Wednesday, May 25, 2005
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Gregg Easterbrook, war, and the dangers of extrapolation
Via Oxblog's Patrick Belton, I see that Gregg Easterbrook has a cover story in The New Republic entitled "The End of War?" It has a killer opening:
Is Easterbrook right? He has a few more paragraphs on the numbers:
Easterbrook spends the rest of the essay postulating the causes of this -- the decline in great power war, the spread of democracies, the growth of economic interdependence, and even the peacekeeping capabilities of the United Nations.
Easterbrook makes a lot of good points -- most people are genuinely shocked when they are told that even in a post-9/11 climate, there has been a steady and persistent decline in wars and deaths from wars. That said, what bothers me in the piece is what Easterbrook leaves out.
First, he neglects to mention the biggest reason for why war is on the decline -- there's a global hegemon called the United States right now. Easterbrook acknowledges that "the most powerful factor must be the end of the cold war" but he doesn't understand why it's the most powerful factor. Elsewhere in the piece he talks about the growing comity among the great powers, without discussing the elephant in the room: the reason the "great powers" get along is that the United States is much, much more powerful than anyone else. If you quantify power only by relative military capabilities, the U.S. is a great power, there are maybe ten or so middle powers, and then there are a lot of mosquitoes. [If the U.S. is so powerful, why can't it subdue the Iraqi insurgency?--ed. Power is a relative measure -- the U.S. might be having difficulties, but no other country in the world would have fewer problems.]
Joshua Goldstein, who knows a thing or two about this phenomenon, made this clear in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed three years ago:
The difference in language between Goldstein and Easterbrook highlights my second problem with "The End of War?" Goldstein rightly refers to the past fifteen years as a "lull" -- a temporary reduction in war and war-related death. The flip side of U.S. hegemony being responsible for the reduction of armed conflict is what would happen if U.S. hegemony were to ever fade away. Easterbrook focuses on the trends that suggest an ever-decreasing amount of armed conflict -- and I hope he's right. But I'm enough of a realist to know that if the U.S. should find its primacy challenged by, say, a really populous non-democratic country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, all best about the utility of economic interdependence, U.N. peacekeeping, and the spread of democracy are right out the window.
UPDATE: To respond to a few thoughts posted by the commenters:
Go check out Daniel Nexon's blog for more on this -- he's an assistant professor of political science at Georgetown, and knows some things.posted by Dan on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM
There is something to be said for the number of armed conflicts prior to the end of the cold war being artificially inflated by the instigation of United States and Russian influence throughout the world. I would prefer to see data comparing the number of independant or Iraq/Kosovo style interventions as a more calibrated data set.
That said, I'm pretty optimistic about this report.posted by: Scott Nowers on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
A large part of the decline can be attributed to the rapid internationalization of societies around the world. The ruling elites have become accustomed to spending their wealth in the First world countries. This weakens their interest in continuing warfare -- Sudan is a good contra-indicator, the combatants have no means of moving and so continue the fight.
The best way to judge wars (for this purpose) is by bodycounts, not number of distinct incedences.
Since those numbers are not provided in the articles that are available publicly I can't judge them, but lets compare 1942, when there may have been only one war - that killed 15 million against 1958 - when there may have been 20 wars that killed 1 million people.
I'd choose 1942 as the worse year for war, but if I went by what I think I'm seeing above, I should think that 1958 was the worst of the two.
Does anyone really think that's the case?posted by: Jos Bleau on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
There is something to be said for the number of armed conflicts prior to the end of the cold war being artificially inflated by the instigation of United States and Russian influence throughout the world.
ObPedanticNitpick: ITYM 'Soviet' not 'Russian'.
One of the more insteresting things that a lot of people ignore is just how many of those 'revolutionary' insurgencies had ideological links back to Moscow. If the decline begain ~15 years ago, and the US is still around, while the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, what is the logical conclusion regarding which superpower was doing most of the instigating?
Nah. That can't have anything to do with it- that would mean that old, senile actor was right! Can't have that, therefore the alternative theory is "A large part of the decline can be attributed to the rapid internationalization of societies around the world."
I am not impressed.
I generally concur with Jos Bleau about bodycounts being a better measure of intensity of conflict than the # of distinct conflicts. However, considering that a significant number of post-WW2 conflicts had some relation to the cold war, the debate about if X is really a 'distinct' conflict gets kind of philosophical- a lot depends on your perspective.
ps: I'm unsure that there were 20 wars that resulted in a million casualties each in 1958- can someone more familiar with the 1950s verify that?posted by: rosignol on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
so if the US had collapsed (rather than the Soviets) the US would have to be considered the evil one since the number of wars would have similarly declined?
