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Causes of war

The main questions surrounding World War I—whether it was intentional, avoidable, or anomalous—lie at the core of international relations theory. It is therefore unsurprising that the explanations of the war closely correspond to the three leading schools of thought: constructivism, liberalism, and realism. Their respective causal mechanisms—ideas, domestic politics, and anarchy—represent the three chief explanations on the causes of World War I.16

Perhaps the most prominent ideas argument is the “cult of the offensive” argument. According to this logic, leaders foolishly stood firm on a poorly grounded belief system that moral factors could triumph over material factors and offense held the advantage.[5]  See Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War Power and the…[5] This dogma was so dominant that leaders remained recalcitrant to the reality of galling losses. Another variant looks to the Zeitgeist: social Darwinism, imperial nationalism, and dueling notions of economic and political organization. Elites viewed the world in organic tropes: states must either be rising or declining, and a failure to grow meant inexorable death. Their political and economic systems needed a “place in the sun” and any opposition—in the core or periphery—had to be overcome to ensure survival.17

There are several rebuttals to these claims. One is that these arguments misread the evidence. The abiding evidence of these arguments is mixed and controversial, and the historiography continues to be contentious. As expected, decision-makers framed the world quite differently in the past, but it is unclear how causally important a cult of the offensive was in the war’s outbreak.