Sample Case Study on Why Great Power Wars Happen

Great Power Wars


Many tongues have begun wagging in recent years due to the rise of China with many scholars and war theorists already making predictions of a possible combat between China and the United States. China and the US had good inter-state relations till the fortunes of China begun building up and showing to the entire world. However, there was a break up of Chimerica (as the relationship between the 2 countries had come to be known). China has even surpassed Japan to become the second biggest economy in the world. It is increasingly becoming a high-flying player within the global scene (especially Africa which is a platform for supremacy battle since African countries are believed to be ‘turning East) albeit with an approach that is different from that used by the US. For reasons such as these and more, china has managed to attract the attention of the United States and it has also asserted its place. The two countries have also confronted each other regarding the Kyoto Protocol at the Climate Change conference which was held at Copenhagen which was seen as a manifestation of a huge power struggle. Hence, the possibility of war that is been foreseen by many. It is said china was sending its message to rich nations that it “would not be pushed around” (Garnaut 1). China, which has become the second largest economy in the world, was obviously directing the message to the United States (the only country that is richer).

6The idea arises from the view China is challenging the global hegemony of the US. This view arises from the premise that unipolarity promotes peace and if there is an increase in multipolarity, the prospects of war will increase (Wohlforth 28). Barnett, in agreement writes:

“Arguably the greatest strategic gift offered by America to the world over the past several decades has been our consistent willingness to maintain a high and hugely expensive entry barrier to the “market” that is great-power war … by [among other things] maintaining a lopsided and unipolar military superiority in the post-Cold War period” (1).

For thousands of years, dynasties and states have fought wars. Therefore, it is possible to dig into history always in order to see the events that heralded great power wars in the pat. Still, what is provided by history does not offer answers that are clear cut. It is because of this that there are numerous theories that attempt to explain the nature and cause of great power wars and one of them is the theory of unipolarity. It is indeed difficult, in fact, it is arguably impossible to make predictions regarding social trends like occurrence of war. This paper is one such attempt. The paper seeks to answer a couple of questions: why wars arise between some states and not others; why wars take place at certain times and not others; why they occur under certain conditions and not others; and why they arise under certain leaders and not others.

Conceptualizing War

In the last 5 centuries, interstate war remains as the most prominent war. It is this war that has shaped the development and evolution of the world system, as it is known today. There has been a decline of interstate (great power) wars frequency since the mid 20th century. Still, they are the most destructive was and there are a couple of danger spots around the globe today: the Middle East (for instance, many argue that nuclear ambitions of Iran might provoke US military action); potential resurgence of Russia, North Korea (which continually proves the US with its tests of nuclear bombs) and rise of China.

Different perspectives can be adopted to understand great power wars. The beginning point is making the decision on whether to view war as a constant element of world politics or a variation. This paper will look at war as a variable (in relation to context in space and time). In this regard, we are going beyond the single case in history and taking into consideration theories of war. From these theories, we will generalize conditions under which great power wars are likely to occur.

Great Power Wars

This investigation can be started from a perspective that is broader by asking: what common condition in the world has the potential of creating war between major powers? One of the theories forwarded to explain great power wars rests on premise unipolarity promotes peace between major powers while multipolarity has the opposite effect. When we talk of unipolarity, we are referring to a case in which a nation dominates the world; other powers accept the situation without challenging the status quo. A French politician said “To be a great nation you must colonize” (Cited in Jackson & Morelli 3). Indeed, all the major nations are known to look beyond their own borders to expand their influence in regions that are far from home: the Roman Empire, Germany, Bonaparte’s France among others. While the United States did not colonize a specific country (for instance in Africa), it reigns dominance throughout the world. The US has colonized the world with ideas (on democracy and capitalism for example) something to which the nation owes the position it enjoys as a superpower. Now with China fast becoming a super power, it is spreading its influence across the world (mostly in Africa) and this is in part the reason most people see it as a battle that will usher in a great power war.


Factual, “unipolarity has been marked by very low levels of militarized competition among major powers” (Wohlforth 2009 p.28). Though this is the case, scholars are yet to unanimously agree on whether the association is causal. Mainstream theories on wars are not in agreement r the relationship between war and polarity is not simple and that conflicts can arise from complex relationship between power (in those who have power) and dissatisfaction with status quo (in those without power). In this regard, the argument has been that great power wars arise “out of a power shift in favor of a rising state dissatisfied with a status quo defended by a declining satisfied state” (Wohlforth 2009 p.29). There is much empirical research that supports this view. However, what is it that makes status quo so bad if a nation is gaining in and/or from it? What is more, it has been argued the primary cause for interstate wars is pursuit for material costs, benefits and wealth. There is plenty of evidence that shows power transitions arose where there were raising challengers prospering greatly as a result of status quo. For instance, the rise of China as seen today, with its increasing pursuit extending beyond its borders regardless of the material wealth it has gained. The pursuit is not a natural one. If it were, then Japan would have done a similar thing long ago. Simply, nations can seek so much more than simple material wealth. the premise regarding instrumental challenge of status quo cannot be sufficiently explanatory.

