Patterns in war dynamics (1495-1945), Part I: Introduction

War is a recurring phenomenon in the International System. Wars cause destruction and suffering and now have the potential to lead to the self-destruction of humankind, given the destructive power we have now amassed. Despite numerous efforts, our understanding of war, its origins and effects, as well as its relation to the development of the System is still very rudimentary. This situation is mostly taken for granted, and we have limited our efforts regarding war to fighting them and so-called ‘damage control’.

Recent insights into the workings of complex systems and networks, however, can contribute to a better understanding of war, war dynamics and the development of the System, as I argue in this research report.

In this report, I present patterns that can be identified in the war dynamics of the System, and I propose mechanisms that produced these patterns. The research I present in this paper is not simply a new ‘opinion’ but is based on facts and data analysis, and obtained by the application of the scientific method. These new insights provide clues to improve our ability to control and eventually prevent war.

The data used for this analysis are taken from Levy (War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1945, Jack S. Levy) and concern the wars of the Great Powers during the period 1495-1975. Levy uses several exact criteria that distinguish the Great Powers from ‘normal’ states, including the following: “A Great Power is defined here as a state that plays a major role in international politics with respect to security-related issues. The Great Powers can be differentiated from other states by their military power, their interests, their behavior in general and interactions with other powers’ perception of them, and some formal criteria.” Levy argues that the Great Powers constitute a coherent System that started in Europe in 1495. The research shows that patterns in war dynamics can be observed from that moment onward, confirming that around 1495 the interactions between ‘units’ in the System (predecessors of states) became sufficiently regular and intensive to produce system behavior.

Initially, the war dynamics of the System only concerned Europe – the System’s core – but at a later stage also involved ‘units’ and states outside Europe as the core expanded to the System’s non-core.

Analysis of war data indicates that each cycle typically consists of a relatively stable period followed by what I denote as a systemic war. During relatively stable periods, interactions in the System are regulated by ‘international orders’, which consist of generally ‘accepted’ – but only temporarily effective – rule sets.

The System is anarchistic in nature: states are sovereign and reject formal hierarchy. In anarchistic systems, states are responsible for their own security. Inherent to anarchistic systems is that one state’s security is another state’s insecurity; a mechanism – also referred to as the security dilemma – that results in self-reinforcing feedback structures that at certain points dominate the (war) dynamics of the System.

I argue that population growth and rivalries between states in the System are closely related to the security dilemma. Furthermore, I argue that wars can also be considered tension releases in the System.

After presenting the results of the research and the methods that were used, I discuss several mechanisms that can explain the observed phenomena.

To be continued.