Defining War: Continuation of Policy Goals through Radicalization of Policy Means


inkwellmusings via Flickr
inkwellmusings via Flickr

War is a puzzling inter-state activity for political theorists. While several scholars such as James Fearon maintain that war results from failed diplomacy, other authors rally behind Carl von Clausewitz in claiming that war is a tool used in diplomatic bargaining. Understanding the nature of war—as a consequence of unsuccessful diplomacy or as a means to achieving the most optimal outcome—requires defining diplomacy and war itself. Thomas Schelling avers that diplomacy is a process of expanding or restricting the bargaining space between adversaries that can lead to crisis diplomacy, or the brink of war.[1] Schelling’s crisis diplomacy implies that political intercourse is not constant but can rather be defined as positive or negative, with crisis diplomacy bridging these polarized state interactions. In other words, changes in the bargaining space are observed in the shift from “positive” through “crisis” to “negative” diplomacy, from peacetime to the threat of war to actual war, and from conditions of cooperation to uncertainty to situations of radical policy. Thus, in line with Clausewitz’s argument, war as a tool of policy is a continuation of diplomatic goals representing “the interests generally of the whole community”.[2] This paper will argue that war, as a form of negative relations between states, is a continuation of policy goals through an alteration or radicalization of policy means: although American military intervention against North Korea was a radical tool of negative diplomacy that attempted to defeat China-backed North Korean communism by establishing democracy on the Korean Peninsula after World War II, this intervention did not annihilate the possibility of political interaction between the actors involved after the close of the Korean War but rather encouraged further political intercourse in the Cold War era.

Identifying which crises qualify as “war” is critical to this discussion. The Correlates of War project defines war as “sustained combat involving organized armed forces resulting in a minimum of 1000 battlefield deaths within a twelve month period”.[3] Although there are limitations to this definition, the shortcomings of this explanation are not the focus of this discussion. Despite its flaws, this definition of “war” applies to the Korean War, which suffices to illustrate how military confrontation did not collapse the bargaining space vital to diplomatic intercourse and allowed for a continuation of inter-state relations.

Before delving into the relationship between war and diplomacy, the latter term must be defined as well. In this context, diplomacy is the intercourse of actors at the system level involving bargaining for the preferred sub-optimal outcome, perceptions rooted in uncertainty, and common interests based on avoidance of mutual damage.[4] Further, diplomacy can be mapped on a spectrum ranging from positive to negative relations; shifting from these behavioral poles involves interacting in Schelling’s crisis diplomacy, interacting on the brink of war. Positive diplomacy includes (but is not limited to) deployment of political representatives, cooperation in economic conferences, and mutual recognition of sovereignty. For example, Canada and the United States enjoy positive diplomatic relations, as both countries host one another’s ambassadors and diplomats; uphold the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and respect territorial boundaries. Lastly, positive diplomacy does not employ war in pursuit of policy objectives, as states in such an atmosphere can cooperate in satisfying their respective goals. Thus, war cannot be considered a failure of positive diplomacy because there is no need for armed conflict between friendly actors when different interests can be negotiated in a conducive bargaining space.

War comes into play in both crisis and negative diplomacy. In the former relations, actors must engage with each other while facing an immediate threat, uncertainty, and shifting in bargaining space. The political intercourse between Syria and Turkey provide an excellent example of crisis diplomacy: internal unrest in Syria risks spilling over into neighboring Turkey, who has endured the explosion of Syrian missiles as well as military skirmishes on its south-eastern border.[5] Turkey faces an immediate military threat, heightened by misinformation and uncertainty, which threatens to shift the nature of the bargaining space into negative diplomacy. In crisis diplomacy, threat of war and power to hurt (both of which require a discursive space in which adversaries may engage) comprise bargaining power, and “to exploit bargaining power is [vicious] diplomacy”.[6] The only purpose of such diplomacy “must be to influence somebody’s behavior, to coerce his decision or choice” prior to radicalizing policy means, prior to engaging in open warfare.[7] The threat of war that characterizes crisis diplomacy is not a failure of such interaction because the bargaining space is still open for compromise, which allows states to continue interaction despite tensions. However, a condition of crisis diplomacy states that the interests of the actors involved must be reconcilable through compromise and bargain; without such an outcome, crisis diplomacy spirals into negative interaction.

War has a place in crisis diplomacy because it is due to the threat of warfare and ensuing damages that crisis tensions may be alleviated; once states have reached bargaining deadlock, they interact in a negative diplomatic atmosphere in order to gain relative advantage. Here, another distinction must be made. Negative, non-radical diplomacy is characterized by termination of cooperation and recalled political delegations; negative, radical diplomacy is characterized by open warfare. For example, the secrecy of Iran’s nuclear program triggered a shift to negative, non-radical diplomacy with Canada, as Harper recalled Canadian diplomats and urged Canadian citizens to leave Iran[8]. In this context, Canada is not in a crisis situation, as it faces no immediate threat, yet terminated political cooperation by revoking its representation in Tehran. However, Canada has allied itself with the United States and continues to pressure the international community to impose economic sanctions on Iran until the latter reveals its nuclear intentions; this reaction illustrates that Canada continues to interact—negatively— with Iran in international bargaining space.[9] Unlike crisis diplomacy, negative, non-radical diplomacy wields a real threat of war in an increasingly hostile bargaining space. In other words, negative diplomacy implies that interacting states are not reaching a compromise under non-radical pressure mechanisms and that such compromise must be coerced through the military force of war that will contextualize the bargaining outcomes in military atrocities and radicalize the nature of negative diplomacy.

