Friday, March 7, 2014

What caused the decline in interstate war?

In a recent post, Eric Posner (prof. at Univ. of Chicago Law School) writes that he sees little evidence that the UN Charter, which dates from 1945, has caused the decline in interstate war. Although I don't share what I take to be Posner's general view of international law, this particular point seems right, inasmuch as Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter is best seen as having codified an already-developed consensus rather than having instituted a 'new' rule. And it wasn't really new anyway: "The League of Nations Covenant specified that the highest purpose of the organization was to protect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its members. The Stimson Doctrine (1931) declared that the United States would not recognize as legal any territorial changes brought about through the use of armed force. The League of Nations subsequently adopted this position as a new rule of international relations." (K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns, 2004, p.134)

As I've mentioned before, I lean to John Mueller's argument that the seeds of the decline in interstate war, or at least in major-power war, were sown in 1914-1918. I'm not saying this is the whole story re the decline, but I think it's part of it. 

Here's a passage from Mueller's Retreat from Doomsday (1989), pp.55-56:
That World War I was a watershed event in attitudes toward war in the developed world is clear. Exactly why is less clear.... The impact on war attitudes of the Great War's physical devastation and of its horrifying weaponry should not be discounted.... But the bone-deep revulsion it so widely inspired and and the very substantial blow it administered to the war spirit so prevalent just a few years earlier should be credited at least in part to the insidious [I might have chosen a different word] propagandistic efforts of the prewar peace movement. The war proved to be a colossal confirmation of its gadfly arguments about the repulsiveness, immorality, and futility of war and of its uncivilized nature. Of course, the war also shattered the peace movement's airy optimism, and it certainly undercut its proposition that Europe was becoming progressively more civilized; but that was nothing compared to what it did to the notion that war was progressive -- as well as glorious, manly, and beneficial.... Since the peacemakers of 1918 were substantially convinced that the institution of war must be controlled or eradicated, they tried to apply some of the devices and approaches the peace movement had long been advocating.
He continues:
For reasons that seem in reflection to have been special, it didn't work out so well. In Germany a leader arose who almost single-handedly brought major war to Europe, while Japan, a country that had not substantially participated in World War I nor learned its lessons, set itself on a collision course in Asia that was to lead to national cataclysm.
If one accepts this narrative and explanation, the UN Charter formalized a change in attitudes that had been well underway for more than two decades, which could partly explain why the trend line of decline in interstate war does not track neatly with the UN Charter's adoption.

ETA: If Mueller is right, an underlying normative evolution is mainly responsible for the decline of major war in the 'developed' world, rather than the use-of-force rules themselves. Whether the argument can be extended to cover the decline of interstate war in general is something one could debate.

Note: Edited after posting to fix a grammatically challenged sentence. 


Peter T said...

I'm coming to the view that norms like this (and the previously mentioned one on borders) reflect a balance of forces much more than being forces in their own right. What are the forces here? One is that, from roughly 1870 to 1980 war was a matter where the degree of mobilisation went a long way to deciding victory. So it was mass politics or perish (World War I rubbed this in really deeply). Since elites do not favour mass politics more than they have to, war itself fell out of favour. At the same time, mass mobilisation made gains from war harder to attain. Effectively, it became higher cost, lower benefit.

I think the first of these forces is weakening a bit: advanced countries can now go to war with very little mass involvement; the trajectory of the second is a bit harder to judge: while some forms of mass mobilisation are waning, most societies are much more organised and structured than in say, the C19, and so harder to dominate militarily. And while destabilising them is possible, it tends to make most other forms of rent extraction unworkable (cf Iraq).

LFC said...

mass mobilisation made gains from war harder to attain

I'm not sure the evidence supports this.

To show that interstate war and more specifically territorial conquest went out of fashion for cost-benefit reasons, one wd have to show: (1) there was a time when conquest 'paid' and (2) the economic dividends from conquest declined over time.

Maybe this can be shown. However, the one bk I'm aware of on this issue argues the opposite: Peter Liberman, Does Conquest Pay? He takes 5 case studies and thus the study might be vulnerable to a selection-bias critique. Still, if he's right, then straight ec. cost-benefit wd not explain the decline of conquest. Note: I haven't read it, am going by the summary.
(Amazon link in next box)

LFC said...


LFC said...

P.s. Assuming the cost-benefit ratio did shift in the direction you suggest, the cost-benefit and norms explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor need one assume that norms simply reflect (allegedly) more basic forces. Indeed there are probably various causal factors at work here, including, e.g., changes in technology.