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The Origins of Major War (Cornell Studies in…
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The Origins of Major War (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)

by Dale C. Copeland

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With The Origins of Major War Dale C. Copeland attempts to answer two related questions: (1) Given their destructiveness, why do major wars occur?, and (2) Why do states initiate international crises in situations in which the risk of major war knowingly becomes acute? Copeland’s answer to these questions is a theory that he calls dynamic differentials. Copeland’s theory is that major wars or crises that significantly increase the likelihood of major war are initiated by declining great military powers in an attempt to halt the rise of a competing state.

Copeland identifies three intervening variables that affect the probability of this situation leading to a major war or a crisis: (1) the polarity of the system, (2) the aspects of the dominant power’s decline, which consist of the depth of the decline and its inevitability, and (3) the levels and trends of economic and potential power because of their effect on the perceived aspects of decline. Under Copeland’s theory, multipolar systems are less likely to lead to major war or crises because no state will initiate either without being more powerful than all the other great powers in the system combined. In a bipolar system, by contrast, even the militarily weaker of the two powers might initiate a major war or crisis because such a state only needs to take on one other state and because there are no other great powers that the weaker state needs to worry about taking advantage of the situation to usurp first place in the system even if it were to be successful. As stated, the levels and trends of economic and potential power matter because of their effect on the declining state’s perception of its decline. The steeper and more inevitable the decline is expected to be, the more likely that the declining power will start a major war or initiate a crisis. That is to say that major war seems like a viable option to a state that believes it is unable to arrest its decline solely through internal reform.

Copeland uses 13 historical cases as evidence for his theory. In chronological order they are: the Peloponnesian War, the Second Punic War, The French-Hapsburg wars of 1521-1556, the Thirty Years War, the wars of Louis XIV, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, the origins of the Cold War, the Berlin crisis of 1948, the Berlin crisis of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis. He goes into detail on only four cases, though: World War I, World War II, the origins of the Cold War, and the Cuban missile crisis. Before delving into a critique of Copeland’s theory it probably would be good to lay out his definition of what a major war is. Copeland defines a major war as a war with three characteristics: (1) all the great powers in a system are involved, (2) the wars are all-out conflicts fought at the highest level of intensity (that is, full military mobilization), and (3) they contain a strong possibility that one or more of the contending great powers could be eliminated as sovereign states.

Now for the critique. While Copeland’s theory has a lot of intuitive appeal, his evidence is a thin reed to hang it on. Ironically the case that he says provides the hardest test for his theory, World War I, is actually the one that seems to most strongly conform to its premises. Copeland makes a fairly strong argument that Germany’s leaders started World War I because of their fear of what a future Russian colossus would do to them. The case of World War II also provides decent support, but, for varying reasons, the other cases are not convincing.

My main problem with Copeland’s theory, though, is his insistence on distinguishing between systemic and unit-level causes of major war, as if the systemic causes do not stem from the same source that the unit-level ones do: the human mind. His focus on systemic causes has the tendency to make it seem like he’s trying to say that people who govern states are simply automatons in service to the interests of the state. He doesn’t dig any deeper to ask why the leaders of a state like Germany in 1914 would have such a fear of a rising power like Russia. It’s doubtful that they were concerned about the future security of Germany qua an independent state. What they were most likely concerned about was their own and their descendants’ future ability to reap the benefits of their privileged positions within German society, that it would instead be Russians enjoying the benefits of those positions of power.

Of course, Copeland would probably retort that the people making these decisions about war and peace never mentioned that, but that is hardly proof that that was not their primary motivating factor in making their decisions. There are two reasons why there might not have been any written evidence of their base motivations: (1) it was such a basic fact of the situation that it didn’t need to be voiced, or, more likely, (2) it’s not something that decent people are allowed to admit to. But the pre-20th century cases are the best example of this alternative explanation, particularly the wars of Louis XIV. Copeland says that Louis’s concern in waging his wars against the Hapsburgs was the security of France. But why was Louis concerned about France’s security? Was he worried that the Hapsburg armies would invade French territory and do unspeakable and horrible things to his subjects? Maybe. But if he was, it was only insofar as such actions affected him, Louis XIV, King of France. Louis was concerned about France losing its position as the most powerful country in Europe because he didn’t want to be king of the number two country on the continent, or, even worse, he didn't want to lose his position as king. He wanted to remain number one for both the physical and emotional perks that such a position provides for the guy who’s on top. Because of this dynamic, none of the pre-20th century cases really support Copeland’s argument because these wars weren’t fought between states, they were fought between warlords with armies. Only the case of the Napoleonic Wars approaches the concept of state-versus-state warfare, and even that falls short. Napoleon may well have created a modern nation-state in France, but his desire to secure France from its enemies was as much about securing his hold over the French throne as it was about securing the French people from foreign invasion.

