Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The decline of war (Part II)

In my previous post on this subject, I promised to follow up with some observations on the relation between global politics and global economics over the past couple of decades. For various reasons this has proved beyond me at the moment, so I'll confine this post to noting the case of one writer who acknowledged the decline of violent conflict but refused to accord it the significance it would seem to warrant. The case to be mentioned is probably not unique but rather is an indication of how hard it is for some analysts to discard assumptions about the permanence of conflict that have been central to discourse on international politics for centuries. Longevity does not equal validity, however, and the fact that these assumptions have been repeated endlessly does not make them correct.

Writing in 2007 about the shape of what he termed the post-American world, Fareed Zakaria observed that "war and organized violence have declined dramatically over the last two decades." [1] There has been, he wrote, "a broad trend away from wars among major countries, the kind of conflict that produces massive casualties." [2] However, in the very next breath Zakaria felt constrained to point out that "numbers [of casualties] are not the only measure of evil," [3] which is true but not particularly relevant. "I don't believe," he declared, "that war has become obsolete or any such foolishness. Human nature remains what it is and international politics what it is." [4]

"Human nature remains what it is and international politics what it is." This statement has basically no analytical content. It is an expression of faith, the same faith to which Robert Gilpin pledged allegiance when he wrote: "One must suspect that if somehow Thucydides were placed in our midst, he would (following an appropriate short course in geography, economics, and modern technology) have little trouble in understanding the power struggle of our age." [5] (Gilpin wrote this 30 years ago but plenty of people, including perhaps Gilpin himself, would write the same thing today.)

Would Thucydides, stepping out of a time machine, not bat an eye at a world in which there has been no great-power war for more than half a century (and in which no great-power war is looming on the horizon)? I'll let readers supply their own answers to that question.
1. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (W.W. Norton), p. 8. The book was published in 2008, meaning that it was written in 2007.
2. Ibid., p. 9.
3. Ibid., p. 10.
4. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
5. Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge U.P., 1981), p. 211.

No comments: