Voltaire famously observed that “God is always on the side of the big battalions” (5). International relations theorists and diplomatic historians have tended to find Voltaire’s explanation persuasive but, as Paul MacDonald shows in his provocative new book, peripheral conquest during the nineteenth century was a far more complicated endeavor than conventional warfare on the European continent. In his view, the scholarly focus on aggregate military power and relative advantage “ignores the role of social factors in shaping conquest, especially in the periphery of the international system” (6). In Networks of Domination, MacDonald argues that two social factors are crucial in determining the effectiveness of military force in cases of peripheral conquest. The first factor is the extent to which potential conquerors have pre-existing social ties with local elites. Dense ties with local elites, MacDonald argues, makes it much more likely that potential conquerors will be able to identify and fruitfully work with local collaborators. The second factor that facilitates peripheral conquest is patterns of local resistance. When local elites are less connected to each other, MacDonald argues, it is much harder for local resistance forces to confront potential conquerors. The book’s richly detailed chapters include cases of British conquest in India, Southern Africa, and Nigeria, as well as an application of the framework to explain the failed American occupation of Iraq.
Robert Pape adds to a growing literature that is trying to develop a more cohesive approach to controlling or mitigating episodes of genocide and mass atrocity violence. His call for a more pragmatic approach is certainly laudable and his claims that the world has not fared well in preventing past genocides is certainly correct. Overall, however, his article is puzzling on a number of analytical points and his prescription for a pragmatic standard of humanitarian intervention appears to fall short of providing a clear and workable framework for alleviating mass atrocity events.