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Anomaly and commonplace in European political expansion: realist and institutional accounts

  • David Strang (a1)


The global expansion of the European state system suggests strong connections between political “life chances” and international status. Polities recognized as sovereign within the Western international community are much less likely than unrecognized polities to be colonized and are much less likely than dependencies to merge or dissolve. These variations in stability are difficult to understand through balance-of-power politics. They may be more plausibly explained through the institutional structure of the state system and, in particular, the organization of the system as a community of mutual recognition. Sovereign members of this community are treated in fundamentally different ways than are those seen as outside Western state society or as the dependent possessions of sovereign states.



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I thank Ronald Jepperson, Stephen D. Krasner, John W. Meyer, Robin Stryker, Ann Swidler, and Nancy B. Tuma for comments on earlier versions of this article. The research was supported in part by a MacArthur Dissertation Grant under the auspices of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control.

1. The classic account of European expansion from a Marxist perspective is Lenin's, Vladimir IlichImperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (London: Martin Lawrence, 1933). For a periphery-based analysis, see Frank, Andre Gunder, “The Development of Underdevelopment,” in Rhodes, R., ed., Imperialism and Underdevelopment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), pp. 417.

2. See Kratochwil, Friedrich and Ruggie, John G., “International Organization: A State of the Art on the Art of the State,” International Organization 40 (Autumn 1986), pp. 2752. For a variety of approaches to international regimes, see the contributions to Krasner, Stephen D., ed., International Regimes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983)

3. See Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939 (London: Harper, 1964); Morgenthau, Hans, Politics Among Nations (New York: Knopf, 1978); and Aron, Raymond, Inter-national Relations: A Theory of Peace and War, 5th ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973). Among the major neorealist works are Waltz's, KennethTheory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979) and Gilpin's, RobertWar and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

4. For a view that casts classic realism much closer to the institutional perspective described in this article, see Ashley, Richard K., “The Poverty of Neorealism,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 225–85.

5. A liberal view begins with the same premises but instead emphasizes the potential for cooperation. See, for example, Axelrod, Robert, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); and Keohane, Robert O., After Hegemony (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).

6. Grieco, Joseph M., “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism,” International Organization 42 (Summer 1988), pp. 498–99.

7. See Waltz, Theory of International Politics. For a decision-making rule that includes both realist and institutional elements, see Kaplan, Morton, System and Process in International Politics (New York: Wiley, 1962).

8. Gulick, Edward V., Europe's Classical Balance of Power (Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Baillou Press, 1955).

9. Keohane, Robert O., “International Institutions: Two Approaches,” International Studies Quarterly 32 (10 1988), pp. 379–96.

10. For institutional approaches stressing other processes, see March, James G. and Olsen, Johan P., “The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in American Political Life,” American Political Science Review 78 (09 1984), pp. 734–49; Young, Oran R., “International Regimes: Toward a New Theory of Institutions,” World Politics 39 (10 1986), pp. 104–22; and Krasner, Stephen D., “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective,” Comparative Political Studies 21 (Spring 1988), pp. 6694. For a sociological view, see Meyer, John W., Boli, John, and Thomas, George M., “Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Cultural Account,” in Thomas, George M. et al. , eds., Institutional Structure (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1987), pp. 1237.

11. Young, , “International Regimes,” p. 107.

12. See Rawls, John, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Reviews, vol. 64, 1955, pp. 332; and Keohane, “International Institutions.”

13. March, and Olsen, , “The New Institutionalism,” p. 741.

14. Keohane, , “International Institutions,” p. 390.

15. Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

16. See Ruggie, John Gerard, “Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis,” World Politics 36 (Spring 1983), pp. 261–85; Krasner, “Sovereignty”; and Keohane, “International Institutions.”

17. For conceptualizations of the state system as a society, see Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); and Wight, Martin, Systems of States (Leicester, U.K.: Leicester University Press, 1977).

18. See Kratochwil, Friedrich, “Of Systems, Boundaries, and Territoriality: An Inquiry into the Formation of the State System,” World Politics 39 (10 1986), pp. 2752. For a detailed account of a quite different conception of states and state systems, see Geertz, Clifford, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980).

19. See Meyer, John W., “The World Polity and the Authority of the Nation-State,” in Bergeson, A., ed., Studies of the Modern World-System (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 109–38; and Krasner, Stephen D., Structural Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

20. This is most clear in nineteenth-century writings on international law. For example, as Hall argued in A Treatise on International Law, “It is scarcely necessary to point out that as international law is a product of the special civilisation of modern Europe, and forms a highly artificial system of which the principles cannot be supposed to be understood or recognized by countries differently civilised, such states only can be presumed to be subject to it as are inheritors of the civilisation.… But states outside European civilisation must formally enter into the circle of law-governed countries. They must do something with the acquiescence of the latter, or some of them, which amounts to an acceptance of the law in its entirety beyond all possibility of misconstruction.” See Hall, W. E., A Treatise on International Law, 8th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), pp. 4748; cited in Wight, , Systems of States, p. 115.

21. Weber, Max, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 58.

22. James, Alan, Sovereign Statehood (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986).

23. Oppenheim, L. F. L., International Law, 8th ed. (New York: Longmans, Green, 1955), p. 125.

24. For descriptions of the ceremonies used to claim sovereignty, see Keller, Arthur S., Lissitzyn, Oliver J., and Mann, Frederick J., Creation of Rights of Sovereignty Through Symbolic Acts, 1400–1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938). For the opposing argument that Western states implicitly recognized non-Western polities through treaty making, see Alexandrowicz, Charles Henry, An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies: Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967).

25. Lauterpacht, Hersch, Recognition in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. 381.

26. See Pratt, Julius W., America's Colonial Experiment (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950).

27. See Henige, David, Colonial Governors (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970); Banks, Arthur S., ed., Political Handbook of the World, 1987 (Binghamton, N.Y.: CSA Publications, 1987); and Singer, J. David and Small, Melvin, Diplomatic Exchange Data, 1815–1970 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 1985).

28. Jackson, Robert and Rosberg, Carl, “Why Africa's Weak States Persist: The Empirical and the Juridical in Statehood,” World Politics 35 (10 1982), pp. 124.

29. Stinchcombe introduced the notion of the “liability of newness.” See Stinchcombe, Arthur L., “Social Structure and Organizations,” in March, James G., ed., Handbook of Organizations (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), pp. 153–93. For empirical demonstrations, see Freeman, John, Carroll, Glenn R., and Hannan, Michael T., “The Liabilty of Newness: Age Dependence in Organizational Death Rates,” American Sociological Review 48 (10 1983), pp. 692710; and Singh, Jitendra V., Tucker, David J., and House, Robert J., “Organizational Legitimacy and the Liability of Newness,” Administrative Science Quarterly 31 (06 1986), pp. 171–93.

30. See Parry, J. H., The Spanish Theory of Empire in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940).

31. My discussion of Katanga's attempted secession is based on the following accounts: Hoskyns, Catherine, The Congo Since Independence (London: Oxford University Press, 1965); and Gerard-Libois, Jules, Katanga Secession (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

32. Keltie, J. Scott, ed., The Statesman's Year-Book, 1900 (London: Macmillan, 1900).

33. Ibid.

34. See Langer, William L., The Diplomacy of Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1935).

35. According to Tilly, there were on the order of five hundred European polities in the sixteenth century, while there are about twenty-five today. See Tilly, Charles, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in Tilly, Charles, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 15.


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