Establishing strong regional leaders help to prevent conflict

April 13, 2004

University Park, Pa. -- Building democracies even on rocky soil, promoting strong regional leaders and maintaining long-standing arms control treaties together create the best odds for avoiding international conflict, according to a Penn State political scientist.

"Our research going back a decade shows that liberal democracies, while they have often waged war against dictatorships, do not go to war with each other," says D. Scott Bennett, professor of political science and co-author of the book "The Behavioral Origins of War," recently published by the University of Michigan Press.

Since 1994, Bennett and book co-author Allan C. Stam, associate professor in the government department at Dartmouth College, have used data from the 40-year Correlates of War (COW) project to study the causes of all international wars between 1816 and 1992, as well as crises that stopped just short of war.

To Bennett, the research suggests that democracy-building initiatives, even in regions like the Middle East with little or no democratic traditions, could help bring peace in the long run. The problem is that, while there have been many success stories (e.g. Turkey, Germany, Japan), attempts to plant democracies have no absolute guarantees of success.

"The advance of our book is that we compare a larger array of likely causes of war than in any prior work, allowing us to judge their relative impact on war around the world and over a period of 175 years," says the Penn State researcher.

"We also discovered that policies designed to establish a balance of power in areas where conflicts loom will likely increase, rather than decrease, the future risk of war and violence," Bennett notes. "It is better to have a clear leader than a situation where states view each other as contenders for leadership."

This seeming paradox results from the fact that countries living in a state of tension with their neighbors are more likely to go to war with them if they both feel they have a chance to win, the researcher says. In contrast, if it is clear that a state will lose, or if an international power (e.g. the United States) or institution (e.g. NATO) stands ready to monitor disputes within a particular region, then a potential aggressor is much less inclined to go to war. Nations, like people, do not fight to lose, Bennett says.

A case in point would be Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who invaded Kuwait in 1990 only after coming to the mistaken belief that the United States would not intervene. Operation Desert Storm, a successful effort led by the United States and a coalition of other nations to repel Hussein, proved him wrong, but too late to prevent the war.

Bennett also cites the examples of Greece and Turkey, ancestral enemies for many years but still charter members of NATO -- and also democracies. Their common commitment to NATO and democracy has kept them out of full-scale war since World War II, even over the difficult issue of Cyprus.

"If the United States moves to pull out unilaterally of long-standing arms control treaties, this may reignite long-dormant arms races," he notes. "History teaches us that this raises the overall risk of conflict and war rather than reducing it."

The Penn State political scientist concedes that the causes of conflict between nations are many and varied. He notes, "We should beware of simplistic explanations of war. Indeed, if there were one single story to take from our book, it would be that there is no single story of war."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017