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Bounding Power:
Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village
Daniel H. Deudney

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Before Realism and Liberalism

I study power so as to understand the enemy.
   —Stanley Hoffmann1


Globalization is the first, most important fact about the human condition at the threshold of the second millennium. Globalization, the rising levels of interdependence on progressively larger spatial scales, has been the dominant trend in human history during the last five centuries, and it has operated in military, ecological, economic, and cultural dimensions. Over this period, all human political communities, initially isolated or loosely connected, have become more densely and tightly interconnected and subject to various mutual vulnerabilities in a manner previously experienced only on much smaller spatial scales. The creation of this villagelike proximity and density on a global scale has occurred through every means imaginable, from genocidal invasion and enslavement to cooperative exchange and progressive emulation. It has produced massive epidemics, world wars, ecological devastation, and cultural annihilation, as well as large populations of humans more secure, more free, and more prosperous than ever before in history. Looking ahead into the new century, globalization shows every indication of further intensifying as human population burgeons, weapons of mass destruction proliferate, lethal new plagues emerge, ecological destruction accelerates, economies further integrate, and information capacities advance.

In the face of these developments, theorists of international relations and world politics have a decidedly divided posture. On one side, numerous globalist and interdependence theorists have charted these realities for more than a century, and many have pointedly drawn the conclusion that increasingly substantive world governance and government are needed to satisfy basic human interests. On the other side, the still hegemonic tradition of Realist2 international theory maintains a skeptical stance toward globalist claims about the world and doubts the need or the possibility of establishing robust world governance. Labeling these ambitions utopian or idealistic, Realists emphasize the long historical persistence of the fundamentally anarchic sovereign state system and expect the future to look much like the past. The Realist view also seems to gain authority from a conceptually rich tradition of theorizing supposedly stretching back to the ancient Greeks and seemingly vindicated repeatedly by the historical record.

The second most important fact about the contemporary human situation is the liberal-democratic ascent, the rise to an historically unprecedented preeminence of the ‘free world’ composed of the United States of America and its democratic allies. Republics (polities based on political liberty, popular sovereignty, and limited government) have been historically precarious and rare, generally poor, and massively compromised. They now constitute a zone of peace, freedom, and prosperity far greater than any other in history. For most of history republics were confined to small city-states where they were insecure and vulnerable to conquest or internal usurpation, but over the last two centuries they have expanded to continental size through federal union and emerged victorious from the violent total world conflicts of the twentieth century. In contrast, their major despotic and imperial adversaries have failed spectacularly. The American-led ‘free world’ overcame the reversals of the 1930s and early 1940s, expanded with the reconstruction of Western Europe and parts of East Asia as capitalist, liberal, constitutional, and federal democracies, and has built a dense network of international institutions.3 This “compound of federations, confederations, and international regimes”4 now constitutes a political order more like the domestic spheres of earlier republics than the prototypical Realist state system of hierarchies in anarchy.

On the Liberal ascent international theorists also have a decidedly divided posture. Realists tend to view the United States as simply another nation-state and as a particularly successful great power. They tend to dismiss its exceptionalist liberal-democratic ideology as either dangerously naive or disingenuously self-serving.5 Realists also have difficulty accepting and conceptualizing the Western liberal order as a distinct type of state system. They have little hope for its persistence and expend little effort in thinking about how it might be sustained or augmented. Contemporary Liberal international theory, growing in strength and sophistication along with the expansion of the liberal system, does better, but its treatment is also fragmented, off center, and increasingly in disarray. In contrast to the pessimistic Realist emphasis on historical patterns of recurrence, contemporary Liberalism, particularly American ‘neoconservativism,’ has tended toward overoptimism, verging on triumphalism and complacency, thus forgetting the arduous circumstances and severe problems faced by early republican polities.6 International Liberalism’s numerous practical agendas of arms control, democracy promotion, international law, human rights, peacekeeping, international organization, and functional problem-solving regimes still labor inappropriately under the onus of utopianism. These agendas are not well connected to one another or to a larger conceptualization of Liberal and world governance, and the legacies of progressive internationalism are increasingly under assault. Liberals are also increasingly divided about the appropriateness of establishing international restraints on states, and the liberal democracies of America and Europe are increasingly divided about which parts of the liberal-democratic agenda are most important.7

The stakes and divisions over intensifying security globalization and the status of broadly liberal political arrangements are particularly acute concerning nuclear weapons. Marking the effective culmination of five centuries of strategic and military globalization, the discovery of nuclear explosives a half century ago created a material context with unprecedented possibilities for large-scale destruction. In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, the increasing credibility of nonstate actors acquiring and using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction has further raised both the stakes and the intellectual disarray surrounding security globalization and the fate of free polities.

The response of theorists to these destructive possibilities also has been extremely diverse, ranging from the view that the state system is obsolete and must be replaced by effective world government, through the currently dominant middle view that nuclear deterrence has brought about a revolution in interstate relations, to the still influential view that nuclear weapons are not revolutionary in their implications. Within this diverse matrix of theory and policy, Realist views, while themselves varied, have dominated, displacing into increasing marginality early American and liberal views supporting robust international regulation and vigorous arms control.8 The attacks of 9/11 and the prospects of nonstate nuclear terrorism have brought new urgency to the old question of the relationship between domestic liberty and international order.


Given these discrepancies between these two contemporary realities—intensifying globalization (particularly concerning security) and the liberal-democratic ascent—and their treatment in contemporary international theory, the goal of this book is to rethink the basic traditions and concepts of international theory.9 I do so by offering an alternative reading of Western security theorizing that aims to alter our conception of our theoretical past in ways potentially useful for our present and future needs. I focus on the main line of Western theorizing about the relations among security-from-violence, material contexts, and types of government.10 This reading recovers and reconstructs a line of thinking centered around republicanism and contextual-materialist geopolitics that emerged in the ancient and modern European Enlightenments. This line of theorizing, which I shall refer to interchangeably as republican security theory and security-restraint republicanism, has been misunderstood and misappropriated in mainstream, and particularly Realist-centered, accounts of international theory. Central ideas of its main successors—Realism and Liberalism— are incomplete fragments of it. While some parts of this line of argument are central to both contemporary Realism and Liberalism, other parts, some of great importance, have been partially lost and marginalized and the connections between them have nearly vanished. Viewing the original formulations of Western structural-materialist security theory in this way reveals a tradition that was doing in the past precisely what we need to be doing in the present and future, namely, grappling with change in material contexts and the extension of republican government on successively larger scales. The net effect of this argument for contemporary international theory is to diminish Realism as a distinct and intelligible tradition, to expand, deepen, and recenter international Liberalism, and to point the way toward a unified structural-material security theory.

