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International Systems of States and Global Security Models

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The fundamental aim of the text below is to deal with the concept and models of global security as one of the crucial topics of global political studies. We have to keep in mind that a term and notion of security usually imply a kind of sense of protection and safety from different possible harms coming from „outside“. Therefore, it can be generally acceptable and understandable that the states want to protect their own territories by expanding great resources in making their territorial safe. Security topics are of very different kind, ranging from the causes of conflict between states to deterioration in the global climate or women’s rights in global politics. The question of Security Studies as an academic discipline within the scope of Global Politics has been the subject of much debate and one of the most prosperous ways to deal with global security is firstly to analyze different standpoints which are existing within the research discipline. The article, in one word, will try to provide the readers with a basic approaches in the academic field of Security Studies with some necessary personal remarks by the author.

The Conception of a System

The conception of international systems of states is crucial as an explanatory mechanism of both global politics and global security models. However, in order to understand international systems of states firstly the very notion of a system itself has to be clarified and defined. In this context, it can be said that „a system is an assemblage of units, objects, or parts united by some form of regular interaction“.[1] Any system is necessarily constructed of different members on micro and macro levels which are interacting between themselves from horizontal and vertical perspectives. The member units of a system are of different size, capacity, potentials, wealth, might and therefore of different positions regarding the decision making procedure and especially power.

For the reason that member units of a system are constantly interacting with each other either from horizontal or vertical perspectives, it is quite natural that in the case of a change in one unit the reactions to such change are expected by other units. The most expressed examples are arms race, seeking for balance of power, making political-military blocs with other units or even in the most drastic cases, committing aggression on the member unit. Any system with its member units has a tendency to regulate the relations between them and to try to respond by different means if those relations are changed at the expense of the hegemonic unit(s) of the system. It can exist at the same time two or more systems which are separated from each other by regulating boundaries, but different systems very often collaborate across the boundaries, for instance, in the areas of economy, knowledge or technology exchange as it was the case during the Cold War era (1949−1989). Finally, one system can break down for any reason what means that necessary changes within the system were not achieved in order to save it (for instance, the case of the Warsaw Pact in 1990−1991). Subsequently, instead of the old system a new system can emerge or the member units of the old system can be simply absorbed by another one as it happened, for example, with the majority of the Central and South-East European states after the Cold War.

International Systems of States

It is very difficult to fix the exact date when global system of international relations (IR) and therefore global security models started to work for the very reason that the process of globalization occured over many centuries.[2] However, the modern European system of IR can be traced back up to the time after the 1648 Westphalian Peace Treaty, while the process of globalization of international systems of inter-states relations started to work from the first half of the 19th century.

International systems of inter-states relations and global security became after the WWII investigated as academic subjects within the framework of World Systems Theory (WST) which recognizes that the states are historically playing the fundamental role in IR and they will do that in the future as well as but the systems of relations of (nation)-states have to be understood and put in the context of global unity rather than conflicts besed on realizations of different national interests. What the theoreticians of WST suggest is that the most meaningful system of global security has to be based on the world system but not on nation-states system. Therefore, they believe that international cooperation and order will replace international conflicts and anarchy. However, bihind WST is basically hidden a system of Capitalist World-Economy (CWE) which is advocating ideology of globalization as a new form of the Western global imperialism based on the international division of labor. Thus, according to CWE, the whole world is divided into three labor and economic zones: the core-states (the Western developed mature economies); the periphery-states (mainly ex-colonies from Africa with still underdeveloped economies); and the semiperiphery-states (mainly East-European ex-socialist states and Middle-East oil-riched states with rising economies and growing infrastructure). The essence of WST/CWE is that a globalization has to function in full benefit of the core-states which are fully exploiting the periphery-states with a semiperifery states as a buffer between core and periphery segments of the world economy which are partially exploited by the core-states (by financial and economic means). In one word, WST/CWE is trying to legitimate existence and functioning of global Western capitalism and its exploitation of the rest of the world by promulgation of globalization ideology.[3] However, the liberal ideology of globalization is advocating in reality the global process of (pervasive) American Westernization from all points of view – from cultural, economic or political to the issues of values, tradition and customs.[4]

Historically, there were three fundamental types of international systems or relations between the states as the crucial actors in global politics even today: 1. Independent; 2. Hegemonic; and 3. Imperial.[5]

The Independent State System (ISS) is composed by the states as political actors and entities in which each of them claim to be independent that means both autonomous and sovereign. The fundamental feature of such state, at least from the very theoretical point of view, is that it has right and possibility to make its own foreign and domestic policies out of any influence or dependence from the outside. The ISS presupposes that the state, territory and its citizens are under full control and governance by the central state authority and that the state borders are inviolable from outside. In other words, any outside actor is not eligible to interfere into domestic affairs of the state which can be governed only by one „legitimate“ authority that is internationally recognized as such. An independent state has to be and autonomous that means (as it ment at the time of the ancient Greeks wherefrom the term comes) that the legitimate state authorities are adopting their own law and organizing the state activities, political and other types of life of the society according to it but not according to the imposed law, rules or values from the outside. States had to be equally treated and understood in regards to their claims to independence, autonomy and sovereignty regardless of the very practical fact that not all of them are of the same power, capabilities and might.[6]

The Hegemonic State System (HSS) is based on an idea of a hegemon and hegemony imposed by a hegemon in IR what means that one or more states (or other actors in politics) dominate the system of IR or/and regional or global politics. A hegemon is fixing the standards, values and the „rules of the game“ and having direct influence on the politics of the system’s members like, for instance, the US in the NATO’s bloc.

