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II. Theoretical Overview
B. War Initiation
III. Empirical Evidence
IV. Policy Implications
A. The Cold War
V. Future Directions
The question of why states go to war has long been central to the study of international relations. The various answers put forward by scholars to this question have led to vigorous debates both between and within competing theoretical traditions that purport to explain state behavior. As this question has been studied over time, scholars have not settled on any one explanation for why some states choose to fight (or choose not to fight), why certain states enter into rivalries (or choose to end rivalries), or why factors that lead to conflict in one situationmay not lead to conflict in another. For much of the post–World War II era, the study of conflict was greatly impacted by the ongoing cold war rivalry between the United States of America and the Soviet Union; this rivalry not only had the potential of leading to major war involving both of these countries and their allies but also had substantial impact throughout the world as new states were emerging from colonization and were often forced to choose sides in the larger cold war rivalry. The end of the cold war, however, led to numerous new questions, including how one state that, by most measures, was among the most powerful states ever to have existed could cease to exist almost overnight; whether a new rival to U.S. power would emerge; what shape conflict would take in the post–cold war era; and, perhaps most importantly, what the end of the cold war said about international relations scholarship, almost none of which predicted the end of the cold war.
This research paper on rivalry, conflict, and interstate war begins with an examination of the evolution of major theories of why states enter into rivalries and conflict. Given the expanse of explanations for state behavior, this research paper will focus primarily on realism and neorealism, the evolution of neorealism, constructivism, democratic peace theory, and rational choice explanations for the start of conflict. This section is not an exhaustive account of all theories of state behavior but does capture much of the debate over why states fight. Next, the research paper turns to the ways in which empirical evidence is used to support or question various theoretical arguments. Finally, the paper examines both real and potential policy implications of international relations scholarship before turning to a discussion of future avenues of research.
II. Theoretical Overview
The destruction wrought by World War I led to an immediate questioning of how the states of Europe had allowed themselves to enter into such a devastating conflict and, as importantly, how to avoid future conflicts. Policymakers, led by U.S. PresidentWoodrowWilson, fervently believed in the principles of idealism, a view that appropriately designed international institutions that provided appropriate legal avenues to redress grievances, coupled with a system of collective security, could prevent major power wars in the future. The result of this belief was the creation of the League of Nations, an organization that would adjudicate disputes between states before they descended into conflict and, should one state attack another, lead a collective response of all member states against the aggressor state (collective security). The League of Nations faced many setbacks, not the least of which was the failure of the United States Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, meaning that the United States, then the world’s largest economy, would not be a member. As the League of Nations proved unable to successfully confront series of challenges in the 1930s, including German abrogation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Italian aggression against Ethiopia, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, idealism as a both a theoretical and policy exercise appeared to be a failure. World War II simply furthered the point.
After World War II, Hans Morgenthau (1948) published his seminal work, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. In this work, Morgenthau argued that one of the primary failures of idealism was that it had attempted to impose morality on the state without recognizing the underlying cause of conflict: the perpetual pursuit of power. In the book, he argued that states did not abide by the same moral rules as individuals in their normal interactions; rather, each state was concerned primarily with the national interest, as defined by the pursuit of power. The most capable politicians would be those who appropriately considered each action in terms of whether it would benefit the national interest, not primarily whether it was moral. According to Morgenthau, war was the inevitable result of clashes between states competing to increase their power and could not be ended by the creation of international institutions, as the idealists had argued.
Morgenthau’s (1948) work, though well respected, did have its flaws. Primary among them was that by arguing that states were always seeking power, his theory did not allow for variation that would explain when and why war was likely to occur. In particular, Kenneth Waltz (1979) argued that a good social science explanation had to have some variation in explanation (the independent variable) that explained a variation in outcome (the dependent variable). By not having any variation in explanation, Morgenthau’s theory could not explain why states were not in a perpetual state of war. In summary, states seeking power was a background assumption, not an explanation for war. Waltz’s ultimate answer to Morgenthau and traditional realism was Theory of International Politics in 1979, a work that he argued was not an attempt to explain or predict a state’s foreign policy behavior, but rather to provide a general explanation for the propensity for balances of power to emerge in the international system and, in general terms, what distribution of power in the international system is the most stable. In this work, Waltz laid the groundwork for the neorealist school of thought.
