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The inherent anarchy of the international system is largely to blame for the onset of war”.

| September 12, 2016


Whilst studying any discipline focusing on the international system, it is essential to try to comprehend its complexity. As will be seen in this essay, numerous authors such as Thucydides, Hobbes, Grotius and Waltz, in order to understand the international environment, worked significantly on the correlation between the nature of the international system and the onset of war. The notion of anarchy is crucial in International Relations and international security studies, and is therefore taken into consideration by all main theories. However it is Realist theory and its various sub-branches that are most reliant on the assumption of an anarchical international environment. This sense of anarchy is, Realists assume, inherent in a system in which the highest authority is the state, with no overarching power, or ‘Leviathan’, to impose order and restraint as the state does on its domestic society. In such an environment states are bound only by coercion or consent (See Bull, 2002).

However, as is suggested in the title of this essay an anarchical system is not believed to be the only cause of war. Therefore this essay will present an overview of key Realist thinkers in an effort to identify factors other than anarchy that may lead to conflict. These factors will then be applied to existing theoretical frameworks before the conclusion attempts to determine the true role played by international anarchy in the onset of war.

In order to assess the effect of the inherent anarchy of the international system on the onset of war, it is essential to first establish the effective importance and impact of anarchy on the onset of a hostile, pre-conflict, situation, both in theory and in practice; this will highlight the fact that anarchy is a facilitator more than a cause of the onset of war; and finally determine if there are other factors which can take part in the outbreak of war.

Hans Morgenthau, widely regarded as the individual most responsible for constructing the realist school, claims that realists “…believe that the world, imperfect as it is from the rational point of view, is the result of forces inherent in human nature.” (Morgenthau, 1993 p.3) A sub-theory of Realism, that of Classical Realism, develops this pessimistic view of International Relations as a resulting from the negative qualities of human nature. States, being the creation of men, are assumed to inherit the flaws of human nature. Once the selfishness of man is applied to an anarchical environment, Classical Realists argue, conflict is often the result  (Morgenthau, 2006, p.590). Indeed, as Kenneth Waltz summarises:

According to the first image of international relations, the focus of the important causes of war is found in the nature and behaviour of man. Wars result from selfishness, from misdirected aggressive impulses, from stupidity. Other causes are secondary and have to be interpreted in the light of these factors. (Viotti & Kauppi, 1998 p.131)

For Classical Realists, men are susceptible to the impulses of greed, mistrust and envy, which lead them to an inevitable social Darwinian struggle for survival. They stress on the fact that there is continuity in world politics, a continual struggle for power, devoid of morality. In concordance with Machiavelli’s The Prince, it aims at seeing the world “as it is” and not “as we would like it to be”.

One of the primary figures of Realist thinking is Thomas Hobbes, who posited the view that before the creation of states, men were living in a state of nature, where no set of rules or principles prevented them from acting as they. This state of nature shaped men and their own inherent qualities, which for Hobbes was “competition, diffidence and glory” (Hobbes, 1985, p.183-188). For Hobbes, if there is not some overarching sovereign entity, some Leviathan (Ibid, 1985), to coerce human nature, men will inevitably resort to conflict (Abizadeh, 2011, p.298). Realists apply these characteristics to states and to the international system. The international system exists in a state of nature, anarchical in the sense that there is no set of rules that can prevent the states from acting immorally or simply attacking each other; There is no overarching international authority (Waltz, 1992, p.105). Moreover, according to Hobbes, states have the same interests, which put them in direct competition. They seek at the minimum self-preservation, but will also try to acquire advantages (in terms of territory, trade etc.) in order to dominate other states and increase there own secure. Indeed, in his interpretation of Morgenthau’s work, Kenneth Waltz makes this point exactly:

Morgenthau recognized that given competition for scarce goods with no one to serve as arbiter, a struggle for power would ensue among the competitors, and that consequently the struggle for power can be explained without reference to the evil born in men. The struggle for power arises because people want things and not necessarily because of the evil in their desires. (Waltz, 1992, p.34-35)

