logic of the theory, states enhance their own national security when the international power balance is in equilibrium – that is, no single state is strong enough to be the single dominant state in the international system.

Now, let’s say that State A gains power and starts to become the dominant state. The balance of power theory predicts that this state will use its power to attack weaker states in the system. This situation – one of a dominant power – creates incentives for less powerful states to try to balance the power of the dominant state.

There are several ways that great powers can engage in balancing. One mechanism is to build up domestic military capabilities by converting economic wealth to military might. Kenneth Waltz contends that this is most likely to happen when the international system is bipolar; that is, when there are two great powers of roughly equal capabilities, as was the case during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Another option is for states to band together to form alliances that counter-balance the dominant power(s). Such counter-balancing alliances are most likely to appear in a multipolar international system (when there are three or more states of roughly equal power). Buck-passing is another balancing mechanism in which states “pass the buck” of balancing to another state. Under such conditions when power is balanced, the theory predicts that war becomes less likely due to the power equilibrium that ensues (Waltz 1979).

In contrast to balancing, some international relations theorists have maintained that less powerful states are actually more likely to “bandwagon,” or join with the dominant state(s), rather that attempt to balance its power.

Another realist explanation for conflict derives from power transition theory. Developed by A. F. K. Organski in the 1950s, power transition theory views states as situated in an organized international hierarchy, not in a state of anarchy as traditional realist theories propose. It also rejects balance-of-power theory’s assumption that the objective of states is to maximize power, arguing instead that their objective is to maximize net gains (Organski 1968).
In this hierarchically organized system, a dominant state, which possesses the most power resources, sits at the top. (Power transition theory conceives of “power resources” as population, productivity, and political capacity.) We can think of the dominant state as a superpower or a hegemon. Today, that dominant state would be the United States.
Directly underneath the dominant state sit the great powers. The great powers – although powerful states themselves – cannot match the power resources of the dominant state. A potential “challenger” state can be found among this group, as the great powers are potential rivals to the dominant state. At the same time, however, they help the dominant state maintain and manage affairs in the international system.
Next in the hierarchy are the middle powers. These middle powers hold important places regionally, but cannot pose a significant challenge to the dominant state, and, what’s more, are not powerful enough to alter the structure of the hierarchical system.
The small powers sit at the bottom of the international hierarchy. These are the remaining states that do not fit into the above categories; they have little power in their region, and virtually no influence outside of their region.
States can form alliances within the system, and when the states that take part in alliances are satisfied with the existing system, it can be said to be relatively stable. However, power transition theory predicts that wars of the greatest magnitude will occur under a very specific circumstance: when a challenger state arises and becomes roughly equal in power to the dominant state (i.e., it reaches parity with the dominant state), and that challenger is dissatisfied with the existing system’s structure (Organski 1968). This is the most dangerous scenario in the international system – the greatest risk of major war is when the challenger and the dominant state are roughly equal in power. In this case, a hegemonic war would ensue. The outcome of such a war would be a restructuring of the international system; a new hierarchy emerges with a new dominant state. Before the dissatisfied challenger state reaches parity with the dominant state, however, it has little capability to do anything to change the status quo.
In comparing power transition theory to balance of power theory, it is important to note how the two differ. For one, balance of power theory stipulates that peace will ensue when there are two states which are roughly equal in power. By contrast, power transition theory views this power parity as highly conducive to war, as power transitions between the challenger and dominant state. A second important difference lies in how states can attain more power. Whereas balance of power theory posits that a state can increase its own power mainly by forming alliances with other states, power transition theory asserts that a state can increase its power through other means, specifically via domestic economic, population, and political capacity factors (power resources).


The field of international relations centers on the study of war. However, rivalry scholars argue that we can learn much about both war and conflict resolution by studying rivalries. We can think of rivalries as militarized competition between the same two states over a period of time. Leaders of each state view the other as threatening.

Rivalry scholars, such as Gary Goertz, Paul Diehl, William Thompson, and Michael Colaresi, shift the analytical focus from war to rivalry. Rivalries are worth studying because most wars do not suddenly occur between two states. Generally, war is a result of a strained relationship between states that have had serious conflicts in the past. However, not all rivalries are the same. The literature identifies several different types and ways to conceptualize rivalry, including the following:

Enduring Rivalries Between a Dyad

Here, a pair of states (i.e., dyad) engages in a certain number of militarized international disputes over a specific period of time.

One of the main features of an enduring rivalry between two states is its stability. However, rivalry scholars think of stability in a different way compared to balance of power theorists. Balance of power theories think of stability in terms of the absence of war. In contrast, rivalry scholars view instability in the form of shocks to the international system (such as major wars or regime changes), which, they argue, can trigger an end to an enduring rivalry. Thus, they associate instability with conflict termination and, ultimately, the onset of peace. Goertz and Diehl have identified 115 enduring rivalries in the period from 1816-2001.


In this case, the dyad does not meet the criteria for an enduring rivalry, but they have still engaged in a few international militarized disputes. Isolated rivalries tend to be short-lived, with perhaps one or two disputes over a relatively long time period (for example, twenty years).


This is typically viewed as an intermediate category somewhere between an isolated and enduring rivalry. Proto-rivals may engage in an intermediate number of militarized international disputes over a specific period of time. Goertz and Diehl have identified 175 proto-rivalries from 1816-2001.


