A political history of the world

Three Thousand Years of War and Peace

Penguin, 2020.

In three thousand years of history, China has spent at least eleven centuries at war. The Roman Empire was in conflict during at least 50 per cent of its lifetime. Since 1776, the United States has spent over one hundred years at war. The dream of peace has been universal in the history of humanity. So why have we so rarely been able to achieve it? A Political History of the World is a sweeping history of the world, from the Iron Age to the present, that investigates the causes of conflict between empires, nations and peoples and the attempts at diplomacy and cosmopolitanism. 



A birds-eye view of three thousand years of history, the book illuminates the forces shaping world politics from Ancient Egypt to the Han Dynasty, the Pax Romana to the rise of Islam, the Peace of Westphalia to the creation of the United Nations. This approach enables to search for patterns across different eras and regions. Has trade fostered peace? What are the limits of diplomacy? How does environmental change affect stability? At a time when the threat of nuclear war looms again, this is a much-needed history intended for students of international politics, and anyone looking for a background on current events.

‘A precious lesson for the leaders of tomorrow.’ Andrea Fioravanti in Linkiesta.


 ‘Holslag’s explanations are so convincing that they leave little room for optimism and romance… The pieces of the puzzle come together to create a flawless mosaic.” Parallaxi


‘Monumental.’ Danilo De Biasio in Joi Mag.


‘With a clear and informative style, which never ends in banality, Holslag tells the reasons for the almost ancestral call of man to make war on his fellow men.’ Rick Reynolds in Globalist.


‘Een rijke politieke geschiedenis gebundeld tot een behapbaar geheel.’ Andrys Wierstra in Jonge Historici.


Een heerlijk pessimistisch boek, waarin vooruitgang niet alleen maar een opgaande lijn is, maar vaak zijn eigen prijs heeft.’ Adie Schulte, Boekenstrijd.


‘Vrede en oorlog is een eerlijk en misschien daardoor ook een pessimistisch boek.’ Paul van Aelst, Humanistisch verbond.


Schijnbaar moeiteloos vertelt hij over de opkomst en de teloorgang van Egyptenaren, Assyriërs, Macedoniërs, Romeinen, Mongolen, talrijke Chinese dynastieën en het imperialistische Europa. Hierbij wisselt hij de grote lijn regelmatig af met treffende details.’ Rob Hartmans, Historisch Nieuwsblad.


‘In een tijd waarin multipolariteit, protectionisme, nationalisme en terrorisme reële dreigingen zijn, biedt dit boek de broodnodige context voor iedereen die nadenkt over internationale betrekkingen en politiek. Resumerend is sprake van een zeer toegankelijk geschreven boek met veel informatie, dat het ook als naslagwerk nuttig maakt.’ Ko Colijn, Internationale Spectator.


‘Holslags ontnuchterende, actuele en tot nadenken stemmende boek illustreert eens te meer dat periodes van stabiliteit vaak fragiel en precair zijn.’ Mark Barrois in Historiek.


‘A sound analysis of the causes and consequences of war.’ El Periodico.


‘Realmente universel.’ Julian Elliot in Historia Y vida.


‘A global and multifaceted vision.’ JN Historia in José Manuel Garcia.


‘Thorough.’ Il Sole 24 ore, Emillio Gentile.


‘A remarkable book.’ Metahistoria.


‘The most precise didactics, for those who want to understand, are guaranteed.’ Ricardo Martinez in Todo Literatura.


‘Jonathan Holslag synthesizes the most important political events in history and provides interesting reflections on them.’ Antonio Miguel Jiménez in El Debate De Hoy.


‘Review Tight and rich in information, it captures thousands of years of stories, reliably traces the labyrinth of events and with a detached look evaluates what is happening. Of particular interest is the fact that, unlike most books that summarize world history in their pages and “see” mainly the West as the privileged field of historical narrative, Holslag’s work focuses on and captures in great detail the developments in Asia.’ Diastixo.


