Causes of war & International relations theory paradigms - 2

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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