HomePersonalDemocratic PeaceDemocide20th C. DemocideMegamurderersLesser MurderersWhy DemocideDimensionsConflictMethodsTheoryPolicyLinks

Volume 4

Expanded Contents | Figures | Tables


1. Perspective And Summary
2. International Relations
3. The International Actors
4. International Behavior Space-Time
5. International Expectations And Dispositions
6. International Actor And Situation
7. International Sociocultural Space-Time
8. Interests, Capabilities, And Wills
9. The Social Field Of International Relations
10. Latent International Conflict
11. International Conflict: Trigger, Will, And Preparations
12. The Balancing Of Power
13. Comparative Dynamics Of International Conflict
15. Empirical Dynamics Of International Conflict
16. Causes And Conditions Of International Conflict And War
17. Ending Conflict And War: The Balance Of Powers
19. Theoretical And Empirical Conclusions On Conflict And War
20. Principles Of Peace And Conflict


15A. Phasing Propositions and Their Evidence on International Conflict
16A. On Causes of International Conflict
16B. Propositions and Their Evidence on the Causes and Conditions of International Conflict Behavior
16C. Evidence on the Causes and Conditions of International Conflict Behavior
17A. Propositions and Evidence on the Causes and Conditions of Ending International Conflict Behavior
18A. Descriptive Propositions on International Conflict
19A. Overall Evidence on 54 Social Field Propositions on International Conflict
19B. Primary Propositions on Social Conflict
I. Unpublished Research and Results on International Relations
II. Event Data: Bases of Empirical Conflict Analysis
III. Characteristics of Published Quantitative International Relations Studies

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 18

The International Conflict Helix*

By R.J. Rummel

Peace comes to an end because systems in their very nature change, and change requires adjustments that will upset the delicate balances on which peace had rested.
---- Melko, 1973: p. 141

At the highest level of abstraction, international conflicts are:

  • independent,

  • helixical,

  • uncorrelated with cooperation,

  • independent of internal conflict behavior.

And wars are:

  • state specific,

  • cyclic,

  • neither increasing nor decreasing,

  • correlated peak to peak with internal war.

These assertions are formalized as propositions and given along with their evidence in Appendix 18A to this chapter.

That conflict is a process has been a theme of Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field, Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix, and Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective. Within a sociocultural field, conflict is a process of mutually communicating, negotiating, and adjusting a new balance of powers supporting a cooperative structure of expectations. The resulting order, however, in time may become incongruent with the underlying power balance, and be disrupted by some trigger event. A new series of conflict and cooperation is thus initiated.

At first look this rhythm appears circular; a constant alternation of conflict and cooperation, war and peace. And so it might seem from any fast reading of world history. However, leaders and people learn from past conflict, adjustments, and expectations; and cultures and institutions incorporate this learning.

Assuming that the framework of conditions within which two states interact remains largely and relatively unchanged, then the process of adjustment and balancing becomes successively easier, and itself develops tacit or formal rules as to the limits and process of their conflicts. Diplomatic protests, for example, follow certain form and are conveyed according to certain procedures. Violence may be ritualized, or tacitly limited to certain weapons and geographical area. States may develop certain rules about conducting war, as to its declaration, legal responsibilities of belligerents and neutrals, treatment of prisoners, protection of combatants, and the like.

Moreover, the disruption of a structure of expectations does not wash out the memory or dispositions of the parties. Each structure will have previous expectations and balances as a base of mutual recognition and understanding to build upon. Systems of relationships thus evolve towards greater coordination of disparate interests and capabilities, and successive periods of international peace and cooperation will tend to last longer.

Thus, societies develop; cultures evolve. No one plans them. They are not made.1 They are rather the outcome of iterative adjustments: the process of conflict and cooperation. If the framework of conditions underlying behavior remains largely the same, then, through time conflict becomes less intense, peace more lasting. This is the helix.

This helixical process is shown in Figure 18.1, where the circular process is really a coil moving upward on a path of learning. Each turn through peace and cooperation takes longer; each twist through conflict is less intense.