Waltz (1979) argues that the best explanation of state behavior is based on three assumptions: (1) States are unitary actors—each state can be thought of as an autonomous decision maker, (2) states are security seeking— each state pursues policies that will maximize its own external security, and (3) the international system is anarchic—there is no authority over states to which they must answer or to which they can appeal. Since states are driven primarily by security interests, states will seek to balance against states that are more powerful as no international agent could prevent the more powerful state from attacking them. If one state begins to emerge as more powerful than all others, alliances will shift to balance that state’s power. Based on these assumptions, Waltz argues that the primary source of variation in the international system is the structure of the distribution of power between states. A system with one dominant state is unipolar, a system dominated by two states is bipolar, and a system dominated by more than two states is multipolar. According to Waltz, rivalries between states are driven by the logic of the balance of power. The Soviet Union and the United States competed with one another not because they were ideologically opposed, but rather because they were the two most powerful states in the system: The logic of the balance of power dictated that they be rivals.
Waltz (1979) went on to argue that war is less likely in a bipolar system than in a multipolar one. His argument rests on the difference between external and internal balancing. External balancing requires states to depend on allies in order to balance other powerful states in the international system; no state is powerful enough to balance others individually. Internal balancing, in contrast, is the process whereby a state uses its own resources to build up its security, not relying on allies. In a multipolar system, states have to rely on external balancing since no state is individually powerful enough to balance other states in the system; the competition for allies and the potential for one ally to pull others into a conflict makes external balancing relatively less stable than internal balancing.When states balance internally, as they are able to do in a bipolar world, they are less likely to compete for allies and less likely to be drawn into conflict due to the behavior of allies. Therefore, a bipolar system, according to Waltz, should be more stable.
Waltz’s (1979) explanation of the distribution of power in the international system fit nicely with Robert Jervis’s (1978) “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” an article examining the effects of anarchy in the international system. Jervis expands on the concept of the security dilemma, which is related to the idea of balance of power. In essence, the security dilemma is the problem that in the anarchic international system, any action by a state to build up its ability to defend itself lessens the security of other states. The reason for this insecurity is that any increase in military capability of one state necessarily makes surrounding states less secure. In turn, those states build up their capabilities, which lessen the security of the original state, leading it to build up again. This cycle explains that both states with purely defensive intentions may find themselves in an arms race and, if one state determines that it must use its weapons because it cannot afford additional buildups, potential conflict. To this basic concept, Jervis added the variable of whether offensive weapons or defensive weapons were dominant in an era and whether this dominance could be perceived. In an era where most weapons and tactics are offensive in nature and this dominance is recognized by all, war becomes more likely as states must use their weapons offensively in order to defeat rivals. When defensive weapons and tactics are dominant and all states recognize this, war is less likely as states perceive attacking a rival to be more difficult. Like Waltz, Jervis’s argument considers rivalry to be a function of anarchy: States are in security dilemmas with one another—rivalry relationships— because the nature of the international system is anarchic.
Other neorealists expanded on the theory or challenged some of Waltz’s core assumptions. Stephen Walt (1987) expanded Waltz’s original work, which applied only to great powers, to regional settings, arguing that state behavior was not necessarily always to balance against a larger power, but also, at times, to join, or bandwagon, with a more powerful state. His work focused on factors other than the balance of power to determine that states actually balance against threat, not just power. The factors that shape threat include power, geographic proximity, offensive power, and aggressive intentions. Geography is particularly important in a regional setting since geographically proximate states are more likely to have the military capability sufficient to attack one another and to compete over issues such as contested borders and resources. He argues that balancing is more common than bandwagoning behavior but that certain conditions favor the latter over the former. In particular, when states are faced with a much stronger power, they may bandwagon, particularly if no other ally is readily available. In addition, particularly aggressive states are more prone to provoke balancing behavior. For Walt, then, rivalry relationships are driven by a combination of factors—it is not only the power of surrounding states, but also their proximity and the perception that those states are threatening.
For critics of the neorealist explanation of rivalry and conflict, Walt’s inclusion of aggressive intent revealed a fundamental flaw in neorealism: that it did not account for state intentions. In essence, by relying only on the security dilemma and anarchy, neorealism had no real explanation for why states would choose to fight. As the cold war drew to an end and then ended spectacularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, several different strands of scholarship rose up in response to neorealism. Neoclassical realism returned to the teachings of Morgenthau to conclude that power matters and states are security seekers but that, at its core, war is caused by states with aggressive intent, commonly referred to as revisionist states. These states are dissatisfied with the status quo in the world, particularly institutions that may be designed to maintain existing power structures, and seek to topple that existing order.
