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date: 20 January 2021

Peace, War, Theory, and Evidence in East Asialocked

  • Benjamin E. GoldsmithBenjamin E. GoldsmithDepartment of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney


Historically one of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, since the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, East Asia has enjoyed a relative interstate peace. Implications of some of the relevant “East Asian peace” literature for theories of international relations need assessment. The central conclusion is that, contrary to often expressed dissatisfaction with the state of IR theory, it is possible to identify a core of theoretical knowledge that has considerable explanatory power for war and peace in East Asia, and is also based on general theory with considerable support across global regions. This diverges somewhat from the well-known argument of Lake in 2011: It is not the “-isms” that lead us astray, but how we use them. Unlike Lake, but consistent with Legro and Moravcsik (1999), it is argued that broad theoretical constructs are needed, and indeed useful ones exist, while mid-level or problem-focused analysis is no substitute for a theory-based research program. What is often lacking is an effort by empirical researchers to clearly and coherently tie their research design to theoretically important claims.

Empirical political science as a whole is becoming more sophisticated in its methods and capabilities for causal inference, and it is also becoming more relevant and useful for policy makers. We should devote as much attention to the theoretical contributions of our research. The article addresses the role of theory in IR, the ways that empirical analysis of East Asia (and other regions) can contribute to theory building and theory testing, the existing literature on East Asian peace, some informed speculation about how the potential for mid-term military conflict between the United States and China might be assessed, and thoughts about current and potential contributions to IR theory based on the study of the East Asian peace.

Theorizing in social science is hard, and any scholar’s dissatisfaction with existing theory should be heavily tempered with acknowledgment that s/he has not proposed a more powerful one. Regional analysis, and comparative regional analysis, can provide important potential gains by challenging current theory with hard tests. East Asia not only is a crucially important part of the world for the future of interstate peace, it also presents challenging and useful empirical puzzles for our theories.

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