‘Extremely useful for those who aspire to study, cover or shape world politics, such as politicians, diplomats, the military, professors or journalists.’  Catherine Merridale, University of London.


‘Absolutely necessary to understand the background of modern developments.’ Le Courrier Diplomatique.


‘Enjoyable to read, Holslag’s study has the power to monitor the center of power and its movement, each time from East to West and back again.’ Spyros Kakouriotis.


‘This one by Jonathan Holslag fascinatingly defied my expectations – rather than a chronicle of political thought, per se, Holslag details the de facto relations between classes in major epochs of human history, while searching for patterns in our meta-narrative.’ The Bash



 Excerpt: Horror as a friend (conclusion).


The dream of peace has been eternal and universal. Throughout history and across the globe, farmers have hoped to stock their harvest unharmed, the trader to arrive safely in the next city, and the king to go into the annals as a just ruler. Peace means tranquility, the absence of the torment of war, its killings, its mutilation, its destruction, its rape, and its torture. To be sure, war has also been celebrated, and some people still do today. The dark side, Abraham Lincoln called it. Yet, once war becomes reality, the jingoism makes place for despair: even among the young men who were ready to pick up arms. Witnessing comrades being mutilated and not seeing the end of it, leave alone its purpose, not being able to protect the family at home, is probably one of the greatest agonies a man can suffer. “You must make a friend of horror,” Colonel Kurtz put it in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.


I found this sentiment expressed most clearly in the diaries of the Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels, a war enthusiast turned sceptic. “I have enough of it. I am not interested in how it ends, but it must end. I start doubting what England and France promised us so confidently, do not expect anything from Russia, and do no longer trust the grandstanding, which today just seems silly deceit. The newspapers have lied to us, written things that look scandalous in hindsight. What we get to read today is so censored, nonsense, aphonic, insipid, vague, and idiot that one desperately tends to drop everything. There should have been a law for war, which limits its duration, so that we, soldiers, after each day of suffering, could at least see its end coming nearer. Just think how they told us that this war would be over in a few weeks…”


What Streuvels committed to paper is not much different from the ancient war poems from China or the tragedies from Greece quoted in this book. When wars ended, exhausted societies usually rallied behind emperors that promised an era of tranquillity and cheered at the delegates of peace conferences. Peace is celebrated the most by men and women after they lost it. Yet, still, wars broke out again and again. “The world is like a chariot run wild,” a Roman writer concluded. History remains just the one damn thing after the other, were the famous words attributed to the historian Arnold Toynbee. But, one might riposte, does this not give us a false impression: to highlight wars and instead of the periods of peace? This is a question worth asking. Let us take China: out of three thousand years of history, it was eleven centuries at war. The Roman Empire was at war during fifty per cent of its lifetime. Since 1766, the United States were over one hundred years at war.  (add table)


Even the so called golden ages, the periods of tranquillity, or the periods of peace were not so benevolent at all. Internal peace often coincided with crippling social conflicts, with slavery, with shocking inequality, tensions between the destitute masses and decadent elites. Imperial peace is primarily consumed by a small circle of privileged people. It consists of a gilded centre, a gated community of magnates and senior political leaders, followed by a sphere of palaces and villas of the middle class of the capital and its rural hinterland, a huge mass of poor citizens often mixed with slaves, and finally all the subjugated people in the periphery. This means that force is needed to subdue rebellion, or to pacify the border, as it was said in China. Garrisons and warships have to be deployed in the periphery to guarantee the supply of slaves, gold, food, resources, or horses. Imperial peace means exploitation. Exploitation inevitably brings hatred, resistance, and conflict. Peace inside is often only possible because wars are waged on the border, to subdue rivals and to control migration, wars for which families still had to sacrifice their sons, wars that demanded high taxes, and wars that always loomed as an ominous cloud, however remote they were.


