“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Leon Trotsky
Causes of War
Thousands of books have been written on war. We cannot do justice to the subject in this brief discussion, but we will outline some classic arguments.
One school of thought sees war as part of human nature. In this view, man is by nature aggressive and territorial, and this inevitably leads to war. However, Steven Pinker’s 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that the evidence shows that war and violence have been steadily decreasing over the millennia, through a combination of changed culture and morality plus wider understanding that war is not cost-effective.
Another cause of war is aggressive leaders (e.g., Hitler). Some may have aggressive personalities, believe in their personal destiny or some ideology, or hate another country or group.
In addition, even ‘normal’ leaders can start wars through problems such as groupthink, misperceptions, selective screening of information, wishful thinking and self-justification.
For instance, neither the Johnson administration going into Vietnam nor the Bush administration going into Iraq rationally calculated the results of American intervention. Both made their decisions only within a small group, not listening to those who disagreed with them (groupthink). They only paid attention to the information that agreed with their opinions (cognitive consistency or confirmation bias). Interestingly, documents and interviews show that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was even more out of touch with reality. No one dared tell him any bad news, and he thought things were going well until American forces entered Baghdad. ‘Baghdad Bob,’ the official Iraqi government spokesman, gave the media wildly inaccurate and optimistic accounts of the war right up until the moment he was captured by the Americans.
Misperceptions abound. The Bush 2 administration built up Saddam Hussein and his WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) as a big threat, when in reality he was contained and had no WMDs. Osama Bin Laden believed that America was too cowardly to respond to the 9/11 attacks. The Japanese thought the Pearl Harbor attack would knock America out of the war.
The Bushies also believed that the Iraqi people would welcome them as liberators and that Iraq’s oil would pay for the war (more wishful thinking). Argentina’s leaders thought that Britain would not respond to the invasion of the Falkland Islands. German leaders believed they could win a two-front war in WWI and WWII.
Later, the Bushies said the Iraq war was necessary to remove an evil dictator (self-justification). Leaders in Germany and Japan in WWII claimed that they were entitled to more land, more natural resources and a more powerful role in world politics because of their natural superiority and past injuries from other countries after WWI. Today, China continually justifies its aggressive behavior by referring to its Century of Humiliation in the 1800s and 1900s at the hands of the West and Japan.
Even the most aggressive leaders cannot wage war by themselves. Wars are carried out by large organizations such as empires, nation-states or political, nationalist and religious movements, often competing for territory, resources and markets. Plunder was considered a legitimate motivation in earlier times, and many colonial wars from 1500 to 1900 were openly fought over natural resources and markets. The recent civil wars in West Africa have been characterized as resource wars, with control of diamonds and minerals like coltan (used in cell phones and other electronics) as a motivation. Similarly, the U.S. was accused of invading Iraq to get its oil, and ISIS made money from controlling oil wells in Iraq and Syria, in addition to extorting taxes, looting banks and kidnapping Europeans for ransom.
In the modern era, nationalist competition in territorial, strategic, economic and ideological spheres has justified many wars, whether by capitalist or communist countries. Germany and Japan in WWII, the US vs. the USSR in the Cold War and India vs. Pakistan today are examples. (The civil wars so common today are a clash of two or more competing nationalisms held by different political, ethnic or religious groups within the same country.)
A democratic system of government may decrease war, because of the need for leaders to maintain public support and because of the reluctance of the public to get killed. So, it is rare for two democracies to go to war. In contrast, a dictator like Saddam Hussein could force the people and country to go to war.
The most common conflict between nation-states is over territory. Today, borders in most areas are settled, but there are still many disputes over sovereignty and territory. Perennial territorial flash points are China vs. Taiwan; Israel vs. Palestine, North vs. South Korea and India vs. Pakistan (over Kashmir).
There are other border disputes- China vs. India, Israel vs. Syria, Ecuador vs. Peru, Bolivia vs. Chile, etc. There are disputes over various islands- Japan vs. China vs. Korea vs. Russia; Greece vs. Turkey. Six countries claim the Spratleys in the South China Sea because of their strategic location, fishing and possible oil and gas resources there.
