This course seeks to promote understanding of the various ways in which scholars have addressed the origins of conflict and war. We will attempt a basic understanding of what war and conflict are and how they differ from other forms of political violence (particularly those carried out by non-state actors). We will examine historical trends, and discuss fundamental theories in the security studies field while studying a number of historical cases. The course also explores the tension between social science explanations for conflict and war based on theory and general principles, and the more particularist focus of historians on a weekly basis.

The aim of this core course is to study in depth some of the central questions in the international history of the twentieth century and to discuss them in relation to the major theoretical issues that they raise. The overall aim is to equip students with a sound knowledge of the empirical and theoretical aspects of the discipline of international relations and of the relationship between history and theory.

This course is divided into six sections. Section I outlines major currents and tensions between how political scientists and historians view the causes of war. It engages with concepts of methodology and applicability, as well as outlining the major currents in international relations theory. Section II raises the issue of war among great powers through three historical cases. The various cases raise issues of how polarity, the balance of power, alliances, culture, and domestic political structures influence conflict and war. Section III looks at great power rivalry without war and the pitfalls and potentialities of bipolarity. Section IV takes a slightly different view, looking at internal conflicts and how violence within states is similar and different to conflict among states. Section V focuses on the motivations and aspects for more contemporary state on state conflicts, while Section VI challenges us to think about why states continue to fight, their war aims, the objectives of peace agreements, and the future of war itself as a useful instrument of policy.

Students who complete “The Origins of Conflict and War” should demonstrate the ability to:

  • Understand the relationship between history and theory in strategic studies
  • Understand the neo-realist levels of analysis and their interdependence
  • Understand the significance of origin theories in creating theories of conflict termination
  • Understand how theories of the origins of conflict interact and affect multiple levels of analysis.
  • Understand the changing nature of warfare today
  • Apply classroom theories to relevant cases and facilitate understanding of how and why armed conflicts occur

Course Requirements

The first and most important rule is that we are all to be courteous and respectful of the opinions of others. Some of the issues discussed in this seminar may be considered controversial. In order to facilitate discussion/academic freedom we must have an environment in which each member can speak freely and thoughtfully.

The required readings listed for each topic should be read before the seminar meets. The faculty has selected the readings for their relevance, quality of ideas, readability, and timeliness. Supplemental readings are offered for background reference and for those who might wish to pursue a particular topic in greater depth, but they are neither required nor reprinted. They are particularly useful as additional sources for papers and in-class presentations.

The specific graded elements of the course are:

  1. Class Contribution: Students are expected to attend class. Faculty may assign additional work for unexcused absences. Students are also expected to have read the assigned readings and to be prepared for class discussion. Students are encouraged to use the “Issues for Consideration” in each section as a guideline for the topics that will be discussed in class. Students are required to leave comments on the topic discussion board for that week and review all comments before coming to class. Class contribution constitutes 20% of the final grade.
  2. Presentation: Each student will give a 15 minute presentation to the class to kickoff discussion on that particular week’s topic. There will also be a Q&A period after the presentation. These presentations must follow the rubric that will be distributed separately. Presentations are not to be regurgitation of readings, but offer some insight—historical, comparative, or analytical. Arguments should be constructed utilizing evidence from the week’s readings. Topics will be chosen during the first week. There will be no student presentations for week 1. Presentations will comprise 15% of the final grade.
  3. Final Paper: Students will complete a research paper based on the questions relating to each week. The paper will comprise 65 percent of the course grade. Students should select their topics and turn in an annotated outline with clear thesis statement by 19 February. This will be graded and considered 15% of the final grade. By 19 March students must submit a five page rough draft of the paper. This will be graded and considered 15% of the final grade. The draft must include revisions from instructor comments on annotated outline. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with the professor to discuss paper topics, outlines, and drafts.
  1. Required Format: The body of the paper should be 15–20 pages, double-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font, with standard 1.25 inch margins. It is expected that all papers will be properly referenced with footnotes, paginated, and have a bibliography. Please refer to the Chicago Manual of Style for the correct format.
  2. Final papers are due on the last day of class. Early submissions are welcomed and encouraged. No late submissions will be accepted without departmental permission.