The moral high ground


One of the findings of this book is that war is a universal sin. Time and again, great powers have promised that their rise would be benevolent, that they would refrain from aggression, and that they stood for a new just order. Time and again, however, this promise of exceptionalism ended in disappointment. Does China’s history testify of a more benign strategic culture, based the Confucian principle of harmony, as its leaders suggest today? Has it steered clear of colonialism? Has the West been more aggressive than China, India, and Africa? This book showed that this is not the case. True, the West was better and more successful in waging war, in colonizing others, and exploiting the world’s richness. True, the West was also the first to pursue this on a global scale. But there is ample of evidence that all other major powers were as brutish. China might have fought less overseas, but Zheng He did use power against what were called “insignificant worms”, and the largest part of the territory of today’s China was colonized in one way or another in the past. China’s colonization was predominately continental but therefore not less savage. The same was true for other civilizations. Before the Europeans arrived, Asian, American, and African natives fought ceaselessly, enslaved each other, and created colonies. There is no moral high ground in history.


This book suggests even that the quest for the moral high ground has been an important excuse to wage war. Time and again, powers have armed, mobilized, and fought while making the case that they were not treated justly or that their world order was not fair. We have seen how the treaty of Kadesh between the Hittites and Egypt led to new tensions, how the Gauls ended several decades of peace because they felt disrespected by the Romans, how the Mongols ended their peace with the Chinese Emperor because they claimed it to be based on an unequal treaty, how the Sasanians fought the Romans for injustice done to Armenia, how the Safavids started war against the East Roman Empire by declaring it a war against tyranny, how the Abbasids attacked the Umayyads because they were told to be brutish, and how Hitler had rallied the Germans against the chastening peace of Versailles. In the sixteenth century, Holland wanted an alternative for a world divided by Spain and Portugal, effectively ending their primacy. The United States wanted a world order less dominated by the European powers. Imperial Japan stated to be building a new regional order, liberated from European interference. It was called a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Soviet Union wanted a new economic order, less controlled by the West, and so does China today in its quest to undo the damage of its so-called century of humiliation. Humiliation and anger at alleged power abuse have been popular justifications of war and for rising powers to attack the incumbent power. The more a power criticizes the belligerence of the other, the more there is reason for concern.


The fight against oppression has been one common way to claim the moral high ground. Another pretext was civilization: the use of force against backward people. All successful powers have considered themselves to be the center of the world, the middle kingdom, the cradle of liberty, or the fountainhead of progress. Those living elsewhere, were barbarians that had to be subdued or unfree people that had to be liberated. This was the conviction of all major empires in Europe, in the Middle East, in South Asia, in China, and so forth. Fighting infidels also did well as an alibi for war. The Greek said to be fighting a holy war against the Persians. The Roman fetiales proclaimed holy wars after consulting the Gods. Chinese emperors fought with a mandate of heaven. The Srivijayan Kings explained their wars of conquest to be the defense of Buddhism. The caliphs mobilized to spread the true faith in the the dar al-harb, as much as European lords campaigned in the service of Christ. Even the Mongols stated to be waging a sacred war against China. But what was to be the true faith? That question led Orthodox Christians to fight Catholic Christians, Catholic Christians to fight Protestants, Shia Muslims to fight Sunni Muslims, not to speak of the numerous conflicts between branches of Hinduism and Buddhism. If most religions and their holy books called for peace, they equally provided the arguments for war.


The same is true for law and justice. How many times in this book did we not see powers end the peace while they claimed to be protecting it, to violate conventions while they said to be defending them. In all eras, polities organized conventions to limit the use of force. After the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, states convened numerous diplomatic conferences, but they did not end the wars, exactly because the peace advanced by those conferences was either seen as an instrument of the strong or as a means of lesser power to check the dominant kingdoms. Louis XIV campaigned against Spain because the latter allegedly sinned against the Peace of Westphalia, one of Europe’s first large diplomatic conferences. Russia intervened in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe with the excuse of upholding the Peace of Vienna of 1815. In 2003, the United States attacked Iraq with its Secretary of State desperately trying to rationalize it as a measure against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Truces, treaties, and eternal peace pacts were sealed with the most expensive oaths, with horrific curses, and the exchange of sons and daughters as hostages. And yet, none of them lasted. There were always some ambiguities that allowed the one side to blame the other for being the violator, for transgressing the border, for violating a sphere of influence, and for building a fortress too close to another.


