International Relations and Galactic Politics

Or: Why Systems of Three Don't Work

I am a student of international political science, and was thinking about how foreign relations would effect the building of a galactic map. Now, I am a member of the so-called realist school of international relations, so I will use that for analysis. In its defense, realism has pretty well dominated both foreign policy analysis and American foreign policy. Realism was first proposed by Thucydides, and was later carried on by Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Kisinger, Hans Morgenthau, and others. It's basic tenets are as follows:

  • States are primarily concerned with their own security and survival.

  • The international (or intergalactic) system is anarchic. That is, there is no "higher power" to guarantee security or enforce contracts, alliances, and suchlike.

  • All states have an inherent capability to act to defend themselves.

  • This capability to defend themselves means that states also have a capability to affect others, and the combination of these capabilities is the power of a state.

  • Since the system is anarchic, one state can never be sure of another's intentions.

  • Since states are unsure of other states intentions, and those states have power, the best way to ensure your survival and security is to amass more power than them.

What does this mean for plugins?

  • Systems of three states, which are quite common in sci-fi, are really quite unstable unless one state is overwhelmingly powerful or weak enough that the it is irrelevant. Otherwise, two would gang up on the remaining state and destroy it. If there is a somewhat remote powerful state, powerful enough to overwhelm all the others, then you can probably get away with it (this is called an offshore balancer in international relations theory).

  • It can be applied, more generally to help shape and explain your universe. How would these two states act here? What would this cause? Ultimately, you can use it to generate ideas. Well, here I have three powers that are in proximity? Why do they still exist together?

I hope this has been at least a little useful.

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 10:40 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

(*) Systems of three states, which are quite common in sci-fi, are really quite unstable unless one state is overwhelmingly powerful or weak enough that the it is irrelevant. Otherwise, two would gang up on the remaining state and destroy it.

A "slight" simplification?

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 09:40 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

… realism has pretty well dominated both foreign policy analysis and American foreign policy.

Realism has dominated American foreign policy!? This is not something I've noticed over the last few years! (Or even before.) Generally, American foreign policy has been dominated by taking some crazy, unproven theory - like the domino effect, red terror, etc - and acting as if it were gospel. (And I should say that this is not an exclusively American trait by any means. For example, 19th century British fantasies that Russian armies could cross thousands of miles of hostile territory to stage an invasion of India.)

Other than that digression, I would generally agree with your points and analysis. 🙂

This post has been edited by pac : 13 January 2007 - 07:02 AM

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 09:40 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Systems of three states, which are quite common in sci-fi, are really quite unstable unless one state is overwhelmingly powerful or weak enough that the it is irrelevant. Otherwise, two would gang up on the remaining state and destroy it.

Actually, on reflection, I don't agree with this conclusion.

First of all, it doesn't follow directly from the (very reasonable) points listed above it. It may be that it is possible to conclude it from them, but you haven't demonstrated how.

Now, considered on its own merits, is it true that in a system of three states, two will always 'gang up on' and eliminate one? It's very hard to find examples in world history, because there is always an outside force which comes into play to stop there from being any 'pure' system of three (or any other number) of states.

One example that does spring to mind is that of the Balkan Wars (1912-13). In these, first of all an alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire, conquering Macedonia, Albania and Thrace. A Bulgarian army was even within sight of the walls of Constantinople. However, the allies then fell out. In essence, the Greeks and Serbs thought that Bulgaria had gained much more from the war than they had, felt threatened, and allied against Bulgaria. As Bulgaria suffered defeats, the Ottomans got involved again, reclaiming most of Thrace, and so did Romania. (The results of this war are the main reason why Bulgaria is such a small country today. Had things worked out a little differently, it could easily have much more extensive territory in what is today Macedonia, Turkey and Romania, and an Aegean coastline.)

What did not happen was that the allies 'destroyed' Bulgaria completely. In fact, as soon as Bulgaria was reduced to a state of weakness again, the temporary allies became far more worried about each other again. Of course, the next 'Balkan War' - in which Serbia, Greece and Romania would be on the opposite side from Bulgaria and the Ottomans - is better known as World War One …

So, that's one reason why - in a system of three states - two would not necessarily gang up on and destroy the third: as soon as the two states gain an advantageous position, they become more worried about one another than their defeated enemy.