Therefore, in this state of anarchy, states serve their own interests and try to acquire power to assure their survival. Power is usually defined as the combination of different elements improving the state’s capacity or perceived capacity: military, economic, diplomatic, etc. Realists usually deem coercive power to be the most important (Nye Jr and Welch, 2001, p.38-41). Because of the state of anarchy, states can rely only on themselves and what they perceive, and if they perceive threat, it can lead to war. War in this environment is merely the consequence of the fear generated by anarchy. Waltz argues that states are just trying to survive, whilst not being able to discern other states’ intentions, and for these systemic-structural reasons, they can be drawn into conflicts. Waltz’s view is in turn supported by Hobbes’ notion of fear of destruction by rivals; this fear leads to what Hobbes calls “anticipation” (Hobbes, 1985 pp.183-188), or in modern parlance the attraction of launching preemptive or preventative attacks on rival polities. This systemic pressure is well illustrated by the basic game theoretical model the Prisoner’s Dilemma, wherein it is in both parties’ interest to adopt and offensive posture. In the prisoner’s dilemma, if say two prisoners are arrested for committing a crime and are being held in different cells for questioning, a clever prosecutor may make them offers in order to encourage them to confess. He may tell them that if one of them confesses to committing the crime, then he will be pardoned if the accomplice chooses to remain silent and not confess. However if both of them confess, then they will both be convicted of the crime with early parole. If they both choose to be silent and not confess then the prosecutor will opt to settle for token sentences on the committed crime. Both of the prisoners care much about their personal freedom than that of their accomplices. The dilemma here is that regardless of the decision made by the other prisoner, each of them is better confessing than remaining silent. However, if they both choose to confess then the outcome will be worse than if they choose to remain silent. The prisoner’s dilemma is used to illustrate the conflict between individual and group rationality. Groups where the members pursue rational self-interest may end up with worse results than those with members acting contrary to the rational self-interest. This situation can lead to a security dilemma, which ultimately might lead to war. A security dilemma occurs when a state arms to protect itself from other states, thus making the other states feel threatened (as they cannot know the arming state is only attempting to protect itself, not to attack its neighbours) and therefore arm themselves, resulting in an arms race and increased chance of war (Viotti and Kauppi, 1999, p.68).

An excellent example of the paranoid nature of man and its effect on the international state system is the period leading up to the First World War. Wilhelm’s inferiority complex and love hate relationship with his uncle (Edward VII) and England led him to start constructing a large modern naval fleet that England perceived as a mortal threat to her vital interests. This forced England to patch its relationship with France and Russia in order to form an alliance against the Germans. The paranoid inferiority complex of the German state resulted in friction with France over colonial possessions and with the United Kingdom over naval supremacy. The subsequent actions of these states perfectly reflect the theories outlined above. All three sought to alter the balance of power in their favour through the construction of opposing alliance structures and through large scale military build up. The war that resulted began in a geopolitical area, the Balkans, which was not a part of the UK’s, Germany’s, or France’s core interests, however the anticipatory nature of their military build up made war inevitable. Furthermore, the ridiculous alliances they had forged with states/groups on the region divided Europe into two camps by 1914 with both camps pushing for balance of power in their favour. These alliances facilitated a sense of duty to protect each other and escalated the animosity between different European states. The Balkan war only acted as a trigger that the alliances needed to engage each other in war.

Moreover, some Realists also have a more cynical vision of states and do not explain their misbehaviour only by diffidence due to a lack of information. Indeed, even if states are equal actors on the international scene, they do not have the same capabilities, and because of the anarchical environment, there is nothing to stop the most powerful from being aggressive towards less powerful states. Hans Morgenthau sees this aggressive behaviour from the states as a consequence of man’s nature, which is in his opinion a urge to dominate others, an “aggressive animus dominandi” (Abizadeh, 2011, p.298).

War is often assumed to be the consequence of the Hobbesian state of nature, anarchy. It would be therefore simply violence arising from the lack of law and order. This analysis of the realist vision and the role of anarchy shows that anarchy does not seem to be the only factor generating war. Indeed, it actually seems to be facilitating the onset of war rather than really generating it. This can be easily demonstrated by the fact that the international system as described Huntington (2011) is always being anarchical, but war is not omnipresent. There are periods of relative peace, or at least of absence of war between states.

This observation leads to the assumption that other factors must be generating the onset of war. Hobbes himself agreed on the fact that human nature was partly to blame for war, but in his opinion not because of rational fear but rather because of his “intrinsic desire for glory” (Abizadeh, 2011, p.313). Indeed, without a Leviathan, men and therefore states, will resort in violence as they do not chose to regulate themselves. This pessimistic vision of human nature is dismissed by another theory, liberalism, which finds other factors leading to war.

Liberals generally believe that humans are good natured. Liberalism emphasises the rule of law and omnipotent principles such as individualism, freedom from authority, equality and freedom for social action (Fukuyama, 1992, p.42). Liberals agree with Realists on the fact that there is a security competition between states that can transform into war, but war can be avoided through economic cooperation, as this cooperation creates interdependence between states. It is then in states (economic) interest to have good relations. Neo-liberals go even further by promoting the use of international institutions to help states cooperate and trust each other (Viotti and Kauppi, 1999, p.209). Economical cooperation is not the only element highlighted by liberals to avoid war. Indeed, the “democratic peace”, hegemony and the balance of power are three situations conducive of peace in an anarchical environment. The democratic peace theory points to the fact that democratic states do not engage in war between one another. Nevertheless, if democratic states do not have fight each other, it does not mean that they cannot be involved in war. The recent intervention of France in Mali for example, shows that democracies can chose to participate in a conflict. As stated in the hegemonic stability theory, relative peace can also be reached with a hegemon, which is an international actor encompassing more power than the other states, and therefore who sets the international agenda and determines the order of the international system. Finally, a balance of power between two states assure stability, as the equal distribution of power between states ensure that none will take the risk of attacking another. Nevertheless this situation is quite fragile due to the natural competitiveness of states, intensified by the state of anarchy.