The quest for the moral high ground also frequently took the form of two powers blaming each other for being the aggressor. But who which of the two was on the defense and who was on the offense? To be sure, there have been unmistakable wars of aggressions, but the situation was not always that clear. Take the conflict between Egypt and the Hittites in the Levant. Who was the aggressor? Even in hindsight, it is hard to judge. Or take the Punic Wars: as much as Rome had reasons to be worried about the designs of Carthage in Sicily, Carthage had enough reasons to consider Rome a threat to its interests. France, for example, time and again found that it needed natural borders to be secure: The Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. Was that so strange with powerful rivals like the Habsburgs lurking on its fringes? In Asia, the lack of clarity about borders led Chinese rulers to clash numerous times about the plains in the northeast, with the nomads as well as with the Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo. The absence of clear maritime borders caused conflict between England and the United Provinces, both legal and military. Who was the right claimant? Who was defending and who the aggressor? It is hard to say. Was America’s Monroe Doctrine an act of offense, an attempt to delimit a sphere of influence or was it an understandable effort to defend itself against European empires?


Then there were those wars waged by major powers because they were called on by lesser powers. Many invasions happened by invitation, by consent. Russia’s recent military interference in Syria is a good recent example. It had the approval of the Syrian government to fight terrorists on its territory. In the same vain, the king of Egypt marched to the Levant, because he was mobilized by the King of Israel. Thucydides described how Corcyra sparked the Peloponnesian War by requesting the support of Athens, which on its turn angered Sparta. The demand for support of the Mamertines triggered the Punic War between Rome and Cartage. Armenia gave the Safavids an alibi to wage war on the East Roman Empire in the same way as Central Asian kingdoms called on the Ottoman Caliphs and then the Mughal Emperors to ward off Safavid aggression, as kingdoms from Southeast Asia solicited military support from Chinese emperors, or as the Italian city states turned to France and the Habsburg Empire. Again and again, small powers thought to be the masterminds of a divide-and-rule game between the big players, yet provided the legitimization for conquest by the latter.


Rules, treaties, justice, peace, and religion: all have been used to justify wars. Often even long investigation leaves us different interpretations of who was right and who was wrong. The tragedy is that the search for the moral high ground, the claim of benign exceptionalism, the promise of changing the course of power politics has often not advanced the case of peace, but vindicated war. That happened in all major regions, across religions, and political systems. Hence, as soon as powers start preaching, conflict is never far away.



The limits of diplomacy


In the same way, this book showed the limits of diplomacy, trade, and cosmopolitism. The body of diplomats has expanded enormously throughout the centuries, but it has never prevented war. In the ancient Mediterranean world, envoys were called peace angels, or akero. City states maintained close diplomatic relations but were at war almost permanently. Chinese records explained how envoys hurried back and forth between competing kingdoms. Monks, intellectuals, and even artists were used to smoothen relations. But like the painter Pieter-Paul Rubens avowed, they were painfully confronted with the limitations of their influence. Whereas permanent ambassadors became common, Emeric Crucé and Bernard du Rosier expected them to become workers for the common good and the general welfare. Their main job, however, was still to spy on the enemy, to broker alliances against rivals, to defend interests, or to show off the strength of their country with extravagant banquets and in endless rivalries over precedence. Bernard du Rosier stated that the most important task of diplomacy is peace. Yet, history exposes that diplomacy’s most important task is to advance the selfish interests of polities. Sometimes these interests converge, so that peace agreements, truces, and cooperation become possible; sometimes not.