Dan, to me Easterbrook's argument seems to parallel Fukuyama's "The End of History". The argument that war can yield "good results" has been discredited so there is less of it [FF the argument that communism is a valid alternative to democracy has been discredited so it has disappeared]]. I'd argue this is true only for socities that have much to loose i.e. Old Europe - India?? OR those that lack the ability i.e. Pakistan?. Given enough economic/religious pressure war will break out again. It may be less intense but it could drag on for much longer and cause just as many casualties.posted by: wisedup on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
"the U.S. might be having difficulties, but no other country in the world would have fewer problems."
The larger point is that while the US may enjoy unparalled superiority in conventional military capablities :especially naval and air power, it is highly vulnerable to assymetric threats like terrorism, guerilla warfare and nuclear proliferation. That is not a suprising developement: it is precisely in response to overwhelming US conventional superiority that its enemies have developed other ways of fighting back. In a sense they have moved the goalposts of what counts as power in the 21st century and the result is that the US is a lot less powerful than it looks. That is why it has failed to defeat the Iraqi insurgency or eliminate North Korea's nukes.
As for the original discussion about wars I second the argument that it's the bodycount that matters not the number of conflicts. Any comparitive statistics on those? I suspect that the Congo confict alone has killed more people than a dozen mid-sized wars.posted by: Strategist on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Don't be silly- of course the US would be considered the evil one in such a situation. After all, the Soviets would be the ones writing the history books.posted by: rosignol on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
how sad, we are only good 'cause we won. I thought we won 'cause we were good. The Reagan comment was tongue in cheek then?posted by: wisedup on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Everything I say is at least a little tounge in cheek... but I am quite serious when I say the Soviets were notorious for editing the official version of events. I thought you knew that.
This will help bring you up to speed-
If you don't want to read the whole thing, search that page for the phrase "Historians constantly had to rewrite history books" and go from there.posted by: rosignol on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
The figures raise two obvious questions. Firstly, as others have already pointed out, the bodycount is more significant than the number of conflicts. One large war may be worse than two small ones.
Secondly, how are we defining "wars and armed conflicts"? Presumably it goes beyond all-out war, but how far beyond? There's a grey area between terrorist movements and guerrilla warfare - where is the line being drawn in this case?posted by: Paul O'Brien on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Yes - it's a stupid article. There were several such lulls during the previous great 'peace', Pax Romana - and no doubt there are other analogues. The real question, as you point out, is what happens when it inevitably falls apart? - and possibly more interesting - in which manner will that fate become accompli?posted by: Magus the Fish on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
"The inability of the military to dominate Iraqi has been extremely costly."
Oh I have no doubt at all Iraq could be "dominated" (i.e., leveled). But the Lefties might not like the way it was done.posted by: Mike on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
> f you quantify power only by relative military
Both China and Russia could challenge the US for supremacy if they desired to do so. Not without pain, but they could. Why they have currently chosen not to do so is I think an interesting question.
On the question of intensity/body counts, everyone seems to be leaving out the various African civil wars/massacres. Other than Vietnam I can't think of any other Cold War-era conflicts with as many dead.
Crankyposted by: Cranky Observer on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Mike -- as one lefty I would much prefer we double or tripled the number of ground troops in Iraq so we could actually win the war and bring the destruction to an end. The main problem with Iraq is that the administration has refused to give the military the resources it needs to win the war. Note that Kerry actually proposed expanding the size of the army.
I still have trouble understanding how all you hawks support a President that clearly thinks his tax cuts are so much more important then winning the GWOT.posted by: spencer on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
It's pretty simple- they haven't done so because they'd lose. Neither has the economy, the military, or the international prestige to pull it off.
The ties that matter at the international level are trade links, security pacts, and a significant role in the international institutions. Of the existing powers, the EU is much closer to operating at the necessary levels than Russia or China, but the EU lacks the military power to make a credible security guarantee outside of Europe, and is hamstrung by internal politics. But it does have the economy, and the role in international institutions.posted by: rosignol on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
There is another problem with this line of thought, not only is bodycount a more important indicator than the number of wars, but bodycount must be considered in the absense of war. War is a terrible thing, but not the most terrible thing. Is the world a more peaceful place when millions are purged by their own governments during 'peace'? Had the Soviets won, would the world indeed be more peaceful? Or just more bloody on a different scale?posted by: Mark Buehner on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
I think there are several easy reasons
- Democracies don't fight each other because of the waste of public purse diminishes the governments' ability to foster support. If both governments are democratic the chances of their being able to wage at the same time falls geometrically.
