Theories on Causes of Wars

2127 words (9 pages) Essay in International Relations

08/02/20 International Relations Reference this

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What causes wars?

What causes wars? One could say that there is no solid answer to the question at hand as there are so many different types of wars, and different causes for each. For as long as humanity has been here, wars have occurred. From the Peloponnesian War between Sparta’s Peloponnesian League and Athens’ Delian League in 431 BC to the ongoing conflicts in states such as Syria and Iraq today, the reasons for why wars begin are constantly changing. While war is described as conflict between political groups, there is no one definition for it. Carl von Clausewitz defined war as a “continuation of politics by other means” while Roman statesman Cicero referred to war as “a contention by force”.

From Carl von Clausewitz to Samuel Huntington, each historian and international relations theorist have their own idea and view on what war is and why conflicts occur. In this essay, I plan to bring forward the main ideas and theories as to why wars occur. I intend to focus on three main arguments, supported by scholars, as what are the causes of war. I will be focusing on international anarchy, human behaviour and aggression, and fear of different cultures and societies as my three arguments as to what causes wars. While these are three quite different arguments, they are crucial to understanding why wars occur and why they have in the past.

International Anarchy

The desire for power by states in an anarchical international system one reasons as to why wars are caused. The international system is anarchical, as there is no authoritative head government which can issue and implement regulations globally. Greg Cashman believes that war can be explained in the international system by being linked to a kind of international system, and that war is brought on by a specific distribution of certain values in a system, for example, military or economic power. (Cashman 1993)

States frequently pursue their own interests and often do it at the expense of other states in the international system. Because there is no world government to implement regulations, there is no possible way to force these states to participate in pursuing common goals. At any point, a state may choose to refuse to take part meaning that other states are always ready to engage in any measures of self-help necessary, including conflict, to protect themselves. (Cashman 1993) Since some states are ready to use force, all other states must be prepared to use force back to protect themselves. The idea that states prepare, or go to war, because they are alarmed by another states power is not a new notion. The first known historian Thucydides himself suggested it when he stated that it was “the growth of the Athenian power, which terrified the Lacedaemonians and forced them into war.” (Thucydides)

The absence of the power of a world government leads to constant suspicion and paranoia among states. Since states, mainly realist states, believe that security is their highest priority and that the only thingy stopping states from attacking other states is their capacity to defend themselves, states are constantly ready and to begin conflict with any state that attempts to gain an upper hand against them. The anarchical international system has led to fear among states who do not waiver at the idea of going to war to protect themselves against other states in this ungoverned system we have.

Human Behaviour

Contrastingly, a different central argument as to why wars occur is because of human behaviour and aggression itself. While it has been argued that aggression is a behavioural trait of all humans, it is clear that specific individuals contain more aggressive traits than others. Though we cannot categorize every man and say that they all have characteristics to be capable to begin a war, history has proven than certain leaders, with certain psychological traits, can be a reason for what causes conflict.

All humans require certain needs, but certain individuals require different needs than others. Some leaders strive for ultimate power through their behaviour, which can lead to conflicts. This too is not a new argument as to why wars are caused. Scholars for hundreds of thousands of years have believed that to achieve a more peaceful world, men must be changed. (Waltz, 1959) While men are supposed to be described rational actors in the international systems, meaning we should be able to determine what they will do next, some scholars disagree. Hans J. Morgenthau believed that “the ubiquity of evil in human action” rises from man’s lust for power. Spinoza considered that men are not led by reason but by their passions, and that men, led by their passion, are drawn into conflict. (Spinoza, 1667)

Spinoza’s idea that men are led by their passions correlates with Clausewitz’s theory of the ‘trinities’ of war. Clausewitz claimed that three dominating tendencies of war: Passion, Chance and Reason. (Clausewitz, 1984) While he says that war is dominated by chance and reason, he also states that war always involves “passion through the motives for fighting and in the enmities that inspire and sustain killing.” (Barkawi, 2017) Though Clausewitz does link reason to war, he does so as a way to explain the strategies used in war. The passion itself, according to Clausewitz, is what creates the motives for fighting in wars.

