Why do wars happen?

January 26,2017

Part - II Rational choice scholars propose that the failure of states to seek options short of war can be explained by a series of rational miscalculations on the part of either...

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Part - II

Rational choice scholars propose that the failure of states to seek options short of war can be explained by a series of rational miscalculations on the part of either side.

Decision-makers in different states tend to overestimate their military strengths, producing confusion about the effect of relative power within a negotiation. In their view, a complete lack of reliable and timely information about the true intentions of other states makes certain leaders labour under the mistaken notion that their actions will not lead to the onset of armed conflicts.

According to declassified documents, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein was very confident that the US would not intervene to liberate Kuwait. In fact, Hussein made an implied threat before the invasion of Kuwait that the US “cannot accept ten thousand [deaths] in one battle”.

Even when states are regularly communicating with each other, they cannot miscalculate the relative power or true intentions of each other’s behaviour. During negotiations, diplomats are usually found to be misrepresenting their positions to gain maximum tactical advantage. In such a situation, it becomes next to impossible for leaders to avoid miscalculation of the adversary’s resolve. Geoffrey Blainey, an Australian historian and political commentator, also argues that wars occur “when two nations disagree on their relative strength”.

A disagreement about relative power also involves conflicting estimates of the probable outcomes of military conflict. This raises the most important question: why would rational leaders have such radically divergent expectations that both sides “rationally” expect to emerge victorious? Blainey address this question from the perspective of human irrationality. Humans can never be completely rational and the emotional commitments of leaders make them misread the situation. The world is a complicated place and there can be innumerable explanations, equally rational or otherwise, of actions taken by states. Military analysts, working within parochial organisational structures and processes, can never fully comprehend the apparent rationality of irrationality in political decisions.

On the other hand, James D Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, argues, “wars can also occur despite complete agreements on relative power across states”. There are cases in which a state seeks to revise at least one of the status quo’s components in its favour but other states can neither acquiesce nor go to war against the revisionist power. Countries fail to prevent wars because of strategic incentives to obtain a favourable resolution of the conflict by misrepresenting classified information. At times, they do so by exaggerating their willingness to fight so that the adversary is persuaded to make maximum concessions.

The events leading up to World War I provide many examples of the willingness of states to misrepresent their resolve to fight. In July 1914, when Germany decided to support Austria-Hungary, the Russian foreign minister kept sending signals that his country would oppose any attack against Serbia. But German leaders did not take these signals seriously since they knew Russia was misrepresenting the strength of its support for Serbia. Such behaviour not only undermines diplomatic efforts but also encourages states to initiate war to reveal military capabilities.

Another reason for war is the possibility of states reneging on any promises made during diplomatic bargains. In this respect, the anarchical structure of international politics, once again, comes into play due to the absence of the ultimate global authority to provide a more effective means of enforcement and compliance. What makes decision-making more complicated in such a strategic setting is the temptation to launch offensive attacks because that can dramatically increase your chances to win. More importantly, according to some military analysts, fighting costs are higher for a defending state than for an attacking state.

This prisoner’s dilemma logic becomes crucial in making war more likely. As Fearon argues, “the first-strike advantage is so great that regardless of how we resolve any diplomatic issue between us, one side will always want to attack the other in an effort to gain the (huge) advantage of going first”. These factors trigger wars by narrowing the range of possible bargaining games for both players.

In a nutshell, wars occur even among rational states because of their demonstrated inability to either reach a bargain or uphold any peace agreements that eventually emerge. Countries also fail to deescalate armed conflicts because of the irrationality and biased emotional commitments of their leaders. Leaders and military establishments sketch out their wildly paranoid visions of global politics. The masses blindly obey their leaders because any sort of dissent is considered unpatriotic.

A neo-realist explanation for war is based on the mistaken notion that states are rational, unitary actors. Different actors within states are informed by diverse visions of national interest – visions that are largely socially constructed. In democratic states, decisions are reached after an open and rigorous debate using transparent data. In weak democracies, military bureaucracies tend to mix up their own parochial interests with the national interest. As a result, national interest in these countries represents only the narrow interest of a particular group, rather than the general interest of common people.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to accurately measure irrational beliefs and other psychological influences on leadership styles. This will remain a big challenge for quantitative scholars of international politics in the coming years.




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