«Theory of the Origins of War» - Free Essay Paper

Theory of the Origins of War

Initially, the origin of war seems to be easy to comprehend. A hostile state attacks its weaker neighboring state in pursuit of territorial aggrandizement. As a result, two states come to grips over a disputed territory. One coalition of states unleashes war on another coalition to gain worldwide hegemony and ascendancy. Therefore, there are political, economic and myriad other factors underlying war. Apparently, different reasons and motives cause different wars, but they can be systemized roughly into several categories. That is exactly how theories of the origins of war come into existence. Current paper will explore the differences between the realist and liberalist explanations of the origin of war, analyzing both theoretical aspects and concrete applications. It also offers a short analysis of the balance-of-threat and balance-of-power theories. Overall, it is transpired historically that realism has been winnowed out as the most applicable theory to explain the origin of war.

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Among all the theories and paradigms, political realism is considered the most useful in explaining the causes of international conflicts. In addition, its postulates are applicable to almost every conflict that erupted over the last several centuries. In stark contrast to the theory of political liberalism, which regards cooperation as a guiding principle in international relations, political realism is a view of international politics that emphasizes its competitive and conflicting aspects. Political realists believe that states pursuing their national interests are principal actors in the realm of international relations (Lindblom 100). From a realist perspective, international politics is a field of competition characterized by active or potential conflicts between states. Hans Morgenthau, a 20th century ideologue of political realism, treated international politics as a cockpit for the ferocious power play between rival groups. According to realists, in the realm of international relations, states vie to establish hegemony over other international actors (Lindblom 100-103). Morgenthau believed that foreign policy ends of a state should be representative of the national interests of this state, hence the justification for the use of force to safeguard these interests.

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Before proceeding with further discussion of the realist theory, it is necessary to explain the liberalist theory, because the two theories will be later compared in order to demonstrate the origins of war in concrete examples. Thus, in stark contrast to the theory of political realism that emphasizes competitive and conflicting aspects of international politics, political liberalism regards cooperation as a guiding principle in international relations (Sterling-Folker 45). Similarly, liberals view international system as being polyarchical rather than hierarchical, meaning that ultimate power is vested in all actors on the international arena to the same extent. Hence, liberals believe that all nations should bear responsibility for the international system security. According to de Soto, a liberalist to his core, if the property rights had not been enshrined in the constitutions of the Western powers, would not have been able to develop successful capitalist systems (Barros 57-60). The Peruvian economist maintains that the lack of institutions necessary to emulate this success is the bane of the Third World countries. In response to the arguments of his ideological opponents, who claim that institutional liberalism is inherently flawed, de Soto adduces unassailable evidence that the system has not been fully implemented in these communities.

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Returning to the realist perspective, staunch supporters of the realist paradigm opine that each state has a right to follow a hawkish line on foreign policy and pursue its foreign policy goals through confrontations, alliances and wars in order to preserve its national interests (Lindblom 100-103). Moreover, it should be noted that realists deem military capacity and political might to be the most important factors in the interstate relations. The fight against terrorism, as an interlude to or rather pretext for many wars, merits special attention in this context. Classical realists did not study enough the issue of terrorism, but they insinuated that it is impossible to end the scourge of terrorism completely; however, it can be minimized. Being a stalwart realist himself, Henry Kissinger maintains that sovereign states have to take all the necessary measures to protect their own security, national interests, as well as international standing (Sitaraman 178-184). There is no doubt that Kissinger prefers a baculine method of settling nettlesome international issues, even if the exercise of state power violates international law or brings harm to particular individuals. A realist to his core, Kissinger reckons that terrorism should be tackled without regard to traditional ideas of individual morality (Sitaraman 178-184). Back in the early 2000s, Kissinger was among the most fervent supporters of the idea of the US unleashing a war against terrorism. Like the majority of other realists, Kissinger believes that any diplomatic effort to scour the world of terrorists is always stillborn. He states that antiterrorism policies remain largely ineffective if they are not supported by the threat of using force (Sitaraman 178-184).

