No. 5: July-September 2012

Thomas Lindemann

Study of War Causes

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the study of war causes?

The study of interstate war causes is mostly developed in the United States (for example the Correlates of War Project at the Michigan University) and the Scandinavian countries (for example the Peace Research Institute in Oslo). In Continental Europe there exist only some small research groups as inside the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute or the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research. All these groups can be classified within the branch of quantitative conflict research, which is pursuing the goal of empirically gathering the conflict events within large-scale quantitative sets and enriching the research on causes of war by revealing causal patterns. Most scholars of this behaviourist branch publish in reviews such as Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Peace Research or International Studies Review. One of the main topic of this research tradition is the democratic peace theory (Doyle, Maoz or Russett) according to which democracies never engage in war among themselves. However, in the last decade the democratic peace avocates seem to be more discrete, probably partly because of their difficulty to explain democratic «hobbesian» behaviour against the «authoritarian other » and some new post coldwar candidates for «democratic wars» (such as the war between Israel and Libanon in 2006). There is also a shift in research interests from interstate war to wars within states (civil wars) as well as the exploration of the relationship between development and (in)security.

Other scholars share this positivist epistemology but are more focused on (historical) and comparative case-studies. They are also more inclined to be interested in so-called «middle range theories». Such research works are published in journals such as International Security, Security Studies, and partly in the Review of International Studies.

Studies in such journals focus on the effects of «bipolarity» and «hegemony» on peace and war (Mearsheimer, Wohlforth), the balance between offensive and defensive strategies (Van Evera, Lieber) or the merits of international institutions and multilateralism for peace (Keohan, Ikenberry). Even «conventional constructivists» (such as Wendt, Kier, Katzenstein) publish in such journals, mainly by exploring the impact of «military culture» (E. Kier), «humanitarian norms» (M. Finnemore), «civilian identities» (P. Berger), collective identities and «altercasting» (A.Wendt) on issues of armed conflict.

Critical constructivists and postructuralists refuse to engage in a positivist epistemology and prefer to ask how war is possible (Wasinki). The focus is on security elites (and not only state actors) and on the legitimization process of violence. Such scholarship is organized in journals such as International Political Sociology, Millennium or Security Dialogue, Alternatives. They focus on the linguistic framing of identities (Lene Hansen), the production of dichotomies such as «Sovereignty and Intervention» (Malmvig), «Order and Anarchy» (Ashley), «Inside-Outside» (Walker-Bigo) or «securitization» (Buzan-Waever). So far, the latter research trend has not yet produced many works on interstate wars and mostly focuses on widening and deepening the research agenda of security.

Finally, some newer works try to apply theories from other social sciences to the study of war such as Freud (R. Schuett), Habermas (T. Risse, A. Linklater) or Honneth (T. Lindemann, E. Ringmar). War, according to the latter thesis, is linked to actors' perceptions of «non-recognition». Hubristic identities (self-inflated self descriptions), diplomatic exclusion, stigmatization or attacks on specific identities are likely to encourage the outbreak of armed conflicts. Several cases studies have already validated some hypotheses of these new critical perspectives combining human emancipation with a psychological strand (see T. Lindemann, E. Ringmar, The International Struggle for Recognition, Paradigm Publisher, Boulder, 2012).

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

The centrality of the study of interstate wars will largely depend on the international context. In the very near future it is unlikely to become a major academic topic in international relations. Critical constructivists and postructuralists consider the «state» as a a topic from the Realist past. Many scholars of the younger generation - those born after the sixties - are sensitive to these approaches, and their academic influence is growing especially on the European continent. It is not excluded that rational choice models, behaviourist and «historical» positivists will still dominate the study of war because these younger scholars hesitate to engage with the traditional state war topic.

In my opinion it is crucial to develop interstate war studies into two directions. First of all, we should develop middle range theories of interstate wars. Such studies would not renounce to extract general knowledge from special cases but they would carefully justify comparisons and be attentive to the type of war explained and its social and historical context. The relative defeat of the Correlates of War Studies to produce lawlike explanations should not lead us to drop all comparisons. It appears crucial to me not to give up the ambition to produce « causal » interpretations as poststructuralist studies usually do. For instance, it would be interesting to develop more explanations of war and peace between great powers in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Admittingly, there are quite a few cases for such « types » of confrontations (peaceful or bellicose) such as the two World Wars, the American-Chinese confrontation during the Korean War (1950-53) or the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). However, the empirical « richness » of such comparisons will compensate for the lack of mathematic elegance of n-studies. The method of structured focused comparison (A. George, A. Bennett) is a powerful tool for such middle range theories. This method is based on the selection of cases with a great deal of variation in the dependent variable - armed and militarized conflicts - and little variation in the independent variables, for example the nature of power distribution or the historical background. The idea is to see whether there exists a co-variation between peace and war - the explanandum - and the potential explanations (for example the degree of recognition between great powers). Second, it is important to stretch the available range of « variables » mainly focused on the material reality of the international environment. For example, it is possible to examine in case studies often neglected factors of war such as nationalism, virile self-images, misperceptions or emotions such as non-recognition or even sexual repression. Clausewitz, a reference for many realists, recalled on a number of occasions that « moral forces » and the quest for glory and for honor are powerful motivations in armed conflicts. One reason why materialist explanations did not work is surely linked to the diversity of actors' representations of such « material reality » as outlined by many constructivists : « Anarchy is what states make of it » (Alexander Wendt).

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

It is not unlikely that a growing Chinese-American rivalry or even the revival of Russia will reanimate the study of great power conflict at least in the United States. Hopefully, there will be also a growing number of «critical» investigations on this neglected but very important topic.

In my view, it is especially desirable to know more about « peaceful » and « bellicose » transitions between great powers. There are some historical comparisons which could be useful. When do rising parvenu powers initiate wars against established ones? I presently investigate historical cases dating back to the Late Bronze Age and to the end of the Nineteenth century respectively to compare peaceful transitions (for example Egypt and the Hittite Empire after the Peace Treaty concluded in 1258 BCE and the English-American "Great Rapprochement" 1895-1914) with bellicose ones (for example the appearance of Assyria on the international scene of ancient Near East against the Hittites and Babylonians between 1353 and 1230 BCE and of Wilhelminian Germany in 1914). All cases have many similarities regarding power status and neighborhood, but they vary enormously on "recognition". Older works inspired by power transition theory have mainly insisted on the problem of status lag and status inconsistency (Doran, Lemke, Midlarsky). According to my main hypothesis, "symbolic stigmatization" of rising powers such as their exclusion from international institutions or labeling as parvenu can also be a cause of war. On the contrary, the symbolic inclusion as "brother" or "equal partner" will lower the level of international violence. This is especially true if symbolic recognition is offered in an early phase, where the rising power is still far from reaching the level of the dominant power.

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Thomas Lindemann is Professor of Political Science at Artois University, France, and researcher at CERAPS Lille 2. He has recently edited (with Erik Ringmar), The International Struggle for Recognition, Boulder: Paradigm Publisher, 2012; and published Causes of War. The Struggle for Recognition, Colchester: ECPR, 201, and La guerre, Paris: Armand Colin, 2010.

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