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Why Nations Go to War: Stoessinger’s Theory Essay

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Updated: Sep 25th, 2021


War and peace are the two central concepts that determine the existence of mankind on Earth. These concepts have always attracted the attention of numerous scholars who tried to define war and piece and state reasons that lead to them. It goes without saying that there was no need to examine peace as it is a positive phenomenon. Consequently, war, as the most terrible evil that human beings can do to each other, demanded thorough consideration. Nowadays, numerous theories of conflicts and of war exist in the scientific world, including the theories by Parsons, Webber, and Stoessinger. The latter theory is exactly the topic of the current paper, and the following paragraphs will explore it so that to see why people go to war and how they can be made not to (Stoessinger, 2007, xvi).

Stoessinger’s Theory

To start with, let me take a brief look at John G. Stoessinger’s background. It is necessary because it may allow understanding his views on war and peace and analyze his theory more properly. John Stoessinger was born in Austria and as a child experienced the invasion of the Nazi Army to his motherland. He had to escape from Austria with his family and lived in Russia and China till the end of the war. Nowadays he is a successful statesman and scientist delivering lectures to students in a lot of countries of the world (Stoessinger, 2007, xii).

From Stoessinger’s background, it can be clearly seen that the theory of war formulated by him was based on the events he experienced and he has a full right to state this theory. The central point of Stoessinger’s theory of war is the negation of the role of circumstances and such abstract notions as human nature, ethnic and racial misunderstanding, etc.: “History does not make history. Men and women make foreign policy decisions.” (Stoessinger, 2007, 408)

Stoessinger states that the major and almost the only reason for war is the position of the leader of the nation: “In all these cases, a leader’s personality was of critical importance and may, in fact, have spelled the difference between the outbreak of war and the maintenance of peace ” (Stoessinger, 2007, 392)

The leaders of nations take central place in the theory by Stoessinger due to the fact that he is absolutely convinced that these are people who make decisions and no circumstances are able to make them go to was if they do not want to. As a famous diplomat, Stoessinger (2007) admits the eternal chance for compromise, peaceful negotiations and harmless co-existence of human beings. Due to this, there are no other reasons of war, according to Stoessinger (2007), than personal point of view of leaders and their misperceptions (385 – 398).

The interaction of perceptions and misperceptions is another leading point of the theory of war by Stoessinger. The main point of this interaction lies in the fact that leaders who possess respective decisive power in questions of peace and war often have misperceptions that lead to wrong decisions. According to Stoessinger (2007, 385 – 398), there are four kinds of misperceptions that a leader can face and decide to start a war because of them. They are misperceptions of their own role and importance in the world. Due to this misperception, a leader can start a war even without any obvious reasons and in contradiction to a public opinion just because he or she feels the power to influence the lives of millions.

This misperception is rather dangerous, especially if combined with all other kinds. The second misperception is the misperception of the adversary. This can result in the demonization of an adversary and in finding made-up reasons for war. The third is the misperception of intentions that an adversary has which often results in rather aggressive behavior and lack of wish for compromise. And the fourth is the misperception of the adversary’s abilities and forces (Stoessinger, 2007, 385 – 398). All these misconceptions result in wrong understanding and the start of the war, as can be exemplified by the events that take place in the Third Persian Gulf, or Iraq War started in 2003.

Iraq War

The Iraq War is the brightest example of an armed conflict developing according to the theory expressed by Stoessinger. The very reasons for the war were quite ambiguous and left a lot of place for discussion and doubt. The claims about the weapons of mass destruction that were located in Iraq and endangered the existence of the whole of mankind were just a cover for the personal ambitions of President Bush.

It is obvious nowadays as 5 years have been spent in war and no signs of the weapons of mass destruction were found. Drawing from this, I can conclude that in this case the misperception of his own role was experienced by George Bush. The thought that he is destined to save the world from some indefinite danger made him go to war with the country ruled by another person with the same misperception – Saddam Hussein (Stoessinger, 2007, 321 – 360).

Furthermore, the misperception of the adversary from Bush’s side also took place in this conflict. The actual demonization of Hussein who was pictured as the largest evil in the world actually took place, and the tragic episode with the execution of the former Iraqi President completed the development of this misperception. Thus, one can not examine the same misperceptions in Hussein’s attitudes because George Bush initiated the war.

Moreover, the misperception of the adversary’s intentions that also took place proves this fact. According to Bush’s statements, Hussein’s intention was to use his weapons of mass destruction to attack the USA and other democratic countries so that to take control over them and kill people. In the objective reality, however, no signs of weapons of mass destruction were found by international inspectors and the actual intentions of the Iraqi leader can be reduced to defending the independence of his country and preserving his power. Consequently, I can speak about the fourth kind of misperception – of the adversary’s abilities.

It is obvious that the abilities of Hussein’s regime were severely exaggerated and turned out to be quite small. The military success of the American army in Iraq was not doubted and the capture of Hussein is the best proof thereof. Of course, the overall control over Iraq has not yet been established and partisan armies and terrorist groups still operate in Iraq, but this is nothing compared to the danger announced before the start of the war. Thus, we can observe the central role of the leader and all his misperceptions that led to the Iraq War (Stoessinger, 2007, 360 – 380).


To conclude, I would like to state that the theory of was formulated by John G. Stoessinger has a lot of positive sides and can be applied to almost every armed conflict in the history of mankind. The role of the leader as the decision-maker in peace-war questions doubtless, as well as the misperceptions that lead to making wrong decisions and to the beginning of the war. The example considered in this paper proves that Stoessinger’s theory is effective and can clearly motivate the reasons that stood behind this armed conflict. On the whole, the theory by Stoessinger is a rather psychological and specific one.

It is psychological because its author focuses on personal issues and explains wars as a result of certain peculiarities of the psychology of decision-makers. It is specific because it focuses on objective phenomena and not on the abstractions like human nature, certain circumstances, ethnic and racial misunderstandings, and so on.


Stoesinnger, J. G. Why Nations Go to War. Wadsworth Publishing; 10th edition, 2007.

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