Marxists see war as the conflict of capitalist countries over resources and markets. However, Marxist regimes have also instituted nationalist wars, such as in the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the Russian invasions of Finland, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. There have also been conflicts between Communist states - Russia vs. China and China vs. Vietnam.
Leaders may use war as a distraction from economic hardship - when people are angry about the enemy, they complain less about the economy and the government. Argentina’s leaders tried this when they invaded the Falkland Islands, but they were defeated by Britain and turned out of office.
Despite the Law of the Sea treaty (UNCLOS - the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), there are many disputes over territorial waters. Because of competition for oil, fish and caviar in the Caspian Sea between Russia and other countries, there are different interpretations over who controls which areas. (Is the Caspian a sea or a lake? Different rules and boundaries apply.)
China claims 90% of the South China Sea, disregarding the Law of the Sea and a 2016 international tribunal ruling that reaffirmed its neighbors’ rights to their 200-mile EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones). Chinese ships harass U.S. and other ships and Chinese planes have repeatedly buzzed U.S. spy planes flying over international waters, once causing a collision which forced the plane to land. China has used dredges to build up seven islands in order to install buildings, ports, airstrips and missiles, and has tested anti-ship missiles. In 2014, they sent an oil exploration rig into Vietnamese waters, causing major riots in Vietnam. They send illegal fishing boats equipped with radios to call for help if they encounter difficulties. China and the Philippines have had several confrontations over fishing near islands claimed by both countries, including one that is within the Philippines’ 200 mile EEZ and 800 miles from China. In 2019, a large Chinese fishing boat rammed and sank a smaller Filipino boat, leaving the fishermen in the water to be rescued by a Vietnamese ship.
The tiny island nations of the South Pacific have legal rights to large areas of ocean under the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones surrounding them as specified in the Law of the Sea treaty, but for years ships from other powers refused to pay them licensing fees for fishing rights. After some boats were seized, agreements were eventually reached. In Indonesia, the government has seized and burned hundreds of illegal fishing boats from China and other countries. Chinese fishing boats have also repeatedly been caught fishing illegally in African and Latin American waters, and one was even sunk when it tried to ram an Argentine navy ship.
There are also potential conflicts over the rights to water in multinational rivers. The Tigris, Euphrates, Jordon, Ganges, Mekong and other rivers run through different countries. The Danube flows through or forms the border of ten countries and its drainage basin includes ten others. What happens when one country spills toxic waste into the river and it flows downstream into other countries?
The U.S. and Mexico have had disputes over the Rio Grande, which is so overused that it sometimes runs dry and does not reach the sea. The U.S. and Canada had a dispute during the flooding of the Red River, which flows north into Lake Winnipeg.
Turkey has built dams on the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, which flow through Syria, Iran and Iraq. China has already severely lowered water levels and the flow of nutrient-rich silt in rivers and lakes in Southeast Asia by building dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong inside China, and is building many more inside Laos. It has also built hydroelectric dams inside China on the upper reaches of India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. India has warned China not to build containment dams that would reduce the flow of the Brahmaputra. Ethiopia has built a dam on the upper reaches of the Nile and is unhappy with the colonial-era treaty that gives 75% of the Nile’s water to Egypt. Someday we may see water wars. (There is a terrific novel on this: Water Knife.)
Ethnic and Religious Conflicts
Recently, we have seen the re-emergence of ethnic and religious conflicts previously suppressed by the two superpowers during the Cold War. The Communist dictator Tito clamped down on ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia, seeing it as a primitive vestige of an earlier age. However, once he died and the Cold War ended, communist officials made themselves over as ethnic nationalists in order to stay in power. In spite of decades of peace and intermarriage between various ethnic groups, Greek Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croatians, Muslim Bosniaks and others broke up into seven different countries, with the Serbs leading the violence in wars, ‘ethnic cleansing’ (forcing people of particular groups out of an area), mass rape and genocide.