There are three possible types of HSS in global politics:

  1. Unipolar (or Single) hegemony, when a single state is dominant as it was the case with the US immediatelly after the WWII.
  2. Bipolar (or Dual) hegemony, when two dominant states exist in global politics as it was a case during the time of the Cold War (the USA and the USSR).
  3. Multipolar (or Collective) hegemony, when several or even many states dominate international relations like during the time after the Vienna Congress in 1815 (Russia, Austria, Great Britain, France and Prussia).

In practice, in any of these three HSS, lesser powerful actors may interact their powers, but they have to get a permit by the hegemon for such action. In HSS, usually domestic affairs of the states are left untouched by the hegemon, while their forreign affairs are strictly under the hegemonic controll.

The third type of IR, the Imperial State System (ImSS), existed from the ancient time (Assyria, Persia, Macedonia, Rome) and has been dominant in Europe, North Africa and Asia in the Middle Ages (the Frankish, Holy Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman or Habsburg empires). The essence of empire as a system is that it is composed of separate societal, ethnic, national, linguistic or/and confessional parts which are associated with regular interaction. However, within such multistructural imperial framework, it is a regular practice that one unit dominates over others by imposing over the rest its own political supremacy. The rest of the framework units have to accept such reality either by force or by interest while a political supremacy by one (ruling) part can be accepted by the others either implicitly or explicitly.[7] However, the question arises what is a difference between the Hegemonic and the Imperial State System as these two systems seems to be very similar if not even the same? Nevertheless, the fundamental difference is that a dominant unit of an empire is much more able to manage other subjects of the state system in comparison to HSS and especially to force them to work for the central authority (tax collection, recruiting people for the imperial army, appointing local political client leaders, etc.). The empires are usually created and enlarged by military conquest, but also they can be militarily destroyed from the outside or disappear due to the inner revolutions followed by civil wars.

Security Dilemma and Global Security Models

Security dilemma is based on an idea that security is a goal for which states struggle and compete between themselves. In principle, the states have to look for their own protection, especially in an „anarchical“ world system in which does not exist any supranational authority (like the UNO or OEBS, for instance)[8] to be capable to impose and/or to ensure regional or global order of IR. In practice, traditionally, the states in order to achieve their security goals were striving for more and more power for the reason to escape the impact of the power and foreign policy of other states especially of the neighbors as the European history clearly shows. However, such practice in turn makes the other states or other actors in IR to feel themselves more insecure and therefore it encourages them to be prepared for the worst scenario (conflict, aggression, war). As any state cannot ever feel entirely secure, the security competition among the states is endless process that is resulting in constant power rising. In other words, the security dilemma provokes a policy to firm security of a (nation)state which has a direct effect of threatening other states or actors in IR and, thereby, provoking power (usually military) counter actions. This endless process is in fact decreasing security for all states especially if we know that in many cases offensive (imperialistic) foreign policy is justified by national arming by „defensive“ weapons (the case of the US, for instance).

Global security as a concept has to be essentially founded on the idea of human (individual and group) security. However, IR in practice are based on the right to self-preservation of the states (i.e., of their political regimes and social elites in power). This idea is born by Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588−1679) who argued that the right to self-preservation is founded on a natural law, requiring at the same time a social harmony between the citizens and state authority. Therefore, global security has to be founded primarily on the concept of (a nation)state security as the states are a natural form of political associations by the people and still are the fundamental actors in IR. The idea is that, presumably, both individual and civil rights of the citizen would be effectively secured only if the individual consented to the unchecked power of the state ruling elite. Therefore, it can be concluded that a modern philosophy of state totalitarian regimes is de facto born by Th. Hobbes.

Based on Th. Hobbes’ security philosophy, states will stress the necessity of social collectivisation for the protection of their security interests – it is how the concept of Collective Security (CS) was institutionalised as a mechanism that is used by the states in one bloc not to attack or proclaim the war to other states within the same bloc of coalition.[9] The member states of the same bloc accept the practice to use their collective armed forces and other necessary capabilities in order to help and defend a fellow member state in the case of aggression from outside. Such „defensive“ collective action has to continue until the time when „aggression“ is reversed. The essence of such concept, therefore, is a claim that an „unprovoked“, aggressive attack against any member of an organization is going to be considered as an attack on all member states of that organization. In practice, any really provoked attack of aggression can be easily claimed as „unprovoked“ as it happened, for instance, with the case of Pearl Harbour in 1941 as we know today that the US regime did everything to provoke „unprovoked“ Japanese action on December 7th. Nevertheless, while the concept of CS became the tool to count state aggression, it left very open question of how best to promote the individual or group (minority) security.[10]

