The Philosophy of War, Causation of the deadly conflicts


Since the inception of human societies and the dispersion of humans to different geo-graphical territories across the world, war has been an inevitable phenomenon. A fleeting look at the history reveals that individuals, states, or political factions have gained sovereignty over regions through the use of war. Thucydides, who is often called the father of realism, teaches in his ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ that what starts a war is different from what causes it.

This write-up is an attempt to elaborate on the notion of wars and what are the factors that become major causes behind them.

War has been responsible for creating states and empires throughout history and, equally so, in destroying them. However, before moving on to finding out the causes of a war, it is apt to first know what war actually is.


“The use of violence and force between two or more states to resolve a matter of dispute.”

— Duhaime’s Law Dictionary

“War is interaction in which two or more opposing forces have a struggle of wills”
— Carl Clausewitz

“… during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.”
— Thomas Hobbes

Causation of war

i. System-level causes

System-level causes include the anarchic structure of the international system, the number of major powers therein, distribution of military and economic power among them, patterns of alliances, and other factors that are closely related to the distribution of power, including the structure of the system’s political economy.

Classical Realism: Classical realists believed that there are multiple sources of state behaviour and hence of the causes of war. In addition to the importance of the absence of central authority in the international system, which was central to the theories of Hobbes and, to a certain extent, of Rousseau, classical realists emphasized the role of human nature as a source of aggressive behaviour and war. They pointed to aggressive instincts, selfishness, greed, pride, and passion as key factors leading to human aggression. Hitler’s initiation of war is a classic example.

Waltzian Neorealism: Kenneth Waltz emphasized the pursuit of security, with power serving as a means rather than an end. He placed particular emphasis on international anarchy and the distribution of power in the system. Given the limited variation in anarchy across time and across international systems, and hence its inability to explain the enormous variation in war and peace over time and space, the distribution of power in the system, especially among the leading powers, carries most of the explanatory power in Waltzian neorealism. The bipolarity of ancient Greece witnessed the Peloponnesian War, and the French–Habsburg bipolarity of the early sixteenth century was quite conflictual, but the bipolar Cold War period was stable.

Defensive Realism: Defensive realists agree with neorealists that the anarchic structure of the international system creates potential security threats, but they don’t believe that anarchy in itself forces states into conflict and war. If all states seek only security, and if there are no predatory states seeking expansion, and if all states know that, then states can avoid war.

Offensive Realism: Elman argued that the sources of predation can be traced to the structure of the international system, the inherent uncertainty about adversary intentions, and anarchy-induced tendencies towards worst-case analysis, without invoking domestic variables. The international system is so hostile and unforgiving that uncertainty about the future intentions of the adversary combined with extreme worst-case analysis lead even status-quo-oriented states to adopt offensive strategies, which often lead to war.

Neoclassical Realism: The holders of this view recognize the importance of anarchy and argue that material capabilities are the single most important determinant of state strategies, and also give causal primacy to system structure. They emphasize, however, that there is an imperfect “transmission belt” between systemic opportunities and constraints and the foreign policy decisions of states.

Power Transition Theory: Organski argued that international systems are frequently dominated by a single powerful state that uses its strength to create a set of political and economic structures and norms of behaviour that enhance both the security of the lead state and the stability of the system as a whole. Some other states are satisfied with the existing order, ally with the leading state, and receive economic and security benefits from doing so.

ii. The Dyadic Interactions of States

There are many dyadic-level theories, just as there are many system–level theories. Among them, most important are:

International Rivalries: Rivalry on international arena is one of the significant causation of war. Although scholars have often made distinctions among different types of wars — as in the difference between general wars involving all of the great powers and wars between small powers — the modal assumption in war studies is to assume that, other things being equal, all states have some similar propensity to go to war. There are some obvious caveats on the “other things being equal” modifier. States that cannot reach each other are certainly less likely to fight. Paraguay and Burkina Faso are two examples.

The Steps to War Model: Senese and Vasquez acknowledged that there are many paths to war, and many kinds of war, but they focused their attention on delineating a closely related set of paths to war that involve a series of steps between states that are roughly equal in power. The primary factors determining war and peace are the foreign policy practices or strategies adopted by states to deal with their disputes.

 The “Bargaining Model of War”: The theory begins with the obvious point that war is costly. War and other forms of violent conflict are inefficient ways to resolve conflicts because they destroy resources that might be distributed among adversaries. A second causal mechanism that might lead two rational actors to fight a costly war involves the commitment problem which can operate even in the presence of complete information. The third rationalist mechanism leading to war involves indivisible issues. Scholars often refer to the status of Jerusalem as an example of an indivisible issue.

Economic Interdependence and Conflict: Mercantilists widely believed that commerce and war were mutually reinforcing. Commerce contributed to the wealth that provided the economic foundations of military power, and military power could be used to seize territory, resources, and colonies that strengthened the economic foundations of state power.

iii. The State and Societal Level

Kant, Bentham, and other Enlightenment philosophers believed states with representative institutions would be much less likely to wage war because those systems invest ultimate political authority in the hands of those who must suffer the hardships of war.

Marxist–Leninist Theories of Imperialism and War: In these theories, it is propounded that war is a form of imperialism. In their view, capitalists further their interests after waging war. The capitalist class captures or “hijacks” the state and uses the apparatus of the state to formulate policies to advance its own parochial interests while shifting most of the costs of those policies to other societal actors.