Other scholars argued that a focus on power alone was problematic if no attention was paid to the meaning of that power. Scholars in this new school of thought, known as constructivism, were led by Alexander Wendt (1992), particularly his article “Anarchy Is What States Make of It.” In this article,Wendt argues that actors interact to create intersubjective meanings. In essence, states continuously interact to create and re-create their relationship. The identities they create affect their perceptions of the other’s intent and the use of power. In this way, according to Wendt, U.S. military power will have different meanings for states depending on their relationship with the United States. Canada, for example, is far less concerned about American military power than Cuba. Similarly, the United States is far more concerned about one or two nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran than hundreds in the hands of Israel, or with China’s nuclear arsenal as opposed to the United Kingdom’s. If all that mattered were power, constructivists argue, the United States would feel just as threatened by the United Kingdom as China (or the Soviet Union in the cold war). For constructivist, then, rivalry relationships are created and re-created over time through interactions of actors. The United States–Soviet cold war was the result not just of the presence of nuclear weapons and large conventional forces, but also of the continual perception of the other as an enemy, and behaviors on both sides that reinforced that perception. Constructivist explanations allow for factors such as culture, religion, and national identity to play a role in establishing rivalries, though such factors are not always at play in constructivist work.
At the same time, for Wendt (1992), anarchy does not require states to be competitive or to enter into security dilemmas; rather, they are able to interact in other ways. Some states have managed to reorient their identities over time. For example, Germany and France have left rivalry behind in the context of the European Union; Egypt and Israel, once bitter combatants, have a long-lasting peace agreement; and Japan and the United States, bitter enemies in World War II, emerged as powerful allies.
Although many of these theories provide an explanation for why rivalries emerge, whether it is simply balancing behavior in the case of neorealism or the construction of rivalry identities in constructivism, often they provide less explanation for the actual outbreak of war. To summarize, the theories may help explain which states are likely to fight but are less able to explain the actual initiation of conflict. This research paper now turns to a section that reviews some theoretical explanations for the initiation of conflict, though, like this section on rivalry, it is not a complete reflection on why wars occur.
B. War Initiation
Neorealism as described by Waltz (1979) and even as modified by Walt (1987) does not purport to explain the timing of decisions to go to war. Neither does constructivism; like neorealism, constructivism seeks to understand the reasons why rivalries emerge (and subside) between states but is not as effective at explaining the microcauses of war initiation. Several other veins of theoretical scholarship, however, purport to explain particular decisions to enter into conflict. This section focuses initially on variants of neorealist explanations for war before shifting to a discussion of expected utility theory.
Some neorealist scholars, drawing on the insight of scholars like Waltz, argue that much like rivalry, the decision to fight war is driven by the balance of power. In particular, many neorealists, particularly followers of power transition theory, coalesce around the idea that war is most likely to occur during a transition phase in the prevailing international power structure. In essence, when one state is beginning to surpass the strength of another, war is likely to occur. Scholars differ on which state is likely to initiate conflict; some argue that a rising revisionist state will challenge the old dominant power(s) as soon as it is able in order to confirm its status as the most powerful in the system and to overturn the existing order that was designed to benefit another state (see Organski & Kugler, 1980). Others argue that war is more likely to be initiated by the state in relative decline; as a rising state begins to challenge its place as the most powerful in the system, the old power(s) will initiate a war to prevent the new state from rising up (see Copeland, 2000).
Critics of this approach make the point that the focus on power alone still does not explain war initiation per se in that it does not purport to explain on which issues rising and declining powers will disagree. Constructivists, in particular, would argue that at the turn of the 20th century, the United States surpassed both the United Kingdom and Germany as the most powerful economy in the world and had begun to establish itself as a military power with the Spanish American War. Nonetheless, no one legitimately feared a British–American showdown. On the other hand, Germany and Britain did enter into a rivalry relationship that led eventually to war. This outcome begs the question of why one set of states fought while the others did not.
