Monday, January 16, 2012

Book review: Winning the War on War

Joshua S. Goldstein, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Dutton, 2011. 385 pp.

"The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party." -- William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War" (1910)

"What dramatic vision of hell can compete with the events of twentieth-century war?" -- C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959), p.17


War is on the decline: in particular, the years since the end of the Cold War, although obviously not free from deadly conflict, have been less violent than the years that came before. A main purpose of Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War (hereafter WWW) is to convey this message to a broad audience. The book also aims to persuade readers that peacekeeping, through the UN and other organizations, is succeeding and deserves much more financial and political support.

This review will not cover all the elements of the book; rather, I will summarize several of its main points and then offer some thoughts on why the decline in armed conflict has happened, focusing on certain historical aspects of the question. While agreeing with Prof. Goldstein that the decline in conflict is not irreversible, I will suggest (unoriginally) that future large-scale interstate war, or so-called hegemonic war, is very unlikely, for reasons that have partly to do with the impact and consequences of the twentieth century’s world wars. As the word "partly" suggests, I acknowledge at the outset that this explanation for the decline of conflict, and of interstate war in particular, is not a full one. Although the fact of the decline in conflict is clear, the reasons for it will remain an area of disagreement among scholars and other observers.

A related point of disagreement is whether to view the twentieth century as a uniquely violent era. Writing in 2002, Mark Mazower observed that "the twentieth century is increasingly characterized by scholars in terms of its historically unprecedented levels of bloodshed." ("Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century" (review essay), American Historical Review, v.107, no.4) However, it is clear that certain parts of the century were considerably worse than others. After comparing the twentieth to previous centuries, Goldstein concludes that "the twentieth century may indeed have been the bloodiest relative to population but is not really much different in character than earlier ‘bad’ centuries" (WWW, p.37). The twentieth century’s bloodshed, however, is arguably somewhat fresher in the collective memory than that of previous centuries, which may be significant.

Peacekeeping and the Decline of War

Winning the War on War begins with the story of the one occasion on which its author personally witnessed gunfire in a war zone: Beirut, 1980. Residents of the city, Goldstein observes, managed to live relatively normal lives in the midst of a low-level civil conflict. This story immediately engages the reader’s interest and is also a way to introduce the basic point that war exists on a scale, or a continuum, of destructiveness.

Interstate wars, in which two or more countries’ regular armies fight each other, are usually more destructive than civil wars, and the decline in interstate wars is the main reason that "battle-related deaths" – i.e., violent deaths that occur during armed conflicts -- have fallen over the last several decades. Such deaths averaged more than 200,000 a year during the 1980s, whereas from 2000 to 2008 they were on the order of 55,000 a year (WWW, p.238). Looking at longer periods, there were roughly 215,000 average annual battle deaths from 1970 to 1989, and this came down to an average of 75,000 annually from 1990 to 2009 (p.16). Furthermore: "More wars are ending than beginning, once ended they are less likely to restart, and the remaining wars are more localized than in the past" (p.4). On the other hand, military spending has not seen correspondingly sharp reductions (p.19), and "the problem of civil wars may remain in some fundamental way unsolved" (p.247).

While acknowledging multiple causes of the decline in conflict (see further discussion below), Goldstein takes peacekeeping as the "central thread" (p.44) in his account. He gives a history of UN peace operations from the days of their founder, Ralph Bunche, to the secretary-generalship of Kofi Annan and into the present. A key early moment was the 1956 Suez crisis, which resulted in the deployment of the first armed peacekeeping force. Since then, peacekeeping missions have become increasingly "multidimensional," involving not just observing or enforcing cease-fires but a range of other tasks, from disarming and demobilizing combatants to, in a few cases, temporarily running a government. There are 150,000 peacekeepers (about 100,000 UN and 50,000 non-UN) currently deployed at the relatively low cost of $8 billion a year (pp.308-9).

