Internal combustion

On the Causes of War - The State, War and the State of War
April 18, 1997

There have been times in the history of the past 150 years when dilating on the sources of war was an overwhelming preoccupation of the educated western middle class. Two wars, in particular, provoked much agitation, the American civil war (1861-65) and the first world war (1914-18). In both cases conflict arose out of a tense political crisis that was likened to a tinder box. When the sparks came, an explosion was detonated. Yet contemporaries were unaware of the forces they were unleashing. In 1861 the firing of the first shots at Fort Sumter was treated by the good citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, as a great spectator sport. In 1914 the news of the declarations of war was greeted by relief and then celebration. Bitter disillusion would follow when both wars led to massive loss of life, political dislocation and huge damage to private property. Commentators of all kinds believed that chance and miscalculation had been the cause of all the suffering inflicted. They invariably concluded that at some point war could have been avoided.

War avoidance has often been at the root of so many of the inquiries directed towards finding the causes of war. Historians, too, have contributed to this discussion. In Europe, a passion for seeking out the causes of war only dates from 1914. The chilling echoes of the shots fired at Sarajevo in June 1914 rang through much of the cold war. They became louder in its last, dying years. Helmut Schmidt warned the superpowers in the mid-1980s of the dangers of repeating the errors of 1914. He expressed a widespread assumption that has dominated western opinion: understanding the causes of war would enable men to avoid it in the future.

Consequently, the great majority of European writers have been obsessed by discovering the origins of international wars. Civil wars, by comparison (except in the United States), have been neglected. Both these books offer interesting views on the problem of war, and do so from quite different perspectives. K. J. Holsti's stimulating and clearly argued monograph aligns itself with recent work, and points out that not only are the number of interstate wars declining but the very structure of war itself is changing. Gone are the days of stately declarations of war, mobilisation of resources, and the undertaking of clearly defined campaigns fought by regular armed forces, whose efforts were brought to an end by a peace treaty. The time period of a war before 1945 was strictly demarcated. Since 1945, however, wars of this kind only account for 18 per cent of all wars. At the end of the 20th century, wars have no fronts, are largely fought by untrained guerrillas, and last for decades. Ninety per cent of all casualties are civilians, and hordes of refugees drift away from the epicentres of conflict. War, Holsti concludes, is not a question of state creation, but "state maintenance and state failures". He thus gives the attention which is due to the importance of civil reactions. Conflict in the late 20th century is rooted in the chaos and social upheavals thrown up by domestic politics, especially in the third world. It reflects the weakness of the state, and Holsti believes the state needs strengthening. The stark alternative is "warlordism, rule by gangs, communal massacres, and 'ethnic cleansing'".

We would all agree that Mad Max writ large does not seem an inviting prospect. Holsti's analysis is persuasive, but he does not indicate how the state should be strengthened when so many competing groups refuse to accept its legitimacy; moreover, the polities they do support lack viability. Holsti points out, too, that Western Europe, North America, the East Asian rimlands, and latterly Latin America, are areas of the world where international wars have been banished, certainly since 1952. Hidemi Suganami agrees with Holsti that the existence of democracy is not an essential precondition for peacefulness. Yet the East Asian rimlands and Latin America have hardly been free of violent social tension. But in all four of these regions the power of the sovereign state has been eroded by a combination of the movements of international capital and cultural and social forces. National characteristics are now less distinct than half a century ago.

Holsti rightly questions whether the western nation state is a suitable structure for export to areas of the third world whose political traditions tend to undermine it. Yet simply conceding this point hardly solves the dilemma facing western decision-makers whose media and public opinion want something done to alleviate the sufferings of millions of refugees. Such demands for intervention accentuate weaknesses in the United Nations. It was created to settle disputes between states not within them. The architecture of the United Nations is outmoded and its harassed staff untrained for the onerous challenges they must face.

Suganami's book has a quite different approach. He is less concerned with the political ramifications of his subject than with the philosophical. His title is apt, for his book resembles a medieval treatise. He selects certain texts for remorseless analysis. Kenneth Waltz's The Man, the State and War, is the subject of several perceptive shafts. Waltz's stress on international anarchy is too wedded to the cold war to explain the instability of the post-1989 disorder. Suganami, who is Japanese, brings an unusual slant to the problem. He is impatient with historians for assuming that his philosophical analysis is mere "hair-splitting". Such an impression did not escape this historian. However, the befuddled reader, confused by the lists of numbers and letters, and the somewhat repetitive style of argument, should persevere. The fusion of historical and philosophical approaches does lead to insights of value.

Suganami is not convinced that the previous stress on war avoidance can result in the creation of "an anti-war device of some sort". He is sceptical that states need to be democratic to avoid war. The US and Russia have never gone to war. He also offers a persuasive analysis of the relationship between war origins in general and the location of the sources of specific wars. War, he stresses, is "a multi-causal phenomenon". Each war has its own causes, although their collective origins share certain "family resemblances". Individual explanations do not invariably explain war in general. They can serve only as ingredients, the importance of which can only be discerned by dint of individual judgement. In war, therefore, the simple is complex and the complex is simple. This is a bewildering formula for hard-pressed politicians to understand. Yet we can be sure of one thing: wars would not occur unless political leaders choose to fight them.

Brian Holden Reid is senior lecturer in war studies, King's College, London.

On the Causes of War

Author - Hidemi Suganami
ISBN - 0 19 8338 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 235

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