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Modern weapons are so destructive that war is less and less likely to take place.
November 1, 1997
With Responses From
Nov 1, 1997
31 Min read time
Modern weapons are so destructive that war is less and less likely to take place.
The vanishing risk of great-power war has opened the door to a previously unimaginable future—a future in which war is no longer socially-sanctioned and is rare, brief, and small in scale.
Nuclear weapons have made all-out great-power war unthinkable.
The possibility of a world largely without war is a result not only of recent changes in Europe and Russia, but of other epochal changes that have occurred over the course of the 20th century. Nuclear weapons have made all-out great-power war unthinkable; mechanized warfare and the extent and fragility of modern wealth have made non-nuclear war among richest countries more costly than profitable; and the spread of democratic values has made war increasingly unacceptable as a means to any ends except the narrow goal of defending against armed attacks by others. Combined, these factors have made a major conventional war anywhere in the world (except perhaps on the Korean peninsula) highly unlikely now and for years to come.
Despite this good news, the military policies of the United States and other large, industrial countries remain astonishingly unchanged. Treating the historic drop in the risk of major war as a temporary aberration, the United States and other arms-producing nations are striving to keep their standing armies and arms industries intact, in part by promoting arms exports, while they wait for new threats to appear. If maintained long enough, this approach virtually assures the return of Cold War-like conditions of armed confrontation between the most powerful nations.
Instead of drifting “back to the future,” with a laissez-faire approach to potential risks of major war, the most heavily armed industrial and developing nations should seize this opportunity to set a new course. We now have time—on the order of 10-20 years—before intractable new armed confrontations like the Cold War can arise. We have time to negotiate and implement arms control and confidence-building measures that keep such confrontations in abeyance for the indefinite future. What is more, we know today which regions and countries are most likely to see new or renewed risks of great-power war or major regional war, and what potential future military capabilities are likely to create fears of major war.
Too often, people work energetically for peace when war is imminent, and neglect peace at times of peace, when the opportunity to strengthen peacekeeping institutions is greatest. If modest arms control efforts were replaced by concerted international action, the current negligible risk of major war could be transformed into the permanent abolition of threats of major war.
In addition to being invaluable in itself, the abolition of major war would create conditions conducive to the abolition of all forms of warfare as socially-sanctioned behavior. By explicitly limiting large-scale uses of armed force to defense against aggression, steps to avert new risks of major war would foster the spread of democratic commitment to nonviolent forms of protest and resistance as means to political and social change. Eventually, the spread of democratic institutions, the end of major war, and the success of nonviolent forms of resistance to injustice and oppression could lead to the end of war except in small, quickly-ended incidents.
• • •
The Decline of Major War
For five centuries, the world’s most powerful nations have used war to compete for preeminent political power. Successive groups of nations—the Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians in the 16th century, the Swedes and the Danes in the 17th, the English, French, and Germans in the 18th and 19th, the Chinese and the Japanese sporadically throughout this period, and, finally, the Americans and the Russians in the 20th century—have assumed the mantle of “great power.” When playing this role, diverse nations behave in similar ways, competing for influence as an end in itself and using armed force to dominate other nations. In a surprisingly regular pattern of interaction, every 50 years or so the world’s second most powerful nation has tried to conquer the leading nation; or, alternatively, one of the great powers, building an empire, has provoked another into a preemptive counter-attack.
In the 20th century, changes in technology, wealth, and political values have altered the long-term pattern of great-power war. In World War II, the global reach of mechanized ground, air, and naval forces extended wars between great powers into world-spanning wars. In the 1950s, the stockpiling of immensely powerful hydrogen weapons made all-out war between great powers impossible without laying waste to both sides and devastating the globe with unpredictable environmental and radiation effects.
These developments did not put an end to all large-scale conventional warfare, however. The theoretical possibility of a limited war between two or more great powers—a world war excluding the use of nuclear weapons but employing the full range of conventional ground, air, and naval power—remained a concern; and great-power forces participated in major wars in Korea, Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
For the first time in history, all-out great-power conventional war is no longer a viable means to increased wealth.
