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Book Review: The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --

Book Review: Mendelbaum
Book Review: Mendelbaum
Book Review: Mendelbaum
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Gunasekara-Rockwell
VIRIN: 210301-F-YT915-001

The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth, by Michael Mandelbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 232 pp.

Twenty years ago, the British military historian Michael Howard published a slim book entitled, The Invention of Peace. Howard argued that only with the European Enlightenment did war become reimagined as an exception to the “natural order of things,” a hazard that must be mitigated, checked, and even transcended. Too good a historian to let his ideas blind his vision, Howard never managed to uncover any convincing instances of such a peace and instead pointed to fear of revolution, alliances between societal interest groups, war-weariness, nuclear weapons, or the absence of peer competitors as the actual causes of peace during the long nineteenth century (1815–1914), the Cold War (1949–1989), or the post–Cold War period (1990–2015). Howard’s book might have been more accurately entitled, The Invention of the Idea of Peace, but even a new title would not have allowed him to shed the conceit that peace was something invented by modern Europeans.

Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, has now published a new version of the argument, but strangely enough, despite beginning with the same epigraph used by Howard—“war appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention”—does not acknowledge Howard’s original analysis. Mandelbaum’s The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth contends that the idea of peace was not only invented but actually enacted between 1989 and 2014, a period that “represents something new and different in international history” and that enjoyed “the establishment of peace on Earth for the first time”; this period of peace offers the formula for peace, Mandelbaum asserts: it was not “an accident” but “a precedent” (p. 135). Such a bold argument deserves serious reflection, particularly as the United States and the world enter a new era—one that is clearly no longer post–Cold War but something else, though we are not quite sure what!

The first matter to clear up is: what is peace? Mandelbaum decides to define peace as not the mere absence of war (a definition sometimes called “negative peace”), but as the absence of a “state of war,” which describes an intense security competition driven by the prospects for war (even if war itself occurs not at all or infrequently). This is a defensible approach recognized by historical nomenclature: even if the “Cold War” never became an all-out “hot war,” it was still a state of war. With this definition in mind, Mandelbaum points to the “quarter century of the post–Cold War era” as “the most peaceful in history” (p. xi). The book then proceeds by looking at how peace developed and deteriorated in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East and concludes by pointing toward a prospective “perpetual peace.”

In Europe, Mandelbaum points to American power and influence after World War II, the growth of economic interdependence, and the expansion of democracy as the three causes of post–Cold War peace. American power made states (such as Germany or Russia) unable to challenge the status quo, while the benefits of interdependence and the shared norms of democracy undercut any such intention. In East Asia, American power also suppressed rivalry, allowing a comparable security community to emerge. Meanwhile, economic development and the spread of democracy further strengthened the peace, turning it from something imposed after World War II to something welcomed and normalized in the post–Cold War era. Finally, in the Middle East, Mandelbaum points to a “truce” grounded almost exclusively on American power; economic interdependence and democracy, the other two variables, never took root because of the region’s oil and political culture.

If “the earth” enjoyed this unprecedented period of peace for a generation, alas, it lost its innocence somewhere around 2015, when, Mandelbaum argues in an almost Miltonian narrative, it fell from paradise, pushed from its happy state not by a prideful angel as in the biblical narrative, but by the regressive forces of “autocracy” incarnated in Russia, China, and Iran. In Europe, Mandelbaum contends the expansion of NATO foolishly provoked the Russian Bear. Europe’s peace is said to have ended with Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. In East Asia, the Chinese Dragon switched tacks, moving from being a “free rider” on America’s regional order to being “an actively revisionist country” (p. 64). Mandelbaum dates the end of peace in this region to around the same time as in Europe—2014—as China was reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands and North Korea was developing its ballistic missile capability. As for the Middle East, a state of war “returned not because of what the United States did or did not do but rather as the result of the decades-old revisionist aspirations of a local power”: Iran (p. 103). When exactly Iran’s “drive for regional hegemony” ended the region’s “relatively peaceful post–Cold War era” (p. 132) is a bit unclear, but Mandelbaum suggests the period around the beginning of the Arab Spring or the Syrian Civil War (2011) or perhaps 2015, marked symbolically by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is alleged to have betrayed the cause of order to further “the personal agendas of the Americans responsible for conducting the negotiations” (p. 118).

