The relevance of the study of war to the theory of international relations

The relevance of the study of war to the theory of international relations
Prepared By: Dr. Camille H. Habib
Professor in the Lebanese University


Since Herodotus and Thucydides, many have speculated about the nature, causes, and consequences of human conflict. War is, undoubtedly, a nebulous concept. For the purpose of this essay, war is regarded as the state of sustained hostilities between armed forces of two or more organized groups, like nation-states, who seek to fulfill their goals in a manner that entails the sacrifice of a number of human causalities([1]). The importance of this definition of war stems from the fact that many examples of violent conflict, such as “gang wars”, race riots, or individual crimes, are not generally considered as wars. This is because they lack political objectives and do not have political impacts. To be identified as such, war must involve a clash of the armed forces of two or more organized groups who attempt to pursue a combination of political goals at the possible risk of human and material losses.

This last element does not undermine in any way the importance of war for the study of international relations. Throughout history, war has served as a tool for advancing one state’s power over another’s, and as a way of changing, preserving, and regulating the conduct of world affairs([2]). In terms of this last function, for instance, global war has been seen as the ultimate sanction against those nations who threaten the equilibrium of the system; as a way of discerning which state is to act as world policeman in an anarchical system; and as a method of replacing states which can no longer function as managers of the system by more able ones ([3]). Against this background, wars, particularly since 1500, can be divided into two categories: “those fought within the system for the express purposes of changing the power relations within it” (intra-systemic), and those “fought between defenders of the status quo and those who challenge it” ([4]). In addition, there is a third category known as urgent warfare. It can be defined as a conflict that “pits a largely regular, territorially-based army against irregular or semi-irregular guerilla units” ([5]). An enormous body of literature has been devoted to examining the significance of this type of military engagement because insurgent wars have been occurring with greater frequency in our time, because they have met with frequent and relative successes, and because the advent of nuclear weapons has altered the idea of total war in favor of the less destructive option of subversion([6]).

Implicitly or otherwise, this brief survey of the various types of war suggests that a study of war is essential for an understanding of the course of international relations. For war, argues Gilbert Winham, “has had the capacity to shape political relations among nations” ([7]). An illustration of this argument is given by Raymond Aron. He refers to international relations as “a science of peace and war”, hence the title of his work([8]). For Aron the subject of international relations is simply the ultimate sovereign unit, whatever it may be at any given time. It is, in other words, the unit that recognizes no legitimate source of power superior to itself. An international system, he suggests, is “the ensemble constituted by political units that maintain regular relations with each other and that are capable of being implicated in a generalized war” ([9]). The title “peace and war” is meant to describe the only possible relations between sovereign units. Aron contends that relations among nations are often marked by conflict, that conflict occurs because states seek incompatible goals, and that war is a no less natural phenomenon of international relations than peace. He declares that “inter-state relations present one original feature which distinguishes them from all other social relations: they take place within the shadow of war, or, to use a more rigorous expression, relations among states, involve, in essence, the alternative of war and peace([10]). Indeed, this has been one of the most salient concerns for students of international relations.

In this essay, we will examine the relevance of the study of war to the theory of international relations. It will be argued that a survey of the literature on war is also helpful in understanding the theoretical development of international relations from the realist perspective to the era of complex interdependence. In particular, a comparative analysis will be conducted between the writings of Karl Von Clausewitz and Edward Luttwak on one hand, and between Anatol Rapoport and Thomas Schelling on the other hand. First, however, it would be useful to begin researching for the best way to explain the occurrence of war.


Approaches to the study of war

A variety of approaches have been taken to the study of war. Kenneth Waltz divides these approaches into three categories, according to  the  emphasis placed on each of his three “images” ([11]). Approaches emphasizing the first image are concerned with questions of human nature and see the sources of war in the aggressive instincts of man([12]). Those that stress the second image examine the nature of the nation-state and seek the sources of war in the internal organization of domestic politics in individual states([13]). Approaches that focus on the third image look at the international system and believe the sources of conflict arise out of the nature of this system.