Equally so, we witnessed the limitations of diplomatic conferences. Time and again, spectators hoped for such events to mark a watershed in international politics, a change for the good in the way power politics is pursued. In the Spring and Autumn Period, hopes were vested on Chinese leaders who convened in conferences to discuss arms limitations and restrictions on the number of fortresses that could be built, yes even to chart the way for collective security and to reduce barriers on trade. Their outcomes were affirmed by invoking the god of the hills, the spirits of ancient emperors, and important ancestors. The Greek city states, in the spirit of the Olympic Games, held conferences to organize collective security against the Macedonians. The Peace of Lodi in Italy lasted four years. The spectacular conference on the field of golden cloth in 1520 failed to end rivalry between England and France. The Peace of Westphalia of 1648, often celebrated for introducing the principle of sovereignty, did not hold for even a couple of years. The same was true with the results of the Congress of Vienna, the peace negotiations of Paris, and the San Francisco summit. The diplomatic conferences became bigger and bigger, but as Philippe de Commynes remarked, did not necessarily become more effective in advancing durable peace.



The liberal case


To which extent has economic prosperity fostered peace? For centuries, the idea has been advanced that peace brings prosperity and that prosperity brings peace. This book revealed, however, that reality is not straightforward. As Thucydides wrote in case of ancient Greece: “What made the war inevitable, was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta.” In other words, it was the very economic success of one power that made the other concerned about its growing influence and the fact that part of this Athenian wealth was also converted into military prowess, into larger armies and more capable trireme warships. Even if the growth of one country might benefit others in the long run, as Adam Smit famously claimed, politics focusses on the inequality in the short term, possibly claiming that the more successful competitor cheated, and worrying that the shift in the economic balance of power might render them vulnerable to aggression. The industrial revolution made first France worry about the way Britain used its wealth to build a vast overseas empire and a strong navy, and consequently became even more alarmed when another neighbour, Prussia, used its industrial progress to build railways and superior artillery. Today, China’s economic rise and increasing military budget worries the United States. Prosperity means power and power leads others to be fearful. This is probably the main explanation for the fact that even the era during which we witnessed the largest productivity gains, following the first industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, was so violent.


Economic success exacerbates rivalry, but so does economic failure. The most common assumption, as for instance David Gilpin summarized, is that major wars break out when one power rises and challenges the incumbent leader. As stated in the previous paragraph, there is no reason to take issue with that, but there are other scenarios, scenarios in which economic difficulties aggravate conflict. To begin with, economic distress often cause revolution and social unrest. Fiscal overburdening triggered numerous conflicts, like the Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, and so forth. Inflation and debasement are also found to be an important destabilizing factor, and so is industrial overcapacity, which contributed to both social unrest and ferocious competition for export markets. Economic crises sparked protectionism, which on its turn caused trade wars and exacerbated political rivalry. Economic distress is politically destabilizing.


The previous chapters also presented several examples of imperial decay leading to conflict. Economic weakness leads to political weakness, and political weakness is an open invitation for others to interfere. Economic weakness can be cause by failing economic policy, trade routes being cut off, natural disasters, and overstretch, that is, governments spending excessively on security and foreign policy, so that the treasury is exhausted. Economic weakness first forces empires to retreat, so that challengers fill the void in their neighbourhood, and subsequently use it as a staging area for further expansion. We have seen this phenomenon in case of the fall of the Roman Empire, the demise of the East Roman Empire, the fall of the New Dynasty in Egypt, the ending of so many great empires in the Middle East and in China.


