Book review: Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648-1989, by Kalevi J. Holsti, 1992.

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648 by Gerard ter Borch

“The real difficulty is that through history the use of force in statecraft has had different meanings, and if this is so, the sources, causes, or correlates of war in one period cannot be easily transferred to another.” – Kalevi J. Holsti, (1992, p. 10)

Some of the findings of Kalevi J. Holsti in this scientific work are fascinating. He does not tackle the puzzle of the causes of war from a behavioral perspective, but more likely from the perspective of the analysis of different peace settlements, which make this research an original one (he follows a positivist approach, over all at the beginning of his research) . In his work, Holsti identifies and classifies the structural causes of the top five peace treaties in history, departing in Westphalia, 1648 (end of the European wars of religion, including the Thirty Years War, which gave birth to the idea of the modern nation-state) from where he goes to Utrecht, 1713-15 (end of the War of the Spanish Succession) , Vienna, 1814-15 (end of the Napoleonic Wars), Versailles, 1919 (end of WWI) and San Francisco, 1945 (end of WWII). However, a consequence of this, is that by addressing the five most significant peace deals in history, he ignores the circumstances of other settlements.

At points his work seems frivolous. He does not fully explain the reasons of his chosen cases (Dependent Variable = DV), so the reader must infer them. He does not attribute specific weight to the causes and characteristics to his chosen conflicts. His quantitative considerations (statistically) are partial. A major flaw in his work is that he does not consider a diversification or correlation with a post WWII (nuclear) world, leaving his conclusions as historic curiosities more than a substantial contribution to the prevention of major conflict in the XXI Century. What we can rescue from that is that it is easy to identify major trends towards armed contest. Another major flaw of the book is that by focusing on those five peace settlements he concentrates his work in Western issues (mainly), which downside is that he does not include the causality of war (or peace) for other regions or periods of history of the world. One could say that his work is (almost) European focused. By underlining the evolution of attitudes towards war, particularly from the XIX to the early XX Centuries (he studies over three centuries of history), Holsti signals the reasoning behind armed conflicts in selected periods of history, but because of that he misses a possible generalization of his conclusions, one of them being that the prevalence of the state is key (not a new finding, really). 

Hoslti’s work is mainly Realist, but towards the end it becomes a product of his own imagination, not very well, theoretically grounded. His work explains how and why each armed conflict ended and how the next one was born but he does not explain the structural mistakes that could have prevented those falls from happening.

Another flaw in his method is that he analyses what certain key actors did but at the same time he misses the external influences on them. In this sense he could have classified the similarities and discrepancies in them and their decisions, to identify possible triggers of war, personal traits and, or major dangerous trends.

One of the main characters that he analyses is W. Wilson. A notorious interventionist in Latin America matters, but Holsti does not conciliate this trait with his bellicosity towards power politics during the 1919 peace process in France. No possible correlation there.

Another problem in the author’s work is that he does not consider the role of civic and ethnic nationalism in his research and the war and peace processes: “peace becomes the father of war” (24) but he could have added that nationalism is the grandfather of dictatorship… e.g.

Another affirmation in Holsti’s statistical conclusions is that territory has become less relevant in international conflicts, however, several other theorists would disagree with that assumption. According to his findings, territory was more of an issue in the past than today, but today’s territory is a much more dangerous issue because of new military technologies of the XXI Century, i.e. territorial risk is more dangerous (quality) today than in the past (quantity). He does not contemplate that. Recent examples are Crimea and the failed Islamic Caliphate. Territory continues and will continue being one of the main issues of the existence of nation-state in the foreseeable future.

In his research, the author does not discriminate among the relevant issues (in foreign policy e.g.) and those not so relevant, that lead towards war. He could have classified them to guide the reader towards the crucial ones and distract him from the insignificant or less important ones. 

Territory is a key factor of war since ancient times, but exceptions also exist, such as the Vietnam War (1955-1975), in which gaining territory was not the strategic priority.

Holsti makes an important distinction of First, Second and Third World countries, but he does not include an analysis on emergent economies or e.g. a classification of the top 10 third world countries that influence the foreign policies of first and second world nation-states. 

One accurate conclusion of his work (my takeaway) is that there is a difference between the main intentions of first and second world countries avoidance of major conflicts, i.e. nuclear conflagration, and third world countries (which is balance and permanence of the government in place).

His three areas of analysis, while wide, can be incomplete; the issues that create a war among nations, the meaning of war for the implicated actors, and the role of peace settlements in creating new conflicts could enrich his work with other elements, such as the temporality of issues (threats), opportunity or everlasting controversies as citizenship and nationality meanings and interpretations, just to name a few… e.g. he only looks at the meaning of war from the point of view of policy officers, not from the point of view of non-policy makers, which I am sure would provide with an interesting contrast to his findings.

According to his findings, wars end with peace treaties, however, we should notice that only those that he studies; New international orders are not only the result of formal negotiations but also the consequence of serendipity and/or unintended consequences, which would have been a major contribution to his conclusions. He fails also to explain why or how new regulations of the use of force are effective or ineffective according to different circumstances and which ones are those, regimes implications in terms of speed of implementation of foreign policy, classification of the terms of peace settlements that lead to minor or major future conflicts.

All things considered, his work is (very) interesting, relevant and a must read for any person interested in understanding armed conflict between nations.

References: Holsti, K. 1992. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order 1648-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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