- The USA is one of the most if not the most benign hegemon of all time.
- The nation state is far less important than it was. The effect of Richelieau and Bismark is finally declining. Also because of democracies. Democracies are morally relative so it is difficult to develope the focus of intent.
- Democracies have to ask people to die for a cause - not tell them.posted by: exclab on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
i We won because we were good.
I don't think Reagan had any idea what he was saying when he said that.posted by: exclab on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
I can not read the article, but does he make any comparisons of today with the period of British dominance from the end of the Napoleanic wars to WW I? Economically it was an era with massive similarities to today's world. I do not have the data , but with the exception of the US Civil War I think of it as an era of exceptionally few wars. Does the article draw any lessons from that era to compare to the current environment.posted by: spencer on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
The answer, as Dan and a number of others have noted, is in between: there are long-term trends (including but not limited to U.S. hegemony) that work against war, but some of those trends (like commercial interdependence) existed in 1910, and see where that got us.
The question of where we go when the relative power of the US eventually returns to the fold depends, I suspect, on how successful we are at spreading US-style governance while we have the chance: democracy, popular accountability, the rule of law, free markets and private property. States with those features are markedly less likely to war with each other or to invade other countries out of pure ambition. The most important areas for that development, in terms of threats of symmetrical warfare, are India, Russia, China, and to a lesser extent the EU (with the EU being problematic due to the danger of backsliding into a centralized state freed of popular accountability).posted by: Crank on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
The argument that war can yield "good results" has been discredited so there is less of it
I would only this position if you accepted the Clausewitzian perspective on warfare and rational state actors, which is a position of such ideological orthodoxy I don't think it can really be applied to modern warfare.
One of the great premises (albiet one that has shown to be somewhat, if not intrinsically, flawed) of the Iraq war is that it would be good for us (i.e. Safety from WMD, democratic/developed nation less likely to produce terrorists) for Iraq (Freedom from Dictator, chance to move the country forward), and for the world (Economic opportunities in a newly developing country).
If in fact it could be shown that internationalist ventures (as the War in Iraq has, in a sense, evolved to be once WMDs were no longer viable) could yield positive results for the stability of adjacent states (adjacent being everyone if someone has a Nuclear weapon - that means you Kim), the efficiency of the world market, and the goal of universal human rights, war may not be such an outdated concept after all.posted by: Scott Nowers on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Is there no substance to the argument that there may be fewer individual global conflicts recently because a significant number of the terror-based 'mosquitos' have converged in a more cooperative effort?posted by: wishIwuz2 on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay have been covering this for years.posted by: Tom Holsinger on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
I'm not sure how one separates the respective impacts of Communism's demise and the hegemony of the United States, Communism's main adversary.
In fact, the foundation for American hegemony began to be laid when German troops crossed the Belgian frontier in 1914, igniting the first of two world wars that would destroy or enervate all but one of the United States' geopolitical rivals. But there isn't any way around the fact that Communist regimes quite deliberately promoted armed conflicts on every continent except Australia and Antarctica for decades, and now most of them are gone.
One can argue whether this fact or the dominant position of the United States is more important in reducing the number of wars (and, incidentally, if Africa is excluded both the number and destructiveness of wars worldwide is not just lower than it was, say 30 years ago but dramatically lower). I lean toward the view that it helps to have the fire brigade in a hegemonic position, but it helps more to have fewer arsonists running free.posted by: Zathras on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
"Is there no substance to the argument that there may be fewer individual global conflicts recently because a significant number of the terror-based 'mosquitos' have converged in a more cooperative effort?"
Not really, I'm afraid. If anything, these guys do most of their damage by getting involved in ongoing guerilla conflicts, such as in Chechnya and Iraq. Indeed, the order of magnitude goes the other way: the really deadly stuff for the last decade hasn't been coordinated terror attacks, but long-term intrastate conflicts.