Another reason is time. Over the course of history, wars have moved at quite different speeds. If the Balkan Wars had been fought with late- rather than early-20th century technology, in the First Balkan War Constantinople might have fallen to Bulgarian panzers before the Serbs or Greeks had the chance to stab them in the back. A scenario designer is free to speculate about just how quickly or slowly interstellar warfare might move.

Along with time comes money. It might be true that if two powers ganged up on the third they would win: but how long would it take, and how much would it cost? If the whole process takes decades - or centuries - then it is likely to be a series of wars rather than one continuous one. And every outbreak of peace between wars is an opportunity for the pattern of alliances to shift. Or for technological change to transform the whole dynamic of the war. (Or, for that matter, for domestic political change to alter things.)

Finally, the idea that a system of three states will always become a system of two states implies a view more broadly that the number of states in a system will always grow smaller: five to four, four to three, three to two, and the final two to battle it out till just one is left.

At the end of the 19th century, this view might have made a lot of sense. More and more parts of the world had fallen under the control of a fairly small number of powers (mostly European). Perhaps the clash of powers was just a giant game of conkers? However, by the present day this process has gone completely into reverse, such that it's hard to give it any credit: there are far more states in the world today than there were just twenty years ago. And the prospect in the future is only for more states, not fewer: for instance, the prospect of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is in the news at the moment. Kurdistan, anyone? Catalunya?

The key area in which you're right, however, is that it is worth a designer thinking about this kind of question.

This post has been edited by pac : 13 January 2007 - 10:53 AM

One other thing I just spotted:

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 09:40 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Realism was first proposed by Thucydides , and was later carried on by Machiavelli, Sun Tzu

Thucydides: circa 460 – 400 BC
Sun Tzu: circa 544 – 496 BC

So, you're saying that Sun Tzu continued the work of someone who lived after he did ? :blink: Even if Sun Tzu had lived after Thucydides, it would probably be safe to assume that he would never have come across his work (and vice versa), given that they lived in quite separate cultures between which there was only remote communication via a whole series of intermediate cultures.

Just be sure not to make that slip in an essay. 😉

I'd like to point out that supranationalism (the European construction, most notably), an uncommon phenomenon and different from the others, is something that, if it survives, throws the so-called "realist" theory out of the window (at least on the central ideas it contains).

Actually, Pac, the three-to-two analysis isn't predicated on a constantly reducing number of powers in the system. And "pure" five-power systems or two power systems can be seen in the Concert of Europe and Cold War periods, respectively. Four is reasonably stable, as are all systems up until the total uncertainty of the system grows large enough that it leads to war. Two is also fairly stable, as long as the states themselves are stable. And, by definition, there are no systems of one. When a system of one exists, you return to a multi-polar system with a hegemon. And, at that point, the systemic assumptions begin to break down since the nature of the system becomes more hierarchical. (Unless you're a Mearsheimerian Offensive realist, and don't believe global hegemony is possible.) This of course suggests the difficulty in your historical analysis, Pac, that the Balkan states were not great powers. However, one could argue that as soon as the US realized that the Cold War dynamic was actually tri-polar, it very rapidly allied (to some extent) with China and defeated the Soviet Union.
Actually, supranationalism has already tested international relations theory, as in the founding of the United States (for the first ten years or so, and, to some extent up until the American Civil War, the American states were and acted as independent, sovereign countries).

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 07:38 PM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Actually, Pac, the three-to-two analysis isn't predicated on a constantly reducing number of powers in the system.

That's as may be. But you still haven't demonstrated that it results from your initial statements.

Edit: If three naturally leads to two 'ganging up' on one, why doesn't four inevitably lead to three 'ganging up' one one? There might be a reason. It might even be possible to derive one from your initial statements. But you haven't done this. Thus, at the moment, your argument is deeply flawed.

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And "pure" five-power systems or two power systems can be seen in the Concert of Europe and Cold War periods, respectively.

