Looking at the history of various invasions one can see a distinct pattern:

  1. The US has invaded Syria to "support democracy"
  2. France established a no-fly zone in Libya to "support the democratic revolution"
  3. The second war in Iraq was initiated to "capture chemical weapons"
  4. Russia invaded Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to "protect the Russian speaking population"
  5. Iraq invaded Kuwait because of alleged "illegal oil drilling", among other causes
  6. Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia to "protect the German minorities"

In reality the excuses are usually flimsy at best and are only used a pretext to begin an invasion. But what's the point of inventing an excuse in the first place? Couldn't states simply announce they want a piece of another country and start the war?

It's of course obvious why democratic states do it — in that case the government needs to maintain the support of the voters. However authoritarian states don't necessarily have to explain anything to anyone.

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    Contrary to the common belief, authoritarian states have a much greater need of popular support than democratic ones.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:01
  • @Rekesoft care to expand? Jun 19, 2017 at 11:04
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    I'll try to google the sources later - that's why I didn't answer - but essentially it boils down to authoritarian regimes' leaders are in charge not because any laws, nor elections, but the support of one or several factions (tribes, political parties, religions) who really have the power. In a country without elections, you clinge onto your seat by making happy the people who's keeping you there. Khameini is still in charge because an appreciable (and powerful) fraction of Iran still wants a shiite theocracy.
    – Rekesoft
    Jun 19, 2017 at 11:13
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Jun 24, 2017 at 19:41

9 Answers 9


Because countries need to have internal support for war and gain support of potential alies. They need their soft power in international relations and admitting starting a war without any reason would be a huge problem and will have negative consequences in the future.

In general giving even silly excuse, in in all cases better than giving no excuse at all. So every rational actor in the international relations will choose to give an excuse.


Even if their own population does not care (hint: that does not happen, not even in authoritarian states), the rest of the world does. And everyone feels better with a neighbour that only declares war for "legitimate" reasons, not just because they feel like it that day.

Hey, even Hitler got away with that Czechoslovakia thing because the allies accepted the validity of the point with the minorities. Only the following invasion of Poland was so sloppily explained that they declared war (and even then, it took the invasion of neutral Norway (no explanation besides "we really want to have this now") and France ("we just hate you") to really wake them up). Believe it or not, most people in Europe in the 30ies didn't expect Hitler to be the madman he was because of the well oiled Nazi propaganda machine and were genuinely surprised when the tanks rolled through their capital.

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    Hitler got away with the Czech 'anschluss' because the other European powers (France, UK) were afraid to oppose him. It's not like Germany had gotten out of hand in the years before that event, or anything...
    – tj1000
    Jun 19, 2017 at 15:46
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    @DavidBlomstrom What's your point? The Germans hated the French precisely because of Versailles (among other things). So, no, they didn't just attack France against their own will as an act of self-defense against the latter's declaration of war - I don't think they even pretended that they would have not done so anyway at some point because of principal reasons.
    – Annatar
    Jun 20, 2017 at 6:26
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    @DavidBlomstrom You're claiming that the Allies sparked WW2 out of jealousy over Germany's economic success, as opposed to Germany having sparked it by, say, invading? Was that meant as sarcasm?
    – Nat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 0:19
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    @DavidBlomstrom So you're saying that neighboring countries were wrong to be alarmed by Germany launching a war of expansion, because maybe if they didn't try to fight back, perhaps Germany would've left them alone, or...? And, separately, are you implying that it was inappropriate to call out Germany's racism, for example, the Holocaust?
    – Nat
    Jun 21, 2017 at 0:26
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    Well, ok. You have an interesting point of view there. In my opinion, it was more like the Franco-German hatred was irrational on both sides. Still, the later Allies were NOT itching for war as you claim (evidence: the so called "phony war". Despite having the better hand (the main part of the Wehrmacht was busy in Poland), France & GB did not take the opportunity to attack Germany in '39 because they feared the risk of taking too many casualites again after WW I, which had taken a devastating toll of young men already).
    – Annatar
    Jun 21, 2017 at 6:23

In reality the excuses are usually flimsy at best and are only used a pretext to begin an invasion. But what's the point of inventing an excuse in the first place? Couldn't states simply announce they want a piece of another country and start the war?

This premise is often, and probably usually, simply not true.

First of all, international war, at all, is quite rare. The vast majority of armed conflicts are primarily civil wars. In both the Libyan and Syrian cases, there was not a single consensus regime in place and a civil war was in progress.

To address at least some of your examples:

  • Neither the U.S. nor Russia (which is also involved in the Syrian civil war as are Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others) has an interest in claiming sovereign territory in Syria. Most of the countries other than the U.S. are involved because of the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS amounting to, among other things, the attempted genocide of the Yazidi people that got the U.S. involved it the first place after leaving Iraqi. Arguably, none of the countries involved has a narrow economic self-interest in their involvement.