In simple terms, I claim that the main axis of intellectual development in Western structural-materialist security theory is composed of two problematiques which seek to understand the interplay between variations and changes in the material context, security-from-violence, and three arrangements of political authority (anarchical, hierarchical, and republican). The overall republican security project has been to achieve security by simultaneously avoiding the extremes of hierarchy and anarchy over successively larger spaces in response to changes in the material context, particularly changes in violence interdependence. The most essential claim of the first problematique is that anarchy is incompatible with security in situations in which there are high levels of violence interdependence, and that such situations vary across both space and time in intelligible patterns shaped by the interaction of geography and technology. A key claim of the second problematique, largely dropped by more recent Realist formulations, is that the extremes of both hierarchy and anarchy are intrinsically incompatible with security owing to the absence of restraint. Republican forms, evolving over time to encompass ever-larger spaces, essentially entail the simultaneous negation of both anarchy and hierarchy through the imposition of mutual restraints. As such, the main axis of Western structural-material security theory is about the interplay between restraints—either material contextual or political structural— and security-from-violence. In short, providing security in a world of bounding power, of leaping violence possibilities, requires changes in the scope and types of bounding power, of socially constructed practices and structures of restraint.

Two often overlooked facts suggest the value of rereading the main historical axis of security theory as essentially that of republicanism and its fragmentary successors. First, the terms ‘Realism’ and ‘Liberalism’ first appear during the nineteenth century, and six of the main ideas now associated with them (for Realism: the anarchy problematique, balance of power, and society of states; for Liberalism: democratic peace, commercial peace, and international institutions) were first formulated before the nineteenth century largely within the conceptual idioms of republicanism. Second, almost all the writings from which Realist and Liberal international theory take their main arguments were written about the particular problems of a handful of polities (democratic Athens, republican Rome, Renaissance Venice and Florence, and early modern Holland, Britain, and the United States) and were written by citizens, inhabitants, or close observers of these polities.11 Far from being a random selection of polities across Western (let alone global) historical experience, these polities were highly anomalous due to their precocious possession of political liberty, popular sovereignty, and limited government, and several of them had roles within their state systems vastly disproportionate to their size and population. Given these facts, it is easy to entertain the proposition that international security theory originated within the conceptual idioms of these republican polities and to see its overall project as the simultaneous avoidance of the extremes of anarchy and hierarchy. Like the surprise of Molie`re’s bourgeois gentleman upon learning he had been speaking prose his whole life, international theory is surprised to learn that it has long been unknowingly speaking republicanism.

In the remaining sections of this introduction, I unpack more fully my claim that the main ideas recognized as central to contemporary Realist and Liberal international theory are republican in origin, explore the conceptual parameters of this ‘republicanism,’ specify the role of material contextual variables in these arguments, outline the nature and limits of interpretative rereadings, and summarize the subsequent chapters.


To appreciate the value of recovering and reconstructing the structural-materialist security arguments of ancient and early modern republican theory, it is useful to begin with an examination of the commanding heights in the diverse landscape of contemporary international relations theory. There are far more international theorists than ever before, and the lines between different schools and arguments are often blurred. Despite this expansion and blending, the most widely used way to refer to the major clusters of arguments is as traditions, three of which are most established and developed—Realism, Liberalism, and Marxism.12 There is also wide agreement that Realism, despite continued assaults and criticisms, remains the most compelling, even hegemonic tradition, particularly concerning security.13 Realism is itself diverse, encompassing social science arguments, policy-relevant analysis, and a canonical body of earlier theorists, and there are many debates among Realists.14

The construction of Realism as a tradition of international theory has largely been in the ‘American social science’ of international relations, fashioned during the second half of the ‘American Century.’15 But the essential conceptual building blocks of this enterprise were derived from earlier European thought and largely brought by European émigrés. Realism’s rise and contours have been heavily shaped by its aspiration to guide American foreign policy better than indigenous American ‘idealism.’16 Realism’s intellectual hegemony is buttressed by its sense of itself as a tradition of practice and theory stretching back to Thucydides in Greek antiquity and claiming many of the leading figures in Western political thought.17 Reinforcing this hegemony, non-Realists largely define themselves through their attacks on Realism. Although Realists are not a majority of contemporary international theorists, the field (particularly concerning security) resembles a wheel with Realism at the hub and its competitors situated on spokes radiating out from it.

The first step in seeing beyond the Realist-dominated landscape of international theory, particularly concerning security, is to look more closely at the ways in which Realism constitutes itself as a tradition. Despite the claim of Realist international theory to be of great and distinguished antiquity, it is important to remember that the word ‘international’ and the labels for the three main contemporary traditions—Realism, Liberalism, and Marxism—were all coined in the nineteenth century.18 Thus the construction of Realism and Liberalism as international traditions has been largely the projection of the categories, concerns, and divisions of the theoretical landscape of the recent past onto the distant past. This reading creates an odd pattern of incomplete appropriation, misappropriation, and nonappropriation of earlier lines of argument. Earlier theorists certainly made arguments that are similar to contemporary Realist claims, but these arguments were formulated in different conceptual languages and were parts of larger arguments substantially different from contemporary Realist claims. To begin to see how this is so, it is useful to examine three rather odd and unsatisfactory features of the contemporary formulation of Realism as a tradition.

