Causation of War at the System Level

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Could a global government prevent war? Does sharing power between countries prevent or encourage war? Can war be averted with moral institutions? In this lesson, we'll look at these questions and see how the international system impacts war.

Causation of War

Ultimately, who is to blame for war? Is it the individual, the state, or the entire structure of international relations? According to at least one prominent theorist, it's all three.

Kenneth Waltz was an American political scientist who explored the causation of war at three levels. At the individual level, war was caused by human emotions, impulses, and immorality (and was therefore preventable with moral ethics and philosophies). At the state level, war was caused by immoral political, economic, and social institutions within a country (and preventable with moral institutions). Finally, above all of this was the system level, in which the international system of interactions between states allowed war to occur.

Ultimately, Waltz claimed that all three levels had to be seen as equally responsible, but one of these stands out. How, exactly, can war be prevented if a root cause is the ways that states interact? That's a question that deserves a little more exploration.

International Anarchy

So, how exactly does the international system of interaction between states cause war? Is it because the system is inherently immoral? Not quite. According to Kenneth Waltz, the problem is that there's no real structure to the international system at all.

Historically, each state has determined the ways in which it will interact with the world. Will it be aggressive, or isolationist, or sign treaties, or declare war? There is no structure in place to enforce the behaviors of states within the international system, so the system exists in a state of international anarchy. This, according to Waltz, is what allows wars to keep occurring. As he puts it, war happens ''because there is nothing to prevent it''.

Spread of Ideology

This doesn't mean, of course, that there haven't been attempts to enforce the behaviors of states. Historically, treaties and alliances have been one method of doing this, but that only prevents war between the states within the alliance. So, how could war be stopped entirely? That question became more important after the chaos of World War I, as people started redefining the ways that states interacted in the international system.

In Waltz's theory, moral domestic institutions can help a state develop a national anti-war position. While moral institutions may prevent one state from declaring war, however, that doesn't guarantee peace on a global scale. Everyone has to utilize the same institution and apply it equally.

In the 20th century, we've seen this concept applied multiple times. In places like the United States, democracy is seen as a moral institution that makes people better and discourages war. However, even if we assume that this assumption is correct and democracy does make people less inclined to war, it doesn't prevent non-democratic nations from attacking. The system level causation remains unchanged.

The USA often defined WWII in terms of the need to spread institutions that it believed in

One way to deal with this is to spread an institution that your state believes in. Americans joined World War II because fascism in Europe threatened the spread of democracy, a moral institution Americans wanted to see take root everywhere. Later, in the Cold War, the USA fought to spread capitalism because it saw communism as a threat. This has been carried into the world today, primarily in the fight against terrorism. In 2005, President Bush directly declared that ''The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands''. In essence, in order for a domestic institution to actually prevent war, that institution has to be adopted by everybody.

Balance of Powers

The other question to come out of this is the balance of powers between the states. Basically, should everyone have equal power, or should one state have more power than the other? Which is best at reducing international anarchy and preventing war? Not surprisingly, people have very different opinions on this question.

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