Developed by William Thompson, Karen Rasler, and others, this represents another way of defining a rivalry, as opposed to the enduring rivalries studied by Goertz and Diehl. There are certain criteria that define a strategic rivalry: the dyad must perceive each other as (1) competitors, (2) the potential originator of threats with the capability of becoming militarized, and (3) enemies. Unlike the criteria for defining an enduring rivalry, there is no requirement that a strategic rivalry be defined by the number of international militarized disputes that have taken place over a period of time, nor do the dyads in a strategic rivalry need to be roughly equal in military power. Michael Colaresi, Karen Rasler, and William Thompson have identified 173 strategic rivalries during the period from 1816 to 1999.

Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Regime

During the Cold War, the escalation of nuclear arms race in U.S. Soviet relations pressed the world toward the edge of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. At the same time, the possession of and protection by nuclear weapons also remained a fundamental basis for international order. The so-called nuclear umbrella was perceived as a principal factor for a long period of relative stability within the international system. Even after the end of the Cold War, the continuing reliance on nuclear weapons by the existing nuclear armed states and the pursuit of nuclear capabilities by non-nuclear states are major security trends in world politics.

Since the completion of negotiations toward the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968, five states, including the US, the Soviets/Russia, Britain, France, and China have been known as nuclear armed powers. Additionally, there has also been a trend to prevent other states from developing nuclear weapons, and at the same time, to restrain nuclear build-up among the existing nuclear powers. The NPT has dual objectives to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote nuclear disarmament.

A number of states have shown interests in nuclear capabilities. After 1968, four states, such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea participated in the nuclear club. Other states, including Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain decided not to pursue a nuclear weapons program despite their technological capabilities. Still other states, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Yugoslavia, possessed nuclear weapons programs however, decided to abandon them during the Cold War. Libya, a major suspect of initiating a nuclear weapons programs toward the end of the Cold War, terminated its program in 2003. Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons.

Analysts in Security Studies have been discussing whether the NPT system have been relatively effective in restraining nuclear proliferation and promoting nuclear disarmament. Security experts also argue that the continuing reliance on nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence has become increasingly risky and less effective. Although nuclear weapons are not prohibited by international law, taboo against their use has also become strong in world politics because of their catastrophic destructiveness. In his April 2009 address in Prague, US President Barack H Obama called for a reduction in warheads and stockpiles, a global ban on nuclear testing, and a new treaty that ends the production of fissile materials. Moreover, he urged the international community to strengthen the treaty of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons as a fundamental basis for global cooperation and prevent violent extremist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, President Obama cautioned that the vision of pursuing a world without nuclear weapons would be unlikely in the foreseeable future.

There have been three major challenges toward international institutions for disarmament and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. First, there is a continuing challenge from sovereign states within the existing international institutional framework. It is a vertical proliferation, namely the continuing qualitative and quantitative developments in nuclear weapons among nuclear-armed powers. Second, there are some challenges from states which are outside of international institutions. Third, there is a growing challenge from nonstate actors, including violent extremist groups. This challenge reflects the risk of spreading nuclear technologies from sovereign states to non-state actors as well as the danger of nuclear information sharing among non-stare actors. In response to these challenges, different approaches have been suggested: 1) to re-strengthen the traditional multilateral institutional approach centered in treaty-based international regimes; 2) to formulate non-treaty-based multilateral approaches within the UN; 3) to pursue non-institutional approaches toward immediate problems of proliferation.

The NPT has contributed to setting norms and principles in international institutions, however, it is still relatively limited on enforcement. For example, the NPT admits member states for exercising the right to withdraw under Article X, which provides each signatory the “right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events… have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. Article VI also calls on member states to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Despite these limitations, the NPT as a major example of treaty-based institutions fulfill its indefinite extension in 1995.

In the post-Cold War era, there were a series of non-treaty-based multilateral approaches, including some nuclear-related declarations and resolutions at the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council. Critics argue that UN declarations and resolutions are mere attempts to prolong the NPT system. Supporters of non-treaty multilateral approaches maintain that UN attempts are crucial steps to narrow the existing gap between nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament. UN declarations and resolutions have also made it clear the growing threat from nonstate actors which are seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Individual states as well as a group of states have taken non-institutional and non-conventional approach to stress the growing challenges nuclear nonproliferation. Ad hoc arrangements could be relatively limited in developing international norms and principles. Because of the remaining inabilities of formal international regimes to address many challenges of nuclear proliferation, however, ad hoc initiatives may play a certain role in raising global awareness of nuclear-related problems in world politics.

Among major international relations theories, there are diverse perspectives regarding possible initiatives toward nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Liberal institutionalists would seek to strengthen multilateral treaty-based institutions in order to widely address nonproliferation initiatives rather than to select ad hoc and military policy options to handle proliferation problems. Realists would pursue unilateral and ad hoc non-treaty-based approaches to focus on military security implications of nuclear proliferation challenges. Constructivists would stress the importance of promoting non-nuclear norms and cultures that would gradually alter the existing social perceptions of the centrality of nuclear deterrents in international security in the long-term. Constructivists would thus advocate strengthening global nonproliferation institutions by de-linking nuclear weapons and international order.


Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists


The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Non-Proliferation


Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of A Bomb,” International Security, 21(3), (1996/97), pp.54-86.

Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, second edition (New York: WW Norton, 2003).

United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)


The Woodrow Wilson Center, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project


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