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Reviewed by:
  • War and its Causes by Jeremy Black
  • Russell A. Hart
War and its Causes. By jeremy black. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. x + 241 pp. ISBN 9781538117910. $29.00 (paper).

Jeremy Black once again returns to a perennial favorite of his—the causes of war—and once again he provides an insightful examination of what “war” really “is.” War and its Causes lives up to its billing as the study provides a fascinating exploration of the institution of war by one of its most prolific and dedicated scholars. Black examines “war” broadly in its political, cultural, and technological contexts, thereby providing interesting and important insights into historical and [End Page 625] contemporary use of force both by states and by nonstate actors. Based on this historical and contemporary review, Black then offers well-informed and cogent predictions (and in some instances, sensibly, no predictions at all) about the future use of force, all of which are well reasoned and evidenced. Moreover, Black studies war both as a construct and as a phenomenon. A deep and broad knowledge of recent scholarship underpins what is truly a global perspective. Chronologically, he ranges from the birth of civilization to contemporary times, though; logically, the primary focus, naturally, is on conflict since 1500. He also addresses the limitations of existing scholarship but, nonetheless, identifies various patterns across history that help us make sense of recent and contemporary conflicts as well as, hopefully, of those that might be on the cusp of commencing.

War and its Causes argues for an important new tripartite typology of war: Black argues that there of three main types of war—conflict across cultures (civilizations), conflict between states and cultures, and internal (civil) wars within states and cultures. He emphasizes the cultural and social causes of war and argues that cultural factors have been, and remain, the primary catalyst for war. Cultural factors distort rational assessment of risk and erode the power of deterrence, thereby precipitating conflict. Myriad forces drive states and cultures to war, including honor, identity, reputation, and revenge. Ideology (writ large) plays a central role. Moreover, war is deeply ingrained in human and cultural identity, Black argues. Conflict is enshrined in nationhood, as well as in state and cultural identity; and he suggests that territorial disputes are often more the proximate cause rather than the underlying cause of war. Since states are inherently bellicose, Black argues, the use of force domestically within a state is commonplace. Ideological hostility to democracy, to dissent, and to opposition are thus the primary causes of conflict within cultures. Black suggests war is a social phenomenon intrinsic to human society, though the practice of war naturally differs markedly from culture to culture and over time. The results are distinct state strategic cultures, within which prestige is the central imperative.

Black also honestly opines that it is unclear how modern technology—robots and artificial intelligence in particular—will influence the future course of conflict. He also cautions against the dangers of oversimplification, particularly concerning non-Western warfare. Ultimately, Black concludes that the causes of war are profoundly diverse and complex, and, therefore, that there is no general pattern identifiable to explain why hostilities break out at particular moments or in specific circumstances. Willingness (or [End Page 626] disposition) toward bellicosity is the key factor, according to Black, and, crucially, it does not necessarily need to be reciprocated. If one side is determined to go to war, war usually follows, even if the other side is predisposed to appease to avoid conflict. The disposition of the national leadership, the exigencies of domestic circumstances, and the psychological motivations of the leader(s) are the key elements, Black concludes. He thus analyses the default positions of various ideologies toward conflict and assesses the dynamic functioning of international relations systems as well as the successes and failures of international diplomacy.

As is typical of Jeremy Black’s books, War and its Causes is an ambitious, wide-ranging, and sweeping study. He integrates contemporary diplomatic history, political science and international relations, as well as perspectives from social and cultural history. The result is, perhaps, the first truly global examination of the causes of war. Black provides...


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pp. 625-627
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