Although a closer look at these theories

Although it has been found that there always exists a mutually beneficial agreement for two parties, which can be reached through dialogue and settlement, international relations scholars have had a hard time understanding why wars arise. In Chapter 3 of World Politics, Frieden, Lake and Schultz discusses two major theories that may explain such a seemingly irrational behavior; incomplete information and commitment problem. Let us now take a closer look at these theories and how, if at all, they can help is understood why a war was waged between Iraq, Afghanistan and the United States, a significantly more powerful adversary.


The first theory, which could explain war, is incomplete information. A situation in which parties involved in the strategic interaction lack information on the others willingness to wage war and/or its capacities in the eventuality of such an event. Because much of bargaining consists of manipulating belief, it often leads to the very thing it is meant to avoid; War. Indeed, when states have incomplete information about each other’s willingness and preparedness to fight, there are two possible scenarios, both of which trigger war. Indeed, when state do not have enough information about one another, they either “yield too little or not at all1,”or one states demands too much because it overestimates the willingness of its opponent to cave. In either case, even though a settlement may exist that benefits both parties, the uncertainty of knowing whether or not the other is willing to wage war prevents any reconciliation or compromise.

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While, as we have shown above, incomplete information leads to war, reaching a settlement does not necessarily guarantee that war will be averted. In fact, in the eventuality of a mutually beneficial bipartisan settlement, there may arise a problem of commitment.


The second theory that could explain war is that of the commitment problem. Even when states are able to reach a settlement, they may not be able to trust that their adversary will abide by it. This bargaining failure arises from the difficulty that states can have “making credible promises” (THE BOOK PAGE 118). Indeed, a credible commitment assures both parties that will later make use of force in order to revise the terms of the settlement. If a state cannot credibly make such a promise, we speak of a commitment problem.


In both instances, credibility plays a central role in negotiations, however, in the commitment problem theory, it is not a question of threatening to use force but rather a “credible promise not to make use of it.2” Furthermore, it is important to note, “the credibility of a threat refers to the targets belief, not the actual intentions of the state issuing the threat3″For this reason, being able to make the opponent think that you are willing and able to wage war can either result in the adversary falling for the bluff, or war. We could now ask ourselves how, if at all, these theories could help us understand the war that the United States waged on Iraq and Afghanistan despite being a far more powerful state with seemingly more leverage for negotiation.


In 2003 we witness an Iraqi regime that stood firm in the face of the US and their allies carrying out their threats of waging war. Indeed, Saddam Hussein had incentive to create uncertainty about whether or not he was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and his willingness to wage war with the United States, despite its meager chances at victory. It was this very uncertainty about Iraq’s possession of WMDs that put the US on the offense. Therefore, the theory of incomplete information would seem to be the best to understand why the war was waged between the United State and Iraq, it also explains why a larger state may be unsuccessful in coercing a smaller state.


The theory of incomplete information can also help us understand the conflict between the United States and Afghanistan. Indeed, although he Taliban government had no doubts about whether or not the US would implement his threat to invade, they were faced with a case of incomplete information when considering whether or not the US would be willing and able to bare the cost of a long war in order to remove the Taliban leaders in power. Such a threat was then not made to be credible enough to generate legitimate fear, making all negations obsolete. It would then seem that the incomplete information theory provide a robust explanation for why wars arose between both the United States and Iraq and Afghanistan.


As shown by the examples above, it would seem that the incomplete information theory provides solid grounds for understanding why wars arise between states even when one is significantly more powerful than the other. However, it is important to remember that wars remain a rare occurrence around the world. Indeed, although information may often be incomplete and credible commitments are hard to come by, states are more often than not at peace with one another. And so, rather than ask why wars arise, we should ask ourselves what conditions need to be met in order to maintain peace.


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