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Why to Vote for Britain to Remain in the European Union: Maintaining World Peace and Stability

June 6, 2016

Consider the name of the prominent pro-EU campaign group “Britain Stronger in Europe”. This is a good example of making a tacit concession to nationalists. Of course what we want is whatever makes Britain stronger, the name suggests; it just so happens that what will make Britain stronger is remaining in the EU. The view that we shouldn’t cast our vote based wholly or mainly on which alternative makes Britain stronger gets brushed under the carpet, since even the pro-EU side doesn’t air it. The language of the debate is subtly, part-unconsciously skewed to the nationalist side. It becomes more and more difficult to make a convincing pro-EU argument, since pro-EU individuals have to fight in territory which we fail to realize we have already conceded to the nationalists. Nationalists gain confidence. Since their own principles are going unchallenged, their views seem all the more immune from rational criticism.

Here is a dissenting voice. It is vital that Britain remains in the EU. This is not primarily because remaining in the EU would benefit Britain, though it would do that. The primary reason, in my view, is because Britain remaining in the EU makes the outbreak of an inter-state war in Europe considerably less likely in the long-term. (Since an inter-state war in Europe would, like the World Wars, greatly damage Britain, I argue even those who care primarily about British interests should hence vote for Britain to remain in the EU).

This is a big claim. What do I have to back it up? My view has two sources: a consideration the history of Europe in the 20th century, and contemporary International Relations (IR) theory.


Part One: Neo-Realist Theory and the Causes of War

First, a crash course in IR theory. My claim is that Britain exiting the EU will make peace more difficult to maintain in Europe. To see whether this is true, we need an analytical tool which helps us understand the causes of war.

The dominant theoretical school in IR, neo-realism, offers a simple and convincing explanation of the persistent outbreak of inter-state war throughout history. Waltz (1) considers three kinds of explanation of inter-state war: Man (is human nature to blame?), the State (the policies of individual states?), and the Structure of the international system. Waltz does not entirely discount Man and the State as contributory factors, but argues that Structural explanations have not received nearly enough attention.

The aspect of the structure of the international system to blame for war, according to Waltz, is anarchy. Within the domestic sphere, the state almost always enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In the international sphere, no state enjoys such a position: there is no super-state policing nation-states, hence why the international realm is “anarchical”. Domestically, individuals’ demand for security is outsourced to the state, which provides security for all citizens. Since states cannot outsource their security needs to another, over-arching institution, they need to provide for their own security, which involves paying for and maintaining an army.

Tragically, this causes grave problems at a systemic level. Even if a state builds up military force for purely defensive reasons, neighbouring states have little way of knowing whether the militarily expanding state is gathering forces for defensive or offensive purposes. This uncertainty means that the growth of power in a neighbouring state presents a security threat. In response, neighbouring states have little choice but to build up their own military, or risk invasion and destruction, thereby aggravating the problem in a vicious circle. Since another state’s gain in power seems to represent another state’s loss, international politics becomes a zero-sum game where competition is rife and cooperation is difficult. If a new state’s power is gradually expanding, the status-quo powerful state’s leaders may decide that it is better to fight today, on more advantageous terms, than to lose horribly in 20 years time.

Neo-realists can explain why even states with peace-seeking leaders end up pursuing militaristic and aggressive foreign policies. Properly understood, neo-realism does not say that war is inevitable in an anarchical system, but rather that the anarchical system imposes extremely strong incentives on political leaders to pursue militaristic policies. In a dog-eat-dog international system, it is hard to survive if you do not pursue militaristic policies: since fellow states will be worried about their security and power, neighbours will surely aggressively take advantage if one state leaves itself in a vulnerable position. As Waltz points out, non-militaristic states are more likely to be wiped from the system by rivals, so they are not as numerous or long-lived as their militaristic rivals. Moreover, the citizens of states are likely to promote their own security, and remove from office governments who fail to defend their security against rival states, which are seen as threats. The result is that political leaders are not left with much choice: militaristic and power-seeking policies are usually the only option.

