Causes of War and International Relations Theory paradigms


Super Mod
Mar 24, 2009
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Two part article by our member Ejaz on Indian defence and strategic analysis

First of the part here

The study of war has always attracted a lot of attention. Over time, many theories have been proposed and refined to understand the causes of international war. Some of these theories rely on cultural and psychological nature of individual leaders or man in general. Other theories focus on the decision making process of the regime or domestic politics to describe the causes of war (Reiter 2003). However, the two most prominent theories or perspectives on the causes of International War and International relations are Realism and Liberalism. These theories consider the state as single rational actor. In other words both are system level theories that consider the state as the main actor in the International system.

This article is the first part of a two-part series which will initially describe the Realist and Liberal perspectives on war and international relations and what causes war according to each theory. It will then discuss these perspectives with examples of wars involving major and minor power and how the Realist perspective – particularly neorealist views like offensive realism – is better placed to explain these. It will also briefly discuss how liberal peace theory or the absence of war can be explained by alternative realist explanations as well. Next, it will discuss how nuclear weapons may have fundamentally changed the dynamics of great power war in the modern era. Finally, we will conclude by briefly discussing how states still continue to play the balance of power game and are increasingly more likely to balance threat and not just power as they continue to try to maximise their relative power in international system.

The main purpose of this two-part series article is to allow new and existing members of DFI to appreciate the current themes in academeic and policy making spheres and develop a critical ability to analyse and think about world affair and apply these concepts appropiately

Perspectives on International Relations and War
Realism has been historically the dominant paradigm to explain state behaviour and causes of war. It basically holds a pessimistic view of International politics. According to the neorealist perspective, state behaviour is primarily driven by survival in the International system. Therefore, the state tries to survive by maximizing its power and trying to change the balance of power in its favour. Power of a state can be defined in many ways but usually consists of military force a state possesses as well as latent power in terms of population and wealth or its economic power. Neorealists like Mearsheimer (2001) have explained that the very structure and anarchic nature of the international system forces the state to behave in a manner to ensure its survival. Mearsheimer's Offensive realism theory assumes that states are rational actors that exist in an anarchic world, which simply refers to the lack of a higher authority on top of nation-states system. This means that there is no foolproof way to know what the intentions of other states are in the system. This leads to a case of the "security dilemma" where a defensive action taken by a state can be perceived by another as an act threatening its survival (Jervis 1978). Hence the rational response for states is to increase its power and capability to ensure its survival. These actions will lead to what is known as "balancing" behaviour by states.

In this theory, war is one of the strategies adopted by great powers to maximize their power and ensure their survival. Great powers may make miscalculations where they fear other states gaining power for their own survival which may lead to a countermove by a rival state moving them on a path towards war. In other cases, only the threat of force or "blackmail" may be used to maximise power without actual war taking place. Other states may encourage war between rival states to reduce power of both states to eventually increase their own relative power in a case of "bloodletting". (Mearsheimer 2001)

The polarity i.e. the number of great powers in the system also plays a major role in the possibility of war. This is where Mearsheimer (2001) explains that a balanced bipolarity with only two great powers would be the most stable with very low possibility of these states going to war with each other. The Cold war where the US and USSR maintained a bipolar system is an example of this. On the other hand an unbalanced multi-polar system is likely to see multiple wars both between major and minor powers as well as between major powers. The example for this is the state of great powers in Europe before WWI and WWII.

The other competing view on International relations and war is Liberalism. This is essentially based on an optimistic view of International politics. Although there are many sub-theories under this paradigm, the main idea is that the security dilemma that most states suffer from in an anarchic system can be alleviated under some guiding principles. Russet (2001) describes three Kantian principles that form the main legs of the liberal peace theory.

These principles are the type of regime of the state and whether it is democratic or not; the interdependence of free trade between states and participation in international institutions that can foster co-operation and acceptable norms. The relative power of a state is not considered the overriding reason for the state's behaviour and it believes that states can alter their behaviour to rise above "power politics". The three Kantian principles when applied, can create a virtuous circle where increasing democracy, interdependence in trade and increasing co-operation in international institutions results in making war highly unlikely (Russet 2001). This would then foster a sense of collective identity and norms that would further result into a creation of security communities where eventually even the thought of going to war would cease to exist (Deutch 1968).

