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Review of Causes of War

The study of international relations has long been riddled with questions far
exceeding its capabilities within a subject that is constantly changing and heterogeneous
global political community. While there are many mysteries within international
relations that must be solved, one of the most elemental is what causes war, which Levy
and Thompson (L&T) take up in their work. Rather than creating new arguments and
entering the fray, L&T give the reader a summary overarching IR theories and present
their own resulting analytical questions to give “an appreciation for past efforts to make
sense of the cause of war… and further efforts to reduce incidence of war (p219).” With
this noble cause in mind, L&T have created a great starting point for the public and IR
students to understand international relations through a more theoretical framework,
however policymakers and scholars would find limited use for Causes of War other than
a ‘refresher’ (one would hope…). L&T summarize the IR field adequately and even
help legitimize newer concepts by emphasizing them, bring up some shortfalls with
various theories and provide a well-rounded foundation of IR works with some
basic analysis. However, L&T’s work seems to fall short of reconciling some of the
overarching pitfalls of IR theory and fails to promote any proscriptive solutions to
longstanding IR problems.
After briefly defining the term ‘war,’ and describing how warfare has changed
over time, L&T describe the levels-of-analysis based on Waltz’s 1959 Man, the State and
War, clearly situating the exploration of causes of war in the levels framework instead of
a realist/liberal/constructivist perspective. Clearly the authors give importance to the
levels view of international politics, which allows more flexible use of IR theories to
explain various parts of the IR process. L&T then begin the various explanations of IR
theories with realism in many of its varieties, following the natural evolution of the IR
field from ‘rational unitary actor’ models to more complex models with varying
theoretical foundations. While this makes sense historically for a summary of the field, it
also implies realism is largely useful as a beginning theory to which has been modified to
more accurately describe international relations. L&T summarize realism as classical
conception but then move on to more recent additions and modifications, spanning the
theory’s breadth. Yet, L&T give little weight to realism and even include its own
divisions. By highlighting the hegemonic models as rebuttals to balance of power
explanations within the realist framework, L&T relate the many theoretical divisions
within IR. However, the authors treat each of these theories as equals in an attempt to
give an unbiased approach to the IR field. Commendable as this is, very prominent
contradictions have been glossed over in the process, notably that balancing powers and
hegemonic theory are mutually exclusive models of the world, even though both are
based on similar ‘balancing’ behaviors of states. Whether the nation-state system is
anarchic or “managed by a leading state within a hierarchical order (p44)” is a
fundamental question for IR, and the ambiguity with which the authors approach the
subject leads to much of the shortfalls and failed logic later in the book. Rather than
navigate these differences, L&T quickly move on from realism and highlight important
theoretical ideas more recently added to the literature.
In keeping with the book’s structure, the authors explain dyadic interactions next,
even though temporally it’s a newer concept than societal and individual factors. While
the authors present some interesting conceptualizations of different causes of and thus
possible preventive methods of war, the ‘dyadic interactions’ explanations appear mostly
to be extensions of realism in specific hypothetical contexts. International rivalry, while
fairly well developed and provable, explains very little about warfare. Anyone with a
map of the world would decide that states sharing borders would have higher rates of
conflict, and obviously territory would be involved. Steps-to-war model adds to this
construction the use of realist perceptions in conflicts and their likeliness to create a self-
fulfilling prophecy of war. The mutually reinforcing realist actions-reactions and the
“learned behaviors of war (p63),” while interesting and compelling, seem to be a more
psychological/decision-maker explanation of war than any dyadic aspect of conflict.
L&T also flat out miss the compelling yet simple critique of the liberal economic model,
namely that peace-promotes-trade rather than trade-promotes-peace.
Confusions of causality are numerous in the IR field (maybe one the few
characteristics it has in common with ‘hard’ sciences), and L&T’s omission of a fairly
basic causality problem puts their ability to truly question IR theory in doubt. By
highlighting the concepts presented in this chapter as ‘dyadic interactions’ rather than
including the concept of “soft power,” the authors again tip their anti-realist hand and
shows they wish to give as little credibility to realism as possible. Instead of being the
impartial introduction material to IR the authors earlier claimed, the use of ‘dyadic
interactions’ Instead of using any the multitude of ways academics have tried to augment
realism, the authors exhibit the ‘dyadic interactions’ explanation in order to rely on the
“very strong empirical regularities… of the democratic peace theory.” What has gone
unsaid though, is that while democratic peace theory (DPT) is a unique result in IR
(especially given the ambiguous nature of the field), it’s most impressive correlation
depends on comparing states in a dyadic relationship rather than across the whole global
political system. Although democratization will be addressed more in depth later, the key
fault in this section was a somewhat slight-of-hand use of dyadic interactions where the
authors give this relatively new material much more weight than it most likely deserves
and taking away possible modifications to realism in terms of economic and political
In moving on to Waltz’s “second image” of societal causes for wars, the authors
give surprising prominence to Marxist-Leninist theories of war. Although for all
intensive purposes Marxist-Leninist theories have been proven wrong throughout the
globe, their inclusion is in IR education is good because it provides a contrasting view of
capitalism and it is largely the basis for societal conceptualizations of the nation-state.
The authors highlight well the definitional and causational conundrums found in the
coalitional theories. Evident examples are ‘overexpansion’ and ‘diversionary wars,’
which both become indistinguishable events from just ordinary ‘wars’ since the terms are
based on perceptions. Democratic peace theory is then introduced and deservedly
receives the most attention of any single theory at 13 pages. Unfortunately, L&T’s
exploration of the causal mechanisms of DPT leaves the reader feeling unenthused and
even confused about the theory. The authors jump from explanation to critique to
explanation, focusing haphazardly on varying parts of DPT and different resulting issues
for IR theory, leaving the most concrete finding of IR history in fairly incoherent
On an individual level, the authors introduce the rational decision-making model
and then follow with psychological and other non-rational explanations of war based on
individual actors. Within this chapter the authors include many ideas that come from
other academic traditions, such as expected utility and sunk costs from economics, in-
group/out-group from anthropology, cognitive dissonance and heuristics from
psychology, rhetorical and ‘lessons of the past’ uses of history and even some social
science like the earlier analogous use of dyadic interactions. With every psychological
concept, the authors include anecdotal evidence by citing historical examples and their
psychological explanations. Unfortunately, the authors provide a laundry list of various
‘psychological IR theories,’ that really are just borrowed concepts from other fields of
study with minimal proof and not unifying structure or application in terms of IR.
Expected utility makes sense in the self-defined work of economics, however a
housewife buying dish soap and the U.S. President deciding military strategy are two
very different situations, yet same concept is being applied without any proven linkage or
academic foundation. IR scholars must rely on self-defined terms rather than
extrapolated metaphors taken as facts in order to avoid inconsistencies.
L&T include Allison’s organizational process and bureaucratic politics in the
context of conflict, portraying this inclusion as groundbreaking for conflict resolution
scholarship. While these models’ incorporation is important to conflict resolution, the
novelty seems artificial. The inclusion of these models also tells us little about any
causes of war, since the organizational and bureaucratic process remain mostly constant
in times of peace and in times of war. Without any further development of these models,
it seems our authors have added nothing to understanding conflict, and maybe added to
the confusion. Lastly, the chapter on civil war is interesting, but at its heart seems to be
an ill-fated attempt at combining two very different phenomena. Even without civil
conflicts, wars are inherently difficult to define and have very different characteristics
from inter-state wars. Intrastate conflict is nonetheless incredibly important, especially
given the changes we’ve seen in conflict during this century – but probably best left in
their own context.
Causes of War is a much better title than A Quick Overview of IR Theory,
however the latter would be more appropriate. L&T have presented an excellent
summary of the field along with thought-provoking questions about academics’ works.
However, the book lacks direction and purpose in reviewing IR theory. The authors
never bring up the trade-off between finding predictive or proscriptive theories which
could have real impacts on conflicts versus creating complex explanatory theories which
can be molded to fit any situation but help little in shaping a more peaceful future. Thus,
the reader is left with basic IR knowledge but little direction and no urgency. Levy and
Thompson achieve academic distance from the human cost of war but derive none of the

