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Paradigm Lost?: Transitions and the Search for a New World Order

Authored by Dr. David Jablonsky. | July 1993

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We are never completely contemporaneous with our present. History advances in disguise; it appears on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene, and we tend to lose the meaning of the play. Each time the curtain rises, continuity has to be re-established. The blame. . .is not history's but lies in our vision, encumbered with memory and images learned in the past. We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution.
Regis Debray1

"WAR IS PEACE," the Ministry of Truth proclaims in George Orwell's profoundly pessimistic prediction of the future in 1984.2 And so it was with the cold war. The irony is that one year after Orwell had expected the Western world to be under the complete control of Stalinism, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on the world scene, setting in train all the events that would reverse the trends inaugurated at the Finland Station so many decades before .3

The sudden end to the cold war was similar to the manner in which World War I ended on the Eastern Front in 1918 with the internal breakdown and unconditional withdrawal of a major belligerent. As in 1918 with imperial Russia, no one expected to see the end of the Soviet empire in Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet state, and the repudiation of communism itself throughout that disintegrating state. "In understanding the collapse of communism and the Soviet state," Ronald Steel has pointed out in this regard, "the strategists in government, at universities, and in the well-financed limbo in between have been virtually irrelevant."4 To be sure, in the most basic of all cold war texts, George Kennan described in 1947 the possibility of such an occurrence with a literary analogy:

Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, [Thomas Mann] compared the Buddenbrook family, in the days of its greatest glamour, to one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane?5

But he did not anticipate a peaceful metamorphosis. "Strange things have happened," Kennan wrote in 1951 when examining the possibility of Soviet toleration of its own collapse, "though not much stranger."6

The general surprise at the sudden and relatively quiet outcome of the long twilight struggle was due, in part, to the Orwellian mix of peace and war. For just as war was to Clausewitz the continuation of policy by other means, so was the cold war warfare by other, for the most part, nonlethal means. Nevertheless, it was still conflict--a struggle that lasted for two generations with massive stakes that included a geopolitical rivalry for control of the Eurasian landmass and ultimately the world, and an ideological one in which philosophy in the deepest sense of mankind's self-definition was very much at issue. The end of the cold war, then, represents a victory at least as decisive and one-sided as the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815, or of Imperial Germany in 1918, or of the Axis in 1945. In terms of the actual capitulation, that moment may have come at the November 19, 1990 Paris summit when Gorbachev accepted the conditions of the victorious coalition by describing the unification of Germany that had come about completely on Western terms as a "major event"--a description that Zbigniew Brzezinski has termed the functional equivalent to the acts of surrender in the railroad car at Compi├Ęgne in November 1918 and on the USS Missouri in August 1945.7

The defeat of the Soviet Union settled the remaining issues left over from World War II with the exception of a divided Korea and the Russian occupation of the Kurile Islands. After both the major wars of this century, it took some time for the international order to settle into what proved to be a relatively stable period until overturned by the next war (or war equivalent). A similar process is currently underway throughout the world in this third major transition period for the United States in the 20th century. Moreover, the victors of the cold war, like their predecessors in 1918 and 1945, are proclaiming a new world order in which, as President Bush described it, "nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. . .where the strong respect the rights of the weak."8

The success of this or any other world order will depend on the role of the United States, as it did in the transition periods after 1918 and 1945. That role in the current transition is usually addressed in terms of change ranging from a diminishment of military threats to an increase in global interdependence. And in fact the unabridged Webster Dictionary defines change in terms of "transition"--a "passage" in historical context, "from an earlier to a later form with the blending of old and new features. . . . "9 The added emphasis in the definition, however, also highlights the importance of continuity along with change in any transition period. Stressing this continuity, James Rosenau has pointed out, "serves as a useful reminder that even the most pronounced changes have antecedents, that the past cannot be ignored, and that there is always a danger of mistaking the appearance of upheaval for the dynamics of transformation and, thus, exaggerating the depth and breadth of change."10

How analysts think about change and continuity shapes what they look for; and what they look for affects what they find. It is in this sense that Thomas Kuhn's idea of "paradigm" can play an important role. A paradigm is a group of fundamental assumptions that form for the scholar a picture of the world--a shared framework that provides instruction on how to view the object of inquiry. It is both broad and nebulous, certainly broader than a conceptual framework since concepts derive from paradigms. It also has much less specificity than a theory or a model, both of which are organized propositions that relate the concepts that are found in a paradigm. In this regard, Kuhn emphasized, a paradigm does not provide answers; it is not knowledge itself. Instead, it holds out the promise of answers, pointing the way to knowledge by providing "a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions." 11