Since 1970, advances in the range and accuracy of firepower have strengthened the means of defense against conventional aggression and raised the potential costs of conventional warfare. Defensive missiles, rockets, and guns can now destroy the platforms—airplanes, ships, and tanks—that launch cross-border attacks at cost ratios of 1:100 or less. Between more or less equally matched opponents, the domination of weapons over platforms makes both sides vulnerable to the rapid destruction of not only the means of making war but the entire physical infrastructure of modern society: cities, transportation, energy and electricity networks, and so on. Finally, as the human capacity for destruction has approached 100 percent of various target sets with various munitions, protracted major war among the most heavily armed countries has become impracticable: in wars where both sides have large numbers of tanks and aircraft, these systems are likely to be either used or rendered useless in a matter of weeks.
Paralleling these effects of new technology, economic and political changes have made conventional war among the great powers unworkable as a means of gaining wealth, land, or political power. For the first time in history, all-out great-power conventional war is no longer a viable means to increased wealth. In the past, the costs to the victor in a great-power war—the cost of fighting the war and the destruction caused by the war—could be made up and surpassed with new gains in a few years. Today, the wealthiest industrial nations have become so rich and so dependent on worldwide financial markets that all-out conventional war could lead to economic losses even on the winning side that would take decades of postwar rebuilding to recoup.
Politically, the democratic values that have put an end to colonialism and fostered worldwide commitment to self-determination preclude the historic form of great-power military aggression, that is, using armed force to seize land, incorporate it in an empire, rule it, and exploit its resources. Even the lesser imposition of great-power military intervention—using hundreds of thousands of troops to tip the balance in a foreign civil war or border war, and then withdrawing—is checked by domestic public opposition. Following painful experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, US and Russian leaders have stopped using major war as a means of installing foreign governments.
Today, the publicly-accepted purposes of a war involving great-power armed forces are twofold: first, to help prevent military aggression by one country against another (as in the Gulf War, where the public justification for US, British, and French intervention was to help defend against and reverse an act of international aggression); and, second, help prevent genocide in internal conflicts within nations (as in Somalia or Bosnia). Peacekeeping generally involves relatively small-scale use of armed forces (troops numbering in the thousands, or at most tens of thousands) and relatively little open warfare. This means that among the great powers, the only publicly accepted purpose of large-scale conventional warfare, involving hundreds of thousands of troops, is to help deter and defend against a cross-border military attack by one nation against another. This is very nearly the opposite of the role that predominated in the early part of this century, and indeed for millennia, when great powers went to war to create, preserve, or expand empires.
• • •
Arms and Warfare, Arms Control and Peace?
Some observers might argue that the prospects for ending war have not improved in recent years because the decrease in the risk of major war has been offset by an increase in other forms of warfare: civil wars, border wars, and ethnic conflicts that spill over national boundaries. In considering past and potential future developments, however, it is crucial to distinguish between major war and other forms of armed conflict.
Nearly all major wars are international wars, which involve regular military forces equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles, combat aircraft, and naval ships. These large, costly weapon systems, called “major weapons,” are useful mainly in combat with similar systems on the opposing side, where the goal on each side is to secure land, air space, or ocean areas from attack from the opponent’s systems by destroying those systems or forcing them to withdraw.
Outbreaks of major international war are limited to, and fully correlated with, areas where large-scale modern armaments are deployed.
By contrast, civil wars and ethnic conflicts generally involve guerrilla, paramilitary or “irregular” (civilian) forces, which rely on persistent, small-scale sneak attacks to erode the opponent’s will to fight. In such conflicts, most deaths are caused not by major weapons, but by “small arms:” rifles, machine guns, mortars, bombs, howitzers, and even machetes. Many weapon systems used in international wars—particularly air and naval systems—have little or no use in guerrilla warfare. Even in the case of ground forces, it is individual soldiers in hand-to-hand combat rather than tanks and other armored vehicles that do most of the fighting.
Outbreaks of major international war are limited to, and fully correlated with, areas where large-scale modern armaments are deployed. These areas are few in number, change only slowly, and can be pinpointed with great accuracy. In contrast, wars fought mainly or entirely with small arms are numerous; they are relatively unpredictable and can flare up quickly; and the weapons with which they are fought can be obtained from dozens of legitimate and black market sources around the world.
