The Two Theories of War

A long time ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I took a course called Problems In American Foreign Policy. I was not a Political Science major, but I gamed the system pretty well so I was able to take upper-level/grad Political Science courses for most of my social science electives and other filler credits. The course was great and was taught a wonderful professor John Armstrong who retired a few years later.

One of the books for the class was The American Threat by James Payne. Future Purpleslog will cover this book at some time in the future.

For now, I would like to just bring up quickly the 2 theories of war it discussed:

  • The Excitation Theory of War
  • The Appeasement Theory of War

The Excitation Theory of War states that war is caused when one side (or both sides) in a conflict misreads the intentions of the other and it is through these misunderstandings that war and conflict breakout by mistake. Therefore, to avoid war, an actor should constantly be trying to de-escalate, avoid deploying troops, defer to your opponents, etc, all to avoid war. In my recent post on Nepal when the new government decides to release the communist leaders and agree to other demands, their decision are being framed by the Excitation Theory of War. They think war will be avoided by showing the Communist that they are acting in good faith.

The Appeasement Theory of War states that war is caused by one side in a conflict appeasing (signalling weakness, submission, lack or resolve, or lack of interest) causing the other side to keep pushing until an invisible line to be crossed thus causing war to break out. The aggressive side is usually surprised when this happens because of the signals sent out by their opponent. The Appeasement theory of War suggest that to avoid war, one must act decisively to threat, and that an actor's threat (a fuzzy calculation of other's perception of one's power and other's perception of one's willingness to use that power) must be accurately signalled to all other actors.

The two theories are opposite in the actions that one theory suggests to avoid war, the other theory suggests are the cause of war.

I believe the Excitation Theory is false and a bit Utopian suggesting that war would not occur by mistake if we just didn't scare the other side in attacking. Most peace movements have adopted this naive theory of War.

I believe Appeasement Theory is true in most situations when the actors are basically rational.

War will still occur:

  • The calculation of Threat is a fuzzy calculation and one side might think they have a good chance to win when they don't.
  • Not all actors are rational.
  • When faced with an existential threat, one must fight (and maybe loose) or be destroyed.

Note: I have changed Payne's description of threat to include a "perception" modifier to increase the accuracy of the concept.

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