One large vein of literature that attempts to explain state decision making, including decisions of war and peace, is expected utility theory. Expected utility theory (EUT) is a use of rational choice theory to explain state decisions. Though many scholars use variants of EUT, rational choice, or both, one of the most influential works leading to the theories development in international relations is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and David Lalman’s (1992) War and Reason (see also work by Fearon, 1995; Schultz, 2001). This work, like all rational choice theory, does rest on certain assumptions. First, these theories assume that individual actors behave as if they are rational. Second, actors have a set of preferences that they are able to rank order. Third, actors are able to assess the cost and benefits of different alternatives to achieve their preferences. Finally, by weighing costs and benefits, actors choose between these alternatives to maximize their expected utility. Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman focus on each state’s leader as the actor ultimately responsible for making decisions regarding war and peace. It is important to note that neither they, nor most other rational choice theorists, argue that leaders are infallible. The leaders weigh different factors and make mistakes, either in the calculation of the costs of one action or the potential benefit of attaining certain desires. An actor’s actions may also be influenced by norms and values—some actors may not consider certain actions because the actions are deemed unacceptable.
The theory works by looking at a given situation and determining what course of action helps the state (or leader) maximize utility. If two states disagree over a border, for example, the leaders of the two states must weigh different courses of action that are possible. For the purposes of this example, let us say that State A must choose whether to do nothing, initiate negotiations, or initiate an attempt to take the territory by force. To each action, State B has a similar set of choices (do nothing, negotiate, or respond with force). If State B does not respond with force to an initiation of force by A, it is presumed that A wins that interaction. One important aspect of EUT comes through in this example, however: For conflict to occur, the two states must have incompatible preferences. In this case, both states want the same piece of territory. In another case, it may be control over certain resources or influence in a third state. Power competition may matter in the calculations of leaders, but conflict occurs over conflicts in desired outcomes.
One possibility that EUT allows is that leaders will make decisions at least in part designed to keep them in power. The diversionary war theory, a variant of EUT, argues that leaders faced with political unrest at home may initiate a crisis or war in order to improve their domestic political standing by “gambling for resurrection” (see Downs & Rocke, 1994; Smith, 1996). Though not all theorists making this argument use an explicit rational choice framework, the argument fits well. Leaders weigh the possibility of losing office without initiating a conflict versus the possibility of losing office if they initiate conflict. If they determine that they are more likely to maintain office by initiating conflict, they may do so. Proponents of diversionary war arguments often point to the Falkland Islands conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 as a prime example of leaders facing domestic difficulties (Argentina’s in this case) initiating a crisis over islands possessed by the United Kingdom but claimed by Argentina, in order to improve their domestic standing. Argentina ultimately lost the conflict, and the military government in Argentina fell.
EUT does draw a number of criticisms. First, it assumes that state leaders do make rational calculations about the cost and benefits of various actions. Critics of this approach argue that most people are incapable of making such complex calculations and point to the numerous mistakes leaders seem to make in decisions to initiate conflict as an example. For example, Robert Jervis’s (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics examines numerous causes of leaders making flawed judgments due to a variety of factors that impaired their decision making. In particular, leaders are often more accepting of information that confirms their previously held beliefs than information that contradicts it; leaders misinterpret the intentions of enemies, often seeing all actions by a perceived enemy in a negative light; and leaders may underestimate the cost of acting when they are predisposed to act and may overestimate costs when predisposed to do nothing. In response, rational choice theorists do acknowledge that people are not perfect decision makers but that, on balance, leaders exhibit what is termed bounded rationality. In essence, leaders do pursue the actions that they perceive to be the most beneficial, even when mistaken.
A second criticism is that rational leaders should probably never fight a war since some mutually agreeable negotiated settlement should exist that is preferable to suffering the cost of war. James Fearon’s (1995) “Rationalist Explanations for War” answers this criticism by arguing that war is essentially an exercise in seeking information. If leaders knew the outcome of a war in advance, they would not fight because a negotiated settlement in which neither side would suffer the cost of war would be preferable. Leaders, however, lack certain information. They believe they know the relative military capabilities of the two sides, and they believe that they know their level of resolve—roughly the cost they are willing to bear to win (measured in lives lost, expenditures, time, etc.). Likewise, leaders have information about the other side’s capability and resolve. These estimations, both of a state’s own power and of the opponent’s power, are imperfect. As wars are fought, information about these factors becomes available; when one side is clearly winning, the two sides update their knowledge about each other and are able to achieve a negotiated settlement. This explanation is also important in that it has been used by other scholars as a launching point to explain the reemergence of conflict and rivalries. Conflicts that end with clear victors are less likely to reemerge in the future than conflicts in which neither side is clearly defeated, since states have better information about their relative capabilities.