This is why the Structural explanation of war is so much more convincing than the human-nature and individual-state policy explanations. Even if political leaders seek peace and have smart policies, the nature of the system pushes towards war anyway. This explains why inter-state war has recurred throughout history, despite its gigantic costs: the international system has always been anarchical, so leaders are stuck in a system which repeatedly leads to undesirable outcomes.

It is clear that, as Waltz claims, “a structural defect requires a structural remedy.” The massive incentives which push political leaders towards war will not be removed until international anarchy ends. Perhaps long-term peace is faintly possible in an anarchical system, but it would be exceptionally hard to achieve in a system which is essentially zero-sum, or close to it. The EU is itself a “structural remedy” to the problem of anarchy: by pooling the sovereignty and economies of European states to a significant degree, it has mitigated the destructive effects of anarchy in Europe and hence preserved peace.
In this brief explanation, I have not been able to do justice to the nuances of neo-realist IR theory. For those of you who remain unconvinced, I recommend reading Waltz’s works. At the very least Waltz’s theory is a useful tool with which to analyze European international relations. The neo-realist perspective, I shall be arguing, supports the view that the EU, and Britain’s continued membership of it, are vital for the preservation of peace in Europe in this century.

Part 2: 20th-Century International Relations Through a Neo-Realist Lens

Let us reconsider some of the events of 20th-century international relations through a neo-realist lens. It is important to bear in mind what a neo-realist lens does not give us. Neo-realists do not pay much attention to, for example, cultural factors relevant to the outbreak of war, such as nationalism. The neo-realist theory is hence incomplete. But that does not mean it has no explanatory value. We can agree that international anarchy and the resulting security dilemmas are a major contribution to the outbreak of inter-state war while insisting that cultural factors play a role too. But recall that the neo-realist theory suggests that, under anarchy, even states which have a culture which favours peace find it hard to avoid militaristic policies.

The historical analysis which I am about to provide, therefore, is in some important ways simplistic. It is not intended to be in any way comprehensive. My aim is instead to use the neo-realist theory to pick up on some of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of the two World Wars. Later, I will argue that the EU is making sure that the same tragic patterns do not recur in this century.

The maintenance of peace in the first half of the last century was made difficult by the growing power of Germany, which had been developing significantly since its unification in 1871. Germany’s power came to utterly overshadow that of any of its near rivals, taken individually: consider that during WW1 not even France, Russia and Britain together could defeat Germany without the intervention of the US, while Germany lacked a single major-power ally. The pre-eminence of German economic might and its potential for military strength remain highly important factors in today’s geopolitical and diplomatic landscape, as I will argue below.

As Paul W. Schroeder points out (2), both the First and Second World Wars were “about a two-sided German problem”. In both cases, Germany’s rise caused security problems both to the East and West of Germany.

First, in the East, Russia, conscious of its comparative industrial backwardness and its diplomatic isolation, grew scared by Germany, particularly after German leaders changed course from neutrality in diplomatic disputes over the Balkans to backing Austo-Hungary against the Russians. As a result, Russian leaders became increasingly assertive and unwilling to make any strategic concessions to Germany and Austro-Hungary. After several close shaves during diplomatic crises over Balkan affairs, Russian intransigence eventually contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914, when Russian leaders refused to make any concessions to Austro-Hungary and intervened with force to preserve their ally Serbia’s sovereignty.

In the West, Germany’s rise caused similar fear in France. France’s vulnerability to Germany was made painfully clear in 1871, when Bismarck won a rapid victory in the Franco-Prussian war. The French political elite aligned with, and heavily invested in, Russia from 1891, in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to Germany. However, the result was that German leaders felt they were surrounded, especially after their failure to secure British alliance or neutrality later in the 1890s. (Britain too was worried by Germany’s rise, particularly in the naval arena). In this situation, German leaders like von Schlieffen reasoned that it would be preferable to pursue an aggressive strategy in a crisis situation: if France could quickly be eliminated, Germany would avoid fighting a difficult war on two fronts. This was close to the strategy eventually pursued in 1914.

