Let's Call It All Off

How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace, by Charles A. Kapuchan, Princeton University Press, 442 pages, $29.95

For most of the 20th century, the border between Brazil and Argentina was a tense place. The two South American behemoths were on the opposite sides in regional conflicts and during World War II. They occasionally massed troops on the border to fend off real and perceived threats, and diplomatic contacts were limited. By the late 1970s, however, the decades-long animosity was melting fast. The countries exchanged heads-of-state visits and cooperated on economic-development projects. Fast forward to the early 1990s, and the former adversaries were jointly championing a regional trade organization. Troops marched back from the border, and a "zone of peace" emerged.

Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor and former Clinton administration official, wants to understand how this happens. His study of the subject in How Enemies Become Friends is theoretical but never dry. One of the book's chief virtues is its theoretical eclecticism. Eschewing the familiar -- and usually stale -- debates among realists, liberals, and constructivists, Kupchan draws freely on all these schools of thought. This allows him to construct a theory of peacebuilding that is plausible, rooted in history and diplomatic practice, and informed by the best work in the major theoretical schools. The book also mostly avoids the turgid prose that characterizes much work in international relations. "War makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading," Kupchan quotes Thomas Hardy as saying. Fortunately, this book manages to be an exception.

Kupchan's approach is thoroughly historical, and he assembles an odd but fascinating collection of cases to analyze the process of peacebuilding, including the accommodation between Britain and the United States in the late 19th century, the peace that developed between Sweden and Norway, as well as the Brazil -- Argentine case. The 19th-century Concert of Europe figures prominently, and Kupchan describes both its operation and effective dissolution with the Crimean War. The Iroquois Federation makes an appearance as an example of how nations can form a union. He also looks at how contemporary regional organizations, including the European Union and ASEAN in Asia, have managed to create stable security communities.

Kupchan's theory is that groups of states can move away from conflict and mistrust in several stages -- the first being a state's usually unilateral concession to its adversary, almost always driven by a strategic need. That concession is followed by a reciprocal gesture and joint statements, mediation mechanisms, and sometimes even formal rules that indicate a shared intention not to resort to force. Over time, the states may develop trust and view each other as benign. Given the right conditions, including compatible social orders and a sense of cultural kinship, accommodation may turn into full rapprochement and perhaps even to the formation of a security community or political union. At some point, conflict becomes impossible to imagine, and war departments stop crafting contingency plans for it.

With skillful diplomacy, then, states can escape the mistrust and fear that the realist school of international relations believes will inevitably doom peacebuilding enterprises. If his conclusion challenges realist thought, so do his methods. Abandoning the idea that all states -- no matter their internal idiosyncrasies -- pursue a rational foreign policy driven by interests, Kupchan argues that a state's prevailing social order will affect its diplomatic initiatives. A state ruled by a closeted elite, for example, will struggle to achieve accommodation with a vibrantly egalitarian society, even if both desire lasting peace.

But the process that Kupchan sketches is a challenge to received wisdom among foreign-policy liberals as well. He argues that all types of regimes can form stable peace. He is openly skeptical of the "democratic peace" theory, which stresses the importance of liberal government for lasting peace. The Concert of Europe, he points out, comprised illiberal Russia, Prussia, and Austria as well as Britain and France. It managed to safeguard great-power peace in Europe for several decades notwithstanding that ideological diversity. Brazil and Argentina began their warming when both were under military governments, and ASEAN started producing stability in Asia when several founding members were undemocratic.

Nor do economic ties lead the way to peace -- instead, Kupchan argues, politics is in the driver's seat. The classical liberal view that commerce will lead to conciliation doesn't withstand his scrutiny. In almost all the cases that he examines, strong economic and commercial ties follow strategic accommodation. Perhaps most controversially, he argues that the postwar project of European unification was fundamentally political even though its earliest manifestations were economic.

The new kid on the international relations block is constructivism, which aims to peer through the superstructure of armies, states, institutions, and even international law to what, in this view, really matters: the ideas and values that circulate in the international system. Constructivism is often sneered at by more traditional scholars, but Kupchan effectively incorporates constructivist approaches into his analysis -- for example, when he examines how pairs of states with relations on the mend construct new narratives about their relationship that help foster lasting peace.

But Kupchan doesn't believe for a minute that power and interests are irrelevant. In his telling, initial acts of accommodation between states are almost always the result of cold strategic calculation. It was imperial overstretch, not warm feelings, that led Britain to make nice with the United States in the late 19th century.

When Kupchan turns from description and analysis to prescription, the results are mixed. Although he never states it explicitly, the subtheme of his work is that America is overstretched and in need of the kind of strategic accommodation that he describes so often. He aims to provide U.S. policy-makers with a roadmap to a more restrained and sustainable foreign policy.

A first step, he argues, would be abandoning the practice of flaunting American power. The effects are likely to be counterproductive; instead of being cowed, adversaries will devise methods of countering American power. "Zones of peace do form around cores of strength," he argues, "but only when those cores withhold their power and demonstrate benign intent through the exercise of restraint." Instead of insisting on primacy, the United States would benefit from creating or embracing restraints on its own power.

Kupchan also calls for downgrading democracy both as a foreign-policy goal and as a metric for judging whether a country is a suitable candidate for accommodation. He insists that "the United States should assess whether countries are enemies or friends by evaluating their statecraft, not the nature of their democratic institutions." Unsurprisingly, the neocons get a thrashing from Kupchan for their insistence on using massive American power to promote democracy. Most of this is old hat by now, and it meshes nicely with the zeitgeist on the American left at the moment (although the left's own penchant for liberalizing crusades -- remember Kosovo anyone? -- may soon emerge).

Other recommendations are more challenging. The United States should not hold out hope that economics will provide the solution to strategic dilemmas. The idea that China will simply grow its way into being a stable ally misses the critical importance of politics and diplomacy. Moreover, Kupchan's belief that accommodation is possible between democracies and non-democracies is tempered by his understanding that a compatible social order is critical for stable peace.

Kupchan praises the Obama administration's invigorated diplomacy with potential competitors and intransigent adversaries, including Russia, China, and Iran. He even offers up a few formulaic ideas for how a diplomatic breakthrough might occur. Why not offer Iran normalization of relations in exchange for an end to its nuclear program and support for extremists, he asks blandly, as if that basic deal hasn't been on the table for years. More broadly, he shies away from rigorously scrutinizing the prospects for stable peace with these nations. Do the United States and China have compatible social orders? He also ducks the question of whether certain regimes pose strategic dangers too dire -- or represent value systems too repulsive -- to make accommodation a reasonable alternative. On Sudan, one must conclude, Kupchan would play the role of Obama administration envoy Scott Gration, with his offer of cookies and gold stars to Khartoum.

Stable peace is a critical goal in international relations, but it is not the only goal at every moment. And to judge by Hillary Clinton's tough words on Iran -- she warned recently that Iran will face "consequences for its defiance" -- the Obama administration understands that.