International Relations Theory


This paper investigates the literature that is available on international relations theory that analyses human nature at personal level. According to literature, these theorists are confused on whether to adopt the human nature theory or the cognitive theory in explaining human nature. While human nature theory stresses that human nature is innate and may only take time to manifest, cognitive theorists insist that human nature is a learnt concept that can be unlearnt. Cognitive theory is originated from proposals of Neal Miller and positively identifies social drives, cues, positive responses and rewards as the key factors that are involved in learning new behaviors. In this paper, the data presented by both sides will be thoroughly analyzed and used to explain the concept of war and violence. The paper will dissect the concepts contained in the cognitive theory as well as those contained in the human nature theory in order to come up with a common ground that befits this essay.

Keywords: war, violence, theory


The issue of war and violence can be explained better as an inherent human nature rather than a learnt concept. As explained by Albert Bandura, war originates from hostile behavior that is motivated to harm or cause injury to other persons. It is also described as a significant social phenomenon that provides a perfect link to the daily incidents of crime. According to sociological research, not all persons who are brought up in violent environments develop violent tendencies. Although majority do, it’s not adequate to conclude that human behavior with regards to aggression is purely a learnt concept. It is basically a matter of chance that one would become violent merely because he or she grew up in a violent society. However, persons born of violent parents almost certainly develop aggressive behavior. This makes it evident that while some aspect is learnt from daily observations, social aggression is an inherent concept that is unique to individuals.

According to Sigmund Freud, violence and aggression are both innate and instinctive. This concept is supported by a research of the Kenyan Institute of Social Development that studied the violent lives of street boys and girls. The study involved several kids who had become violent due their street life and who were later taken through rehabilitation. The researchers found out that while majority of the kids easily adopted violence-free lives, some continued to be violent even at the rehabilitation centre. And from their personal stories, this group of kids talked of violence in their families before they eventually underwent disintegration. They all alluded to a situation where their parents would fight almost daily, because they were both violent. This reinstates the concept of violence as a human nature. This is not to say that cognitive theory is null and void with regards to war and violence. It definitely plays a significant part in explaining racial wars and conflicts over human resources. In these situations, groups of people learn to be aggressive as a way of protecting themselves from external aggression. The belief that one has to outdo his or her competitors in order to live comfortably pushes people to engage in warlike activities in order to survive. In the United States, for instance, the Black community becomes violent because the society has been quite violent towards them. They actually had to learn to be violent themselves in order to wade off violence directed towards them by the society. The fact that non-blacks, who are not subjected to social acts of violence, also have propensity to become violent confirms the idea of aggression being part of human nature as well as a learnt behavior (Nye, 2004).

Human Nature Theorists

The doctrine that humans are peaceable creatures and they are only corrupted by modern institutions continues to linger in public debates. According to Steven Pinker, this is quite a misleading misconception because he believes that violence is slowly fading from the face of the earth. Pinker is convinced that the world was more violent in the past than it is today. Therefore, the insinuation that human character is corrupted by modern institution is irrelevant in the context of war and violence. In fact, it could be the other way round in that modern institutions are making humans less violent. The judicial system, for instance, plays a significant role in restraining human behavior. However, Steven notes that the departure from violent era in human life has not been without hiccups. In fact, the era is not completely gone considering that Darfur genocide took place just recently and Syrian death toll continues to rise up to this moment. These encouraging developments are attributed to persistent pursuit for peace that has seen the world move away from dangerous punitive measures to the mere spanking of children in the modern society. From the stories of crucifixion and genocides in the Bible to the social glorification of mutilation in Shakespeare’s stories, it is quite evident that humans have come a long way. The social restraint that has been put in place by structures of social governance ensures that people cannot commit extreme acts of violence for fear of facing a judicial procedure. Essentially, modern institutions make humans less violent rather than more violent as speculated by some sociologists. This successfully proves the idea that humans are violent by nature, but made less violent by modern social institutions. According to statistics, many people would embrace anarchy of the past generations if there were no judicial systems or courts to prosecute people for doing wrong. However, it is the fear of sleeping in the police cell or hiring expensive lawyers in self-defense that forces people to behave themselves. It is the feeling that they are doomed if they kill that makes humans embrace and protect each other’s lives. Otherwise, the world can easily tread backwards into massacres and acts of genocides that are prevalent in the bible. The fact that people could butcher each other during the 1945 World War II proves that humans are yet to learn to preserve humanity and protect lives. Essentially, they are yet to be properly modernized by the current institutions of the justice.

