A Theory of Political Violence

When does political violence (used in the context of interstate war, intrastate war, insurgency and counterinsurgency, or terrorism) lead to victory? When does political violence produce a stable peace compatible with the political goals of the victor and in which violence is no longer necessary? Much has been written on this question from the strategic, operational, and tactical points of view. In this paper, I examine this question from the socio-political standpoint. Specifically, I theorize the socio-political conditions for the emergence of a stable peaceful order out of violence. I argue that the possibility of achieving victory – defined as a peaceful stable order compatible with the political goals of the victor – is greater against institutionally integrated adversaries, such as a modern state, for two reasons. First, while violence is being used, institutional integration on the part of the adversary is necessary for favorable tactical outcomes to be aggregated into favorable strategic outcomes and, ultimately, into the achievement of the victor’s political goals. Second, after a settlement has been reached through political violence, the level of institutional integration of the adversary determines the ability of its leadership to impose peace terms on its own fighting forces and recruitment base. Therefore, when an adversary exhibits low levels of institutional integration – as is often the case with insurgent or terrorist groups – it will be more difficult (i) to translate favorable developments in the battlefield into adversary willingness to sue for peace and (ii) to achieve a stable political order in which both fighters and members of recruitment base on the defeated side abide by the terms of the settlement. After examining the mechanisms through which victory may be achieved (destruction, transformation, and control), I extract implications from my argument for legal theory, state-society relations, and the ethics of war.