Topic 3: Violence in the International System


See Moodle


Much of what we notice about international interactions involves violence. Wars between states, wars within states supported by or suppressed by neighbours, and attacks by non-state actors.  There was an expression on Fleet Street, home of the London tabloids and more established media, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Violent events in international relations involve deliberate death and destruction inflicted by one actor on another (physical violence), but another kind of violence occurs when actors are consciously denied the capacity to survive or improve their conditions of life. Peace researcher Johann Galtung coined the phrase structural violence to describe this form of violence, which is widespread both domestically and in the international system.  This week we will keep the focus on physical violence, and we will explore further the potential links between physical and structural violence when we consider development and security connections in week 12. We may go beyond current physical violence to consider the potential for future wars and the concept of a “war trap”.  This has been popularized recently by Graham Allison, author of a seminal book on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Essence of Decision) but the argument that states will prefer to fight a rising rival before their power is surpassed was made compellingly by Choucri and North (1975), who identified population, resources, and technology as the master variables in driving the “lateral pressure” to go to war with rising powers. We’ll explore this further in week 13.  The main point to emphasize here, as we start with violent events, is that physical violence is inextricably related to various forms of structural violence, and military power is inseparable from diplomacy and economic factors. In considering each any of the cases, try to think in terms of systems.

Learning objectives

  • Describe actors and events in international relations
  • Demonstrate discrimination in the use and interpretation of sources
  • Interpret the events, sequences, causes and effects related to alternative theories
  • Identify terms and concepts related to the study of international relations


Shiraev, Chapters 5 and 8

Other resources according to cases considered.


Student coordinators will select two of the following cases to explore this week:

Credibility check: what are the signs that a source is more or less credible? How do you verify?

Activities before class

  • Review current events
  • Read the case summary or links
  • Check Moodle for case notes from the presenters
  • Apply your own aide memoire on theory: which ones seem most useful? What do they omit? What can be gained from other perspectives?
  • Are there alternative narratives for the cases under consideration?
  • What terminology or concepts are relevant in the discussion of this case?

Activities during class

  • Discuss current events
  • Relate current events to the events up for discussion
  • Present the cases
  • Discuss the cases from empirical and normative perspectives
  • Call-in speaker (if any) Q&A managed by coordinators
  • International perspectives from allied military academies (if available)
  • Frame an essay question addressing the issues raised in discussion
  • Offer suggestions for completion of the analytical papers following the presentation
  • List relevant terminology and concepts

Activities after class

  • Post comments on Moodle
  • Confirm understanding of terminology and concepts
  • Review notes and readings for essay question

Additional resources

  • Galtung Institute for Peace Theory and Peace Practice
  • Choucri, N. and R. North (1975) Nations in Conflict: National Growth and International Violence. Boston: Freeman and Co.
  • Buzan, Definition of Realism

National strategies to manage violence and pursue interests

  • Rumelt, R. P. (2012). Good strategy/bad strategy: The difference and why it matters. Strategic Direction, 28(8). (reassuringly, this has been translated into Russian
  • Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. WW Norton & Company.
  • Friedman, L. (2013) Strategy: A History. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Posen, B. R. (2014). Restraint: A new foundation for US grand strategy. Cornell University Press
  • What is a quick way to find these sources and evaluate them?

War studies and security

  • Vasquez, John E. (2012) What do we know about War? Second edition. chapter 16 – what we know…
  • Black, J. (1998) Why Wars Happen
  • Kaldor, M. (2012) New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, third edition
  • Palmer (2008) Causes and Consequences of International Conflict: Data, Methods, Theory (oc-ko)
  • Buzan and Hansen (2009) The Evolution of International Security Studies
  • Goldstein (2011) Winning the War on War
  • David and McKeldin (2009) Ideas as Weapons: Influence and Perception in Modern Warfare

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