In the final analysis, across all three regions and by implication the world, the secret recipe for peace is said to be democracy, with American power and economic interdependence as contributing variables, and autocracy the enemy. For the world to be restored to the state of glory it experienced in the post–Cold War era, the three great autocracies of the world will need to first experience a conversion as convincing as that of Paul on the road to Damascus: until then, the world will be subjected to the horrors of the state of war.

Mandelbaum’s book is admirable for the way it clearly articulates the idea of peace held implicitly or explicitly by many members of America’s foreign policy community. The assertion that peace rests on deterring any significant change to the status quo and hoping for the eventual democratization of American adversaries is commonplace. For instance, in his review in Foreign Affairs, G. John Ikenberry uncritically accepts the argument, subordinating the possibility of peace to the eventual “complete victory” of democracy.1 Such a vision of peace, however, is illusory and dangerous, or so the rest of this review will argue.

The most basic question for assessing The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth is whether the facts match the argument: did peace rise and fall in the way presented by Mandelbaum? The first point to make here is that Mandelbaum never engages with any historical periods other than the Cold War, post–Cold War era, and contemporary eras, so all his grand sweeping claims about the invention of peace are not only not proven but not even explored. This is a typical case of the rhetoric far exceeding the proffered evidence, and the truth is there are significant cases of interstate peace (not only the absence of war but also the absence of a state of war) from early modern East Asia.2 What of the modern era? Again, Mandelbaum’s sweeping rhetoric about peace “on earth” becomes an embarrassment here, with Africa relegated apparently to some unearthly status because it does not easily fit into the broader theory. What of the three regions that are the focus of the argument?

Europe, which certainly was on the whole more peaceful in the post–Cold War era, most clearly supports the influence of American hegemony, economic interdependence, and democracy. Peace in modern Europe cannot be understood apart from the triumph of all three. But in downplaying the necessity of NATO expansion (pp. 14–15), Mandelbaum undermines his own preferred Realist logic (see pp. 116–18) in which (to quote Thucydides’ history) “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” As theorists of power, such as Bertrand de Jouvenel,3 have long understood, power has a logic all its own: in expanding NATO, the United States was not making a chance mistake, but following the deep tracks of overweening power. American geopolitical dominance did facilitate the emergence of peace in Europe, but—by Mandelbaum’s own argument—it also facilitated the reemergence of rivalry with an estranged Russia. The formula for peace, it turns out, may not be so simple.

East Asia confounds the necessity of Mandelbaum’s three variables as much as it supports it. East Asia has been peaceful in the post–Cold War period, but as Stein Tønnesson has shown, this peace began after not 1989 but after 1979, when the region’s last major war ended.4 Defense spending in the region (per SIPRI data, as a percentage of GDP) peaked in 1982, bottomed in 2000, and gradually increased since.5 Peaceful relations preceded deep economic interdependence, as they did the spread of stable democracy. It is indisputable that American geopolitical dominance set Japan on the path toward development and peace, but the other leaders and states of the region chose, like flying geese, to join Japan on this journey. North Korea is an outlier because it did not join the common East Asian development journey, preferring to define itself as a military-garrison state; this is true not only of the Cold War era, but of the post–Cold War era and today. Despite this, Mandelbaum tries to redeem the “peacefulness” of the post–Cold War era by arguing that North Korea was not a serious threat to regional peace until it developed international continental ballistic missile technologies around 2014. This is a startlingly Americentric perspective, both because North Korea’s crossing of the nuclear threshold in 2006 was by far the more fundamental development, and because North Korea’s conventional power through the whole period was sufficient to provoke much anxiety (i.e., a state of war) among its neighbors, South Korea and Japan in particular.

The attempt to gauge North Korea’s status as a dangerous state based on its ability to hurt the American mainland illustrates a wider failing of Mandelbaum’s analysis. In his chapter on “East Asia,” the longest in the book and marked with 150 endnotes, Mandelbaum cites only three or four authors who appear to be citizens of non-Anglophone East Asian countries; besides these select few, he references a handful of Anglo-American journalists and several Australian think-tankers. Does this really matter? Yes: not only because it reproduces an Orientalist attitude but also because it facilitates the propagation of half-truths. Whereas Mandelbaum presents the region as facing a zero-sum competition between American versus Chinese hegemony, of “active” Chinese revisionism versus American order and peace (pp. 63–79; 85–95), many of the region’s eloquent voices have rejected this construal. Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, for instance, has recently called on the two powers to “overcome their differences, build mutual trust, and work constructively to uphold a stable and peaceful order.”6 There is a lesson here that American strategic analysts should take to heart: the United States may be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it is not part of Asia, and the quest to understand Asia should start not with Washington or London think-tankers or journalists, but Asians!