When the paradigm is not taken for granted, however, when there is a growing sense that existing institutions no longer are adequate to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created, then there occurs what Kuhn has called a paradigm shift. Major shifts of the Copernican, Newtonian and Einsteinian variety come about because of a profound awareness of anomaly which has lasted so long and penetrated so deeply that "a state of growing crisis" is created.12 Ptolemaic astronomy, for example, was in a scandalous state long before Copernicus appeared. When that paradigm was first developed during the last two centuries before Christ, it was extremely successful in predicting the changing positions of planets and stars. But predictions under the Ptolemaic system never quite conformed with the best available observations. Solutions to these relatively minor discrepancies were sought over the centuries by Ptolemy's successors. By the early 16th century, an increasing number of astronomers recognized that the old system was not sufficient--a recognition of a growing crisis state that was a prerequisite to the rejection by Copernicus of the Ptolemaic paradigm and his search for a new one.13

Major shifts such as this are difficult. So long as the tools provided by a paradigm are capable of solving the problems it defines, those tools will continue to be used. Just as it is in manufacturing, Kuhn pointed out, "retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demanded it. The significance of crises is the indication they provide that an occasion for retooling has arrived."14 Such an occasion arrived in Europe in the 17th century at the end of the Thirty Years War. A sense of crisis had been growing for centuries concerning the hierarchical, universalist, medieval paradigm of international relations, as emerging dynastic states began to exercise the rudiments of national sovereignty.15 The destructive chaos of the Thirty Years War provided the culminating catalyst for the shift at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to an anarchic, state-centric, realist paradigm that has dominated approaches to change and continuity in international relations ever since.16

A similar sense of crisis with the realist, "Westphalian" paradigm has been evolving in the intervening years, particularly in this century of total wars which has given new urgency to the need for the management of power. Efforts to meet that need have been tied inextricably with the attempts by the United States to define its international role in the wake of both world wars. The current post-cold war transition period, which began some time in the penultimate decade of the 20th century, is no exception. As a result, the United States faces the same question posed with negative results after 1918 and left unanswered after 1945 because of the cold war: Should this transition period be the occasion described by Kuhn for retooling? Is it time, in other words, for a major shift from the realist, state-centric paradigm of international relations?

The purpose of this study is to provide a general answer to this question. The first step is to describe the realist paradigm and trace its evolution through major post-war transition periods in European and world history up through the brief transition after World War II for the United States. The cold war, which influenced that post-1945 transition period, is the key to the assessment. For it is this twilight struggle's domination of the American national consciousness for over four decades that will determine ultimately the U.S. approach to world politics and the realist paradigm in the current transition period.

It is here that Kuhn offers additional conceptual help by pointing out that lesser, multiple paradigms can cause or inhibit shifts from one dominant paradigm to another.17 As a second step, this study will create two such lesser paradigms for viewing the U.S. experience in the cold war. They are frameworks that George Orwell would appreciate. One is that of a "long peace"; the other that of a "long war." Together, these two perspectives of America's recent past form the basis for analysis concerning the question, in this third major transition period for the nation in the 20th century, of change and continuity in the larger realist paradigm of international affairs.


The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies. When a mast falls overboard you do not try to save a rope here and a spar there in memory of their former utility; you cut away the hamper altogether. And it should be the same with a policy. But it is not so. We cling to the shred of an old policy after it has been torn to pieces; and to the shadow of the shred after the rag itself has been thrown away.
Lord Salisbury 201
In the life of societies and international systems there comes a time when the question arises whether all the possibilities of innovation inherent in a given structure have been exhausted. At this point, symptoms are taken for cause; immediate problems absorb the attention that should be devoted to determining their significance. Events are not shaped by a concept of the future; the present becomes all-intrusive. However impressive such a structure may still appear to outsiders, it has passed its zenith. It will grow ever more rigid and, in time, irrelevant.
Henry Kissinger 202
We playwrights who have to cram a whole human life or an entire historical era into a two-hour play, can scarcely understand this rapidity [ of change]ourselves. And if it gives us trouble, think of the trouble it must give political scientists who have less experience with the realm of the improbable.
Vaclav Havel 203

A student one time questioned Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky's biographer, concerning Deutscher's assertion that Trotsky was an extremely far-sighted person. Not one of Trotsky's predictions, the student argued, had come to fruition. "Not yet," Deutscher is reported to have replied, "which shows you just how far-sighted he really was."204 The anecdote demonstrates just how important reference points can be. It also illustrates the type of rationalization used by many international relations theorists as they look for alternatives to the realist paradigm.

