When he wrote “Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace,” economist Christopher Blattman could not have known that Russian President Vladimir Putin would soon invade Ukraine, setting off the deadliest war in Europe since 1945. Putin’s war also created exactly the kind of natural experiment that social scientists like Blattman seek. We therefore have an opportunity to test whether Blattman’s thesis helps us to understand why Putin started such a reckless war and whether the thesis suggests routes toward a lasting peace.
Blattman is interested in more than large interstate wars. He wants to understand why any group of humans engages in sustained, organized violence when the costs are so high. He argues that most groups settle their differences without violence or, as he neatly puts it, they choose “to loathe one another in peace.” Just as two litigants in a messy court case will accept a plea bargain to avoid the costs of a lengthy trial, so will street gangs, insurgents and governments usually look for ways to cut a deal rather than risk destruction. This bias toward peace fails, Blattman argues, when some toxic mixture of five conditions prevails. The context produced by these conditions, not resource scarcity, poverty or any of the usually cited causes for war, explain “why we fight.”
How well does this model explain the Russian invasion of Ukraine? First, Blattman argues, wars occur when leaders have unchecked interests, encouraging them to take their groups into wars or prolonged conflicts because their personal risk-reward calculus differs from the group’s. The critical variable for Blattman is the efficiency of the system of checks and balances operating in a society, not necessarily its level of democracy or autocracy.
Second, conflict can begin when intangible incentives like honor, vengeance or a sense of injustice overwhelm the bias for peace. Ideology, glory and outrage can narrow the space for bargaining, especially if members of a group identify closely with the people perceived as being offended.
Third, wars can begin from uncertainty, especially when one side grows overconfident in the material or moral advantages it believes it has over an opponent. The two sides in conflict, moreover, do not share the same information, nor do they interpret and use their information in the same way.
Fourth, Blattman argues, is a group’s decision to use violence to solve a problem before the group grows too weak (or its opponent grows too strong) to prevail. He cites the example of the George W. Bush administration’s belief that it needed to strike Saddam Hussein in 2003 before Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction vastly increased the costs of a future war to the United States. Or, to cite another famous example, Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War against Athens before the latter’s rise placed the former in a state of near-permanent inferiority.
Finally, Blattman takes a cue from the late Robert Jervis, who argued that misperceptions are a key cause of war. One side can misjudge its (or its opponent’s) strength, the potential response of the international community, the courage of an enemy’s leaders, or the willingness of one’s own people to sacrifice for victory. This factor becomes even more problematic because each side has an incentive to increase misperception in the other through deception, bluster and bluff.
On the surface, Blattman seems to have found Putin’s playbook. Isolated in the Kremlin, he faced few checks and balances on his decision to invade Ukraine and his subsequent decisions to seek a continuation of the violence rather than negotiate a way out of the war. His speeches are filled with calls to intangible incentives based in a distorted reading of history that emphasizes Russia’s sense of national mission and its alleged humiliation at the hands of the West. Launching this war involved tremendous uncertainty, and one could argue that Russia risks irrelevance as its population ages and its economy stagnates. Finally, there seems little doubt that Putin misperceived a great deal about the contemporary security environment, most importantly the willingness of the Ukrainians to fight and the eagerness of Western nations to help them, even upending long-standing taboos such as Germany’s decades-old unwillingness to provide lethal weapons to belligerents.
Blatmann’s five categories are sufficiently general and fungible that they can be stretched to fit a wide variety of contexts, from civil conflict in Liberia to gang violence in Chicago to, as we have just seen, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That very strength risks becoming a vulnerability if readers and policymakers try too hard to make the model fit every situation.
The historical record, of course, is not so neat or formulaic. The great value of this thoughtful and well-written book is therefore not so much in providing a checklist as a set of warnings. Blattman uses the metaphor of a pilot. When the skies are clear and the plane is at the proper altitude, we need not worry about the safety of the passengers on board. But when the pilot is navigating a canyon or flying through bad weather, the risks of disaster increase. The challenge is to create systems at the local, national and international levels that create safer skies.
Blattman wants his readers to become comfortable with small, incremental gains toward peace, because peace is ultimately what most groups seek. Given the prevalence of his five causal factors over time, we cannot expect global peace to break out suddenly or history to end anytime soon. We should also look to create interdependence between societies, foster checks and balances in governmental decision-making on war, and support third-party interventions designed to prevent small problems from growing. This book, written informally as a conversation between reader and author, provides a clear, concise way of thinking about human conflict, even as Putin’s war reminds us of the persistence of the problem. Blattman quotes former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres’s famous dictum: “The good news is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is that there is no tunnel.”
Michael S. Neiberg is chair of War Studies and professor of history at the U.S. Army War College. He is the author, most recently, of “When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance.”
Why We Fight
The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace
By Christopher Blattman
Viking. 388 pp. $32