  • Likewise, France has no interest in claiming Libyan territory per se.

  • The second war in Iraq was instigated on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be false and there is good reason to believe that the decision makers actually believed that false intelligence. Once the war began, the "Pottery Barn rule" came into play. You broke it, you fix it. The U.S. did believe that Saddam was a horrible war criminal of a leader, but did not foresee the extent to which their own involvement would do so much harm. Ultimately, the U.S. left and economically it was almost surely worse off than it was when it started. It does not claim the territory of Iraq today.

  • Iraq, at a minimum, felt it was unfair for a small monarchy to profit from oil resources at its border fringe which were rightly shared by its non-hereditary and more just regime with tens of millions of people. Why should it respect a small, slave holding monarchy to the detriment of its people which its neighbors were unwilling to defend, but for a U.S. decision to intervene. Iraq certainly felt that Kuwait's benefit from its oil resources was unfair to it.

  • "Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia to "protect the German minorities"" while perhaps plausible at the time, in 20-20 hindsight we know that this was a pretext. But, Russia's seizure of Crimea where it probably did have a majority pro-Russian population does sound somewhat more sincere on this point.

So, yes there are pre-texts, but they aren't nearly as universal as you would suggest. Respect for sovereign borders is a fairly strong, although not universally honored international norm and only a minority of violations of this norm are pre-texts for land grabs.

  • "international war, at all, is quite rare" Only in the last 100 years. Warfare was a common theme throughout history, only really slowing down due to the Concert of Europe. The wars that followed were much larger in scale than before, and the situation changed. Planting your flag on foreign soil was no longer as great an idea due to underlying economic, political, and military reasons. Economic and political influence are now king, with many of these "Civil" wars being proxy wars of influence. While you addressed the examples, you missed the general point. "Why are Casus Belli needed?" Jun 20, 2017 at 15:38
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    @user2259716 The general point of the questions was that almost all wars are wars of conquest for which Causus Belli are an unnecessary pretense. Yet, this premise is false and the correct answer is that lots of Causus Belli really are the reasons for military action and are necessary because those are the reasons that wars are actually fought.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:16

Absolutely zero references to back this up, for very obvious reasons...

Because noble causes sound far better than:

We're going to kill our finest young people, and a lot of other people, to keep the oil flowing.

We're up for election, and we need to look like we're doing something important.

We screwed up and don't want to admit it.

I'm a power loving lunatic, and I'm feeling a bit hungry.

Maybe you just don't like Major Strasser's looks. As a matter of fact, I don't like them either.


Others have covered why it helps, I will concentrate on why it is needed.

A pretext is always useful, but only necessary when the declaring leader does not have absolute power. Externally, if he is fearful of repercussions from foreign powers, internally if he does not have absolute control over his followers.

The actual pretext's value depends on the circumstances. Taking land or resources may seem a poor excuse, but if your people are starving, your industry is failing, or a disaster is impending then it works pretty well. This is one of the reasons why The Polish Corridor was created.

The need for a valid or passable Excuse for War has evolved over time.

Feudal Kings were individuals. They had personal relationships with other individuals (Kings) and were often intermarried. While a King may only need to be concerned about the opinion of Powerful states, he needed to keep his individual relationships open. A King's main issue stemmed from the existence of a decentralized government. Communication was slow, nobility was entrenched, and power was typically decentralized. A King's vassals could not be given an excuse to not contribute. This is one reason why an excommunication was so dangerous for kings.

Communication improves, nationalism is born, governments centralize, centralized armies are created, and the modern nation is born.

Modern nation states are greatly tied together through systems of trade. In the past, a "nation" might only really care about the opinion of the regional power. Now a nation has to be concerned with the opinion of the world collective, and the USA (Russia and China are powerful but their capabilities are more regional). Random nation A on the other side of the world cutting off trade and adding sanctions can be a big deal. It could also be argued that the perpetuation of representative forms of government has intensified the need for selling a war to one's own people.


This pretext is necessary to offset the evil of war. It is also necessary to establish the public's interest in the war. Because war is bad, leaders try to answer the question "Why do we want to go to war?" Telling people that, without the necessary evil of war, citizens abroad would continue to be in danger may be an effective way to answer such a question.


Most philosophers recognize that humanity has a basic moral sense. When two people argue, they talk about right, wrong, duties and obligations. "You parked in my parking space. It's not right for you to park in my space. You ought to park in yours." This is true even when one of the actors is acting in bad faith. They try to justify their behavior. "I wasn't going any faster than any of the other cars around me that you didn't pull over, officer."

Nations are nothing more than groups of people. The leaders have the same basic moral sense to placate. So, when they act badly, they provide justifications so that their actions seem just and right to them and their populace (who will be doing the fighting.)

Much thought has been put into when it is moral to fight. Just War theory lays out the criteria when a war is considered moral.