As a result of these differences, major conventional wars, fought with major weapon systems, lend themselves to prevention through arms control and other government policy measures, while other forms of warfare tend to be more intractable. The two kinds of warfare are, however, fully linked in attitudes concerning acceptable and unacceptable uses of armed force. Thus, in the following sections I look first at the risks and prevention of major war, and then at the question of how the declining tolerance for and risks of major war may help reduce the risks of other forms of warfare.
• • •
The Risks of Major War
Since current and potential future threats of major war are limited to countries with large armed forces equipped with major weapon systems, and since such forces are very costly to acquire and maintain, we can identify current and potential future sites of major war with considerable confidence.
Capabilities for major war:
Only the industrial countries with the largest GNPs—the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and, until recently, Russia—have military budgets big enough to maintain large-scale standing armed forces that are fully equipped with advanced weapon systems. Of these countries, only the United States, with military spending of about $250 billion per year, has the military transport, logistical support, and communications capability to put a large army with technologically advanced armaments in the field anywhere in the world in a few weeks.
Japan, Germany, France, and Britain each spend $30-40 billion a year on the military, and Italy about $15 billion. Russia and China probably spend $40-50 billion and $15-$25 billion, respectively. South Korea and Saudi Arabia spend in the range of $12-$15 billion a year. Of this group, the countries with budgets of $30-$50 billion maintain large forces with technologically advanced equipment, which they can deploy on a large scale on or near home territory. They can also field smaller forces in other parts of the world. Countries with military spending below about $30 billion a year have smaller forces, older armaments, or both. China has large forces with armaments whose design dates from the 1950s and 1960s; South Korea has smaller forces with equipment dating in part from the 1970s; Saudi Arabia has still smaller forces, equipped with the most modern weaponry available.
A few countries—notably, Sweden, Switzerland, and Israel—maintain the potential to field armed forces that are relatively large and technologically-advanced with annual military spending below $10 billion by using universal national military service, with periodic refresher training. Other industrial countries and larger developing countries with military budgets of $2-$8 billion maintain much smaller standing armed forces, generally with somewhat outdated equipment.
Most Third World countries (over 100 countries) spend less than $1 billion per year on the military; about half (some 60 countries) spend less than $100 million per year. Only a handful of countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia maintain armed forces that are capable of engaging in a major war. Those countries are well known as adversaries in long-standing regional conflicts. They are: North and South Korea, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
The remaining countries in South Asia and the Far East and all countries in Latin America and Africa (except Egypt) are all incapable of taking part in a major international war because they have very small military forces, with fewer than 250 combat aircraft and 1,000 tanks. (For comparison, the United States has roughly 5,000 combat aircraft and 15,000 tanks.)
Based on current capabilities and on the time and money required to increase the size of forces equipped with modern armaments, it is possible to make reasonably reliable projections of the risks of major war for the next decade or so. Even for the longer-term future, it is possible to identify the areas where new risks might arise, due to several factors:
First, only countries with relatively large GNPs have the resources to build up large-scale forces equipped with major weapon systems.
Second, it takes many years to acquire new stocks of advanced weapon systems, and more years to equip and train armed forces in the use and maintenance of these systems. Moreover, training forces on the scale needed to commit international aggression—that is, to cross a border, destroy the national defense forces on the other side, and seize control of part or all of the territory of another country—is readily detected by intelligence gathering satellites and ground-based sensors.
Finally, there is an extraordinary global bottleneck in the ability to design and produce the full range of major weapon systems incorporating recent advances in technology. Just five industrial nations can do this: the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. All other nations must import their major weapon systems from one these five, or settle for technologically outdated systems that are produced by China.
Of course, the opportunity for capabilities and political circumstances to change increases the further out we look. This means that over the longer term, the potential sites of major war are more numerous and the assessment of the risk of war is less certain.
Potential sites of major war:
For the near-term future (until about 2010), the prospects of a major conventional war are limited to the countries which already have large standing armed forces equipped with major weapon systems, and which field their forces within reach of potential opponents with whom they have serious political disputes. Based on these criteria, three potential sites of major regional war stand out: along the borders between Syria and Israel (over the Golan Heights); between India and Pakistan (over Kashmir); and between North and South Korea (as a product of the actual or potential loss of domestic political control by the North Korean government).