It has to be clarified that the very idea of human security is not opposing concern of national (state) security’s requirement that state is in obligation to protect its own citizens from the aggression from the external world, i.e. by a foreign actor. The human security idea argues that the most important focus of security has to be put on individual not on the state, but the state has to protect all its citizens as the protection umbrella from the outside threat. This approach takes an individual-centred view of security that is a basis for national, regional and finally global security. In essence, protection of human (individual and group) rights is giving the main framework for the realization of the concept of human security that advocates „protection against threats to the lives and wellbeing of individuals in areas of basic need including freedom from violence by terrorists, criminals, or police, availability of food and water, a clean environment, energy security, and freedom from poverty and economic exploitation“.[11]

The chief purpose of collective security organization is to provide and maintain peaceful relations within the bloc which is composed of sovereign states but dominated by a hegemon. The concept of CS has declared as a main task to maintain peace between the key actors in IR that practically means the states, but in practice the real purpose of CS system is just to maintain peace and order among the members of the system, however not between the system and the rest of the world. The best example of CS system today is the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) which is not of any kind of global security bloc but rather only political-military alliance that is primarily serving the US national interests (global imperialism) across the globe. Nevertheless, the practical implementation of the concept is fluctuating between two models:

  1. Traditional and more realistic model of Balance of Power.
  2. A new post-Cold War and more utopian model of World Government.

The idea of CS is for sure very attractive for the academics as it seeks to bring about important benefits of a „global government“, but without altering the fundamental essence of the traditional state system of anarchy. The concept of CS from global perspective, therefore, means a „system of international security under which all states agree to take joint action against states that attack“.[12] Anyway, formally, the concept of CS wants to apply a set of legally established mechanisms which are designed to prevent possible aggression by any state against any other state at least without the formal permission by the UNO.[13]

Three Possible Models of Global Security

Different theorists explain in different ways by using different arguments the benefits or disadvantages of one of three possible global security models: Unipolar, Bipolar or Multipolar. Debates are basically going around the arguments which one of these three models is the most stable and above all most peaceful in comparison to all other models.[14]

Those who advocate the Unipolar Security Model (USM) claim that this model gives the most security guarantees as in this case there is simply one power (state) to be in a position of a dominant actor in global politics having a role of a global hegemon or world policemen. It is a belief that world politics can be mostly peaceful if there is a single dominant state that is strong enough to enforce peace as a global hegemon. The hegemon is going to be so powerful that no any other global actor can challenge its superiority in world affairs and IR. This model of global security was adopted by the US administration immediately after the Cold War and mainly was advocated by Zbignew Brzezinski, who was trying to lay down academic foundations of the American hegemonic position in global politics which had primary goal to destabilize, dismember and finally occupy Russia for the sake of free of charge exploitation of her natural resources according to the Kosovo pattern from June 1999 onward. If the US administration succeeds in realization of such goal, the global geopolitical game over the Eurasian Heartland would be finally resolved in the favor of Washington.

The NATO was, is and going to be from the very beginning of its existence (est. 1949) the fundamental instrument of the US policy of global hegemony concept that is known also as Pax Americana. Up today, the NATO remains the most powerful military alliance in the world that was allegedly established “…to provide security for Western Europe, NATO became an unprecedented peacetime alliance with a permanent secretariat and a military headquarters that represents the US commitment to deter Soviet aggression”.[15] However, the very existence of the NATO after the dissolution of the Soviet Union clearly proves that the ultimate goal of its creation and functioning was not “to deter Soviet aggression” while its (only eastward) enlargement from 1999 onward indicates that in fact Russia was, is and going to be the chief object of the fundamental point of the NATO’s policy of the US expansionism and global hegemony. The 1998−1999 Kosovo War, in which the NATO’s forces became deeply engaged for the first time after its establishment in 1949, marks the beginning of the direct US policy of brutal and open gangsterism (at least) after the Cold War on the global level of IR and world politics.[16]

The USM is necessarily founded on an idea of hegemony in global politics. The word hegemonia comes from the ancient Greek language (as many other words used today by the Western academic world) with authentic means of “leadership”. In IR, a notion of a “hegemon” is used as a synonym for “leader” or “leading state” within the system (bloc) composed by at least two or several states. However, the bloc member countries have to establish and maintain certain relations between themselves what practically means that one of member states became de facto a hegemon within the whole bloc concerning decision making policy and procedure (for example, the USA in the NATO, the USSR in the Warsaw Pact or Germany in the EU). A leadership or hegemony within the system implies certain degree of order, collective organization and above all hierarchy relationships between the members of a system. However, political hegemony in IR does not exist by itself as it is a phenomenon which exists within some interstate system, that is itself the product of specific historical, political, economic, ideological or other circumstances. All hegemonic states within the system enjoy “structural power” which permits the leader to occupy a central leading position in its own created and run system. All other member states are collaborators to the leading role of the hegemon expecting to get a proper reward for their service. On the other hand, a hegemon has to mobilize its own economic, financial, technical, political, human and other resources in order to perform a role of a leader and, therefore, this is why only some (rich) states have a real potential to be hegemons (like the USA in the NATO, for instance).

