Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nmvwc Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-21T18:08:52.618Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Testing Clausewitz: Nationalism, Mass Mobilization, and the Severity of War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2011

Lars-Erik Cederman
Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich. E-mail:
T. Camber Warren
Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich. E-mail:
Didier Sornette
ETH Zurich. E-mail:
Get access


Drawing on Clausewitz's classical theory, we argue that the emergence of mass nationalism following the French Revolution profoundly altered the nature of the units constituting the interstate system, thereby transforming the conduct of interstate warfare. To validate these assertions—and thus to test Clausewitz—we rely on quantitative evidence at the macro level, with a particular focus on the global distribution of interstate war sizes, measured in terms of battle deaths, over the past five centuries. Drawing on extreme value theory, we demonstrate that temporal discontinuities in the shapes of the tails of such distributions can be used to draw inferences about the nature of the mechanisms underlying the bloodiest events in world history. This approach allows us to show that the interstate system experienced a fundamental shift in the mechanisms underlying the production of war sizes: a shift that can be dated to the years 1770–1810, and that resulted in a systematic increase in war severity. These same tools also allow us to rule out a number of alternative explanations for this shift (including changes in population sizes and changes in weapons technology), while providing evidence for a specific account of war severity rooted in the mobilizational capacities of states.

Research Article
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2011

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Alfarano, Simone, and Lux, Thomas. n.d. Extreme Value Theory as a Theoretical Background for Power Law Behavior. Unpublished manuscript, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany.Google Scholar
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2d ed. London: Verso.Google Scholar
Ardant, Gabriel. 1975. Financial Policy and Economic Infrastructure of Modern States and Nations. In The Formation of National States in Western Europe, edited by Tilly, Charles and Ardant, Gabriel, 164242. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Bak, Per, Tang, Chao, and Wiesenfeld, Kurt. 1987. Self-Organized Criticality: An Explanation of 1/f Noise. Physical Review Letters 59 (4):381–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Barkin, J. Samuel, and Cronin, Bruce. 1994. The State and the Nation: Changing Norms and the Rules of Sovereignty in International Relations. International Organization 48 (1):107–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beissinger, Mark R. 2002. Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State: A Tidal Approach to the Study of Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beyerchen, Alan. 1992. Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War. International Security 17 (3):5990.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bohorquez, Juan Camilo, Gourley, Sean, Dixon, Alexander R., Spagat, Michael, and Johnson, Neil F.. 2009. Common Ecology Quantifies Human Insurgency. Nature 462 (7275):911–14.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bukovansky, Mlada. 1999. The Altered State and the State of Nature—the French Revolution and International Politics. Review of International Studies 25 (2):197216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Calhoun, Craig. 1997. Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Carlson, Jean M., and Swindle, Glen H.. 1995. Self-Organized Criticality: Sandpiles, Singularities, and Scaling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 92 (15):6712–19.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Cederman, Lars-Erik. 1997. Emergent Actors in World Politics: How States and Nations Develop and Dissolve. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cederman, Lars-Erik. 2003. Modeling the Size of Wars: From Billiard Balls to Sandpiles. American Political Science Review 97 (1):135–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cederman, Lars-Erik. 2005. Computational Models of Social Forms: Advancing Generative Process Theory. American Journal of Sociology 110 (4):864–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cederman, Lars-Erik, and Daase, Christopher. 2003. Endogenizing Corporate Identities: The Next Step in Constructivist IR Theory. European Journal of International Relations 9 (1):535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chickering, Roger. 1999. Total War: The Use and Abuse of a Concept. In Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871–1914, edited by Boemeke, Manfred F., Chickering, Roger, and Förster, Stig, 1328. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clauset, Aaron, Shalizi, Cosma Rohilla, and Newman, M. E. J.. 2009. Power-Law Distributions in Empirical Data. SIAM Review 51 (4):661703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clauset, Aaron, and Wiegel, Frederik W.. 2010. A Generalized Aggregation-Disintegration Model for the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Attacks. Journal of Conflict Resolution 54 (1):179–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clauset, Aaron, Young, Maxwell, and Gleditsch, Kristian S.. 2007. On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Events. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (1):5887.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clausewitz, Carl von. 1984 [1832]. On War. Rev. ed. Edited and translated by Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Clausewitz, Carl von. 1992. Historical and Political Writings. Edited and translated by Paret, Peter and Moran, Daniel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Cobban, Alfred. 1969. The Nation State and National Self-Determination. Rev. ed. London: Collins.Google Scholar
Connor, Walker. 1972. Nation-Building or Nation-Destroying? World Politics 24 (3):319–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Darwin, John. 1991. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. Oxford, England: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Deutsch, Karl W. 1953. Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Downing, Brian M. 1992. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Dupuy, Trevor N. 1984. The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare. Fairfax, Va.: Hero Books.Google Scholar
Elias, Norbert. 1982 [1939]. The Civilizing Process. Vol. 2, State Formation and Civilization. Translated by Jephcott, Edmund. Oxford, England: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Embrechts, Paul, Klüppelberg, Claudia, Mikosch, Thomas. 1997. Modelling Extremal Events for Insurance and Finance. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Emirbayer, Mustafa. 1997. Manifesto for a Relational Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 103 (2):281317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fearon, James D., and Laitin, David D.. 2000. Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity. International Organization 54 (4):845–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fearon, James D., and Wendt, Alexander. 2002. Rationalism v. Constructivism: A Skeptical View. In Handbook of International Relations, edited by Carlsnaes, Walter, Risse, Thomas, and Simmons, Beth A., 5272. London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gagnon, Valère P. Jr. 2004. The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Giddens, Anthony. 1979. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gilpin, Robert. 1981. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goddard, Stacie E. 2006. Uncommon Ground: Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy. International Organization 60 (1):3568.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gray, Colin S. 2004. Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, Rodney Bruce. 1999. National Collective Identity: Social Constructs and International Systems. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Hechter, Michael. 2001. Containing Nationalism. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, Bruce M. 1975. A Simple General Approach to Inference About the Tail of a Distribution. Annals of Statistics 3 (5):1163–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hinsley, Francis H. 1973. Nationalism and the International System. London: Hodder and Stoughton.Google Scholar
