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Domestic Versus Foreign Causes of Wars

In the competition framework with its associated implicit view of ordinary people as passive bystanders, it seems far-fetched to claim that Allied and Axis leaders on the eve of World War II were more concerned about preventing domestic revolution than they were about protecting their empires, and absurd to suggest that they launched the war in order to prevent  revolution. But the notion that national leaders start wars for domestic rather than external reasons is not considered absurd by academic researchers who try to approach this question with a spirit of objectivity and with tools such as statistical inference. In academic circles the competition view is referred to as "realism" and it has come under fire as not being in accord with empirical observations. An article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Resolution says,

A major tenet of realism, long the dominant paradigm in international relations, is that domestic factors have little impact on foreign policy decisions, particularly in the real of the "high politics" of security issues. Realists argue that decisions affecting the security, and especially the survival, of states are based on the requirements of the external situation and are directed at protecting the national interest. In particular, decisions to engage in foreign conflict are based upon careful considerations of the external environment, not on the political needs of domestic actors...This realist assumption has long been suspect, however, and a number of recent studies of international conflict have found evidence of linkages between domestic factors and foreign conflict...Indeed in his classic work, Wright claimed that "foreign war as a remedy for internal tension, revolution, or insurrection has been an accepted principle of government." [290]

The same article notes that rulers have long been aware of the usefulness of war as a means of preventing domestic revolution, and cites, as one example this, Russian (Czarist) interior minister Plehve's statement on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904: "What this country needs is a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution."

An earlier article in the same journal looked at the United States government's use of force in foreign conflicts between 1949 and 1976 and reported:

Ostrom and Job (1986) found that domestic, political factors are more influential on the president's decision to use military force than characteristics of the international environment. These results pose a serious challenge to the realists' assumptions regarding the motives of states and the separability of domestic and foreign policy...Can a realist theory of America's use of military force be sustained in light of our findings? The answer at this stage must be: only with considerable effort...We are left then with significant discrepancies between the realist view of international politics and the influeneces that seem to have encouraged U.S. presidents to use military force in the post war period. [292]

Another article in this journal by a professor at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University found post-WWII evidence that democratic (so-called) governments were more likely to use war for domestic reasons than totalitarian governments:

It is hypothesized that democratic leaders will respond to domestic unrest by diverting attention by using force internationally. On the other hand, authoritarian leaders are expected to repress unrest directly, and these acts of repression willmake them less likely to use force internationally. An analysis of the initiation of force by the challenging states in 180 international crises between 1948 and 1982 strongly supports these hypotheses...My results indicate that the diversionary initiation of force is generally a pathology of democratic states...In particular, my finding that democratic states are more likely to respond to domestic unrest by initiating force at the international level than authoritarian states raises troubling questions. [293]

Why Did They Do It? Why Does it Matter?

Why did national leaders [Note that the cases of Germany and Japan, though not discussed here, are discussed in great detail in my book on World War II, as is the case of the United States, and the story in all three nations is essentially the same: fear of domestic revolution motivated the rulers to go to war.] lead their people into a war that killed tens of millions of people? Nobody will ever be able to say with absolute certainty; we can only try to infer from our limited knowledge of history what explanation makes the most sense. I have made the case for the social control theory that the Second World War had its roots and origins primarily as a strategy employed by the rulers of the U.S., Germany and Japan for controlling their respective domestic working classes (and also, as discussed in my book, working classes in foreign nations), placing emphasis on the generally overlooked fact that working people in these nations were challenging  corporate power to an unprecedented degree just before the war, and arguing that elites must have been preoccupied by this existential (for the elites) problem and certainly understood that war was a potential, though dangerous, solution. I have shown hat the competition theory (that war was an instrument of capitalist competition between national elites who viewed competing capitalists in foreign nations, not working people at home and abroad, as the serious threat) cannot explain the anomaly of America's largest corporations and banks being owned and controlled by pro-Fascists seeking to avoid war with Germany and Japan. And I have shown that academic studies of wars since World War II support the idea that they were more a response to domestic unrest than to concerns rooted in foreign affairs, a finding that lends further support to the plausibility of the social control theory regarding World War II itself. I believe the social control theory fits the facts better than competing theories.

The question of leaders' motives in waging the Second World War has a profound significance for our lives today. If the competition theory is true, it suggests that elites are the sole makers of history--they fight each other and wage wars in a world where ordinary people are merely passive victims of heir rulers' actions. It means elites are the only actors on the stage of history and there is no force that can sweep them away. On the other hand, if the social controls theory is true, it means that ordinary people are the force that makes history, that working people in their struggle to shape the world with their values of solidarity and equality and democracy are such a powerful force and are so threatening to elite rule that elites on occasion are compelled to resort to war as a last ditch and desperate effort to control them. It means there is a force in the world that has revolutionary potential, that there is a basis for hope in the possibility of revolution to defeat elite rule and make a far more equal and democratic society. This is why the question is important. [Note that my book goes on to discuss in detail how the warring governments used the war as a pretext to attack the working class at home and abroad.]

References/Notes click here to go to the References/Notes page