According to Michael Ghiglieri, bad behavior can be traced to biological origin of man and forms part of the inherent human character. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what environment one was brought up in, people will always develop bad behavior if they have the inherent trait. For example, African Americans would be said to possess a violent character due to their prevalent involvement in acts of violence. Although Ghiglieri’s reasoning is too general, and therefore unrealistic, the prominent idea in the whole concept is that aggression is not learnt, but an inherent character. It is in this regard that Ghiglieri emphasizes that when people act in a weird manner, it shouldn’t surprise us or give us a reason to condemn them as it is beyond their control. Essentially, it attempts to prove the idea that once violent always violent. Ideally, people who have at one time been involved in acts of violence will always tend to get back there even if they repent and become religious. It is the reality that has made sociologists to conclude that violent individuals are born violent and that environment plays an insignificant role in changing them. Recently, a study of youth behavior in Pakistan pointed to the existent of some truth in Ghiglieri’s proposal. The study was conducted among high school kids in the country and their levels of indiscipline. The shocking revelation was that majority of the “bad boys” had come from disciplined families. However, they conceded that their parents were always harsh on them, insisting that they behave themselves. According to them, life in boarding school away from their parents gave them the chance for natural self-expression. It was their time to be who they really were, not what they were made to be. Thus, they ended up badly behaved because that was what they were naturally (Jervis, 1976). 

Konrad Lorenz even compares human nature to animal nature. He argues that male humans, like animals, are particularly made to struggle over limited resources. In short, life is a type of natural selection where violence is encouraged for survival. Thus, majority of humans who survive to adulthood only do so because of their inherent violent nature that effectively enables them to survive. According to him, there is little difference between game life and social life. Just like lions and hyenas have to slay antelopes and other smaller animals for food, humans equally have the same inherent traits. This behavior is perfectly shown in the rampant cases of domestic violence where loved ones fight over very simple issues. In Lorenz’s opinion, such fights are not entirely due to hatred for one another, but a manifestation of the violent nature of human beings. Essentially, it is almost a foregone conclusion that two people who claim to love one another would fight so viciously. According to Konrad, spouses would only fight when they are struggling for superiority. The same struggle for superiority that happens in the natural rainforests among chimpanzees is effectively emulated by humans. Thus, Lorenz effectively adds value to the human nature theory. It would therefore be right to say that the Al Qaeda terrorists are only manifesting their inherent human characteristic. In all his literature, Lorenz begins with aggressive characters, which slowly metamorphose into more peaceful characters. This can be interpreted to mean that the society shapes human life for the better, especially the modern judicial systems. It is the reason why we hardly hear of genocides or acts of ethnic cleansing in the world today. Despite having inherent violent behavior, humans were forced to “behave” by the modern social institutions.

War is a product of human perceptions and misperceptions. This is according to John Stoessinger, a renown international diplomat who extensively has studied the subject of why people go to war. He argues that war and violence are acts of humanity and can only be prevented by humans themselves. For instance, he believes that when President George W. Bush decided to go to war, the idea of situations beyond human control were mere excuses. President Bush at the moment had all the powers to stop the war. If he had refused to release his soldiers into war, there wouldn’t have been war in the first place. However, he chose to start the war and blamed it on “situations beyond human control”. John seems to have been irked with the Nazi war against the Jews. According to the available literature, his family was destroyed by the Nazis. If it were not for the Chinese people, he would have perished himself in the war. That is how he became interested in knowing why leaders opt to go into war with their enemies. Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, threw caution into the wind when he decided to attack the Americans. He had all the powers to avoid the war but opted to go ahead. For instance, if he had called on President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to a dialogue, he would have saved the world of the current terror threats. However, he also ignored calls to peace and proceeded to war with the Americans. Essentially, John argues that human nature is just violent. Although world leaders know the impacts of going into war, they do absolutely nothing to prevent them. It is clear that they enjoy periods of war in spite of the wanton killings that result from them (Beitz, 1999).  

