Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Breaking of Nations

Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century

by Robert Cooper

“Essentially an attempt to bridge the ideological divide between hard and soft power. Both, he suggests in this short, elegant collection of essays, are necessary in today’s messy world.” –The New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 192
  • Publication Date December 08, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4164-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

From “the foremost commentator on the strategic issues of our age” (The New Republic) comes an important–and already influential–argument that is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the world in which we now live

From “the foremost commentator on the strategic issues of our age” (The New Republic) comes The Breaking of Nations, Robert Cooper’s radical interpretation of the new international order that has emerged from the debris of communism’s collapse. Cooper shows that the greatest question facing postmodern states is how they should deal with a world in which missiles and terrorists ignore borders and where Cold War alliances no longer guarantee security. He argues that when dealing with a hostile outside enemy, civilized countries need to revert to tougher methods from an earlier era–force, preemptive attack, deception–if we are to safeguard peaceful coexistence throughout the civilized world.

The Breaking of Nations
is essential reading for a dangerous age, a cautionary tale for superpowers, and a prescient examination of international relations in the twenty-first century.


“Essentially an attempt to bridge the ideological divide between hard and soft power. Both, he suggests in this short, elegant collection of essays, are necessary in today’s messy world.” –Max Boot, The New York Times

“Offers a sweeping interpretation of today’s global predicament. . . . Cooper [makes a] provocative call for a new Western imperialism that is compatible with human rights and cosmopolitan values . . . Worthy of serious debate.” –G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

“By reading Cooper, we can better understand the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of Britain’s prime minister, whose decision to support the war in Iraq was as deeply unpopular at home as it was admired in Washington. And we can better understand European security policy.” –Scott Malcomson, The Nation

“Cooper does not offer a single organizing idea, but rather a wealth of historical parallels and conceptual distinctions pithily expressed. . . . He is a pro-American, pro–United Nations, pro-European who is for multilateral diplomacy if it is possible and war when necessary.

” –The Economist

“A slender but not slight consideration of Europe’s future on a hostile planet.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Robert Cooper is Europe’s preeminent scholar-diplomat. His bold vision for the future of Europe, and of the United States, is full of wisdom and admirable idealism. This brilliantly written book carries the transatlantic conversation to the next stage.” –Robert Kagan, author of Of Paradise and Power

“Robert Cooper is one of the world’s most thoughtful diplomats, and he brings his world of experience to bear on the dilemmas we face after September 11 in a way that any reader will find both readable and illuminating.” –Professor Joseph S. Nye, Author of The Paradox of American Power, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, and Former Chair of the American National Intelligence Council

“Cooper is a formidable thinker”[he] advances his central argument with verve and sophistication. He shows brilliantly that states, and the people who compose them, can radically change conceptions of both their interests and their identities.” –The Independent

“An excellent new analysis of the cracks in today’s geopolitical landscape.” –Financial Times


Finalist for The Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award



The worst times in European history were in the fourteenth century, during and after the Hundred Years War, in the seventeenth century at the time of the Thirty Years War, and in the first half of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century may be worse than any of these.

The first two periods were times when order broke down, when church, state and other ties of obligation were losing their power to discipline men’s aggression. In the fourteenth century, the old order of chivalry was fading; feudal ties, weakened in endless wars, were giving way to patriotism; and the Church was divided by France’s creation of the Avignon Papacy. After the Hundred Years’ War, bands of soldiers roamed the ruined landscape of France terrorizing the countryside.

In the seventeenth century, the Church was split by the new Protestant movements and the wars that followed were both wars between states and wars of religion. Bringing together the power of the state and the fanaticism of the faithful, these wars without limit and without mercy laid waste to central Europe. Social order all but collapsed.

By some accounts, a third of the population of Germany died. Every ten years in a passion play, the citizens of the Bavarian town of Oberammergau still give thanks for their deliverance from the Swedes. For most countries outside Europe, too, the worst memories of history are of periods of disorder: the era of the warring states in China, for example. Golden ages are usually times of strong government.

