War and peace in a global context: Why do we need to study war?

This post is by Alice Martini, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA International Relations. Here, she explains why the study of war allows us to understand its huge political, historical and social impact.

Nowadays, the study of international security includes a wide variety of topics. Some of them are directly linked to violence and armed confrontation, while others are only partially linked to it. Nonetheless, a significant part of International Security Studies is still devoted to exploring war, conflict, and armed confrontation.

Violence is central to international politics

This should not be surprising. Unfortunately, warfare and conflicts are still significant issues at an international level. Moreover, the study of violence has always been a central topic for International Relations (IR). The same discipline emerged in relation to questions of how to achieve peace or limit violence and limit conflict – let us think, for example, at the first debates in IR between Idealism and Realism.

Furthermore, the philosophical roots of the discipline bring us back to different philosophical understandings of conflict as inherent or not to social relations (let us think, for example, of Hobbes’ Homo homini lupus) or the possibility of achieving universal Kantian peace. Because of these reasons and because, unfortunately, violent confrontation is still so much at the centre of international politics that war and conflict remain key issues in International Relations.

The political dimensions of war

However, International Relations is not interested in war as a subject of study to, for example, improve war strategies, military behaviours, or deployment of troops. International Relations is interested in the political dimension of war – the many, diverse political dimensions of warfare. War and conflict are political in many ways. “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument”, argued Clausewitz in his On War. War is instrumental. The political element is so central to warfare dynamics that Clausewitz famously described war as “a continuation of politics by other means”.

Entirely at the centre of IR understanding of conflict, the claim that war is political requires deeper scrutiny. Wars are political because they usually see the confrontation of various states, non-state actors, or even the involvement of international organisations – representing thus the merging of the different levels of analysis in IR. But they are also political in a broader sense.

They are usually driven by political motives, they involve making decisions in groups, and the formation and manifestation of power relations between individuals and societies – represented, for example, by the distribution of resources of the different roles played in conflict by individuals.

Reshaping international relations

Moreover, war is violence and devastation, and these two characteristics, clearly, catch all of our attention when looking at conflicts. However, warfare is also much more than that. In the past, war has also brought huge changes to, for example, the socio-political landscape. WW1 and WW2 gave rise to the current international system as we know it. They entirely reshaped international relations leaving us in a world structured into sovereign states and international organizations, such as the UN.

Furthermore, WW1 and WW2 left us with political advancements of paramount importance – let us think of the UN Charter, the Human Rights Declaration, or, more broadly, the establishment of International Law and International Humanitarian Law.

War changes society

War also has an impact on society. Many technological advancements are the results of military developments and military research. Moreover, historically, war has changed society significantly – let us think, for example, of the changes WW1 and WW2 brought to gender roles in society resulting in women’s emancipation and inclusion into the job market.

Or, think about the vast migratory flows caused by conflicts. These flows may result in deep changes in, for example, the social and cultural composition of societies. In this sense, war has the capacity to revolutionize our everyday realities in ways that go beyond the chaos of violence happening in the warfare area.

The importance of analysing war

All these dimensions of war – and many more – are addressed and unpacked by International Relations. Clearly, studying war may be a daunting task. However, its analysis is of paramount importance because it allows us to understand this phenomenon’s political, historical, and social impact.

Moreover, for critical scholars in IR, the study of war allows the opening of space for critical reflection about it; an intellectual space to formulate strategies about avoiding war, limiting it, and countering its negative effects by thinking about this phenomenon through the various theoretical lenses offered by International Relations.

As part of Queen Mary Online's International Relations MA, you will look at war in a global context, not only in terms of integrating contemporary concerns with globalisation, but also by looking at interconnections between north and south, and war and society. You can start this part-time, online course in May or September:

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Topics: MA international relations

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