First year · International Relations

Book review: Cooper R. (2004) The Breaking of Nations, Atlantic: London.

The English political scientist and former diplomat and adviser Robert Cooper defends the thesis that Europe is entering a post-national era, in a world still marked by archaic forms of organization of sovereignty. His book The Breaking of Nations was published in 2004, just after the war in Irak. R. Cooper is a “neo-idealist” in the sense that his realistic caution does not prevent from upholding the belief in the possibility of a future postmodern world with its intrinsic values.


After the fall of communism the axes of conflicts were mostly between the North versus the South and the West versus Islamic groups.  According to Robert Cooper, three types of states are beginning to emerge: besides the “postmodern” or developed states exist modern states, such as India, Brazil and China which have a new policy of national power, whereas other states, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, still belong to “pre-modern” age, with archaic values. Europe shows itself as a postmodern power, for which war is inconceivable. However, it is vulnerable to missiles and terrorism that transcend national borders and that the old alliances of the Cold War no longer control. Foreign policy cannot be reduced to the rule of law and humanitarian action because European countries can find themselves vulnerable and helpless because of the American superpower. Within the United Nations there are areas which are postmodern and the most successful example, although not accomplished because of insecurity issues is the European Union whose characteristic is to enshrine the principles of sovereign prerogatives defined collectively and underpinning the community. All these states have excluded war as a means to change relations. Their respective interest is to a large extent subject to the “expanded vision” of the Community interest. The nature of their relationship is multilateral, legal, economic and financial.


The Breaking of Nations is divided in three separate essays, with a short preface about the historical context. The first part, entitled “The condition of the world” (pp. 1-80), presents the order of the Old and New World and precises the security aspect of the New World. It is problematic because Cooper seems to defend both the idea of ​​the importance of a postmodern world where power is not concentrated in one or two entities, and the need for two blocks in action in the world. Parts one and two are even contradictory: first part one sometimes defends the idea of ​​a world order in the Empire, while the second part, “The condition of peace: 21st century diplomacy ” (pp. 81 – 152), is opposed to such an order, showing that if the Empire can be seen as a short term solution, it is becoming an international political issue destabilizing operations. Part Three of the book is a note reading Power and Weakness, Robert Kagan (Kagan, 2002). This is the shortest part (pp. 153-172), but it is so ambiguous that the reader remains puzzled as regards Cooper’s position about Kagan’s thesis: the European Union is multilateralist only because it is weak, so if it had the same power as the United States, it would have the same imperial policy as America.


The book is very readable and does not require prior knowledge of the subject to understand the point. Cooper gets to show, ten years after the end of the Cold War, how the situation has evolved and how the distribution of power in the world has changed. He analyzes fairly accurately and interestingly the redistribution of powers following the breakdown of the communist block and the end of the Cold war. He more precisely explains how the countries must reassess or regain strength in the new distribution. This is particularly true for the European Union. This is an interesting book because it presents a concise vision of today’s geopolitical situation but we could argue that his vision too schematic and as a result there is a lack of scope to understand more thoroughly the complicated situation in which we now live. All in all although Cooper’s book shows his great understanding of the new international context (after all, he was a diplomat), his work is not academic research.


I found this book fairly easy to read and understand, despite some ambiguities in the structure, as mentioned above. In my opinion, his argument is coherent and convincing. This book is interesting for students who discover and try to understand the world of politics and international relations, and study the new world order. But at the beginning the author wrote this book for some people in the general public who were interested in the political changes brought by globalization. Finally, I would like to stress that, as a student reading Cooper’s book in 2013, that is to say almost 10 years later, I find that he tends to classify too much. The world has changed a lot in the last decade and the economic crisis has further impacted the geopolotical situation, creating an even greater chaotic international situation. For example, some countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain have had their postmodern state organization greatly disturbed by the recent debt crisis affecting the whole of Europe.


In his book, The Breaking of Nations, Robert Cooper refers to the idea that has fed British foreign policy and greatly influenced European guidelines. His tripartite scheme is intellectual, because the world is not divided into three quite distinct continents apart. None of these three areas can live and evolve in a closed circuit. Instead, there are three elements each with its own reality of the world that interact with each other in an era of technical, economic and cultural globalization. No border is sealed anymore. These transnational movements can harbor dangerous reactions because they make it possible for some unscrupulous heads of state or mafia groups to keep control over nations, or group of nations.



  • Cooper, Robert: The Breaking of Nations, Atlantic: London 2004
  • Kagan, Robert: Of Paradise and Power : America and Europe in the New World Order, 2003

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