Next, consider the prelude to the Second World War. As Germany re-armed, France was once again left highly vulnerable. Although on the winning side in WW1, France was left economically prostrate and politically divided after 1918. To make matters worse, the great strife in Russia during and after the Communist revolution, and the poor relations between the USSR and the West, left France minus one major ally they had in 1914. Meanwhile, the US had returned to isolationism. The problem of Franco-German cooperation had not been satisfactorily addressed by post-WW1 diplomatic and political changes.

To Germany’s East, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires after WW1 made way for the formation of a panoply of smaller national states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. These, however, were economically weak and divided among themselves. Support from Britain, France and the US was minimal. On the one hand, the new Eastern European states feared risking German anger by aligning closely with France and Britain. On the other hand, France and Britain were reluctant to take on the burden of protecting the borders of small and isolated Eastern European states, which in any case would, in their view, be hard to defend from German or Soviet attack. In the end, the isolated Eastern European states made for easy targets for resurgent German aggression, and the Soviets and Germans divided Eastern Europe up between them, putting Germany in a dominant position in Europe and leading to global war.
The point of considering the “two sided” problem caused by Germany’s rise, and the ensuing developments, is to establish that the pursuit of peace in Europe in the first half of the 20th century was made exceptionally difficult by the following three factors:

1) The anarchical nature of the international system, which meant that Germany’s rise caused strategic dilemmas for both Germany itself and neighbouring states, leading to a vicious cycle of aggression and conflict.

2) In particular, France’s vulnerability to Germany made it highly difficult for those two states to cooperate economically or politically, since French gain seemed to amount to a German loss, and vice versa. This was a significant contributing factor in leading to the outbreak of the Two World Wars, both fought between pro-German and pro-French coalitions.

3) Furthermore, the vulnerability of states to the east of Germany (including, at times, Russia and the Soviet Union) led to diplomatic problems, like the Balkan crisis of July 1914 and the Sudetenland crisis of 1938, and a lack of cooperation. German leaders were hence able to dominate Eastern Europe, making Germany all the more threatening to France, Russia/USSR and even the US. German dominance in Eastern Europe, while especially marked during the early years of WW2, was also eminent during WW1 (consider the dominant German position in the East at the time of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, prior to US intervention). In Schroeder’s view, instability in Eastern Europe was the primary trigger of both World Wars.

Part 3: The European Union and International Relations Today

In light of Waltz’s argument that anarchy in the international sphere imposes strong incentives on state leaders to pursue aggressive, militaristic policies, it is natural to think that, for the cause of world peace, some form of sovereign international governance must be introduced. Recall Waltz’s claim that “a structural defect requires a structural remedy”. The formation of a global state would end international anarchy, affording the potential to create an international system based on mutual advantage and universal security. Waltz himself believes that a global state would prove impossible to establish. Even if he is right, though, that does not mean that the project of sovereign international governance is dead in the water. Sovereign international governance could be set up at a regional level, as a second-best alternative. This would end the anarchical state of affairs within certain regions, making peace within the region significantly easier to maintain.

This is the most important raison d’etre of the European Union. After two incredibly tragic and bloody inter-state World wars kicked off by fault-lines in Europe’s diplomatic sphere, some leading Europeans realized that the zero-sum nation-state political system was, in significant part, to blame for the chaos of the past half-century. It had to be changed. The European Union project today marks a brave attempt to remove anarchy within one of the world’s historically most volatile, war-prone regions, thus promoting peace.

To understand how the European Union’s existence is currently so crucial to the maintenance of peace in the long-term, consider how the EU neatly resolves the “two-sided” German problem which so tragically contributed to the grief of the 20th century.
First, there is the issue of Franco-German cooperation. The initial point of the European Economic Community was to pave the way for Franco-German cooperation by tying the fortunes of the French economy to the German economy and vice versa. By placing France and West Germany in one economic unit, leaders of both countries have much more of an incentive to promote the interests of the other nation. In such a context, aggression by one state against the other would be obviously self-defeating. As George C. Marshall put it, “the remedy lies in breaking the vicious cycle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole” (my emphasis). Marshall’s strategy of prioritizing the economic future of Europe as a whole differed markedly from that of the Allied leaders in the post-WW1 settlements, which involved a deliberate attempt to weaken the economies not just of Germany but all states on the losing side of the conflict (see Steiner 2005). Marshall’s strategy has proved far more successful. Economically, the EU and its predeccesor organizations have removed the zero-sum competition which existed between France and Germany before 1945. So the European Union, from its earliest days, healed one of the fault lines originally thrown open by the unification and rise of Germany, namely tension and conflict between France and Germany.