  • War should be waged in response to an aggressor.
  • The damage an aggressor inflicts must be serious and real.
  • All other means of solving the problem must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective
  • There must be a chance of success (i.e. It is not moral for the government to sacrifice the lives of its soldiers when they have no chance of success.)
  • The response to the aggressor must not produce evils greater than the evil eliminated (e.g. stop one group from the butchering of a 5,000 people by exterminating all 1,000,000 members of that group.)

If you don't give a pretext to go to war, you are the bad guys by default.

No one wish to think they are evil. Also war are expensives, you need to justify an increase in taxes.

If you increse taxes in order to go to war because you are bored, you may have internal resistance. Therefore your country is weaker and you have increased chancesto be defeated or at least to suffer politically.

Then you need to get soldiers, it is harder to get civilians to rush under the flags in order to be the bad guys. You need inspiring reasons.

Finally, now you got the problem of democracy. People are more concerned about internal affairs. Imperialism is not a popular idea nowadays, so you have to bring "Democracy".

As you may know, the excuses need more and more propaganda nowadays. You need to prepare your internal opinions. Civil wars are never black and white. You need to label first the side you wish to win as "Freedom fighters" or "legal government elected by the people". And the other side as "terrorist" or "bloody dictatorship".

You have many such examples, Kosovo war, Lybia War, Syria War.

Moreover the majority of excuses are plainly lies. Truth is not important when you wish to wage war. Internal and external support are deemed way superior to it. Some real reasons to the conflicts listed above :

1) Syria is a fucking ally of Russia. Syria may be some useful country in the Chinese Silky Way. There are concerns that the Civil War has started with a bit of help from Uncle Sam. Moreover NATO countries or NATO allies have directly supported Daesh (Turkey, Quatar, Saudi Arabia).

2) France was partly a proxy to start an american war. Lybia was close to Russia. And Lybia wished to overthrow an african currency which is controlled by Paris. This currency gives Paris a large influence inside her former colonies.

3) One of the more likely reason to attack Irak is to stop the sells of oils in Euro. The dollar is the world money, because oil is still mostly traded in dollar. If the dollar usage drop significantly, USA won't be able to spend that much on military.

4) Crimea was a russian territory that was transfered to Ukraine for administrative reason. When Ukraine got his indepedance it was implied that it could keep it as long they do not became ennemies from Russia. Neutrality was deemed acceptable. Russia took it back in order to prevent the NATO from using it as a major naval base. As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, this is not really an invasion. These states wish to be independant from Georgia. Georgia tried to force them to submit by force, they were protected by Russia. Many of their citizens got a russian passport. Russia actions are mostly to keep NATO in check. NATO broke their promises to never under any pretext include former soviet countries.

5) I don't have an opinion about the "illegal drillings". But it is safe to assume that controlling so much oil was alluring. Moreover USA first implied their neutrality when Saddam prepared his invasion.

6) Germany did wish to integrate german minorities. Moreover Czechoslovakia had also a great military-industrial complex. One of the best in all Europe. Naturally, they got both under control.

  • Regarding 4: Annexion is generally considered an act of war. Ownership of Crimea however was legally transferred to the Ukrainian Government. Quote Wikipedia: "On 19 February 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree on the transfer of the Crimean region of the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR.[29] This Supreme Soviet Decree states that this transfer was motivated by "the commonality of the economy, the proximity, and close economic and cultural relations between the Crimean region and the Ukrainian SSR".[30]" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Crimea Jun 25, 2017 at 23:15
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    I suggest an edit to this answer that replaces "annexed" with "transferred" as sourced in my qoute. Jun 25, 2017 at 23:17
  • Done. The word "transferred" seem to be a bit more adequate. However it seems that "to annex" mean "to incorporate (territory) into the domain of a city, country, or state". I do agree than there is a seldom territories annexed from one state to the other withtouth war or any military operation
    – xrorox
    Jun 26, 2017 at 7:47
  • Not a native speaker here, and in my language it is used exclusively for acts of war. As I searched for the english meaning I just found out that you are right and I was wrong, excuse me. But it probably is easier to understand for non-native speakers now. Jun 26, 2017 at 16:07

IMHO, this answer is somewhere out there: modern philosophy works of literature already shed some light on such issues. Unfortunately, definitely no under politic study.

A propaganda that works, must find ways to destroy human being natural ethics and morals. Hannah Arendt famous book "The banality of evil" lay the first foundation.

In addition, those people are indeed "rational" within their conscience, thus, you will find Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman works on human cognitive rationality over behavior that looks irrational.

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    The Majority of the answer should not be on external sites/link or require external reading. therefore -1 Jun 19, 2017 at 17:45
  • 1
    Oh great. No reference, people complain, give reference people complain.
    – mootmoot
    Jun 20, 2017 at 7:40
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    " Always quote the most relevant part of an important link, in case the target site is unreachable or goes permanently offline." - Taken From the Help Centre Jun 20, 2017 at 9:26

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