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Causes of armed conflict

A brief overview of theories on why armed conflict occurs.

The research on causes of armed conflict so far has not produced a consistent theory acceptable to most scholars working in the field. However, It is very likely that there is one consensus: that conflict cannot be reduced to a single cause, or a single explanation. It is obvious that there are “very few necessary conditions” which need to be fulfilled in order for a war to develop, and “very many sufficient conditions, of which only a few of these may apply, in any single conflict. War is possible as soon as weapons are available with which to fight it and as long as there is a dispute between two or more parties. What makes war probable, however, is a far more complicated question." (1)

There are different categories of explanations :

  • genetic and evolutionary/biologist theories (aggression as a genetic function, maximisation of survival chances) ;

  • behaviourist theories (war as learned behaviour) ;

  • cost-benefit theories (maximisation of benefit) ;

  • ecological (war for scarce resources) ;

  • social/cultural theories (ethnicity and/or religion as conflict causes), and cognitive (attitudes) explanations. (2)

Before the early 1990s most scholars concentrated on international war. Only recently have the causes for internal conflict come into consideration.

These are: the role

  • of power imbalances (a concept known since Roman domination) ;

  • of economic growth and free trade ;

  • of relative deprivation (difference between expected and real access to well-being and power) ;

  • of deterioration of the environment ;

  • of the state as such and the ideology of nationalism ;

  • of specific forms of political organisation (democracy, authoritarian regimes, transitional regimes) ;

  • of the existence of a monopoly of power, and of the connection between internal cohesion and external aggression.

Remarkably there are theories that say that an existing monopoly of power and internal cohesion are supportive for peace, and theories that say the opposite . Clearly the state of the research on conflict causes is inconclusive.

The role of ethnic diversity is controversial as well. In the eyes of many researchers about conflict, it is not a cause per se although parties in conflict do tend to identify themselves ethnically. Ethnicity is a powerful factor in mobilising people against each other because ethnicity is easy to ascribe, touches upon fundamental values, and seems to be non negotiable. Still, it should be regarded as an instrument, and an ideological base, rather than as a cause.

The different, and often popular, psychological and biological theories try to explain why people are willing to support and participate in war, but they cannot give a sufficient explanation of why there is modern war. Individual aggression cannot explain armament, arms industry and the modern military.

Agreement seems to exist on these three important factors for the development of war (4):

  • Bad economic conditions seem to be a main cause for internal conflicts.

  • Repressive political systems, especially if they are in a state of transition, are war-prone

  • Degradation of renewable resources (erosion, deforestation, scarcity of water) may contribute to the possibility of armed conflict.

On the other hand, empirically, it seems that democratic states do not go to war against each other. This observation has led to much comment, and is the rationale for many conflict interventions, specifically the democratisation programs undertaken by OSCE, UN and others (5).

Proponents of nonviolent action tend to emphasize individualistic theories of conflict as well, probably because most of the supporters are rooted in individualistic Western culture. Special mention needs to be made of the human needs approach which has been propagated by John Burton (6) and others. It is the theoretical basis of many conflict resolution projects, and specifically, so-called conflict-solving workshops. Burton sees three types of human motivation : needs, values and interests. The basic needs are “universal and primordial”, and they are about avoiding three primary emotions (fear, anger and depression) in order to permit the fourth emotion, the positive emotional state of satisfaction/happiness. Because human beings are being driven by these emotions, humans have a corresponding set of needs for conditions of life that give them satisfaction. There is no general agreement on what these secondary needs might be ; most often mentioned are identity, freedom, recognition, stimulation, distributive justice, participation, rationality, and control (7). Because these basic needs absolutely must be fulfilled, people are ready to go to war for them, or so the argument goes. But this theory does not take into account structural or cultural factors that allow some groups to satisfy their secondary needs at the expense of other groups, over a long time, and without being challenged.

Perhaps much of the more fruitless parts of the discussion could be avoided if there was agreement on Smith’s proposal to distinguish four types of causes of conflict (8):

  • Background causes (basic elements of social and political structure, e.g. that certain groups are excluded from power, or that there are regional economic differences) ;

  • Mobilisation Strategies (objectives of key political actors and the way they go about fulfilling these objectives ;

  • Triggers (factors that affect the timing of the onset of the armed conflict) ;

  • Catalysts (factors that influence the intensity and duration of a conflict, including external factors like an international intervention).

Notes :

  • (1) : Smith 2000:4

  • (2) : Orywal 1996

  • (3) : Dougherty/Pfaltzgraff 1997:215 pp.

  • (4) : Smith 2000:5

  • (5) : Dougherty/Pfaltzgraff 1997, Senghaas 1994

  • (6) : Burton 1990

  • (7) : See Burrowes 1996:126 for a summary

  • (8) : He refers to David Dressler 1990. See Smith 2000.