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How Wars End. By Dan Reiter. (Princeton University Press, 2009.)
With How Wars End, Dan Reiter has driven forward international relations theory by
carefully testing two theories of war termination via empirical research. The first theory comes
from Thomas Schelling’s proposition that “most conflict situations are essentially bargaining
situations” (2). This theory holds that wars are initiated as part of a bargaining process between
states over, for instance, where to place international borders. The process of fighting wars
serves as a method of transmitting information between the aggressors regarding military
strength, resolve, and ultimately “the true balance of power” (3). Wars end when “bargains” are
reached over how to settle the issues of contention (2).
Given that Realist International Relations theory holds that states exist within an anarchic
system, any war termination commitments that states make are not enforceable (3). Thus, in
addition to the bargaining theory, Reiter contributes his own theory that wars end when
commitment fears regarding the possibility that peace deals will be broken have been sufficiently
assuaged for at least one of the belligerents. To this end, Reiter posits a number of ways, which
he calls “absolute war,” that states might extract “credible commitments” from fighting. These
outcomes include “annihilation, annexation, and foreign-imposed regime change” (27).
Since most wars are limited, rather than absolute, the two theories interact to explain war
termination outcomes. Consequently, combatants need to balance cost-benefit calculations
regarding their fears that war will re-erupt after a peace agreement with the balance of power
knowledge that they gain from combat (35-7). On the bargaining and information dynamics
side, limited wars can end because a belligerent feels that its hopes for victory are dwindling or
because of escalating costs of war. In both cases, the belligerent that initiates war cessation may
believe that in the future the balance of power will change so that it will be wiser to fight later
(38-41). On the credible commitment side, wars can end when a good (such as strategic
territory) is captured that attenuates an aggressor’s commitment fears or when peacekeeping
forces enter the combat zone (41-47).
Reiter employs a number of case studies to test his theory that war termination occurs
when uncertainty and commitment fears are reduced. The case studies themselves are well-
researched, novel, and full of interesting information about how leaders have weighed war
termination options. For instance, Reiter finds in his case on the American Civil War that there
was “essentially no connection between combat outcomes and war-termination diplomacy, as
defeats did not cause concessions, and victories generally did not encourage demands” (156).
Due to commitment fears on both sides, only the absolute victory of one military over the other
could end aggressions.
Though detail-rich and convincing, the case studies that Reiter draws on belie a weakness
that pervades International Relations theory. Due to its choice of the state as its primary unit of
analysis, the field continues to largely focus on classic wars where two or more large,
mechanized armed forces fight over territory or national sovereignty. Today’s wars, however, do
not follow this pattern. The U.S. fight against Saddam Hussein’s army was incredibly brief,
while America’s battle with the Badr Brigade, Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq,
among others, has dragged on for more than six years. Wars in the Middle East have devolved
from battles between large forces replete with tanks and fighter jets to fits of violence
characterized largely by asymmetric warfare, targeted air strikes, and a muddying of the
boundaries between armed forces and civilians.
Reiter states that absolute war can be an answer to the problem of garnering credible
commitments after fighting has ended. But, as he admits himself, absolute war aims may destroy
a regime but they do not amount to the complete eradication of a people. In Reiter’s words, “A
limitation of this definition [of absolute war] is that it may code wars as absolute even when
violent insurgency emerged after the formal surrender” (30). The United States can vanquish
any of its perceived adversaries’ military forces, but “winning the peace” and maintaining
credible commitments that fighting will not reignite when dealing with the disparate actors that
wield power in failed or near-failed states has proven exceedingly difficult.
People frequently wonder, for instance, why the Palestinians and Israelis have not
brokered a peace deal given the obvious contours of such a bargain. Bracketing the Israeli side
for the moment, the collapse of the Palestinian state and the death of Yasir Arafat have created a
situation where there is no unitary actor with whom to negotiate. This is the problem with ever
achieving credible commitments that fighting has stopped in today’s conflicts: there is no Kaiser
Wilhelm or Josef Stalin or Kim Il-Sung to deal with in most of the world’s troubled regions.
Creating a stable Somalia or Yemen or Afghanistan or Iraq which the Western powers feel
sufficiently secure about presents an entirely different set of problems than maintaining credible
commitments from, for example, Japan after World War II. Reiter does state that the issue of
insurgency is outside the scope of his text (30), but it is still an issue for the field. Credible
commitments may be necessary to ending America’s current wars, but they will be very hard to
garner given the insurgencies that the U.S. currently faces.
Still, Reiter’s framework for deciphering how and when wars end provides a strong
contribution to both International Relations’ theory and political knowledge in general. Reiter
aptly operationalizes the commitment fears and uncertainty that pervade the Afghanistan and Iraq
war termination debates. Reiter concludes his book by stating that wars are poor and
exceedingly costly methods for states to solve commitment problems (226-230). Information
gleaned by fighting apparently does not frequently yield fast bargains. Instead, wars drag on or
cease and then repeat themselves as belligerents continue to test one another’s resolve. Reiter
reminds us that wars are not rational forms of bargaining, rather they amount mostly to senseless
Gabriel Rubin, Montclair State University