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January 2011

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How Enemies Become Friends
coverReviewed by Marc E. Nicholson

Charles Kupchan, How Enemies     Become Friends: The Sources of  Stable Peace, Princeton University Press 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4008- 3441-9,  448 pp., $29.95

In his book How Enemies Become Friends, Georgetown University professor and former Clinton Administration NSC staff member Charles Kupchan seeks to answer two questions:  what are the step-by-step processes by which nations bilaterally or multilaterally construct lasting bonds of peace (defined as ranging from durable rapprochement to actual federation or union), and what are the pre-conditions for the success of such efforts. The book is highly relevant as a “how to” guide for the construction of conflict-free zones, even as it is realistic in suggesting at least implicitly that the conditions necessary for such zones may be more the exception than the rule in much of today’s world. Kupchan’s book thus is idealistic in its goals but tempered by pragmatism, perhaps reflecting its author’s background as both an academic and a practitioner of foreign policy.

That dual background is similarly reflected in the book’s style and approach.  Kupchan opens with a jargon-filled review of past academic and theoretical literature bearing on the issue, and then proceeds to lay out his own answers in the form of a model. The bulk of the book then is devoted to a wide-ranging set of case studies of both successful and unsuccessful efforts at rapprochement, formal rule-bound security communities, and actual unions of sovereign states, in light of whose experiences Kupchan seeks to support and fine-tune his conclusions. 

The result of this overall structure, and of the “summary/details/conclusions” structure of each of the case studies chapters and even of the individual cases within them, is a considerable degree of repetition, which is not helped by the prose, best described as workmanlike. This is not an elegant or sprightly read.  But the opposite side of that coin is that the prose is crystal-clear and free of the Hegelian-like obscurities that sometimes tempt academics. In that clarity, if not in concision, the book resembles the memos Kupchan had to write for President Clinton while serving in the NSC as a European Affairs Director. The constant re-stating of conclusions supported by a broad range of case studies also underlines that this is not a book of disembodied theory but a persuasive distilling of lessons drawn from a great deal of on-the-ground observation. 

So what are those conclusions? Diplomats will be heartened, because Kupchan posits that the process of building conflict-free zones invariably begins with diplomacy—normally impelled by an emergent need or threat (internal or external)—which leads a state to reach out to its neighbor(s) with unilateral concessions of accommodation. These most often come from the stronger party, which can afford them. If they lead to a reciprocal habit of accommodation based on growing trust in mutual benign intent, the stage is set for the meeting of minds of elites possibly to broaden into increased contact and cultural/economic transactions between entire societies, which in turn creates additional interest groups with a stake in peace. Finally, to one degree or another depending upon whether mutual trusting engagement remains an elite construct or also has engaged the masses, the states involved in reconciliation create new narratives which recast the identities they hold of each other in a way that stresses their similarity and common heritage. The “other” has become “us,” making war even more unthinkable.

Some of Kupchan’s most interesting conclusions concern the pre-conditions for success of these processes. First, he maintains that while internal democracy (or lesser forms of “institutional restraint”) make it easier for states to create trusting conflict-free zones of restraint among themselves, it is not a pre-condition and in some cases can produce populist nationalism that impedes mutual accommodation abroad. Autocratic elites (e.g., the 19th century Concert of Europe) are in fact able to exercise external restraint among each other to create lasting peace.

Second, Kupchan refutes the widespread assumption that economic integration is a pathway to peace between states. He finds that, historically, political accommodation almost invariably precedes a deepening of social/economic contacts between societies, and that a subsequent political breakdown between them unravels (and is not precluded by) economic ties. (This, if true, is bad news for those who hope that economic integration between the West Bank and Israel can ultimately sooth and can solve the political conflicts between the parties.)

Third, Kupchan concludes that a precondition for development of conflict-free zones is a compatibility of social orders between the participants (otherwise, key interest groups in one nation will find themselves threatened and will block close ties with another), and cultural commonality—based primarily on ethnicity, race, and religion—which gives states an initial sense of possibility of mutual accommodation and eases the creation of a shared narrative. Perhaps sensing that he is on politically incorrect ground with Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, Kupchan explicitly distances himself by asserting that cultural commonality dramatically increases the chances of stable peace, but that civilizational differences do not make war inevitable. He does not support the latter assertion; it’s not the business of his book, and the point was to provide him cover from those (especially on the left) who detest Huntington. But frankly, I suspect the two are not so far apart.

Particularly heartening and interesting is Kupchan’s multiple illustrations of the malleability of popular narratives as to what a nation is and how it relates to other nations and peoples. Within limits, a former enemy or rival can be imaginatively redefined as a member of the family. (Witness the sea change in U. S. and  U. K. popular views of each other in the 1890s, from potential enemies to brothers within the Anglo-Saxon community.) Elite statements and the media play a crucial role in this.

If you’re looking for the essential conclusions of this book, you need go no further than the first two chapters. But the rest of the book in its case studies provides ground-truth evidence and, even if far from scintillating to read, it is interesting (dare I say at times entertaining) for the wide variety of historical (and sometimes obscure) vignettes it offers in those case studies, ranging from the Swiss Confederation to the Iroquois Confederation, to the Council of Europe, to the United Arab Republic, and so on.   Even while absorbing Prof. Kupchan’s demonstrations of his model, one also delves into a lot of interesting historical byways of which one perhaps knew little or nothing before.


Marc E. Nicholson is a retired Foreign Service Officer who focused on political and political-military affairs during tours in East Asia, South America, and Europe.   He now resides in Washington, D. C.

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