War no longer fit for purpose
Updated: Jun 18, 2019
Whatever goods that may have once been achieved by war are now better achieved through peace. This is a calculus we can tilt ever more decisively in peace’s favour. For example, legitimate and effective modern states have largely resolved questions of how to protect individuals and communities from armed conflict. Thanks to international law, institutions such as the United Nations (UN), and diplomatic practice, modern states have also come close to perfecting the art of managing relations between them without the need for war. States have even managed to build regional ‘security communities’ in which war is not only unlikely, but unthinkable. Territorial conquest and empire building – among the principal causes of war throughout our history – have been outlawed. States may physically invade and occupy land belonging to other states, as Russia did in Crimea in 2014, but they can no longer translate these gains into lawful, and thus profitable, ownership. Conquest pays well only if others recognise it as legitimate. If they do not, conquest can become very expensive very quickly. The greatest leaps in human progress have come in peacetime, not war. Even those scientific developments most associated with war – computer technology and anaesthesia for example – would have undoubtedly emerged in peacetime too and within a very similar span of time.
Changes in the nature of war are making it costlier to fight and less rewarding to win. As the Americans discovered in Iraq and Vietnam, and the Soviets found in Afghanistan, societies bound together by nationalism or other common identities and ideologies tend to resist foreign occupation to the last. To the extent that decisive battles ever delivered decisive political results, their capacity to do so today is much diminished. Nowadays, as NATO’s more recent experience in Afghanistan shows only too well, even overwhelming military force tends to produce marginal and uncertain outcomes. War delivers quick and decisive victories only if opponents accept the results of battle. If they do not – as is increasingly the case today – war tends to devolve into bitter, protracted, bloody, and invariably expensive insurgency struggles whose outcomes are anything but decisive and durable. Meanwhile, increasing economic interdependence propelled by globalisation has helped societies achieve unprecedented levels of wealth through peaceful trade, whilst the opportunity costs to wealth imposed by war have soared. Multinational production chains mean that national wealth is literally dependent on others in a way never before seen. Because of this, where war once held out the allure of enrichment, now it is more appropriately dubbed economic ‘development in reverse’: a burden that inhibits wealth, wellbeing, and security.
One of the reasons war persists is that we think it serves as the ultimate arbiter of disputes between groups. We assume that wars can produce decisive political outcomes, outcomes that are accepted by victorious and vanquished alike. The idea of the ‘decisive battle’ is deeply ingrained in the way we think about war’s purpose and the way in which strategists and generals think about fighting it. Yet the decisive battle was always something of a myth. Hannibal defeated Roman army after Roman army yet still could not land a decisive blow until, at the end, he succumbed. Napoleon, the great general who scored so many decisive victories and from whom strategists and historians have learnt so much, was ultimately a political disaster for his country, which he left broken and thoroughly defeated. Nowadays, indecisiveness is becoming the norm: the US failed to translate its military might into lasting political gains in Indochina, Afghanistan or Iraq; the Soviet Union similarly failed in Afghanistan and its predecessor struggles in Syria; China failed to bear down on Vietnam; Saudi Arabia struggles to defeat Houthi rebels in Yemen. War, it would seem, is becoming less decisive. It is also becoming more expensive. As a result, it is less likely to appeal as an efficient and effective means of acquiring riches or resolving disputes than it once did. Piling on additional costs in the future will help tip the ledger still further in the direction of