The European crisis in the twentieth century showed that the opposite can also be true. The wars of twentieth-century Europe were the first great wars of industrial society, wars of machines as well as men; they were also wars of over­powerful states able to mobilize their societies as never before; and they were made more deadly by nationalism and ideology. In this multiple catastrophe, the single most important thing that went wrong was that technology overran political maturity. Those who started the First World War had expected it to resemble the short wars of their child­hood, not understanding the capacity of an industrial age to deliver men and munitions endlessly to the front. For the remainder of that half-century the machinery of propaganda, control and murder was turned against domestic and foreign populations in Germany, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Then, for a moment, it seemed as if the nuclear revolution might complete the triumph of technology over mankind; but somehow political wisdom returned and there was a pause in civilization’s pursuit of self-destruction.

The new century risks being overrun by both anarchy and technology. The two great destroyers of history may reinforce each other. And there is enough materiel left over from previous centuries in the shape of national, ideological and religious fanaticisms to provide motives for the destruction.

Both the spread of terrorism and that of weapons of mass destruction point to a world in which Western governments are losing control. The spread of the technology of mass destruction represents a potentially massive redistribution of power away from the advanced industrial (and democratic) states towards smaller states that may be less stable and have less of a stake in an orderly world; or, more dramatically still, it may represent a redistribution of power away from the state itself and towards individuals, that is to say terrorists or criminals. If proliferation were to take place in this fashion it would not only be Western governments that would be losing control, but all those people who have an interest in an orderly world.

In the past, to be damaging an ideological movement had to be widespread to recruit enough support to take on authority. Probably there had to be genuine grievances behind it. Henceforth, comparatively small groups will be able to do the sort of damage which before only state armies or major revolutionary movements could achieve. A few fanatics with a ‘dirty bomb” (one which sprays out radiological material) or biological weapons will be able to cause death on a scale not previously envisaged. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo’s attempt to use anthrax in Tokyo failed, but sooner or later one of their successors will succeed somewhere in the world. A serious terrorist attack could be launched by perhaps sixty people, provided they were sufficiently committed, courageous and competent (or, alternatively, fanatical, foolhardy and fortunate). 0.000001 per cent of the population is enough. Emancipation, diversity, global communication – all the things that promise an age of riches and creativity – could also bring a nightmare in which states lose control of the means of violence and people lose control of their futures. Civilization and order rests on the control of violence: if it becomes uncontrollable there will be no order and no civilization.

The three essays in this collection are indirect reflections from different angles on this situation and on what can be done about it.

The first describes the state of the world and the state of the state, a decade after the end of the Cold War. The most obvious feature of this world is American power; but in the long run the most important facts may be the end of empire and the transformation of the state through globalization. The most hopeful feature is the emergence of the postmodern1 system of security in Europe. And the most worrying is the encroachment of chaos on the civilized world – from around it and within it. Europe may be able to stop the approach of chaos through the Balkans or even from across the Mediterranean, but it may prove more difficult to deal with chaos in its own suburbs and declining industrial towns.

The descent into chaos will not happen quickly. There is still time to tackle the problems that will cause it. Dealing directly with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction may contain those threats, but it will not end them. The time bought by direct action must be used to solve some of the underlying problems. If states are to retain control, the first condition is that they should make peace with each other so that they can face the common threat of disorder together. A background of peace among states is essential both for a policy of containment and for self-preservation. States weaken and destroy themselves through war. Conflict fuels fanaticism and then gives the fanatics the means of destruction. Without the wars in Afghanistan there would have been no Osama bin Laden.

The second essay is about how to make peace. It begins as a general reflection on diplomacy, but concludes with a view of the conditions for the creation of a postmodern peace. It is written in admiration of the men and women who built the European peace and the transatlantic relationship after the Second World War, the only example of a lasting peace among nations.