Almost all of the significant theories of war in modern political thought have been based either implicitly or explicitly on the nature of the international system. The system, which is made up primarily of nation-states, usually has been described as one of “self-help” in which one state is pitted against another; where one state’s security is another’s insecurity; and where the competitive nature of this arena has served only to ensure a paranoia of mistrust. In short, states operate within a system that is “policed” by self-interest and, ultimately, in an environment in which competition, rivalry, and fear prevail. The most significant result of this prevailing anarchy in the international system is the widespread use of force in relations between states. History provides numerous cases of the willingness of states to resort to war or to any other sort of coercive act in order to achieve their ends. One explanation of this is offered by Waltz: “Each state preserves its own interests, however defined, in the way it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of state because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy” ([14]).

It is in the light of this background that the realists have elaborated the concept of world politics as power politics. Such a view of world politics has been closely associated with the writings of Hans Morgenthau, who describes the nation-state as being the basis for all international relations. His theory outlines a world where sovereign nations vie for power, where a state’s national interest is identified with national survival, and where states are compelled to protect their physical, political, and cultural identities against the encroachment of other states. “It cannot be denied”, writes Morgenthau, “that throughout historic time, states have met each other in contests for power” ([15]). This means that “[i]nternational politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” ([16]). But while power can take many forms, economic as well as military, the realists consider war to be the dominant instrument and ultimate manifestation of struggle between nations([17]). As Morgenthau puts it: “All history shows that nations active in international politics are continuously preparing for, actively involved in, or recovering from organized violence in the form of war” ([18]).

This link between war and international politics is fundamental to the realist perspective which also contains a particular approach to the use of previous events. History is seen as a testing-ground for theoretical hypothesis, and as a storehouse of data. This is meant to suggest that what matters to the student of international politics is conduct, rather than motives, and that it is the task of theorists to attempt to organize a variety of data on unique events in terms of a coherent set of theoretical generalization. In other words, a theory must be judged not by some preconceived abstract principle or moral concept unrelated to power, but by its ability to bring order and meaning to a mass of phenomena which otherwise would remain disconnected and unintelligible. In Morgenthau’s view, a theory must meet a dual test: an empirical and a logical one ([19]). Throughout this process the policy-maker has a responsibility to make decisions in the light of potential consequences. For, the realists insist, those responsible for the safety, security, and welfare of a nation-state and its citizens must keep in mind the political consequences of their acts.


Clauzewitz and Luttwak

Karl von Clauzewitz’s work On War is considered to be one of the most useful studies of this particular element of international relations. Its significance stems from the fact that the book deals with the fundamental nature of war, that it gives an understanding of what underlies war, and that, in short, it explains the whole of war([20]). For instance, Winham argues that despite the fact that war is a multi-dimensional activity, “Clausewitz was able to examine it from different levels, including  the   political,  strategic, tactical and even technical” ([21]).

Fundamental in Clausewitzian thought is the link between war and national policy. With regard to decision-making process, the most well-known aspect of Clausewitz’s writing is the notion that “war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with an admixture of other means” ([22]). This view implies that war cannot be divorced from political life, that policy creates war, and that war is an instrument of the political art and not a creature with a life of its own. Clausewitz declares: “War can never be separated from political intercourse, and if…this occurs anywhere…we have with us a senseless thing without an object” ([23]). In short, war and politics are inseparably connected; war belongs to policy; and the former is a continuation of the latter through the application of other means. To emphasize the major importance of this observation, Clausewitz rejects subordination of the political point of view to the military, arguing that policy creates and guides war([24]). Thus Clausewitz, not surprisingly, suggests that “the minister of war should not be a soldier, but a statesman who knows just enough about war not to expect results from military means and measures which they cannot produce” ([25]).

Even the massive technological changes that have permeated the practice of warfare have not altered the relevance of Clausewitz to the use of the military instrument by nations. First is the argument that in war the forces employed should be directed against the enemy’s most important and most vulnerable point. Clausewitz observes that “a center of gravity, a center of power movement, will form itself upon which everything depends; and against this center of gravity of the enemy the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed” ([26]). But Clausewitz does not rule out the possibility that efforts which are directed towards the center of gravity may yield success, arguing that the mere destruction of the enemy may obscure the political objectives of the war. He states that “the more it will be concerned with the destruction of the enemy, the more closely the political aim and the military object coincide, and the more purely military, and the less political, war seems to be” ([27]). If this is the case, then war should not have been waged at all. “No war is begun, or at least, no war should be begun”, he writes, “if people acted wisely, without first finding an answer to the question: what is to be attained by and in war” ([28]).

