Fundamentals of International Relations Unit 6


Principal Causes of War

This unit examines why war is a persistent feature in the world.

In the international system, historians, scholars, diplomats, psychologists and sociologists, among others, have attempted to explain the causes of wars. These causes are however multifaceted and as such, various theories have been propounded to explain them. Wars have been classified as interstate war, general wars or major wars, hegemonic wars, total war and limited wars.

What causes conflict?                                                                    

Conflicts or disagreement between or among states is inevitable as each state seeks to protect its national interests. When there is a clash of interests between nation-states, if not strategically managed, it could result in war. Conflict of interests revolves around economic resources, ethnic or religious identity, policy disagreements, political regimes and territory.

An example of conflict of interests involving scare economic resources is the disagreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors over water resources. This contributed, among other factors, set the stage for the outbreak of one of the major Arab–Israeli wars in June 1967. When, in 1964, Israel began to draw water from the Jordan River, Egypt’s President Nasser coordinated an Arab plan that would effectively divert water flows in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon away from Israel. In response to this, Israel staged military strikes against the constructions sites for this project in Syria three times during 1965 and 1966. Others include Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 when the former claimed that oil companies were using lateral drills to steal Iraqi oil. The United States intervened by leading an international coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003 partly because it worried that if Iraq had nuclear weapons, it would use them to dominate the Middle East and its economically crucial oil resources. This fear was expressed in July 2002 by the United States’ Vice-President Dick Cheney: Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.  Also China and its neighbors have been locked into a struggle for control of the oil and natural gas resources that may lie beneath the South China Sea, and this conflict of interest has produced low-level MIDs.

Second is the issue of ethnic or religious as a contributor to the outbreak of war. Ethnic identity refers to the linguistic, cultural, religious beliefs and practices, common ancestral or kin ties, or other historical experiences that people believe they share in common and cause them to believe that they constitute a community. An example of this could be drawn from the actions of the United Nations against Serbian government under Slobodan Milosevic. In the late 1990s, an ultra-nationalist Serbian government under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic abused and murdered Albanian civilians in Kosovo in attempt to suppress an armed Albanian secessionist movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army. Ethnic Albanians, who comprise the majority of residents in Kosovo (a former province in the south of Serbia), were pressing for greater self-governance, which they felt had been long denied to them while they remained part of the national community. Between March and June 1999, the United States and its NATO allies intervened by launching air strikes against Serbia to compel the Milosevic government to cease its anti-Albanian campaign and accept a NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. This resulted in the administration of Kosovo by the United Nations as it declared independence from Serbia.

Furthermore, policy disagreements can also produce conflicts of interest, especially between states that have the potential for military conflict. The case of Israel and Syria in September 2007 falls under this category. In September 2007, Israeli warplanes destroyed what appears to have been a nuclear reactor that Syria had under construction because Israeli leaders concluded that the Syrian government intended to employ the reactor to build nuclear weapons, which they saw as a possible threat to Israel. In this instance, Israel’s intolerance of Syria’s possible policy of acquiring nuclear weapons produced a militarized interstate dispute. This could however have resulted in a war between both states if Syria had retaliated against Israel.

Finally, territorial disputes have a tendency result in war because the territories in dispute may possess important economic resources. Also, nation-states may assign military importance to a borderland. An example is when Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. This area was seized to serve as a location from which Israel can monitor Syrian military activities.

From an assessment of the above, it is evident that although violent conflicts can be avoided, nation-states at one point or the other adopt violence to protect their national interests.



Course credits:

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Barnett M. & Finnemore M., Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

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Doyle, Michael W., “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, December 1986.

Mazarr Michael, Jonathan Blake, Abigail Casey, Tim Mcdonald, Stephanie Pezard and Michael Spirtas, “Understanding the Emerging Era of International Competition: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives,” Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-2726-1/1-A, 2017 at:

Mearsheimer, John, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security, Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter 1994/1995.

Meicen Sun, “Balance of Power Theory in Today’s International System,” February 12, 2014:

Morgenthau Hans, Politics Among Nations, New York: Knopf, 1967.

Slaughter Anne-Marie, International Relations, Principal Theories

Stoessinger John, The Might of Nations: World Politics in Our Time, New York: Random House, 1979.

Waltz, Kenneth, Man, State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, New York: Columbia

University Press, 1959.

Watts, Stephen, Jennifer Kavanagh, Bryan Frederick, Tova C. Norlen, Angela O’Mahony, Phoenix Voorhies, and Thomas S. Szayna, Understanding Conflict Trends: A Review of the Social Science Literature on the Causes of Conflict, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-1063-1/1-A, 2017. As of September 12, 2018:

Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Williams, Phil, Violent non-state Actors and National and International security, International Relations and Security Network, 2008.

Wright Quincy, The Study of International Relations, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,Inc, 1955.

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