Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The decline of war (Part I)

Joshua Goldstein's piece in Foreign Policy, based on his new book Winning the War on War, will interest a lot of readers, not only IR types. In this post -- the first of a two-part discussion -- I will make some brief-ish comments on his Foreign Policy article. The second part of this discussion, which will appear in due course, will contain some broader ruminations about the relationship between global politics and global economics (no small, narrow subjects here, folks!).

Goldstein observes that the post-Cold War era, and especially the decade just passed, has been remarkably peaceful by historical standards. Citing research done by Lacina and Gleditsch at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, he notes that "the last decade has seen fewer war deaths" -- on average about 55,000 a year -- "than any decade in the past 100 years." Wars of all types, including civil wars, have decreased over the past 20 years.

What accounts for this decline of war? The article hints at a few possible explanations, but it's only at the end that Goldstein mentions what I'm inclined to believe is the most basic and consequential of the possible causes.

He writes that "armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed. Wars between big national armies all but disappeared along with the Cold War, taking with them the most horrific kinds of mass destruction." No doubt in the book Goldstein gives figures on how many "wars between big national armies" -- i.e., conventional interstate wars -- there were during the Cold War. The last war directly between great powers was either the Korean War or World War II (depending on whether you think China qualified as a great power at the time of the Korean War), and as Goldstein notes, the Korean War "effectively ended nearly 60 years ago." So there has not been a great-power war since either 1953 or 1945, depending on one's definitions. The end of the Cold War may have contributed to a change in the character of armed conflict, but the more basic change, I would suggest, is that great-power war as an 'institution' of international society seems effectively to have ceased to exist. [P.s. Of course some people thought the same thing in the period before 1914 and they turned out to be wrong, to put it mildly. But the situation is not analogous, for reasons I can go into in the comments or elsewhere, if anyone is interested.]

Why? Could shifts in the balance of power have something to do with it? Goldstein observes that "relative U.S. power and worldwide conflict have waned in tandem over the past decade," adding that the "best precedent for today's emerging world order may be the Concert of Europe...." The idea that a great-power concert, which today would include of course certain non-European powers, might be emerging (or might have already emerged) is not new. However, the heyday of the Concert of Europe (if I remember right) didn't last all that long (roughly, between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean War) and its operation was based in large part on shared reactionary values among the main European powers. This could be seen as either a pedantic irrelevancy or as casting some doubt on its suitability as an analogy, depending on one's inclination.

At the end of the piece Goldstein mentions that norms about war have changed, and this seems to be at the heart of the matter. Not only have norms about the protection of civilians changed; as J. Mueller, C. Fettweis, and others have argued, there is reason to think that great-power wars have become normatively unacceptable to great powers themselves. If correct, this is of course consonant with the main lines of Goldstein's argument, even if the emphases may differ somewhat. Btw, I'm sure his book (which I have not yet seen) goes into much greater detail, so readers interested in the subject should consult it rather than just the FP article.

Another p.s.: The decline of war also connects in a particular way with Foucault on biopower (oh no! I hear you crying), something which I learned a while back from a discussion on another blog. I'll get to this later (good, I hear you saying. In fact, why not make it never). Tsk, tsk, why can't the IR types all get along?


hank_F_M said...


This is a very good point, peace may not be breaking out yet, but there has been a considerable decline in wars and related activites. I made a couple posts on this. Hope it is not an anomaly

I'm still reading the article and look forward to your analysis

Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

The 2nd part of this 2-part post, which is not yet written, will focus more on other authors.

LFC said...

Btw, in case the post didn't make it clear, I am pretty much persuaded by Mueller's obsolescence-of-major-war thesis. As C.J. Fettweis puts it: "states cannot fight wars if doing so does not occur to them or to their potential opponents. When fighting ceases to be included in the set of options for the great powers, it becomes, in Mueller's...phrase, 'subrationally unthinkable'. Major war, at that stage, would have grown obsolete." (Fettweis, Dangerous Times?, pp.5-6.

Note: not all wars, just major wars directly involving the great powers. If these are indeed obsolete, then it raises the question of exactly what the connection is between the obsolescence of great-power war and the decline (though not obsolescence) of armed conflict in general, a question which I did not directly discuss in this post and probably will not discuss in Part II either.

LFC said...

Btw no one seems to have noticed that I (unaccountably) misspelled Foucault at the end of the post. (I just corrected it.)
Whole class gets an F.