All forms of diplomacy, including negative, radical diplomacy, are primarily characterized by inter-state intercourse in a bargaining space; and without the collapse of such space, there is an opportunity for diplomacy to continue through various policy means. The Korean War best demonstrates how war is a continuation of negative, radical diplomacy because the actors involved were negotiating before, during, and after war—thus proving that military confrontation did not annihilate the bargaining space conducive to compromise. The conflict began after World War II as an ideological-military one between communist Soviet troops occupying territory north of the 38th parallel and the democratic American troops present in territory south of that border. The failure of the 1948 elections on the Korean peninsula only solidified the border between communist north and democratic south.[10] It is important to note that the elections resulted from compromise between Soviet and American political leaders, who both maintained that their respective ideologies would be validated through popular choice. The failure of the elections led to a fall-out between the two super-powers and spiraled from negative, non-radical diplomacy into negative, radical diplomacy with the outbreak of war.

War began despite dialogues held at the United Nations as the United States and China shifted from coercive threats to military aggression.[11] For both sides involved, war and the ensuing casualties were tools of negative, radical diplomacy wielded to pressure the adversary into admitting defeat. During the war, American forces threatened to use atomic bombs in 1950, which did not deter Chinese troops from redoubling their efforts in the north. American commanders then brandished nuclear threat.[12] American escalation of its power to hurt demonstrates that there existed a bargaining space in which dialogue existed between adversaries where such threats could be expressed; diplomacy, regardless of its nature, continued through such dialogue.

The Korean War qualifies as “war” according to the Correlates of War project: 33,000 American soldiers perished over the course of three years before an armistice was signed in 1953. The armistice created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (KDZ), which would be patrolled by American, Korean, and UN forces. Post-war bargains resulted in international cooperation and the creation of the KDZ.[13] This illustrates how war, as a radical policy tool, did not terminate interaction between former enemies but instead fostered conditions of diplomacy conducive to acceptable solutions. Lastly, the armistice stated that although the war had ceased, South Korea, China, and the United States would continue in peace talks. This demonstrates how even after victory for some and defeat for others, political interaction continued through (monitored) negotiations. More importantly, in expressing their commitment to peace talks, the former opponents revealed that the end of war did not terminate diplomacy between victor and vanquished, but that the end of the conflict offered an opportunity for all parties to expand a positive bargaining space.

The place of war in international politics raises several questions: what is the relationship between war and diplomacy? Do states turn to war and violence when diplomacy fails? And why is bargaining space important in inter-state interaction? This discussion has sought to address these concerns. Diplomacy, understood as the interaction between state actors through bargaining for the most optimal outcome, can be positive, crisis, and negative in nature. War is not a tool positive diplomacy; the threat of war is a coercive mechanism employed in crisis diplomacy; and the proclamation of war radicalizes policy means from negative, non-radical interaction to negative, radical diplomacy. In other words, war is the most radical strategic tool used to pressure military opponents into accepting a sub-optimal outcome without terminating bargaining space. States do not engage in war as last recourse; rather, states manipulate the costs of war to force their opponent to reconsider bargains. It is important to note that bargaining space does not disappear across the spectrum of diplomacy, and that although it may be restricted at times, the opportunity for negotiation does not collapse. This is why war is not a failure of diplomacy: as the Korean War illustrates, war simply pressures actors into reconsidering diplomatic negotiations that, contextualized in military atrocities, seem more preferable after military engagement. After defeat and victory, states formerly engaged in warfare survive military trauma and therefore have the opportunity to interact through negotiation of post-war settlement, suggesting that the bargaining space between warring actors does not disappear. The tension between communist and democratic regimes in the Cold War Era illustrates how the Korean War did not collapse the bargaining space but instead allowed for a continuation of political intercourse. Therefore, as war does not annihilate the possibility of diplomatic success in finding an optimal solution, war is a continuation of diplomatic goals through a radicalization of policy means.


[1] CNN Wire Staff. “China sends patrol ships to islands at center of dispute with Japan.” 11 Sept 2012. Web. 29 Sept 2012

[2] Explanatory note: these islands, found in the East China Sea, are known as the Diaoyu Islands in China and as the Senkaku Islands in Japan. In order to maintain a neutral stance, this paper will call the islands the Kurihara Islands after the family that owned the islands prior to Japan’s intent to purchase them

[3] CNN Wire Staff. “China sends patrol ships to islands at center of dispute with Japan.” 11 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2012.

[4] John Mearsheimer. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” Essential Readings in World Politics, third edition. Ed. Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008. 60-79

[5] Alexander Wendt. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It.” Essential Readings in World Politics, third edition. Ed. Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008. 93-117

[6] John Mearsheimer. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” 61

[7] Mearsheimer, 63

[8] Jason Ferrell. “Paradigms and Theories: Classical and Neorealism.” McGill University. Leacock 132, Montreal. 14 Sept. 2012

[9] John Mearsheimer. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” 63.

[10] Mearsheimer, 68.

[11] Mearsheimer, 61.

[12] Ibid

[13] Wendt, 93-105.