Parkinson’s Law of International Politics


Without being either the ones who made this law or the first to apply it after it was laid down, we applied it as one in existence when we took it up and one that we will leave behind to endure for all time, since we know that you and anyone else who attained power like ours would act accordingly.

Thucydides, 411 BCE

Thucydides was describing what two thousand years later Frederick the Great called the “permanent principle of rulers,” which is “to extend as far as their power permits.” Later still, Karl Deutsch noted that “a nation’s feeling of insecurity expands directly with its power” which is “a kind of Parkinson’s law of national security.”[1] States, of course, live in anarchy. Since they cannot call 911 when attacked, they fear other powerful states; especially their strong neighbors. As states grow richer, they naturally translate their wealth into power in order to “buy” more security. This they would do even if their conception of national interest were to remain unchanged. The real puzzle is the elasticity of the very definition of the national interest. For reasons that are not obvious, how states define their national interest expands and contracts with their power. Why?

Why do powerful states seek spheres of influence? Why do they patrol the marshes? Why do they coerce and intervene in weak states and try to control their political orientation? How is that supposed to add to their power? If fear is why states seek power, then they should largely pass up opportunities to impose themselves on weak states in peripheral regions, and concentrate instead on achieving a favorable balance of power. For the fundamental fact about great power politics is that spheres of influence, colonies, protectorates and dependencies, add little to a great power’s war-making capabilities.

Not all weak states are equally useless for the accumulation of power. Some are indeed strategically important. For instance, satellites can add greatly to a state’s power projection capabilities if they are located near strategically relevant regions; that is, overlooking important sea lanes or near other great powers. Paul Kennedy observers that the tiny red dots scattered on the map were of great strategic importance to Britain’s world position; whereas the vast landmasses colored red were largely strategic liabilities.

A great power may also fear foreign influence in its near abroad. Specifically, it may fear that a nearby weak state could host a great power adversary’s military force and therefore pose a significant threat. This was precisely the threat revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram and the arrival of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It is therefore understandable that great powers would try to control at least the foreign policies of weak states in their region. And this may sometimes require controlling their political orientation.  A case can also be made for acquiring influence in states that have large deposits of strategically important commodities.

But these understandable cases account for a minor fraction of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics. None of these can explain the European scamble for Africa. All of sub-Saharan Africa could’ve fallen to a single power without upsetting the balance of global power. What power in the name of God was Belgium—an artifact of the European balance of power whose very independence was the result of British policy—accumulating in the Congo? The fallacy of power accumulation by colonialism was exposed when the struggle against Germany ensued. A world’s worth of colonies were no use against a continental power with almost no colonial territories to speak of.[2] None explain the hundreds of interventions in Latin America by the United States either. The US’ ability to exclude outside powers from the hemisphere was a consequence of its regional preponderance, in which controlling Latin American polities played virtually no role. As Secretary of State Richard Olney explained in 1895,

Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects… [because] its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.

Why, then, the need to constantly meddle in other American states? And precisely what US interests were going to be secured by the interventions in Indochina and Iraq are yet to be identified.[3]

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that Parkinson’s Law of International Politics can only be explained by policymakers’ mistakes or imperial ideology. Such a systematic component of human history cannot be explained by appealing to idiosyncratic errors or historically-contingent ideational developments. Imperial ideology is best seen as apologia for imperialism; not its driver.

Classical realists believed that statesmen’s lust for power was inherent in human nature. Neorealism discarded that assumption by relocating the ultimate cause to the systemic level; that is, in the interaction of states. Neoclassical realists have since smuggled it back in. For instance, Fareed Zakaria argues in From Wealth to Power that,

Nations try to expand their political interests abroad when central decision-makers perceive a relative increase in state power.

He shows that the weakness of the American state prevented the emergence of the US as a great power in 1865-1890. Specifically, Congress thwarted the executive’s efforts to project power and extend American influence abroad by refusing to pay for it. More generally, he argues that national war potential is not enough. In order to be a great power, a state must be institutionally capable of mobilizing society’s resources to generate state power. And specifically in the case of the United States, he shows that we can rule out systemic pressure for expansion:

The United States did not expand against strong states that posed a great threat to its security but largely against areas that were weak and in which expansion would entail a small cost.

But if fear, that is to say, systemic pressure, was not the cause of US expansion, then what is left? He dismisses economic explanations out of hand. Indeed, in Zakaria’s treatment, statesmen’s lust for power functions as an exogeneous assumption; playing precisely the role it played in classical realism; without a word, of course, about man’s dark nature.

Economic explanations cannot be so easily dismissed. After all, not all great powers sought influence with the same vigor. This was largely a game played by sea powers not land powers. Athens had dozens of colonies; Sparta had none. The sea powers on the Atlantic coast established colonies and sought influence all around the world. The continental great powers developed no such appetite until they too became navalist. Both the American and Japanese spheres of influence too came with naval power. And all the sea powers, of course, were commercial trading states. Indeed, in the initial phase of European expansion, capitalism was in the driver’s seat. The Dutch, British and French acquisitions were manifestly for commercial reasons. Even American gunboats followed on the heels of the likes of the United Fruit Company. Dismissing this history requires some serious intellectual “discipline.”

But even if one were able to cover much of this feverish activity with geostrategic and commercial logics, that still leaves a susbtantial portion of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics unexplained. Both Rome and Assyria were unipolar powers that routinely intervened on their periphery for hundreds of years. Our present unipole is no different. Why would they do so uniformly across space and time in the face of no threats or commercial opportunities? I don’t have an answer but somehow it reminds me of Sebald’s take in Austerlitz:

Their body temperature will then be thirty-six degrees Celsius, like that of mammals, and of dolphins and tunny fish swimming at full speed. Thirty-six degrees, according to Alphonso, has always proved the best natural level, a kind of magical threshold, and it had sometimes occurred to him, Alphonso, said Austerlitz, that all mankind’s misfortunes were connected with its departure at some point in time from that norm, and with the slightly feverish, overheated condition in which we constantly found ourselves.


[1] Parkinson’s original formulation was a dig on bureaucracy: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

[2] The exception which proves the rule was the Indian army, paid for by the colony, which was somewhat useful as cannon fodder on the killing fields.

[3] The US veto over gulf energy does not require control of any major state in the region. The US can shut off the flow of oil to China, Japan, Germany, or whoever because it controls the sea lanes.


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