Grading Policy and Guidelines:

The final grade for the course will be computed with the following weights:

Class Participation: 20%
Presentation: 15%
Annotated Outline 15%
Rough Draft 15%
Final Paper: 35%


Letter Grade

Grade Points







Firm command of knowledge domain; High level of analytical development






Command of knowledge beyond minimum; Advanced analytical development









Command of only basic concepts of knowledge;Demonstrated basic analytical ability







The following serve as guidelines in the assessment of students in the course.


There are six cornerstones of a superior paper:

  1. It establishes the relevant question clearly;
  1. It answers the question in a highly analytical manner;
  1. It proposes a well-defined thesis, stated early on;
  1. It presents evidence to support that thesis;
  1. It addresses, explicitly or implicitly, opposing arguments or weaknesses in the thesis and supporting evidence (this constitutes a counterargument); and,
  1. It accomplishes the above in a clear and well-organized fashion.

Standards for assessing student papers are as follows:

A (93–100):  Work of superior quality that contains original thought.

A- (90–92):  Work of high quality that demonstrates original thought.

B+ (87–89):  A sound effort which meets all six cornerstones above.

B (83–86):  A solid essay which is, on the whole, a successful consideration of the topic.

B- (80–82):  An essay that addresses the question and has a clearly-stated thesis, but which fails fully to support the thesis and either does not address counterarguments thoroughly, has serious structural flaws, or does not fully develop conclusions.

C+ (77–79):  Sufficiently analytical to distinguish it from a C, but lacks sufficient support, structure, analysis, or clarity.

C (73–76):  Expresses a reasonable argument but makes inadequate use of evidence, has little coherent structure, is critically unclear, or lacks the quality of insight deemed sufficient adequately to explore the issue at hand.

C- (70–72):  Attempts to address the question but does not come to a responsible, defensible conclusion worthy of serious attention or is below average in one or more of the six cornerstones listed above to require significant remedial effort.

F (69 and below): The submission does not merit graduate credit. Students may be asked to resubmit the essay.

Class Contribution:

The following standards are employed to assess student grades for seminar contribution:

A (93–100): Strikes the good balance between “listening” and “contributing.”  Demonstrates superior preparation for each session as reflected in the quality of contributions to group discussion. Frequently demonstrates insightful and original thought. Respects the opinions of others but challenges when appropriate.

A- (90–92):  Above the average expected of a graduate student. Well prepared for classroom discussion at each seminar session. Respects the views of colleagues and, by quality of contributions, commands their respect in return.

B+ (87–89):  A solid contributor to seminar sessions. Joins in most discussions. Contributions to group understanding of the topic and discussions reflect understanding of the material. Respectful of the views of others.

B (83–86):  Contributions to discussions reflect average preparation for class. Supports group efforts. Occasionally interrupts others.

B- (80–82):  Contributes. Often speaks out without having thought the issue through. Sometimes fails to show regard for a colleague’s opinions or proper consideration or courtesy toward others in the seminar group.

C+ (77–79):  Generally prepared. Sometimes contributes voluntarily; more frequently needs to be encouraged to enter into discussions. Routinely allows others to take the lead in group discussions.

C (73–76):  Preparation is adequate, but frequently fails to respect the views of others, is sometimes belligerent in discourse with colleagues and/or instructor. Rarely steps forward to assume a fair share in group discussions. Usually content to let others form the class discussions and develop required seminar positions.

C- (70–72):  Minimal contribution to group discussions suggesting lack of preparation for classroom sessions, as well as little or no interest in contributing to group endeavors. Sometimes displays a negative attitude.

F (69 and below): Class preparation and contributions do not merit graduate credit. Student will be referred to the faculty, faculty advisor or Dean of Students for counseling. 

Course Readings:

Deborah Bachrach, The Crimean War, (San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998).

Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen, The Evolution of International Security Studies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, (New York: Doubleday, 1995)

Joseph S. Nye and David Welch, Understanding Global Conflict and Cooperation: An Introduction to Theory and History, 9th ed. (New York: Longman, 2012)

Additional Core Readings will be posted on this website.