Eventually, the lessons of this success might teach us and others how to spread the peace more widely. The question is whether there will be enough time. Bringing European countries together after centuries of war was a remarkable feat, but it took a catastrophe to achieve it. And it was done against the background of a common history and culture. The most worrying thing about globalization is that it brings us new, more foreign enemies whose motives we barely understand.

It may be that modern science, which gave us the weapons, will also give us the means of controlling them. But history suggests that the solution to the problems of technology is better politics rather than better technology.

The third essay is a comment on Europe today. If we are going to keep out the storm that threatens us in the next decades, we have to harness for good the enormous potential that Europe represents. It will not be enough to leave the world to the United States. The conditions of peace in the twenty-first century are so difficult and the conditions of war so terrible that all must contribute together.



The year 1989 marks a break in European history. What happened then was more far-reaching than the events of 1789, 1815 or 1919. Those dates stand for revolutions, the break-up of empires and the re-ordering of spheres of influence. But until 1989, change took place within the established framework of the balance of power and the sovereign independent state. Nineteen eighty-nine was different. To the dramatic changes of that year – the revolutions and the re-ordering of alliances – must be added a fundamental change in the European state system itself.

What happened in 1989 was not just the cessation the Cold War, but also the end of the balance-of-power system in Europe. This change is less obvious and less dramatic than the lifting of the Iron Curtain or the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it is deeper and more important. And, in fact, the change in the system is closely associated with both of these events and perhaps was even a precondition for them.

Historically, the best point of comparison is 1648, the end of the Thirty Years War when the modern European state system emerged at the Peace of Westphalia. What has been emerging into the daylight since 1989 is not a rearrangement of the old system but a new system. Behind this lies a new form of statehood, or at least states that are behaving in a radically different way from the past. Alliances that survive in peace as well as in war, interference in each other’s domestic affairs and the acceptance of jurisdiction of international courts mean that states today are less absolute in their sovereignty and independence than before.

In a curious symmetry these changes have also come about following a second thirty years’ war: 1914 to 1945. The First and Second World Wars brought a level of destruction that Europe had not seen since the first Thirty Years War. In both cases, 1648 and 1945, the result was a recognition that there had been a radical failure and the system was changed. A second important factor was the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War: this offered the possibility of devastation on a scale without historical precedent. At the same time, it froze Europe for forty years. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear confrontation was a reason to put aside the normal quarrels that had bedevilled European politics. The Iron Curtain provided a clear border and led to a stable alliance structure under American leadership. All of this allowed a breathing space for new ideas and new systems to emerge. A change in the state system in Europe was clearly required: if the existing system was producing such unacceptable levels of actual and potential destruction, it was not performing its function. We should not, therefore, be surprised to see a new form of state system emerging.

Thinking about foreign affairs – like any other kind of thinking – requires a conceptual map, which, as maps do, simplifies the landscape and focuses on the main features. Before 1648, the key organizing concept for Europe was the unity of Christendom (the term “Europe” was hardly used until the late seventeenth century). After the Peace of Westphalia, it was the balance of power. Since 1648 the European order, and the policies that predominated within it, have been given a variety of names:”the concert of Europe”, “collective security” and “containment”. Each of these was in fact the name for a variation on the nation state and the balance of power (collective security under the League of Nations was a special and particularly unsuccessful variation). If, as this essay argues, Europe has now moved beyond the balance-of-power system, we need to understand the new system on which our security is based. It requires a new vocabulary and, up to a point, new policies.

A particular problem in understanding the international system – as opposed to the European system – is that it has become less unified since the end of the Cold War.

