Chapter 2 War and the Long Peace (Week 2)

2.1 Discussion questions

Questions denoted with an * means they are not directly related to an assigned reading. They are generally designed to whet your appetite for next week’s readings.

  • Vasquez (2009). What is war? Do you agree or disagree with Vasquez’s conceptualization? Why?

  • Gleditsch et al. (2013). Is the world getting more or less peacefully over time? Why? Which scholar’s argument do you agree or disagree most strongly with?

  • What are the causes of war? (*)

War in Ukraine: how could this end? | The Economist

NATO promises more help for Ukraine | DW News

2.2 War

Vasquez is primarily interested in thinking over a working definition (since it is almost impossible to reach a consensus on a theoretical definition) that demarcates an empirical domain and that is used in a consistent manner. He uses the definition by Hedley Bull (1977):

“War is organized violence carried on by political units against each other.”

Why does this definition “work”? Vasquez argues that this definition is broad enough to accommodate the study of different types of war. It does not have contentious terms. And the term “organized” is particularly useful. Building on this, Vasquez turns to the other working definition by the Correlates of War project.

““An international war is a military conflict waged between (or among) national entities, at least one of which is a state, which results in at least 1000 battle deaths of military personnel.”

Along a similar line, Levy and Thompson (2011) define war as:

“sustained, coordinated violence between political organizations.”

2.2.1 COW’s operational definition

Singer and Small’s operational definition (the Correlates of War project) focuses on “two primary criteria: the threshold of battle-related fatalities or troops in combat, and the status of the war participants” (Sarkees 2010). Note that this definition differs from the Uppsala Conflict Data Project (UCDP). Although the latter project also uses the 1000 death threshold, it requires that the deaths must occur within one calendar year and unlike COW it also includes civilian fatalities (e.g. the 9/11 attack is categorized as a war in UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset).

The second criteria in Singer and Small’s definition is the status of the war participants, which means wars need to be carried out by both sides that are capable to conduct combat with armed forces (violence by mobs cannot be counted as war). Their primary focus is to develop a typology of different types of wars. In doing so, they rely heavily on the COW project’s definition of what constitutes a modern state. There are additional concerns and critiques about their typology and data (see, for instance, Steve Miller’s discussion on two different state systems). But for the purpose of this class, it is sufficient to know that it relies on two criteria (see COW State System Membership Codebook):

  • prior to 1920, the entity must have population greater than 500,000 and have had diplomatic missions at or above the rank of charge d’affaires with Britain and France;
  • after 1920, the entity must be a member of the United Nations or League of Nations, or have population greater than 500,000 and receive diplomatic missions from two major powers.

2.2.2 Datasets

If you are interested in taking a look at quantitative datasets, here are some you can check out:

You can find additional data online and in some latest research. There are scholars who collect and provide links to different datasets. For instance, Paul Hensel’s ISA Compendium: SSIP Data Sets. There are also data that are more tailored to different research focus. For instance, the Peaceful Resolution of Territorial Disputes (PRTD) dataset offers data on proposals for peaceful territorial dispute resolution.

2.3 Is the world getting more peaceful?

Here my question aligns more with scholars that focus on the “absence of war.” Note that this is not necessarily equivalent to peace, depending on your conceptualization (see Galtung 1969 and Diehl 2016).

To take a quick look at the numbers and trends, I would recommend the charts by Our World in Data: War and Peace. Here is a figure from Pinker (2011, p.53).

In terms of the theory, Braumoeller (2019) summarizes the core arguments of the decline-of-war thesis as follows:

    1. Whether due to the spread of peaceful norms or the increased efficacy of peacekeeping, the causes of war are losing their potency. The same stimulus that would have produced war one hundred or two hundred years ago is considerably less likely to produce it today.
    1. Because the causes of war are losing their potency, wars are initiated less often than they were decades or centuries ago.
    1. When war does happen in the post–World War II era, its deadliness has decreased relative to previous periods due to the existence of widespread norms of nonviolence.

The key moving part concerns the causes of war. The decline-of-war thesis, though in various forms, tends to argue the causes of war have losing potency. Pinker’s arguments revolve around the evolving nature of human nature. Thayer (2013) emphasizes systematic factors and the different patterns between the West and the rest parts of the world. Levy and Thompson (2013) also point to the unique pattern of the West. They further question the viability of a unified theory of violence (given the differences between interstate vs. intrastate wars and the division concerning a unified theory of interstate wars).

While the reading for this week agrees that the statistical results shown in Pinker (2011) are convincing, it should be noted that not all researchers hold this position. If you are interested in an analysis on wars, I would recommend Braumoeller (2019) Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age.

2.4 Why do we need to care about theories?

A recent piece from Vox (What we don’t know about war and peace) ventures this dismay with regard to different theories of international conflict:

“Decades ago, in the wake of the Iraq War, I grew obsessed for years with IR theory and the questions it raises, before abandoning it largely because I grew frustrated with how hard it was to determine which theories were valid and which were not.”

To provide a different perspective, it should be noted that we do not have to take having a perfect theory as the end goal here. Also, a theory might also affect policy outcomes profoundly. One may be familiar with how the democratic peace theory drives U.S. foreign policy during the post-Cold War era. For a different example, in examining the declinist thesis, Barumoeller (2019) argues:

“Fostering the belief that war poses no threat is a good way to convince people not to prepare for it. If warfare is not in decline (and perhaps even if it is), that sort of complacency will likely make things worse rather than better.”

— Barumoeller (2019, p.8)