Furthermore, the international system is not as anarchical as described by realists. There is a complex set of rules aimed at constraining warfare. These rules do not work perfectly and it is true that states obey them by choice more than by obligation, nevertheless, they have a real impact and do restrain the behaviour of states at war (Anderson and Gifford Jr, 2004). For instance, in 2001 during the Gulf war the Coalition forces limited their conventional land operations to the territory of Kuwait and did not pursue defeated Iraqi forces into Iraq, which would have involved a breach of their international mandate (Nye Jr and Welch, 2011, p.206-208). Idealists join the liberalists on the point of view that war can be avoided by means of cooperation. As Kenneth Thomas (1994 p.79) notes:

Idealists deny that the inclination toward power is a persistent reality. Rather, they describe it as an archaism carried over from an ancient past. In the post-Enlightenment era, reason and science are transforming human nature and thereby the possibility of war and strife. Moreover, communication and cultural relations are drawing men ever closer.

Another important theory, constructivism, highlights some aspects that Hobbes suggested and have been neglected by realists. Indeed, Hobbes thought that ideological disagreement was an important factor in causing war. Constructivists like Wendt took this idea further as they put forward the idea that the different actors in the international system are socially constituted by ideas and the meanings actors attach to events. A good illustration of the importance of the actors’ perception of events for the onset of war is the United States invasion of Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks occurring the 9/11 2001 (Abizadeh, 2011, p.298). Other examples can be found with the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939, the American conduct of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) (Viotti and Kauppi, 1999, p.56).

Moreover, some authors like Huntington (2011) explain conflict recurrence by the presence in the international system of fundamental antagonisms between different cultural groupings. This vision suggests that men are not only different in their nature but also socially and culturally differentiated. Moreover, these differences are seen by Huntington as being too important to be surpassed and therefore pushes each human grouping to fight for the supremacy of their beliefs. The world may also be moving towards new types of resource wars in which powerful countries use their military power to acquire resources from other countries. With the continued growth of human population and dwindling of natural resources there will be more conflicts with countries fighting for resources. For instance US invasion of Iraq was partially motivated by the desire to control its oil. The search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq only acted as an excuse for the invasion. When taking into account all the different elements identified by the theorists cited above and the examples of actual events that occurred in the international system, it is possible to determine that in a state of anarchy, some states will desire mutual cooperation when others will desire to exploit cooperation with others. With so many different actors, any analysis of anarchy and its level of influence on the onset of war require unrealistic assumptions regarding actors’ interests, knowledge of their situations and will (Vanderschraaf, 2006, p.243). Even if there is no international Leviathan per se, it seems that the inherent state of anarchy of the international system is not the main factor of the onset of war, but rather that it makes the situation more suitable for war. It seems that the onset of war is most likely caused by human nature itself. Nevertheless, men are complex creatures, both ill natured and good natured, which mean that they try to fight their own ill nature by creating rules and trying to install order in the general anarchy. As Locke highlighted, men in a state of nature can end up either at war, at peace, or in an intermediate state (Ibid, 2006, p.248). This will to avoid the onset of war is well illustrated by the creation of the United Nations and the fact that almost all the states joined voluntarily. Moreover, another example is the creation of the European Union, which would have been unthinkable after the First World War. The European Union facilitates trade and political cooperation between the European states, which insure durable peace between them. Whilst Realism could counter that the project is purely conducted for the individual selfish reasons of the member states the fact remains that such international cooperation is unprecedented. This appears to represent, whilst not an elimination, at least a softening of man’s selfish instinct. Nevertheless, because of the state of anarchy and the nature of men, even such a union encounters difficulties, as states still are reluctant to cooperate. Indeed, cooperation to this extend is seen by some states as a loss in sovereignty.

In conclusion, the Realist inspired anarchical international system is not in fact largely to blame for the onset of war, rather it is the primary facilitator for man’s paranoid nature as manifested in states. Human nature, when applied to an anarchic environment, or a state of nature, resorts to the basic principles of Darwinism, centered on survival. This is what pushes states to compete against each other and is what eventually leads to war. The fact that war is not a constant shows that this competition can take other forms, such as diplomatic or economic competition, but all revolve around the need for power and the protection this is perceived to provide. Man’s attempts to at least partially negate the inherent anarchy of the international system through the creation of intergovernmental organisations such as the UN and EU indicates an attempt to control the main facilitator of war, whilst providing institutionalized means of survival. Such attempts are perfectly in keeping with the Classical Realist notions outlined in this essay, but it does indicate an attempt to move away from zero-sum competition to that of positive gain. It remains to be seen whether the increased inter-reliance of states in the era of globalization will serve to erode the role of the state as the main representation of human nature in International Relations.


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