Trade Expectations and the Outbreak of Wars

Why countries go to war remains a perennial question for international relations. Military, ideological, and geopolitical challenges to a nation’s security draw great attention, but its economic interests play an important part that demands greater study. To that end, Dale C. Copeland has written Economic Interdependence and War, a carefully argued contribution to the professional literature on international relations.

While controlling resources and gaining territory have long been factors in driving conflict, few wars have been fought ostensibly for market share. Copeland argues that commercial factors have been far more important to the outbreak of war than either realists or liberals have acknowledged.

He points out that the consequences work both ways: While trade and investment flows can moderate the prospect of conflict between great powers, such interdependence can also push states into confrontation.

Positive expectations about the future trading environment, Copeland writes, lead governments to see the benefits of preserving peace. Besides access to markets for exports that earn a profit and sustain employment, states need the ability to import raw materials and foodstuffs not available through domestic production. Drawing upon foreign capital or protecting the investments of its own nationals often plays a similar part in states’ calculations. A state that perceives itself excluded from any or all of these things will perceive a threat to its security.

However, the relative economic decline imposed by exclusion can, he suggests, can make war appear the rational lesser of two evils. Better to fight on its own terms, a government may decide, than accept a decline into weakness that renders it vulnerable to foreign coercion.

The author’s trade-expectation theory adds an economic perspective to analyses of how dominant military powers sought to hold their position against rivals by preemptive action. Fears of decline made war, or even aggressive deterrent measures, seem a better choice than accepting a trend that diminished security.

Instead of military factors or general political dynamics, Copeland takes the expectations of future trading prospects as the criterion for how states view their security. Hopes of improved trade, he grants, have made governments more conciliatory. The Soviet Union during the late 1980s gives just such an example. On the other hand, cases throughout the book also demonstrate how the fear of losing strategically vital trade pushed governments to war or coercion. The Russo-Japanese War, German policy in both World Wars, and Japan before World War II provide evidence in support of his thesis.

Efforts to protect economic access can escalate tensions. Copeland notes the risk of a dangerous “trade security spiral” when projecting power to protect interests sends a signal read by other states as aggression. Trade regulations, diplomatic initiatives, or other non-military actions can have the same effect in threatening trade expectations.

A rival perceiving a challenge responds and then the original actor raises its bid. Further steps only lead both sides deeper into a cycle of confrontation from which it can be hard to withdraw.  The force of events, along with human psychology, can fuel escalation. Copeland interestingly observes that caution often results, as leaders aware of the danger seek to preserve a reputation for moderation by avoiding provocation and preserving trade.

While this theory of trade expectations offers a useful starting point for thinking about security policy and international relations, the book as whole focuses so much on justifying the theory that questions of statecraft or history recede into the background. It was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer who noted a while back that American social science assumes that “nothing can be understood, or even perceived, without reference to a theory.” Framing and defending logically coherent models thus becomes a priority that often eclipses the subject examined. The result is that social science moves farther and farther away from social reality. An approach that once stimulated thought can end up stultifying it.

Many have joined Fischer in lamenting the divide separating academic study of international relations on the one hand, and, on the other, practitioners and general readers interested in foreign policy. James Kurth, a Swarthmore College political scientist and protégé of the late Samuel Huntington, told readers of the National Interest in 1998 that schools within the discipline may be unfamiliar to them. Earning the good opinion of a few specialists within “a sub-sub field” mattered more for professional advancement than engaging the concerns of outside communities, which included the readership of leading policy journals like the National Interest and Foreign Affairs. Methodological tools designed to impart scientific rigor overshadow the actual material under study and make the result difficult for outsiders to follow.

Copeland operates within the discourse of his field. Cover blurbs praising Economic Interdependence and War as an important contribution to debates among political scientists ring true, and the book may well generate further research. The very factors that make it a success on its own terms, however, deter the general reader and may incline specialists in other fields to quibble over details. It would be more helpful to use the theory of trade expectations as a starting point to ask questions about why wars happen than to present it as a model to be tested against particular data.

International relations do not operate like a chemistry experiment in which elements react predictably to catalysts. Nor can results be replicated consistently to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Contingent factors—including human nature, which Thucydides and Machiavelli appreciated so well—often determine outcomes.

Machiavelli’s observation that starting a war is much easier than concluding it on acceptable terms highlights the uncertainty that conflict involves. Thucydides’ view that calculations of interest, honor, and fear shape the decision for war brings the human element into a structural argument. How those calculations operate depends upon the context and circumstance of particular situations. The perception—valid or otherwise—of a challenge to security that cannot be ignored remains a constant in the history of how wars start.

Imposing a theoretical template on a complex reality emphasizes points that fit the theory while suppressing factors that fall outside it. At best, the result provides generalizations. Copeland’s generalization about the consequences of reduced expectations for future trade yields conclusions regarding policy. Namely, that denying access to markets or sources of raw material and food imports raises tensions among states by threatening interests. The prospect of future decline, as he argues, can make war a less bad option. More broadly, trade interests guide policy even when other factors seem to take precedence. Economic sanctions and other commercial pressures can be a double-edged sword. Besides the collateral damage that economic sanctions inflict on civilians and neighboring states, restricting trade can push states into a corner where escalation becomes an option.

Providing what strategists call a golden bridge, to allow a graceful retreat, can avoid the risk of a last-ditch fight in desperation. Flexibility in drawing states into relations that give them a stake in a stable global order can keep inevitable competition in check. As Copeland rightly says, a threat to prosperity can disturb the peace, and deserves consideration alongside challenges to other strategic interests or affronts to the honor of a nation.



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