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International Conflict: Explaining Interstate War


WAR, Ugh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! -Edwin Starr

International conflict is a central theme of global politics.
World War I World War II Cold War

Explaining Conflict Between States: Analyzing Wholes and Parts

Warfare is a pervasive international problem, and scholars have adopted a variety of approaches to explore this phenomenon. Some analysts feel that all valid explanations of human behavior must be reduced to the level of human understanding and perceptions and couched in terms of the nature and intentions of individuals. Others feel that explanations of human behavior should focus on the social structures that emerge as people interact with one another. For example, structural explanations of international war emphasize that war is caused by the anarchic nature of the international system or bad (dictatorial) states.

One crucial step toward forming an educated opinion about the whole versus parts controversy involves understanding theories at different levels of analysis. Levels of analysis concern whether one focuses upon the components or whether one focuses upon the system. Applying levels of analysis to explore the causes of war raises issues of conceptual interpretation.

The most vital point to be made about analyses that focus on different social entities (nation-states on the one hand and the international system on the other) is that these analyses are relatively independent of each other. That is, patterns on one level of analysis will not necessarily be reflected on another level. Also, analyses of issues in global politics can become confused if shifts in levels of analysis are not made clear.

Systemic Explanations of Interstate War

The systems, or structural, level of analysis focuses on the characteristics of the international system as the root of interstate conflict. Realists adopt the systems level of analysis and related assumptions, including that the international system is characterized by anarchy. In anarchic environments, competitive states may fall into security dilemmas, whereby ones actions to increase their security automatically decreases the security of other states. In addition to anarchy, realists focus on the distribution of power in the international system.

Different arrangements of power distribution and concentration are characterized as polarity. International systems may be unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar. The balance-of-power theory was developed by makers of European foreign policy in the era from roughly 1700 until the First World War. The fundamental premise of this theory was that power should be distributed within the international system in such a way that no single state ever becomes strong enough to dominate the rest. Preserving such a balance was one reason for the exchange of ambassadors (whose function was to keep up with changes in power), which became standard. The most important way of manipulating power distribution involved creating temporary alliances to thwart the ambitions of any state that became too powerful.

The classical balance of power is often credited with preserving the peace in the nineteenth century. Hans Morgenthau asserts that peace was preserved by a balance of power, while A. F. K. Organski says this was because there was actually an imbalance of power. An empirical analysis of the relevant data reveals that the latter argument receives support from data pertaining to the nineteenth century, whereas an analysis of twentieth-century data provides evidence for the former argument.

Nevertheless, it is not clear that the main idea tested here is truly relevant to the system level of analysis. It applies more clearly to relationships between pairs of states. Furthermore, some versions of the balance-ofpower theory predict not that peace will prevail, but rather that war is one mechanism that will be used to maintain a balance.

A related controversy focuses on the relationship between the polarity of the global system and that systems propensity toward war. A majority of scholars who have analyzed this relationship believe that multipolar systems are more flexible and less prone to conflict. However, Kenneth Waltz argues that the bipolar system of the post-Second World War period proved quite stable. The relevance of this debate was revived by the end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War has also opened up room for another approach to system stability called hegemonic stability theory. This theory argues that unipolar systems are more stable because a very powerful hegemon will counter the anarchy in the international system by playing the role of an overarching authority that can enforce rules.

The key question in hegemonic stability theory is whether the United States is playing the role of the hegemon today. Some argue that despite the relative preponderance of power the United States possesses, the system is not unipolar.

In regards to unipolar systems, realists warn that such systems are inherently unstable and dangerous because hegemons do not last, and their eventual decline will lead to a system better explained by the power transition theory. According to this theory, conflicts are more likely when power transitions are underway, and power transition theorists point to rising Chinese power as the new phenomenon to be observed.

Confusion need not blot out the coherence that does exist in the relationship between system structure and the behavior of nation-states. A step toward clarifying the relationship between system structure and the behavior of states within that structure involves integrating the balance-of-power theory with theories that focus on polarity. Prevailing conventional wisdom suggests that the balance-of-power system died at the end of the Second World War.

But such a belief is based on an exaggeration of the differences between the contemporary system and the historical system. True, the system based on a conscious attempt to adhere to the theory of a classical balance of power, such as did occur in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, is dead. But a more generic balance-of-power system exists so long as the system is anarchic and the units in it wish to survive. Finally, while realists tend to focus on anarchy and the distribution of power as the most important characteristics of the system, liberalism recognizes the potential for international cooperation through interdependence.

State and Dyadic-Level Explanations of Wars

First, traditional Marxist theory of war argues that states with capitalist economies will be inherently war prone. This traditional Marxist theory argues that capitalism leads to imperialism, which leads to military conflict. Second, others contend that states with centrally planned economies may be more war prone. Third, the type of political system that states have may shape their likelihood of engaging in international conflict. Liberals argue that democracies are supposedly constrained from choosing war due to the presence of a strong political opposition. This relates directly to the democratic peace thesis that democratic dyads are not likely to wage war against each other. Fourth, contrary to some arguments that political opposition constrains leaders from choosing war, the diversionary theory of war suggests that political opposition may drive some leaders to seek war in order to distract the public from internal problems.

The democratic peace thesis is championed by some scholars as one of the most significant results of international relations scholarship since World War II, but for others the proposition raises questions of definitions, measurement of conflict, and interpretation of dyadic arrangements. The question of why democracies do not tend to fight each other remains a theoretical puzzle that scholars have tried to explore using cultural explanations or through studies of constraints on democratic governments. State level theories of war causation can be applied to understand the origins of World War I, World War II, and even the rise of the Cold War.

Decision-Making-Level Explanations of Wars

Policy-making processes and their characteristics and key actors may provide strong interpretations for foreign policy decisions. The foreign policy approach to international politics stands in contrast to system-level theories such as realism and liberalism. Bureaucratic and organizational politics represent important theories of policy-making. According to the classic work of Graham Allison, bureaucratic units develop identities of their own in the political process and may advocate policies that emanate from their own unique perspectives. Bureaucratic agencies also develop standard operating procedures, or organizational routines, that shape how problems are handled.

Leaders ultimately have significant authority over state behavior, and their beliefs and perceptions may shape discrete decisions in foreign policy. Leaders may have distinct enemy images or they may misperceive developments on the world stage. Decision-making explanations seem to offer compelling perspectives on the events leading to the outbreak of World War I, although some of these explanations have been recently questioned. Decision-making explanations also help us to understand certain causes of World War II and the Cold War.

Multilevel Explanations of War: Using Caution When Comparing Levels of Analysis

Levels of analysis primarily provide students of global politics a way to categorize various factors that are involved in the very real problem of war between states. No one level of analysis should be seen as better than another, but analytic interpretations at different levels offer very different insights into explanations of major events. Because of this, the authors suggest caution in over-interpretation of major events. Inferring a causal connection from covariation would be risky, and the authors explore problems with analytical interpretation related to finding a positive relationship, then mistakenly concluding that states with many alliances are more likely to become involved in wars. Caution must be exercised when comparing levels of analysis.