The USA is today the world’s most powerful and imperialistic single state ever existed in history. Washington is after the WWII using the NATO as a justification of its global hegemonic designs and the American ability and willingness to resume a hegemonic role in the world are of the crucial importance of IR, world order and global security. In principle, majority of studies dealing with hegemony and imperialism point to the British 19th century empire and the US empire after the WWII as two most successful hegemonic cases in world’s political history.[17] Both of these two empires formally justified their policy of global imperialism within the framework of the concept of USM.

Probably the most important disadvantage of USM is that a unipolar world with a strong global hegemon will all the time tempt either one or several powers to try to challenge the hegemon by different means. This is basically an endless game till the hegemon finally lost its position as such and the system of security became transformed into a new form based on a new security model. That is exactly what happened with the Roman Empire as one of examples of USM.

Nevertheless, in the unipolar system, a hegemon faces few constraints on its policy, determines rules of game in global politics and restricts the autonomous actions by others as it was exactly the case by the US as a “world policemen” at the time of the New World Order in 1990−2008.[18] But on the other side, such hegemonic position and policy of terrorizing the rest of the world (or system) provokes self-defence reactions by others which finally results in the change in the distribution of power among the states (or actors) that can be a cause of war on larger scale of intensity and space. For the matter of comparison, the US hegemonic, Russophobic and barbaric global policy at the time of the post-Cold War New World Order can at the end cause a new world war with Russia (and probably China) as the Peloponnesian War (431−404 BC) was caused by the hegemonic policy of the Athens which provoked the fear and self-defence reaction by Sparta.[19]

The champions of the Bipolar Security Model (BSM), however, believe that a bipolarity of global politics could bring a long-time peace and world security instead of USM. In the case of BSM, the two crucial powers in the world are monitoring each other’s behavior on global arena and therefore removing a big part of the security uncertainty in world politics, international relations and foreign affairs associated with the possibility of the beginning of war between the Great Powers.

A Multipolar Security Model (MSM) looks like as the best option dealing with the prevention of war and protecting global security as a distribution of power is as much as “multi” there are lesser chances for outbreak of the war between the Great Powers. In essence, MSM can moderate hostility among the Great Powers as they are forced to create shifting alliances in which there are no permanent enemies. Nevertheless, for many researchers, MSM is in fact creating a dangerous uncertainty for the very reason as there is a bigger number of the Great Powers or other powerful actors in world politics.


The academic research field of Security Studies is of extreme complexity ranging from the standpoint that these studies should have a narrow military focus as the fundamental security threat to the territorial integrity of states comes during times of conflict to the view that individuals are the final research object of the studies but not the states themselves. Therefore, many academics focus their research on global security basically on human emancipation which is usually understood as achieving wide scope of freedoms – both individual and group.[20] They argue that academic discipline of Security Studies should focus on them but not on the security of the state.

Finally, there are many arguments over what the research and referent object of Security Studies has to be, whether military power is fundamental for state security, who is going to be mainly responsible for providing security or what the studies as academic field have to consider as its research subject matter and focus. The fundamental aim of this article was to present the main route through the (mine)field of Security Studies as an academic research discipline.


[1] Karen A. Mingst, Essentials of International Relations, Third edition, New York−London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, 81.

[2] On globalization of world politics, see (John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, Seventh edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3] On world-system, see more in (Alvin Y. So, Social Change and Development: Modernization, Dependency, and World-System Theories, Newbury Park−London−New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990; Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Fifth edition, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[4] Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, New York: Routledge, 2013, 715. In one word, WST conceptualizes global order to be structured into developed, underdeveloped and intermediary states and economic systems.

[5] Paul R. Viotti, Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations and World Politics: Security, Economy, Identity, Fourth Edition, Upper Saddle River, New Jersay: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009, 40.

[6] Sovereignty means that one state (or political territory) has its own government (political rulling establishment) which has both full authority over its own claimed administered territory and the rights and possibility of membership of (at least some) the international political community. However, there are many examples of the so-called “quasi-sovereign states” (like Kosovo, North Cyprus, Transnistria…). On the issue of „quasi-sovereign states“, see (Cynthia Weber, Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State, and Symbolic Interchange, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[7] Martin Wight, Systems of States, Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1977, 6.

[8] Supranational means to be above the sovereign state or “over the nation”.

[9] However, this mechanism is not providing absolute security within the same bloc as the case of Italy and Austria-Hungary showed in 1917.

[10] According to the 1994 Human Development Report (an annual publication of the UNDP), human security is composed by the next seven elements: 1. Economic security or freedom from poverty; 2. Food security or access to food; 3. Health security or access to health care and protection from diseases; 4. Environmental security or protection from environmental pollution; 5. Personal security or physical safety from torture, war, and drug use; 6. Community security or survival of traditional cultures and ethnonational groups; and 7. Political security or protection against political oppression (Martin Griffiths, Terry O’Callaghan, Steven C. Roach, International Relations: The Key Concepts, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008, 147).