The second Clausewitzian argument concerning the use of the military instrument maintains that a war should be completed as quickly as possible. This is the ideal model of war. Incorporated in it are the Clausewitzian assumptions that war is a zero-sum game, that the aim of the parties involved includes the total destruction of the enemy’s capacity to resist, and that “war once begun should move quickly to a conclusive outcome” ([29]). Yet in practice the previous argument is not supported by concrete evidence. Thus, in place of the ideal model of war, Clausewitz introduces the concept of “Friction”. This refers to the uncertainty of combat, and is known today as the “fog of war”. Included in this is the notion that fear, the play of politics, and misinformation create conditions in which plans, policies, and objectives have to be altered or rethought. In short, Clausewitz realizes that an ideal model of war based on rational decision-making and accurate information is simply a fiction([30]).

These ideas are in line with the thoughts of Edward Luttwak. In his Strategy: The Logic of Peace and War, he presents an exposition of some of Clausewitz’s propositions([31]). Like the latter, Luttwak does not see a straightforward “engineering” solution of war because of the complexity arising from the interactions among its political, psychological, and military dimensions. Thus, in place of the linear thinking of warfare, Luttwak introduces the “paradoxical logic” of strategy as a broader concept that conditions all forms of war and its reciprocal activity([32]). According to Luttwak, every war has a paradoxical logic and its own art of the dialectics. This can be illustrated in the following theoretical principles: First, although everything in war is very simple, even the simplest thing is complex: accidents, mistakes, emotions, and the unexpected, all create “friction” that blocks the smooth running of the military machine. Luttwak contends that war is not a single explosion of violence, but it extends over time, with the dialectics or the antagonists acting and reacting – a process that weakens even the most offensive and exposes it to an unexpected defeat([33]).

Second, in war, avoiding the obvious, or the indirect approach to an objective was, at one point in history, the most successful strategy. Nevertheless, once it is clear, the best approach ceases to be so because the enemy would react appropriately. It follows, then, that the best approach, because it is evident, may become the worst. In strategy, therefore, a course of action tends to become  retroactive ([34]). Third, Luttwak echoes the Clausewitzian view that nothing in war is ever final and that even success may lead to defeat. He illustrates this paradox with a sequence of events from the Second World War. He states that the German victory on the European Continent in 1940 had deprived the British of any means to carry on the war except by air. Furthermore, because precision bombing in daylight proved too costly, the British Bomber Command had to fly at night and attack only large German cities. Thus, the German victory of their army paradoxically brought the destruction of their cities([35]). Luttwak’s paradoxical logic can be summed up as follows: the military requirements for effective defense tend to create a politically far more dangerous situation. Conversely, a military situation with which no one is happy may produce a political situation of remarkable stability.

In order to understand this paradoxical logic, Luttwak develops an analytical scheme that recognizes the vertical and horizontal dimensions of strategy. While the vertical dimension is made up of the plans and actions of each party to a conflict, the horizontal dimension refers to the conflicts and competitions between antagonists on each of the five interlocked levels of strategy([36]). These levels are: (1) the technical level, where the single performance of weapons determines the conduct of operations; (2) the tactical level, where weapons are deployed for offensive or defensive measures; (3) the operational level, when one must decide whether the object will be one of attrition or maneuver; (4) the theater level where all directly interdependent operations are embraced such as the guerilla operation; and (5) the level of grand strategy, where military and political objectives meet([37]).

There is no doubt that the outcome of a war must be assessed in relation to the goals that are being pursued. But what can be done about the paradoxical logic that determines the developments in war? Luttwak argues that the self-defeating effect of paradoxical logic can be indeed circumvented by conducting policies that are seemingly contradictory; by obtaining the capacity to confront the adversary with the unexpected; and by planning a relatively effective coordination between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of strategy. But these remedies may have no existence in reality, and Luttwak’s thesis may simply end up as a method of analysis. The last forty years are witness, beyond doubt, that the greater the threat of escalation posed by the presence of nuclear weapons, the less likely they are to be used, and the more effective they are as a deterrent([38]).