This helix is uncoiled in Figure 18.2 to show this process.2

The helix assumes that the system--the framework of behavior--does not undergo major changes or shocks (what were called "disruptors" in Section 29.5 of Chapter 29 in Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix). If, for example, one of the parties has a revolutionary change in government, as Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959, then the helix begins anew as shown in Figure 18.3. A whole new series of intense conflicts are therefore initiated. Shocks to the helix may also be caused by external events, a general or regional war impacting on a pair of nations, an international economic breakdown, an internal collapse of a state, political shifts or internal war in neighboring states, sudden hostile alliances, and so on.

Change, of course, will always take place. But as long as such change does not affect the foundations of a relationship, as long as change is gradual, even though the change is in the balance among interests, capabilities, and wills that supports a structure of expectations, then conflict is helixical.

There is thus two types of change affecting international conflict: that gradual change in the balance of powers to which conflict is a periodic helixical adjustment; that radical change which sets the helix back and initiates a new sequence of adjustments.

Among possible radical changes there are several intrinsic to states and that themselves are periodic. The first is the periodic change in national leadership. This change brings into office new personalities, perspectives, expectations; it eliminates some of the learning the previous incumbent and his top officials had accumulated. While institutions, public opinion, interest groups, and the very important bureaucracy will insure a certain consistency and incorporate and carry over previous experience, the new leadership must undergo new tests, new conflicts with other states. A change in leadership, depending on how much of a departure it is from the previous one, causes a regression, more or less, of the helix about every decade.

However, generally a more radical departure involves the change over in generations that occurs around every 25 years. The old pass away from power and influence and the young with their different beliefs, perceptions, and experiences come into power; not only in the leadership, but also in the bureaucracy, interest groups, communication elite, and public. Those who vividly remember the last big war, who remember well its lessons, pass out of the political scene. Each new generation, it seems, must learn for itself the lessons of history.

Finally, as generations pass, there develop new institutions, organizational rules, norms, expectations, ideas. What experience and lessons had become incorporated in the culture and the society as a result of the last big war or revolution become transformed. Although year-by-year changes are incremental, perhaps unnoticed, over a long period of time the system becomes radically changed. Such probably occurs every two generations or around 50 years.

Therefore, the progress of a conflict helix between states is jolted about every 10 years by leadership change, then by generational turnover about every 25 years, and finally by system change about every 50 years.

To define the effect of this on war, we should first note that there is a zone of peace--nonwar--comprising the international behavior among libertarian (liberal democratic) states. As pointed out in the Joint Freedom Proposition 16.11, these states do not make war on each other. Therefore, as far as the effect of change on war among them, there is none. Outside of this zone, however, is that international behavior among libertarian and non-libertarian states or among non-libertarian states themselves. This is the zone of potential violence and war, and that in which radical change can stimulate war.

Indeed, in this zone of potential violence the effect of leadership, generational, and system changes is to produce cyclic patterns of war. General war is a watershed within and between states. It marks leadership change in most states among defeated and victors alike. The horrors of war are manifest, searing a generation with unforgettable lessons. And all states undergo internal institutional and political changes as a consequence. This creates a tendency for leadership, generational and system changes that affect the helix to be correlated across states. In understanding this correlation note that in spite of a zone of peace, some general or world wars may involve virtually all major libertarian and non-libertarian states. This is because, as in World Wars I and II, the libertarian states will be on one side of the war, while maintaining the zone of peace between themselves.

All this is to say that wars in the zone of potential international violence form three cycles: about every 10, 25, and 50 years there are upsurges of warfare--a rephasing of the international conflict helix.3

Although cyclic, nonetheless, the helix seems to imply that the war tends to fade away. This is not the case. Although in the short run war may appear to diminish, the overall effect of leadership, generation, and system changes is to shear the helix. Every two generations the process of adjustment begins anew.

As long as libertarian state do not in number and behavior dominate international relations, therefore, the long-term trend in warfare within the international field will remain level: neither increasing nor decreasing in the long-run, as it has remained relatively level in past centuries.4

Now, this assertion must be hedged further. The necessary causes of war channel the occurrence of these cycles and trends. Besides the already mentioned existence of non-libertarian states, there are other requirements (causes), as presented in Chapter 16, that must be met before leadership, generation, and system turnover create war.5

Moreover, the probability of war breaking out for any state differs. Although all states will undergo leadership, generational, and system changes, states have different propensities for war6 as a result of their sociopolitical organization (such as whether authoritarian or totalitarian), their coercive power potential, and relative location in sociocultural space-time. Nonetheless, at the level of the system as a whole, the occurrence of war should be a cyclic phenomenon, which as the evidence shows, it is.