The Cold War brought the international system together in a global confrontation and seemed to invest even obscure corners of the world with strategic significance. Most foreign policy issues could be viewed in the light of a single overwhelming question: was it good for Us or for Them, for the West or the Soviet Bloc, capitalism or communism? With the end of the Cold War this artificial unity of vision has been lost, and with it perhaps some of the uniting leadership of the United States. Unity has also been lost in another sense. As will be argued later on, while Europe is developing a new and more orderly security system, other parts of the world are becoming more disorderly. It was perhaps natural that with one global order gone, statesmen should want to hail the arrival of a new one, as President Bush did after Gulf War I. But, as is now obvious, this is a poor description of the actual state of affairs.

Understanding the kind of world we live in is important. The costs of intellectual errors in foreign affairs are enormous. Wars are sometimes fought by mistake. Suez was a mistake, at least for Britain: it was fought on the basis that Nasser was a new Hitler and a threat to order, but neither the threat nor the order really existed. Algeria was a mistake: France was fighting for a concept of the state that was no longer sustainable. Vietnam was a mistake: the United States thought it was fighting the Cold War, when in reality it was continuing a French colonial campaign. These conceptual errors had heavy costs. Clarity of thought is a contribution to peace.

The purpose of this essay is to explain the changes that have taken place and to offer a framework for understanding the post-Cold War world. The central focus will be on Europe. It is Europe that has dominated,first actively and then passively,the international stage for about 500 years. It is also in Europe that systemic change has taken place: the nation state balance-of­power system first came into being in Europe; and now the post-balance system of postmodern states has also begun in Europe.But in the age of globalization no continent is an island and the key question for Europe has ceased to be how it can end its fratricidal conflicts and become instead, how it can live in a world where conflicts, missiles and terrorists ignore borders, and where the familiar certainties of the Cold War and its alliances have gone.


To understand the present we must first understand the past.In a sense, the past is still with us. International order used to be based either on hegemony or on balance.Hegemony came first. In the ancient world,order meant empire:Alexander’s Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mogul, Ottoman or Chinese Empires. The choice, for the ancient and medieval worlds, was between empire and chaos.In those days imperialism was not yet a dirty word. Those within the empire had order, culture and civiliza­tion.Outside the empire were barbarians,chaos and disorder.

The image of peace and order through a single hege­monic power centre has remained strong ever since. It was first present in late medieval dreams of the restoration of Christendom (by such writers as Dante), or in the many proposals for world or European government made over the years by idealists such as Immanuel Kant, Saint-Simon, Victor Hugo or Andrew Carnegie; it is still visible today in calls for a United States of Europe. The idea of the United Nations as a world government (which it was never intended to be) still survives; and the United Nations is often criticized for failing to be one.

However, it was not the empires but the small states that proved to be a dynamic force in the world. Empires are ill­designed for promoting change. Holding the empire together – and it is the essence of empires that they bring together diverse communities under a single rule – usually requires an authoritarian political style; innovation, especially in society and politics, leads to instability. Thus the standard instructions to a provincial governor in the Chinese Empire were to ensure that nothing changed. Historically speaking, empires have generally been static.

Europe’s world leadership came out of that uniquely European contribution, the small state. In Europe, a third way was found between the stasis of chaos and the stasis of empire. In the particular circumstances of medieval Europe, empire had become loose and fragmented. A tangled mass of jurisdictions competed for control: landowners, free cities, holders of feudal rights, guilds and the king. Above all the Church, representing what remained of the Christian empire, still held considerable power and authority, competing with the secular powers.

The success of the small state came from its achievement in establishing a concentration of power – especially the power to make and to enforce the law – at a single point: that is to say in the establishment of sovereignty. Unlike the Church, whose claim was to universal rule, the state’s secular authority was limited geographically. Thus Europe changed from a weak system of universal order to a pattern of stronger but geographically limited sovereign authorities without any overall framework of law. The war of all against all that Hobbes feared was prevented by the concentration of legitimate force at a series of single points; but both legitimacy and force were exclusive to single states. Hobbes’ primary concern was domestic order; he had lived through the Civil War in England. But the concentration of power at home left the international order without the shelter – admittedly now a very leaky one – that the Church had provided in the shape of a system of law and authority to which even kings were subject. Domestic order was purchased at the price of international anarchy.

