Revolution and War
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Revolution and War

Stephen M. Walt

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eBook - ePub

Revolution and War

Stephen M. Walt

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About This Book

Revolution within a state almost invariably leads to intense security competition between states, and often to war. In Revolution and War, Stephen M. Walt explains why this is so, and suggests how the risk of conflicts brought on by domestic upheaval might be reduced in the future. In doing so, he explores one of the basic questions of international relations: What are the connections between domestic politics and foreign policy?Walt begins by exposing the flaws in existing theories about the relationship between revolution and war. Drawing on the theoretical literature about revolution and the realist perspective on international politics, he argues that revolutions cause wars by altering the balance of threats between a revolutionary state and its rivals. Each state sees the other as both a looming danger and a vulnerable adversary, making war seem both necessary and attractive.Walt traces the dynamics of this argument through detailed studies of the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions, and through briefer treatment of the American, Mexican, Turkish, and Chinese cases. He also considers the experience of the Soviet Union, whose revolutionary transformation led to conflict within the former Soviet empire but not with the outside world. An important refinement of realist approaches to international politics, this book unites the study of revolution with scholarship on the causes of war.

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Like professional revolutionaries, social scientists seldom clearly understand quite what they are doing. But, again like professional revolutionaries, they do sometimes attain a relatively clear grasp of the implications of what they have already done; and sometimes at least, this constitutes a marked improvement on the achievements of their immediate predecessors.
—John Dunn
In this book I examine the international impact of revolutionary change, focusing primarily on the relationship between revolution and war. My chief objective is to explain why revolutions increase the intensity of security competition between states and thereby create a high probability of war. Because war does not occur in every case, my second objective is to clarify why certain revolutions lead to all-out war while others stop at the brink.
Although major revolutions are relatively rare, this subject is worth studying for at least two reasons. First, revolutions are more than just critical events in the history of individual nations; they are usually watershed events in international politics. Revolutions cause sudden shifts in the balance of power, alter the pattern of international alignments, cast doubt on existing agreements and diplomatic norms, and provide inviting opportunities for other states to improve their positions. They also demonstrate that novel ways of organizing social and political life are possible and often inspire sympathizers in other countries. Thus, although revolutions by definition occur within a single country, their impact is rarely confined to one state alone.1
Indeed, revolutions usually disrupt the international system in important ways. According to one quantitative study, for example, states that undergo a “revolutionary” regime change are nearly twice as likely to be involved in war as are states that emerge from an “evolutionary” political process.2 And as the cases presented in this volume will show, revolutions invariably trigger intense policy debates in other countries. These disputes, typically divided between advocates of accommodation and advocates of intervention against the new regime, are strikingly similar, whether it is the European response to the French or Bolshevik revolutions or the U.S. reaction to the revolutions in Mexico, Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, or Iran. Yet despite the obvious relevance of this problem for policy makers, little effort has been made to assemble hypotheses and evidence that might resolve (or at least advance) the debate.
The need for a more informed debate is also apparent from the poor track record of U.S. policy in this area. Fear of revolution played a major role in shaping U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War, but U.S. responses to revolutionary change during this period were rarely very successful.3 Although the United States occasionally made modest efforts to reach a modus vivendi with new revolutionary governments (generally in the latter stages of the revolutionary process), it usually regarded these groups with suspicion, if not outright hostility, having sought to prevent them from gaining power in the first place and still hoping to remove them from power after they obtained it. Not surprisingly, U.S. relations with most revolutionary regimes have been quite poor.4 Hard-liners blame these failures on ill-advised efforts at appeasement, while moderates attribute the problem primarily to exaggerated U.S. hostility. Although U.S. policy makers did achieve their objectives in a few cases (such as the overthrow of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada in 1983), it is hard to view U.S. policy as a success story.5
The foreign policies of most revolutionary states have been equally unsuccessful. Many of these regimes were suspicious of the West in general and the United States in particular, but most sought to avoid an immediate military confrontation. Often, however, they were unable to do so, suggesting that policy makers on both sides did not fully understand the problems they would encounter when dealing with each other, which in turn points to the need for more informed policy guidance. Providing that guidance is a major goal of this book.
In addition to these practical benefits, examining the international consequences of revolutions should yield important theoretical insights as well. In particular, exploring the connection between revolution and war can illuminate both the strengths and weaknesses of realism and help us identify which strands of realism are most useful.6 For example, the “neorealist” version of realism developed by Kenneth Waltz focuses on the constraining effects of the international system (defined in terms of the distribution of power) and downplays the impact of domestic politics, ideology, and other unit-level factors.7 Revolutions are a distinctly unit-level phenomenon, however. The obvious question is whether the constraining effects of anarchy will be more powerful than the unit-level forces unleashed by a revolutionary upheaval. For neorealists, the answer is straightforward: because international politics is regarded as a realm in which security takes precedence over other goals, Waltz predicts that revolutionary states will moderate their radical ambitions in order to avoid being isolated or punished by the self-interested actions of others. In other words, they will be “socialized” by the system.8
Neorealism also implies that revolutions will affect a state’s foreign policy primarily through their influence on the balance of power. When a revolution occurs, both the new regime and the other major powers are forced to recalculate the available possibilities and adjust their foreign policies to take account of these shifts. By altering the distribution of power in the system, a revolution can yield far-reaching effects on the conduct of the new regime and the behavior of other states.
