Azar Gat. The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 320 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-879502-5.
Reviewed by David Lorenzo (National Chengchi University)
Published on H-War (December, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In this abridgement and extension of his earlier War in Human Civilization, Azur Gat asks, and does a fair job of answering, some of the big questions with which political theorists have historically grappled: What is war? Why do humans fight? What accounts for the recent decline of war? Will the current, relatively peaceful era last?
Gat begins his intellectual quest where all good accounts of war and politics start: with human nature. But he claims a more relevant and useful understanding of humans than theorists have previously provided. He discards the speculation which marks classical accounts and turns instead to the empirical data of modern anthropology and an analysis rooted in biological evolution.
Sorting through anthropological and historical studies to trace uses of warfare across stages of social development and through time, Gat argues that the historical record and observations of humans living in conditions ranging from hunter/gatherer groupings to complex modern societies confirm neither Rousseau’s pastoral ideal, nor Hobbes’ brutal depiction of humanity. War (the organized use of violence against an outside group) neither arose with civilization or the creation of states, nor dominates the lives of humans living in simple social settings. It is, instead, a “hardwired trait” (a behavioral attribute shaped by evolution) which exists alongside several other traits (cooperation and disengagement) which humans can choose to use to solve problems and confront conflicts. War, he insists, is one of several behavioral tools, molded by evolution, which humans have always possessed and can always employ to rectify difficulties.
Evolutionary theory further shapes Gat’s analysis in two important ways. First, it allows him to divide into tiers the causes of war. Primary causes are conflicting quests for the resources necessary for humans to survive and pass down their genes—food, water, shelter, territory, and reproductive partners. The secondary causes are conflicting quests for the goods which are necessary to obtain first-order resources: power, security, deterrence, rank/honor/status, worldviews/supernatural understandings and beliefs, pageantry and play. War results when one or more parties decides that the organized use of violence is the best means for obtaining necessary resources in circumstances characterized by the conflicts involving one or more secondary causes.
Second, in combination with the insights derived from his ranking of the causes of war, evolutionary theory provides Gat with a larger method for understanding war in the time of states, empires, and other complex social and political entities. By privileging primary needs as fundamental causes of war, he locates constants in the use of war as a tool. In identifying a raft of secondary causes and conceptualizing them as instrumentally necessary for obtaining primary needs, he provides flexibility and breadth in explaining the outbreak of war in any given circumstance. So instead of resorting to a single-factor or narrow monological account of war, Gat argues that evolutionary theory allows one to appreciate the insights which various theoretical accounts bring to the intellectual puzzle of war and peace and to integrate the essential parts of those accounts (including those located in the realist, liberal internationalist, and constructivist schools) into a synthetic whole. War is not only about the quest for power, or security dilemmas, or deterrence, or trade, or ideology. Instead, it is about leaders choosing war to resolve conflicts characterized by the presence of any number of secondary causes, which in turn intimately implicate an interrelated set of primary causes.
In Gat's evolutionary account, states or state-like entities are not actors; they do not explain the presence of wars, and they are only secondarily associated with the possible causes of peace. Rather, they are merely the means by which leaders pursuing goals shaped by evolution accumulate resources, coordinate large populations, and distribute rewards unevenly. It is always humans who are the actors here. For similar reasons, Gat lacks enthusiasm for structural realism—the structure of the international system cannot fundamentally explain wars when the motivations which drive wars are the products of human evolution.
Gat could stop there and have made a useful contribution to our understanding of war. But he pushes further to explore reasons why peace can be possible and how it is that contemporary times (roughly the past two hundred years) have been relatively more peaceful than previous eras. Gat analyzes significant amounts of data (some of which are newly presented) on the way to dismissing democratic peace theory, capitalist peace theory, liberal peace theory, and war weariness brought about by the destructiveness of contemporary conflicts as primary explanations. The first three, he holds, are only partially true: there has been a relative embrace of peace by states which are not democratic, liberal, or capitalist as well as those which are. The latter he dismisses with arguments holding that contemporary wars, on a relative scale, have been less destructive and bloody than previous conflicts.
Gat instead argues for a modernization peace in which wars between major powers have only rarely occurred because of the immensely beneficial effects of modernization and its accompanying economic development. Gat acknowledges the contemporary role played by nuclear deterrence and the concept of mutually assured destruction in discouraging a general war, but argues that this factor is insufficient to account for the relative paucity of major wars. The better answer, he argues, is that people have come to realize that the rewards of peaceful development are larger and more certain than the rewards of war. Economic development has largely solved the Malthusian puzzle which has dominated human history.
Gat further emphasizes that the calculation in favor of peace is not primarily about the costs of war versus the benefits of peace, but about a comparison of benefits. Humans are not so much turning away from war as something that is unthinkable as they are turning towards economic development as a better way of attaining their goals. Economic development, in turn, creates and is supported by freer trade, the embrace of international norms and cooperation, more relaxed sexual mores, and ideologies marked by toleration, all of which mutually reinforce peace by turning people firmly towards cooperation.
Gat ends by pointing to threats to this peace. Economic development and its accompanying material improvements, social complexity, and acceptance of international norms and tolerant ideologies, he rightly emphasizes, are unevenly distributed throughout the world. Some regions are still left out, and consequently their inhabitants are open to embracing the ethnonationalism, protectionism, and violent ideologies which favor the use of war as a better tool for attaining essential needs. In these circumstances, he argues, it is important for the United States to maintain its strength and act in the interests of peace, not as the world’s policeman, but as a “system policeman” which serves as an enforcer of last resort for liberal democratic norms.
Gat's success in bringing home this ambitious undertaking depends on the audience. It will probably succeed for students and the general public. For scholars of international relations and peace studies, it is perhaps more suggestive than persuasive, and leaves one longing to dive into his mammoth, eight-hundred-page version.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
David Lorenzo. Review of Gat, Azar, The Causes of War and the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound?.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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