[11] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 578.

[12] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 574.

[13] However, this concept lost its moral ground in 1999 when the NATO made an aggression on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 78 days without a resolution by the UNO launching the “illegal war” on a sovereign state (Пјер Пеан, Косово: „Праведни“ рат за стварање мафијашке државе, Београд: Службени гласник, 2013, 95−105 [translation from the French original: Pierre Pean, Sébastien Fontenelle, Kosovo: Une Guerre „Juste“ pour Créer un Etat Mafieux, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2013]).

[14] Security Studies as an academic discipline belong to a wider subject of International Relations (IR) that is the study of total political relations between different international actors but fundamentally between the sovereign states. The main concern of Security Studies is the global securuty and its maintainance (Peter Hough, Understanding Global Security, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2008, 2).

[15] Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012, 345.

[16] As a direct result of the NATO’s aggression on Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, Kosovo became transformed into the American colony (see more on this issue in: Hannes Hofbauer, Experiment Kosovo: Die Rückkehr des Kolonialismus, Wien: Promedia Druck- und Verlagsges. m.b.h., 2008).

[17] For instance, Joshua S. Goldstein, International Relations, Fourth edition, New York: Longman, 2001, 92.

[18] A term New World Order is originally coined by the ex-US President George Bush Senior in 1991as a consequence of the First Gulf War in 1990−1991 when the US administration started its post-Cold War imperialistic policy of a global hegemon hidden behind an idea of globalization of liberal internationalism that was allegedly impossible without the US hegemonic role in world politics. Nevertheless, the concept of New World Order „…was short-hand for US policy preferences and further American imperialism“ (Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, New York: Routledge, 2013, 712). Many academics and politicians have at the beginning hopes that New World Order will bring a better future in IR and global politics but very soon the idea became very criticized and, therefore, the idea lost any rational and moral background.

[19] Михаил Ростовцев, Историја старога света: Грчка и Рим, Нови Сад: Матица српска, 1990, 112−120; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

[20] Emancipation means, at least by the Westerners, the achievement of independence, i.e., ability to act independently. However, to be emancipated does not automatically mean that the individual is free of all obligations toward others including and those toward the state (military service, taxation…). It means only that the individual is free of those obligations which are considered to be oppresive or inhuman (slavery, serfdom…).


Alvin Y. So, Social Change and Development: Modernization, Dependency, and World-System Theories, Newbury Park−London−New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990.

Cynthia Weber, Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State, and Symbolic Interchange, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hannes Hofbauer, Experiment Kosovo: Die Rückkehr des Kolonialismus, Wien: Promedia Druck- und Verlagsges. m.b.h., 2008.

Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Fifth edition, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

Jeffrey Haynes, Peter Hough, Shahin Malik, Lloyd Pettiford, World Politics, New York: Routledge, 2013.

John Baylis, Steve Smith, Patricia Owens, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations, Seventh edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Joshua S. Goldstein, International Relations, Fourth edition, New York: Longman, 2001.

Karen A. Mingst, Essentials of International Relations, Third edition, New York−London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Martin Griffiths, Terry O’Callaghan, Steven C. Roach, International Relations: The Key Concepts, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.

Martin Wight, Systems of States, Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1977.

Paul R. Viotti, Mark V. Kauppi, International Relations and World Politics: Security, Economy, Identity, Fourth edition, Upper Saddle River, New Jersay: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

Peter Hough, Understanding Global Security, 2nd Edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2008.

Richard W. Mansbach, Kirsten L. Taylor, Introduction to Global Politics, Second edition, London−New York: Routledge, 2012.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1999.

Михаил Ростовцев, Историја старога света: Грчка и Рим, Нови Сад: Матица српска, 1990.

Пјер Пеан, Косово: „Праведни“ рат за стварање мафијашке државе, Београд: Службени гласник, 2013 [translation from the French original: Pierre Pean, Sébastien Fontenelle, Kosovo: Une Guerre „Juste“ pour Créer un Etat Mafieux, Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2013].

Prof. Dr Vladislav B. Sotirović

Mykolas Romeris University

Institute of Political Sciences

Vilnius, Lithuania

© Vladislav B. Sotirovic 2017

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“Megali Idea” and Greek Irredentism in the Wars for a Greater Greece, 1912−1923

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The origins of Megali Idea

Eleftherios Venizelos and a Greater Greece (1910)

