What Really Causes International Conflicts? It’s Not What You Think.


War: The Gambling Man’s Game

Kori Schake writes:  Geoffrey Blainey’s The Causes of War is a genuinely wonderful book. I had it pressed on me by one of the Pentagon’s most thoughtful people, and while it’s not a new book, it should be at the top of the reading lists of people interested in international relations. Like much else in the book, Blainey is straightforward in his title: he is examining why wars occur. He quotes Clausewitz to the effect that of all the branches of human activity, war is the most like a gambling game, and Blainey’s approach is very much marked by game theory.


Blainey argues that assessments of relative power drive decisions on war and peace, and that war occurs when nations misjudge their relative power. He writes, “War is usually the outcome of a diplomatic crisis which cannot be solved because both sides have conflicting estimates of their bargaining power.” Disputes about issues central to states’ interests can be negotiated when there is a clear hierarchy of power—the weaker compromises to prevent war. When there is doubt about the weaker party, compromise is elusive and wars occur, because “war itself provides the most reliable and most objective test of which nation or alliance is the most powerful…war was therefore usually followed by an orderly market in political power, or in other words, peace.”

roman-conflictBlainey draws heavily on the work of Kenneth Boulding, especially the insight that “threat systems are the basis of politics as exchange systems are the basis of economics.” Threats keep peace as well as provoke wars. The pattern most striking to him assessing the data from three centuries of warfare is that leaders are typically optimistic commencing a war. From there, he draws the conclusion that “if two nations are deep in disagreement on a vital issue, and if both expect that they will easily win a war, then war is highly likely. If neither nation is confident of victory, or if they expect victory to come only after long fighting, then war is unlikely.” He proceeds to offer a very persuasive set of historical proofs to support it…

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Hoover Institution

Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She has held the Distinguished Chair in International Security Studies at the United States Military Academy and worked in the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council and as senior policy adviser to the 2008 McCain presidential campaign. Her most recent book is State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practice of the State Department.

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