In this regard, Thomas Kuhn has described three types of phenomena about which new theory might be developed. The first is already well explained by existing paradigms. There is thus neither motive nor need for new theory construction. At the other extreme are the phenomena of recognized anomalies which cannot be assimilated by existing paradigms and, as a consequence, require framework shifts in order to be explained. Somewhere between are the phenomena whose nature is indicated by existing paradigms, but whose details require further theory articulation in order to be understood fully.205

It is in this middle category that the phenomena resulting from an increasingly complex and interdependent world belong in terms of the realist paradigm. Theories of change abound, of course, to explain those phenomena. But as Kuhn pointed out, a paradigm "is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place."206 And few theorists are ready to make that claim in terms of the state-centric realist framework. "What is occurring in the world is not a serious demise of states as the central actors in the system," one critic concluded, ". . . but rather their acceptance that they have to work together in controlling a variety of interdependencies."207

Any such cooperation will take place within the realist paradigm. For the interdependence that emerged in the international system during the cold war has unleashed a variety of disintegrative as well as integrative forces. The task for American statesmen in this transition period is to convince the people of the United States that the dangers and potentials of these forces are great enough to require continued American involvement and leadership in international affairs. At the same time, that leadership must include a major role in moving the other great powers toward a consensual condominium that can realistically centralize the management of power in a self-help, anarchical world. All this will require a strategic vision that creates a picture of this desired continuity and change, credible enough to achieve authority for implementation.

Oddly enough, statesmen in the current transition period can take heart in this difficult endeavor from the experience of the Viscount Castlereagh who, in the wake of the Vienna Congress, lost the authority to implement his strategic vision. The British statesman is proof nonetheless that men become myths not because of what they know, not even because of what they do, but because of the tasks they set out for themselves. For Castlereagh, that task was to bring insular Great Britain into the peacetime Continental political dialogue in order to preserve a European equilibrium of force. To this end, between 1815 and 1820 the British statesman was instrumental in inaugurating a series of congresses at which all the great powers assembled to discuss ways to maintain the European balance. Toward the end of that period, however, the conservative eastern powers began to use those forums to legitimize interference in newly emerging liberal regimes in Europe. As a consequence, there was a public outcry in England against Castlereagh and his policy so strong that he was driven from office. Shortly thereafter he committed suicide. But his strategic vision lived on. For the Great Powers, including Great Britain, had become accustomed through the congress system to periodic meetings for resolving differences. The eventual result was the Concert of Europe, which helped produce a century of relative peace among the great powers of Europe.208

For American statesmen, a similar success in achieving the implementation of a strategic vision to guide the United States through this third major transition of the 20th century will require that they successfully issue a new call to greatness to the American people. This time, however, there will be no clarion calls for stirring crusades against fascism and communism. Instead, the call must be focused on creating stability in the international order, on averting chaos in an anarchical world. The problem is that while equilibrium is a necessity for that stability, it does not constitute a sufficient purpose for the American people, with their historic sense of mission. Peace must be presented as more than the absence of conflict. Stability must be perceived as a bridge to the realization of human aspirations, not an end in itself.

In the final analysis, American statesmen must create an image of desired change within the realist paradigm that inspires their citizens to efforts at least as great and for goals at least as grand as those that marked the 40-year war-in-peace. It is a picture that the great Ulysses could paint to his comrades, even at the end of 10 years of warfare followed by a decade spent in fruitless efforts to return home to his beloved Ithaca:

Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. . . .

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


1. Kalevi J. Holsti, Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order 1648-1989, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 335.

2. George Orwell, 1984, New York: The New American Library of World Literature, 1961, p. 7. In describing this kind of thinking, Orwell coined a word which has become a part of modern vocabulary: "doublethink." "Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. . . .This process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision. But it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt." Ibid., p. 264.

3. No pun intended. Theodore S. Hamerow, From the Finland Station: The Graying of Revolution in the Twentieth Century, New York: Basic Books, 1990. See also John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations (hereinafter referred to as Cold War), New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 64.

4. Ronald Steel, "The End and the Beginning," The End of the Cold War. Its Meaning and Implications, ed., Michael J. Hogan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 105. As will be demonstrated, there is a major difference in whether the cold war is examined in terms of being a "long war" or a "long peace." See for example, Robert W. Tucker, "1989 and All That," Sea Changes: American Foreign Policy in a World Transformed, ed., Nicholas X. Rizopoulos, New York: Council of Foreign Relations Press, 1990, p. 217, who finds no historic parallel of a hegemonic conflict being terminated by the default of one side "in time of peace." Emphasis added. On the perception of the suddenness of the event, see General Powell's September 27, 1991 comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "We have seen our implacable enemy of 40 years vaporize before our eyes." R. J. Jeffery Smith, "Initiative Affects Least Useful Weapons," The Washington Post, September 28, 1991.