The diversity of the small European states created competition. And competition, sometimes in the form of war, was a source of social, political and technological progress. The difficulty of the European state system, however, was that it was threatened on either side. On the one hand, there was the risk of war getting out of control and the system relapsing into chaos. On the other, there was a risk of a single power winning the wars and imposing a single hegemony on Europe.

The solution to this, the essential problem of a small­state system, was the balance of power. This worked neither so perfectly nor so automatically as is sometimes imagined. The idea that the states of Europe would, by some semi­automatic Newtonian process, find an equilibrium among themselves that would prevent any one of them dominating the continent nevertheless retains a powerful grip on the historical imagination. For a hundred years the principle of maintaining a balance of power in the European continent was written into the annual Mutiny Acts of the British Parliament. Nevertheless, whatever the conceptual confusions (to which the US National Security Strategy has just added with its references to a “balance of power for peace” – which seems to mean the same thing as US dominance), when it came to the point that the European state system was threatened by imperial ambitions from Spain, France or Germany, coalitions were put together to thwart those ambitions. This ran with the grain of the system: a sovereign power is naturally inclined to protect its sovereignty. This system also had a certain legitimacy; statesmen were conscious of the desirability of balance. Over the decades following the Thirty Years War, a consensus grew among governments and elites that the pluralism of

European states should be maintained. Many saw this as a condition of liberty in Europe.

With the balance of power went the doctrine of raison d””tat. Machiavelli first put forward the proposition that states should not be subject to the same moral constraints as individuals. This philosophy – that moral rules do not apply to states – was the counterpart of the changes by which the state ceased to be the private property of its ruler.At the same time it reflected the breakdown of the Church’s universal authority. Acceptance of raison d””tat grew from the Renaissance onwards until, by the end of the nineteenth century, it was the accepted wisdom and questions that had troubled Aquinas and Augustine about whether or not wars were just were no longer considered relevant.

Nevertheless, the balance of power had an inherent instability. It was the system in which a war was always waiting to happen. The end of the system came about as a result of three factors. The first was German unification in 1871. Here, for the first time, was a state that was too large and too dynamic to be contained within the traditional European system. Restraining German ambitions twice required the intervention of non-traditional European powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. And on the second occasion both remained behind, changing the nature of the system for ever.

The second factor was the change in technology in the late nineteenth century, which brought the Industrial Revolution on to the battlefield. War was inherent in the balance-of-power system: but by the beginning of the twentieth century, technology was raising the price of warfare to unaffordable levels.

The third change came with the second. The Industrial Revolution brought with it not just the means of moving the masses to the battlefield, but also mass society and democratic politics. This meant that war and peace could no longer be left to the judgement of a small and internationally orientated “lite. Balance-of-power thinking could be maintained in the Treaty of Utrecht or the Congress of Vienna or in Bismarck’s Treaty with Austria after the war of 1866. But already in 1871 the influence of popular national feeling was playing a part. Bismarck’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, against his own better judgement, showed that the Bismarckian days, when states could be juggled and balanced, were coming to an end.2 By the time of the Versailles Conference, the kind of peace negotiations that Talleyrand and Metternich had conducted were no longer possible. The idea of the balance of power was already dead in 1919, although the Second World War saw one final coalition to save the European state system.

If the European state system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and up to a point the first half of the twentieth century) was one of the balance of power, the world system was one of empires. The empires were, for the most part, the European system writ large. And the wars of empires – for example the Seven Years War – were essentially European wars. Empires added wealth and prestige and provided the background for European politics – whether in the Congress of Berlin or in the Agadir Incident – but the heart of the system still lay in Europe.3 That European powers had empires overseas was natural given their relative strength and their acquisitiveness, but it was also a paradox. The paradox was that powers which operated a system of balance in their own continent – with its acceptance of national states and international pluralism – operated empires overseas that suppressed nationalism and were hostile to pluralism. This paradox was at the bottom of the unravelling of the empires in the second half of the twentieth century.

