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War involves large-scale organized violence between states or other political units. Although the conduct of war has changed in important ways over the millennia, war itself has been a recurrent phenomenon in international politics. It is one of the primary sources of change in international systems and an important factor in the evolution of the social and political organization of societies. Theorizing about the causes of war goes back to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, but scholars are far from agreement on what causes war.
1. Patterns Of Warfare
The current international system represents the most recent stage in the evolution and globalization of the system that originated in Europe about ﬁve centuries ago. Warfare in this system has historically been dominated by the ‘great powers,’ though the frequency of wars between these leading states has steadily declined, while their severity has increased. The period since 1945 has been characterized by both the longest period of great power peace in the last half millennium and a dramatic shift in the concentration of war from Europe to other regional subsystems and from international wars to internal wars, many of which have been intractable ethnonational or religious
‘identity wars.’ These recent trends have led some to argue that we have reached a turning point in the history of warfare. Some argue that major war between advanced industrial states has become obsolete, while others argue that traditional wars over power or ideology will give way to a ‘clash of civilizations’ deﬁned in terms of religious or cultural identity (Huntington 1996). These arguments reﬂect diﬀerent theoretical perspectives on the causes of war.
2. Theoretical Approaches
Carl von Clausewitz (1976) wrote in his inﬂuential book On War that war is a ‘continuation of politics by other means,’ suggesting that war is an instrument of policy for advancing state interests. This implies that war ultimately involves a political decision by state political leaders, so to understand war one must understand why political leaders choose war rather than other strategies to achieve their ends. Technically, we must understand the joint decisions by rival states, because one side can usually avoid war if it is willing to make enough concessions.
2.1 The ‘Levels Of Analysis’ Framework
Scholars previously emphasized monocausal explanations that identiﬁed a single primary cause of war, but political scientists have moved away from such explanations. Although they prefer parsimonious explanations that explain as much as possible with as little theoretical apparatus as possible, they generally recognize that there are many possible causes of war and that there is no single factor that is either necessary or suﬃcient for war. One analytic framework that they have found useful for categorizing the many possible causes of war is based on patterns of causation located at diﬀerent ‘levels of analysis’: international system, nation-state, and individual. The ﬁrst focuses on threats and opportunities to states that originate in their external environment and that aﬀect the ‘national interests’ of the state as a whole. The second emphasizes the internal sources of foreign policy decision making that derive from either governmental structures or processes or from societal inﬂuences outside of the government. The third emphasizes the distinctive role of key individual decision makers in the processes leading to war.
2.2 Systemic-Level Theories Of War
Systemic-level causes of war include the anarchic structure of the international system (deﬁned as the absence of a legitimate authority to regulate disputes and enforce agreements), the distribution of military and economic power among the leading states in the system, patterns of military alliances and international trade, and other variables deriving from the external environment of states. The leading systemic-level approach is ‘realist theory,’ which begins with the assumption of the primary role of sovereign states who act rationally to advance their security, power, and wealth in an anarchic international system. Given uncertainties regarding the current and future intentions of the adversary, political leaders focus on short-term security needs, adopt worst-case thinking, engage in a struggle for power, and utilize coercive threats to advance their interests, inﬂuence the adversary, and maintain their reputations.
At a very general level, realist theory posits two distinct paths to war. In one, the direct conﬂict of interests between states leads at least one side to prefer war to any feasible compromise. In the second, states prefer peace to war but are driven by the structure of the situation and by uncertainty regarding the intentions of others to take actions to protect themselves through armaments, alliances, and deterrent threats. These actions are often perceived as threatening by others (the ‘security dilemma’) and often lead to counteractions and conﬂict spirals which sometimes escalate to war.
The leading realist theory is balance of power theory. Although there are several versions of balance of power theory, most posit that the primary goal of states is to avoid hegemony, to prevent any single state from achieving a position from which it can dominate over others. This leads to the instrumental goal of maintaining a balance of power through the internal mobilization of military power, external alliances against potential aggressors, or the use of force if necessary. The theory predicts that this balancing mechanism almost always works successfully to avoid hegemony, either because potential hegemons are deterred by their anticipation of a military coalition against them or because they are defeated in war after deterrence fails.