Since 1990, the inclusion of Eastern European states in the EU has helped address the second “side” of the problem. Recall that the major problems for Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century were A) The division and weakness of states to the East of Germany, and B) the lack of support Eastern European states had from Western states. These twin problems made the region highly volatile: from the perspective of a great power seeking to advance its own power and security at the expense of its major rivals, Eastern Europe made for rich pickings. Moreover, the two problems, A and B, were mutually reinforcing. The weaker and more divided Eastern Europe became, the more strategically onerous it was for France and Britain to take on responsibility for protecting East European states. The more France and Britain distanced themselves from Eastern Europe diplomatically, the more vulnerable Eastern European states became. The situation was a vicious cycle.

The EU has addressed both these problems: by bringing Eastern European states into a wider political and economic bloc, they become more unified among themselves (problem A) and also more closely linked economically to Western European states, giving the latter more incentive to maintain the security of their Eastern European allies (problem B). If the EU collapses or is significantly weakened, I fear there would be little reason preventing the two-sided problem, which made peace so hard to preserve in Europe in the last century, emerging once more.

It is unfortunate that Russia could not be integrated into the wider Western/European bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union (though perhaps this was never practically feasible). The “New Cold War” situation of poor relations between Russia and the West, which has gradually snowballed over the last decade, entails a particular danger to European security.
Russia itself presents a formidable enough security threat to Europe on its own, according to estimates conducted by the Pentagon in 2014. (3) Presently, however, it seems unlikely that Russia would seriously consider a unilateral large-scale attack on a NATO member-state, since its economic and military forces are already being stretched far enough by the war in Ukraine, its intervention in the Middle East, and sanctions imposed by Western states.

The more troubling concern is that Russia’s assertiveness could win it more allies in Europe. The vast majority of far-right nationalist parties (e.g. the Front National, UKIP, PVV, etc.) in Europe admire Putin, and seek closer relations with Russia. At the same time, those parties express deep misgivings about the EU, and US-led international organizations such as NATO. The vote share of those far-right parties has been steadily increasing, and now averages around 15% in many Western European states. Also, as Cas Mudde demonstrates in an important paper (4), the ideological sympathies of a much wider section of European society than that lie with the far right, even if that sympathy does not always translate to support in the ballot box. Perhaps most strikingly, 57% of German citizens recently polled said they would not want German soldiers to stand in defence of Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion of those nations, according to a survey conducted by Bertelsmann Stiftlung and the Institute of Foreign Affairs conducted in March 2016.



Furthermore, in 2014, the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party, Matthias Platzcek, advised that “the annexation of Crimea [by Russia in 2014] be retroactively recognised by international law, so that it be acceptable for all”. (“All” seems to exclude Ukranians, on Platzcek’s view). This is a clear indication that some centrist European politicians, as well as the far-right ones, seek to re-direct their nation’s foreign policies to the tune of appeasement of Putin.

What is the danger here? One problem with Platzcek’s statement, and the view that Germany ought not to defend Poland and the Baltic states, is that it shows disregard for the rights of Eastern European states. If German leaders opted for greater reconciliation with Putin and stepped away from cooperation with the EU, NATO and the USA, the security situation of Eastern European states would look even more precarious than it does currently. A German-Russian accord could spell utter disaster for Eastern Europe, as it did in 1939. Recall my conclusion in Part 2, that the weakness of states to the east of Germany was one of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of world war in the 20th century. It is imperative to guard against this rift being re-opened.

