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The Origins of War: Policy or Power?
on June 19, 2012
Summary: Historians should use as many tricks as possible to explain events and generalizations, Donald Kagan writes. The trick this book uses is to examine the origins of war through detailed examples, what he calls "comparative narrative history." Kagan hopes this method, tying quantity and quality together, will shed light on a question that that has bedeviled mankind for millennia. Indeed, his case studies span nearly 2,500 years. What he does not do is attempt to create a general theory of war, deriding that approach as at best explaining war's dismal recurrence throughout the millennia, while not explaining why any particular war came about (p. 70). Therefore, he examines in detail four major wars and one-near miss. These are the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the Second Punic War, World War Two, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are not presented chronologically since the author likens the Peloponnesian war to the First World War, and the Second Punic War to World War Two. What does Kagan find? He agrees with the ancient Greek chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, that wars are fought over "honor, fear, and interest." In explaining why interest leads to war, Kagan writes: "In a world of sovereign states a contest among them over the distribution of power is the normal condition and that such contests often lead to war (p. 569)." He calls this the search for security or material advantage. As for fear, threats emerge from distant threats, and this makes reassurance against them difficult, if not impossible. As a result, Kagan concludes that war is part of the human condition which may be with us for a long time. But Kagan's most important conclusion concerns war for honor's sake. These are demands for greater, prestige, honor, and respect. These seemingly trivial issues have played a role in surprisingly large number of conflicts, according to Kagan, such as the Peloponnesian War, sparked by Corinthian demands on Corcyra, based both on a thirst for revenge and a desire to improve their position in the Greek city-state system. This was not material interest, according to Kagan, but honor.
Critique: Kagan acknowledges a debt of gratitude to "realist" scholars who argue that states seek power for security reasons, referred to as interest. But are `interest' and `fear' really different? Interest refers to material gain in terms of power that may benefit the state; Fear means a possible threat that a state chooses to act on sooner rather than later. Both are attempts to increase a state's power in relation to another. More problematic is the factor of honor. Corinth's desire to improve its station in the Greek city-state system is referred to as honor, but isn't the improvement of a state's position in the system an important, if not material, interest that may improve their security? The fact that an interest in not tangible does not make it honorific. It may still be related to security, just not in a physical sense. If this is the case, Kagan has not broken any new ground from the realists. He simply restating the long-standing realist case that in an anarchic world state's seek to increase their security by gaining as much power as possible.
Case Studies: Considering that one of Kagan's main conclusions is that war and not peace is the natural order of things as a result of the contest over the distribution of power, Kagan finds much to blame in the actions of statesmen in starting wars. As mentioned, he finds Corinth's demands on Corcyra as the major catalyst to the Peloponnesian War, as Athens feared a Corinthian victory would tip the balance of power against them. Yet is not clear that Corinth's demands were unreasonable for their own security needs. In the First World War, he finds that Germany sought to secure its empire by weakening both France and Russia. Yet he faults Britain for not building a large army capable of deterring Germany. Such a threat could have saved Europe from four years of terrible war, Kagan claims. But is not also possible that a British arms buildup could just have easily have pushed Germany to war faster, before a potential Anglo force could be ready? Kagan faults Rome entirely for the Second Punic War. He claims that their alliance with Saguntum provoked the Carthaginians and violated the agreements they had imposed on Carthage after the First Punic War. Moreover, the Romans imposed a harsher peace that was agreed on, raising Carthaginian ire. Kagan proposes a policy of containment, leaving Saguntum to Carthage while maintaining an army north of the Ebro. But such a policy would have left Carthage in control of one more city and its resources, to potentially be used against the Romans. Indeed it was this that fear that prevented Rome from abandoning the city. Kagan makes a similar argument for the Second World War. Here, the victors, the allies, did not create a constructive peace, as Britain failed to arm sufficiently to restrain Germany. But it is not clear that such a policy would have worked anyway. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kagan writes that the crisis came about in the first place due to Kennedy's failure to convince the Soviets that he had the will to use America's superior power if necessary. This thesis has been challenged elsewhere, as some believe that Khrushchev was aware of, and impressed with America's military might, and this led him to gamble on secretly introducing nuclear weapons into the Western Hemisphere in order to alter the balance of power. But American spy planes caught the missiles before they were ready and the gamble failed.
Conclusion: This book is filled with contradictions. Kagan is aware of the anarchic nature of the international system that leads states to seek power and security, achieved through occasional wars. Despite this, he places almost all the emphasis in this narrative on statesmen and their policies. Wars happen and are times inevitable, but prudent policies might have avoided them here and there, Kagan tells us. Yet his alternative policies are far from convincing. He seems to want to have it both ways, telling us that war is always with us, but that smart statesman can avoid war. Five years after this book was published another similar work came out Dale Copeland's "The Origins of Major War." Like Kagan, Copeland used a comparative narrative history, detailing many of the same wars. Unlike Kagan, Copeland found that wars are often inevitable because the power of a rising state challenges that of an established one. War results, regardless of the best intentions and policies of statesmen. Copeland eliminates the contradictions found in Kagan's work, explaining that the anarchic nature of the state system leads states to seek power in order to insure their own security, even if it means war. This situation cannot be altered as long as anarchy exists. Apparently, Donald Kagan never understood this. He also seems woefully unaware of what Robert Art calls "the security dilemma," that in an anarchic world if one state increases its military might in order to deter others, the result is that it makes others less secure by the fact that it is now more powerful, and hence, more threatening. All of the case studies presented here fall into this pattern, regardless of specific state policies. Many of Kagan's policy critiques are interesting, and thought-provoking in the "what-if" sense, but he presents them as certainties, not possibilities. But most of all, he zeroes in on micro-level factors when what really drives the origins of war are much larger variables, the fluctuations of state power, which no single policy or statesman can overcome.