Laura's Writings

The Origin's of Major War--A Critique

Part 1 of 2

Dale C. Copeland delivers a thoughtful examination into the occurrence of major war and dynamic power differentials in his work The Origins of Major War. Copeland accomplishes this first by laying the foundations for his original “dynamic differentials” theory rooted in classical realism by synthesizing the strengths of various realist perspectives while attempting to eliminate weaknesses. Next, he investigates reasons within the theory that explain why actors initiate hard-line policies that bring them closer to the brink of major war. Finally, Copeland applies the theory and its factors to the historical conflicts of WWI, WWII, the Cold War from 1945 to 1962, and seven other major wars in western history.

Beginning with an examination of realist theories of major war, Copeland dissects the strengths and weaknesses of classical realism, neorealism and hegemonic stability theory. It is in the breakdown of these systems of thought that the creation of dynamic differentials is begun. Copeland’s mélange of factors is composed of the following: Classical realism contributes to the emphasis on power differentials and the relative security in multipolar systems; neorealism is the reference for structural effects of anarchy; finally, from hegemonic stability theory comes a focus on the international impacts of power changes (Copeland: 11-13). Copeland also carefully weeds out the weakness of each theory where he notices a lack of consistency or dynamics.

Added to the meshing of these theories is the dynamic differential variable. This variable encompasses the relative power disparities between great powers, the power these disparities have to influence policy, and their differing effects in bipolar and multipolar systems. “Power”, furthermore, is broken down into categories of military, economic and potential power to demonstrate how variations of trends between each type of power affect the behavior of states experiencing relative change. Copeland’s attention to the power dichotomy and the factors of polarity together is a unique combination of analysis and perhaps more precise method for estimating the probability of major war.

The result of the savage dissection of the major realist theories and the addition of the power differentials variable and polarity variables is the synthesis of Copeland’s theory which, as its name suggests is, indeed, “dynamic.” Copeland succinctly summarizes the theory with these basic tenants: dominant but declining powers are most likely to wage war, especially when they are declining militarily; there exists more potential constraints against war in multipolar systems as opposed to bipolar systems; and, probability of war increases when the decline of a state is seen as deep and inevitable (Copeland: 15).

Copeland, having firmly established the theory, raises important questions concerning the necessity of preponderant military power to initiate war, the likelihood of preventative attack, and the role of unit-level factors in major war. Copeland’s questions and responses are a preliminary self-test, which the theory passes, to determine its rationality, dynamism, and its consistency with its realist roots. For example, the questions of the need for preponderant military power to successfully initiate war and the likelihood of preventive attack upon the rising country are answered via the realist rules of alignment and coalition. The rules of alignment suggest that military shortcomings can be offset with coalitions if the circumstances are favorable for smaller power states. Likewise, coalitions can have a counter-effect of disunity which can mitigate their successfulness. The same applies to the rising state. It should not fear the unlikely possibility of preventative war because of the common lack of cohesion among offensive alliances needed to establish a strong offense against it. The final issue of unit-level analysis is addressed very bluntly. Yes, factors such as greed and glory are drivers to major war but Copeland is sure to explain that exogenous factors such as relative power also propel the system to such scenarios. Unit-factors alone are never enough to lead to war (Copeland: 23-25). Considering the dynamic nature of the theory and its ability to maneuver so well between different realist factions of thought, Copeland’s depth of explanation gives differential dynamics credibility alongside other realist theories.

Having solidified the theoretical behavioral framework of a state’s tendency to react to power differentials Copeland embarks on the second area of examination—the application of the new theory to practical scenarios in order to explain why actors specifically choose hard-line policies that inherently risk the escalation toward major war. The cost-benefit analysis of war that Copeland offers is simple and consistent. A theoretical decision framework in the form of a spectrum displays the relationship of causal factors to 5 general types of policy decisions ranging from reassurance or accommodation on one end, deterrence/containment in the middle, to initiating major war on the other extreme (Copeland: 39). The spectrum model illustrates that states can choose from a range of choices either moderate or extreme and that choice is determined according to which option maximizes the state’s security or expected probability of survival (EPS). Following the logic of the spectrum model, the conclusion is drawn that hard-line policies are adopted when it is shown that it can reverse or mitigate decline (41).

Copeland’s analysis of the hard-line policy choices explains not only why they are elected but how they lead to major war. He thoroughly covers all possibilities of major war initiation in 5 the pathways: immediate preventative war or crisis initiation in 4 different variations that can escalate to war (an example is preemption). Copeland also addresses the unique psychological factors involved in crisis initiation situations that involve states “putting their reputations on the line” (Copeland: 44-45). Large audiences and big threats or movements make it necessary for states to maintain credibility by refusing to backtrack on their promises...(cont.)

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Copyright © 2002 Laura K Rowe. All rights reserved.