Foreign Policy Blogs

Why Do Wars Occur?

Considering that war is perhaps the most horrific aspect of human society, one might think we’d some idea of why it happens.  We’ve given it an honest effort.  Much ink has been spilled and html text typed to attempt to get to the bottom of it.  And there have been some valuable efforts, Stephen Van Evera’s Causes of War being a notable example, in my opinion.  Conceptually, it even makes complete sense to me that wars occur, at least when I view human affairs through the lens of the Hobbesian bargain.  We, as citizens, have granted the state a monopoly over violence, thus renouncing our right to use violence ourselves.  But the citizens of other countries have done the same.  So it makes sense that the “state of nature” that Hobbes theorized existed before the state – in which men compete endlessly with one another in an anarchical environment – now exists in international relations.  We’ve merely outsourced the realities of the Hobbesian world from the realm of interpersonal relations to international relations.

But when we actually look at a specific war and try to determine why it happened, we tend to come up short.  This is what happens to Paul Hehn in A Low Dishonest Decade. In this book, Hehn attempts to demonstrate that the origins of World War II were not ideological but rather economic.  Germany needed raw materials and an export market and thus had to expand eastward.  Hehn argues that in fact economic exigencies pushed Hitler toward territorial expansion sooner than Hitler would have liked.  As he states in the introduction, “American trade rivalry with Britain and Germany provided the global avatar within which seethed the political and ideological conflicts.”  But midway through the book he concedes:

It is more than likely that all these pressures – ideological, political, economic, labor shortages – upon Hitler in the end certainly played a role in his decisions to attack Czechoslovakia and Poland, but the precise degree which each exercised and how they complemented and played off against one another probably will never be known by historians.

And perhaps the economic motives were merely pretexts.  Hehn writes:

[Sir Neville Henderson] suggests that Hitler may have used the stresses in the economy more especially the need for raw materials, as a pretext for a policy of further expansionism.  In this way he could then pretend to give in to the arguments of the war party – expansion-minded industrialists, segments of the military and Nazi party leaders.  Economic strains became the reason for desperate measures.  There is little evidence that Hitler was dissembling; in fact, what evidence exists indicates the contrary – that the deteriorating economic situation really was reducing his ability to maneuver and forcing him in the direction of war or an overall settlement with Britain.

Similar issues arise when examining World War I.  Here are two very different narratives explaining why Britain joined the war.  The first comes from Alexandra Guisinger and Alastair Smith:

What is the value of reputation?  In his speech to Parliament, Sir Edward Grey supports resistance to Germany’s incursion into Belgium not because of the value of an independent Belgium but because of the value of Britain’s reputation.  In doing so, he calculates a price for reputation that is above the expected cost of war and above the loss of life of British citizens.  A reputation for honesty is valuable because it allows countries to determine each other’s intent and hence avoid unnecessary wars, as discussed above.  The willingness to go to war to protect a country’s reputation gives weight to diplomatic statements, rendering them meaningful.

And here’s the second from Nial Ferguson:

As we have seen, the Foreign Office view in 1905 had been that the 1839 treaty did not bind Britain to uphold Belgium’s neutrality ‘in any circumstances and at whatever risk’.  When the issue had come up in 1912, none other than Lloyd George had expressed the concern that, in the event of war, the preservation of Belgian neutrality would undermine the British blockade strategy.  Significantly, when the issue was raised in Cabinet on 29 July, it was decided to base any response to a German invasion of Belgium on ‘policy’ rather than ‘legal obligation’…

So did Britain go to war to defend its reputation, fearing that ignoring the 1839 treaty would have detrimental effects on its reputation?  Or were those arguments a pretext to justify the policy once the government decided that honoring the treaty would better serve its interests?  And look at other geopolitical conflicts.  Was the Thirty Years’ War about religion?  Then why did Catholic France support the Protestants and Protestant Saxony support the Catholics?  Was the Cold War about communism?  Then why did Nixon go to China?  As Hehn states, we may never know the answers to these questions.  The participants themselves are probably not even well poised to offer answers, for people are rarely the best judges of why they do things.