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War Theory


  1. Holsti, Kalevi J. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order1648-1989 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991].
  2. Jervis, Robert. "Deterrence Theory Revisited," in World Politics, 1979, pp. 289-324.
  3. Levy, Jack. "The Causes of War: A Review of Theories and Evidence," in Philip E. Tetlock, Jo L. Husbands, Robert Jervis, Paul C. Stern and Charles Tilly eds., Behavior, Society and Nuclear War, Volume I [NY: Oxford University Press, 1989], pp. 209-333.
  4. Vasquez, John. The War Puzzle [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993].


On This Topic

"War theory" could mean theory of fighting wars, or theory of the use of war (and threat of war) in coercive diplomacy, or the ethics of war. This Topic leaves those important questions aside to focus, instead, on why wars occur.

I have deliberately chosen just a handful of recent works to illustrate, for the general reader, academic approaches to this question in the United States. Each makes an argument from experience and cases, but they follow several distinct tacks.

Levy canvasses self-consciously 'theoretical' work on 'war causes' among academics; he should like to find rulefulness, but concludes that there is little agreement among scholars about 'the causes of war.'

Vasquez focuses on 'great wars'; he has much good sense to say about them; he insists on a useful distinction between the onset of war and the spread of war. His conclusions are most persuasive when he chooses a constrained question, reflecting--in my view--his well-grounded judgment.

Jervis' concise 1979 article remains valuable in pointing out that 'realism' does not exhibit the empirical grounding which its claims imply, and in then deftly canvassing several of the issues which follow.

Holsti adopts a quite different vantage-point, less concerned with 'theoretical' positions. He looks at successive grand settlements and the wars which followed them, to discern conditions and practices making for war avoidance.


Related Topics

Attempts at 'war theory' stand alongside attempts to interpret the onset of specific wars. Consider, for example, efforts to explain why war rages in former Yugoslavia:

Reference Works, Graphics, & Links

  1. Wright, Quincy. A Study of War [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd. ed. 1965].
      Originally published in 1942. The 1965 edition includes an extensive discussion of war after 1942.
  2. Richardson, Lewis. [Quincy Wright and C. C. Lineau eds.] Statistics of Deadly Quarrels [Pittsburgh: Boxwood Press, 1960].


Other Related Works, Graphics, & Links

  1. Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War.
  2. War Research Sources [G. Segell, King's College, London]
  3. "Symposium: Methodological Foundations of the Study of International Conflict," in International Studies Quarterly, v29 n 2, June 1985, pp. 119-154, consisting of the following items:
    • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce. "Toward a Scientific Understanding of International Conflict: A Personal View."
    • Krasner, Stephen D. "Toward Understanding in International Relations."
    • Jervis, Robert. "Pluralistic Rigor: A Comment on Bueno de Mesquita."
    • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce. "Reply to Stephen Krasner and Robert Jervis."
  4. Jervis, Robert. The Logic of Images in International Relations [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970, 1989].
  5. Jervis,Robert. Perception and Misperception in International Politics [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976].
  6. Waltz, Kenneth. Man, the State and War [New York: Columbia University Press, 1959].


Drafter's Notes

Reading these works will not leave the Reader with a clear answer to the question "Why do wars occur?" But Reader will have encountered, directly (Vasquez, Holsti) and through a review article (Levy), some of the best scholarship on the subject, and been introduced as well to the insightful work of Robert Jervis (of which there are additional citations under Related Works). For my own part I would follow Michael Walzer's observation that wars are more like arson than accidental blazes: then wars are undertaken, and do not merely 'occur.' It requires asking, then, why some people use war and threat of war as instruments of policy. Holsti's work is important because it addresses the two issues which war as policy poses: what steps make it less likely war will seem good policy? but if someone should come forward who seeks gain by war, what could others have done to deter and resist?




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Acknowledgments and Revision History

Last revised 95.11.01.

95.07.09 Topic initiated.


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