Athens and Sparta best prove this point. Despite the fact Athens never posed any threat to the security and welfare of Sparta, Sparta still voted to war with the rise of Athens which was a challenge to the status of Sparta as the leader of Greek World. In recent times, the United States participated in several wars with some of the minor nations due to it (US) emphasizing its place at the top of the world. The provocation of the 2 world wars by Germany also aids prove this point. According to Lieber (121), had Europe stayed at peace, Germany would have been propelled indefinitely to rise by its material wealth in 1914. Undeniably, if everything was just about benefits and material costs, then it would have been in the interest of Germany to continually fight for peace. However, the irony is that begun the war due to its resentment for Great Britain, yet it was a power `posing little is any security power to it.

Hegemonic theories’ views regarding war as conflict over status quo fail greatly because they never specify precisely what the status quo is or the benefits it provides to states (DiCicco & Levy 690). Generally, scholars have held that underlying reasons for conflict regarding status quo include desire to redraft rules governing workings of interstate relations to change in the nature of the system as well as how well it is governed and the goal of distributing territory among states that are part of the system.

Therefore, if these are the sole reasons, it should be easy to make a bargain without necessarily going to war. It is supposed to be rational for states to bargain and thus avoid war costs. In order to answer this question, we bring in another theory used to explain the cause of great power wars which is bargaining failure. James Fearon was the first one to introduce the theory. According to Morelli and Jackson (9), there are 2 prerequisites of war between 2 rational powers. First, every agent of war should be able to decide the cost of war must be overpoweringly high. This means that every agent is supposed to see the potential net gain to be achieved from war under certain circumstances. The weighing of gains and losses is based on the objectives, beliefs, constraints and environment of the agents. Therefore in this respect, “if a mutually advantageous agreement is possible, they should each” (Jackson & Morelli 9). In such instances:

“If rational agents come to the table with mutually consistent beliefs about the potential outcome of a costly war, then they should be able to reach a bargain to avoid it. In such a situation states can agree to split resources as they are expected to be split by a war, and then gain the extra surplus of the avoided destruction and costs of war” (Fearon 87).

Consequently, bargaining failure is a crucial ingredient for war. There are numerous ways that can lead to bargaining failure. One such possible explanation is that agents on both sides fail to share similar expectations and beliefs regarding the potential of the war’s outcome. Secondly, they can both fail to commit to an agreement hence leaving no means of agreement enforcement. Thirdly, resources can be indivisible such that every agent fails to see how the resources they expect will be of benefit if they do not go to war. Equally, agents making decisions or bargaining on behalf of other states “do not have the same payoffs as the states at large, their incentives are distorted from what might be mutually beneficial to the populations” (Jackson & Morelli 10). Finally, in the instance of multilateral bargaining, there are instances when none of the bargaining outcomes sit well with coalitional deviations. Furthermore, the 2 factors to which failures of bargaining are attributed are commitment and uncertainties problems. For instance, asymmetry of information is one uncertainty factor. Between 2 agents, one has the tendency of having more information that the other, therefore, they are in a better position of making better choices. Mistrust, on each side develops as each side is not aware of that the other side knows and what gives them an added advantage in the event they reach a bargain (Jackson & Morelli 11).

Then again, the idea of indivisibility of resources is one that does not hold much weight. As noted by Wohlforth “Most aspects of a given international order are readily divisible” (33). Besides, history also tells of numerous wars 2fought regardless of the fact the origin of conflict was divisible resources. However, “both intrinsic complexity and richness of most matters over which states negotiate and the availability of linkages and side payments suggest that intermediate bargains typically will exist” (Fearson 390).

The question regarding resource indivisibility has much more that what one sees. For instance, Goddard (57) points out, what might be divisible physically might also be indivisible socially. All depends on how they (resources to be divided) relate to the identities of the decision makers. Decision makers might also value their standing therefore not willing to follow intermediate bargaining solutions since that would mean compromising their standing. The minute it becomes a matter of status, what can be divisible easily becomes indivisible and creates a path to conflict.

History provides proof demonstrating how positional concerns over status stand in the way of bargaining and result in war. There have been expensive and protracted conflicts over issues that appear minor. There have also been cases where decision makers have propensity of framing issues relative to rank even in instances when they are aware it will make bargaining harder. In numerous cases, decision makers are often not able to accept feasible divisions regarding the issue of conflict even when they know doing it is costly.