For the medium-term future (from about 2010 to 2020), additional risks of major conventional war could arise if military or political circumstances change. Recent rates of military spending and arms acquisition make it unlikely that new countries will pose new threats of major war before 2020; but there could be changes in control of the military forces that exist today or changes in the severity of existing political disputes, or both. If US armed forces withdrew from the Gulf region, new attacks by Iraq on Kuwait, Iran, or even Saudi Arabia, aimed at seizing oil-rich land, would be possible, particularly if Iraq is released from the current UN embargo on oil sales and arms purchases. There is also the possibility of a fundamentalist Islamic take-over in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, which could lead to a pan-Arab war against Israel. Finally, the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan could lead to an attack by China on the Taiwanese armed forces, in an effort to establish political control by force.
The potential sites of major conventional war are few and far between for the next decades, but increase the further we project current patterns of arming.
For the longer-term future (after around 2020), there are a few additional areas where the combination of military capability, geographic basing, and political dispute needed to pose a threat of major war could emerge.
For the most part, the longer-term risks of war involve a resumption of the historic pattern of great-power competition and conflict. Thus, a combination of worsening political relations and military expansion could pose new or renewed risks of major conventional war between pairs or larger groups of the following entities: Russia, China, Japan, the United States, and the European Union.
Outside the cluster of existing military great powers, only a few countries have the population and potential future GNP to become military great powers over a period of several decades. These are: a unified Korea, India, or Pakistan, all three of which already have large standing armed forces; and Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran, or Mexico, all of which currently have small armed forces. The geographic locations of India and Pakistan, remote from any other major military powers, and the locations of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, remote from any scene of major international war, are likely to discourage the leaders of these nations from an open-ended accumulation of armaments. In contrast, Korea, Indonesia, and Iran all lie sufficiently close to great powers and to scenes of long-standing regional conflict that they are likely become major military powers, posing new risks of major war, if current global trends continue unabated.
In sum, the potential sites of major conventional war are few and far between for the next decade or two, but become increasingly numerous, and involve potential wars of greater and great scale, the further out into the future we project current patterns of arming.
• • •
The Laissez-Faire Approach
The sudden disappearance of any near-term threat of great-power war might have been welcomed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and other large nations as a heaven-sent chance to create an international security system that would end threats of major conventional war once and for all.
In the United States, maintaining large forces at $250 billion a year in case new threats of major war eventually arise is an absurdly expensive form of insurance.
Instead, these nations are treating the present peace as a temporary lull in the normal condition of armed confrontation at or near the brink of major war. The five top arms producers, trying to insure that their arms-producing industries stay open until business picks up again, are promoting arms exports to the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, where the prospects for sales are greatest—and where imports cause arms races, fuel fears of war, and, over the longer term, create major new military powers and new risks of major war. To keep its arms industries open, Russia is selling China licenses to produce some of its most advanced weapon systems even though it sees China as its most serious potential future military opponent. Similarly, the United States, Britain, France, and Germany are producing major new weapon systems designed during the Cold War even though Russia cannot afford to develop the weapons they were intended to outmatch—with the justification that the new weapons will be needed for military superiority in Third World regions which import advanced weaponry from Western arms producers.
Asked how the US government can justify spending $250 billion a year to deter two small, poor Third World countries (North Korea and Syria, each with a population of about 20 million and a GNP under $10 billion) from attacking US allies, a senior Pentagon official responded that near-term threats of major regional war in the Middle East and Asia are only part of the justification for this level of spending. The main justification, he said, is the longer-term potential for new threats of great-power war posed by Russia and China.
As this response shows, the purpose of the large standing armed forces and active arms industries currently being maintained by the United States (and, to a lesser extent, by Europe and Russia) is to provide insurance against potential future threats of major war, particularly great-power war, that may arise after 2010 or even after 2020.
The problems with this laissez-faire approach to future risks of major war are twofold: First, if conventional armed forces are not limited by arms control agreements, worldwide patterns of military spending will not persist in a downward trend, but will bottom out during the next decade and then reverse direction, leading to an increasingly belligerent international system. Second, hundreds of billions of dollars will be wasted in both developed and developing countries.
