Do countries who start wars win them?

Let the war think begin! Who doesn’t like thinking about war? War is an appealing topic to many for number of reasons. It embodies our values; it’s epic; it’s usually portrayed as a righteous fight against evil (and coincidentally we’re always on the side of justice); it’s a game of strategy, and who doesn’t like a good competition of life and death?

Today, I read an academic article (details below)  that investigates the question of whether countries that initiate wars win them. The article looks at all the wars from the 15th century to the Gulf War in which Great Powers were involved and compiles their outcomes by the result for the initiator. The project was a statistical endeavor and used a simple database-like approach in which it compiled data and analyzed results to get the percentage of win-lose outcomes. The outcomes took into account two variables: the length of the war and the intervention of a third country after the war was initiated. They wanted to see how the length of a war and how interventions affected war outcomes for initiating countries.

Here’s a summary of the results:

  • Overall, initiators won their wars 60% of the time
  • In the period of 1800-1991
    • Initiators won 75% of the time
    • Great Powers initiating against minor powers won 75% of the time
    • Great Powers initiating against Great Powers won 25% of the time
  • In the period of 1495-1799 initiators won 67% of the time
    • Initiators won 35% of the time
    • Great Powers initiating against minor powers won 35% of the time
    • Great Powers initiating against Great Powers won 64%
  • The longer the war the worse the chance is of the initiator winning
  • There have been no Great Power wars since 1995, which indicates learning on the part of Great Powers

My thoughts? While the article brings up some interesting points, it seems to be taking pains to state the obvious. We didn’t need to do statistical analysis to know that initiators have some kind of advantage in modern warfare, and that Great Powers have an advantage over minor powers!  And obviously, if a country attacks first their goal is gain the upper hand  through their initiative.We also, don’t need this article to see that no Great Power wars have taken place since 1945, and the conclusion that “learning has occurred” is pretty superficial, as if the writer is concentrating on only viewing the world through the analysis and feigning ignorance of the larger picture.

I can’t really approve of the statistical approach of the article, which basically consisted of feeding data into a spreadsheet and filtering it to come to conclusions.  It is really something that could be done on Excel these days, though of course it may have been a more difficult feat when they wrote it (1994). Taking this approach to analyze international relations really rings of laziness to me, so much so that it’s not worth doing in the first place. In order to assess whether Initiators usually win wars, several concepts have to be rigorously defined and standardized. The article attempts this, but is not nearly thorough enough and leaves many questions unanswered.The concepts that needed to be defined are “war” (what constitutes a war), “initiation” (how can you say for certain that a country is the initiator), “victory” (how do define victory, especially in a complex multi-country scenario). These are of course addressed, but it is clear that errors in standardization will be numerous, and impact the results greatly. For example, should wars like WWII be treated as one war or several in the context of this investigation? The article treats it as one war, in which Germany was the initiator and the loser. However, Germany initiated war against several countries (France, Poland, Belgium, etc.) successively and was successful, so doesn’t this mean that their initiative played a big part in their victory? Moreover there is no explanation of why initiation is or isn’t effective in the two eras investigated, which is arguably the most interesting question. in that vein, the article could have cited technology differences in the warfare of each era, the predominance of defensive warfare in the earlier period, etc.

In the end, the easy approach taken by the article yield less interesting results. While fleetingly interesting, the statistics raise more questions than those answered, are shrouded in methodological doubts, and are overall far too disconnected from the context of the wars it addresses. It deceives the reader into taking the practical process of war for granted and thinking that the reason for victory is boiled down to the factors addressed above. The article had a limited purpose and it fulfilled, I’ll give it that. I will stick to more contextual articles in the future.



Wang, Kevin and Ray, James Lee. Beginners and Winners: The Fate of Initiators of Interstate Wars Involving Great Powers Since 1495. Found in International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1 (March 1994), pp. 139-154.





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