In sum, then, there are periodic, radical changes intrinsic to states that break down the iterative process of adjustment among them--the conflict helix--and produce cycles in warfare.

This process of adjustment, of balancing of powers, takes place at different levels and along different dimensions. It may concern trade, multinational corporations, tourists, international airline pricing; or diplomatic rights, spying, border territory, spheres of influence, or global or regional power. When it involves general war, however, as in the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars I and II, then the general structure of expectations, the international status quo, is at issue. And all other structures of expectations between the warring parties and many between the allies are involved.

A breakdown in the international order manifests peaks in warfare within the system. Separate wars coalesce, casualties are the highest, and few states within the field are left untouched. Such a breakdown is also a disruption of structures of expectations internal to those involved. General war and the resulting balance sharply alter the conditions of internal stability in defeated and victorious states alike. Millions of people, not only the combatants, have new experiences and change interests and personality. Interest groups are reshuffled; class and status distinctions broken down and reordered; governmental power is increased, even in the democracies; weapons become widely available; and dissidents, independence, and revolutionary movements are encouraged to strike. A crescendo of internal war breaks out and may reach its peak after the general war has been terminated.

Peaks in international war, therefore, are correlated with peaks in internal warfare.7

This does not mean that there is a general correlation between external and internal, foreign and domestic, conflict behavior. In general, the external and internal conflict helixes operate along separate paths--the balancing of powers within states goes on independently of international processes. For some states at some times, these two levels may be linked, as with the United States in the Vietnam war, France in the Algerian War, and South Korea's frozen war with the North. Moreover, internal revolutionary changes in regimes can disrupt a state's relations with others and initiate several rounds of conflict, as between Castro's Cuba and the United States. And, as stated previously, at their extremes, external and internal war do come together.

Across states and times, external and internal conflict behavior in general reflect independent processes; they are uncorrelated.8 That is, internal conflict--a disruption of an internal structure of expectations--is neither a necessary of sufficient cause or condition of external conflict. And vice versa. Nor are they mutually aggravating or inhibiting conditions. Thus, internal conflict is not among the causes and conditions of international conflict presented in Chapter 16.

There are two more general assertions about international conflict that follow from field theory and its conflict helix. One is that international conflicts are independent processes.9 That is, each conflict is specific to a particular, disrupted structure of expectations. Unless these structures between different states are themselves related, as security, aid, and trade may form interdependent nests of expectations in a group of nations, then there is no general reason for the balancing of powers between, say, Rhodesia and Mozambique to be related to that between Morocco and Algeria, Cambodia and Vietnam, India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea.

Conflict is neither contagious nor emulated in general. To assert such is to believe leaders blindly or pathologically strike out at other states. Rather, they behave toward another states in a specific situation and regarding their interests, perceptions, and expectations.

Conflict elsewhere may of course change the conditions of this relationship and alter interests, as Cuba's military involvement in African wars in 1978 has affected its relationship with the United States. However, such is not a general necessity.

Finally, the aggregate international conflict of and between states is uncorrelated with their cooperation.10 This is a most significant assertion, for it denies a basic assumption of American foreign policy, which is that increasing the cooperation between states will reduce the tension and conflict between them.11

The logic is this. Cooperation (flows and structures) and conflict are complementary, two sides of a continuous process of adjustment and interaction: the conflict helix. However, the link between particular conflict and cooperation is specific to a specific structure of expectations. American-Japanese conflict over Japanese exports of television sets to the American market and resulting imposition of higher American duties is independent of the American-Japanese conflict over Carter's declared intention to withdraw American troops from South Korea, and his resulting assurances to Japan and reiteration of the American security commitment to Korea.