China will become a great power or super power with modern armaments decades sooner than it could otherwise by importing military technology from Russia and the West. Though unlikely to be completed before 2030, the emergence of China as a major military power, with large-scale armed forces equipped with modern weaponry, is such a troubling prospect that it has already prompted increased military spending throughout East and Southeast Asia. Eventually, China’s growing military strength is likely to make Asia the stage for a Cold War-like armed confrontation, with China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Japan, and other Asian countries on the other. This is an avoidable disaster in the making.
Europe and the United States, competing with each other in arms design, production, and export, are each creating the advances in military technology that justify the purchase of costly new arms by the other.
Russia, whose GNP is now below that of China and about the same as that of Canada (according to the World Bank), is struggling to maintain armed forces comparable to the largest in Europe, with growing concern about China’s military potential on one side and NATO on the other. As soon as its GNP reaches its previous level, Russia is likely to respond to China’s military growth and NATO’s expansion by allocating substantial sums to rearmament. This, in turn, could lead to renewed East-West military confrontation in Europe; and it could undermine the development of democratic institutions in Russia, once again handing the Russian people a tragic and unnecessary setback in their efforts for political and economic development.
In the Third World, arms imports from the United States, Europe, Russia, and China are creating ever larger, more technologically advanced armed forces. Iran and other large Third World countries with small military forces and outdated equipment can build up large forces with modern equipment only through imports from the main producers; and Iran, among others, is engaged in a slow but steady build-up of this kind.
At the same time, in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, continuing imports of major weapon systems and threats of major regional war are motivating the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—as means of deterring conventional aggression and as weapons of last resort in a losing conventional war. The proliferation of these weapons is self-propagating, and increases the risk that they will be used on cities.
Finally, the burden of military spending weakens economic and political development in all parts of the world. In the Third World and in Russia, slow growth fuels nationalist resentments. In the United States, maintaining large standing armed forces with constantly advancing weaponry over a period of 15, 20, or 25 years at $250 billion a year in case new threats of major war eventually arise is an absurdly expensive form of insurance—when the only source of such threats is on-going arms production and export by the five top arms producers. Moreover, the drive to balance the Federal budget and cut taxes creates a zero-sum approach to military and non-military programs: every dollar spent on the military is a dollar cut from education, health, housing, science, the arts, and other programs.
For all these reasons, it is important for world’s most powerfully armed countries, led by the United States, to stop drifting toward new versions of past threats and adopt a constructive program to prevent the rise of new threats of major war in all parts of the world.
• • •
A Proactive Approach
Outside the United States, armed forces capable of engaging in a great-power war or major regional war exist only in areas which have suffered decades or even centuries of major war or threats of major war: the Korean peninsula, China and Taiwan, Indian and Pakistan, the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. Some people believe that risks of war in these regions will persist until the conflicts of interest that have led to war in the past—conflicts concerning sovereign control of land or the establishment of secure borders—have been resolved. But measures to dampen inflammatory rhetoric, improve relations, and reduce mutual fears of armed attack can create environments conducive to nonviolent resolution of the conflicts. Conversely, build-ups of armaments which strengthen capabilities for cross-border attack, particularly long-range missiles and aircraft, which can be used for pre-emptive, disarming attacks, tend to exacerbate tension and mistrust.
Arms control measures designed to build confidence between potential opponents can help prevent bad situations from becoming worse, and foster commitment to nonviolent means of resolving conflicts. Measures to ameliorate tension in regions of conflict should focus on ways to reduce mutual fears of surprise attack. Though useful for defense as well as aggression, offensively-oriented aspects of armed forces are essential for large-scale cross-border aggression, and they tend to arouse suspicion even if they are maintained largely or entirely for defensive purposes. Capabilities that strengthen cross-border attack potential include:
• Offense-capable ground and air forces with heavy tanks, heavy artillery, and long-range attack aircraft;
• Logistical support to sustain combat forces on foreign territory;
• Rapid mobilization capacity, permitting a several-fold increase in the size of standing forces in a matter of months—that is, too quickly to permit the build-up of commensurate defenses by potential opponents;
• Attrition reserves and open production lines, providing the capability to replace weapons lost in battle;
• Technological innovation, which creates uncertainty about the outcome of battle and fuels fears of aggressive intent.
