Book review: The War Puzzle Revisited, by John Vasquez, 2009.

A Syrian forces’ artillery observer looks through a scope as smoke plumes rise on the horizon, near the town of Qumhanah in the countryside of the central province of Hama, on April 1, 2017. Photo: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images.

Bottom line: this book is interesting. John Vasquez affirms that around 70% of wars happen because of territorial proximity = being a neighbor is a dangerous thing (no doubt about that!); so in Vasquez’s view, proximity means the occurrence of war. However, his hypothesis does not consider the possibility that humans fight wars for other reasons, like pride, affirmation of power, auto-destruction, “machismo”, passion, or even just because it is easy to do so, just to name a few. Theories such as psychoanalysis or psychohistory or both, could explain these other reasons. 

The book asserts that the path to war follows an algorithm; the steps in it include military misunderstandings and clumsy foreign policy actions (among other elements), but at the end, Vasquez’s research concludes that wars are about nearness of territories; however, e.g. Latin America is a region where some of Vasquez’s included pre-conditions to war exist (i.e. proximity) but few armed, interstate conflicts happen (at least since 1944). Vasquez affirms that conflicts arise when power transitions occur between powerful nations and that these start with arms races, followed by alliances, provocations, coercions, which explain main wars such as WWI, but that does not explain other conflicts where these conditions are (almost) inexistent like the case of the Falkland’s war (1982).

Vasquez emphasizes that conflictual situations can exacerbate tensions leading to war especially between historic rivals, but he does not mention that they also can lead to the formation of new alliances, e.g. U.S.-U.K.. Also, he does not mention that sometimes, a Realist approach to a conflict means an increase in security, which in turn can endanger an already complicated situation. He neither analyzes the impact of uncertainty at the moment that states involved in tension growth make key decisions. 

He theorizes that inequality in power between nations reduces the likelihood of war; again, this explains certain periods in history and conflicts, but not others, e.g. the Mexican-American War (1846-48) or the French Interventions in Mexico (the first 1838-39, the second 1861-67) which precisely happened during the century he uses to test his idea.

He shows that the more territorial disputes appear, arms races grow, nations create alliances, rivalry augments and the more nations get involved in it, the more chances of war happening, however, the Cold War is an example of a dispute that did not end in armed conflict.  

Even though I am convinced he’s right in his idea that biology (genes) is behind territorial dispute, he does not review the impact of historic practices, the influence of culture, or the effect of personal histories of decision makers.

For Vasquez the key IV (Independent Variable) in his theory is territorial contiguity (he uses several others, though); in his territorial explanation of interstate war, he explains several reasons this could be the case, but he omits an important one, the aim of any state: SURVIVAL, where territory means the place where all actions of the nation, take place. The state is the political invention where all actions leading to the survival of the nation happen.

When analyzing territory, politics and violence, the author says that “often a major war or series of wars stabilize the situation, and the two states are able to work out their relative status so as to avoid continual warfare” (p. 160), and then he uses the case of the U.S. in relation to its neighbors, Mexico and Canada (nineteenth century); in the same place and particular case of Texas he mentions that “the absence of ethnolinguistic links between Texas and Mexico prevented an irredentist issue from emerging” (p. 160); nothing further from reality; that absence was between the U.S. and Mexico not between Texas and Mexico, and then, from 1836 (Texas independence) up to this day, in fact, the ethnolinguistic link exists. Then, originally, the U.S. intention was to invade the North, but due to several factors, it looked in the opposite direction. Another affirmation: “Nor will Mexico enter an alliance with Germany to try to get back the Southwest of the United States” (p. 160) is another belief of the author, as if that was not possible at all. That possibility arose in 1917 (with the Zimmerman telegram) … and of course, given the right circumstances, it could happen again. Why not?

The Battle of Buena Vista, also known as the Battle of La Angostura, during the Mexican-American War, February 1847

“What separates the rivalries that have avoided war from those that have not is that the former are able to break the pattern of behavior associated with the steps to war, whereas the latter are unable to do so.” (p. 213) Isn’t Neville Chamberlain’s idea of appeasement, a case that shows that even when he broke the pattern of behavior associated with the steps to war, sometimes war can start all the same? Perhaps he never broke that pattern in the first place, but the 1938 Chamberlain-Hitler’s (Munich’s) agreement seemed at the moment, to have stopped it. 

His work disqualifies Realism as a theory to explain how and why war occurs (p. 214), however, Realism does offer explanations, and also according to different scenarios, just like Vasquez’s steps-to-war analysis.

The chapter on the domestic prerequisites of wars of rivalry, asserts that “the driving out of accommodationist influences in the domestic environment of both rivals is an important step toward war and a domestic pre-requisite for public mobilization.” (p. 244) which increases hard-liners’s presence who according to Vasquez, support escalatory actions; True, however that doesn’t consider the benefits of it, i.e. during the Cuban Missile Crisis, hard-liners allowed those accommodationist influences to contrast the consequences of military escalation, allowing them to find and implement a diplomatic solution. 

Some flaws in this book include the usage of the concept of “Total War”, which I cannot distinguish from any other “big wars”, ideas taken from Geoffrey Blainey’s “Causes of War”, where Vasquez does not cite him (unacceptable in a scientific work), etc. Also, the book includes a big number of definitions, which I am not sure really matter for the research the author carries out. At the end, I conclude that his integration of empirical findings is limited.  

References: John Vasquez, The War Puzzle Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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