Wars Have Become Rare with Nuclear Weapons

One of the major benefits in living in today’s world is that despite the rise of so-called Islamic terrorism, see the recent attacks in France, Germany, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and other places, we do live in a more peaceful world. Steven Pinker (2011) has said that violence has decreased because of the growth of the state (monopoly of violence takes power of violence away from private individuals), growth of commerce (trading creates opportunity and makes societies averse to physical destruction), feminization (stronger role of females in society reduces violent tendencies), cosmopolitanism (idea of a global society based on literacy, common language, transport and communication technology, greater mobility, mass media) and an “escalator of reason” (people becoming more educated and thus favoring less violence). I would argue, in addition, that the continuing existence of nuclear weapons will continue to make war unlikely.

In large parts, we do observe a reduction in the amount of national resources that get wasted on wars. When the state began to centralize (e.g. Roman or Chinese empires), the foremost duty of the state was to provide their citizens with protection against predators, who could steal the crops on which people relied on. Naturally, the state bureaucrats, the king and the soldiers that were hired by the citizens came at the price of freedom. “Hired” is perhaps an unlucky terminology, because oftentimes the strongmen simply imposed themselves on society, and it was better to pay taxes to the strongest lord with the best military or else be preyed upon by an even worse lord. State spending records in Europe during the 1600s to 1900s reveal that upwards of 70% of the state expenditures were devoted to military spending (Mann 1986: 483-90). This kind of military spending was certainly a necessity in a rather Hobbesian international (dis)order. In Mann’s words, “A state that wished to survive had to increase its extractive capacity over defined territories to obtain conscripted and professional armies and navies. Those that did not were crushed on the battlefield and absorbed into others.” (ibid., 490)

Pinker and other theorists (Mueller 1989) have stated that wars and other structured forms of violence have become much rarer and more limited in scale, but an examination of European history would certainly question that premise (critique of the peace thesis is made in Cowen 2011Gray 2015). War became increasingly more violent as time went on, at least until 1945. One may think of the 30-years war, the Napoleonic wars or finally the two world wars. One war became bloodier than the next, because the Europeans developed and more more sophisticated military weaponry and technology to effectively kill more people. And once this technology became available, one diplomatic mishap was all that was needed to result in war.

We started wars as skirmishes among hunter, gatherers, who used primitive tools like stones and bare fists as weapons. The Aborigines in Australia used boomerangs to hunt for food, but also as a weapon. The Bronze Age (5000 BC) implied the first use of daggers and swords. The Chinese developed the trebuchet (primitive version of canon and artillery) in 500 BC, and later gun powder in 800AD. The Greek hoplites (infrantrymen) used spears to conquer territories. The Chinese developed the firearm around 1200, which were in widespread use after about 1500. Firearms became automatic in the 1850s (Gatling gun) after which it was no longer possible to fight open-field wars. In 1914, the British fielded their first tanks, and it was Hitler Germany in World War II, which used tanks and airplanes strategically for the Blitzkrieg, allowing him quick initial territorial conquests. The most important innovation, however, has been the nuclear bomb, which fatefully detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (New Scientist, Wikipedia “History of the firearm”).

Military technology is still developing apace. The drone started in the early-2000s and was used for limited operations by the US military, but since Obama became president entire secret wars had been waged with the drones (Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc.). War became covert and small-scale. But the many technologies of killing that we have developed ever since the end of World War II do not have the same big impact upon war-making as during the previous wars. Vigilante violence by individuals had been curbed with the rise of the central state, but what if the central state that is constantly equipped with new means of mass killing is the perpetrator of violence? Young men were conscripted to fight in wars with weapons that became increasingly deadly. And yet, Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito were the last perpetrators of large-scale war. The subsequent wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq)- mostly with US or Soviet intervention- still demanded many victims, civilian and military, but had nowhere near the scale of the world wars.