Trade did not foster peace either. The expectation that it would do so, is very old. Xenophon called for free trade and Alexander the Great promised to advance peace in the Middle East by opening the the roads of Persia for trade and business. Adam Smith embraced this argument as a cornerstone of his theory and so did David Ricardo. The more trade, the more specialization. The more specialization, the more growth, which benefits all. What we have noticed, however, is that once trade grew, kings, emperors, and republics were never far away to monopolize it. The Achaemenid Kings, for instance, did pave roads between the Levant and the Gulf. They built fortresses to secure them against robbers, but also to protect them against other powers and to tax trade. The Parthians sent Chinese envoys back, lest they would establish direct trade relations with Rome. For the Quarash, protecting trade was one way to strengthen their leadership with regard to other clans. As textile trade across the Alps boomed, Milan was quick to monopolize it. The English demanded trade with London and other cities to happen exclusively with English ships and banned all other vessels.


Neither do economic ties and interdependence prevent war. Corinth and Athens maintained close economic ties, but the Athenian popular leader, Solon, wanted his city to become as rich, so he improved the investment climate, attracted craftsmen, and consequently diverted the entire pottery industry away from Corinth. Etruria became an important export market for this pottery from Athens as well as for Greek weapons, but the Etruscans sealed an anti-Greek alliance with Cartage and ultimately fought the Greek cities with weapons imported from Greece. The industrial revolution in Great Britain facilitated the stellar rise of Prussia and the United States in the nineteenth century, but the more they grew powerful thanks to this vast technology-transfer, the more they came to resist Britain’s political might. The same happened with Imperial Japan. It fought the West with Western weapons.


Free trade and economic openness tend to reflect the interests of the strong. The most recent example was the liberal order promoted by the United States after World War II. Besides the objective to check the Soviet Union, the United States had an offensive interest to unlock foreign markets, first to the exports of its competitive industries and onwards to its investment capital. This was also the case with Great Britain in the nineteenth century and the open-seas doctrine of Holland. Weak countries that refused to open up were opened by force. In terms of trade, many great powers follow a cycle. In their takeoff, they are first protectionist and defend infant industries. Once they gain competitiveness, the government takes an interest in helping companies to strengthen their position abroad, by means of enticement, economic coercion, military pressure, and colonization. Defensive statecraft becomes thus offensive. If this that succeeds and if companies become strong enough, the government starts to promote narratives of free trade, peace, and harmony of interests. This is when trading powers are at their zenith. By then, however, new challengers arise, benefiting from the incumbent power’s pioneering work in exploring new sea routes, production methods, and technology, as well as from the fact that rich societies often loose some of their dynamism. If this competition grows, the leaders tend to retreat and to resort to defensive statecraft. So, splendid ages of original opening, as the Tang chronicles called it, are often the epitome of power politics and not an antidote to it. That is also why they elicit resistance of others.


Economic openness often coincides with political control of communication channels. Again, it suffices to consider the Pax Americana after World War II and particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union. America’s naval power was immense. Providing security on the high seas in essence meant that its naval power was uncontested, that no other country had such power projection capacity and so many military bases along sea lanes. Furthermore, America also came to dominate and even control much of the communication via the internet and space. Britain in the nineteenth century enjoyed similar preponderance at sea. Its navy claimed to be securing the seas, but it did not tolerate European challengers like France, Russia, and Germany to have similar ambitions to be present near strategic sea lanes. Venice allowed no peer rival in the Adriatic, as much Rome aspired to turn the whole Mediterranean into a global lake. Onshore too, the powers competed for building and controlling communication lines. Railways opened up continents, but were commonly considered the arteries of empire. Roads were maintained and controlled by empires. These were true connectivity wars. Connectivity means profit, but also control, and the possibility to project military power.


