Friday, November 25, 2011

How not to think about the obsolescence (or non-obsolescence) of "industrial" war

Scott Wolford argues, in effect, that we aren't seeing traditional interstate wars because big "industrial" armies are "cancelling each other out," not because interstate war is obsolete. (H/t Phil Arena, here, for directing my attention to this post.)

(Update: Scott Wolford writes in the comments to this post that I have misconstrued his point. I may well have. One of the hazards of blogging.)

This ignores several things. First, states are simply less interested now than they used to be in territorial conquest, which is what big armies have traditionally been used for. Look at the figures: Between 1945 and 1996, the percentage of armed conflicts in which territory was redistributed -- i.e. conquered -- was 23 percent; by contrast, between 1648 (I don't like to use this over-emphasized date btw, but anyway) and 1945, the percentage was in the range of 80 percent. This strongly suggests, although it admittedly doesn't definitively prove, that post-1945 armed conflicts have mostly been about matters other than traditional territorial acquisition. (Source: M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention, p.126, citing Robert Jackson & Mark Zacher, "The Territorial Covenant," Univ. of Br. Columbia Inst. of IR, working paper no.5, 1997; see also Zacher's Int'l. Org. article on the territorial integrity norm.) For the period since 1996, I believe the figures would be even lower though I don't have them to hand.

Second, Wolford's post ignores the argument that (at least some) states have progressively internalized norms against permanent territorial acquisition and conquest, and that great-power war has become progressively unthinkable as a live policy option for leaders -- so much so that Mueller (Retreat from Doomsday) argues it doesn't even appear in their minds ("subrationally unthinkable").

Third, Wolford's point that big wars aren't obsolete because you have to consider what would occur in the absence of "industrial" armies is a bit weird. It's weird because there's no proof that if A and B are having a territorial dispute, A would take the disputed territory by force if B didn't have a big industrial army. I'm not sure it's even likely. But to make his point convincingly Wolford would have to cite an instance or two where this has actually happened in fairly recent years (and surely it's possible to find cases of territorial disputes between very unequally armed adversaries), not just speculate about what might happen.

P.s. Off the top of my head, possible examples supporting Wolford's view are the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (except that Saddam was hardly a typical leader) and maybe the Russia-Georgia war of '08. I don't find either too convincing. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in '03, although a very bad idea, is not directly relevant here because its major aim was forcible regime change not territorial acquisition.


Phil Arena said...

Interesting points.

How do we know what leaders think about and what they do not? What standard of evidence is sufficient to establish something is "subrationally unthinkable"?

War with Pakistan does not appear to be unthinkable to India, nor does war with India seem unthinkable to Pakistan. Ditto Israel and Egypt. They aren't major powers, so I guess we set them aside (though those seem like big exceptions to ignore).

If it is so unthinkable in Europe, why are European leaders like Merkel warning that a failure of the EU risks a return to the bloody days of old Europe? Not that I think that is likely -- but it sure seems like leaders are *thinking* about it as a *possibility*.

What about the US and China? The US is in the process of building a coalition against China. China is acquiring military capabilities as fast as it can. Why are the two most powerful states in the system behaving this way if war is unthinkable to them?

I'm not sure dismissing the two Iraq Wars by saying Saddam was unusual or regime change doesn't count really helps to prove that interstate war is obsolete. And how do we know Saddam is unusual? Because he fought these wars! Isn't that just a little circular?

I don't think anyone is disputing that the probability of war is lower now than in the past, or that it might very well continue to be in the future. The question is whether we see fewer wars because the material and economic cost of war has increased, in no small part due to the very fact that states try so hard to prepare to win any war that might break out, or because war has become unthinkable. In my mind, "unthinkable" is a very strong claim, and requires pretty strong evidence.

Scott Wolford said...

