In an article from August 2016 titled “The myth of the European peace project”, Financial Times columnist John Plender questioned one of the core assumptions behind the project for European integration, namely the correlation between peace and interdependence. Plender correctly argued that economic interdependence was not the sole responsible for the enduring peace observed in Europe in the last 70 years. Among other contributing factors the author highlighted the risk of a nuclear conflagration, the existence of a common enemy – communism – for most of the 20th century, and Germany’s unwillingness to engage in a third conflict after the experience of two devastating world wars. To those reasons I would add, perhaps, the burdensome costs of waging war in modern times. Nonetheless, differently from what was argued by the author, the impact of interdependence in the maintenance of peace does not seem to be negligible.
This debate, assumed to have been settled for several decades, was revived in Europe in the aftermath of the financial crisis and became a central controversy after the ascension of right-wing populist parties and, in particular, during the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the current presidential election in France. The rising tensions in Europe might easily lead to the conclusion, proposed by Plender, that nationalism trumped economic interests and that economic integration was actually an element of friction between European states. These conclusions, however, lack sufficient evidence. Works on the fields of economic interdependence and democratic peace theory in the last two decades suggest strong connections between interdependence broadly defined and the maintenance of peace in Europe and elsewhere.
On the field of economic interdependence one can highlight the work of Erik Gartzke et al. (2001). The idea of economic interdependence often appears in the literature as a synonym for intensive trade relations between countries. Gartzke and his collaborators, however, approach economic interdependence not only from the perspective of trade but also incorporating capital flows and monetary policy coordination to their analysis. In addition to illustrating how trade increases the cost of opportunity of waging war, Gartzke also points out that, for non-autarkic states, signaling practices, associated with the observation of capital flows, is promising indicator of the likelihood of two states resorting to violence. Among the examples that corroborate Gartzke’s thesis, one can highlight the quarrel involving the Suez Canal in 1956. Following the nationalization of the Canal by Egyptian president Nasser, British and French forces were moved to Egypt to reclaim the Canal. The move was heavily opposed by the United States which began to sell pounds leading to a 15% fall of British reserves in the span of a month. The economic impact of the U.S. measure ultimately led to the withdrawal of British troops compromising also the ambitions of France (GARTZKE et al., 2001, 403).
Although the terms of Plender’s analysis are questionable, since his FT column loosely compares military conflicts to political ones, the current scenario in Europe seems to contradict his conclusions and reinforce those of Gartzke and his associates. Since the triggering of Article 50 by Prime Minister Theresa May, EU signaling pointing to a hard Brexit, which includes the payment of UK’s commitments and the withdrawal from important EU agencies from London, appears to be having an impact on Downing Street and the British Parliament. The most recent evidence of that was Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election, an attempt to strengthen her position in the parliament, weakened by the decrease on the value of the pound and by hardline Brexiters who refuse to make the concessions required for a successful negotiation with the EU.
As political scenarios are not dyadic like most analysis on military conflicts, the outcome is not likely to be a reversion of the Brexit vote like the one observed in Suez crisis. That would require a massive shift in the composition of the British Parliament that is unlikely to happen. Nonetheless, there seems to be a consensus among British experts that such a shift could happen after the beginning of the exit negotiations, reason that probably explain May’s decision to call for elections now and not in two or three months.
Similarly, studies on democratic peace theory inspired by Kant’s philosophical sketch “Perpetual Peace” suggest that European integration is a desirable framework for the maintenance of peace in region. Written in 1795, Kant’s work proposes a framework for peace that required three elements: republican constitutions, cosmopolitan laws and an international system comprised of laws and organizations. Once more, the correlation between these variables and peace is striking. Given a certain dyad, the likelihood of a militarized confrontation drops by 86% if both states have republican institutions when compared to scenarios is which at least one of the states is an autocracy. If all elements of the Kantian peace are present – republican constitutions, free states and an international system comprised of laws and organizations – the likelihood of conflict drops by 95% (ONEAL et al., 2003, 388). The study analyzed dyadic conflicts between 1885 and 1992.
In both cases, interdependence and democratic peace theory, the studies seem to corroborate the vision of the founding fathers of the European Union who sought to make war in Europe “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible” (SCHUMAN, 1950). Especially following the signature of the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has combined elements of the Kantian peace, a high degree of interdependence and nuclear deterrents, elements that, if we assume the findings presented above are correct, reduce significantly the likelihood of conflict. As for the political quarrels highlighted by Plender, although they are potentialized by nationalist sentiments, they do not seem to differ from those observed in contexts of crisis within nation-states and, for now, provide no indication that these frictions can move beyond the realm of politics.
GARTZKE, Erik et al. Investing in the Peace: Economic Interdependence and International Conflict. International Organizations, v. 55, n. 2, p. 391-438, 2001.
KANT, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. New York: Garland Pub., 1972.
O’NEAL, John et al. Causes of Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992. International Studies Quarterly, v. 47, n. 3, 371-393, 2003.
PLENDER, John. The myth of the European peace project. Financial Times, august 2016. Avalable at: https://www.ft.com/content/bdac2df6-598a-11e6-9f70-badea1b336d4
SCHUMAN, Robert. The Schuman Declaration. 9 May 1950. Available at: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en
Vinícius Bivar earned his MA in Modern European Studies from Columbia University and is currently a PhD candidate in History at the Freie Universität Berlin. Since 2014 he also contributes with the Programa de Estudos e Pesquisas em História da América (PEPHAM/UnB).
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