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Why is war so central to the academic study of International Politics?

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The human being, as a social animal has always been in the middle of a behaviorist crossroad. Cooperation and conflict have always been the two main options humans have had when socializing with other …

The human being, as a social animal has always been in the middle of a behaviorist crossroad. Cooperation and conflict have always been the two main options humans have had when socializing with other individuals. In the V century B.C., Thucydides had already studied conflict among individuals in its most extended and destructive form writing about the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens. In the modern age, from Thomas Hobbes to Hans Morgenthau, we can see that war and its causes have been and continue to be one of the most important issues for the social sciences academia (Baldwin: 1979, p. 161). But, why war? Destruction, violence or competition seem to captivate the human being the same way fire does. Fire is the singularity of a chemical reaction that is only produced under certain exceptional conditions in nature. It needs fuel, a means to propagate and detonating. Fire has certain similarities with war. It is exceptional1, but because of its magnitude and power to transform the environment, its capacity attract the humans being’s attention is practically inevitable and even more so today, with the dramatic increase of the destructive ability of weapons.

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  • 1. 1 Why is war so central to the academic study of International Politics? Francisco Ruiz Sánchez Msc International Relations 2014 The University of Glasgow ______________________________________ Introduction In order to answer a question with such broad significance, we would first pay special attention to the concept of war. How do we understand war? How can we measure it? A priori, an intuitive definition makes me think about power and conflict within a system. And how do we operate with these concepts? If we start from the premise that war is fundamental to the study of International Politics, the way we study power and conflict within the system should determine such centrality. Therefore, the aim of this essay will be to reflect upon the centrality of war on the basis of these terms, taking the modern state as a unit of analysis. The human being, as a social animal has always been in the middle of a behaviorist crossroad. Cooperation and conflict have always been the two main options humans have had when socializing with other individuals. In the V century B.C., Thucydides had already studied conflict among individuals in its most extended and destructive form writing about the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens. In the modern age, from Thomas Hobbes to Hans
  • 2. 2 Morgenthau, we can see that war and its causes have been and continue to be one of the most important issues for the social sciences academia (Baldwin: 1979, p. 161). But, why war? Destruction, violence or competition seem to captivate the human being the same way fire does. Fire is the singularity of a chemical reaction that is only produced under certain exceptional conditions in nature. It needs fuel, a means to propagate and detonating. Fire has certain similarities with war. It is exceptional1 , but because of its magnitude and power to transform the environment, its capacity attract the humans being’s attention is practically inevitable and even more so today, with the dramatic increase of the destructive ability of weapons. From a less philosophical perspective, what interests International Politics is the analysis of the power that shapes the system and the conflict that leads to lack of cooperation, and finally, to war. Power is inevitably the force that molds our social word. In relation to the states, power has been traditionally interpreted from a structural perspective, focused on material quantification and ultimately centered upon military capacity (Baldwin: 2002, p. 177). Conflict on the other hand, has been generally accepted as something inseparable from the human ethos since Hobbes came up with the State of Nature in order to define violence and anarchy in society. If we understand International Politics focuses mainly on power relations and conflict among states, we should then plunge into the general understanding academics have about these concepts that takes us to study war as the latest expression of both. Thus, this essay is structured in three straightforward parts. The first part deals with power in International Politics, emphasizing its structural version which unites it with the centrality of military power in the relations among
  • 3. 3 states. Then, in part two I will focus on the relation of conflict and anarchy in the system, which will take us to the conclusion of my reflection on why war is central to the academic study of International Politics. Power in International Politics: Military power and the traditional structural view Studying power as a relationship between two subjects is something relatively new (Baldwin: 1979, p.162). Harold Laswell and Abraham Kaplan in 1950, and after them Robert Dahl in 1957, lay the groundwork for the modern study of power as causal relations based on cultural context2 (Baldwin: 1979, p.161). However, until then power between states had been studied primarily under material terms from a pure structural perspective (Baldwin: 2002, p. 177). In the XVI century, in his work “The Prince”, Machiavelli was the first to relate the power of the governor to his capacity to accumulate military power more than any other (Machiavelli: [1513] 2005ed). The quantification of power has given a central importance to the military capacity of the states, to such extent that some academics have equated power to “the study of the capacity to wage war” (Cline: [1975] 1997). This idea of war as the definitive form of power, David Baldwin tells us, is extended in the study of international politics (Baldwin: 1979, p.184). There are also some authors that see the use of military power as something inevitably complementary to International Politics. Robert Art, for instance, introduces us to the concept of “power actives”, focusing his analysis on military power, economic power and political power (Art: 2011, pp. 196-198).
