Psychology / Book Review

Vol. 4, NO. 3 / March 2019

Roots of War: Wanting Power, Seeing Threat, Justifying Force
by David Winter
Oxford University Press, 440 pp., $39.95.

David Winter’s book is a long journey to a series of obvious conclusions. Leaders in a crisis tend to use what he calls power motive imagery. The imagery invoked, a cycle of harsh rhetoric and response ensues. The cycle very often ends in war. Winter measures power motive imagery by counting the number of power motive words used in speeches and documents during a crisis. Winter has in mind words that influence other leaders, or have an impact on their decisions, or serve rhetorically to express concern or alarm; but he is mindful, as well, of controlling words, or words that describe forceful actions, or that are meant obviously to persuade others or to elicit a strong emotional reaction. Words that offer unsolicited advice, or are spoken simply for effect—they, too, are within the remarkably broad ambit of power motive rhetoric.

In his analysis, Winter treats every crisis as a two-part affair, a dispute between state actors, and one unrelated to other conflicts. He views the crisis that arose between Britain and Germany in August 1939 as unrelated to the crisis that arose between Germany and Poland in the spring and summer of 1939. The sixteen cases chosen by Winter are selected based on their outcomes and then paired together in order to produce eight matched crises, with one escalating to war, and one lapsing back into peace. If we think of these matched crises as units in a time series, whenever any crisis escalates to war we could follow the series back and find antecedents that, by definition, did not. Crises that led to war always assuredly contain more power-motive rhetoric than those that did not. Most of Winter’s matched crises are from the same conflict, and it is hardly clear that a crisis was peacefully resolved when it was shortly followed by the outbreak of war. Winter thus regards the Munich negotiations as a peacefully resolved crisis. By the same token, Winter thinks the Compromise of 1850 in the US ended peacefully, when it is universally regarded as a failure.1 If a peaceful compromise fails, a warlike conclusion cannot be far distant, and, of course, in the case of the US Civil War, it was not long delayed.

If a peaceful compromise fails dramatically, what reason is left to consider it peaceful?

These examples suggest an obvious inadequacy in Winter’s methods. His cases are logically self-defeating. Almost every peacefully resolved crisis that fits his prediction was followed by war. Seven out of the eight pairs of crises exhibit low power motive imagery scores in peacefully resolved crises, followed by crises that led to war with high power motive imagery scores. The only pair that did not follow his theory was the Iraq–Kuwait crises of 1961 and 1990, which had the highest degree of independence, since the two crises were separated by almost thirty years.

“[T]he more power imagery in a communication,” Winter predicts, “the more likely that communication will be experienced as threatening.”2 He begins by measuring the power word density of speeches by Actor A, which he calculates by counting the number of power imagery words in every thousand words. Winter then measures the power word density exhibited by Actor B in evaluating Actor A. The texts used to assess the threat perception of B can include newspaper articles, diplomatic wires, and various speeches. The greater the power word density in what B says, according to Winter, the greater the threat accentuation. If the response of B has a lower power word density, this represents threat diminution. In practice, this method almost always produces threat accentuation. If A delivers a speech the goal of which is fully to inform or persuade his audience, he will use the number of words necessary for that purpose. B’s reaction is a summation of the main argument put forth by A. The number of power words relative to the number of overall words is bound to increase. A diplomatic wire written by B, or a newspaper article by B, has a relatively fixed word count. If their purpose is succinctly to capture the salient points made by A, inevitably they will contain a greater density of power words simply because they must include what A said in shorter form. Threat augmentation proceeds by rhetorical abridgement.

The buildup to the US Civil War provides Winter with an example. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis gave numerous well-covered speeches. A transcript of Lincoln’s 1861 speech published in the Massachusetts Daily Republican featured one power word out of 243 words, producing a power word density of 4.11. In contrast, the pro-secessionist South Carolina Mercury, commenting on the same speech within a shorter article, included two power words, producing a power word density of 16.81. According to Winter, the Mercury had a threat “accentuation of 409 percent compared to the Daily Republican.3 A detailed reading of the newspaper articles shows exactly the opposite. The Massachusetts Daily Republican quoting Lincoln:

Let the people, both North and South, keep their self-possession, and just as other clouds have cleared away, so in due time will this great nation see peaceful skies and continue to prosper as heretofore … [O]n the important question of the tariff—a subject of great magnitude … [s]o long as direct taxation is not resorted to, a tariff is necessary … [T]he question as to how far imports may be adjusted for the protection of home industry gives rise to numerous objections. I don’t understand the subject in all its numerous bearings, but promise I will give it my closest attention … Here I may remark that the Chicago platform … should not be varied from what we gave the people to understand would be our policy when we obtained their votes.4

South Carolina’s Mercury quoting Lincoln:

When I speak on the political condition of the country I shall say nothing to disappoint the people generally. Notwithstanding the trouble at South, there is really no crisis except an artificial one … There is no crisis other than could be gotten up at any time by turbulent people aided by designing politicians. My advice is to keep cool.5

The Mercury paraphrasing Lincoln:

[In alluding to the tariff, he said that] the Chicago platform contained a plank which he thought should be regarded as law … [T]he platform on that … should not be varied from. This is what the people had been made to understand when their votes were asked.6

Winter has indicated the power words in bold, but the bolded words and phrases do not immediately stand out as revealing a power motive. Anyone having worked closely with students will see an all-too-common pattern in which the rules are followed punctiliously when the context indicates a contradiction. The word protection is highlighted because students were trained that protection amounts to defensive power language. Yet in this context, Lincoln was simply defining the purpose of the tariffs imposed on Southern imports. This language hardly constitutes power seeking. This same problem is found in the other power words. The phrase “we will continue to prosper” does not express a desire to win when the context makes it clear that both sides are prospering: “both North and South … will … continue to prosper as heretofore.”

Winter might well have tagged as threatening several passages in the northern newspaper that spoke to why the Civil War happened. Toward the end of the Daily Republican article, Lincoln says, astonishingly, that tariffs are an issue about which he knows little. He follows this by saying that he will, in any case, follow the orders of the Republican party bosses in Chicago. A southern reader would have taken umbrage at Lincoln’s indifference to southern grievances. In the lead-up to the Civil War, ninety percent of the federal government’s annual revenue came from tariffs paid completely by southerners, while most of Washington’s revenue was spent in the north. The south, which exported raw materials, was not allowed by Washington to impose tariffs on raw material imports. Southerners had to struggle against foreign competition, while paying high taxes on imported manufactured goods designed to protect northern manufacturing. Given the importance of context and the nuances of this discussion, one might have derived quite a different understanding of the rules governing power words. In an exercise designed to judge the escalatory potential of a crisis, it is alarming to learn that the words “there is really no crisis” count for nothing.

Winter’s book offers an instructive account of the way in which ideological biases lead to strikingly different views about causality in human affairs. Some historians are persuaded that wars arise because of a failure in human imagination. They would be naturally disposed to argue in favor of what Winter describes as an “integration of … historical consciousness, awareness of personal mortality, and generative concern for the next generation.”7 Music, drama, art, and a liberal education are helpful in this respect. The correct attitudes having been determined, it may well be reasonable to centralize power in the hands of those refreshed in their perspectives. Winter has adopted this perspective as his own, and dismisses all modes of institutional constraint, separation of powers, constitutional limits, and decentralization as ineffective. Historians persuaded, on the other hand, that human behavior is more or less fixed will come naturally to the conclusion that human problems, while they may be managed, cannot entirely be solved. Elites have always waged war to achieve their goals, and the soldiers and citizens who pay the costs are a minor concern to them.

François Guizot, the great French historian, described medieval Europe as a decentralized, variegated patchwork of would-be feudal rulers trying with limited success to monopolize power. In the end, they succeeded and diplomacy came to rest in the hands of a few men.

This is why diplomatic crises, treaties, alliances, and war fill the pages of history.


  1. “The settlement [of 1850] proved ill-fated. Within less than five years, tensions were greater than ever… The Compromise of 1850 proved little more than a truce.” John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic: Volume 1, Commerce and Compromise, 1820–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 366. “By any measure, the Compromise of 1850 failed to achieve its major goal.” Paul Finkelman, “The Cost of Compromise and the Covenant with Death,” Pepperdine Law Review 38, Special Issue (2011): 845–88. 
  2. David Winter, Roots of War: Wanting Power, Seeing Threat, Justifying Force (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 187. 
  3. Ibid., 190. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid., 292. 

Jason Quinn is Research Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

Laurel Stone is Assistant Director of Policy Studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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