Richard Ned Lebow


On his book Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War

Cover Interview of October 03, 2010

The wide angle

Three shifts in thinking influenced the frequency of war and its motives.

The first concerns the nature of wealth.  Until Adam Smith and modern economics, the world’s wealth was thought to be finite, making an increase in wealth for any state thought to result in a loss for others.  Once political elites learned that total wealth could be augmented by the division of labor, mechanical sources of energy and economies of scale, economic cooperation became feasible and increasingly important.  It all but put an end to wars of material aggrandizement.

The second shift began in the nineteenth century and is about collective versus autarkic pursuit of security.  Alliances assumed new meaning at the Congress of Vienna as they had the goal of conflict prevention. Later congresses helped great powers ease regional tensions through agreements and moral suasion.  Following World War I, the League of Nations was given the more ambitious task of preventing war by means of collective security, but failed miserably.  The principle of collective security endured and thee United Nations, established in 1945, made it the principal mission of the Security Council.  The UN’s record is mixed, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been more successful.  It and other international groupings have played a prominent and arguably successful role in keeping the peace or terminating wars in the post-Cold War world.  Collective security has become the norm and an important source of regional and international stability.

The third and most recent shift in thinking concerns the nature of standing in international affairs.  Historically, military success was the principal means of gaining standing and recognition as a great power.  There are other of achieving status within states.  The European Union, Scandinavia, Canada, Japan and Brazil all claim standing on grounds that have nothing to do with military might.

The more robust regional and international orders become, the more multiple hierarchies of standing will also emerge at the international level.  States will feel more confident about seeking standing in diverse ways and devoting resources toward this end that might otherwise be reserved for the military.

A significant increase in standing of countries associated with alternate visions of the international system was indicated, for example, by a BBC World Service poll conducted in early 2007.  As reported in Australia’s The Age, Canada and Japan topped the list of countries that respondents (54%) viewed as exerting a positive influence in the world, followed by France (50%), Britain (45%), China (42%), and India (37%).

If peace continues among the major powers, claims for standing on the basis of military power will become even less persuasive.  As standing confers influence, states will have additional incentives to shift their foreign policies to bring them in line with the dominant incentive structure.  In such a world states would view even more negatively the use of force in the absence of unqualified international support.

From the vantage point of say the year 2030, we might look back on the Iraq war as one of the defining moments of the international relations of the twenty-first century because of the way it delegitimized the unilateral use of force and foregrounded and encouraged alternative, peaceful means of gaining standing.