Things often get nasty in separatist, ethnic or religious conflicts. The U.S. Civil War had more casualties that any other war in American history. The separatist wars in the Russian province of Chechya were brutal. In Sri Lanka, Tamil immigrants, who are mostly Hindus and a long-oppressed underclass, formed a separatist movement in the 1970s against the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, igniting a long, vicious civil war that ended with a massacre of 40,000 Tamil fighters and civilians alike in 2009. Continued discrimination again Tamils has resulted in radical Muslims carrying out terrorist attacks and Sinhalese retaliation against Muslims.
Hindus kill Muslims and Sikhs in India. Sunni and Shia Muslims kill each other in Iraq. Christian Armenia invaded and took over an Armenian enclave in Muslim Azerbaijan. The Kurds, divided among four countries, were repressed by and fought the Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish governments. Sudan’s Muslim Arab North violently oppressed its black Christian and animist South for decades, costing two million lives and resulting in the formation of the country of South Sudan. Then the leaders of the Dinka and Nuer tribes within South Sudan began fighting each other. Besides a history of tribal conflicts, Nigeria’s Muslim North and Christian South have had riots and bombings, while the radical Muslim group Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of girls and killed 60,000 people in the Northeast. Algeria had a civil war between the government and Islamist radicals costing over 100,000 lives. In Afghanistan, after pushing out the Russians with U.S. help, several different ethnic and religious factions battled for ten years. Radical Salafi Muslims in various countries have fought for the formation of a huge Islamic ‘Caliphate’ to reach from Spain to the Philippines and from Central Asia to Central Africa. There are dozens of other such conflicts.
There is a brisk argument over whether more wars come from having one dominant power or having several competing powers. Competing alliances in a Balance of Power system may go to war when any of their allies get involved in a conflict and pull them in. For instance, one reason WWI happened was that the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary dragged in their respective allies. Similarly, in WWII Germany joined its ally Japan in war against the U.S. after the Pearl Harbor attack. (Big mistake.)
However, wars can also arise when there is Hegemonic Stability, when one dominant country has a preponderance of power. There may be a rising country or alliance trying to knock off the top dog, or the top dog may start wars to its own advantage.
During multipolar periods such as Europe from 1600-1800, there were constantly shifting alliances and constant wars. However, wars also occur during periods of hegemonic power, e.g. in the 1800s, when Great Britain dominated the seas with its large navy, dominated the world economy with its highly developed industrial technology, financial markets and investments, and had by far the largest colonial empire. In this period, Britain averaged a war per year, mostly regarding colonies in the Global South. Then, from the late 1800s, the rise of Germany was a challenge to Britain that eventually led to WWI and WWII. During the bipolar Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR superpowers avoided direct conflict, but there were many proxy wars.
It seems there are wars regardless of system configuration. However, all the schools agree that conflict often occurs when the system configuration changes, i.e. when strong powers become weak or especially when new powers rise. Some analysts claim that there is a 100-year cycle of hegemonic powers rising and falling. When Germany was rising in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it led to WWI and WWII. (In contrast, Britain and the rising U.S. managed to remain on relatively good terms.) In his 2017 Destined for War, Graham Allison found that throughout history the rise of a new power results in war about 70% of the time.
Today, the relative decline of Russian power and the rise of Chinese economic and military power both have the potential for conflict. Declining powers like Russia have a history of lashing out (as Russia has in Georgia and Ukraine). And although China previously proclaimed its intention to achieve a ‘peaceful rise,’ skeptics point out that it has been building up its military, setting up bases around the Indian Ocean in Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti, and building bases and taking aggressive action in the South China Sea. In response, Japan has begun to rearm; the U.S., Australia, Japan and India have formed an informal alliance (the Quad); other countries in Asia are nervously asking the U.S. to stick around; and the official U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review terms China a “strategic competitor.”
Overall, it seems that a combination of rising powers and other system changes, competition among nations or other large scale organizations, and aggressive, sometimes mistaken leadership are the usual causes of war in the modern age.