First, consider four of the leading stars in the Realist ancestral firmament: Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As many critics have observed, Realist readings do violence to the complexity and uniqueness of each of these writers.19 Less noticed, however, is a more important political fact: all four theorists, each in different ways, held strong political allegiances to particular republican or protoliberal polities, and the focus of their writings was the security problems faced by such polities. Thucydides was not simply a disinterested chronicler of the Peloponnesian War writing for all time, but was a follower of Pericles and a general of democratic Athens.20 Machiavelli, despite his ironic legacy of inspiration to modern absolutist monarchical state-builders, was an active citizen and tireless public servant in the turbulent Florentine Republic, and his main work sought to inspire emulation of the Roman Republic.21 Hobbes, while fearful of the discord he associated with republican politics, was a strong proto liberal in that he based his entire program of political renewal upon a concern for individual security.22 And Rousseau, the devoted (if errant) son of the republican city-state of Geneva, was first and foremost an advocate and theorist of strong democracy and traditional republican virtue against the oppressions and corruptions of large modern despotic monarchies. Each of these theorists was more pessimistic than contemporary Liberals about the human political prospect, but each wrote with a measure of optimism that their advances in knowledge could lead to at least modest amelioration of human miseries. Thus, to the extent these four theorists are understood as ‘founders of Realism,’ their ‘Realism’ emerged from reflections on the security of republican, democratic, and liberal polities.

Second, Realists have been remarkably uninterested in reading and remembering the actual founders of a distinctly Realist tradition, the German theorists of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Not only did the actual term ‘realpolitik’ emerge here, but the elaborate and strong power political theories of German national statism, Machtpolitik, and Geopolitik produced by figures such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, G.W.F. Hegel, Henreich von Trietschke, Friedrich Meinecke, Friedrich Ratzel, Otto Hintze, Karl Haushofer, Max Weber, and Carl Schmitt—to mention only the most prominent—remain the richest cluster of pure and strong Realist thinking.23 All advocates, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of German imperial expansion and strong authoritarian government, their large body of work finds virtually no mention in the contemporary Realist construction of itself as a tradition.24

Third, remembering the German theorists of the Second Empire and Third Reich points to another problem in Realism’s claim to be a hegemonic theory of international politics, particularly concerning security: the neglect of domestic hierarchy as a security threat. ‘Death by government,’ political murder by the strong hierarchies of twentieth-century totalitarian despotism (most notably Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and their many lesser imitators), cumulatively killed as many—if not more—of their own hapless subjects as did their foreign aggressions.25 Yet the topic of hierarchy as a threat to security is oddly absent from Realist international theory and its subfield of ‘security studies.’ This exclusion has the effect of expelling from the security story one of the greatest extended accomplishments of republican and Liberal theory and practice—the restraint of domestic hierarchy as a security threat over progressively larger spaces. This omission also renders the republican and Liberal program of simultaneously ameliorating and avoiding both hierarchy and anarchy far more utopian than it has actually been.

The intimate unacknowledged relationship between contemporary Realist and earlier republican thought also emerges from a reflection on the origins of some of the main ideas of contemporary Realism. Despite its diversity, three of the ‘high poles’ in the Realist tent are anarchy, the balance of power, and international society, which taken together constitute an immensely powerful and well-developed image of international politics.26 The first polar notion, often referred to as the ‘anarchy problematique,’ is that interstate politics is an anarchy (in the sense of lacking authoritative government) in which states are forced to secure themselves by their own devices. As an ‘ordering principle’ of state systems, anarchy is held to evoke a set of behaviors and dynamics (such as the security dilemma, balancing, and alliances) that give international politics a distinctive and often warlike character, in contrast to politics inside states, which is said to be authoritatively and hierarchically ordered. The second polar idea is balance of power, about which Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neorealism, observes that “if there is any distinctively political theory of international politics, balance-of-power is it.”27 For states in anarchy, security and the preservation of the plural political order of the anarchic state system is held to depend upon a favorable distribution or balance of power, and the ability of states to maintain it. The third polar idea, international society, most developed by the ‘English School,’ maintains that international systems can also possess a distinctive society with system-level institutions, most notably sovereignty, diplomacy, and international law, which operate to moderate interstate relations.28

One does not have to dig very deeply to unearth the republican origins of these three polar ideas. The anarchy problematique is straightforwardly derived from the thought of early modern thinkers, most notably Hobbes and Rousseau.29 The first emergence of the balance of power and international society as arrangements for the preservation of plurality and restraint on power occurs, as we shall see at length (in chapter 5), in the early modern characterization of Europe as a whole as a ‘republic.’ These features of state systems are first systematically conceptualized by analogy with city-state republics. Looking at the overall contemporary ‘Realist tradition’ it seems clear that “contemporary realists have invented a past and call it a tradition.”30 And so too have Liberals, albeit in different ways.


Among the many challenges to Realism, perhaps the most substantial has come from Liberalism. Moving to dispel the dismissive Realist labels of ‘idealist’ and ‘utopian,’ Liberal theorists have moved beyond primarily offering schemes to change the world for the better and begun providing a variety of concepts useful for understanding and explaining aspects of the world as it actually is. They have also begun to construct a tradition through the recovery and reinterpretation of earlier theorists and writers. Despite many strengths and accomplishments, contemporary Liberal international theory has fallen short of overthrowing Realism’s intellectual hegemony, particularly concerning security. In part this shortfall is attributable to the fact that Realism seems to capture so much of history as well as aspects of contemporary world politics. More fundamentally, however, the Liberal challenge has fallen short because it has not yet advanced a line of argument that more compellingly addresses the major issues of security, structure, and power that animate Realism.

Contemporary Liberal international theory is also extensive and diverse. As is the case with Realism, contemporary Liberal international theory encompasses social science arguments, policy-relevant analysis, and interpretations of earlier theorists. On the social science side, Liberal international theorists have been especially enthusiastic participants in the scientific and methodological ferment of the ‘behavioral revolution.’31 Despite aspirations toward common methodology and cumulation of knowledge, contemporary Liberal international theory has produced a bewildering proliferation of new concepts, theories, and schools: Functionalism, neofunctionalism, pluralistic security communities, pluralism, integration, transnational relations, preferred world orders, interdependence, complex interdependence, democratic peace, regimes, and cooperation—to mention only some of the most prominent and extensively developed.32 This theoretical situation is paralleled by a great diversity of practical agendas regarding democracy promotion, international organizations, international regimes, international law, arms control, and human rights.