Although some peacekeeping missions have succeeded while others have failed -- and the failures, such as Bosnia or Rwanda, perhaps have tended to linger in the public memory longer than the successes, such as Sierra Leone or Namibia or (in a more qualified way) Cambodia – on the whole peacekeeping missions significantly reduce the chances that war will restart after a cease-fire (pp.105ff., citing the work of Page Fortna, Paul Collier, and Michael Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis). As one would expect, the more peacekeepers there are relative to a country’s population the more likely it is the mission will succeed (at least eventually), as is evident from a comparison of the mission in Sierra Leone (which ended in 2005) with the ongoing mission in Dem. Rep. of Congo. Each mission had roughly the same number of peacekeepers, but Congo has ten times Sierra Leone’s population (p.176). Indeed, the number of peacekeepers in Congo (now roughly 17,000) has been absurdly inadequate given the country’s size. That is not the only reason for the shortcomings of the Congo mission but it is a significant one.

The revival of an active UN role in resolving difficult armed conflicts dates from the late 1980s, when a confluence of developments, including Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’, enabled the Security Council to pass Res. 598, demanding an immediate cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war, then in its seventh year. A good deal of credit for this revival belongs to then-Sec. Gen. Pérez de Cuéllar, who at an informal meeting on Jan. 16, 1987 -- 25 years ago to the day -- prodded the representatives of the permanent members of the Security Council to act on the Iran-Iraq war. Goldstein’s account of this period draws on Giandomenico Picco’s 1999 memoir Man without a Gun. (To supplement it, see Cameron R. Hume, The United Nations, Iran, and Iraq: How Peacemaking Changed, reviewed in: Paul Lewis, "Rise of the Blue Helmets," N.Y. Times Book Review, Nov. 6, 1994. I have taken the detail about the Jan. 16, 1987 meeting hosted by Pérez de Cuéllar from Lewis; he calls it a "tea party," a phrase which now has other overtones.)

Winning the War on War contains not just description and analysis but also prescription. The peace movement, Goldstein argues, should focus directly on supporting efforts that contribute to the decline of conflict rather than following Pope Paul VI’s maxim "If you want peace, work for justice" (p.208). While peace is "almost always a necessary step" toward "prosperity, human rights, and social justice" (p.77; cf. p.169), peace should be treated as an independent goal and the peace movement should pay much more attention to strengthening institutions like the UN, Goldstein maintains. He argues that targeting "big corporations, oil companies, and globalization," as some in the peace movement do, is not an effective way to advance peace (p.208); however, given what he writes about the causes of civil wars, pressing for more economic assistance to poor countries might very well be (see pp.293, 307).

Causality and Learning

What is responsible for the decline in war? A number of plausible causes suggest themselves. Goldstein mentions a 2007 article by Louis Kriesberg that "identifies eight 'peace factors'…underlying the decline in wars…since 1990: the end of the Cold War; the dominance of U.S. power; the economic benefits of globalization (which war would disrupt); spreading norms about peace and human rights; spreading democracy; the proliferation of NGOs; the increased participation of women in politics; and the growing field of conflict resolution" (p.15). Later in the book he mentions the combination of factors identified by the 'democratic peace' theorists Bruce Russett and John Oneal: "democracy, economic interdependence, and...the development of international organizations, including the UN" (p.278). Thus for Goldstein the downward trend in war has "multiple causes, not easily untangled" (p.44) but, as already seen, he gives the UN and peacekeeping pride of place among the contributing causes. (See e.g. p.278, where he writes that the development of international organizations is the "most important, in my view" of the various factors.)

To say that the UN, and international organization more generally, is the most important cause of the decline in conflict raises the question: what "caused" the UN? I don’t mean what caused the UN in a proximate historical or ideological sense, a subject on which historians disagree. Rather: What if the UN, as it eventually came to function, is an institutional consequence of a process of learning from experience?

