Technological Sources of War and Peace:
Why Structural Change Ended the Cold War Peacefully

Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago

April 11, 2001

At first glance, the standard theories of international politics (e.g., realism) did not seem able to explain the end of the Cold War. Because of Soviet leaders' emphasis on "New Thinking," numerous scholars increasingly turned toward the power of ideas to change foreign policy regardless of changes in material factors. However, new evidence indicates that Soviet leaders only adopted new ideas in response to overwhelming proof of sharp economic decline relative to the West. Not only does this finding cast doubt upon the independent power of ideas in international politics, but also calls into question theories about declining powers and their proclivity for war. Authors such as Robert Gilpin and Jack Levy have suggested that states in relative decline were more likely to adopt aggressive foreign policies. On the other hand, the Soviet Union adopted a more cooperative foreign policy when faced with relative decline. What explains this puzzle? Why do some major powers in relative decline adopt aggressive foreign policies while others pursue more cooperative foreign policies? The purpose of this study is to establish the conditions under which major powers in long term, economic decline pursue peace and cooperation instead of competition and preventive war.

The cause of the long term, economic decline has a tremendous impact on how a state will respond: cooperation and peace or competition and war? When faced with economic decline, states can pursue domestic reform and/or external expansion. Backward states falling behind will respond differently than advanced states losing a lead. More specifically, backward states falling behind usually opt for domestic reform instead of external expansion. In order to acquire breathing space to make necessary economic and social changes, they will adopt accommodating foreign policies and make territorial concessions. Backward states falling behind realize that only shifts in the balance of technology can reverse their decline, so marginal gains or losses of territory or resources are less important to their security concerns. Backward states falling behind usually do not realize the extent of their technological inferiority until their power has declined so far as to make preventive war extremely unattractive. Conversely, advanced states losing a technological lead often pursue resources aggressively and wage preventive war. As technology spreads throughout the international system, the technological gap narrows and resources gain in importance. That is, the balance of power becomes increasingly sensitive to marginal gains and losses of territory, which intensifies the competition for resources. States losing the lead realize that only material gains can change their relative decline until new technological innovations can be developed.

While falling behind results from a relative lack of technological innovation, losing the lead is a consequence of the diffusion of existing technology across state borders. There are three reasons why states falling behind are more likely to choose domestic reform instead of external expansion: 1) the "fog of innovation," 2) the "limits of backward production," and 3) "conquest rarely modernizes backward states." Meanwhile, there are four primary reasons why advanced states losing the lead are more likely to pursue aggressive foreign policies and wage preventive war: 1) clarity of diffusion, 2) innovation to regain a lost lead is unreliable, 3) equal technology puts a premium on resources, and 4) asymmetric diffusion of technology creates exploitable windows. Thus, structural changes in the distribution of technological capabilities yield opposite results depending upon whether the state is falling behind or losing the lead.

Preventive war theory predicts that major powers in relative decline will engage in more aggressive foreign policy behavior. In the case of the Soviet Union, relative economic decline led to the opposite result (i.e., a more cooperative foreign policy). Why? This theory of structural, technological change and international conflict and cooperation helps explain why the Cold War ended peacefully. Recently available evidence from Soviet memoirs, interviews, and primary documents reveal that Soviet leaders were primarily concerned with economic decline relative to the United States and other Western countries. As early as 1982, Gorbachev wrote that the Soviet Union's backwardness was the result of missing the scientific and technological revolution. The Soviet Union was falling behind technologically in relation to the West, so the Soviet leaders attempted to gain some breathing space for domestic reform and increased access to foreign techniques by adopting a more cooperative foreign policy. In short, the Soviet case supports the logic of backwardness and foreign policy. First, the Soviet Union had become technologically backward relative to the West by the 1980s. Second, this technological gap created military consequences that threatened Soviet security in the long term. Third, Soviet leaders realized that catching up to the West technologically would require substantial domestic reform, and, hence, a conciliatory foreign policy.

The history of great power relations since 1830 (long term power shifts between major power rivals) supports these propositions. The technological balance widened in five cases: The backward power falling behind made resource concessions four times and pursued economic cooperation once. The technological balance narrowed in six cases: The advanced states losing a lead started war four times and adopted aggressive foreign policies twice. The argument that states in long-term decline opt for preventive war simply does not apply when that decline is caused by technological innovation. In short, technological innovation usually leads to cooperation while the diffusion of technology tends to lead to conflict and preventive war.

Robert A. Pape is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Rapporteur: Adam Marshall Horst

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