Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.

Takashi Inoguchi


Discourse about international peacekeeping necessarily depends heavily upon the theoretical framework in which negotiators of international policy operate.  In much the same manner that belief in a Hobbesian or Lockean philosophical framework ultimately governs the ability to imagine democratic government, the theoretical framework in which international policymakers maneuver facilitates or inhibits the ability to imagine a transnational system of preservation of international peace and security.  How do realist assumptions of the world affect policymakers’ ability to conceptualize international solutions to global crises such as the environmental crisis or, more topically, crises that, while subnational, offend internationally agreed-upon standards of human behavior?  How do alternate theoretical frameworks answer these realist shortcomings?

The realist framework, despite existing as the dominant theoretical framework in international relations theory since its inception, may inherently hinder conceptualization of an international solution to war and crimes against humanity.  At its foundations, realism defines international political action in terms of relative power, and fundamentally recognizes the Westphalian principle of sovereignty as crucial to a predictably stable international system.   It values the balance of power as the primary and sufficient means for maintaining international stability, and believes in the subordination of morality to security interests.

According to realist philosophy, the “international arena remains an anarchical, self-help system, a ‘brutal arena where states look for opportunities to take advantage of each other’” [1] in order to enhance the security of their own citizens.  Specifically, the realist perspective adopts an “us or them” zero-sum mentality that first inhibits empathy with citizens of other states by forcing state leaders to assume a constantly defensive position against relative loss of power, and second devalues action that does not directly lead to the benefit of their own state.  As many peacekeeping measures yield only modest security benefits to most members of the international community, notable exceptions to this rule including political soft power benefits and the suppression of conditions that tend to foster terrorism, many international leaders find little reason to facilitate peace between or within other states.  “Progress would only occur when enough national leaders became convinced that it was in their respective national interests” [1].  Indeed, intervention on basis of national interest remains highly controversial and raises contentious questions of ethics and favoritism – where the object of intervention is not to maintain or restore peace with minimal casualties, but to maintain or restore the interests of the intervening state. 

Continued belief in Westphalian sovereignty further prevents international action on issues of intrastate conflict or on human rights abuses perpetrated by the government of a state itself.  It expressly designates intrastate conflicts the sole realm of the sovereign state, and specifies that intervention in such conflict by a foreign power would signify an unacceptable breach of protocol.  Briefly, the “Westphalian system” or “Westphalian sovereignty” rests upon two fundamental doctrines: first that each state’s borders ought to be respected and preserved by all other states, and second – and most importantly – that all activities within a state’s borders are the sole realm of that state’s government.  In short, “the authority of a Westphalian nation-state is limited to the boundaries that define the nation’s territory” [6]; this second creed, which forms the cornerstone of the concept of sovereignty as it is most commonly applied in contemporary international politics, affirms that no government has the right to intervene in the events that occur beyond their own borders, and, if accepted, poses a major obstacle to humanitarian intervention and preventive diplomatic discourse. It fails to address potential lack of political will by domestic governments, as well as the potentiality of state involvement in or sponsorship of conflict or aggressors.  In these cases, classically realist thought dictates that the international community does nothing, a conclusion that is increasingly unappealing and unacceptable to the larger global population.

Further, while the balance of power theory was certainly sufficient to maintain relative stability in the twentieth century, when the primary actors in international conflict were states themselves, Richard Ned Lebow describes precisely the limitations of the balance of power in preventing contemporary conflict when he writes that:

"… communal bonds are fragile and easily undermined by the unrestrained pursuit of unilateral advantage by individuals, factions, and states.  When this happens, time-honored mechanisms of conflict management like alliances and the balance of power may not only fail to preserve the peace but may make domestic and international violence more likely." [1]

In short, in a world in which states are no longer the primary aggressors, but rather conflicts between individuals or particular groups on a subnational level increasingly represent the primary threat to security, the balance of power, when unsupported by a theory that allows for subnational intervention, fails to remain an adequate defense mechanism.  Additionally, the need for “great power insulation” (or discussion to ensure that intervening countries do not tread on each other's interests) in preventive diplomacy and intervention, in order to maintain the balance of power, represents an enormous obstacle to timely resolution of conflicts.

Finally, the “primacy of self-interest over moral principle” [1], while perhaps practically unfounded, is no longer valid in an era in which moral principle and empathy is so highly valued.  While such a framework for evaluating the international behavior of states had consistently practical application over the course of the past century, recent globalizing trends suggest that international relations requires a new theoretical framework if the international community is to address the challenges of the twenty-first century.