For a pair of states, therefore, their aggregate Conflict Behavior (as the capitalization is defined in Table 4.4) will be accumulated across diverse situations and processes of mutual adjustment, each of which may involve one type or another of more or less intense Conflict Behavior. Moreover, aggregate cooperation will similarly be accumulated across diverse structures of expectations, involving one type or another of more or less cooperation. Consequently, there is no necessary relationship between the aggregate conflict of a state and its aggregate cooperation.

That is, from a state's overall cooperation with another--its exports, treaties, cultural exchanges, comemberships in international organizations, state visits, conferences, tourists, aid, students, migrants, mail, telephone calls, and the like, to and with the other--you cannot in general deduce its level and type of conflict with the other.

In summary then, international conflict is an iterative process of establishing a structure of expectations through which cooperation can take place, a helix. This conflict in the aggregate is uncorrelated with cooperation and internal conflict, although at the extreme, peaks of international warfare correspond to peaks in internal war. Moreover, international conflicts across states are themselves independent.

And as for war, in the long term it is neither increasing or decreasing, although around this trend are three cycles corresponding to leadership, generational, and system change. Finally, the probability of any state engaging in war at a particular time is specific to that state. That is, it is a function of its leader's perception, expectations, interest and capabilities, and behavioral dispositions. And, of course, will.


* Scanned from Chapter 18 in R.J. Rummel, War, Power, Peace, 1979. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. A most thorough, contemporary argument for this evolutionary view of societies is Hayek (1973-1976).

2. A simpler version of this figure is given in Figure 15.1 of Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field for generalized interpersonal conflict.

3. On balance the evidence supports the existence of cycles that range in periodicity around 10, 25 and 50 years. There is no consistent agreement across studies, however, on the precise periodicity involved (e.g., whether 9.6 or 11.2 years), nor should we expect such until our measurement and historical, quantitative data on war are improved. For this reason the assertion in the text is one example of where less precision is better than more. See Proposition 18.7.

4. See Proposition 18.8. All empirical analyses of war support this assertion, of which one of the best examples might be given: "Looking first at secular trends, contrary to what might have been expected, no trend, either upward or downward, is evident. That is, whether we concentrate upon frequencies, magnitudes, severities, or intensities, we do not find appreciable more or less war in any of the subepochs covered. Of course, there were more battle deaths in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth (thanks to the impact of the two World Wars and the Korean conflict), but when the figures are normalized for the number of nations in the system, this trend disappears. International war, therefore, appears to be neither waxing nor waning" (Small and Singer, 1970: 147). Their full results and data are given in Singer and Small (1972).

5. To say the least, there is much need for careful analysis here, for the lack of any historically downward trend in war raises the question as to whether wars can ever be reduced in number or intensity, or eliminated altogether. And so far as theoretical analysis and evidence go, there is an answer to this. War is eliminable, and that is by universalizing libertarian freedom. This is implicit in the Freedom Proposition 16.11. [See also CHAPTER 13 of Vol. 5: The Just Peace]

6. See Proposition 18.5. This assertion, systematically supported by two relevant empirical studies, is consistent with our appreciation of the war potential of different states. Surely, the probability of Israel, Libya, or South Korea being involved in war next year is greater than that of New Zealand, Switzerland, or Costa Rica.

Also, this assertion is an aspect of the field perspective: that states behave within their own frames of reference. See the Actor Proposition 16.7.

7. All relevant systematic, empirical research of which I am aware supports this. See Proposition 18.6.

8. This independence has been the result and focus of at least 46 systematic empirical analyses, and strongly substantiated. See Proposition 18.3.

9. See Proposition 18.4. This assertion is similar to the randomness proposition for conflict in society (Section 35.1 of Chapter 35 in Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix). The evidence is, without exception, strongly supportive.

10. See Proposition 18.2. At least 51 systematic analyses bear on this assertion, over two-thirds of which support it. This independence can be seen in the separate components of behavior space-time shown in Table 4.1 and Table 4.2.

11. This is the policy of détente, begun in the early years of the first Nixon Administration and continued with little variation through the Ford and into this second year of the Carter Administration. This whole chapter in general and this assertion in particular underlie my Peace Endangered (1976), an attempt to warn about the fallacies of détente and the increased danger of nuclear war inherent in such a policy conjoined with a then continuing unilateral disarmament.

For citations see the Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace REFERENCES

Go to top of document