A third criticism of rational choice theory is more difficult to address: This criticism is that rational choice, while a useful tool, does not provide an effective explanation for preference formation of actors or for the methods that some actors are willing to use but others are not. Some rational choice theorists make room for the role of other theoretical explanations to establish the basic preferences of actors, including the possibility of normative restraints on options available to actors. More complex models take such factors into account by assigning them weights in a theory—some actors may weigh normative constraints more heavily than others. Some actors may be more willing to accept risk than others—something that can be modeled. The ability to include all such factors into a model does further the criticism, however, by suggesting that by incorporating so many possible factors into models, rational choice theorists may be providing insufficient explanations of behavior. In essence, in any particular case, a post hoc model can be constructed to provide a perfectly rational explanation for a state’s or leader’s behavior.
The best way to resolve this dilemma from a rational choice standpoint is to fully specify the source of an actor’s preference. As noted previously, some scholars, including Bueno de Mesquita, assume that political survival is the ultimate goal of a leader. Decisions on rivalry, conflict, and war are made with an eye to how those decisions impact political survival for a leader or party. In this manner, decisions to go to war that could be detrimental to remaining in power—whether due to loss in war or domestic unpopularity—are unlikely to be made, while decisions that lead to a leader’s staying in power will be made. In some instances, a leader may be unlikely to remain in power regardless of decisions made and may, in fact, gamble that a certain action, if successful, will result in his staying in power, no matter how unlikely that outcome is (a very small chance of staying in power may be better than no chance of staying in power). Even in specifying assumptions ahead of time, however, rational choice theories may be accused of post hoc rationalization—the idea that any action a leader made can be rationalized after the fact. By the same token, postevent analysis may also lead to the opposite criticism: that a leader should have realized the actions he was taking would lead to a fiasco.
In concluding this section, it is important to note that explanations for why states consider other parties to be rivals and why they fight may or may not be related. Neorealist theories may be combined to explain both (a) that states will balance against any state that is larger and (b) war occurs when one state is threatening to displace another in the power order. On the other hand, neoclassical realists, constructivists, and rational choice theories would all argue that there must be some form of disagreement for conflict to occur. For neoclassical realists, a revisionist state unhappy with the status quo may be necessary; for constructivists, two states must share concepts of one another that preclude peaceful relations; for rational choice theorists, the explanation lies in incompatible preferences: Both states want something that requires a settlement with the other state.When one or both states believe it is more likely to achieve its preference through conflict, conflict occurs.
III. Empirical Evidence
Empirical evidence for the different theoretical perspectives is somewhat hard to adjudicate. In this case, the history of the world, even if the analysis is limited to the 20th century or post–World War II era, is so rich with examples that support for many different theoretical perspectives is possible. For example, neorealists examining World Wars I and II often disagree about whether Germany was a state on the rise threatening to supplant the United Kingdom or Germany was already the dominant state threatened by a rising Russia, then a rising Soviet Union (for the former view, see Organski & Kugler, 1980; for the latter view, see Copeland, 2000). Historical details can be argued to support both positions. Debates on empirical support for various theories in international relations often come down to debates on the appropriate methodology for studying the issue. Some scholars focus on qualitative approaches (e.g., Copeland; Mearsheimer, 2001), using in-depth analysis of a few select cases to demonstrate their arguments, while others use statistical analysis of interactions between many different states over time (e.g., Diehl & Goertz, 2000; Vasquez & Henehan, 2007). Scholars emphasizing the qualitative approach argue that studying cases in depth provides a more nuanced understanding of the factors that lead to certain outcomes. More quantitatively focused scholars argue that by looking only at a small subset of cases, qualitative work may not sufficiently explain a wide range of cases or may misapply lessons from a few exceptional cases. Quantitative work, on the other hand, is often criticized for being probabilistic—it can explain tendencies but may not explain the particulars of many cases.