Similarly, over time, humans and their personality types and traits have also been affiliated with what causes wars, according to some psychologists. Personalities types such as authoritarian personalities have been greatly connected to the topic of war and conflict, as many of its characteristics highly support aggression and war. (Cashman, 1993) Personality traits such as greed, vengeance and the desire to have dominance are also entwined with what causes war and conflict. An example of this can be seen in World War II through Hitler and the Nazi reign over Europe.  In the post-World War I era, much of the blame for the war was put on Germany. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany were punished and forced to pay retributions, which German patriots saw a way to destroy Germany forever, along with other rules. (Eubank, 2004) When Hitler came into power, him and his party sought revenge against the Allies who had, in their eyes, sought to ruin their country. Another example of what could be called a ‘revenge’ war, is the War on Terror George W. Bush initiated after the horrific 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Ethnic conflict (clash of civilizations)

One reason as why wars may be caused is due to disagreements between different societies and cultures. Wars can occur due to the differences in civilizations and the misunderstanding of said cultures between states from different sides of the globe. One state may not agree with another state’s culture or could get the feeling they are being “politically dominated by a group that has no right to be in a superior position.” (Petersen, 2002) A state’s biggest fear is a threat to its security and some scholars now believe that a state’s biggest threat is not another state, but that their biggest threat are civilizations with different values to them.

The Cold War era kept a lid on cultural conflicts but after the Cold-War ended, new theories were brought to the forefront to understand international relations. One scholar who brought a new theoretical perspective to the head was Samuel P. Huntington who wrote The Clash of Civilizations? in 1993. Unlike his predecessors, He believed that future conflicts and wars would arise because of the “great divisions among mankind” and that the “dominating source of conflict will be cultural”. (Huntington, 1993) Huntington argued that future wars would be fought between the civilizations of the Western world and the non-Western world as their values were too different, and that they could never live harmoniously together. He also believed that these wars would occur because these civilizations that challenged the Western values would not recognise their ‘superiority’.

Huntington’s theory was ‘confirmed’ by some, many far right groups, after the September 11th attacks in the US in 2001 and the 7/7 bombings in London. They believed that these horrific events had confirmed what Huntington had said all along: that the West and East could never live in harmony because their ideals were so different. However, his ideas are some of the most critiqued in international relations history. It has been argued that the Clash of Civilisations is based from a Western viewpoint, and that Huntington believed that the West was superior to the East because the West is a developed civilization, whereas the non-Western world is not scientifically viable.

While there is a never-ending list of reasons as to why wars are caused, in this essay I have concentrated on the three that I set out to focus on when I began this essay. I focused on international anarchy, human behaviour, and the fear of different cultures and societies as my three arguments as to why wars are caused.

While researching on international anarchy as a reason for why wars are caused it revealed a broad outlook on why wars occur. It highlighted that without a world government, states are in a state of fear that they may have to guard themselves at any time. Security is a state’s main priority and when they are put in a position where their security is threatened, they will not forego any means to protect it, even if it means starting a war. Similarly, while looking at human behaviour itself as a reason it showed how certain human behaviour and personality traits could be an instrument to starting a war. Though we cannot put direct blame on someone’s personality as a reason for why wars begin, certain personalities traits in humans relate to war and conflict. A human’s need for dominance and their natural trait of aggression often can lead to warfare also. The final argument I researched was the one that the fear of different societies and civilizations was a reason on why wars begin. The argument brings both truth and uncertainty to the forefront. While it was argued by Huntington that new wars would only be caused due to wars among civilisations (which is not true as civil wars and interstate wars are still occurring), we can see that conflict between civilizations is happening in the world today. The 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda and the current terrorist attacks throughout Europe by groups claiming to be associated with ISIS may show how Huntington was correct in saying that the Western world and non-Western world could not live as one because the beliefs in the two ‘worlds’ are so different.

As I stated in the introduction, the arguments I chose to focus on are very different but are central to why some believe wars occur. It is clear that war is caused by a multitude of factors and reasons which all could not be placed in one essay, but I believe that the arguments I chose to focus on are central to the question as had. In conclusion, I believed there is no one certain reason for what wars are caused because if there was, we wouldn’t still be having them hundreds of thousands of years after the first war took place.


  1. Barkawi, T. (2017) ‘War and world politics’, in Baylis, J., Smith, S and Owens, P (7th edn.) The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. London, Oxford University Press.
  2. Cashman, G. (1993) What Causes Wars? An Introduction to Theories of International Conflict, Lanham, Lexington Books
  3. Clausewitz, C Von. (1984) On War. New edn (edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret). New Jersey, Princeton University Press
  4. Eubank, K. (2004) The Origins of World War II. 3rd edn. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  5. Huntington, S. (1993). The Clash of Civilisations?. Foreign Affairs, 72(3), pp. 22-49
  6. Morgenthau, H. (1946) Scientific Man vs Power Politics. Chicago, Chicago University Press.
  7. Petersen, R. (2002) Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  8. Spinoza, B. (1670) Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Amsterdam.
  9. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Jowett, Book 1, par. 23
  10. Waltz, K. (1959) Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York, Columbia University Press
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