Why Do Countries Go to War? An Essay

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Leaders have a significant power over whether to involve their country in conflict or not, but the nation’s system of government is more influential in this aspect. The past century has witnessed an overwhelming number of fanatical rulers, but these were not the ultimate factor for involvement in major wars. Governments are more than just their leader, and the decisive cause of war lies in the entire nation’s best interests, not just those of their ruler.

There are many distinctions between an autocratic government and a democratic government. As discussed in lecture, authoritarian governments do not have the same legislative constraints as democratic states do. Autocracies can go to war easily and be more aggressive in foreign policy because they are not run with the same accountability that democratic governments are restrained by. Additionally, most democracies have instituted a system of checks and balances to ensure one section of the government does not result in an overwhelming amount of power. Autocratic leaders are able to make decisions regarding the entire nation without influence and rationalizing from other branches of government, and this is why ‘fanatical leaders’ have drawn their nations into major conflicts in the past. Democracies simply do not invoke war as frequently as autocratic governments.

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The origins of the World War I stemmed from several leaders following ideologies unaffiliated with their nation. “The assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand” was the turning point for conflict in the tense political atmosphere between Serbia and Austria-Hungary (Stoessinger, 3). Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, had grown particularly close to Ferdinand and his family, and he “turned deathly pale as he heard the fateful news from Sarajevo” (Stoessinger, 3). He allowed his emotions to interfere in his political decisions concerning the entire state of Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm retaliated to Serbia almost instantly, and as an ally to the Austria-Hungarian Empire, wrote a blank check to the empire, proving Germany’s full support. The Kaiser did not consider the entire realm of the situation, and Stoessinger argues that “his friendship with the Archduke prompted him to place the fate of his nation in the hands of another power” (Stoessinger, 4). From this moment in history, Europe began to spiral into the major world war it became. The Austria-Hungarian crisis prompted the ‘Chain of Commitments’, where great powers became involved on opposite sides to support their allied countries. In less than one week’s time, the great powers of Europe were at war after more than 100 years of widespread peace. These events leading to war, however, can be distinguished by the system of government and the respective nation’s response to tension. The conflict was initially started by Kaiser Wilhelm, upon writing the blank check to Austria-Hungary. Germany took many additional aggressive measures under the military guide of General Alfred von Schlieffen, who firmly believed that “attack is the best defense”. General August von Keim also agreed, insisting that “the offensive is the only way of ensuring victory” (Van Evera, 59). From this point on, each country reacted with rational responses to protect the best interests of their nation. For example, when Germany mobilized their troops westward toward defenseless France, France rationally also had to mobilize troops. This was not an act of aggression on France’s behalf, it was in defense of their nation. When Germany marched troops through Belgium, whose neutrality was protected by Britain, the British had to defend Belgium and did so by ultimately declaring war against Germany. These French and British responses were justified in defense, although their decisions drew Europe into war. Therefore, a deeper analysis of the origins of World War I proves the fact that democracies are peaceful until provoked by non-democratic powers.

David Lake wrote an extensive essay on democracies as ‘powerful pacifists’ in international affairs while teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles. This paper outlines numerous reasons, both economic and political, for why democracies are less likely to go to war than autocratic governments. The theory of totalitarianism, as taught in lecture, suggests that totalitarian states must constantly expand to survive. This immediately puts them in a position of necessitating stricter and more aggressive foreign policy compared to democratic governments. Democracies, or ‘powerful pacifists’, have little incentive to expand, but a great incentive to stop the expansion of autocracies (Lake, 24). In short, they are less likely to fight other democratic states, but frequently go to war with autocracies to maintain democracy as the prevailing form of international government. He later states that “democracies will expand only when the initial costs of conquest and ongoing costs of rule are less than the discounted present value of future economic profits”, arguing that democratic involvement in conflict solely depends on the economic and political state of the situation, not the nation’s leader (Lake, 29).

Stoessinger’s ‘Why Nations Go to War’ presents a strong argument supporting the stance that major world conflicts arise from sociological flaws of leaders. While concluding his chapter on World War I, he declares: “The character of each of the leaders, diplomats, or generals was badly flawed. It was not fate of Providence that made these men fail so miserably, it was their own evasion of responsibility” (Stoessinger, 24). This claim is unjust; as previously stated, the retaliatory actions of Britain and France in this situation were justified in means of defense. In Micheal Doyle’s essay ‘Liberalism and World Politics’, theorist Kant claims: “We cannot simply blame warfare on the authoritarians or totalitarians. Most wars arise out of calculations and miscalculations of interest, misunderstandings, and mutual suspicion” (Doyle, 1157). However, authoritarian leaders do not have a separate branch of government contribute to their decisions. This makes it entirely possible for a totalitarian leader to drag their nation into war irrationally, or even due to a ‘miscalculation of interest’ as Kant suggests. This does not happen in democratic systems.

This past century can be described by a poignant quote: “Of all the cruelties that people have inflicted on one another, the most terrible has always been brought on by the weak against the weak” (Stoessinger, 24). It can be applied to autocratic governments compared to democracies; autocracies are weaker than democracies for societal reasons, and the former is much more prone to act aggressively and initiate major conflict. Leaders are not the deciding factor in bringing a country into a war; the system of government is the determining factor.

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Why Do Countries Go to War? An Essay. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/why-do-countries-go-to-war-an-essay/
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