Is War inherent in the international system?

Essay, 2010

10 Pages, Grade: 1.3


War or Peace? The answer to this question is very ambiguous in classical theory; arguments laid out by both liberalists and realists are consistent although the empirical evidence so far tends to support the realist notion of perpetual conflict. Especially taking into account terrorism, intervention and intrastate conflict, a pessimistic outlook seems unavoidable. So the overwhelming empirical arguments still win the case in favour of Realism, in my opinion.

To come to this argument, the first paragraph is denoted to give definitions of the most important terms and a description of the international system. After this initial clarification, the liberal position of a possible peace defended by what can be called the ‘interconnectedness’ thesis in political, economic and institutional terms will be presented. This will then be confronted with the realist argumentation for a never-ending state of war. The last part of the paper will deal with intrastate wars, humanitarian intervention and terrorism as the ‘new threat to eternal peace’ leading to a pessimistic conclusion.

Before one is able to argue for one or the other side of the argument, a short clarification of terms is necessary. Conflict, as understood by the Oxford English Dictionary, can be seen as “an encounter with arms; a fight, battle” (OED, 2010). Armed war is in this sense the most obvious form of conflict on a state level although it is very difficult to ‘grasp’ the definition of a war in short (Sambanis, 2004:829). Primarily, we are regarding interstate wars – especially because most of the theory is interested in them (Luard, 1988: 25) - and in the last part also intrastate conflicts, humanitarian intervention and the ‘new’ war against terrorism.

These different kinds of wars tend to take place within the international system, which is said to begin with the Westphalian Peace Treatises in 1648 (Miller, 1994:20). The basis for a “decentralized system of sovereign and equal nation-states” (Miller, 1994:21) was created in these peace treatises. The system is additionally characterised by a lack of international authority both on a legislative and executive level described as ‘international anarchy’ by both the liberal and the realist thought (Baldwin, 1993:4). As Axelrod and Keohane (1985) emphasize that anarchy, commonly defined as the absence of government in the international system leaves several possible ‘outcomes’ concerning the possibility of war. In the next paragraph, this paper will outline the liberalist school of thought arguing for a peaceful anarchy.

Liberalist theory is opposing the argument for the unavoidability of war. As on of the most important liberal peace theorists Doyle (1983:85) puts it:

…conventions of mutual respect have formed a cooperative foundation

for relations…; preliminary evidence does appear to indicate that there exists a

significant predisposition against warfare…

The main liberal theory rests on the assumption of ‘interconnectedness’, of the development of ties and links between actors in the system on various levels. Three different ties are most prominently defended by liberalists, namely political, economical and institutional links. In the liberal argumentation this interconnectedness of states on different stages prevents them from going to war against each other.

The first and perhaps most important ties between states are of political nature, as already Kant (1795/2009) recognised in his argument for ‘Perpetual Peace’. His definitive articles are what can be called the necessary conditions for perpetual peace (1795/2009:13-23): according to them every states needs to be republican and the international system should be supervised by a loosely coupled federation of states. Within a republican state where citizens are to decide about a declaration of war it is much harder to call to arms. Indeed is a ‘liberal war’ between liberal states highly uncommon: “there exists a predisposition against warfare between liberal states” (Doyle, 1983:85) and as some scholars argue liberal and republican states are more peaceful in general (MacMillan, 2003). Moreover, Kant’s ‘federation of states’ was heavily supported by Woodrow Wilson in the interwar period of the twentieth century: in his 14-points, he envisioned a League of Nations being able to keep peace through the means of collective security and interdependence (Miller, 1994:75). The system is according to empirical terms, however, no guarantee for peace. Even though, democratic states don’t fight each other regularly, there are certain exceptions, such as the wars between Spain and America in 1896 or the “Kargil” war between India and Pakistan in 1999. Even more striking is the failure of the League of Nations with the outbreak of the Second World War because of “the unwillingness of states to forego the exercise of accustomed power” (Miller, 1994:75). In summary, political ties do not seem to be too strong altogether. We will see the realist explanation for these empirical findings in the last paragraph. Wilson, however, emphasized free trade and international institutions as a means towards the avoidance of conflict (Baldwin, 1993:12). This emphasis on economic and institutional ties will be the issue in the next two paragraphs.


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Is War inherent in the international system?
University of London  (Department of Politics and International Relations)
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ISBN (Book)
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Politics, International Relations, War, Krieg, Kant, Peace, Liberal Peace Theory, Friede, Conflict, Konflikt
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2010, Is War inherent in the international system?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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