This theoretical explosion has produced the great fragmentation of Liberal theory, creating uncertainty about the relationship among these new conceptual vocabularies and theories, and about their novelty or superiority to earlier Liberal arguments, with the result that contemporary Liberal international theory appears to be less than the sum of its parts. Even more fundamentally, however, the main drift of this polymorphous tide has been away from a direct challenge to Realism: away from security-from-violence and toward nonsecurity issue areas (notably economics and environment); away from political structure and toward process; and away from material variables and toward norms, common understandings, and other ideational factors.33 Lacking Liberal arguments that directly and effectively address the pivotal Realist arguments about security, structure, and material context, Liberals often cast their arguments as adjunct or special case modifications of Realism.34

Despite this diversity and these tendencies, the Liberal theoretical tent, particularly regarding security, also has three tall poles: democratic peace, commercial peace, and international institutions, which together constitute the most intellectually potent elements in the Liberal camp.35 The first polar idea, democratic peace, holds that democracies will not make war against other democracies, due to domestic structural or normative restraints, and has been labeled “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”36 The second polar idea, commercial peace, holds that rising levels of international economic interdependence through trade will tend to produce peace among states by raising the cost of war to irrational levels and by providing an alternative to conquest as a path for national gain. Contemporary international Liberalism’s third polar idea, international institutions, holds that the presence of various forms of international organizations, law, and regimes (extending beyond the traditional institutions of the society of states) moderates interstate relations and that Liberal states have a particular affinity for such institutions.

The origins of these three Liberal polar ideas is also straightforwardly republican and often attributed to republican theorists cast as ‘early liberals.’ Democratic peace is widely attributed to Immanuel Kant, who spoke of ‘republics’ and specifically condemned majoritarian democracy without restraints as despotic.37 The idea of commercial peace makes its appearance in early modern thought, particularly Montesquieu, and is commonly attributed by Liberals to Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Richard Cobden. Similarly, the idea of international institutions, cast as various forms of unions, leagues, and federal arrangements, is a staple of early modern republican thought. Recent readings of these early modern theorists, most prominently by Michael Doyle, have created a fuller sense of a ‘tradition’ of Liberal, or ‘neoclassical Liberal,’ theorizing with deeper roots and greater authority and have provided an important step toward unity and historical depth in contemporary Liberal international theory.38

These readings are compelling as far as they go, but as a mining of the past to add pedigree and depth to contemporary international Liberalism’s three polar ideas, they miss central issues of early republican security theorizing and neglect several substantial bodies of pivotal literature. As with the Realist reading, the Liberal projection of current concerns on the past produces an odd pattern of incomplete appropriation, misappropriation, and nonappropriation of earlier lines of argument. Earlier theorists certainly made arguments that are substantively similar to contemporary Liberal claims, but these arguments were formulated in different conceptual languages and were parts of larger arguments different from contemporary Liberal claims. To see how this is so, it is useful to examine four unsatisfactory features of the contemporary formulation of international Liberalism as a tradition.

First, the formulation of neoclassical Liberalism largely neglects earlier republican arguments about security, political structure, and material context. This omission in part reflects the impact of what is widely referred to as the ‘republican revival’ among political theorists and intellectual historians over the last quarter century.39 The revivalists advance the view that there is a sharp conceptual divide between republicanism, centered on community and virtue and derived from Aristotle’s ‘civic humanism,’ and Liberalism, centered on individualism and interest. In this narrative, Liberalism slowly emerges in the early modern period and then supplants republicanism by the early-nineteenth century. The focus of the republican revival has been mainly domestic, but the most substantial treatment of republicanism and international theory, provided by Nicholas Onuf, asserts a particularly strong version of the republican-Liberal divide.40 The emphasis on Kant by neoclassical Liberalism has also reinforced idealist over materialist arguments. As a result, the Enlightenment culmination of republican structural-materialist security theory, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, occupies a marginal status in the contemporary formulations of Liberalism as a tradition of international and security theorizing, despite being a continuing epicenter of scholarly analysis.41 When these security, structural, and material arguments are brought back into the narrative, the primary novelty of early modern thought is not the claim that democracy and commerce have pacific effects, but rather an analysis of the circumstances in which such political forms are compatible with interstate survival.

The three Liberal polar arguments emerge from republican thought, but they are secondary to the one topic that stands out as overwhelmingly central in this body of thought: the Roman Republic. Interpretations of the Roman republican experience are present in virtually every thinker, and are central to most, and here Kant stands out as nearly unique in not addressing it at all. For friends of political liberty, the Roman record was tragically pessimistic. Roman survival in a harshly competitive security environment was achieved through expansion, but expansion created internal imbalances that were nearly universally understood to be the root cause of the violent transformation of the Republic into the monarchical and ultimately despotic principate.42 It is against this experience that the early moderns defined their problems and measured their innovations.

The third omission, the founding of the United States of America as an alternative to both the hierarchical state and the anarchic state system, follows logically from the second. The Roman experience posed for the American founders the problem that federal union is advanced to solve: how can political freedom be combined with the large size, and hence interstate security, associated with despotically governed empires? The first dozen or so papers of the Federalist in many ways mark the culmination of ancient and modern Enlightenment republican security theory. They expound in crystalline clarity the security project of simultaneously avoiding hierarchy and anarchy both internally and externally, and advance federal union as the solution to the debilitating impasse posed by the Roman record. Despite this, the Federalist is almost invisible in contemporary formulations of international Liberalism.43

Fourth, the neoclassical Liberal narrative oddly jumps from the early-nineteenth century to the present, largely overlooking late-nineteenthand early-twentieth-century arguments about the interplay between federal forms and the emerging global-scope security environment produced by the industrial revolution. Here Liberals have largely accepted the conventional view that the strong materialist arguments of fin de sie`cle ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘geopolitics’ are thoroughly and harshly Realist. As a result many Liberal figures and arguments are omitted from the narratives and attention of international theorists. Most notable are H. G. Wells and John Dewey, who pioneered the reformulation of the earlier static geographic contextual-materialist arguments to deal with a dynamic industrial technological-material context.44 In sum, neoclassical Liberalism has neglected major parts of republican theory that deal with security, structure, and material-context, topics now largely ceded to Realism.