According to this theory, war occurs when these Kantian principles do not exist. So for instance, states that are autocratic are more likely to be involved in war. The lack of interdependence through trade also reduces the incentive for states to maintain peaceful relations. Finally the lack international institutions do not help in alleviating the anarchic nature of the international system and this increases the chances of misperception and miscommunication that may result in war. In this theory, relative power of states and number of great powers or polarity does not play a major role in war and peace.

Both perspectives can provide powerful explanations to the causes of war. The most powerful support to the liberal perspective is the consistent decline in war and great power conflict since the end of WWII and subsequently after the Cold War. The empirical data shows that conflicts have been declining consistently as liberal Kantian principles have been adopted by increasing number of states (Gleditsch 2008). However, in my view, neo-realist theories like offensive realism provide much better and more consistent explanations on International war. In fact, many examples of liberal peace can be explained by a neorealist perspective too we shall see in part II of this article.


Super Mod
Mar 24, 2009
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Part two of it is here

This article is a continuation of a two part series. The first article defined the two dominant paradigmes Realism and Liberalism and their characteristics. We will now look at applying these paradigms with some examples and also how nuclear weapons have affected the war and peace dynamics in the 21st century

Realism and Liberalism in Practice
The first example that we will look at is within the context of WWII. In the Pacific region two major powers; Japan and the US went to war even though both of these powers had a very large trade relationship with each other before the war. According to Mearsheimer (2001), Japan was trying to expand its influence and power in East Asia to achieve regional hegemony as offensive realism would predict. For the US, this was a threat to its power in the Pacific region. However, the US still wanted to pass the buck to USSR to check Japanese expansion. In 1942 with the invasion of USSR by Japan, the US finally intervened by adopting a hostile attitude towards Japan cutting of trade relations, applying an embargo and finally going to war against Japan until it was defeated. (Mearsheimer 2001)

Another example is to observe wars in south Asia in the 20th century. India since its independence in 1947 has acted in accordance with offensive realism where it has tried to become a regional hegemon. It has waged war against independent states like Hyderabad and Portuguese territories like Goa and assimilated them into its own territory, Later, India fought a war against Pakistan in 1971 to maximise its power in that region by dismembering Pakistan. Pakistan on the other hand tired to balance against India by both external and internal balancing. It joined CENTO and SEATO pacts primarily to get US support against India and later established a close relationship with China. Pakistan also seriously worked on acquiring nuclear weapons to internally balance against India as early as the 1970s (Kroenig 2009).

These examples show that neorealist theories provide good explanatory value for both cases. However, the discussion will not be complete without looking at liberal peace examples and see if the absence of war can be countered with neorealist explanations. The NATO community where great powers have formed a sort of security community as mentioned earlier is usually considered as the most prominent example of liberal peace theory. The increase in foreign trade, democracies and co-operation in international institutions on one hand may seem to provide a powerful explanation for this. However, the neorealist theories can provide counter-explanations to this as well.

Interdependence to foreign trade has not been a deterrent factor to war in both WWI and WWII (Mearsheimer 2001, Krasner 1976). The institutionalist peace theory and co-operation by states can also be explained as cooperation as part of an alliance against a more serious threat or as part of a balancing mechanism against a common threat (Christensen 1990, Jervis 1978). This is how co-operation between NATO members can be seen where USSR was the main threat for Western Europe and US. With the decline of USSR/Russia as a threat it is likely that in the future co-operation among NATO countries will decline as new great powers emerge. In a recent speech in Brussels, US defence secretary Robert Gates indicated the possibility of the end of NATO (Gates 2011). He said, "Future U.S. political leaders– those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost." This is a powerful indication of how international institutions and alliances will not continue if underlying offensive realist principles do not provide a rational reason to do so. The recent Euro crises gives another indication of the fragility of the EU and the possibility of the breakup of this security community.

Other neo-realists explanations show that international institutions are mainly used as an arena to play out power politics by great powers. That is, great powers co-operate with institutions as long as it helps them maximise their relative power either by increasing their power or reducing power of their rival. In fact, the potential hegemon encourages an open trading system as a means to increase its relative power (Krasner 1967). The US has used its military force indirectly to cope with breaking away from the Bretton woods system unilaterally when it was not in its interest to continue with it, despite opposition from its allies (Art 1980). The war in Iraq is an example where the US considered it unnecessary to require UNSC authorisation before invading and occupying it (Pape 2003). In short great powers will continue to co-operate in International institutions as long as they provide the best possible way to maximise their power through it.