Cognitive Theorists

Some aspects of violence and war are learnt by humans as they grow up or in old age. Kahan, for instance traces the 1908 war between Germany and England to learnt instincts by the two countries. Now, several wars had been fought in Europe such that it became a normal thing to go to war. In fact, most of the leaders then had been born in war and therefore understood all aspects of war. It is the reason why they never attempted to stop the war. Instead, they saw it as an opportunity to expand their territories and subdue their enemies. In some instances, leaders would go to war simply to try out their new weapons. When the lethality of the new weapons was in doubt, they would provoke their arch enemies and use the new weaponry so that they could see how effective the weapons were. Although some did not really have inherent violent character as described elsewhere, growing up in a violent environment effectively made them adopt the aggressive behavior of their elders. It was therefore expected that they would do anything to ensure that they went to war whenever they felt like.

Zinn, on his part, talks of holy war as part of human religion where people are recruited to. In this case, innocent people can be made warmongers through religious teachings and inductions. This further shows attempts to prove that aggression is a learnt concept rather than a natural trait. For example, it can be deduced that Osama learnt his traits as terrorism in the Muslim faith. Thus, had he been born in any other religion that demonizes terrorism, he wouldn’t have lived to become a terrorist. Indeed, it is a terrible reality of our time, especially in kids. According to research, children born in families that experience domestic violence are more likely to become violent. This stems from the fact that they have been taught to canonize violence in the society. They have been made to feel that violence and the society go together. And that one should always use violence to have his or her way whenever things don’t seem to go their way. Essentially, most of violent human characteristics are learnt from the immediate environment where people live. However, it should be noted that this makes only quite insignificant contribution to the pack.

According to Grossman, people undergo lots of psychological cost as they learn to kill in war. Thus, he meant to say that men are generally not born murderers, including men and women in uniform, and that most people take up military job only to realize they don’t have the guts to point a gun at someone and pull down the trigger. Thus, the military service has to retrain them again on how to kill or terminate an enemy. Indeed, it is true from the data that emanates from the United States Army training grounds today and in the past. While soldiers currently take up the job willingly after understanding the implications to humanity, this was not the case in the past. At that time, people were picked at random to go and fight for the country. Whether one wanted to be a soldier or not, they were all taken to the field to defend the nation for quite some time before proceeding to the University. This essentially meant that majority of them had no idea that their lines of service would imply taking away lives every passing day. According to Grossman, army recruits had to shade their hearts of humanity and put on a more ruthless self in order to adequately deal with the enemy. This is a further proof that violent behavior can be learnt and is not an inherent trait that is characteristic of humans (Waltz, 2012).

Douglas Fry insists that humans have some potential for peaceful coexistence in the society. Born a hunter and gatherer, Fry grew up in an environment that glorified the use of bows and arrows to kill. In the end, killing became a normal thing for them to the extent that he found it rather had to unlearn. Fry only differs with his colleagues in the thought that while acquiring violent traits was quite easy to learn, the same was not true for unlearning the vice. Thus, he concludes that at least there is some chance of unlearning violent traits once they have been learnt. According to him, it is quite expected that soldiers would find it extremely hard to live a civilian life. It is simply due to the fact that their cognitive functions were more conscious to adopting the violent character than it is for unlearning it. Unless some dementia is given to ex-soldiers, they will always continue to live like soldier without uniforms. This is the reality of human life with regards to violent traits. Essentially, Fry meant that humans are not born violent, but people effectively learnt to become violent. Thus, kids should be withdrawn from violent scenes or kept away from violent movies as they risk developing violent character in the future. This is relevant in old age as it is in childhood, especially with regards to domestic violence.

On his part, John Floyd believed that war was part of human governance that could be improved like any other skills. It is this understanding that made him persuade the President to make him the Cabinet Secretary for war. According to him, he sought the job strategically to influence people’s perceptions about war. He believed that the best way to alter public opinion was to control the instruments of power and then one would be able to change opinions at will. According to war, having lived during the time of the American civil War, he had a duty to control the effects of this war. Is should be noted that President James, just like President Lincoln, did not favor the civil war. However, they saw it as a way to bring peace and achieve the elusive unity of the United States of America. It is the reason they employed all state resources at their disposal to change public opinion regarding war and warlike activities. Although their level of success remains questionable, the fact that they tried it out proves beyond doubt that humans have always thought of war as something they can prevent because it is a choice that people make (Wendt, 1999).  