These significant problems in the contemporary constructions of both Realism and Liberalism as traditions, in combination with the powerful underacknowledged legacies of republicanism in both Realism and Liberalism, indicate the need for a fresh reading of republican security thought on its own terms. It should be emphasized that the purpose of this reconstruction and exegesis is not to challenge the value or accuracy of the six polar concepts of contemporary Realism and Liberalism, but rather to put them in their proper place. Indeed, to the extent that the six polar ideas are judged to be persuasive, a fuller recovery of republicanism becomes appealing. Nor is this reading intended to be a prehistory of Realist and Liberal international theory. Rather, it is a reconstruction and exegesis of the republican security theory from which Realism and Liberalism have found some of their most important arguments. Its primary goal is not to establish that the six polar ideas of Realism and Liberalism derive from republicanism, although the junctures where they emerge are highlighted closely. Nor is the goal to engage the intricate contemporary debates about the six polar legacies. Because of what Realism and Liberalism have not appropriated from republicanism, republican security theory is more than the sum of the Realist and Liberal arguments derived from republicanism. When we view the past in this way, rather than as ‘early Realism’ or ‘early Liberalism,’ we acquire not only a very different past, but also a body of future-relevant theory better suited to grapple with security globalization and the Liberal ascent than either Realism or Liberalism.


Few political terms are as widely used and theoretically significant, but as vaguely defined, as ‘republic’ and its cognates.45 John Adams, second president of the United States and author of a major theoretical exposition on the U.S. Constitution, despairingly declared that ‘republic’ meant “anything, everything or nothing.”46 Over the course of Western history, republican terminology has been used by theorists and practitioners to label a bewildering diversity of phenomena: Plato’s picture of a small city-state ruled by a philosopher-king, popular government in city-states, Rome between the kings and the principate, the European state system, and many contemporary political regimes such as the United States of America, and the People’s Republic of China.47 To further compound the confusion, numerous ‘republican’ political parties hawk a variety of conflicting agendas. Within political theory the situation is even more profoundly complex, because the term ‘republic’ and its cognates have been used in various, often important, ways by most major theorists, making a full understanding of republicanism tantamount to reaching an understanding of most of Western political thought.

In simple terms, a ‘republic’ is a plural political order marked by political freedom, popular sovereignty, and limited government, and the modern liberal democracies come closer to realizing this from of government than its earlier versions. Due to its attention to the interplay of material contexts and the simultaneous avoidance of the extremes of hierarchy and anarchy, republican security theory encompasses far more than simply a variant of the internal or domestic forms of a ‘state.’ Many of the contemporary uses of ‘republic’ are attempts to disguise essentially antirepublican forms with the prestige of this label. Many other republican arguments are marked by one element of republican government being exaggerated at the expense of others to the point where an essentially nonrepublic is present. Many of the earlier and more philosophical usages, which are sorted in chapter 2, are rival siblings of the arguments of security-restraint republicanism. Security-restraint republicanism, composed of two problematiques (anarchy-interdependence and hierarchy-restraint), has not been adequately appreciated or mapped. Despite the vast amount that has been written on the sprawling topic of republicanism by political theorists,48 intellectual historians,49 and international theorists,50 a central line of argument has not been adequately appreciated. To recover and reconstruct this lost and fragmented structural-materialist security theory requires following a line of argument as it runs through the works of a wide array of theorists, some well known, some largely forgotten, stretching from antiquity to the American founding and beyond.

Security from political violence is the first freedom, the minimum vital task of all primary political associations, and achieving security requires restraint of the application of violent power upon individual bodies. Insecurity results from extremes of both anarchy and hierarchy, because both are characterized by the absence of restraints on the application of violent power. The material context composed of geography and technology defines which powers must be restrained and which security practices and structures are appropriate for doing so. Thus security problems and solutions are not fixed and immutable, but spatially and temporally variable.

This set of concerns is not antiliberal or nonliberal; it is first Liberal. Contrary to the contemporary emphasis on the difference between republicanism and Liberalism, the republican arguments about security, political structure, and material context here excavated and reconstructed are not only compatible with Liberalism, they are Liberalism’s primary concern—liberty—at its most primal and vital level—the application of violence to bodies. The ‘liberty’ that ancient and early modern republicans were first and foremost seeking to achieve was freedom from violence.51 The Romans were obsessively concerned with achieving publica salus (public safety) by restraining violence in multiple directions, both inside and outside. Similarly, the ‘right’ that repeatedly appears as most central in early modern ‘rights’ theory is protection of life from violence,52 and the earlier language of republics as ‘free states’ marked by ‘liberty’ is often (but not always) intermingled with talk of ‘rights.’53

What distinguishes the first Liberalism of republican security theory from simple libertarianism or simple anarchism is its concern for political structures of restraint, of authoritative political arrangements that restrain violence among large numbers of people. The centrality of this concern for political structure emerges from the sober and at times pessimistic recognition that achieving protection from political violence is a daunting and difficult—and often impossible—task. Security from violence is a ‘negative’ freedom, but realizing it often entails a demanding set of ‘positive’ tasks. With this instrumental view of political arrangements, the republican security theorists have focused on a wide array of power restraint arrangements, their appropriateness in different settings, and their evolution. As such, the first Liberalism of republican security theory is about the positive tasks entailed in protecting negative freedom and avoiding certain evils, rather than about the realization of particular goods.54 In this view, which Quentin Skinner usefully characterizes as ‘neo-Roman republicanism,’ political participation and civic virtue are means, not ends,55 suited to particular contexts, and thus inappropriately identified as intrinsically or distinctively republican. In sum, republican security theory contains the first and most foundational arguments of Liberalism—its core devoted to the protection and preservation of free peoples and individuals—upon which other less vital but still important concerns and arguments have been added. Contemporary Liberalism is not the enemy of republican security theory, but its privileged—if forgetful and not always grateful—child.56

The relationship between republican security theory and the ideas now known as Realist is also intimate, but in a very different way. Among the many ideas Realism inherited from republicanism, the most conceptually foundational concern the ‘state of nature.’ These arguments are about anarchy, but only secondarily or by analogy about interstate anarchy. In simplest terms, these ‘state of nature’ arguments delineate the first set of problems that must be solved, the first set of unrestrained powers that must be restrained, in order for security to be achieved. As a realm lacking in political structural restraints, the anarchy of the ‘state of nature’ is potentially a realm of ‘pure power politics.’ For the project of republican security theory, ‘pure power politics’ is foundational, but in a completely negative way. Republican political orders are defined and configured as the systematic negation of pure power politics that mark the extremes of anarchy and hierarchy. To the extent Realism contains ideas about power restraint, most notably the ‘balance of power,’ a large indifference to unrestrained hierarchical power, and an affirmation of ‘pure power politics,’ it emerges as both incoherent and incomplete as a successor to first Liberal republican security theory.