Schumpeter and Military Elites: Liberal theorist Schumpeter argued that imperialism was harmful not only to the country as a whole but also to the capitalist class within a country. He argued that modern imperialism and war were bad for business, that capitalist leaders and industrial workers both recognized this, and that they opposed imperialist policies. He gave the rationality that capitalist states, pursue imperialist policies, he argued, is that those policies serve the interests of a politically powerful military elite. Those elite had long ago gained control of the power of the state, managed to maintain its position of dominance, and used the state to advance its interests through aggressive foreign policies.

Snyder and Logrolled Coalitions: Snyder argued that key elites justify their power and policies by promoting “strategic myths” that provide a justification for their expansionist policies. These myths include exaggeration of the current hostility of other states and of historical injustices committed by those states, of the strategic and economic value of empire, and of the likelihood that the adversary will back down in the face of hardline policies or that any war will involve minimal costs.

The Diversionary Theory of War: The tendency for foreign crises and wars to generate a “rally round the flag” effect that increases popular support for political leaders and the governmental power is often explained in terms of the “in-group/out-group”(or “conflict–cohesion”) hypothesis. Simmel argued that conflict with an out-group increases the cohesion and political centralization of the in-group. He extended the hypothesis to international relations, and argued that “war with the outside is sometimes the last chance for a state ridden with inner antagonisms to overcome these antagonisms, or else to break up definitely.

Culture and War: The “Clash of Civilizations” Thesis: Huntington’s thesis is one of the most prominent culture-based explanations for war of civilizations. He argued that after the Russian Revolution (1917) and the reaction to it, the primary conflicts shifted from nations to ideologies. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Huntington argued, ended the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism and initiated a new phase of conflict. Nation-states were (and would continue to be) the most powerful actors in the global system, but the primary axes of conflict are now not ideological or economic, but instead cultural and religious. Huntington argued, “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

iv. Decision-making: Individual & Organizational Levels

War is the product of the actions of two or more states or other political organizations. It follows that to understand the outbreak of war we need to understand why states make certain decisions rather than other decisions. That leads us to an analysis of foreign policy decision-making, which focuses on the individuals and governmental organizations that are empowered to make and implement policies on behalf of the state.

A. The Individual Level

Holsti emphasized the role of individual decision-making as a causation of war. One important implication of most individual-level explanations is that if the individual in question had not been in power, the decision or outcome probably would have been different. The argument that Hitler was a primary cause of World War II implies that if Hitler had not been German Chancellor, World War II would probably not have occurred.

Beliefs and Images: Individual political leaders vary widely in their personalities and belief systems, and those variations help to explain different perceptions of threats and opportunities in the international system. Beliefs are particularly important because they have a significant impact on how an individual perceives and interprets information about the adversary and about the world more generally. Bolshevik ideology of Soviet political leaders is classical example here.

Paths from Misperception to War: The idea that wars are caused by misperceptions is very attractive in many ways, especially for those who believe that the human and economic costs of war far outweigh any benefits that war might bring to the states that initiate them. Various phases of the Arab–Israeli conflict provide examples to this.

The Psychology of Threat Perception: The perception and misperception of threat is shaped by causal variables at all levels of analysis. System-level uncertainty leads even the most rational observers to make incorrect assessments about the capabilities and intentions of other states because they cannot distinguish meaningful signals from uninformative noise. This problem is compounded if the adversary engages in “strategic deception” to conceal its intentions. Societal cultures, ideologies, and religions introduce an additional level of conceptual filters. It is individuals in high-level decision-making groups whose judgements about threats and opportunities determine the actual decisions for war and peace. There are two sets of biases or distortions – cognitive and motivated – that shape individuals’ judgements about the world. As in the case of pre-existing beliefs comes from the Israeli intelligence failure leading to the 1973 Arab–Israeli War. Israeli intelligence officers and governmental officials developed a set of conceptual guidelines to help them understand when they might anticipate a possible Arab military attack.

B. The Organizational Level

Allison drew on the organizational theory literature and developed two different but overlapping models of foreign policy that focused on the executive branch of the government. He made following models of causation of war.

The Governmental Politics Model: Allison’s governmental politics model focuses on politics within the executive branch of the government, where decisions are ultimately made. This model defined set of foreign policy goals and a consensus on the best strategies for attaining those goals. It recognizes that the president (or the prime minister in a parliamentary system) is the single most powerful decision-maker, but it emphasizes that the president’ s power is limited by the power of other actors who occupy the top positions in the primary governmental organizations involved in the making of foreign policy.

The Organizational Process Model: The organizational process model also focuses on key foreign policy agencies, but less on the overtly political dimensions of organizational behaviour than on standardized rules and procedures within organizations. Instead of emphasizing the interests of each organization and the attempts of those organizations to select those policies that maximize their interests, the organizational process model focuses on the standard operating procedures (or SOPs) that are common to all organizations. The model posits that the decisions of organizations reflect the implementation of the organization’s procedures or routines. Military routines are an example. It is often argued, for example, that one reason for the failure of the American army to win in Vietnam is that it implemented the strategies and operational methods of conventional war that had worked so effectively in the European theatre during World War II but that were ill-suited to a counterinsurgency war in the jungles of Vietnam.

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