  • 4. 4 Regarding military power, he reflects specifically upon its gravitational effect which, according to him, gives it the feature of influencing the political calculations of the actors within the international realm (Art: 2011, pp. 196- 198). The size and quality of an army is what we usually use to measure the military power of a state. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to think that an accurate way to measure its utility as the domain of its extension could be to look at its influence in other areas of power, such as politics or economy. It is this ability to influence other areas of power, Art tells us, that turns it into a very versatile and “fungible” power (Art: 2011, pp. 198). When Art talks about the fungibility of force, he is pointing to the notable level of influence it has in other realms of power. Thus, he gives us the example as the use of force to create economic wealth: during the cold war the United States granted the expansion of their liberal economy thanks to their military influence (Art: 2011, p. 206). Reflecting upon this idea of the superior influence of military power on others, we might wonder what makes military power something so important in the international realm to the point that it influences the political and economic power of other states. We can argue too, that while political and economic power are based on ideas and concepts such as the variable value of money or the legal validity of treaties, military power is founded on physical things that do not change their function or their aim with time. In other words, military power is completely tangible3 . Let’s look at the example of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the communist block in the early 90’s of the past century put Russia aside the first line of International Politics. Its economic power was drained and its political leadership was under deep transformation.
  • 5. 5 Nevertheless, it is reasonable to think that its military power, based on nuclear weapons, was threatening enough to allow them to stay in such an important institution as the Security Council of the United Nations. Ergo, we understand then that the military power of a state is interconnected with all off the others, its main function in International Politics war or deterrence. This way of thinking has prevailed in the minds of International Politics’ students since Machiavelli to Hans Morgenthau4 and has, therefore, given a very notable emphasis to the study of the military power upon others. The key to understanding this mental setting is to think about war thought as a natural outcome of the game of power among states. Reflection of war as a conflict within an anarchic system We have just seen how the structural vision of power has given a traditionally privileged position to the study of military power in International Politics. War, as an outcome of confrontation among these powers, arises from the conflict within a system without an apparent central authority. In other words, the states deal with each other and compete for their interests in an anarchical system. Until the constructivist revolution of the 90’s, this anarchical quality of the international system had been thought by the great majority of International Relations theorists as something inevitable (Wendt: 1999). Since discipline was born, the most eminent classical theories of International Relations have considered anarchy as the defining principle of the environment where International Politics take place. Some theories such as, realism or neorealism, see it as something that cannot be mitigated nor overcome in any way, since
  • 6. 6 they believe mainly in the principle of survival of the states (on the basis of self-help), the balance of power or the maximization of power (In that order: Morgenthau: 1954; Waltz: 1979; Mearsheimer: 2001). On the other hand, we have the theories that see anarchy as something that states can mitigate. Although they admit that it is the organizational principle, liberals and neoliberals argue that through interdependence in one case and norms and laws in the other, anarchy can be controlled and moderated (Kehoane & Nye: 2001). Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not anarchy can be mitigated, all of them see anarchy as something that is in the system, inherent to it. Then, if the theories that study some of the main aspects of International Politics start with the paradigm of anarchy, it is reasonable to think that war is a phenomenon which underlies the whole international system. From a more dramatic standpoint, we could even believe that everything that happens in the international realm is what takes place between situations of conflict. This idea of the possibility of conflict is fundamental and in all theories remains central, in terms of cooperation and survival of the states. The conflicts that take place within a state can be settled by justice, because in the states we have a fully functional hierarchy. However, among states, when they collide there is no police nor justice system to go to, that is why conflict means war in the majority of the cases5 . Therefore, with this statement, we reach the second pillar of the trend of thought that has dominated international politics throughout the last century; and since war is something embedded in the system, its causes, extent and meaning are fields of study that the social scientist takes as his own, making the realm of study and investigation of war something that is constantly growing.