Reading the main axis of Western structural-material security theorizing in this manner encompasses a large array of figures, some well known, others largely forgotten, stretching from antiquity to late modernity. Instead of seeing various ‘early Realists’ or ‘early Liberals,’ we see many of these key figures making parts of one argument, and we see many of them as either important in different ways or as less important than now thought. The first major vein of security restraint republicanism was produced by Graeco-Roman analysts of Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic. Early modern revivalists of self-governing city-states mainly in Northern Italy, particularly Florence and Venice, continued and deepened this analysis. In Northern Europe (Holland, Germany, France, and most importantly, England and Scotland), republican security theory reached critical mass both in practice and theory, and sharply defined itself against oriental despotism, papal supremacy, Spanish imperialism, and French absolutism.57

Republican security theory is not, however, confined to the ‘domestic,’ but also addresses the issues of large-scale or ‘international’ security governance, as part of what J.G.A. Pocock refers to as “the problem of extent.”58 Republican security theory subsumes the ‘domestic’ and the ‘international’ by offering a sustained analysis of the size of different political forms. It is within this analysis of extent that the polar ideas of Realist and Liberal international theory about the dynamics of international anarchy were first clearly formulated by Enlightenment republican theorists. The primary locus of this innovation was the practice of referring to Europe as a whole as a ‘republic,’ by which they meant both to describe it as a complex system characterized by division, balance, and mixture and to praise it as a system for restraining the extremes of both anarchy and hierarchy.59 The culmination of Enlightenment republican international theory is the U.S. Constitution of 1787, which its architects characterized as a ‘compound republic’ or ‘federal union.’ It was explicitly designed to prevent North America from becoming a Westphalian system of hierarchic units lodged in anarchy. In the wake of the industrial revolution ‘Liberal internationalist’ agendas ranging from binding international law, the League of Nations, world federal union, Atlantic Union, and nuclear arms control (which are central to the Realist depiction of its rival as utopian) are advanced as extensions of mutual restraint structures made necessary for security by material contextual changes. In sum, republican security theory, understood as the project of simultaneously avoiding the extremes of anarchy and hierarchy across different spatial scales, originates the theory of state systems now so elemental to Realism, alongside ideas about large-scale postanarchic and nonhierarchical orders now ignored by Realism.


This preliminary sketch of the contours of republican security theory clearly suggests the presence of a ‘geopolitics,’ not only in the sense of an ‘international’ argument, but also in the sense of an argument about material contexts composed of geography and technology as restraining and empowering forces.60 Arguments about the influence of material-contextual factors, usually cast in terms of ‘nature,’ are ubiquitous in early political thought and have been intimately woven into republican security theory since its inception.61 Far from being incidental or ancillary, claims about material context sit at the center of republican security theory because material contexts in general, and violence interdependence in particular, delineate the scope and forms of violence potential that must be restrained in order to achieve security. Arguments about material contexts and their relationship to political structure and security-from-violence are not confined to either the ‘unit’ or the ‘system’ level, but rather address both (see figure I.1). Indeed, material-contextual arguments were first deployed to understand the political constitutions of particular republican polities and then gradually applied to larger, less ordered ‘international’ spaces by a process of analogy and extension.

Despite the ubiquity and importance of material-contextual arguments, there is no generally accepted label for them. The term ‘geopolitics’ is of early-twentieth-century vintage, has a lingering aura of conflictual and Realist connotations, and recently has become a useful, if otherwise empty, term for international relations generally.62 To provide a clear label, I shall refer to these material-contextual arguments as physiopolitical—about the relationship between nature (physis) and politics.

Ancient and early modern physiopolitical arguments rest on the simple assumption that the physical world is not completely or even primarily subject to effective human control and that natural material-contextual realities impede or enable vital and recurring human goals. Such arguments attempt to link specific physical constraints and opportunities given by nature (such as the presence of fertile soil, good weather, access to the sea, and mountain ranges, etc.) to alterations in the performance of very basic functional tasks universal to human groups (most notably protection from violence and biological sustenance). Because humans conceive and carry out their projects in differing material environments, the various ways in which these environments present themselves to humans heavily shape the viability of various human projects.63

Narrowing the focus to security-from-violence, one still finds a myriad of variables, but by far the most central is violence interdependence,a rough and basic measure of the capacity of actors to wreak destruction upon one another. This idea, explored at length in the pages ahead, is clearly an oddity from the standpoint of contemporary international theory. On one side, Liberals attach great importance to interdependence, but focus almost exclusively on economics and ecology rather than violence. On the other side, Realists focus on violence, but not violence interdependence. They view economic interdependence as exaggerated in its occurrence and effects, and think powerful states should, and largely do, avoid it. In reality, however, interdependence as it concerns violence is the core notion of ‘state of nature’ arguments, sometimes explicitly, but always powerfully. As we shall see, it is the presence of stronger degrees of violence interdependence that makes anarchy incompatible with security in such arguments. And it is an argument about changes in spatial scope of stronger degrees of violence interdependence that underpins the globalist case for the abridgment of anarchy across progressively larger spaces. Despite the ‘materialism’ of many contemporary international arguments, republican security theory’s core arguments about material context as geography and technology as restraining and empowering have an attenuated and marginalized contemporary presence.64 Two major waves of work and argument have been neglected.65

The first wave begins with the arguments of the ancient Greeks, particularly various pre-Socratic naturalists and Aristotle, and is recovered and extended by numerous early modern and Enlightenment theorists culminating in Montesquieu. These first-wave arguments, usually cast in the language of ‘nature,’ concern geographic factors like climate, soil fertility, topography, and land-sea interactions. These arguments are about ‘nature’ in the ‘state of nature,’ thus specifying which restraints must constitute the ‘civil state.’ Claims about natural material contexts are at the root of the pessimism of the ancients (and very circumscribed optimism of the early moderns) about the prospects for political liberty. At the same time, the actual islands of republican government are understood to be shaped internally by various material divisions and balances, and heavily dependent upon restraints on violent power deriving from nature, particularly geographical topography and land-sea interactions. Similarly, the first international theory of the early moderns, casting Europe as a ‘republic,’ locates the basis of this plural order in material-contextual nature.

