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What Causes Wars?

When one looks back in history war seems to have always been there as a means of conquering territory, desired resources or simply of demonstrating dominance over another nation. Most people would answer the question “what causes wars?” the same way. Greed, hate, religion. However, in order to understand the causes of wars one has to observe many other factors that play into the development of international conflict. Nations may regard each other with dislike over religious conflict or different values but this is hardly going to cause them to go to war. In International Relations, a disturbance in the balance of power (Brown, 2005: 99) is often named as the main cause of war. This disruption could be seen as the trigger of international conflict. For the cause of this paper, war shall stand for international war rather than civil war or inner state conflict.

In this essay, the causes of wars shall be discussed on different levels. On an individual level, on the level of society but most importantly on an international level. For this purpose, it shall be elaborated on the importance of the balance of power in this context as well as on other theories that seem to be relevant.

To observe the causes of war at an individual level requires observing human nature.

According to Brown (2005: 104), “wars occur because of some aspect of human nature”. Man in his nature seems to be violent and bound to inflict harm on his own race. Greed appears to be an essential characteristic of human nature and therefore seems to determine the actions that are taken in order to gain more power than the rival. This all seems to be rather primitive and may sound like caveman behavior. However, in its essential form this behavior is still and will always be part of human nature. The critique that arises when discussing the nature of human beings as a cause of war is the following: can the nature of the individual really reflect accurately on the nature of the group, in this case society? Waltz (as cited in Brown, 2005: 104) called this way of thinking “reductionist”. One cannot explain “social phenomena by reference to the nature of individuals” (Brown, 2005: 104). Another aspect to be looked at in this context is that of determinism. The concept of determinism is

The theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes that prelude free will and the possibility that humans could have acted otherwise

This theory implies that war is out of man’s control and therefore he cannot be held responsible for it. Determinism implies that every action is predetermined by the causes of nature. Man is simply a play ball controlled by the forces of nature. However, who if not humankind can be held responsible for the occurrence of war? It appears that determinism in connection with war does not seem to be a very appropriate theory.

Another aspect that should be looked when considering the causes of wars is that of the nature of societies, economies, and governments. According to Cashman (1993: 124), certain states possess characteristics that make them more likely to go to war than others. Naturally, here too we can find several theories. From a liberal point of view, war is caused by autocratic states, where “one person possesses unlimited power”( Merriam- Webster’s Online Dictionary). According to autocratic views, wars are caused by democracies. Leninists blame capitalist societies while capitalists see communist societies as the root cause of war. It is a popular belief that democracies do not tend to go to war with other democracies but regularly fight other non-democratic societies (Brown 2003: 104). Liberal theory states that humankind as such is a peace-loving race. Therefore, the behavior of states should follow this characteristic. Democracies, being elected by the citizens of the state, act for their nonviolent civilians and for that reason are likely to prevent violent conflicts with other states. This however, does not protect them from being attacked by other non-democratic states. According to this theory, all democratic states are good while all autocratic states are evil and therefore jeopardize world peace. The logical conclusion to this dilemma would be that in order for world peace to prevail, all nations have to be democratic. The solution is provided by isolationists and interventionists in two different ways. While isolationists believe that a reformation of autocratic states into democratic states should be achieved by being a good example to follow, interventionists feel that democratic states have to be actively involved in the process by attacking them if necessary instead of standing by and waiting for the other force to strike. The underlying idea for interventionists would therefore be that war is necessary to create peace (Cashman 1993: 126). From an outsiders point of view this theory may seem rather hypocritical. It will however become clearer when one considers the theory of the balance of power, which shall be taken up later on in this essay. So why is it that democracies should be less prone to go to war? Their governments need to “maintain public support” (Cashman 1993:127). They depend on the voting choices of their citizens and out of fear not to be re-elected, will try to pursue policies, which will satisfy the public. Still, if one actively engages in the study of history and world politics one might find that many democracies actively participate in wars and for this reason, the state system seems to have little effect on the likeliness of the war involvement of a state.

Russet and Monsen (as cited in Cashman 1993: 127) claim that size matters. The bigger a state is the more likely it is for this state to conduct war.

In R. J. Rummel’s opinion, war involvement depends on the degree of freedom of a state. This is to say that the freer a state is the less likely it is for this state to engage in war, while less libertarian states tend to be more violent (Rummel as quoted in Cashman 1993: 128). However, if one considers the example of the United States, “The Land of the Free”, Rummel’s theory proofs to be inconsistent. The USA have actively engaged in several wars over the past decades, be it the most recent Iraq war or the war in Vietnam. It remains uncertain whether the amount of freedom a state possesses is correlated to its violent actions or whether it creates more pressure to preserve said liberty.