Trade has thus often been followed by military aspirations. Their most straightforward manifestation is the conquest of trade routes.  Chang’an was said to be a merchant’s paradise, but the Tang Dynasty conquered the passes west of the Hexi Corridor to control the Silk Road. The Kingdom of Srivijaya attacked its neighbours in the north to monopolize the seaborne trade in the Strait of Malacca and transit via the Kra Istmus. The Srivijayans on their turn were besieged by the Indian Chola Dynasty. It too sought to dominate the lucrative trade in the Gulf of Bengal. The Solomonic Kingdom, the Incas, the Aztecs, the Saharan Kingdoms: they all followed this pattern. Trade also awakened military ambitions and private traders were important lobbyists for imperialism. The Campanian Connection in Rome advocated the conquest of Sicily and war against Carthage. In the nineteenth century, German, American, and Japanese industrialists demanded their governments to secure trade and access to raw materials overseas. The Venetian creed was wealth to obtain power and power to obtain wealth. Navies were built up and naval power on its turn elicited jealousy and distrust among land powers. Consider the relations between Rome and Cartage in this regard, or between the Ottoman Caliphate and Venice, France and England, the German empire and Great Britain, or today’s China and the United States. Strong navies were frequently justified as a means to defend commerce and freedom of navigation, but were a feared instrument of power projection at the same time.



Cosmopolitan peace


In the history of power politics, cosmopolitism was often the coronation of imperial conquest. But the dream of universalism could also embolden rising powers to seize land beyond the borders. The greatest cosmopolitan cities were invariably imperial capitals and the greatest patrons of foreign sciences, of tolerance between religions, of cultural crosspollination, and exploration were almost always emperors. Consider the great Moghul leader Akbar’s synthesis of different religious principles, the Din-i-Ilahi, the Sasanian Academy of Gondishapur, the cosmopolitan renaissance under Charlemagne, or the orientalism of the British Empire. Courts became exhibition rooms of all the good things the empire had to offer, and so were the first large public museums founded, like the Louvre and the British Museum, big world exhibitions and societies for explorers, like Henry the Navigator’s society of cartographers and geographers in Sagres, the Guild of Cartographers in Ottoman Constantinople, and the National Geographic Society. The more those explorers came back with reports of rich, undiscovered countries, the more it arose the appetite for for gold, slaves, trade, or conquest.


Cosmopolitism was even more savage if we interpret it as the mixing of people and cultures. One of the findings of this book is that what we consider civilizations, China, for example, or Persia and Europe, are the outcome of a long history of blending. Great civilizations were built in large fertile plains near rivers and preferably in temperate climate zones, like the North China Plain, the West European Coastal Plain, the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Because of their wealth, however, these areas became arenas of competition. In this regard, we could clearly discern dynastic cycles: young families of kings that gained power, a limited number of very prestigious leaders that consolidate power and brought the dynasty to its zenith, a period of weak leaders, usually characterized by so-called decadence and overstretch, and its ultimate collapse. Sometimes that dynasty was succeeded by new indigenous strongmen, but at least as common was an invasion of an ambitious fringe power. They were tied to the imperial heartland by networks of valleys, yet isolated enough not to be destroyed by imperial troops so that they could slowly grow their own armies. Ancient Egypt, for instance, was overrun by Libyans, Nubians, and the so-called sea people. The North China Plain was ruled by alien dynasties established by fringe powers like the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Mongols, the Manchu, and so forth. The Indo-Gangetic Plain was governed by Indo-Aryan invaders, by Yuezhi, and several Muslim warlords from Central Asia. The West European Coastal Plain was dominated by Rome, Germanic strongmen, and English invaders. This did lead to cultural crosspollination, the blending of artistic styles, languages, and religions, but the process of cultural interbreeding was violent, marked by xenophobia, expulsions, and mass murder.


But what if more citizens get a say in foreign policy? Does that not lead to a global community of interests, a world community? The assumption that public participation into politics puts a brake on aggression can be challenged. Clever monarchs too were careful not to overstretch their power and some of them tempered the desire for conquest. For example, was Rome that much less bent on conquest under the republic than under the emperors? Was republican France less belligerent than France under the Bourbons? Popular politics might support restraint, but can be as easily enflamed. If we look back at the debates held in Greek popular assemblies, they often poked up nationalism rather than that they testified of moderation. It was in popular gatherings that the Mongols plotted their expeditions across Eurasia. During the negotiations in Munster and Osnabruck, the estates-general of the Dutch Provinces railed against the idea of peace in Flanders, because that could bring the rivalling trade port of Antwerp back in business. Ideologies of both protectionism and imperialism were embraced enthusiastically in Westminster Palace, in Capitol Hill, and in the German Diet.