Thanks for the reply, LFC. I’d argue that my point is somewhat different than what you seem to take it to be, though. I’m not staking a claim on the truth value of (3) here. I’m merely making the point that declaring the obsolescence of war on the basis of what Smith did is just logically untenable—sure, it may be true (then, again, it may not be), but the evidence he cites isn’t sufficient, given the big logical problem in the attempted inference. There may be other ways to get at this empirically (some of which you suggest), but my challenge is simply that there are other stories consistent with a period of peace between countries with industrial militaries. To figure this out, we’d need to rule out my alternative explanation—which is difficult, since we can’t run experiments randomly forcing countries with rivals to give up their militaries. So whether industrial war really is or isn’t obsolete is beside my point, which is just that we need to take a *lot* of care when making inferences and to be disciplined about the logical structure of inquiry. My goal was to spin an alternative story that’s also consistent with the evidence—and also with the maintenance of these armies that aren’t being used—to show just how critical logical argumentation is in what we do.

But, again, thanks for reading and commenting!

LFC said...

Thanks for the response.

The standard-of-evidence question is important. I'm not sure exactly what standard of evidence is required, but one can start by looking at statements and behavior, as you suggest.

Merkel's statement surprised me. I think it may have been just a case of reaching for overheated rhetoric in an effort to show how much importance she attaches to the EU.

The U.S. and China: I agree that war is not "unthinkable" to them, though I view it as highly unlikely. Mueller's 1989 Retreat from Doomsday restricts the unthinkability argument to the "developed" world (his phrase) which of course in '89 didn't include China. I'm not exactly sure what Mueller would do with China now as I haven't read his more recent stuff (e.g. The Remnants of War).

There is the fact that there has been no great-power war since either 1945 or 1953, depending on one's definitions. At least a couple of reactions to this fact are possible. Reaction A: "Big deal! There was no great-power war in Europe betw. 1815 and 1854. That didn't mean great-power war had become obsolete." Reaction B: "The absence of great-power war in the system for the last 60-odd years suggests -- doesn't prove but suggests -- in conjunction w other evidence, that a normative shift might v. well have occurred, making future great-power war v. unlikely, though not impossible, and not only b/c states are armed w/ the latest highly sophisticated weapons." I lean to B, but I recognize that A is a fairly widely held position.

On Saddam: of course he fought a very long, very bloody war with Iran before invading Kuwait. He probably was something of an outlier, so to speak, on the bellicosity spectrum. Indeed this was what led some people to give credence to the neocon-ish arguments that Saddam could not be allowed under any circs. to develop WMD. (But Saddam, though an outlier on the bellicosity spectrum, was in my view not 'crazy' and therefore deterrable and therefore the WMD arguments were way overblown. But now I'm getting into old debates.)


Btw, I'm about halfway through J. Goldstein's new book and after I finish it (other obligations etc. keep intruding), I will be posting a review, which will go into these issues in somewhat more depth. Though perhaps not any more convincingly than my hasty post. We'll see.

LFC said...

Ok, first reply was to Phil Arena.


To Scott Wolford:

I agree on the need to be disciplined in making inferences and arguments. I thought your post had either overtones or undertones -- take your pick -- that went a little beyond just a logical critique of Smith's sloppy syllogism. Perhaps I was wrong about that. I will re-read it and perhaps come to a different conclusion.

Phil Arena said...

That's a good way of putting it. Personally, I lean towards A, but I certainly agree that reasonable people could find B more persuasive. I think the point Scott was trying to make was simply that we're still in the realm where reasonable people can disagree, whereas there are people out there who would have us believe that B is now firmly established.

I think it may be true that Saddam was an outlier on bellicosity. But I do wonder how we know that a leader with a different personality would not also have fought the Iran-Iraq War. At any rate, unless we can be confident that other outliers will not arise, interstate war remains something worth worrying about.

I'd be curious to see your review of Goldstein's book. I haven't read it yet myself, but it does look interesting.

LFC said...

Thanks to both of you for the comments here. I'm hoping to have the review of Goldstein up in the next 2 or 3 weeks.