  • 7. 7 Conclusion Why war is something so central for the academic study of International Politics is a question that can encompass an endless sort of valid and imaginative answers. When facing a question with so many different interpretations, one should first set the limits of his own understanding. In this case, here I have explained the importance of war emphasizing how we think it in the academia of International Politics. In this essay I have tried to answer the question by focusing on the epistemological assumptions that International Politics’ students generally have when they think of war. The way we have traditionally measured power among states and our vision of the nature of conflict has brought us to this conclusion: war is central to the study of International Politics because of the traditional focus on the structural vision of power and the understanding of conflict as inherent of an anarchical international system. Thus, the key interest of military power and the concept of anarchy within the system is what has generally led the academia to study war in International Politics as something central and, somehow, as a natural outcome in the international system. NOTES 1: However, we can argue about this exceptionality, for everything depends on the view one has about human nature. We could see peace as an exception to war, or war as an exception to peace. The reader may judge.
  • 8. 8 2: In the 90’s Alexander Wendt, following the constructivist method, popularizes the study of relational power in International Politics (Wendt: 1999) 3: With tangible I mean that the power of an army has a relative value and a net value. Relative value is related to terms of comparison with the rest of the armies of the states. Net value refers to the destructive potential which is inherent to the material qualities of that army. 4: Morgenthau in particular pays great attention to the material and industrial capabilities of the powerful states to win war (Morgenthau: 1954, p. 109) Morgenthau, as Art or Machiavelli, also thinks of power in structural terms. 5: O’Driscoll, Cian. Lecture International Security, October 2013. “Clausewitz” The University of Glasgow
  • 9. 9 Bibliography -Art, Robert J. (2011c), ‘The political utility of force today’. In Robert J. Art, and Robert Jervis (eds) International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues (New York, NY; London: Longman), 196-213. -Baldwin, Robert A. (1979). ‘Power Analysis and World Politics: New Trends versus Old Tendencies’, Word Politics, Vol. 31, No. 2, January, 161-194. -Baldwin, Robert A. (2002), ‘Power in International Relations’. In Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons (eds) Handbook of International Relations (London: SAGE publications ltd.), 177-92. -Cline, Ray S. (1997c) ‘World Power Assessment 1997: A Calculus of Strategic Drift’, Foreign Affairs, 1 Apr. As Cited in: Baldwin, Robert A. (2002), ‘Power in International Relations’. In Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons (eds) Handbook of International Relations (London: SAGE publications ltd.), p. 184. -Kehoane, Raobert O. & Nye, Joseph S. (2001c). Power and Interdependence (New York, NY; London: Longman) -Machiavelli, Niccolo ([1513] 2005ed). The Prince: Translated by Peter Bondanella; introduced by Maurizio Viroli (Oxford: Oxford University Press) -Mearsheimer, John J. (2001) The tragedy of Great Powers politics (New York, NY; London: Norton) -Morgenthau, Hans (1954c). Politics among Nations: The struggle for Power and Peace (New York, NY: Knopf)
  • 10. 10 -Waltz, Kenneth (1979). Theory of International Politics (Boston, Mass.; London: McGraw Hill) -Wendt, Alexander (1999). Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

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