In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Efforts to Control War

  • Introduction
  • International Relations in the 19th Century
  • Conferences, Treaties, and Laws, c. 1850–1914
  • The First World War
  • The Post–World War I Era: General Overviews
  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact and the League of Nations
  • Arms Control, 1918–1939
  • Peace Movements after World War I
  • The Second World War
  • War and Law after 1945
  • War Crimes Trials
  • The United Nations
  • The Nuclear Age

Military History International Efforts to Control War
Jesse Kauffman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0175


While informal restraints on organized violence have existed in many times and places, the formal attempt to regulate, contain, and otherwise manage war by states is a modern affair. Beginning in the 19th century, against a backdrop of a rapid and exponential increase in the destructive power of weaponry, governments, acting out of a mix of interests, came together to formalize and codify the rules governing the circumstances under which a state might legitimately go to war, as well as, once at war, the means and methods that might be employed in the fighting. (These are the two broad areas into which the laws and customs of war are generally sorted: jus ad bellum, or the legitimate reasons for war, and jus in bello, just behavior in war, though it is a matter of some dispute how discrete these categories can and should be). Drawing on a centuries-old Christian “just war” tradition, the 19th-century pioneers of international regulation of war created a legal foundation that endures to this day. Over time, the belief that war could be controlled and limited evolved into a hope that it could perhaps be eliminated from the world altogether. Over the course of the first half of the 20th century, these beliefs and practices would be sorely tested, and perhaps shattered, by the horrific violence of the world wars. Nonetheless, the destruction of the war years demonstrated to contemporaries the urgent need to continue the work of those early pioneers. The principles, institutions, and interests driving international attempts to control war after 1945 were in many respects quite different from those that had crystallized in the 19th century. The hopes and fears of those earlier times, however, continued to haunt the 20th century, magnified by the enormity of the destructive power possessed by states in the atomic age. Though many different cultures have produced their own laws and customs of war, the focus of this article is on “the West,” generally meaning Europe and the United States. This is because, for the period under discussion, it was the Western just war tradition that informed the behavior and ideas of those intellectuals and politicians who, acting with and through Western governments, created the modern legal-political structure that underpins international attempts to restrain war to this day.

General Overviews and Document Collections

A special challenge (or reward) awaiting the historian of this topic is its fundamentally interdisciplinary nature. Works by historians on international attempts to control war (Howard, et al. 1997; Keegan 1993; Sheehan 2008; Best 1980; Tracy 2005—all under Surveys, Essay Collections, and Handbooks) are complemented by those authored by legal scholars (Koskenniemi 2002, Tanenhaus 2008, Bailey 1972—also under Surveys, Essay Collections, and Handbooks), as well as those who straddle both worlds (Maguire 2010, under Surveys, Essay Collections, and Handbooks). An extensive collection of primary sources can be found at the Avalon Project and in Gillespie 2011 and Roberts and Guelff 2000 (all under Document Collections). The history of the ideas that have driven international attempts to control war has been synthesized and analyzed in Johnson 1975, Johnson 1981, and Johnson 2011 (all under Intellectual Foundations). A short, focused introduction can be found in Howard 2000 (under Intellectual Foundations). Important foundational primary sources are Grotius 2012 and Kant 2006 (under Intellectual Foundations). Walzer 2015 (under Intellectual Foundations) continues the debate about just and unjust wars into the present day.

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