Nonetheless, the combination of quantitative and qualitative work on rivalries has led to some interesting conclusions. First, interstate wars frequently recur between the same sets of actors, suggesting that rivalries between states are an important source of international conflicts. Although conflicts are often between similarly sized opponents (suggesting balancing behavior), that is not always the case. As important appears to be a factor suggested by Fearon’s work and followed up by others: the importance of a clear victor. In wars where one side does not achieve a clear victory or outside actors impose a ceasefire, war is more likely to reemerge than if one state achieves its principal war aims. Second, wars are often about incompatible preferences. Several scholars, led by John Vasquez, have emphasized the importance of territorial disputes in predicting where wars will occur. In a similar vein, research on enduring rivalries—relationships between states marked by repeated conflict—suggests that rivalries are often likely to emerge in postcolonial areas or after great power conflict, two times when borders are most in flux. A third finding in studies of enduring rivalries is that when one state in a rivalry is a democracy, the rivalry tends to be shorter, and if both states in a rivalry become democracies, it is likely to end. This finding is in keeping with the democratic peace literature that suggests democracies are highly unlikely to fight other democracies, though democracies may be just as war prone as other states with nondemocracies.
On this last point, recent studies have indicated that the interest of a state’s leader may influence decisions on war and, at times, peace. New quantitative research indicates that, contrary to the diversionary war argument discussed above, leaders are most likely to start conflicts when they are secure in office. Although some examples of leaders gambling for their jobs may exist, on balance, most wars are started by leaders who are not facing significant opposition. This finding holds across regime types (Chiozza & Goemans, 2003).
Nonetheless, as continued disagreement on the real causes of World Wars I and II demonstrate, empirical questions regarding the sources of rivalries and conflict are not fully settled. International relations are quite complex; no simple, concise explanation has been found that explains the particulars of all conflicts or rivalries, though, as discussed previously, certain patterns have emerged from the data over time. Conclusions drawn from the data, however, may impact the policy decisions of states, as is discussed in the next section.
IV. Policy Implications
Understanding the dynamics of rivalry formation and the initiation of conflict has the potential to help prevent future conflicts. Frequently, however, it seems that insights from international relations theory either do not inform the decisions of policymakers or are misapplied. This section focuses on aspects of U.S. decision making during the cold war, the U.S. war in Iraq, and U.S. actions vis-à-vis China.
A. The Cold War
During the cold war, the United States worked to maintain a system of alliances around the world to contain the Soviet Union. The United States fought wars on the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam to support allies that were not central to the defense of U.S. security in the interest of preventing the spread of communism. It also spent a great deal of money and provided arms to countries around the world in order to ensure that they were friendlier to the United States than to the Soviet Union, sometimes supporting insurgencies against Soviet-backed governments. Although this section focuses on the United States, it is important to note that the Soviet Union engaged in similar behavior. International relations theory in general would not seem to be very sympathetic to these actions. Neorealists, particularly those influenced by Waltz, would argue that in a bipolar system, the primary focus of balancing behavior should be internal, not external. The United States may have expended resources it did not need to in order to confront the Soviet Union.
Neoclassical realism and constructivism would also seem to have suggested that the United States use a more cautious approach. For neoclassical realists, if the United States was perceived as a threat by engaging in aggressive acts, even ones intended to confront communism, balancing behavior against the United States should have been expected. Although U.S. policymakers seemed to have believed that the United States had to demonstrate its strength around the world to encourage states to ally with it, the predominant conclusion of neorealist theory is that states balance against the most powerful actors in the system. For constructivists, by continuing to treat the Soviet Union and all communist states as enemies and interpreting all actions through that lens, the United States helped to perpetuate the cold war dynamic.
In terms of the war in Iraq, two prominent neorealist scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2003), penned an article prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing against the move. Part of President George W. Bush’s motivation in invading Iraq was the spread of democracy to the Middle East, which seems to be based on the democratic peace theory that arose from international relations scholarship. Walt and Mearsheimer argued, however, that the war would not serve U.S. interest for several reasons, primarily because Iraq was not a true threat and could be easily deterred, contained, or both. They further noted that the war could have unintended consequences, and that an aggressive, unilateral foreign policy by the United States could provoke balancing behavior. Although the Bush administration did use the notion of democratic peace to help justify the invasion, on a larger level international relations theory seems not to have played a large role in the decision-making process.