Hintze, Otto. 1975. Military Organization and the Organization of the State. In The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, edited by Gilbert, Felix, 178215. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Holsti, Kalevi J. 1991. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648–1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howard, Michael. 1976. War in European History. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Jervis, Robert. 1978. Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma. World Politics 30 (2):167214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Knox, McGregor, and Murray, Williamson, eds. 2001. The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Krepinevich, Andrew F. 1994. Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions. National Interest 37:3042.Google Scholar
Lacina, Bethany, and Gleditsch, Nils Petter. 2005. Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths. European Journal of Population 21 (2-3):145–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lacina, Bethany, Gleditsch, Nils Petter, and Russett, Bruce. 2006. The Declining Risk of Death in Battle. International Studies Quarterly 50 (3):673–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lebow, Richard Ned. 2003. The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levy, Jack S. 1983. War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495–1975. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
Levy, Jack S. 1989. The Diversionary Theory of War: A Critique. In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Midlarsky, Manus I., 259–88. Boston: Unwin Hyman.Google Scholar
Levy, Jack S., Walker, Thomas C., and Edwards, Martin S.. 2001. Continuity and Change in the Evolution of Warfare. In War in a Changing World, edited by Maoz, Zeev and Gat, Azar, 1548. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
Maddison, Angus. 2003. The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris: OECD.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mann, Michael. 1993. The Sources of Social Power. Vol. 2, The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Marshall, Thomas H. 1973. Class, Citizenship, and Social Development: Essays. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
Miller, Benjamin. 2007. States, Nations, and the Great Powers: The Sources of Regional War and Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitzenmacher, Michael. 2004. A Brief History of Generative Models for Power Law and Lognormal Distributions. Internet Mathematics 1 (2):226–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Namier, Lewis Bernstein. 1958. Vanished Supremacies: Essays on European History, 1812–1918. London: H. Hamilton.Google Scholar
O'Leary, Brendan. 1998. Ernest Gellner's Diagnoses of Nationalism. In The State of the Nation: Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism, edited by Hall, John A., 4088. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Osiander, Andreas. 2001. Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Westphalian Myth. International Organization 55 (2):251–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Petersen, Roger D. 2002. Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pickands, James III 1975. Statistical Inference Using Extreme Order Statistics. The Annals of Statistics 3 (1):119–31.Google Scholar
Pisarenko, Vladilen F., Rodkin, Michael V., and Sornette, Didier. 2004. Deviations of the Distributions of Seismic Energies from the Gutenberg-Richter Law. Computational Seismology 35:138–59.Google Scholar
Pisarenko, Vladilen F., and Sornette, Didier. 2006. New Statistic for Financial Return Distributions: Power-Law or Exponential? Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications 366:387400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Posen, Barry R. 1993. Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power. International Security 18 (2):80124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Richardson, Lewis F. 1960. Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Edited by Wright, Quincy and Lienau, C. C.. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.Google Scholar
Ruggie, John Gerard. 1998. Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Insitutionalization. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Sammis, Charles G., and Sornette, Didier. 2002. Positive Feedback, Memory, and the Predictability of Earthquakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99 (Suppl. 1):2501–8.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sarkees, Meredith Reid, and Schafer, Phil. 2000. The Correlates of War Data on War: An Update to 1997. Conflict Management and Peace Science 18 (1):123–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schulze, Hagen. 1996. States, Nations and Nationalism: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Translated by Yuill, William E.. Oxford, England: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Simmel, Georg. 1950. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated Wolff, and edited by Kurt H.. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.Google Scholar
Small, Melvin, and Singer, J. David. 1982. Resort to Arms: International and Civil Wars, 1816–1980. 2d ed. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.Google Scholar
Smith, Richard L. 1987. Estimating Tails of Probability Distributions. The Annals of Statistics 15 (3):1174–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Snyder, Jack. 2000. From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
Sornette, Didier. 2006. Critical Phenomena in Natural Sciences. Chaos, Fractals, Self-Organization, and Disorder: Concepts and Tools. 2d ed. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
Spruyt, Hendrik. 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Strayer, Joseph R. 1970. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Tajfel, Henri, and Turner, John. C.. 1979. An Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict. In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by Austin, William G. and Worchel, Stephan, 3347. Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole.Google Scholar
Tajfel, Henri, and Turner, John. C.. 1986. The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behaviour. In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by Worchel, Stephan and Austin, William G., 724. 2d ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990–1990. Oxford, England: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Tilly, Charles. 1994. States and Nationalism in Europe 1492–1992. Theory and Society 23 (1):131–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Toft, Monica Duffy. 2003. The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Van Evera, Stephen. 1994. Hypotheses on Nationalism and War. International Security 18 (4):539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wimmer, Andreas. 2002. Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wimmer, Andreas, and Min, Brian. 2006. From Empire to Nation-State: Explaining Wars in the Modern World, 1816–2001. American Sociological Review 71 (6):867–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Woodwell, Douglas. 2007. Nationalism in International Relations: Norms, Foreign Policy, and Enmity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Yack, Bernard. 2001. Popular Sovereignty and Nationalism. Political Theory 29 (4):517–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar