Prof Sir Adam Roberts, Senior Research Fellow in International Relations Oxford University and Emeritus Fellow Ballilol College, delivered an RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture titled “Causes of War: Old and New” on 19 March 2019. He divided his presentation into four sections covering these themes: the danger of simplification; some causes of wars identified; decline of International War since 1945; the problems of the post-cold war order; and the 21st century fears of major war.
Prof Roberts started his presentation by identifying the simplification of causes of war by the enlightenment thinkers. They tended to limit the causes of war only to the problematic monarchical system. He argued that the enlightenment thinkers failed to consider other causes of war, including, for example, the collapse of government, power vacuum, and ethnic divisions within a state that is becoming more prevalent in the contemporary conflict.
Prof Roberts listed thirty-three causes of war in which he categorised them into four big clusters: human nature; belief systems; actions of states and other bodies; and failure to maintain order, to defend, and to deter. He emphasised that these categories should not be treated separately as they might be inextricably linked. However, he noted that some causes of war will always exist, but they do not always lead to war. It explains the declining number of incident of wars since 1945 showed by The Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Nevertheless, Prof Roberts argued that the statistics derived by academics on the classification of wars should be treated with great caution.
Prof Roberts concluded his presentation by discussing the fears of major war due to the declining and rising powers, pointing out the Sino-US tension. On the contrary, he argued that the clash between rising and declining major powers will not necessarily lead to war, as proven by a number of historical cases.