Time to reflect on peace

Will historians a hundred years hence look at the end of the twentieth century much as we now look at the end of the nineteenth and say, “Unfortunately the peace and prosperity of that moment was but an interlude before the bloodiest century in mankind’s history?” Will they conclude, as Aldous Huxley did, that “Every road towards a better state of society is blocked, sooner or later, by war, by threats of war, preparations for war? That is the truth, the odious and unacceptable truth.”

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By Jonathan Power (POWER’S WORLD)

Published: Wed 24 Nov 2010, 8:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

Is it? Last weekend’s successful Nato summit with Russia in attendance showed that old tensions can be buried. The agreement to work together on missile defence and other military issues shows that both presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Mevedev understand the need to cooperate to maintain and further their peace unlike their immediate predecessors.

Nevertheless, the pessimists of our day have grist for their mill- the continuous rise of America’s defence budget; the nightmare of containing and restraining Iran and North Korea; and the war in Afghanistan which is totally bogged down with the supposed justification- the squashing of Al Qaeda which has long ago taken its headquarters to Pakistan- lost in the fog of war. Civil wars that target civilians more than soldiers are too common; and nuclear weapons are proliferating in states that don’t have the secure command and control systems of the old nuclear powers.

Despite all these ominous developments the big picture IS good, arguably far better and more inherently stable than it was in 1899. Major war, involving the most powerful industrialised states, those capable of massive destruction far and wide, is much less likely than it has ever been. Unlike in previous ages neither economic, religious or ideological forces point us or push us in the direction of war. War, pace Lenin, in the age of nuclear and high-tech weapons, is a loss-making enterprise. Communism in Europe is dead and the credo of the West, democracy, does not lend itself to wars of conversion. War, moreover, has lost most of its glamour. Honour and heroism, the old virtues for every war from the time of the Iliad to General Douglas MacArthur got, at least partly, lost in the jungles of Vietnam. Draft dodger Bill Clinton was able to defeat to Word War 2 heroes in his victories for the presidency.

The state no longer is made by war for the purpose of making war. The modern industrial state is, par excellence, an economic institution. Democracy, not so long ago an uncertain, precarious achievement, is today deeply embedded in all the most advanced economies. And democracies do not seem to go to war with each other. Elections, increasing political and economic transparency, the separation of powers, a watchdog media, the urge of young men to make money not war and, in Europe, the formation of the European Union and single currency make serious all out war a remote possibility.

But this sense of common security is confined to Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan- and, it should be added, South America which, for all its historic tendencies towards bravado, over the last two centuries is the continent that has least gone to war. And the number of Africa’s wars has dropped sharply.

In the Middle East, all the old-time ingredients of war making are present- financial greed over a scarce resource and religious fervour, combined with the new-time ingredients of modern weapons. Still, combative though many of the countries in the region tend to be, they lack the capacity to wage major war in the world war sense. Outside the Western world only China and Russia could do that.

Russia claims a sphere of influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union; China in the South China Sea. Neither, however, is in any real sense preparing for major war. Both are essentially inwardly preoccupied and neither is committed, as were their orthodox communist predecessors, to the violent overthrow of present day political, military and economic arrangements.

The practice of war, once the prerogative of the strong, instead is increasingly the tactic of the weak, argues Professor Michael Mandelbaum of John Hopkins University in his recent books. His argument is that the great chess game of international politics is finished or, at least, suspended. “A pawn is now just a pawn, not a sentry standing guard against an attack on a king”. We’ll still have our Kashmirs, Afghanistans, Iraqs and Rwandas but, he argues, over time they are becoming less numerous and the stakes for the rest of the world are lower.

That doesn’t mean that this century won’t have some bad wars. Doubtless there will still be plenty of those. But major war, involving a clash of the best armed gladiators, with convulsions on a scale that twice consumed the young men and the innocents of the twentieth century, is probably in abeyance.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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