Levy and Thompson
- They seem to avoid acknowledging the circularity of many arguments or
misapplied causalities; this is a huge weakness of IR
- Seem undecided on the purpose/overall goal of IR. If it’s to lessen the incidence
of war, how will it do this? Is the audience academia only, politicians, public,
who? Will it impact by affecting policy, brining attention to the public,
influencing future leaders…etc.? And if so, how does this book fit in?
- Use of ideas from economics, anthropology, history, psychology – never seems to
take issue with these concepts/terms/issues being molded into IR. Do all of them
have equal value?

Levels-of-analysis framework vs. liberal/realist/constructivist framework

- much better model, however inconsistencies within this model (mixing using
different levels to explain different parts of an issue, makes the argument weak
since its inconsistent, leads to many ambiguities/problems of causation)
- Excellent descriptive model (necessitating, however, much hindsight, collection
of information, various viewpoints, analysis of data, etc.) no proscriptive value
nor predictive value  very academic. How do we use this interpretation in the
real world? Does this line of inquiry further academia’s interests or politicians’

- relevant to the way governments function (maybe more so within democratic
governments than authoritarian/dictatorships, since in democracies the leader
changes fairly regularly and there are checks and balances, which gives individual
organizations more room to maneuver politically. Dictatorships, however,
function in a more top-down manner, giving org/BP less relevance and probably
functioning on a more personalistic / clientelist method of divvying up power. 2
o 1. Maybe this explanation is merely an extrapolation and further
explanation of the DPT
o 2. Organizational structures and BP remain a constant part of government
function, and by the hierarchical nature of governments are almost a
defining characteristic of gov’ts. Thus, if Org/BP is an explaining factor
of war, not very convincing since the same org/BP structure exists during
peace as well.

This book, and possibly IR as a whole, is framing the question incorrectly. The way the
book frames the topic of war is one of natural occurrence, as if it were exploring the
causes of hurricanes or volcanic eruptions. War, however, is not a natural event that
disrupts the lives of humans, but rather a human-created disruption of the natural state of
things. Instead of asking, “What are the causes of war?” maybe we should ask, “Why
do people decide to go to war?” Any legitimate explanation must be based in the human
aspect, since any explanation of war which focuses on ways to avoid, mitigate or repair
the destructive impact of war misses the point – war is the result of peoples’ thoughts,
decisions and ultimately their actions. Presenting war as some unfortunate natural
disaster avoids our own culpability and leads us in the wrong direction of solving the
problem. Even if we accept the realist systemic arguments in which nations that want to
avoid war can become helplessly entrapped in war is invalid, because the system has
been created by humans in the first place.

Also, IR as a whole and this book, seems to accept war as a function of the nation-state
system, and by definition never questions the nation-state system itself. This leads IR
scholars to treat war and conflict as something far removed from themselves, and lack an
urgency to resolve the problem of war and conflict.