Causation of War: Individual, State & System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Why does war occur? The answer to that could save billions of lives, so it's worth thinking about. In this lesson, we'll examine one of the dominant theories and examine three causes of war.

What Causes War?

It's a simple fact that warfare has been one of the most ubiquitous features of human history. We fight wars all the time, and for all kinds of reasons. While this was often celebrated in the past, in today's world we're more likely to see war as needlessly destructive, wasteful, and cruel.

So, how do we do it? How do we stop war? To know that, you'd have to figure out why wars happen in the first place, and to do that you'd have to be Kenneth Waltz (or at least read his work). Kenneth Waltz was an American political scientist who attempted to define the causes of war in his 1959 Man, the State, and War. Now regarded as one of seminal works in international political science, the book examines humanity's complex history with war and argues that we can ultimately boil warfare down to three causes. If you want to stop war from happening, this is the place to start.

The Individual Level

In Waltz's theory, war is generated by three factors, each of which occurs at a different human scale. Let's start with the most basic, the individual level. According to Waltz, the first cause of war can be found within individual humans themselves. It is ultimately individual humans who conduct war, and individual humans who create war. So, this is a good place to start.

There are two perspectives from which we can examine the individual level of the causation of war. First is the nature of humanity. Psychologically and biologically, humans are prone to aggression, selfishness, greed, and other impulses. These can been powerful motivating factors, and self-interest has been a major cause of wars throughout human history. So, if this is the main cause of war, then the key to preventing war is to teach individual humans to suppress their base instincts in order to preserve social order (a key tenet of both Western and Eastern philosophies). Of course, the question then becomes this: is it possible to fundamentally change human nature and, if not, is it actually possible to eradicate war?

The elopement of Helen and Paris was a major cause of the Trojan War
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The second perspective of the individual level of causation of war is to look at the role of individual leaders. Often, it's not the greed or avarice of every individual human that causes war, but the personality and ambitions of individual leaders who control the nation. Many political scientists focus heavily on the role of leaders in perpetrating war at the individual level, but even so, all the other individuals must accept war to some degree as they fight it.

The State Level

If war cannot be fully explained at the individual level, then we need to move up to the state level. Specifically, we need to ask whether the internal institutions of the state are the causes of war.

States (or countries, in the modern world) are complex entities. Think of everything that makes your country what it is. You have certain economic systems, political structures, social systems, and other ways of organizing both people and resources. In this sense, the concern is less about whether states themselves are inherently good or bad, but whether their internal institutions foster morality or immorality.

Can domestic institutions like democracy encourage or discourage war?
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Of course, there have been countless answers to this. Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine argued that democracy discouraged war and made people more moral, and that if every state were democratic then there would never be war again. On the other hand, Karl Marx argued that capitalism was inherently war-like and encouraged conflict. To all of these thinkers, domestic institutions defined the nation's attitudes about warfare.

The System Level

The problem with the state-level analysis is that countries rarely go to war with themselves. They go to war against each other, so our third level of causation has to be in the international interaction between states, or the system level.

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