Rapoport and Schelling

The catastrophic consequences of a possible nuclear confrontation have, therfore compelled the superpowers to refrain from using nuclear force against one another. In retrospect, nuclear weapons have increased the utility of military force in the perceptual rather than in the actual context, and have limited the conflict between nuclear powers to the highly political. Yet, such a transformation in the conduct of relations between the nuclear powers has not eliminated their influence in the international arena. As a result, military power has become a medium of bargaining in which the ability to exercise political control over others remains an indicator of a state’s military strength. For this reason, states have traditionally increased their armaments to elevate their relative status vis-a-vis potential adversaries. This is another remainder of the Clausewitzian theme which considers the relationship between politics and military powers as inexorably interconnected, with the former directing and guiding the latter to achieve some purpose. It is this interplay between diplomacy and force that characterizes war as having a gamelike quality. This concept is of great importance since all game theorists agree that international relations can be best conceptualized as a non-zero-sum game, in which one party’s game does not necessarily equate, in a two-player game, to another party’s loss. One variation of this is Anatol Rapoport’s distinction between fight, game, and debate as three essential components in a conflict situation([39]). First, in fights the participants compete, race, jostle, and react to each other without being aware of their common interests. Second, in games the opponents are alert to their effects on each other. Finally, in debates the adversaries try to identify a common interest by persuasion([40]). Rapoport considers the fight, game and debate to be different kinds of intellectual tools for the analysis of conflict situations – a framework that provides his over-all analysis with the possibility of offering a general theory of conflict.

Thomas Schelling is also notable for his discussion of game theory. He studies international strategic situations as essentially “bargaining situations”. From this approach, he attempts to develop a theory in which war is considered as a process of  bargaining whereby conflict and cooperation are not mutually exclusive([41]). It follows, according to Schelling’s scheme, that war is not a zero-sum game, but it must be considered as a situation in which the outcome can be, in a two-player game, beneficial to both players. He argues, for instance, that strategic conflict needs not imply the actual use of force; that even in war the interplay of the military and diplomatic efforts should not stop; and that deterrence can continue to be made effective even during the actual fight of a war. Evidence suggests that mutual understanding by opposing belligerents led to the non-use of gas weaponry in the Second World War, and it also imposed various restrictions upon the conduct of the Korean War with respect to geographical boundaries, the kinds of weapons employed, and the types of military operations permitted([42]). These examples, which illustrate the possible cooperation among belligerents during periods of war, indicate that the opponents may, out of self-interest, attempt to limit the war’s destruction; that the purpose of military strategy, which in the past frequently meant completely destroying the enemy’s capacity to resist, has to be replaced by a new kind of military diplomacy; and that war is not necessarily an alternative to bargaining, but a process of bargaining. “To exploit it is a diplomacy, vicious diplomacy, but diplomacy” ([43]). Incorporated in this is the notion that posing a controlled threat has transformed military force into, what Schelling calls, a “diplomacy of violence” ([44]).



There is no doubt that coercive diplomacy (i.e., the power to hurt) has become, because of military and economic concerns, one of the means to achieve ends in the international arena. First, at the military level, the destructive nature of modern military force and its reciprocal annihilation has made it increasingly difficult to employ it to secure political objectives. The on-going ten-year-old war between Iran and Iraq has given support to Waltz’s noble observation that in war “there is no victory but only varying degrees of defeat” ([45]). Second, at the economic level, the emergence of world economic interdependence has forced states to moderate their external policies. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye observe that growing global economic interactions have altered the notion that military might is the only resource that determines relations among nations. For them, the concept of “complex interdependence” has meant instead that cooperation among states is the most appropriate way of achieving economic prosperity. They argue, for instance, that complex interdependence has widened the margin of  safety among industrialized countries. For example, Britain and Germany, because of the mutual influence which exists between them, no longer feel threatened by each other ([46]). Good economic conditions can thus be seen as a prerequisite to obtaining international security; that force is often not an appropriate way of achieving goals of economic nature; and that the perception of international politics in terms of military security does not offer a comprehensive understanding of international relations.

These are also the conditions under which contemporary political and military leaders must operate. Those leaders are required to be more analytical in examining the relation between military means and political ends; they must balance out the way they decide to use military power; and they must commit forces appropriate for and proportional to the ends desired. Failure to do so may result in a national disaster. This is meant to suggest that the conduct of states is not always assumed to follow from rational motives, for human experience seems to indicate a low probability of predicting any particular decision.

