Academic journal article Parameters

Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War

Academic journal article Parameters

Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War

Article excerpt

Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives For War

by Richard Ned Lebow

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010

249 pages $29.99


The question Lebow poses in his title is perhaps the J. oldest and most vexing question in the history of both international relations and its study. Perhaps this is why there have been so many continuing answers from philosophy, biology, anthropology, economics, history, and other disciplines that still strive to resolve this question. And because there are so many vintners tilling this vineyard it probably takes an intrepid man and scholar to enter into this issue and say something original. But Lebow proves that he is well equipped to do this.

Anyone writing such a book does so because he or she is obviously dissatisfied with the answers and thinking that now attaches itself to this question. Indeed, for example, a fair amount of social science literature, or perhaps more precisely literature aspiring to call itself scientific, has announced that war is a form of bargaining. While there may be something to this kind of bloodless analysis, a subject so lethal and terrifying as the reasons for war cries out for something which accounts for the role of the passions and for thinking that goes awry in our lives. Lebow clearly is dissatisfied with answers that exclude critical elements of the human psyche (whether individually or collectively in the form of nations) in accounting for the origins of war. And as often has been the case in intellectual history fruitful innovations in thought arise from a return to the classical wellsprings of wisdom that we find in the classics.

That is what Lebow has done. He analyzes war initiation in terms of the motives and relative power of states. He finds that earlier and often well accepted or conventional explanations for war are unsatisfying. Analyses in terms of security, material, or economic interest prove to be of declining relevance in accounting for the motives for war initiation. He also believes the nexus between war and standing, or perhaps prestige, is also declining and as the Anglo-American war in Iraq suggests it is no longer necessary to initiate wars to gain what the author calls standing in world politics. Likewise, wars of revenge, initiated to recover lost territory, are also declining in frequency. …

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