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Experts usually draw distinction between classical and radical realism. The former highlights the concept of national interests and does not involve the glorification of war and conflict. Likewise, not all political realists are bellicose warmongers ready to involve their country into another overseas conflict. Some realists tend to judge the rightness of political actions on the basis of ramifications that they can possibly produce. As it was mentioned earlier, they often factor national interests of a country into their decision-making process. They do not like countries prostrating themselves before the juggernaut of military triumph and getting embroiled in every international conflict simply because they are dominant international power. Projecting these postulates onto the case of America’s recent foreign entanglements, for example, it is obvious that the US guided itself by the principles of radical realism, for it deprecated wars waged by others, but glorified its own overseas military campaigns. Concerning Iran, the latest developments indicate that the US is likely to cooperate with the country, meaning that it will abide by the principles of political liberalism. However, should an armed conflict between the two states erupt, it will be more appropriate to apply the realist paradigm for its explanation.

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Another example of realist and liberalist theories of the origin of war at work can be gleaned from the ongoing military clashes in Ukraine and Syria and America’s stance on them. On the face of things, Obama’s motives for refusing to intervene in the Syrian civil war and assist Ukrainian badly equipped army in its fight against Russian mercenaries are explained by a realist postulate that America’s core interest is not imperiled. In fact, America’s international reputation, a clear and long-standing objective of the country’s foreign policy, is at stake. Years of retrenchment in America’s foreign policy have won the US President an implacable opposition of the nation’s hawks such as John McCain. Both idealists and realists would dismiss Obama’s foreign policy as being too timorous. Although “timorous” is a good word to describe Obama’s foreign policy decisions from the standpoint of the disgruntled allies that counted on America’s support, it would be more appropriate to use the term “liberal” herein. Obama intones pieties about respect for international law and multilateral cooperation in conditions of anarchy, just like a wholehearted liberal would do.  Although his intentions are benign and his respect for international law commendable, such remarks reveal that President Obama is a double-dyed liberal rather than a realist, as he pretends to be. Liberals believe that various international organizations, such as the U.N. and the OSCE, and evolving entities, such as the EU, are the most vital forums for solving international conflicts. In President Obama’s opinion, international cooperation under the guidance of the U.S is already yielding tangible results. He asserts, “Europe and G7 joined us to impose sanctions; NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies; the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy; OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine” (Obama 1). Remaining true to his liberalist convictions, President Obama exhorts the international community to take collective action to solve international conflicts, defuse tension, and avoid war.

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One of the major principles of the realist paradigm holds that contacts between nation-states rather than those between nation-states and other subjects of international law constitute the bedrock of international relations. However, this postulate does not represent the realities of the modern world. On the cusp of the 21st century, the fulcrum of world power began to shift from the Atlantic basin to the Indo-Pacific rim. It was at this time that the foundations of the realist paradigm started crumbling. The thing is that the Indo-Pacific rim is a very volatile and potentially combustible region. Although it is not harboring many terrorists or other militant organizations, it lies in the immediate vicinity of the Middle East and Central Asia, where terrorism is rife and rampant. It is also the epicenter of ethnic animosity and vendetta politics, with national minorities trying to defend their rights. Thus, in addition to national governments that hold sway over the countries in this region, the international community has also to deal with national liberation movements, paramilitary groups, guerilla movements, de facto regimes, insurgents, and other non-state subjects of international law. Sometimes, these non-state entities have more sweeping powers than those of the central authorities. In failed states, such as Afghanistan, for example, national governments remain effete and largely emasculated.  All this undermines the credibility of realism as a guiding doctrine in both the American foreign policy and foreign policies of the regional powers inter se.