Greece became the independent state (from the Ottoman Empire) in 1829−1833 with the crucial diplomatic, political, financial and military assistance by the UK and Russia. It was a very fact that the Kingdom of Greece incorporated at that time only around 25% of the Greeks who were living at the Balkans and Asia Minor (the Near East). Such situation created tensions between Greece and the Ottoman Empire as the Greeks wanted their total national unification what was possible only under the conditions of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, from the very beginning of its sovereignty, the chief aim of the Greek foreign policy was to realize the idea of national unification which was some 60 years after the granting of independence officially formulated as an irredentist project of Megali Idea (Great Idea) – a territorial extension for the sake to create united (Greater) Greece[1] based on the claiming historical and ethnic Greek territories existing within the borders of the Byzantine Empire, which is considered by the Greeks as their medieval national state. Therefore, the capital of such Greater Greece would be Constantinople (the Ottoman/Turkish Istanbul). The proponents of Megali Idea, in other words, aspired to unite within the borders of a single national political unity all the areas of Greek settlement in the Near East. The historical sources indicate that this term was used for the first time by Ioannis Kolettis who was a Hellenized Vlach. In 1844, in the debates about the Greek constitution, I. Kolettis championed the state’s policy to include the so-called heterochthons – the Greek-speakers living as diaspora outside the national state. As a contrast, Greece was populated by the autochthons or the “natives”, i.e. the Greeks from the heartland of the struggle for the national independence. For him, Greek territory was any land associated with Greek history and/or Greek people and their culture. In the first half of the 19th century, there were two centers of Hellenic culture: Athens – a capital city of the Kingdom of Greece and Constantinople – a capital city of the medieval Byzantine Empire called by the Greeks “the dream and hope of all Greeks”. What exactly told Ioannis Kolettis before the constituent assembly in Athens in 1844 is:

“The Greek kingdom is not the whole of Greece, but only a part, the smallest and poorest part. A native is not only someone who lives within this Kingdom, but also one who lives in Ioannina, in Thessaly, in Serres, in Adrianople, in Constantinople, in Trebizond, in Crete, in Samos and in any land associated with Greek history or the Greek race…”[2]       

However, the policy of Greek irredentism was not a unique phenomenon in the 19th-century Balkan history as Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Croats had their own political projects to create their own mega national states too. A difference between the Greeks on one hand and all other Balkan nations on other was a fact that other Balkan nations were relatively compactly settled in comparison to the Greeks who have been widely scattered within a region of the Near East.[3] More precisely, the Greek settlements were located from Valona (today Albania’s Vlorë) in the west to Varna in Bulgaria in the north and from Crete in the south to Cappadocia in the east. The problem was that such huge territory was intermixed by many Balkan and Anatolian people making some microregions even without a clear ethnic majority. Therefore, it is not of any surprise that Balkan nationalisms met each other in many provinces bringing Balkan nations into the open military conflicts (for instance, the Second Balkan War in 1913). The Greek-speakers were divided into two groups according to their confessional affiliations: The Muslims and the Christian Orthodox. The first group was presented, for instance, in Cyprus and Crete, while the inhabitants of the Aegean Islands belonged to the second group. However, only a few of those islands became parts of independent Greece after the War of Independence in 1821−1829. In addition, there was a very large Greek population in Constantinople/Istanbul around the shores of the Sea of Marmara, and along the western littoral of Asia Minor especially around the city of Smyrna/Izmir and in the very center of Anatolia (Cappadocia). However, there were many ethnic Greeks who spoke the Turkish language being, in fact, assimilated and denationalized. The northern littoral of Asia Minor – the Pontos (between the Black Sea and the Pontic Alps), was as well populated with a large number of Greeks who were kind of specific and extraordinary members of the Greek national corpus as having been isolated for the centuries from the mainstream of the Greek culture and civilization. The Pontic Greeks in large numbers preferred to emigrate to much more welcoming Christian Orthodox Russia’s northern shores of the Black Sea. They were speaking a form of the Greek language that was basically a dialect hardly understood by the heterochthons Greeks in Greece.        

Triumph of Achileus

It is very important to emphasize that the choice of Athens as a capital city was, in fact, of the temporal solution till Constantinople would be incorporated into the united national state of Greece according to the design of Megali Idea. In the early 1830s, Athens was, on one hand, nothing more than a big dusty village but on another hand it was a settlement which was dominated by the imposing ruins of the Antique time like the Acropolis and its splendid Parthenon with their associations with the glories of the Classical Age of the Greek history.[4] Nevertheless, the choice of Athens was a clear indicator of the cultural orientation of a new Greece toward the classical past of the Greek national history. Very soon the proponents of Megali Idea developed an ideological framework which connected a Greek classical history with the medieval Byzantine time[5] and modern period into one theory of unbroken continuity of the national historical development. The Greek literal language at that time experienced the Katharevousa – a purification of the language according to the classical standards. In 1837 the university was established with the prime task to spread out the ideas of a Hellenic culture and civilization for the sake of re-Hellenization of Greeks. The university’s students, however, have been not only from Greece but as well from other Greek-populated territories who then returning to their homes were spreading the ideas of Hellenism and unified Greek lands into a single nation-state. The Ottoman authorities started only after the Greek-Ottoman War of 1897 to restrict educational and national propaganda among the heterochthons Greeks, i.e. those who were living in the diaspora.      