Goldstein writes (p.42):
Several possible causes [of the decline in war] come to mind. First is the notion that civilization has evolved over the long course of human history in a way that has gradually strengthened norms of behavior that discourage violence. Later in the book I will discuss evidence that changing norms have reduced barbarity in general, from torture and slavery to capital punishment, while building up an idea of human rights and the responsibility of governments to their people. As part of this process, war has gone from a standard and even attractive policy option to a last resort, at least in political rhetoric. One trouble with this explanation is that it would predict a gradual diminishing of war over the centuries, whereas instead we have found a long series of ups and downs culminating in the horrific World Wars.
Of course it is true that the twentieth-century world wars, and all the associated horrors, make it extremely difficult to tell a convincing story about linear normative progress from pre-history to the present. But it seems highly likely that the twentieth-century world wars themselves had an impact on subsequent normative and institutional development and on basic assumptions about war (a point Goldstein acknowledges but does not, in my opinion, emphasize enough). Thus, although an "evolving norms" or "learning" explanation does not work well for "the long course of human history," it may nonetheless help to explain the war-and-peace trajectory of the last century or so. (This in turn raises the question of why at least some human groups appear to have learned from the twentieth-century world wars, and from mass killings not connected with the world wars, what they failed to learn from earlier conflicts -- a question that might require an entire book to answer and so will be left to one side here.)

Consider the impact of the First World War, "a catastrophe of unbelievable horror, suffering, and destruction," in P. Kennedy’s words, in which armies suffered enormous casualties quite often for no good strategic or other reason. (Revisionist historians might disagree with this statement; so be it.) Goldstein remarks that "the senseless slaughter [of World War I] swung public opinion in the West against the idea of war as a good in itself" (WWW, p.224), but this statement is buried in the middle of the book and is not given much emphasis in the discussion of causality.

It took a while for revulsion about the 1914-18 war to set in fully, but once it had done so, World War I "permanently discredited major war both as an appealing activity and as a potentially profitable instrument of national policy" in the view of many "in the developed world" (John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday, p.30). (One might qualify this statement inasmuch as reactions to the war were somewhat different in France, e.g., than in Germany.)

Mueller also argues that the experience of WW1 persuaded most "normal" political leaders, including those of Britain and France, that another major war on that scale was almost inconceivable. They were aware of Hitler's bellicose statements in Mein Kampf and elsewhere but could not take them seriously. As Mueller observes (Retreat from Doomsday, p.69):
…Hitler’s opponents in Europe were horrified by the experience of the Great War and appalled by the prospect of going through anything like that again. They had concluded that only a monster or a lunatic could want, or even want to risk, another Great War, and they paid Hitler the undue compliment of assuming that he did not fall into those categories…. There was thus broad consensus – shared even by the curmudgeonly Winston Churchill, then out of office – that great efforts should be expended to reach a general peaceful settlement of any remaining grievances in Europe.
Similarly, referring to the British and French "decision to abandon Czechoslovakia [at the Munich conference] in September 1938," James Joll wrote: "Above all it was the result of an intense desire for peace, a deep horror aroused by memories of the First World War and a reluctance to believe that Hitler actually envisaged war as a means of attaining his ends." (Europe Since 1870, p.373)

And a final quotation, from William Rock:
… [for the British] the historical lesson of the First World War was clearly writ: the total nature of that great struggle had rendered war in its traditional role as senseless beyond contemplation. It was not that the whole nation had converted to philosophical pacifism, for only a wing of the Labour party had taken that route…. It was simply a poignant realization of the terrible destruction wrought by modern war; a keen appreciation that its costs vastly exceeded any benefits which might accrue to a prospective victor, in name only; a plain recognition that Europe had reached a stage of moral development where war must be considered a barbarity incompatible with civilized life…. War, in short, had emerged in the British mind as the ultimate evil. Nothing would justify another one.
(Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s, p.41, as quoted in Randall L. Schweller, “The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-39: Why a Concert Didn’t Arise,” in Elman and Elman, eds., Bridges and Boundaries, p.202)

Granted, there were increasing divisions in the British elite, as the 1930s progressed, about what policy to adopt toward Hitler; many bitter memoirs were later written about those divisions. But this doesn’t invalidate the points made in the passages quoted above.
Thus, the conviction, shared by many, that World War I had rendered great-power war illegitimate as a tool of statecraft (see Schweller, op. cit., pp. 200ff.) was an important moment in normative evolution.[1] Tragically, it took another great-power war, bringing with it more and indeed almost unimaginable horrors, before that conviction became widespread enough to have a significant influence on the behavior of the great powers as a group.

