On Monday February 8, Golden Auditorium filled with students, faculty and community members interested in a simple question with a not-so-simple answer: why do nations go to war? James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and Centennial Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science Richard Ned Lebow addressed this question in his lecture titled “Why We Fight,” sponsored by the Peace and Conflict Studies Department and the Political Science Department. Lebow presented recent research that he has completed through a close empirical and historical study into the processes that surround war on a global level.
“War is something that terrified me as a child and fascinates me as an adult,” Lebow said of his interest in the subject. Lebow has done extensive research on international relations, and has written the book A Cultural Theory of International Relations, which won the Alexander L. George Award for the best book in political psychology.
“Professor Lebow is a highly respected intellectual in the field, plus his work connects with the work of many of our faculty,” George R. and Myra T. Cooley Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Professor of Geography and Director of Peace and Conflict Studies Daniel Monk said.
Lebow argued that war will not be the way in which people solve their conflicts in the future, which is in part what his upcoming book, Why Nations Fight, will discuss.
“As a Peace and Conflict studies student, it was an uplifting message to hear Professor Lebow’s prediction that the ‘future of war does not look good,’ because nations are accomplishing their motives with new ways of thinking instead of through war,” senior Cortney Ahern said.
Lebow continued the lecture by describing the natural human desire to compete and the drive for self-esteem, which has led to a naturally competitive world. This human drive for honor and standing within the national or global community is what makes Lebow’s research stand out from other research in international studies. International conflict is driven by fear and appetite according to conventional theories, but Lebow argues that “thumos,” or desire for recognition, drives certain countries to initiate war.
“We want to belong to high status groups,” Lebow said, using an analogy to a person shifting their personal sports team loyalty. “It happens not only with sports teams but with nations.”
Lebow’s research tests the motive of standing using a series of case studies of interstate wars between great or rising powers in history. His goals are to challenge existing war theories and to see if this concept of standing and honor among nations is relevant.
According to Lebow, wars of the past have traditionally started for reasons of national security or material interest, and reasons of standing or revenge are concepts not sufficiently researched. He punctuated the lecture with a series of propositions about wars that outlined his results, including which types of nations tend to fight against each other and reasons why wars are initiated.
Through this research, Lebow has come to find many conventional theories, such as the rationalist theory and international relations theory, wrong.
“What I found is that current theories will not get us very far,” Lebow said.
Lebow’s major finding is that wars are not likely to be prevalent in the future.
“Reasons for going to war decline, and reasons not to go to war increase,” Lebow said.
Lebow believes that this shift stems from three new ways of thinking about war in our current era. First, the link between material affluence and war has changed; second, security is no longer a reason for war because conflicts are mostly resolved by means other than force and third, humans now have multiple ways of achieving standing and honor besides athleticism and war.
Lebow hopes to see a transformational international relations strategy in the future that pivots on nations working through conflict together, and he sees his upcoming book to be a step towards this.
“I think that Richard Ned Lebow has for many years offered us a trench into critique of normative assumptions concerning international politics and they need to be paid attention to,” Monk said, “even if one doesn’t agree with all of his positions.”