As we shall see, neorealism provides a useful “first cut” at understanding how revolutions affect international politics. Like any theory, however, it also leaves important gaps. To explain the link between revolution and war, for example, one could argue that increased power would make a revolutionary state more aggressive, while declining power would tempt others to exploit its vulnerability. But the opposite logic is equally persuasive: increased power might enhance the new regime’s security and obviate the need to expand, while declining power would reduce the threat that others face and thus their inclination to use force. By itself, therefore, a shift in the balance of power cannot explain decisions for war.9
In addition, although it correctly emphasizes that security is the highest aim of states, neorealism does not tell us how a specific state will choose to pursue this goal. As a result, it offers limited practical guidance to leaders who must grapple with a revolutionary upheaval. The knowledge that revolutionary states will eventually moderate their conduct may be comforting, but it is of little value for those who are forced to deal with the new regime’s ambitions in the here and now. Will other states be better off by isolating the new regime, befriending it, or overthrowing it? Will a revolutionary state be more secure if it tempers its revolutionary objectives so as not to provoke opposition from others or if it tries to sponsor revolutions elsewhere as a means of undermining potential enemies and creating new allies?
We can answer these puzzles by recognizing that revolutions affect more than just the aggregate distribution of power. They also alter perceptions of intent and beliefs about the relative strength of offense and defense. Beliefs about the intentions of other states and their specific capacity to do harm will exert a powerful influence on the foreign policy of the revolutionary state, and the responses of other states will be similarly affected by their perceptions of the new regime. To understand the international consequences of revolutions, in short, we must move beyond the relatively spare world of neorealist theory and incorporate unit-level factors as well.
Finally, examining the foreign policies of revolutionary states may also shed some light on the merits of critical theory as an approach to international politics. Despite the important differences among critical theorists, they all emphasize the role of language and social processes in shaping actors’ goals, purposes, and self-understandings, and they focus on how discourse, norms, and identities affect the behavior of actors within a social setting.10 Revolution should be an especially interesting phenomenon from this perspective, because state identities are rapidly and radically transformed by such events. If actors’ identities and purposes are powerful determinants of behavior, then the ideas and values embodied in a revolution should have an especially strong influence on the behavior of the new regime. Thus, where neorealism predicts continuity (within a certain range), critical theory predicts dramatic and enduring change (despite the presence of external constraints). In broad terms, studying revolutions may help us assess the relative merits of these two perspectives as well.
The central question that informs my work here is whether revolutions encourage states to view the external environment in ways that intensify their security competition and make war appear to be a more attractive option. In the pages that follow, I argue that this is precisely what they do. First, revolutions usually exert dramatic effects on a state’s overall capabilities, especially its ability to fight. Even if the revolutionary state is not regarded as dangerous, foreign states may still be tempted to intervene to improve their own positions or to prevent other powers from doing the same thing. As neorealism suggests, therefore, revolutions foster conflict by creating seemingly inviting windows of opportunity.
Second, revolutions often bring to power movements that are strongly opposed to the policies of the old regime, and whose motivating ideologies portray their opponents in harsh and uncompromising terms. As a result, revolutions create severe conflicts of interest between the new regime and other powers, especially the allies of the old regime. In addition, new regimes are prone to exaggerate the degree to which others are hostile. Other states will usually react negatively, thereby creating an atmosphere of intense suspicion and increased insecurity.
Third, in some cases, the possibility of the revolution spreading may scare other states even more while making the new regime overly optimistic. At the same time, the chaos and confusion that are an inevitable part of the revolutionary process may encourage other states to assume that the new state can be defeated easily, which will make them more willing to use force against it. The belief that the revolution will be both easy to export and easy to overthrow creates an especially intense security dilemma and increases the danger of war.
These problems are all compounded by the enormous uncertainty that accompanies a revolution. Measuring the balance of power is more difficult after a revolution (especially if the new regime is based on novel principles), so the danger of miscalculation rises. Estimating intentions is harder as well, with both sides prone to rely on ideology in order to predict how others will behave. Revolutions also disrupt the normal channels of communication and evaluation between states at precisely the time when accurate information is most needed, further increasing the chances of a spiral of suspicion.
In short, revolutions exert far-reaching effects on states’ estimates of the threats they face, and they encourage both the revolutionary state and the onlookers to view the use of force as an effective way to deal with the problem. Each side will see the other as a threat, but neither can estimate the real danger accurately. For all of these reasons, revolutions exacerbate the security competition between states and increase the likelihood of war.
This argument does not imply either that revolutions are a unique cause of security competition and war or that none of the dynamics that drive revolutionary states toward war apply to nonrevolutionary states as well. Indeed, several of the causal links outlined in the next chapter are drawn from more general propositions in international relations theory. Rather, I argue that revolutions are a powerful proximate cause of these familiar phenomena and that they are especially destabilizing because they tend to trigger several causes of conflict simultaneously. As a result, competition and war are particularly likely in the aftermath of a revolutionary upheaval.


Despite its practical importance and theoretical potential, the topic of the relationship between revolution and international politics is surprisingly under-studied. Although the literature on revolution is enormous, virtually all of it focuses either on the causes of revolution or on the domestic consequences of revolutionary change.11 There...

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