But empires were also natural. It is an assumption of the balance-of-power system that states are fundamentally aggressive or at least that some states are aggressive some of the time. A system designed to thwart hegemonic ambitions makes the assumption that such ambitions are common. And, since balance in Europe prevented expansion there, it was natural for that expansion to take place overseas. This is another reason why Germany was a disturbing factor. By the time of Germany’s emergence most of the available chaos had already been converted into empire (and some of the non-chaos, too) or had been declared empire-free (South America under the Monroe Doctrine). This left little room for Germany or Japan.


The wars of 1914 to 1945 destroyed both the European balance of power in its traditional sense and also the European empires. The empires depended on prestige, and this was fatally undermined by the Japanese successes in the Second World War. In Europe itself, America and Russia were now needed to keep the system intact. What happened after 1945 was, however, not so much a radically new system as the concentration and culmination of the old one. The empires became spheres of influence of the superpowers. And the old multilateral balance of power in Europe became a bilateral balance of terror world-wide. In a strange way the old systems – balance in Europe and empire outside – were combined to produce something like a world order of balance between empires or blocs: a final culminating simplification of the balance of power.

The Cold War years were a period of wars and tension, but there was also an underlying order. This came in the shape of a tacit understanding that the United States and the Soviet Union would go to great lengths not to fight each other directly, as would their major allies. Behind this, of course, lay nuclear weapons. The other side of this coin was that the Soviet Union was free to invade its own allies without Western interference. These unwritten rules also permitted the Soviets to arm North Vietnam, and America to arm Afghan guerrillas; but neither sent conventional combat forces to a theatre where the other was committed. For the most part, the Cold War was fought with propaganda, bribery and subversion. Where there was military combat, it was most often for political or ideological control of a particular country – Nicaragua, Angola or Korea, for example – rather than between countries. Many of the actual battles of the Cold War took place in civil wars. Thus the system had a certain orderliness, since boundaries did not often change and major inter-state conflicts were usually outside the Cold War framework.

And yet the Cold War order was not built to last. Although it was stable on a military level it lacked legitimacy as a system. It was not just that many found the balance of terror repugnant – on the whole it was individuals rather than governments who had the moral doubts. Rather, the ideologies of both sides rejected the division of the world into two camps; each claimed a universal validity and a moral authority for their own version of how the world should be. (On the Western side, this was probably truer in America than in Europe.) In this sense, the Cold War balance differed from the European balance-of-power system, which was accepted by the governments of the day as legitimate and which, in some sense, matched the rationalist spirit of the times. The Cold War system of balance and division never suited the more universalistic, moralistic spirit of the late twentieth century. Moreover, both sides, within certain limits, were always ready to undermine it.

The end of the Cold War has brought not only the rearrangement of the international scene that usually follows hegemonic wars but also domestic change. Since the Cold War was a battle of ideas as much as one between armies, those changes have not been imposed by occupying forces but introduced to willing, if bemused, governments by hordes of MIT-trained economists, management consultants, seminars and programmes of technical assistance (including the aptly named British Know-How Fund). The unique character of the Cold War is also shown by the fact that instead of extracting reparations – a practice which lasted from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century – the victors have instead given aid to help convert the defeated side. Thus are wars of ideas different from wars of territory.

Ideas are not cost-free. They can be dangerous to peace. Democracy, the victorious idea in the Cold War, is a destroyer of empires. To run a democratic state with majority voting requires a strong sense of identity. Democracy entails the definition of a political community. In many cases, this is provided by the idea of the nation. The break-up of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia – both in different ways Cold War empires – is a consequence of the victory of Western liberalism and democracy. The wars in those territories are democracy’s wars. Liberalism and nationalism can go together today just as they did for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century states emerging from one or another form of imperial rule.

Copyright ” 2003 by Robert Cooper. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.