The democratic peace theory is a possible strong opponent to the neo-realist paradigm. While offensive realism for example does not care what the political system or regime type is for a state, liberalists argue that democratic countries are less likely to go to war. And statistically, democracies have been less likely to go to war with each other.

However, there are serious problems with this as well. Rosato (2003) has extensively discussed the flawed logic in this argument. It explains that the causal logic for the democratic peace theory is also weak. For example the explanation that democratic peace works because democracies respect each other or that domestic public opinion opposed to war would prevent democracies from going to war does not hold under scrutiny. Examples on the contrary include how the US has either toppled democracies or supported dictatorships in Iran and Indonesia to maximise its own power in the region (Rosato 2003). Similarly, the US aligned with a military dictatorship in Pakistan rather than a democratic India in the 1971 war. This was because the US wanted to balance against the USSR which it perceived as the biggest threat to its survival. Similarly, large domestic opposition to war in Iraq did not stop US and the UK to invade and occupy it (Rosato 2003). Hence the democratic peace theory does not provide a suitable counter to the neorealist approach to war.

War and Peace dynamics under the Nuclear umbrella
Neorealist paradigms continue to provide a powerful explanation on how states behave and what causes war in the modern era. However, the advent of nuclear weapons has certainly changed the way wars between great powers can be waged. For the first time great powers have the capability to annihilate a rival state particularly in the form of second strike capabilities. The mutually assured destruction or MAD doctrine ensures that wars between nuclear powers do not reach a stage where massive destructive wars like WWI or WWII seem possible. This is because a nuclear exchange would threaten the very survival of the state which is what rational states would want to ensure. This makes the states more cautious about using military force against each other. (Mearsheimer 2001:128-133)

However, this does not mean that states do not continue to maximise their power even in a nuclear environment. As Mearsheimer explains, great powers still go to considerable lengths to gain nuclear supremacy and still continue to build up their conventional weapons capability. Countries like Pakistan and India despite having nuclear weapons have fought limited war under a nuclear umbrella. The US also continues to pursue a missile defence program to maximise its power in accordance with offensive realism instead of just maintaining the balance of power.

Balance of Power or Balance of Threat?
In the current geo-political environment, states still resort to both internal balancing of building up their capabilities and external balancing of forming soft or hard alliances to ensure their survival (Walt 1985). According to offensive realism, Mearsheimer (2001) explains that balancing is not very efficient and is not always successful in a multipolar world. States prefer buck-passing when they can as long as there is another state to balance against the potential hegemon in a system. This is why for example; the US was left to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of balancing the USSR in the modern era. Balancing is essentially an outcome of ensuring the survival of a state in the International system. In fact a historical study by Wohlforth (2007) shows that when states or regimes do not balance against a potential hegemon, their survival can be at stake. The cases analysed in Wohlforth's study shows that the most powerful state in the system tried to become the potential hegemon and those states that did not balance against it, did not survive.

The most common criticism to the balance of power theory is that why don't other great powers balance against the US? This can be explained by the fact that the fall of USSR is still quite recent and most great powers considered the USSR as a bigger threat to their security due to its proximity by land and its expansionist agenda. Moreover, the balance of power theory is more correctly refined by Walt (1985) to be actually a "Balance of Threat". In other words, states tend to balance not just power but more specifically threat from a great power. Hence, as long as the US does not pose a threat to other great powers, balancing mechanism against it are less likely.

It is interesting to note that in accordance with offensive realism, the US despite being the most powerful state in 2002, took unilateral actions in Iraq to maximise its power in the Middle East and advocated a doctrine of "Preventive war" and disregarded concerns of working under international institutions like IAEA and the UN (Pape 2003). However, this threatening and unilateral behaviour has initiated a process of "soft balancing" against the US (Pape 2003). NATO allies like European states as well as other emerging states like Russia, China and India are loosely working on balancing against US preponderance of power in the International system after the aggressive actions of the Iraq war because this has increased the threat perception of the US (Pape 2003). More recently we have seen how aggressive tactics adopted by China has initiated a process of internal balancing against it by Vietnam and India where both are building up their military capability and aligning with the US.

Thus it looks like the ideas of offensive realism and the balance of threat against potential hegemony provides the best way of explaining the causes of war in the past. It also continues to provide powerful explanations for war and International relations in the modern era. In short, as long as the basic assumptions of structural realism of an anarchic international system remain with us, it will continue to be the dominant perspective in international relations and war. Those who don't, do so at their own peril.

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