The Origins of Major War

The Origins of Major War

Dale C. Copeland
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Origins of Major War
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6705-9
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    D. C. C.
  4. Abbreviations for Primary Documents/Source Material
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Why do major wars occur? Why do international systems move from relative calm to the point where states either initiate system-wide wars or take actions that risk such wars? Since Thucydides, the puzzle of major war has been one of the most important but intractable questions in the study of international relations. Historians tend to view the causes of major war as unique to each case: Hannibalʹs need for revenge pushed him to attack Rome in 218 b.c.; religious differences between Protestant and Catholic states drove the Thirty Years War (1618–48); Napoleonʹs charges across Europe reflected his egomania and...

  6. 1 Rethinking Realist Theories of Major War
    (pp. 11-34)

    The three most prominent realist explanations for major war among great powers, as I noted earlier, are classical realism, structural neorealism, and hegemonic stability theory.¹ Classical realism argues that major war is likely when one state is preponderant and unlikely when great powers are relatively equal. A balance of power keeps the peace by convincing potential aggressors that war will have both high costs and a low probability of success. An imbalance provides the key condition for major war, since the superior state is more likely to expand in the belief that war can pay.² As for this superior stateʹs...

  7. 2 Foreign Policy Choices and the Probability of Major War
    (pp. 35-55)

    To establish the basic causal logic, chapter 1 treated relative power as an exogenous force that states took as a given and to which they were compelled to respond. Leaders understand, however, that power is often not simply exogenous: it can be affected by their policies. An obvious example is the choice states make between guns and butter—between resources devoted to military power versus consumption and economic growth. Leaders also face a less examined but potentially more problematic dilemma. They know that by initiating hard-line actions, they might avert decline. Yet they realize that such moves may have high...

  8. 3 German Security and the Preparation for World War I
    (pp. 56-78)

    World War I is probably the most analyzed and contested case in international relations scholarship. Given its complexities, practically any theory—whether at the individual, domestic, or system level—seems to find some empirical support. To avoid adding yet another interpretation to what seems like an already highly overdetermined case, I first examine the many empirical puzzles left unexplained in current theories. I then show how dynamic differentials theory covers these anomalies. In doing so, I seek to demonstrate that only this argument provides a consistent explanation for all the diverse evidence.

    This chapter covers the lead-up to the July...

  9. 4 The July Crisis and the Outbreak of World War I
    (pp. 79-117)

    In this chapter I argue that Germany actively sought war in July 1914 and that German leaders by the end of July preferred world war to a negotiated peace, even to one that gave Austria most of what it wanted. Berlin thus took all steps necessary to prevent any kind of negotiated solution, while at the same time ensuring that Russia was blamed for the war. This argument goes a few steps beyond Fritz Fischer, whose view that Germany preferred continental war over a return to the status quo sparked a heated controversy that is still with us.¹ Fischer contends...

  10. 5 The Rise of Russia and the Outbreak of World War II
    (pp. 118-145)

    The Second World War in Europe is one of the most studied cases of major war in history, and its social, political, and moral aspects are so complex that to capture it in a short space risks oversimplifying oneʹs argument. The sheer horror of what Nazi Germany wrought in Europe is so overwhelming that to emphasize the security side of German policy, as I do below, seems to temper our conviction that this was one of the most evil regimes in history.

    Such tempering is not my objective. Rather, I seek to show that responsibility for the evil must also...

  11. 6 Bipolarity, Shifting Power, and the Origins of the Cold War, 1945–1950
    (pp. 146-175)

    The puzzle that animates the following two chapters is a simple one: What explains the changes in the likelihood of major war between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1963? This question has two parts. In this chapter I examine the first big jump in the probability of superpower war, namely, the move from wartime alliance to cold war. Given ideological differences, some disagreements between America and Russia were inevitable after 1945 (just as they are today with China). Yet the relationship could have stayed in the realm of a moderate spheres-of-influence détente, rather than escalating...

  12. 7 The Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises
    (pp. 176-208)

    What explains the shift within the early cold war from ongoing tension to periods of intense crisis? My focus here is on the three crises of greatest salience: the Berlin crises of 1948 and 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (with emphasis on the latter). These crises were, by almost all historical accounts, times when the risks of major war rose significantly. Such dramatic jumps in the probability of major war must be explained.¹ I show that perceptions of decline and fears for the future played a dominant role in all three crises.

    There are three categories of...

  13. 8 Major War from Pericles to Napoleon
    (pp. 209-234)

    This chapter offers a brief survey of seven other important cases of major war. Given space constraints, the goal is not to engage established historical debates or to provide definitive evidence for or against particular arguments. Rather I seek, by what amount to plausibility probes, to test the salience of the theoryʹs logic across time and space.

    The cases represent the seven best-known examples of major war in Europe before the twentieth century.¹ Three are bipolar: the ancient Greek system; the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome; and the French-Hapsburg conflict in the early sixteenth century. The other four...

  14. 9 The Implications of the Argument
    (pp. 235-246)

    This book has sought to provide a dynamic realist theory of major war that represents a Lakatosian progressive problem shift within the realist paradigm. The evidence of the empirical chapters suggests that the theory has moved toward this goal: it explains the empirical facts covered by existing theories, while also accounting for evidence left unexplained by these theories.¹ The theory reaches this goal by synthesizing the systemic strengths of current realist arguments, while avoiding the tendency to dip down to the unit level to explain individual cases. This approach helps us to reexamine Kenneth Waltzʹs popular distinction between theories of...

  15. Appendix
    (pp. 247-254)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 255-312)
  17. Index
    (pp. 313-322)