What has this has to do with the United Kingdom? Firstly, while it remains in the EU, the United Kingdom has a clear economic interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. The more Britain is bound to Europe economically and politically, the less likely British governments will be to return to the isolationist approach to Europe which Britain often adopted in the 20th century. British isolationism would drastically reduce the stability of Eastern Europe, leaving East European states more isolated and vulnerable.
Secondly, whether Britain remains in the EU is bound to have a serious impact on Berlin’s strategic direction. Germany is faced with a choice: it can continue strongly siding with the EU and US against Russia, as Merkel has done, or it could opt for an appeasement-style approach as indicated by Platzcek and those Germans who would not want to stand in the way of further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. If Britain leaves the EU, the cost of continuing Merkel’s strategy goes up significantly. Regarding Eastern Europe, German leaders will be even more reluctant to take the already-unpopular and formidable task of defending Poland and/or the Baltic States if they are less confident they can count on British support. Moreover, with Britain less attached to the continent, Russia may come to be seen as a threat to Germany itself, particularly given that Germany lacks a sizeable military. In such a situation, the pressure on Berlin to manage the Russian threat through a policy of appeasement will only increase. United, Europe presents a formidable barrier to Russian expansionism; divided, it could quite easily succumb to it.

The principal objection to my case will perhaps be the idea that, even without the EU, or a strong EU, NATO should be sufficient to keep peace in Europe. But just because you inherited two bodyguards does not necessarily give you reason to sack one; one must consider the gravity of the threat one faces. More importantly, the existence, and membership of, NATO in themselves give little reason for member-states to maintain a policy of alliance with fellow NATO members. Contrast it with the EU which, as mentioned above, gives state leaders to support other members, due to the economic and political integration which it fosters. NATO is simply a formal institution of alliance, like the League of Nations was. But if a nation no longer sees an interest in maintaining alliance with other member states, there is nothing to stop it leaving, or simply ignoring fellow member-states’ calls for help. Consider Germany leaving the League of Nations in 1933, and other League members failing to come to China’s aid following the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Clearly, then, the mere existence of a multilateral defence-based alliance is insufficient to keep peace if the underlying mechanics of the international system are zero-sum. NATO has its uses, but to keep NATO strong, the underlying economic and political links which bind its members together must be held fast. None of these is more important than the EU.

Additionally, note that the principal weight behind NATO is the United States. It may be thought that the US will maintain European security and contain the threat of Russia regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU. But the rise of isolationist politicians such as Trump makes clear that continued US commitment to protecting the security of its allies, particularly distant ones such as the Baltic States, cannot be assumed to extend indefinitely into the future. While Obama has strongly committed to protecting the security of Eastern European states, even he has tried to lower the extent to which Europe is dependent on the US for resolving its security issues. (5) There is a growing sense in the US that it is unfair for Americans to foot the bill for European security, which could be seen as a European responsibility: very few European states currently meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, while the US far exceeds that amount. Also, a declining US commitment to Eastern European security partly reflects the geopolitical reality that the US is now stretched uncomfortably on several fronts, perhaps most importantly in East Asia. The most prudent course is to mitigate the extent that Europe is dependent on the American crutch, given that said crutch cannot be counted on to remain strong and present in the near future. This means avoiding complete dependence on NATO, and, by implication, keeping the EU as strong and unified as possible.

For these reasons, the EU is absolutely vital for keeping Europe united and for continuing to dampen the fault lines which caused chaos in the 20th century, namely the competition and conflict between France and Germany, and the weakness and vulnerability of Eastern Europe. The EU would be substantially weakened by a British exit, giving German leaders less incentives to continue a pro-EU, anti-Putin policy. Britain leaving the EU would hence be a major step on the road to further disunity and, eventually, violent conflict. This is the most important reason to vote for Britain to remain in the EU on the 23rd of June.



(1) Waltz’s seminal works are Man, the State, and War (1959) and Theory of International Politics (1979), see especially the latter, Ch. 6, for neo-realist explanation of inter-state war.
(2) Paul W. Schroeder, “The Lights that Failed, and Those that Never Lit”, The International History Review, Vol. 28 (1), 2006, p. 122
(3) See
(4) Cas Mudde, “The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy”, West European Politics Vol. 33 (6), 2010.
(5) See

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