It seems relatively certain that states that have little or nothing in common in their political and cultural attitude are very likely to face each other with aggression. It seems to be, as Cashman (1993: 129) states, “political distance” that plays an important role.

John Hobson, a British economist, held the opinion that it is the economic system of a state that causes wars. The most war prone states seem to be the ones with a capitalist economic system. This is explained by the fact that due to “overproduction, unequal distribution of economic wealth and under consumption” (Cashman 1993: 130) on the side of the public, the economy is forced to expand to other countries, to invest in foreign markets. However, in a predominantly capitalist world where all foreign markets are already taken, the only way to expand one’s economy beyond one’s own borders is at the cost of other states. In order to expand, a state, democratic or not, would have to go to war. It seems also logical that war is most likely to occur at times of financial distress. Although economic crises did not immediately lead to World War II, unemployment and poverty were certainly a reason for German citizens to feel more inclined towards the notion of trusting in an ideology that promised to improve their living standard.

It is a common belief that war creates jobs, be it due to arms races and the production of other products or the improvement of infrastructure. According to Cashman (1993: 134), war may also be seen as a means of distracting the citizens of a state from internal problems. Whatever causes governments to make this fateful decision, we can be assured that it involves a careful decision-making process at all times and only if the chances of success are high will there be war. As Howard states, wars are never accidental. They always have a political purpose (Howard 1983: 12).

War used to be universally accepted as a means to protect or assist allies under attack. In earlier years, it was also used to invade territory when a nation was in need for more space due to overpopulation. This concept played an important role for Germany in World War II. Hitler argued that the German people were in need of more space in order to spread the Arian race. One could argue that Darwin’s survival the fittest theory could be applied here. In order to spread out, one nation, in the case of World War II Germany, has to attack another. The strongest state will survive and impose its power upon others.

Another level to be examined is that of the international sphere. Here it shall be observed in which way states as international actors interrelate. The international system is composed of “sovereign states, organizations of states, international cooperations, and even individuals” (Cashman 1993: 224). It is in a state of anarchy in the sense that an international government does not exist. This and the lack of an authoritarian force that could keep order in the international system are addressed as a problem in International Relations. Certain actions on the side of states will disrupt the equilibrium of the so-called balance of power. According to Brown, such a disruption could occur in the form of one state becoming more powerful than it used to be (Brown 2005: 99) for instance through the increase of its military power. Other states will feel threatened by this and take action to restore the balance. Due to the relative instability of the balance and international anarchy, states are in constant fear of being attacked and are therefore prepared to defend themselves at all times. This paranoia causes constant suspicion towards every member in the international system. To reduce this fear, they are constantly looking for a possibility to gain power while reducing that of their opponents. As Brown implies, a state’s own security is of the utmost importance. Realist theory in International Relations states that the order of the international system is kept by two institutions: the balance of power and war. War is here seen as a “conflict resolving mechanism” that is an essential part of the balance of power (Brown 2005: 10). The balance of power can be seen as a system of states as a whole, which is based on sovereignty. Stability can only exist if the opposing forces are in equilibrium.

The balance of power can be disturbed if one Power becomes stronger through economic or demographic growth, the increase in military power or through alliance with another state (Brown 2005: 99). If this happens, other states may feel threatened and may feel compelled to defend themselves. In order to keep one nation from gaining more and more power, action has to be taken. States also have the military power at their disposal, which might make them more inclined towards using force against an opposing power. In the international system, war is seen as a means of evening out disruptions in the balance of power. In general, a balance is not desirable for states (Brown 2005: 101) and if there were a guarantee for being successful in international conflict, war would be a very normal occurrence. Nevertheless, states cannot be sure of their success. The price that one might have to pay for such a decision could be far too high. The second best option is therefore to maintain a balance of power and with it peace.

To fix one’s opinion on one specific cause of war is impossible. There seem to be many reasons that play together when nations decide to conduct war. Be it human nature, the nature of societies, or even the nature of the international system as an unstable and unpredictable institution. Greed, the hunger for power and fear seem to stretch through all three levels and determine the events in the international system. Political distance and economic problems inside a country can be named as causes as well. War has been, is, and will probably always be a means of gaining power or resources or simply of defending the sovereignty and safety of a nation.

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