Pursuit for status as the Cause of Great Power Wars

Numerous mainstream theories believe the general view: states come to blows over an international status quo only when it has implications for their security or material well-being” (Powel 194). In this case, the premise is that, when taking into consideration its position in the existing international order, the benefits and material costs are all states are concerned about. In other terms, the argument that when international order fails to affect the material well-being of the state, its relative ranking in that specific international order fails to have any bearing on the decision of whether or not to go to war. According to Wohlforth (33) however, cumulative research in varying fields such as economics, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience and sociology among others show social status comparisons are influential motivations for humans. Status preference is, for human beings not mere strategizing for goal attainment but rather, basic disposition.

Once the world uses the term ‘great’ to describe a power, there is no question the power feels privileged. Hence, the power seeks to emphasize and also assert its position through action and other ways. In the recent years we have witnessed rise of BRICs countries. Though relatively small when compared to great powers, this has not prevented them from acting in a manner that aims to prove the point. South Africa, seen as Africa’s superpower in 2011, arm-twisted the continent to get one of its citizen elected to AU chair. It is a matter of proving status. Perhaps though, the best example of the extent to which power can get to the head of a nation is China. Since the rest of the world begun taking note of the rise of China, the country has begun acting as it can survive on its own. It has even broken ties with the United States and these two have had major encounters regarding international issues. Status is the key ingredient of most great power wars. Otherwise, what would be the sense in Sparta’s vote for war against Germany’s or Athens hand in being the cause of the World War I and II?

Therefore, the question to focus on is circumstances under which motivation for self image and positive high status translates into conflict that is violent. Empirical research into the issue is only focused on individual motivations. A difference in social systems also exists between the international and domestic settings. Social system in international relations therefore is more complex. Still, those who make decisions and negotiate on the behalf of states (that is agents) are individuals. Though the goals of focus are way broader and much is at stake, the motivations still apply. It is in such an instance that polarity then becomes an issue of war.

Polarity is the nature of power stratification in the context of international relations. According to Barnett (10), the likelihood of more status conflict where the hierarchies are ambiguous are many and no stratification of power that is distinct exists between the states. In such an instance, a vacuum exists of the top power and anyone with resources or ambition enough to conquer has room to make the attempt. In such context, many states see their potential in capturing the top position. What is more, since there is no single state that has prove to be far powerful that the others, every state then has courage to go into war since there is the possibility of winning. On the other hand, in instances of unipolarity, the world is run by a single power. The leading power therefore has the military and financial power of asserting its status. In such instances, other states accept the position of the leading force, though they might not be in favor of it and they never challenge it. At present, the USA enjoys this position. But is it possible for this situation to last long?

There are scholarly works that emphasize the difference between power based and identity based explanations. The view divorces psychological motivations for competition of status from material resources. However, a relationship exists between the pursuit for the world and material dominance. Research traditions that are traditional in varying fields (like political science, sociology and economics) have found the states try to translate their material resources to status. This view originates from works of sociologists such as Veble and Weber who found relations hip between stability of hierarchies and material conditions status. Wohlforth (citing Weber) writes: “When social actors acquire resources, they try to convert them into something that can have more value to them than the mere possession of material things: social status” (38). The first prerequisite in this regard is availability of resources to be spent. This explains why nations (like Great Britain, the United States and Germany) are the ones always making the attempt to lead the rest of the world. Since these countries have wealth, they also had time to dominate the world with their ambitions.


Several theories of war exist. Some have been argued out on the account of the first and second World Wars. For instance, there is the theory on economic war. A self- explanatory theory of war, here, the argument is that powerful states will fiver over economic gains. While the argument is valid, it fails to sufficiently explain reasons that trigger great power wars. Besides, we might even ask, why did Africa’s colonization by the European nations not cause war? As a matter of fact, it was the only place where bargaining worked. Yet, ideological wars (capitalism/communism) wars between the US and Russia almost caused another war except, perhaps for entry of nuclear weapons into the scene (which are thought to have played a significant role in post –WWII peace).

The focus of this paper is not such minor theories. Although the economic factors are part of it, the excuse is so simplistic. Economic power as is largely demonstrated by history makes it easy for states to go into war not that states will go to war in pursuit of it. Therefore, there must be ‘something else’ that causes war to occur between great powers. This ‘something else’ is what we refer to as ‘status’ in this paper.

Status is the position a state enjoys in international relations hierarchy. As history proves, for great powers, it is all that is needed to be rich. That richness must also count in other areas. In other terms, rich nations aim to flaunt their ways in other ways like world dominance. Of course, the question on status is far more complex than this. Still, we are able to get the point.

Such ambitions however, are inspired by particular conditions. In this instance, polarity is that condition. In a situation that is multipolar, no state dominates the others and no powerful state has potential of occupying leadership vacuum. Status competition therefore, is intense in such instances opening the path for war. In a scenario that is unipolar, one power dominates over others considerably and the dominated nations never challenge that. They accept things as they are even when they do not like them. This is where the world has been since the Cold War came to an end with the US being the only global leader. Now it appears as if China is already challenging the dominance and many are foreseeing the outbreak of another great power war. Obviously, this might not be in the near future but in the decades to come.


 Works Cited

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