You think the Cold War was a pure two-power system …? Yes, I can see that you're still definitely a student. 🙂 Keep studying. 🙂

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This of course suggests the difficulty in your historical analysis, Pac, that the Balkan states were not great powers.

Good god! Well spotted! I would never have noticed that!

Now, have you in turn noticed that no 'great power' has ever been 'destroyed'? This would seem to suggest a 'difficulty' in your entire thesis!

Please, fix your own proposition before you try to start criticising other people's criticisms of it. :rolleyes:

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However, one could argue that as soon as the US realized that the Cold War dynamic was actually tri-polar, it very rapidly allied (to some extent) with China and defeated the Soviet Union.

'One' could argue that, but it would make 'one' absurd. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted from internal domestic factors, not outside pressure.

Lastly, you haven't even begun to reply to other criticisms of your suggestion (eg, time and money).

This post has been edited by pac : 13 January 2007 - 03:07 PM

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 07:38 PM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

And "pure" five-power systems or two power systems can be seen in the Concert of Europe and Cold War periods, respectively.

As for the Concert of Europe, I presume your five powers are Britain, France, Austria, Russia and Prussia? Well, that leaves an awful lot of parts of the world unaccounted for. Again, self-evidently, not a pure system. Nor was it stable: are any of those five still a great power ?

The first decade of the US was a confederacy. Not the same thing.

Pac, before you start insulting me, try reading Theory of International Politics by Kenneth Waltz, Politics Among Nations by Hans Morgenthau, or The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearshiemer. Ultimately what it comes down to is the fact that the only states that really matter are the great powers, at least in most anarchic analysis. Regardless, I said a three power system would be highly unstable, not that it would immediately devolve, but it probably would devolve fairly quickly.. As to why a three wouldn't automatically gang up on the fourth, it is much more stable, assuming nations don't inherently want war, which is not always true, for the nations to split in up in roughly equal coalitions. Otherwise, nations face uncertainty in who would be the new third state. This is not true in a three state system, since two state systems can be relatively stable. Regardless, I think I've said all I'm going to say on this debate. I suggested it to try and tweak some ideas, since they helped me form mine. I don't need to take insults. So that's my idea. Take it or leave it.

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 11:16 PM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Pac, before you start insulting me

!?

I haven't started insulting you. I'm just criticising the flaws in your argument. I don't need to have read any of these books to do that. 🙂 As I said, make some of these errors in an essay, and they'd cost you serious marks - so take it as timely advice. 🙂

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Regardless, I think I've said all I'm going to say on this debate.

What debate? You posted a proposition which didn't clearly follow from your starting assumptions. I pointed that out, and you've failed to support or clarify it. Along with that, you've made basic errors (eg, Sun Tzu having lived before Thucydides) which do not fill me with confidence about your expertise in this area.

There hasn't been a debate. I'd find it quite interesting if there was one, but you haven't engaged in one. You've just posted an unconvincing argument and asked everyone to accept it. Not about to happen.

@flavius, on Jan 13 2007, 11:16 PM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Ultimately what it comes down to is the fact that the only states that really matter are the great powers, at least in most anarchic analysis.

Even a cursory reading of any period of history reveals that minor powers do matter. Time and again. An analytical method that fails to take that into account must be flawed.

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Regardless, I said a three power system would be highly unstable, not that it would immediately devolve, but it probably would devolve fairly quickly.

You still haven't provided any evidence (either empirical, or deriving from your theory) to support this.

What do we know empirically? That 200 years ago there was - in Europe - a five-power system. That no longer exists, so can we conclude that that was unstable? 25 years ago there was - many consider - a two-power system across the whole world. That no longer exists, so can we conclude that that was unstable? Where is your evidence for the relative level of stability of any scale of system?

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I don't need to take insults.

You certainly don't need to here: there haven't been any!