Zatharas: good point. Current unipolarity owes as much to the collapse of the USSR as the rise of US capabilities. But think about it this way: to the extent that no one can truly challenge the US right now, no great power has an incentive to start major proxy wars to undermine US strategic interests (as the Soviets did). Similarly, the US doesn't have the kind of incentives to fund these conflicts as it did when it was locked in a geostratetic struggle with the USSR. I think this is part of Dan's point about Easterbrook missing some of the crucial mechanisms that account for a decrease in inter- and intrastate war.posted by: Dan Nexon on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Every generation has its dingbat who predicts that war is a thing of the past, usually only a few years before another major war.
Perhaps this generation's dingbat is Gregg Easterbrook.
When will TNR give us "The End of Easterbrook" and send him off to peddle his nonsense on a blog like the rest of us?posted by: Anderson on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
"Mike -- as one lefty I would much prefer we double or tripled the number of ground troops in Iraq so we could actually win the war and bring the destruction to an end. The main problem with Iraq is that the administration has refused to give the military the resources it needs to win the war. Note that Kerry actually proposed expanding the size of the army.
I still have trouble understanding how all you hawks support a President that clearly thinks his tax cuts are so much more important then winning the GWOT."
I wouldn's make that assumption if I were you.
I also don't like the massive deficit, though I think the Tax Cuts were a good idea to address the Recession. But now, they should be re-examined in my view. I for one would have also liked to have seen "war bonds" floated as a serious discussion. It would have given those of us (like apparently you as well) a way to support the GWOT.
My biggest problem with Kerry (among many) is that I don't think the CURRENT Democratic Party is serious about addressing either of the above, and I don't think Kerry's base would have EVER allowed him to increase troops in Iraq.
With regard to your comments about Easterbrook, I'd be nervous about positing long-term trends from existing data too. You rightly note that wars today tend to have less impact on civilian populations compared to World War II...
...but it isn't the first time that's happened. By any measure the Seven Years' War had less impact upon civilian populations than the Thirty Years' War, and by design. However, a half century later, the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on civilian populations--due in part to the ideological component and in part to phenomena like the levee en masse--were significantly greater compared to the Seven Years' War.
One would like to thimk that the notion of not making war on civilians is permanent, but a look at the tactics employed in asymmetric conflicts suggests otherwise. When combatants likely to use asymmetric tactics obtain weapons of mass destruction, we'll be right back in the era of Wallenstein.posted by: Ken Hall on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
Here's how I think WWIV (or the end of this "peaceful era" will come about). STAGE ONE--the speculative nature of the global marketplace will finally come back to haunt us. The real estate bubble in China or the US will pop leading to some serious economic losses throughout Asia, the US, Europe and Latin America. The co-dependent relationship between the US and China will end as one or both of the countries go into a recession (or depression). Trade barriers will go up and there will be more economic strain.
So ultimately, there may be more civil wars again as well as mini-cold wars in certain regions (East Asia comes to mind) and assymetrical warfare as some anti-globalization movements (islamic fascism for instance) challenge US/Western power through assymetrical means.
There will be a counterreaction to this era of globalization and I think that the combination of economic overstretch, energy concerns, and weak states will be the combo that does it within the next 10 years.posted by: Patrick on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
it's already been said:
Great-power conflict is something the world has not seen since the cold war. But if it were to begin, all the troubles we worry about now—terrorism, Iran, North Korea—would pale in comparison.and concludes...
In foreign policy, Washington will face two possibilities. The first is that China will push its weight around, anger its neighbors and frighten the world. In this case, there will be a natural balancing process by which Russia, Japan, India and the United States will come together to limit China's emerging power. But what if China is able to adhere to its asymmetrical strategy? What if it gradually expands its economic ties, acts calmly and moderately, and slowly enlarges its sphere of influence, hoping to wear out America's patience and endurance?
The United States will then have to respond in kind, also working quietly and carefully, also adopting a calibrated and nuanced policy for the long run. This is hardly beyond its capacity. America has been far more patient than most recognize. It pursued the containment of the Soviet Union for almost 50 years. American troops are still on the banks of the Rhine, along the DMZ in Korea and in Okinawa.
A world war is highly unlikely. Nuclear deterrence, economic interdependence, globalization all mitigate against it. But beneath this calm, there is probably going to be a soft war, a quiet competition for power and influence across the globe. America and China will be friends one day, rivals another, cooperate in one area, compete in another. Welcome to the 21st century.it's not the failed states you should be worried about, but the successful ones... posted by: videlicet on 05.25.05 at 11:49 PM [permalink]
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