In the past, proposals to restructure armed forces to build confidence between opponents have encountered a political obstacle: When tension and animosity are great and the risk of war seems high, national leaders want to maximize the defense they can buy with a given level of military spending, and are unwilling to limit offensively-oriented defenses in order to strengthen crisis stability and build confidence on the opposing side. Now, when the risk of great-power war is negligible, is the time for the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia to take steps that underscore the defensive purpose of their armed forces, and hinder future aggression against one another (or other nations).
Defense-oriented restructuring of great-power forces also faces a practical obstacle: The large territories of Europe and Russia require mobile, offense-capable forces strictly for territorial defense; and to help defend nations in Europe, the Middle East or Asia from external aggression the United States must maintain highly mobile, offense-capable forces.
The requirement for mobile, offensively-oriented forces can be finessed, however, if we recall that whether in Europe, Russia, the Middle East, or Asia, the armed forces needed to deter and defend against threats of major war are not determined in the abstract: they are a function of the current and potential future forces of potential military opponents. If Russia, China, and the countries of Europe all made deep cuts in their offense-capable tank and combat air forces, then localized border defenses in each of these regions would be adequate.
Deep cuts could leave Russia and China vulnerable to attack by US combat aircraft or by readily transportable US ground forces. But absent the threat of great-power war in Europe or Asia, the United States could also make deep cuts in its large ground and air forces—provided that the means existed to deter major regional war in the Middle East and East Asia. Much smaller US forces than those maintained today would suffice for the latter purpose—given the regional forces that exist today. Thus, if the United States, Europe, and Russia stopped exporting major weapons to those (and other) regions, preventing further arms build-ups, the United States could make stabilizing, confidence-building cutbacks in its forces at the same time that Russia, China, and Europe reduced theirs.
We are so used to thinking of war as an ineradicable ‘social bad’ that we mistakenly confuse the end of war with utopia.
Under cooperative security policies that include deep cuts in standing conventional forces and a ban on the export of major weapon systems, active production lines in arms industries would no longer be needed. To guard against some unexpected future development, these industries could be converted to a new form of industrial reserve capacity, in which production plant and equipment are mothballed; production processes are recorded on videotape and in detailed, computerized instruction manuals; and assembly line foremen are paid to take periodic refresher courses. (In the United States, these steps have already been taken for the production of torpedoes, for which there is no current demand.) On-going maintenance and parts replacement on the weapon systems that remain in service would also help preserve production know-how.
Shutting down production lines in the industries that produce major weapon systems would represent not only a measure to build confidence in the stability of the peace, but also the product of considerably greater confidence than exists today. Initial arms control and confidence-building measures—modest, tentative, and reversible—would lay the foundation for a far-reaching step of this kind. Early measures that could easily be negotiated include:
• Global and regional limits on the size of standing armed forces;
• Restructuring of forces globally and regionally to emphasize defensive over offensive capabilities;
• Confidence-building limits on deployments and exercises;
• Greater transparency (open information) in military aspects of security; and
• Systematic efforts to strengthen global and regional peacemaking and peacekeeping activities.
Once these intermediate goals had been reached, talks could turn to more far-reaching steps to strengthen the peace, such as:
• Global limits (or a ban) on quantity production of major new weapon systems of the kinds most useful for cross-border attack, for domestic use and for export;
• Limits on rapid mobilization potential and long-range logistical support;
• A fully-developed system for peacekeeping and peacemaking under UN auspices; and
• Global sharing of surveillance information pertaining to current and potential future threats of international military aggression, including information on the size, character, training, and deployments of armed forces worldwide.
By putting a ceiling on the size of offense-capable conventional forces far below the size of current forces while strengthening forces optimized for territorial defense, these steps would prevent the development of new capabilities for major military aggression by one great power against another, and they would delay if not prevent the rise of major new regional military powers. They would not eliminate the capabilities for major conventional war which now exist in the two Koreas, India and Pakistan, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. But they would end the constant technological advances in the armaments of those countries, achieved through imports of ever-more advanced weaponry; and they would create an environment conducive to regional arms reductions and regional conflict resolution.