This post has been edited by pac : 13 January 2007 - 06:43 PM

This is very interesting to read, but you are all missing the basic point that I doubt someone who is trained in analysis of this sort would notice as easily: none of these theories alone can completely predict the actions of any system of independent states unless they offer the options that any of the possible outcomes could fail and be replaced by other possible outcomes, perhaps studied by other theories, and also that any of the possible outcomes could be offset by unmentioned variables, eg: Ghandi. Also, states need to by analyzed with special attention to their societal values, and then base their possible actions off of that. For instance, Plato's Republic pretty much covers every possible outcome within and outside of states that are built off of western thought. I haven't deeply analyzed how well the Republic covers other types of thought, especially Native American values and philosophy, but I imagine that although it does apply in many cases, there are options that it might not cover. Of course, in this example we may never know, given the amount of Native American culture that was destroyed in the conquest of the continent.

And I personally would argue that this is a discussion, perhaps a heated discussion, but certainly not a debate at this point.

@crusader-alpha, on Jan 14 2007, 12:04 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

This is very interesting to read, but you are all missing the basic point that I doubt someone who is trained in analysis of this sort would notice as easily: none of these theories alone can completely predict the actions of any system of independent states unless they offer the options that any of the possible outcomes could fail and be replaced by other possible outcomes, perhaps studied by other theories, and also that any of the possible outcomes could be offset by unmentioned variables, eg: Ghandi.

I'm far from unaware of that. 🙂 I'm just happy to argue (mostly) on the original poster's own terms for now.

Just remembered that the best deconstruction of 'great power balance' theories of international relations can be found in Blackadder:

Captain Blackadder : You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Private Baldrick : But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
Captain Blackadder : Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
Private Baldrick : What was that, sir?
Captain Blackadder : It was b******s.

That's absolutely perfect, Peter. Just perfect. 🙂

@pac, on Jan 14 2007, 02:39 AM, said in International Relations and Galactic Politics:

Just remembered that the best deconstruction of 'great power balance' theories of international relations can be found in Blackadder:

Captain Blackadder : You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Private Baldrick : But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
Captain Blackadder : Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
Private Baldrick : What was that, sir?
Captain Blackadder : It was b******s.

Offtopic and useless post but: Blackadder for the win. 🙂

Have any of you ever played Chess 4? It's a great game. Take a 14x14 board, remove the 3x3 corners, so you've got a regular 8x8 chess board with three extra ranks behind each side. You start with your pieces in the regular order on the back two of those new ranks, and as the name implies there are four players. Play proceeds clockwise, and provides for just about the best example of shifting alliances among initially equal "great powers" in an isolated system any of us are likely to encounter firsthand.

Well, now i have read every answer to this topic. I'm not very aware of all the theories out there and i frankly doubt i'll ever study politics. But i don't see any reply to the question that i thought was asked in the first post, this
question being "how foreign relation would affect the building of a galactic map ?"

Let me answer this the best i can, hoping you'll tell me what you think of what i think.

First, a galactic map would be build up not by political powers, but by the Big Bang. Or the Pamplemeese.
Once systems and stellar objects are in place, You need some states developing the technologies needed in order to have a real occupation of the galactic space. On this point, i think these technologies will have more or less the same evolution as the "Atomic technologies" : first the greatest states will have it and threaten the less powerful states, then, over the time, the the somewhat less important state will gain control of this technology (USA had the first A-bomb, then Russia, and now France is a pioneer in Nuclear Engineering, if i remember correctly).
Anyway, I think the first State to gain access to the space travel would create a Colonial Empire, because of the commercial outcome of this, like the Colonial fever of the 1900's. If you dominate some planets with any single useful ressource, you'll surely have the upper-hand. Colonies of the 1900's were a "economical back-up" for the empires governing them. What applies to colonial territories would apply to spatial territories.
When other state gain access to the same technologies, we would see a Space Rush and the history would go the same way as the Colonial fever. How did the outter politics alter the colonial situation back then ? I think it did nothing. The troubles came from inside the empires (well , if the WWII wasn't there, maybe thing would have gone otherwise).

All of this is just my opinion, and i'm actually skeptic about them, so feel free to discuss them. I'm not trying to prove anything, just adding my thought to the discussion.

This post has been edited by pearce : 21 January 2007 - 10:36 AM

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