Regarding China, different international relations theories suggest different futures—and recommended courses of action—for U.S. policy. If neorealism is correct and the natural tendency of states is to balance against more powerful ones, the United States should continue to expect China to build up its military and should, in fact, continue to arm itself in an effort to defend itself against China. In the neorealist view of the world as anarchic, states must be prepared to defend themselves. In this case, the United States must be ready to defend itself and its interests against China. Note that this does not mean that the United States should take an aggressive tone or provoke confrontations with China—neorealists would not want the United States to hasten balancing behavior even if it is inevitable.
Neoclassical realism, although concerned about Chinese power, would also concern itself with Chinese intent. Is China a revisionist state that is dissatisfied with the status quo? If China is dissatisfied, then the United States should be alarmed. If it is not or if the United States can reasonably accommodate China without weakening its own position, the United States may have little to fear in a more powerful China. Finally, constructivism would suggest that the United States will have a major role to play in defining its future relationship with China. If the United States treats China primarily as a threat, China is likely to reciprocate, and the relationship may become one marked by rivalry, much like the cold war. If, on the other hand, the United States seeks to work with China as a partner, a rivalry relationship becomes much less likely. This debate on the preferred approach to China is ongoing both in government and among international relations scholars. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, a well-respected nonpartisan foreign policy organization, have held numerous forums and published several books examining this question, eliciting debate from individuals from multiple schools of thought.
To conclude, international relations theory often produces policy recommendations that are at odds with the policies ultimately chosen by the United States. Nonetheless, some prominent academics, including Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice at the highest levels and individuals such as Joseph Nye and Larry Diamond at lower levels, have played a role in policy formation. Potential reasons that scholars of international relations have had a difficult time in influencing policy on questions of conflict may include (a) a focus on explaining past conflicts rather than predicting future behavior, (b) widespread disagreement among scholars on preferred policies, and (c) theoretic explanations that do not always readily translate into policy prescriptions. Finally, it may also be the case that theory could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. If the United States engages in balancing behavior with China at the behest of neorealist scholarship and China reciprocates, both neorealists and constructivists could claim to be correct. Constructivists would be able to argue that the United States provoked the balancing behavior with its actions, while the neorealists would argue that China’s behavior proved them to be correct all along.
V. Future Directions
The international system is in a constant state of change, a fact recognized even by scholars who argue that the basic motivations of states are consistent over time. Among the questions with which future scholars must grapple are these: (a) Will the United States and China emerge as rivals in a new cold war; (b) do terrorists organizations such as al Qaeda represent a true threat to the traditional notions of statehood; (c) has economic globalization, particularly close ties between the economies of states like China and the United States, lessened the likelihood of future wars; (d) have normative shifts over the past 60 years made states less likely to resort to war; and finally (e) what will future conflict look like?
Each of these questions has an impact on the future study of international relations. Part of the answer to the first question may depend on the advice that international relations scholars provide to policymakers on the United States–China relationship. Question two addresses an underlying assumption of this research paper: that states matter. Future scholars must weigh the balance they give to interstate war and rivalry versus war between states and nonstate actors. The third question asks whether economic ties and economic globalization have changed the way states interact. The United States is a major market for Chinese goods; any conflict between China and the United States would be bad from an economic standpoint. In answer to the fourth question, constructivists would argue that the use of war as an instrument of policy simply is not accepted among states as it once was and that states who engage in aggressive war—even the United States—face consequences for their actions. Finally, the weapons and tactics of war have evolved over time. Future wars may not look like past ones; for example, many states, now including the United States, have dedicated commands that focus on cyberwarfare. These are just some of the questions facing the field of international relations; they do not even address debates that still continue over the causes of past events or unforeseen circumstances that will arise in the future.
This research paper has provided an introduction to several schools of thought on what leads to rivalries between states and the causes of interstate war. The field of international relations has many schools of thought that attempt to answer these questions, and the schools of thought themselves are subject to great debates. While neorealists focus on the role of power and the natural tendency to balance against power due to the vagaries of international anarchy and the need for security, constructivists emphasize that states and leaders have a role in constructing their own reality. Although these theories may provide some insight into which states will be rivals (states competing for power or states who enter a cycle of competition), they may be less powerful in explaining the actual emergence of war. For that, theories that analyze the preferences and actions of leaders provide useful insights into the decisions that lead to war. Such arguments often focus on the incompatibility of preferences between actors. Finally, the empirical evidence available does not lead to definitive conclusions. Sadly, the reality of the persistence of war affords ample opportunity for theorists to argue over war’s cause.
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