I would argue that the existence of nuclear weapons makes war on a grand scale rather unlikely. In the midst of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger (1957) published a book, where he stated that nuclear weapons had made a war among the great powers (US and USSR) unthinkable because it would result in mutually assured destruction (literally ‘MAD’). He also argued that in order for the US to maintain their predominance in the world (i.e. beat back the imperial ambitions of the USSR), the US would have to support proxy wars, such as in Vietnam or in African states, support their allies, make some territorial gains without losing to the other side.

One would think this to be rather cruel inside-the-beltway thinking (alas, Kissinger was promoted as national security adviser and secretary of state under Richard Nixon), but what he was saying was rather profound. Rather than sacrificing US soldiers on the frontlines close to home, they would now either be sacrificed overseas in some non-central frontier (i.e. Vietnam rather than say West-Berlin) or would not have to fight at all, because military aid and CIA operation handles it all. No wonder US imperialism is rather unique in its rather limited scale. That is also how high US administration officials like Samantha Power can get away with their “humanitarian” US intervention (read: war) claims in different conflict zones concerning “vital interests” to the US (no contradiction here?).

The saber-rattling, conflict orientation is still clearly evident among the great powers, but I don’t think they will result in substantial political destablization in the immediate future. Two current situations require more detailed commentary: the Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Ever since the Maidan protests in Kiev in 2014, the Ukraine has essentially been ripped away from Russian domination. A pro-Russian government was replaced by a pro-western government, where high EU and US officials were rather triumphant in celebrating the “victory of democratic forces” (i.e. pro-western). And that despite the fact that the previous president- with all his corruption and faults- was democratically elected. The Russian Bear that had long eyed NATO expansion to the former Warsaw Pact states as a threat to its national security thought that the same could happen to the Ukraine. In fact, I had met a Ukrainian diplomat, who thought that the long-term future of her country would be in the European Union and NATO. It is not very surprising that the countries with historic grievances against Russia (i.e. Poland and the Baltics) are the most adamant supporters of the westward integration of the Ukraine and request more NATO troops and equipment to counter the Russian “threat”.

With the background that Putin had long considered the Ukraine to be an essential part to Russian national security he deployed Russian soldiers covered up as East Ukrainian independence fighters into Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, and he formally annexed Crimea, which was part of the Soviet Union, as was the Ukraine. But what did Putin really want to achieve with these pieces of land? Maybe he wanted to intimidate the Kiev leadership, so that they would reduce their overtures to the West. One thing that certainly happened was that the war in the East Ukraine deterred foreign investors, which is what Ukraine desperately needs. Putin pursues a scorched earth policy in the hope that the Ukraine will return to the Russian orbit.

The EU and the US had imposed sanctions on Russia, but the EU is nowhere near as united as the US on Russia policy. Part of the reason is that the US does not trade much with Russia, while the EU has vital economic interests with Russia and EU companies would favor a quick end to sanctions. The Baltic states, Poland and the UK tend to be the most hawkish on Russia, while Austria, Italy and Germany take a more conciliatory tone and favor an ending of sanctions. So far, Putin has not been able to take advantage of these internal divisions in Europe, though he is doing all he can with his multilingual state TV station RT. I think that without US pressure, the EU-Russia sanctions would long ago have been lifted. As they continue to exist, they were designed to make Putin suspend his intervention in the Ukraine. But while the Russian ruble is sinking and the economy is stalling (also amid falling oil prices on which the Russians depend for export revenues), the Russian determination to hold onto their stake in the Ukraine has not declined.

The latest unfortunate development has been the NATO commitment to increase their troop contingent in Poland and the Baltics and reinforce informal cooperation with the Ukrainian military, which is another part of saber-rattling from the West to make the US defense contractors happy. Russia might respond to this provocation by deploying more airplanes on the Baltic border, but I don’t see this to be a strong option. NATO spends more than ten times what Russia spends on the military, and there is no comparable military ally, who would come to their aid. But western options are also limited, as no one would risk a hot war with Russia over a small strip of land in the Don bass. The crucial point here, however, is that if Russia were a small, defenseless country without nuclear weapons as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a more neocon US president would have long ago gotten rid of Putin. Big power battles in today’s world revolve around small skirmishes and proxy-wars rather than direct military confrontation.

