Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.3 (Fall 2011): Book Reviews [Full Text]: "Why Nations Fight" by Richard Ned Lebow [Full Text]

Sep 20, 2011

Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 318 pp., $99 cloth, $29.99 paper.

Christopher Coker (Reviewer)

According to former U.S. defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, approximately 160 million people died violent political deaths in the course of the twentieth century (p. 5). Striking though the figure is, during the cold war the Strategic Air Command anticipated twice that number of casualties in the first week of a nuclear exchange (ibid.). On at least two occasions, notably in 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis) and 1983 (when a Soviet computer wrongly indicated that the Soviet Union was under attack), we avoided a nuclear catastrophe by the skin of our teeth.

Why Nations Fight has Richard Ned Lebow's familiar stamp: it is meticulously researched, trenchantly argued, grounded in extraordinarily wide reading, and informed by a healthy dose of common sense. He has no truck with authors, such as John Mueller, who argue that war is now in terminal decline, especially among the great powers. According to Lebow, four generic motives have historically led to war: fear, interest, status, and revenge—and all of them are still likely to lead to future conflict. None of these motives can be effectively addressed by war, but what we perceive to be objectively true does not always accord with objective reality

As for Mueller's claim that war will go the way of dueling and slavery in the nineteenth century, I would go as far as to say that neither slavery nor dueling has disappeared. According to the United Nations there are 29 million slaves in the world today (in absolute terms, the highest number in history). Nor have we given up dueling: we simply have moved the practice to the courts, where we sue our enemies for defamation. As for war, it is positively protean in its ability to be re-branded. Yesterday's foot soldiers have been joined by "cyber-warriors" and "cubicle warriors" (the drone pilots who remotely deal in death and destruction over the skies of Pakistan and now Yemen). Precisely because we have removed much of the risk to our own personnel, we have given war a renewed lease on life, even if at the same time we have rendered it post-heroic. "I hope that many more computer chips will lay down their lives for their country," remarked an American colonel after the downing of a drone in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Lebow is famous for challenging the inherent philistinism of neopositivism in American social science. He has read the Greeks and knows his Thucydides, the very first military historian (the man who "the human thing." It is humanity that the neopositivists largely ignore. As in Lebow's last book, A Cultural Theory of International Relations, he challenges the realist emphasis on material factors, stressing instead motives deriving from the need of states for reputation, status, and standing. States, like people, need to be esteemed: they need to be accorded a ranking among other states, and they need to be honored. And they are willing to avenge themselves for any slight they feel has been inflicted upon them.

Not that Lebow ignores material factors altogether; he just happens to find the existential dimension of war more compelling as an explanation for why states have gone to war against each other. And contrary to realist expectations, he finds the search for security responsible for only nineteen of the ninety-four wars that he subjects to analysis. He finds standing responsible for sixty-two wars as a primary or at least secondary motive. Revenge, also a manifestation of the spirit, is implicated in another eleven. Thus, he has little doubt that what he calls "spirit" (the need to be esteemed and honored) is the principal cause of war across the centuries, even if it has been almost totally ignored in the International Relations literature.

To test the correspondence between the spirit-based world and that of international affairs, Lebow offers six propositions about the causes of war and the types of states it is likely to involve: (1) The most aggressive states are rising powers seeking recognition as great powers and dominant great powers seeking hegemony; (2) Rising powers and dominant powers rarely make war against each other; (3) The preferred targets of dominant and rising powers are declining powers; (4) So-called hegemonic wars (that is, those involving most, if not all, of the great powers) are almost all accidental and the result of unintended escalation; (5) Unintended escalation and miscalculation of the balance of power have deeper causes than incomplete information; and (6) Weak and declining powers not infrequently initiate wars against great powers. In what he claims (without exaggeration, in my opinion) to be the most systematic study of the causes of war yet written, he tests each hypothesis rigorously.

And what of the future? Is interstate war a historical anachronism? Can a rising China and a declining United States—two powers that find themselves in a period of transition—avoid going to war against each other, and thus buck the historical trend? Lebow reminds us that Hans Morgenthau, to whom he was once a research assistant, felt that the preservation of peace depended less on the balance of power and more on the moral qualities of leaders. The same, he opines, is true of the post–cold war peace.

But then political leadership may not matter as much as Lebow believes, if we still live in a world in which war between the great powers might break out in the absence of human intention. For we are not out of the shadow of the nuclear era. At F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming in October, 2010, amysterious glitch caused fiftymissiles to go offline. Each missile carried a warhead at least twelve times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For a few hours the missiles stopped talking to base or responding to commands. It could well have been, although it was not, the result of a computer virus similar to the Stuxnet worm that infiltrated the control systems of Iran's nuclear facilities last year.

Lebow does not mention this incident, but he does write of the "nuclear taboo" (pp. 208–209), one of a number of contingent factors that have made war between the major powers almost unthinkable. Lebow accepts the materialist argument that it is the cost of nuclear war that has made it unthinkable for any rational state (It is not that nations no longer wish to defend their honor; the price the United States has paid to restore its credibility after 9/11 has been very high.) But he also insists that states acknowledge that honor and standing are important factors, too, in saving us from a nuclear conflagration, for honor can hardly be defended at the cost of millions of lives. An honorable war needs to be fought "honorably."

This is all well and good, but there is a serious flaw in the argument. For unlike most other wars, nuclear war may be brought about not by human miscalculation or error but by the ghost in the machine. The sociologist Charles Perrow calls such failures as computer malfunctions in complex technological systems "normal accidents." Such films as Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983) represent Hollywood's attempt to grasp the logic of nuclear war—that unlike non-nuclear war, it might not have what we think of as a traditional cause. Instead it might represent what the late Octavio Paz called "the abrogation of causation." But the dangers of a conventional war are real enough; and the waste of lives and the harm that nations jealous of their own honor do to themselves and others deserve a passionate critic. The passion Lebow musters in this book is not misplaced.


Christopher Coker is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book is Barbarous Philosophers: Reflections on the Nature of War from Heraclitus to Heisenberg (2010).

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