Other correctives could be offered on the subject of East Asia—it was not the “World Court” that adjudicated the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea as Mandelbaum claims (p. 66), antiaccess/area-denial capabilities are not the same thing as becoming the “master of the seas” (p. 69), economic growth and nationalism are not the sole drivers of Chinese governmental legitimacy, (pp. 75–76), and the raison d’etre of China’s government is not “stealing” its people’s wealth (p. 141)—but a few words must be said in conclusion on Mandelbaum’s chapter on the Middle East. To conceive of this region as having experienced a peaceful “truce” in the post–Cold War era that was only finally undermined by a successful Iranian attempt to dominate the region enabled by a feeble Obama administration is simply absurd. The Middle East has long suffered from the ill-effects of autocracy, great-power rivalry, religious enmity, and the curse of natural resources, but it was the US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq that broke the region’s truce. Precise numbers will never be known, but one research effort at Brown University’s Watson Institute has suggested that America’s post–9/11 wars resulted in (i.e., were a necessary cause for) 770,000 deaths in war zones7 and 37 million displaced people.8 These estimates likely ascribe too much causal influence to America’s role,9 but however one apportions blame, pace Mandelbaum, there was nothing “relatively peaceful” about this period.

In the end, Mandelbaum’s argument is not only illusory but dangerous: if the only way to get out of the state of war is the universal adaptation of mature democratic practices, then humanity is in for a future of war and violence challenged only by hope for a better, transformed, future. In essence, Mandelbaum’s theory of peace is a restatement of James Madison’s argument in Federalist no. 51: if states were angels, they would not fight. The trouble of course, is that men are not angels, and neither are states. If some day all the great powers of the world became mature and peace-loving democracies, that would indeed be a reason to celebrate. But until then, the question remains the same as that asked by Madison: how ought one frame a government to be administered not by angels, but by men? How can states move (albeit only provisionally) from the state of war and into the state of peace? To answer this question, one should return to Michael Howard’s original verdict: “Peace is the order, however imperfect, that results from agreement between states, and can only be sustained by that agreement.”10 If that is indeed the case, there is work to be done.


Jared Morgan McKinney, PhD

Department of Strategy and Security Studies

eSchool of Graduate Professional Military Education

Air Command and Staff College

Air University



Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.


1 G. John Ikenberry, “Review of ‘The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth,’” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 2 (April 2019), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/.

2 David C. Kang, Meredith Shaw, and Ronan Tse-min Fu, “Measuring War in Early Modern East Asia, 1368–1841: Introducing Chinese and Korean Language Sources,” International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 4 (2016): 766–77; David C. Kang et al., “War, Rebellion, and Intervention under Hierarchy: Vietnam–China Relations, 1365 to 1841,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 63, no. 4 (April 2019): 896–922, https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002718772345.

3 Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, trans. J. F. Huntington (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993).

4 Stein Tønnesson, “What Is It That Best Explains the East Asian Peace Since 1979? A Call for a Research Agenda,” Asian Perspective 33, no. 1 (2009): 111–36, https://doi.org/10.1353/apr.2009.0027; Stein Tønnesson, “Peace by Development,” in Debating the East Asian Peace: What It Is. How It Came About. Will It Last?, ed. Elin Bjarnegård and Joakim Kreutz (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2017), 55–77.

5 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Military Expenditure Database,” (2020): https://www.sipri.org/.

6 Lee Hsien Loong, “The Endangered Asian Century: America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation,” Foreign Affairs, August 2020, 64.

7 Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz, “Human Cost of Post-9/11 Wars” (Watson Institute, Brown University, November 13, 2019), https://watson.brown.edu/.

8 David Vine et al., “Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars” (Watson Institute, Brown University, September 21, 2020), https://watson.brown.edu/.

9 For an analysis that subsumes U.S. actions within wider regional dynamics, see: Hamit Bozarslan, “Coercion and Violence in the Middle East,” in The Cambridge World History of Violence, vol. 4: 1800 to the Present, ed. Louise Edwards, Nigel Penn, and Jay Winter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 125–44, https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316585023.007.

10 Michael Howard, The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 103.


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