5. "X," George F. Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 2, July 1947, p. 580.

6. Change "without violent breaks in the continuity of power." George F. Kennan, "America and the Russian Future," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 29, April 1951, p. 368. See also Paul Kennedy's similar assessment over a quarter of a century later: "Those who rejoice at the present-day difficulties of the Soviet Union and who look forward to the collapse of that empire might wish to recall that such transformations normally occur at very great cost, and not always in a predictable fashion." The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Random House, 1987, p. 514. Kennan, of course, was remarkably accurate about the internal disintegration of the Soviet state. See also John Lewis Gaddis, "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War," International Security, Vol. 17, No. 3, Winter 1992/93, p. 56.

7. Zbigniew Brzezinski, "The Cold War and its Aftermath," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 4, Fall 1992, pp. 31-49. See also Gaddis, Cold War, p. 135. At the Paris summit, President Bush certainly made the end official. "The Cold War is over," he proclaimed. David Reynolds, "Behind Bipolarity in Space and Time," The End of the Cold War, p. 215.

8. George Bush, "Toward a New World Order," September 11, 1990 address before a joint session of Congress, U.S. Department of State Dispatch 1, No. 3, September 17, 1990, p. 91. See also Gaddis, Cold War, p. 147, and John M. Mueller, "Quiet Cataclysm: Some Afterthoughts on World War III," The End of the Cold War, p. 39.

9. Emphasis added. Webster Dictionary.

10. James N. Rosenau, "Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges: Toward a Post-International Politics for the 1990s," Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges. Approaches to World Politics for the 1990s, eds., Ernst-Otto Czempill and James N. Rosenau, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989, p. 17.

11. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, p. 37. See also Ibid., pp. 80 and 174-175; Richard W. Mansbach and John A. Vasquez, In Search of Theory. A New Paradigm for Global Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, pp. xiv and 4; Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, rev. ed., New York: Free Press, 1965, pp. 12-16; and John Gerard Ruggie, "International Structure and International Transformation: Space, Time and Method," Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges, p. 32.

12. Kuhn, pp. 67. The shift itself is, of course, also subjective, with paradigm changes being perceived only by those affected. For outsiders, these changes may seem like the Balkan revolutions in the early 20th century: part of a normal developmental process. For astronomers, as an example, the discovery of X-rays did not affect their paradigm and could be accepted as a mere addition to knowledge. For someone like Roentgen, whose research dealt with radiation, X-rays necessarily destroyed one paradigm as they created another. Ibid., pp. 92-93.

13. Ibid., pp. 68-69. See also Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 135-143.

14. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 76. 15. The awareness of a "state of crisis" in the universalist medieval paradigm was apparent as early as the Council of Constance which met from 1414 to 1418. Adda B. Bozeman, Politics and Culture in International History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960, p. 504. But see Joseph Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 57, who concludes that "by 1300, it was evident that the dominant political form in Western Europe was going to be the sovereign state. The Universal Empire had never been anything but a dream; the Universal Church had to admit that defense of the individual state took precedence over the liberties of the Church or the claims of the Christian Commonwealth."

16. C. V. Wedgewood estimated in 1938 that Germany's population declined from 21 million to less than 13.5 million. C. V. Wedgewood, The Thirty Years War, London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, p. 516. S. H. Steinberg, The Thirty Years War and the Conflict for European Hegemony 1600-1660, New York: Norton, 1966, Chapter 3, points out that losses in the conflict were exaggerated. See also Geoffrey Parker, The Thirty Years War, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 211, who estimated a decline in population from 20 million to approximately 16 or 17 million. See also John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday. The Obsolescence of Major War, New York: Basic Books, 1989, p. 8.

17. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolution, p. 150.

204Bruce R. Kuniholm, "The End of the Cold War in the Near East: What It Means for Historians and Policy Planners," The End of the Cold War, p. 167.

205Kuhn, p. 97.

206Ibid., p. 77. See also Ibid., p. 145.

207Mark W. Zacher, "The Decaying Pillars of the Westphalian Temple: Implications for International Order and Governance," Governance Without Government: Order and Change in World Politics, eds., James N. Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 67.

208. Kissinger, A World Restored, pp. 322-323.