There are, however, other issues with the 20th century cases that Copeland uses, primarily with the Cuban missile crisis case. Copeland contends that the crisis was initiated by the US for two reasons: (1) Soviet MRBMs and IRBMs in Cuba drastically reduced the US’s advantage in strategic nuclear weapons and (2) failure to confront the Soviets would have undercut the US’s position with its allies. While this is true, saying that the US initiated the crisis is like saying that the guy who shoots someone who has broken into his house initiated that situation. It is true that the Soviet Union was permitted under international law to put their missiles on Cuban territory and to point them at the US. But what Copeland fails to acknowledge is that the Soviets did this secretly. Why would the Soviets choose to do in secret what they were perfectly allowed to do in public? Because they knew that putting those missiles in Cuba was a major upsetting of the prevailing balance of power and that the US and its NATO allies would strenuously oppose the move, thus precipitating a crisis. It’s the same reason why a burglar seeks to enter a normally well-guarded home when no one is there or when people are asleep: to prevent the crisis that would occur if he tried to do so in broad daylight when everyone is ready for him. You can't punch a bear in the face and then complain when it tries to tear your head off.

And lastly, Copeland tries to position this theory as a way of helping address future concerns, especially for future (from his perspective in 2000) US leaders dealing with a rising China. Copeland states that, if his theory is correct, then US policymakers a decade hence—basically now—would be faced with a dilemma of what to do about a rising China. His theory states that US leaders will contemplate three basic options: (1) initiate a preventive war, (2) initiate a cold war, or (3) do nothing. In 2012 the Obama administration announced a “pivot” to Asia, which, as most people have rightly surmised, is in response to a rising China in East Asia. This would seem to bear out Copeland’s theory that the declining power, the US, has taken the initial steps of creating a new cold war against a new rising power. But this doesn’t really answer the question of why the US has decided to make this pivot. For the past three years, or so, China has been increasing its agitation in East Asia against many of its neighbors, especially the US ally Japan. But China also has growing problems with other regional states, like the Philippines, Vietnam, and India. The US might have just been looking for an excuse to make this pivot, but China’s more belligerent attitude in the region has handed it one on a silver platter. Copeland’s theory is that systemic forces impel rising states into acting mildly because they know that, given time, they will eventually make it to the top without having to waste resources on a major, or even minor, war. The differing rates of growth in power will take care of things for them. What Copeland’s theory fails to account for, though, is the hypernationalism of modern nation-states, especially ones that carry major grudges against the prevailing system, like China. Time might well get for China the top spot in the international system, but that would likely do little for the Chinese rulers and citizens of today. Recent events in East Asia are showing that the contemporary Chinese leaders and citizens are likely unwilling to wait for the spoils of being the dominant power that will only possibly accrue to their country in the future; they want those spoils now and are willing to upset the present international system created by the US and its allies to get them. And this is, after all, a rising power that is causing the current problems in the world system in general and in East Asia in particular. ( )
  Bretzky1 | Mar 3, 2013 |
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Why do major wars occur?
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...in any system, assuming states are rational security-seeking actors which remain uncertain about others' future intentions, it is the dominant but declining military great power that is most likely to begin a major war.
...once the spiral effect emphasized by crisis and security-dilemma theory is acknowledged, a logical theory of major war cannot ignore the predicament confronting leaders: hard-line policies may improve the state's chances of winning any war that does occur (and reduce the other side's willingness to launch an aggressive war deliberately); but by heightening mistrust and by increasing concern for power trends, these policies make war more likely through inadvertent means.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801487579, Paperback)

One of the most important questions of human existence is what drives nations to war-especially massive, system-threatening war. Much military history focuses on the who, when, and where of war. In this riveting book, Dale C. Copeland brings attention to bear on why governments make decisions that lead to, sustain, and intensify conflicts.

Copeland presents detailed historical narratives of several twentieth-century cases, including World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. He highlights instigating factors that transcend individual personalities, styles of government, geography, and historical context to reveal remarkable consistency across several major wars usually considered dissimilar. The result is a series of challenges to established interpretive positions and provocative new readings of the causes of conflict.

Classical realists and neorealists claim that dominant powers initiate war. Hegemonic stability realists believe that wars are most often started by rising states. Copeland offers an approach stronger in explanatory power and predictive capacity than these three brands of realism: he examines not only the power resources but the shifting power differentials of states. He specifies more precisely the conditions under which state decline leads to conflict, drawing empirical support from the critical cases of the twentieth century as well as major wars spanning from ancient Greece to the Napoleonic Wars.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:37 -0400)

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