[1] See N.S. Timasheff, War and Revolution, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965, pp. 5-6. See also M. Small and J.D. Singer, International War: An Anthology and Study Guide, Homewood, III: Dorsey Press, 1985, pp.8-29

[2] L. Ashworth, “Political and Military Factors in Insurgent Warfare: The Case of Indonesia 1945 to 1949”, Master of Arts Thesis, Halifax: Dalhousie University, 1987, p.1

[3] Ibid., p.3

[4] Ibid., p.4

[5] Ibid., p.4

[6] Ibid., p.5

[7] G.R. Winham, “The Relevance of Clausewitz to a theory of International Negotiation”, A Paper Delivered at the 1987 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, The Palmer House, 1987, op. 18.., p.18

[8] R. Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of international Relations, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966, p.6

[9] Ibid., p.94

[10] Ibid., pp.5-6

[11] K. Waltz, Man, The State and War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1954. See also R. Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations, pp. 340-362

[12] In discussing individual behavior, the term aggression does not necessarily describe the inherent “evil” in human nature. However, in their examination of human conflict, ethnologists think of aggression as a “ form of violent behavior directed toward injuring a human object or injuring, damaging, or destroying a nonhuman object”. See J.E. Dougherty and R.L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., Contending Theories of International Relations, p.256. See also Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, pp. 404-405; see also K. Lorenz, On Aggression, London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1963, p. 256.For views opposite to those of Lorenze see, for example, R. Numelin, The Beginning of Diplomacy: A Sociological Study of Intertribal and International Relations, London: Oxford University Press, 1950. See also M. Meand, “Warfare: Only an Invention - Not a Biological Necessity”, in M. Meand, Anthropology: A Human Science, Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1964, and S. Kim, “The Lorenzian Theory  of Aggression and Peace Research”, In R.A. Falk and S.S. Kim,eds., The War System: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Boulder: Westview Press, 1980

[13] See Q. Wright, A Study of War: Volume2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942, p. 1038. See also R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, New York: Scribners, 1983

[14] C. Jones, “Autonomy and Intervention”, Orbis, XIX, Summer 1975 p. 60

[15] H. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, p. 134

[16] Ibid., p. 27

[17] Morgenthau defines power as the capacity of a political unit to exercise its control over the minds and actions of other units. He observes that in their power struggles, nations follow policies designed to preserve the status quo, to achieve imperialistic expansion, or to gain prestige. In Morgenthau’s view, all politics, domestic and international, can be reduced to one of three basic types: “A Political policy seeks either to keep power, to increase power, or to demonstrate power”. Ibid., p.40

[18] Ibid., p. 38

[19] Ibid., p. 3

[20] K. von Clausewitz, On War, Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1953. See also G. Winham, “The Relevance of Clausewitz To a Theory of International Negotiation”, p. 5.., p. 5

[21] G. Winham, “The Relevance of Clausewitz To a Theory of International Negotiation”, p. 13.., p. 13

[22] K.v. Clausewitz, On War, p. 596

[23] Ibid., p. 596

[24] Ibid., p. 598

[25] Ibid., p. xxvii

[26] Ibid., p. 586

[27] Ibid., p. 17

[28] Ibid., p. 569

[29] G. Winham, The Relevance of Clausewitz to a Theory of International Negotiation, Op. 13

[30] Ibid., p. 13

[31] E.N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1987

[32] Ibid., p. xi

[33] Ibid., pp. 10-15

[34] Ibid., pp. 15-31

[35] Ibid., p. xi

[36] Ibid., p. xii

[37] Ibid., pp. 69-140

[38] Ibid., pp.202-207

[39] Rapoport, Fights, Games, and Debates, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960

[40] Ibid., pp. 9-11

[41] T. Schelling, Arms and Influence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966, p. 16

[42] J. Dougherty and R. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., Contending Theories of International Relations, p. 157

[43] T. Schelling, Arms and Influence, p. 2

[44] Ibid., p. 34

[45] K.N. Waltz, Man, The State and War, p. 1

[46] R. Keohane and J. Nye introduce the concept of “complex interdependence” that describes a world in transition. Generally, interdependence refers to a state of mutual dependency in which the outcomes of specified actions are characterized by asymmetrical reciprocity among actors in different countries. See R. Keohane and J. Nye, Jr., Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977, p. 27