Eventually, the end of regional arms races, combined with global pressure to resolve regional conflicts without resort to major war, would be likely to lead the key players in regional conflicts to replace their own offensively-oriented forces with more defensively-oriented, confidence-building means of defense.
• • •
Toward the End of War
Would arms control and confidence-building measures designed to eliminate threats of major war bring the world closer to ending all forms of warfare?
Since ridiculing the idea of the abolition of war has become a habit of modern culture, it may be useful to start with a brief digression on this matter. We tend to think of war as being rooted in the avaricious and violent aspects of human nature, in cultural and racial intolerance, in the self-interested behavior of nations—in short, in so many aspects of our lives that it could never end. We are so used to thinking of war as an ineradicable “social bad” (the opposite of a social good, like education or a healthy environment) that we mistakenly confuse the end of war with utopia.
Over the past several centuries, other socially-sanctioned institutions which were perceived as “social bads”—for example, slavery, child labor, wife-beating, and mutilation as a legal punishment—have been abolished through the establishment of new and stricter limits on what had previously been legally and morally acceptable uses of violence. These and other positive social changes—widespread literacy, electrification, and advances in medicine, to name a few—were at one time wondrous possibilities, whose achievement by a specific date might have seemed equally utopian. But those past achievements did not fix all the problems nor meet all the basic needs in the world—and neither would ending war. As a social change, ending war would not end conflict, starvation, crime, corruption, pollution, disease, and so on: it would merely rid the world of one more pernicious custom, freeing up time, energy, and resources to address other problems.
Like the possibility of ending major war, the possibility of ending all forms of warfare is rooted in this century’s changes in politics and society. The global spread of liberal democracies has profoundly changed the conditions for civil as well as international war. Among other things, general acceptance of the principle of self-determination has undercut motives for national wars of liberation, as well as tolerance for great-power wars of empire.
The potential for the end of all forms of warfare would be strengthened in a future in which there was virtually no prospect of major war because:
• The capability for major war had been largely eliminated;
• No major conventional war had taken place anywhere in the world for several decades; and
• The world’s largest, wealthiest, and militarily most powerful nations had explicitly renounced the use of armed force for any purpose except defending their own nation or other nations against external attack, and, perhaps, intervening to end genocide in civil wars.
Under these circumstances, the incidence of bloody civil wars, border wars, terrorist killings, and armed ethnic conflict would be likely to decline as a result of several factors. Most important, a global change in moral beliefs about war would have been reflected in and fostered by the end of major war.
Increasingly, the publicly accepted standard for the use of force between nations is the same as the norm within democracies: it is never acceptable to use armed force as a means to any end, regardless of how vital or urgent, except defense against (illegitimate and immoral) armed attacks initiated by others. In most nations, acceptance of this standard is already reflected in public opinion polls and in the actual use of force. In political rhetoric, however, national leaders still reserve the right to use armed force to protect “national interests” as well as national territory and sovereignty. In other words, most governments have not yet fully come around to the view that is held by the majority of people: that for nations as well as individuals, it is wrong to use armed force as a means of advancing one’s own interests at the expense of others.
As part of any concerted effort to end threats of major war, US, Russian, Chinese, European and other leaders would have to believe and publicly espouse the view that armed forces have no legitimate role except to defend against the use of force by those who have not yet accepted this view.
Unless and until that change occurs, a powerful bond will exist between the leaders of militarily powerful nations and the leaders of armed revolutions and of terrorist groups: at present, both tend to think that if they need to use armed force to achieve political, economic, or cultural ends, and if they can succeed in doing so, then that is a morally acceptable form of behavior.
If this view is rejected by the leaders and nations with the greatest access to military power, then it is likely to wither away among the leaders and nations with the least access. And nonviolent means of protest and resistance, already successful in bringing about political and economic change in many parts of the world, will be more widely used, and will succeed more often.
Eventually, killing other human beings as a means to political or economic ends is likely to become unthinkable not just to a large minority of people around the world but to the great majority. When that occurs, war will cease to be a socially-sanctioned form of behavior, and it will occur only rarely, in small-scale incidents that are quickly ended by United Nations police forces.
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November 01, 1997
31 Min read time
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