The second wave of neglected early contextual materialist theorizing, often referred to as ‘global geopolitics,’ emerges in the period stretching roughly from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. This group of theorists is distinguished from its predecessors in its much more explicit treatment of technology and change, and its focus on global-scale patterns. Building from their predecessors, second-wave theorists sought to understand how the new capabilities of transportation, communication, and destruction produced by the industrial revolution (most notably railroads, steamships, telegraphy, chemical high explosives, and airplanes), when interacting with the largest-scale geographic features of the earth, would shape the character, number, and location of viable security units in the emerging global-scope security system. In assessing whether the global-scale material context was so configured to support a plural state system (comparable to early modern Europe) or a centralized world empire (comparable to the earlier widespread regional ‘universal monarchies’), these theorists shed light on the epochal shift from the preglobal archipelago of regional state systems (or empires) to the contemporary intensely interactive global system, a shift curiously undertheorized in the Realist narrative of ‘anarchy from time immemorial.’ Within this matrix are found assessments of the contribution of American federal union to the project of political liberty in the era of global total wars, and arguments about the increasing security necessity of postanarchic and nonhierarchic world federal government.

Within this second-wave literature, a few of the major figures, most notably Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder, are occasionally noted or engaged, particularly by Realist grand strategic theorizing. But a large number of their arguments and those of many other largely forgotten theorists, ranging from the German Geopolitik school to Liberal cosmopolitans such as H. G. Wells, are almost invisible in both Realist and Liberal narratives. These theorists were the first globalists, and their neglect is glaring in light of the contemporary preoccupation with globalization and the global.66

The omission of earlier contextual-materialism in the contemporary formulations of Realism and Liberalism as traditions can reasonably be attributed to the political situation and agendas of Realism and Liberalism during the middle of the twentieth century.67 The association of materialist geopolitics with the crimes of Nazi Germany made Anglo-American Realists of the era eager to distance themselves from this literature. For Liberals, this neglect stems from an acceptance of the general association of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century geopolitics with extremely conflictual, materialist, and antiliberal perspectives, and the general tendency of contemporary Liberals to focus on nonsecurity domains and nonmaterial variables. This lacuna is reflected in the widespread—but largely mythical—Realist view that the study of international politics was dominated by ‘idealism’ prior to the emergence of Realism during the period of the Second World War.

Overall, when these neglected material-contextual arguments are reassembled as a component of republican security theory, we find ourselves in possession of an approach well suited for grappling with security globalization and the Liberal ascent. The five-century and four-dimensional (military, economic, ecological, and cultural) process of globalization has impacted every aspect of human life, but it first and foremost has been a transformation of the material condition of the human species. Given this, only an approach theorizing variations and changes in material context across space and time can fully register its first-order implications for security. From the perspective of this expanded and recentered structural-material theory, the Liberal ascent, and the role of the American founding and the United States in it, are transformed from an eccentric domestic event into the pivotal development in the enduring project of simultaneously avoiding the extremes of anarchy and hierarchy over larger spaces. This recovered theoretical approach also offers to provide firmer foundations for the beleaguered and fragmented Liberal international project of abridging interstate anarchy with institutional restraints on state power, especially arms control. It also enables us to see that suitably crafted international restraints preserve domestic liberty by foreclosing the erection of domestic hierarchy to cope with international anarchy. Looking ahead at the cascading interdependences that mark the global village with this recovered approach also provides the basis for reversing the presumption that the erection of substantive world government is unprecedented, while at the same time suggesting templates for the design of fully nonhierarchical, fully republican, world federal government.


This investigation is a theoretical exegesis and reconstruction. As such, it is appropriate to specify the nature and limits of such an enterprise. It is not a full intellectual history of all arguments about republics. Nor is it a history of all republics, or a history of all the ways in which the actual political controversies of actual republics used or abused republican theoretical arguments. It does not advance or test positive social science propositions, although the reconstructed overall argument could be further articulated and so treated. As an exegesis it seeks to trace a set of theoretical arguments as they appear across many centuries and in several conceptual idioms. The line of argument concerns the interplay between material context and political structures, but I am neither assuming nor defending claims that material contexts and political structures caused these theoretical arguments or that these ideas caused any political arrangement. These theoretical arguments, however, are commonly cast as reflections on the practical security problems of historically specific republican polities, and as such are unintelligible without reference to their situations. Instead of reading previous great thinkers in terms of contemporary competing schools of thought, I seek to unearth common problematiques subsuming contemporary divisions in previous thinkers of varied standing, and in doing so suggest that several currently venerated great thinkers (most notably Machiavelli and Kant) are less important than several less esteemed figures (most notably Montesquieu, Publius, Dewey, and Wells).

In this exegesis and reconstruction, I make three interpretative assumptions: security-restraint republicanism is a tradition that is practical and progressive. It is a tradition because it was ‘handed down’ over an extended period of time among theorists and practitioners who were selfconsciously building on the ideas and actions of predecessors with whom they shared normative orientations and theoretical problematiques.68 It is practical because it contains a set of generalizations drawn from practical experience, is intended to solve important and recurring problems, is in a continual dialectic with the needs and experiences of practitioners, and is valued according to its practical usefulness. It is progressive because its participants understood themselves as advancing, not toward universal and timeless truths, but toward understandings and solutions that were better able to solve timeless security problems by better adjusting to changing constraints and opportunities.

The arguments of republican security theory are formulated in ways alien to contemporary academic social science. They contain a mixture of normative, scientific, and design claims, often combined in complex and obscure ways. Normatively, the security-restraint republican values freedom and opposes tyranny, wants independent actors to self-regulate themselves in order to make centralized control unnecessary, supports centralized political power only where necessary to counterbalance outside threats, and jealously watches minimally necessary centralized power. There are three main analytical and scientific parts of security-restraint republicanism: taxonomic categories useful for describing plural, decentralized, and complex political orders (including certain types of state systems); causal propositions about the relationships between political practices and structures, and between such political factors and material contexts. The policy aspects of republican security theory encompass design features for building and operating political orders able to achieve republican goals.