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According to Mearsheimer’s offensive realism theory, both bipolar and multipolar systems are breeding grounds for conflict (37). By contrast, a unipolar system is the most stable in global context. He further argues that China’s unparalleled rise on the Asian continent vaults this country to the status of a global leader, meaning that confrontation with the US is inevitable (Mearsheimer 329). Even though Asia is a veritable hive of economic activity characterized by economic interdependence and growing importance of regional institutions, proponents of the realist theory believe that China’s rise has the potential to destabilize the continent. Although there is an overwhelming agreement between Friedberg and Mearsheimer, their views are apt to discord on some aspects of Asian stability. Thus, whereas Friedberg opines that the degree of economic interdependence and the level of regional institution’s development in the Asia-Pacific are not strong enough to mitigate the anarchy (6), Mearsheimer simply dismisses them as irrelevant and inconsequential to peace and stability on the Asian continent.

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At the same time, a number of analysts disagree with Friedberg’s and Mearsheimer’s views on international stability. Foremost among them is David Kang, a vehement opponent of political realism. Kang criticizes both Friedberg and Mearsheimer for applying Euro-centric perspectives of realism to the problem of stability in Asia. He argues that once China becomes a truly dominant regional power, it will recreate the hitherto defunct Sino-centric regional order (552). Kang is adamant and unwavering in his belief that such a regional order will be stable and long-lasting (552). To buttress his arguments by facts, Kang refers to the earlier centuries, when the Celestial Empire was wealthy and powerful. The whole region benefited and thrived from the Celestial Empire’s prosperity and stability. Kang dismisses realist pessimism about Asia’s future and says that it would be “primed for peace” rather than “ripe for rivalry” (553). Yet, there are some aspects on which both Kang and Mearsheimer agree. For instance, both analysts explicitly say that a Sino-centric regional order in Asia will flash into existence. However, whereas Mearsheimer says that China’s hegemony will be unstable and malign (38), Kang believes that a Sino-centric order will be stable and benign (553). Another distinction between Mearsheimer and Kang is that the former believes in the ability of Chinese hegemony to balance out the increasing regional tensions while the latter opines that stability will be reached through bandwagoning. Kang also states that it was China’s imperial benevolence that underpinned a stale classical Asian order in the past (552). In his opinion, the same imperial benevolence will undergird a new Asian world order in the future (554). Realists dismiss Kang’s arguments as being false in theory and pernicious in praxis.











In addition to realist and liberalist theories of the origins of war, there are several other theoretical paradigms that can shed some light on the issue. However, most of them are best applied to historical conflicts, such as World War I, rather than to modern ones. For example, balance-of-power theory is one of the most enduring paradigms in international relations. It is founded on the principle of peaceful coexistence of a handful of powerful nations, with none being able to prevail over the others. The term “balance-of-power” implies the distribution of power levers among competing nations and alliances of nations. The underlying tenet of balance-of-power theory is that the most efficient restraint on the power of one nation is the might of other nations. The ensuing equilibrium of power is sufficient to dissuade big nations from trying to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations or otherwise impose their will on these nations (Sheehan 20). When there is disequilibrium in the balance-of-power, the strongest state feels free to dictate its will to the weaker members of the system. The balance-of-threat is yet another theory of the origins of war that is more applicable to historical conflicts. According to Stephen Walt:

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Whereas balance-of-power theory predicts that states will react to imbalances of power, balance of threat theory predicts that when there is an imbalance of threat (i.e., when one state or coalition appears especially dangerous), states will form alliances or increase their internal efforts in order to reduce their vulnerability (263).

An imbalance of threat occurs when one state or coalition of states engages in behavior, which is much more minatory than that of other states or coalitions of states in the system. On the positive side, the perception of a common threat brings at least a façade of unity to the hitherto heterogeneous and disunited region.

In conclusion, current paper has shown that from the multitude of theories that dwell on the origins of war political realism is the most applicable in modern contexts. One can singe out several specific theories within the realist approach, such as offense-defense theory, which offer somewhat different explanations for the origins of war. Overall, realism clearly explains the reasons that prompt modern states into wars with other states and factors that enhance the possibility of war. The realist postulate that “international politics is a cockpit for the ferocious power play between rival groups” caps the whole theory of realism. In contrast to what realists state, proponents of the liberalist theory argue that economic interdependence between states decreases the likelihood of war. From their perspective, wars are caused by the imperial ambitions of the aggressive states.

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