More sobering even are the limitations of the balance of power to check rising powers and to reassure those societies that lose influence. Realist students of international power politics are sceptical of the role of treaties, conferences, trade, and connectivity in fostering peace, but posit that war can be avoided if the balance of power is preserved. If one country rises, for example, others should band together to limit its influence and to reduce the threat of aggression. Many times, however, countries have failed to work together to check rising powers. Lesser powers have a strong tendency to work with rising powers. First they seek to play the rising power off against the other major power, but subsequently the rising power exploits their opportunism to expand its influence, to annex those lesser states, and to use them to challenge its main rivals. The behaviour of lesser powers often leads thus to a domino effect: their opportunism increases the chances of the rising power and disturbs the balance of power even more. Those same optimistic realists also surmise that polities primarily search for security, not for aggrandizement. Even if we were to accept that the intention of polities is to preserve security, it is impossible to distinguish these defensive goals from offensive ambitions. As stated before, a powerful navy can be both. Trying to build a sphere of influence can also serve both ends. In practice, there is only a very thin line between maximizing security and maximizing power. Many leaders have surmised that the best defense is to maximize power, and once they become successful, why would they stop?


There is no one-size-fits-all theory to explain why the ideal of peace has been overruled so frequently by the reality of war. History reveals numerous possible causes of conflict. In general, however, peace remains a common good, a situation that depends on the behaviour of many actors. Those actors, whether they are cities, states, or empires, are primarily concerned with their own prosperity and security. The majority of people is not cosmopolitan, hardly travels, and aligns its interests with a certain territory, nation, or flag. The world is fragmented by default. Prosperity is always unequal. This triggers envy and fear to be abused by the strong among societies that lag behind. As a result, some weak societies will seek to migrate, try to extract gains from the strong, switch into catch-up modus to compete, resort to protectionism, or search for allies to contain the strong. When societies grow more powerful, they will invariably use their might to bend international relations into their advantage: sometimes subtly, sometimes aggressively. Power makes arrogant. Others resisting it will be perceived as unfair protectionists. Positive economic trends are politically destabilizing. They alter the balance of power and lead to insecurity.


This should not make practitioners desperate, though. Diplomats, politicians, experts, and opinion makers do have a responsibility in managing the destabilizing effects of power shifts. It all starts with modesty, modesty in the first place towards the wrecking forces of fear and envy. It is not because trade grows or that there is more diplomatic interaction that the world becomes more stable. Tranquillity should never be taken for granted, the ideal of peace never be taken for reality. It goes beyond the scope of this conclusion formulate comprehensive politics prescriptions, but one quality merits to be highlighted: perceptiveness. Decision makers should keep due sentinel of what happens at home. A diplomat that compromise too much abroad is doomed to face a backlash. At the same time, however, they should show empathy towards their counterparts: understand how historical experiences has shaped their expectations, what lies at the origins of their external behaviour, why the one interpretation of fairness might still come across as injustice by the other, etc. Modesty, perceptiveness, and empathy are no guarantee for peace. Yet, they are critical to avoid miscalculations, to optimize the chances of diplomatic success, and to reduce distrust. 


The first law of nature, if there is one to be deduced from this book, is not peace. It appears to me that the first law of nature is the maximization of power, preferably at the lowest possible cost. Maximizing power is a matter on the one hand is a matter of survival and security. The weak will always be dominated by the strong, and in the worst case that implies abuse, penury, or even death. On the other hand, however, power stems from greed: men’s needs are never satisfied, just because progress creates new desires, and the success of another makes laggards to wish for the same. It is almost impossible to draw a line between the search for security and greed. States will always be under pressure to maximize their power and this is exactly what leads to so much misunderstanding and strife.


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