The South China sea involves another interesting amalgamation of powers. Since Xi Jinping rose to power in the Chinese Communist Party, he has formulated a forward-looking foreign policy, declaring to enforce the 9-dash-line, which covers a broad swath of the South China Sea. The origin of this sea claim was in 1947, when the nationalist government ruling the mainland drew a map involving an 11-dash line (see history in Wikipedia “Nine Dash Line”). But back then China lacked the naval power to enforce these claims. It is only in the last twenty years or so, in which a growing economy fed the Chinese state with sufficient resources to modernize the weaponry of the military and create a modern sea fleet. In the early days of China’s economic opening, its foreign policy remained rather limited. Being factory to the world was more important than participating in foreign wars, which confirms Pinker’s postulate that commerce reduces the likelihood of war.

But as China gradually became the second-biggest economy of the world (in PPP terms, it even surpassed the US in 2014 to be the biggest economy), it was unlikely to continue a self-restrained foreign policy. It is true that China has harbored no ambitions to interfere in the foreign affairs of other countries (why would they want to meddle in the quagmire of the Middle East). It is also true that their history has made them prone to minimize interaction with foreign barbarians (i.e. everyone non-Chinese). If the British had not discovered the opium addiction of the Chinese, they would never have been able to trade with their Chinese counterparts. The British wanted their silk and tea, and the Chinese didn’t want anything from the British. How daring is that?

But what about today’s foreign policy? China has greater ambitions and wants to show that by developing military bases in the South China sea. The only trouble with that ambition is that there are other countries (Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei) that are opposed to Chinese expansion plans. All these countries have set up their own bases along the largely unpopulated Spratly islands, mainly in response to Chinese ambitions and island claims. The Philippines went as far as staking a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which sided with the Philippines in condemning the Chinese island reclamation policy in the South China Sea.

But a UN-sanctioned court stands naturally no chance against the behemoth in the room. The only power that can defend the Southeast Asian countries against Chinese land claims is the US. They have beefed up their deployments in Japan, Korea, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines (the latter kicked them out in the early-1990s only to beg them to return a few years later). Recently, Congress had lifted a weapon export ban to the former enemy Vietnam. The US also entertains military cooperation and bases in Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan), which implies a complete US encirclement of China. The “pivot to Asia” strategy, whereby the US administration shifts its focus from the Middle East to East Asia, really is about containing China. I am as skeptical about US policy in Asia as I am in Eastern Europe.

This is about saber-rattling, posturing and showing who the biggest kid on the block is. It is rather unclear what the cause and effect is: does US deployment in Asia follow China’s expansive territorial claims or does Chinese sea claims follow from US encirclement of China? A mix of both appears the most plausible. Given China’s growth trajectory and the US fighting a rearguard battle as a more slowly growing nation, the conflict potential remains substantial, but both powers possess nukes and unlike US-Russia, for US-China the economic stakes on both sides are much higher because China supplies both the goods as well as the credit to the US to keep the dollar strong and the Walmart shelves fully stacked with cheap goods (rising Chinese production prices shift that dynamic now). But as with Russia, a military confrontation is off-the-table because of Chinese and US nukes.

The relevant policy question is thus whether it makes sense to demand a nuclear-free world. I claim it makes no sense, because the possibility that rulers can kill people in other countries without impunity because we no longer have MAD will return in such a nuclear-free world. It is also not feasible to eliminate nuclear weapons, because the technology already exists, and someone will keep the plans for continuing to build it. A few rogue countries, like North Korea, want to use nuclear weapons as a tool to get more food donations from the rich countries. We are best off with allowing a few big powers to keep their nuclear weapons arsenal intact, while reducing the continued proliferation of these weapons to minimize the risk of idiots claiming control over nukes. The decline of war implies the decline of violence and a greater deal of safety for the world’s population. Prudent policy choices can keep it this way.

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