Soldiers of Conscience

The film “Soldiers of Conscience” introduces a dramatic twist to the debate on war and violence. It profiles American Soldiers in Afghanistan struggling with morality. While soldiers are meant to terminate their enemies, the movie details a few soldiers who opt not to kill during the entire period they are in war. It baffles to imagine a soldier holding the trigger but refusing to let go of it. Essentially, they don’t think it is necessary to kill because they have been taught not to kill. According to analysts, the film does not really tell the audience what happens in Afghanistan, but tries to reveal something about humanity. The study is further supported by statistics from the World War II in 1945. According to these statistics, more than 75 percent of men and women who had returned from war in the World War II could not pull the trigger and kill their enemies. They proved that apart from the generalizations in the media, not all soldiers were that heartless as to kill any real or imagined enemies. The film alarmed the army generals who started to feel that if soldiers were psychologically trained to kill, it would significantly improve their military performance. Indeed, results came in handy when these trainings were introduced into the military curriculum. It was an attempt to contain the conscience of the soldier.

This film achieves one great thing in that it portrays man as literally struggling to be violent. It is always assumed that all soldiers are naturally violent and that they greatly enjoy killing their enemies in the battle field. Thus, it certainly baffles that this is the complete opposite of what happens for United States soldiers. They are literally struggling to become violent humans. This essentially proves the cognitive theory as more realistic in explaining the violent nature of human beings. It is quite clear that human beings need to learn to be violent when they take up jobs that require violence. Similarly, they will need to unlearn this trait when the time to become a civilian comes. Human beings who are purely guided with their conscience will not kill quite easily. They will need to get rid of their conscience and their feelings of humanity to become extremely violent. This is the process that most people learn in their families, especially where domestic violence is prevalent. It certainly is the reality of the moment.

Taming Humanity’s Urge to War

Anthropologists continue to argue that lethal aspects of conflict are the part of human culture and cannot be shoved away. No matter how much the world tries to assume there can be absolute peace in the world, it still remains a mirage. For example, even though there is an international criminal court that can prosecute anyone regardless of his status in the society, people of Syria still continue to be maimed as the entire world stares in despair. In fact, attempts to stop this war have severally hit a snag, further pointing to people’s love for and warlike activities. Just recently, Kenyans experienced a bloody ethnic cleansing that killed quite a number of innocent people. The same has been happening in the world, especially in the Arab world. It leaves people asking just when humans will stop going to war with one another. The Kenyan case was particularly very interesting. People who had grown up together as neighbors and friends suddenly woke up one day and decided to kill one another over a botched election. It was a mass killing that proved quite tricky for the security officers to combat.

It certainly gives the opposite view on war and violence. It tries to prove that humans naturally love war and that they should be “tamed” so that they don’t go to war. In this case, the piece postulates the Syrian government or the international community should engage the people of Syria in active public education to dissuade them from violent activities. While this can be true, most people would not heed such calls unless punitive measures are introduced for people who do not cooperate. This effectively paints cognitive theory as more realistic in explaining the violent nature of human beings. It is quite clear that human beings need to learn to be violent when they take up jobs that require violence. Similarly, they will need to unlearn this trait when time to become a civilian comes. Human beings who are purely guided with their conscience will not kill quite easily. They will need to get rid of their conscience and their feelings of humanity to become extremely violent. Most people learn this process in their families, especially where domestic violence is prevalent. It certainly is the reality of the moment (Zakaria, 2008).


In conclusion, humans are generally made violent. However, the extent of manifestation of this trait is significantly influenced by the environment in which people live. For those who grow up in violent families, they find it quite easy to pick up arms against a perceived enemy. Similarly, for persons who are brought up in religious families it is quite a task to persuade them to kill. This implies that while some aspect of violent behavior is learnt, the traits are inherent in majority of people. Thus, given a chance most people will become extremely aggressive. However, modern institutions of governance like courts of the judicial system in general tend to shape up human behavior to shun violence.

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