This argument should be distinguished from that of a commenter here a few years ago who suggested, in the comments thread to this post, that "the modern reduction in violence…reflect[s] a sort of hangover from the two World Wars and their grisly and prolonged aftermath (Korea, Vietnam, de-colonization, etc.)." A hangover, of course, is a very temporary phenomenon; by contrast, the ‘learning’ from the two world wars and subsequent conflicts has become institutionalized in various ways (peacekeeping being, of course, an important one).

Finally, it’s possible that some may view the preceding discussion as too Eurocentric or 'Western' in its emphasis, and too focused on the great powers. Perhaps it is. However, the decline in armed conflict, whatever its causes, is a global phenomenon, one that is definitely not confined to Europe and North America, and thus to draw attention to it cannot be seen as furthering a Eurocentric perspective on the world. (I’m sure Goldstein, who pays considerable attention to Africa in WWW, would agree.)


When one thinks of the armed violence still blighting some parts of the planet, it may seem hard to believe that the world is becoming more peaceful. But it is.

Winning the War on War describes this development while also offering a thorough analysis of peacekeeping and peace movements, along with prescriptions for strengthening them. Goldstein's proposals include a standing UN rapid deployment force with troop contributions from the permanent members of the Security Council. (This latter element is unlikely to happen, since most of the major powers have never shown much or any inclination to put their forces under UN command, although the UN Charter envisaged this.) The author’s feel for data is put to persuasive use, e.g. in ch. 10 ("Three Myths"), and the book manages to address four different audiences: general readers (especially in the U.S.), peace activists, students, and scholars.

In addition to presenting a lot of information and the findings of the relevant scholarly work (interspersed with personal stories), Goldstein is not shy about stating his own views. His attitude of hard-headed optimism is congruent with what might be called, with a bow to the late John Herz, a sort of realist liberalism. Even someone in general sympathy with the book's argument will not agree with every single statement in it; at least, I do not (e.g., was Fidel Castro's endorsement of the Tobin tax really a "kiss of death"? - p.312). The main thing, however, is the book's basic message, which is solid and well supported and deserves a wide hearing.


1. How the much-maligned Kellogg-Briand Pact fits in here, or doesn’t, would have to be the subject of a separate post.

References mentioned/cited in this post

James Joll, Europe since 1870. Harper & Row, 1973.

Paul Kennedy, "In the Shadow of the Great War," New York Review of Books, Aug. 12, 1999.

Louis Kriesberg, "Long Peace or Long War: A Conflict Resolution Perspective," Negotiation Journal, April 2007.

Paul Lewis, "Rise of the Blue Helmets," New York Times Book Review, Nov. 6, 1994.

Mark Mazower, "Violence and the State in the Twentieth Century" (review essay), American Historical Review v.107, no.4, 2002. 

John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War. Basic Books, 1989.

William R. Rock, British Appeasement in the 1930s. Norton, 1977.

Randall L. Schweller, "The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-39: Why a Concert Didn't Arise," in Colin Elman and Miriam F. Elman, eds., Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations. MIT Press, 2001.

For more on WWW, see the author's blog: here.

Added later: See also J. Mueller, "War Has Almost Ceased to Exist: An Assessment," Pol Sci Quarterly (2009), available here.

1 comment:

Phil Arena said...

This looks like a very thoughtful review. Haven't read it all yet. Will offer some more thoughts soon.