Another theory that gives primary emphasis to the systemic-level sources of war, but that is associated with a liberal perspective that downplays the conﬂictual consequences of anarchy, emphasizes the potential for cooperation among states, and includes some domestic factors as well, is the liberal economic theory of war. The core of the theory, which originates with Immanuel Kant’s Eternal Peace (1795 1977), is that trade promotes peace. Trade leads to economic beneﬁts, but the economic interdependence generated by trade leaves states vulnerable to any disruption through war, and the fear of economic disruption and the loss of the gains from trade deter political leaders from taking actions that are likely to lead to war. Realists challenge this view and argue that because trade and interdependence are usually asymmetrical they often contribute to conﬂict rather than deter it, either because states may be tempted to exploit their trading partner’s vulnerabilities or because domestic groups vulnerable to external economic developments demand protectionist measures, which can lead to retaliatory actions, conﬂict spirals, and war.
2.3 National-Level Theories Of War
Systemic-level theories, with their emphasis on the external forces that shape state decisions for war, posit that states in similar situations behave in similar ways. The implication is that factors internal to states have little impact on foreign policy decisions. There is substantial evidence, however, that decisions for war are often inﬂuenced by internal political and economic structures, political cultures and ideologies, and domestic political processes, and over the last decade international relations theorists have been giving more attention to domestic factors.
Regime type is particularly important, based on evidence that democratic regimes behave diﬀerently in important respects than do authoritarian regimes. Although democracies get involved in wars as frequently as do authoritarian states, frequently ﬁght imperial wars, and once involved in war often adopt a crusading spirit and ﬁght particularly destructive wars, it is striking that democracies rarely if ever go to war with each other. This ‘interdemocratic peace’ is based on standard deﬁnitions of democracy (fair, competitive elections and constitutional transfers of executive power) and war (which is often distinguished from lesser conﬂicts by the threshold of a minimum of 1,000 battle-related deaths).
There are several interrelated explanations for interdemocratic peace. To be valid these explanations must account not only for the near absence of war between democracies but also for the fact that democracies get involved in wars just about as much as other states do. One model emphasizes the institutional constraints on democratic leaders—checks and balances, the dispersion of power, and the need for public debate—that enable governmental or societal groups to block attempts by political leaders to take the country into war. Related to this ‘institutional model’ is the ‘political culture model,’ which suggests that the norms of peaceful conﬂict resolution that have evolved within democratic societies are extended to relations between democratic states, and that these norms facilitate negotiated settlements.
Authoritarian leaders face fewer institutional or cultural constraints, and they often attempt to exploit the conciliatory tendencies of democracies. This undermines democratic political leaders’ expectations that their conciliatory negotiating strategies will be reciprocated, reduces the internal constraints on their use of force, and provides incentives for democratic regimes to resort to force against authoritarian regimes both to protect themselves and sometimes to facilitate democratic transitions.
The institutional model of interdemocratic peace assumes that political leaders are more inclined to war than are their peoples, but this assumption does not always hold. Jingoistic public opinion, often exacerbated by the media, can force political leaders into wars that they would prefer to avoid or preclude them from making the concessions that might prevent war. There is a strong tendency for the use of force against external adversaries to generate a temporary boost in domestic support for political leaders in the form of a ‘rally round the ﬂag’ eﬀect. Political leaders anticipate this, and are sometimes tempted to undertake risky foreign ventures in an attempt to distract attention from domestic problems or to blame other states or groups for those problems. Many contemporary ethnic wars result in part from political leaders manipulating images of ethnic rivals and mobilizing their domestic publics against those rivals in order to serve their own narrow political interests. External scapegoating can backﬁre, however, if it results in a military defeat.
2.4 Individual-Level Theories Of War
Whereas systemic and national-level theories emphasize the role of international and domestic forces that lead to war and suggest that individual political leaders have little impact, other theories give signiﬁcant causal weight to individuals, their beliefs about the world and speciﬁc adversaries, the psychological processes through which they acquire information and make decisions, and their personalities and emotional states. Some theories emphasize cognitive limitations and aﬀective variables that impact most people in similar ways and result in standard patterns of deviations from ideal-type models of rational decision making. Other theories emphasize the variations among political leaders in the way they deﬁne state interests, perceive threats to those interests, assess the intentions of adversaries, evaluate the merits of alternative strategies to achieve those interests, use the lessons of history to shape current policies, and respond to the pressures and uncertainties of foreign policy crises. Misperceptions of the intentions and capabilities of adversaries and third states can be a particularly important cause of war.
Although the levels-of-analysis framework initially led scholars to focus on the question of which level of analysis was most important in the causes of war, and thus to emphasize single-level explanations, attention has recently shifted to the question of how variables at diﬀerent levels interact in the processes leading to war.
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