A practical realization of Megali Idea

A practical realization of the pan-Hellenic unification was passing through several stages what primarily depended on the matter of international relations between the European Great Powers. Surely, for the whole century, after Greece obtained its independence, the Greek foreign policy was dominated by Megali Idea – a grandiose vision of restoring the Byzantine Empire by the annexation of all lands of compact Greek settlement in the Near East (Asia Minor and the Balkans), with Constantinople as the capital. During the period of Pax Ottomanica (or Tourkokratia), Russia was seen by all Balkan Christian Orthodox people as a natural protector and ultimate liberator from the Ottoman yoke. For Greeks, Russia was playing this role during the first decades of the independence as well for the sake to assist in the realization of the Greek irredentist ambitions framed by Megali Idea. During the Crimean War in 1853−1856, there was a great enthusiasm among Greeks to support Russia hoping that in the case of Russia’s victory, Thessaly and Epirus, in which the Greek guerrilla detachments were operating, will be annexed by Athens. However, in the decade after the Crimean War, the Greek enthusiasm for the Russian support declined for the reason that Sankt Petersburg championed Bulgarians, especially in disputed Macedonia – the fundamental rivals of the Greeks for the influence and hegemony in the Ottoman Macedonia. Therefore, Athens turned its attention toward the UK from which got seven Ionian Islands in 1864 (according to the London Treaty)[6] likewise Thessaly and the Arta district of Epirus in 1881 as a result of the decisions by the West European Great Powers at the Berlin Congress (June−July 1878).    

The process of industrialization and political realization of Megali Idea, as the dominant ideology of the emerging state, brought Greece into a large international (primarily to the UK) debt.[7] However, the debt, on another side, provided the fundamental basis for the Greek victory in both Balkan Wars in 1912−1913, as a result of which Greece doubled its territory by annexing Aegean Macedonia, Crete and some other East Mediterranean islands. During the time of the Great War in 1914−1918 the Greek political agenda was influenced by fundamental constitutional, ideological, and social conflict about the side Greece should support in order to go further toward the final realization of the project of Megali Idea. Two basic positions became crystallized from the very beginning of the war:

  1. The Germanophile King, Constantine I,[8] insisted on the Greek strict neutrality that was, in fact, an indirect supporting of the Central Powers.
  2. The liberal government of Eleftherios Venizelos[9] advocated supporting the war on the side of the Entente (the UK, Russia, France).

As a result of such struggle, King Constantine I dismissed his ministers, who now formed an alternative government in opposition to him residing in North Greece in Thessaloniki in September 1916. Therefore, Greece became divided during the WWI into the southern Germanophile part with Athens, governed by the King and the northern pro-Allied part administered by the alternative government. Taking into consideration this internal political disputes and instability, the external pressure by both military blocs made the Greek neutrality practically impossible to further maintain. Finally, the Entente’s powers entered North Greece in April 1916 for the sake to protect the alternative government in Thessaloniki forcing, at the same time, the King into exile in June 1917. The Macedonian Front was created in North Greece wherefrom the beginning of the end of the Central Powers and their satellites started in mid-September 1918. Subsequently, Greece found itself at the end of the war on the side of the victorious Entente with a great hope to ultimately establish a unified national state of Greeks by the annexation of the Greek-populated lands in Anatolia (Asia Minor), the Aegean Sea islands and the Balkan Thrace with Constantinople.[10]

Greece after the WWII

A catastrophe of Megali Idea

After the Great War, according to the Peace Treaty of Sèvres (August 10th, 1920), Greece had to realize its greatest territorial expansion since its independence in 1829/1833.[11] More precisely, according to the treaty, Adrianople (Edirne), East Thrace, and Smyrna (Izmir) region in Asia Minor were given to Greece from the Ottoman Empire which participated in the war on the side of the Central Powers. Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands went to Italy, while, according to the same treaty, a short-lived independent Republic of Armenia was created and Kurdistan gained autonomy as well. The Ottoman Empire lost its Arab-populated provinces. The Bosphorus and Dardanelles were demilitarized and placed under the international supervision. The Ottoman army had to be reduced to 50.000 soldiers. However, the Peace Treaty of Sèvres increased Turkish nationalistic sentiments and united nationalistic Turks around a new leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The treaty was never ratified by the Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul and, therefore, it never came into force. A war criminal and killer of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reclaimed Smyrna region from Greece in a successful military campaign in 1922, which finally led to the new treaty now much favorable to the Ottoman Empire – the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24th, 1923). This is a settlement which, basically, replaced the earlier Treaty of Sèvres after the Greek-Ottoman War of 1919−1922[12]: Greece had to return Smyrna region and East Thrace with Adrianople to the Ottoman Empire (soon transformed into the Republic of Turkey).[13] According to the same treaty, Kurdistan lost autonomy and the Ottoman reconquest of independent Armenia was confirmed. The Ottoman/Turkish government, in returned, accepted the British mandate over Palestine and Iraq and the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Cyprus was confirmed as UK’s possession as the Dodecanese Islands were confirmed as Italy’s possession. All Aegean Islands, except Tenedos and Imbros, remained under Greece. The Dardanelles remained demilitarized and open to shipping but supervised by a newly established League of Nations. However, this new and final settlement of the Greek-Turkish border resulted in serious refugee crises, basically, legalized ethnic cleansing under the auspices of an international community. In other words, some 1.5 million of the Ottoman Greeks, primarily from the Smyrna region, were forced to leave Asia Minor to Greece, while at the same time up to 350.000 Muslims and Turks left Greece to Turkey. This peace treaty still up today is the fundamental basis of the political tensions between Turkey and the Greeks.

