Opinion News
May 07,2018

Explaining war

Rizwan Asghar

One of the many puzzles in conflict studies is that wars cost blood as well as treasure; but they occur nonetheless. Why do states go to war even when they have access to alternate mechanisms of dispute resolution? Why do states engage themselves in deadly quagmires without realising the full cost of such endeavours?

According to the most recent estimates, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost American taxpayers more than $6 trillion – dealing a severe blow to the US economy. With 7,000 US soldiers dead, and a million others wounded in both the wars, American policymakers still seem to be unaware of the futility of using military force in the Middle East. What explains this puzzle?

A number of scholars might argue that wars are unique events and each armed conflict has different reasons. Despite its merits, this view renders impossible the scientific study of international conflict. As an academic, it is my goal to understand explanations of war through academic literature and fit them into a theoretically coherent and empirically plausible theory that can add to the existing understandings of inter-state conflicts. This article is just a first step in that direction.

Wars do not occur all of a sudden. They involve a great deal of prior planning and correlation between a host of variables. The Balance of Power theorists argue that states become part of different security alliances to counter the expansionist designs of major powers. Another view is that the irrationality that drives unlimited arms races between countries, ultimately, compels policymakers to use war as the last resort to escape the spiral of hostility. Now the biggest fear is that a continuous upward spiral of armaments between Pakistan and India might lead to a nuclear war in the region.

Political scientists and historians who study the origins of wars have advanced three general arguments. First: the international system is anarchic, and the absence of a central global authority encourages strong states to use military force against weaker states. Since the publication of Kenneth Waltz’s theoretical analysis, ‘Man, the State, and War’, in 1959, the argument that ‘wars occur because there is nothing to prevent them’ has almost become conventional wisdom among international relations (IR) theorists.

Second: people are always irrational, and politicians and military generals who decide to go to war do not have to pay the costs suffered by the soldiers fighting on battlefields. Nowhere does this ring true more than in South Asia, where the Modi government is fanning tensions with Pakistan, while many in India are blindly following their leaders’ aggressive designs in the name of patriotism. Third: even states led by rational decision-makers may end up going to war if they view the expected benefits of war to be greater than the expected costs. However, none of these arguments explain why rational states prefer negotiated settlements to the gamble of war?

It is true that in a state of anarchy strong states are free to use military force, but using force has always proved to be a costly option regardless of who wins the war. In addition, lack of a central authority does not prevent states from seeking out political accommodations to deescalate a conflict. The neo-realist argument – that the assumption of anarchy explains the phenomenon of war – fails to explain the inability of state actors to seek negotiated peace settlements. The anarchic ordering principle of the international structure explains why states get involved in an expansive arms race for both offensive and defensive high-technology systems. But it does not provide a coherent explanation for their failure to seek options other than war.

Another rational explanation of war is that a declining power might launch an attack on a rising power to pre-empt future threats from emerging. However, the preventive war argument ignores the possibility of a diplomatic bargain, which would leave the rising and declining powers better off than engaging in a risky war would. The rising power would have every incentive to offer concessions and avoid being attacked because it is still relatively weak.

The most popular and contemporary rationalist explanation in the literature on inter-state armed conflict is that wars occur when both sides estimate the expected benefits of going to war to be higher than expected costs. Bueno de Mesquita, a political science professor at the New York University and one of the world’s famous applied game theorists, argues that war becomes a rational option when expected utilities of war are positive for both the states. However, de Mesquita and many other rational choice scholars do not lay out the conditions under which state actors would always prefer war to diplomatic bargains.

To be continued


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