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Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War

Why Nations Fight: Past and Future Motives for War by Richard Ned Lebow. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 287 pp.

For centuries, great thinkers and eminent statesmen have pondered, debated, and studied the age-old question, why do nations fight? Richard Ned Lebow, the James O. Freedman presidential professor emeritus at Dartmouth College and current professor of international political theory at the Department of War Studies, King's College London, has added to the search for an answer with his book, Why Nations Fight. But what sets his book apart from this historically robust literature is twofold: an original database of 94 “wars,” dating back more than 350 years, and a unique, analytical approach that challenges the conventional wisdom that nations fight wars mainly for self-interests and power. In addition, Lebow draws heavily from his previous publication, A Cultural Theory of International Relations, to augment the theoretical foundation of Why Nations Fight, providing a rich study for those seeking further insight into the driving forces of past and future wars.

Contrary to its title, Why Nations Fight does not attempt to answer the question of why individual wars start but seeks to “infer something about the frequency of war.” In fact, from the beginning, the author makes it clear he is not offering any correlations or causal claims that may be suggested by his database of 94 wars. He states that he is less interested in the war fighters’ actual objectives for the conflict than with why they chose those particular goals in the first place. This position establishes his parameters for the qualitative analysis of selected wars from the past 360 years. He defines his wars using traditional sources, focusing on the element of violence between political entities, adding the quantitative proviso that each war endured at least 1,000 battle deaths, thus eliminating many historical but smaller conflicts. In fact, Lebow describes his data set as a “poll of history based on indirect observation,” and because it includes all wars relevant to his propositions, no tests for statistical significance are necessary—a debatable suggestion, to say the least.

The highlight of Why Nations Fight is found in the author’s detailed examination of the underlying motives of war: appetite, spirit, reason, and fear. Lebow establishes his coding rules based on these motives and offers the following categories for analyzing the data set: standing, security, interest, revenge, and a residual “other” category. One finding sure to generate debate among key political and military leaders is his conclusion regarding the conventional wisdom of a future conflict with China. Lebow states there is “no historical support for rising powers challenging dominant powers; it is a myth of international relations,” and there is no evidence China’s going out policies should be interpreted in respect to any power transition theory. Although no statistical analysis is applied to his data set, the propositions offered about the causes of war and the types of states it is likely to involve are still subjected to a thorough review of competing, explanatory paradigms through observable variances and fully supported by the analysis presented, as subjective as that might be.

One distracting aspect of the book is the author’s repeated, to the point of self-aggrandizing, reference to his previous work, A Cultural Theory of International Relations. However novel Lebow believes his argument is—as he so states, it “challenges the powerful components of the conventional wisdom about war and its causes”—his presentation format is not original and thus the whole book reads as a qualitative dissertation that somehow forgot it was a book. As avid and exact as the author’s research is presented, this reader still comes away slightly askew as to whether Lebow has presented the account for why nations fight and unconvinced that he was truly able to “interrogate the motives of initiators to determine why they resorted to force” some centuries after their deaths by using secondary sources. The robustness of any qualitative study, especially with a topic as subjective as the causes of war, is determined by the status, consistency, and exactness of the researcher’s analysis. Lebow’s subject matter has the extra difficulty of having to answer for centuries of competing examinations and inquiries. Why Nations Fight does offer noteworthy insight into a literature that has for centuries investigated the panacea for war and is worth more than a quick review. Unfortunately, by the author’s own admission, the cure for war is not found in this tome.

Lt Col Eric M. Moody, USAF, PhD

Assistant Professor, USAF Academy


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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