Smyrna 1922: Massacre of local Greeks by the Ottoman Army of Kemal Ataturk

Greece, after the military disaster in 1922, primarily due to the facts that France and especially the UK did not support the Greek side in the conflict, followed by diplomatic catastrophe in 1923, achieved the integration of Greek refugees from Asia Minor by a large redistribution of land (the land reform), which at the same time destroyed large landholdings (latifundias) and created a large group of small landowners, who now became the backbone of Greece’s economy for a long time. However, after the military catastrophe in 1922 and a diplomatic disaster in 1923, the concept of Megali Idea in the foreign policy of Greece left to be only on the paper with no real hope to be implemented in the reality anymore regardless on the fact that still up today Greek political culture is much ideologically imbued.[14] 

Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirović

© Vladislav B. Sotirović 2018


[1] Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Contemporary World History from 1900 to the Present Day, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 253.

[2] Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 48.

[3] In the British mind, the Near East was composed by the Ottoman Balkans and Asia Minor followed by the Aegean Sea between.

[4] On this issue, see in Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Princeton−Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015.

[5] About Byzantine history, see in Eric Brown, The Byzantine Empire: A Complete Overview of the Byzantine Empire History from Start to Finish, Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2018.

[6] Those seven Ionian Islands were under the British protectorate since 1815 according to the decisions by the Vienna Congress. Formally, the Great Powers of the UK, France, and Russia gave over the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1864, with their 2.000 square meters and 200.000 inhabitants. In the same year, the new constitution of Greece was adopted according to which, the ruler became “The King of the Greeks” [Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans from Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, Boulder: East European Monographs, 1992, 334]. 

[7] On this issue, see in John A. Levandis, The Greek Foreign Debt and the Great Powers, 1821−1898, New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

[8] Constantine I (1868−1922), a son of the Greek King George I, was twice the King of Greece: in 1913−1917 and in 1920−1922. He was married to Sophia, the sister of a German Emperor Wilhelm II. During the war with the Ottoman Empire in 1897, Constantine commanded the Greek army in Thessaly and was a Greek commander-in-chief during the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913. Constantine I was forced to leave Greece in June 1917 under the British and French pressure. He died in exile in Palermo after being the King of Greece for the second time in 1920−1922. See more in [George Melas, King Constantine I of Greece and the War, Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2015].

[9] Eleftherios Venizelos (1864−1936) was a leading Greek politician and statesman of the first half of the 20th century, born on Crete. He was PM for a total time of 12 years. E. Venizelos became known for the first time as a very active national worker at the time of the Cretan Revolt and Greek-Ottoman War of 1897. The conflict with the Ottoman authorities in Crete started in 1896 when the local Greeks required that all decisions of the 1878 Berlin Congress have to be implemented but also and as a reaction to the first Armenian genocide in 1896 organized by the Ottoman government [Михаило Војводић, Србија у међународним односима крајем XIX и почетком XX века, Београд: САНУ, 1988, 83−94. About this war, see more in Theodore George Tatsios, The Megali Idea and the Greek-Turkish War of 1897: The Impact of the Cretan Problem on Greek Irredentism, 1866−1897, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984]. At that time, he was an ardent supporter of the enosis, or union, of Crete with the motherland Greece. After the Greek-Ottoman War of 1987, Crete got autonomy and E. Venizelos participated in the drafting of Crete’s constitution as a member of the island’s assembly. In 1912 he led Greece into a political-military alliance with Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia against the Ottoman Empire. On the break of the Great War, E. Venizelos’ decisive support of the Entente caused him the open conflict with King Constantine I who formally favored neutrality but, in fact, was supporting the Central Powers. In September 1916 E. Venizelos established a rival government in Thessaloniki and, therefore, opened the door to the „National Schism“. In June 1917, as a result of direct pressure from France and the UK, the King Constantine I left Greece and E. Venizelos established his own government as the new PM. After the war, he became the architect of a short-lived project of „Greece of the Two Continents and the Five Seas“. After 1922 defeat of Greece in Asia Minor, he was a Greek representative at the Lausanne peace conference. He died in France in 1936. See more in [Doros Alastor [Evdoros Joannides], Venizelos: Patriot, Statesman, Revolutionary, London: Lund Humphries, 1942; Kostas Kairophylas, Eleftherios Venizelos, His Life and Work, Los Angeles, CA: HardPress Publishing, 2012].  

[10] About Greece in the Great War, see in George B. Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, 1914−1917, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1974.

[11] On Greece at the post-war peace conference in Paris, see in N. Petsalis-Diomidis, Greece at the Paris Peace Conference 1919, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1978.

[12] About this war, see in Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919−1922, London: Allen Lane, 1973. This war was, in fact, the last stage in the final solving of historical Eastern Question.

[13] During this war, the Greek-inhabited city of Smyrna was destroyed and burned by the Turkish army under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [Marjorie Housepian, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, London: Faber and Faber, 1972].

[14] Loring M. Danforth, “The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 2, 1984, 53−85.

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