The exegesis and reconstruction offered here proceeds in nine chapters grouped into three parts. Part I is devoted to overall issues of theory and the relations between republican security theory and other related theories. Chapter 1, “Republican Security Theory,” provides the overall theoretical reconstruction, beginning with a statement of the two main problematiques of structural-materialist republican theory and then proceeding to a more detailed exposition of its key arguments concerning human nature, the political structures of anarchy, hierarchy and republican forms, and the material context that defines the types of restraint necessary for security. Chapter 2, “Relatives and Descendants,” augments and helps to situate the reconstructed argument by selectively mapping its complex relationships with other types of republicanism, some Realists, Liberals, and constructivists and several key figures and concepts straddling these divisions.

The rest of the volume, divided into two parts and seven chapters, is the exegesis. The four chapters of Part II, “From the Polis to Federal Union,” examine four major bodies and episodes of republican security theory stretching from Graeco-Roman antiquity to the American founding. Chapter 3, “The Iron Laws of Polis Republicanism,” begins at the beginning, with Greek and Roman arguments about the role of material contexts in shaping security problems and solutions, and the particularly hard trade-offs republican polities faced, with particular attention to the features and evolution of the Roman Republic and Polybius’s analysis of it. Of particular concern here are the numerous arguments relating the evolution of the Roman Republic into the Augustan principate, and their pessimistic implications for political freedom. The Roman experiences provide the benchmark against which subsequent developments in republican security theory and practice can be measured.

Chapter 4, “Maritime Whiggery,” begins an examination of the emergence of modern European republicanism, focusing on Venice and Britain, and arguments about the role material contexts played in the ability of these polities to survive as republics in a European state system populated by large absolutist monarchies, thus providing a contextual-material and system-structural dimension to the familiar narrative of the rise of ‘constitutionalism’ in Britain. Also of importance here is the role of material and structural factors that permitted modern republics to survive the softening of intensive citizen military virtú, and early arguments about material and systemic structural factors in the novel emergence in Europe of ‘the republic of commerce’ (or in nineteenth-century terms, ‘capitalism’) as a central feature of modern republicanism. These arguments provide a substantially different view of these familiar developments than provided by other contemporary interpretations, most notably republican revivalism.

Chapter 5, “The Natural ‘Republic’ of Europe,” explores neglected but creative and influential eighteenth-century arguments about the overall European system as a plural political order constituted by restraints both natural and social. It is here that international system theory begins, and it is here that the ‘balance of power’ is first extended from the anomalous nonhierarchical republican polities to describe and explain the anomalous absence of a ‘universal monarchy’ in Europe. But even more important than balance in the arguments of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and others is the restraining power of ‘natural division,’ the topographical fragmentation of the European physical landscape in constituting the ‘republic of Europe.’ When all the pieces of this neglected episode in republican security theory are assembled, there emerges an overall picture significantly different from conventional interpretations of the European state system as the paradigmatic interstate anarchy, and the evolution of subsequent international theory is cast in a different light.

Chapter 6, “The Philadelphian System,” explores the American founding as the climactic moment in Enlightenment republican security theory. Steeped in earlier republican security theory and history, the American founders, as articulated in the Federalist, brought the overall republican security argument to a new level of clarity, and the architecture of the First American Constitution is understood by the founders as an effort simultaneously to avoid or adequately cope with anarchy and hierarchy both domestically and internationally. The founders viewed their innovation of the ‘federal union’ or ‘compound republic’ as a decisive advance because it combined republican political forms with the territorial extent previously available only to hierarchical empires, thus giving republican government an unprecedented security viability. The overall view that emerges here is that the United States is an alternative to the Westphalian system of hierarchies in anarchy, rather than an oddly constituted unit within it.

The three chapters of Part III, “Toward the Global Village,” continue the examination of the interplay between republican political forms and security across the nineteenth-and twentieth-century industrial divide. This period saw the explosion of diverse theoretical positions, thus ending the relative conceptual unity of Western structural-materialist security theorizing from the ancients through the modern European Enlightenment. Chapter 7, “Liberal Historical Materialism,” examines the presence of arguments about Liberal forms in several schools of materialist thought. Although commonly viewed as mainly Marxist or Realist, the first arguments about material contexts changing across time due to technological developments were expounded by Scottish Enlightenment historical stage theorists and then modified by others. Similarly, the large literature of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century social Darwinism, commonly seen as strongly Realist and antiliberal, also contains extensive and powerful analyses favorable to more Liberal political arrangements. This recovery culminates in an examination of the materialist arguments of two of the most prolific and influential figures of the period, H. G. Wells and John Dewey, who provide particularly innovative arguments about the interplay between republican political forms and the constraints and opportunities produced by the industrial revolution.

Chapter 8, “Federalist Global Geopolitics,” pursues this line of argument as it is applied to the emerging global-scope interstate system in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The numerous materialist theorists of this period, generally grouped together as ‘global geopolitics,’ now seen as antiliberal, were actually quite diverse. They provide analyses of the security implications of federal union in the emerging global-scope state system. The exegesis begins with an examination of the common problematiques of global geopolitical theorists, and their areas of agreement and disagreement, thus placing competing Liberal and hierarchical statist political forms into one general framework. Then the treatment narrows to examine more specific arguments about federal union as a possible solution to the British predicament, pessimistic prognoses for the European state system, and a new view of world government. Finally, this chapter assesses the relative contributions of Kant and Publius and explores the republican logic of American internationalism.

Chapter 9, “Anticipations of World Nuclear Government,” brings the exegesis into the second half of the twentieth century with an examination of the debates over the implications of nuclear explosives for security in an anarchical state system, with particular emphasis on ‘nuclear one world’ arguments that nuclear weapons had created a global-scope ‘state-of-nature’ anarchy that needed to be replaced with authoritative world government. Realist versions of these arguments reach something of a conceptual impasse, as a world hierarchical state is deemed necessary but intrinsically dangerous in its own right. Alternatively, various schemes for mutually reciprocal and authoritative arms control are explored.

A concluding chapter summarizes the revisionist recasting of the tradition of Western structural-material security theory, weighs the free world prospect, and reflects on the tradition and world government.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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