Preventing War: an audacious fantasy or a practical objective?

The approaching season of peace and goodwill invariably rekindles
our longing for a world in which swords are beaten into ploughshares and nation refuses to take up sword against nation. The hope may be genuine, but few of us can imagine, much less believe, that this audacious vision might actually find reality in our lifetime.

But something so surprising has happened over the past 50 years that we can now actually observe, rather than just dream about, the realization of the latter part of that vision
— the part about nation not going to war against nation.

Anyone who reads the newspapers knows there is still plenty of warfare around. World
military spending at $1.6 trillion per year[i] — a 50 percent jump over the last decade — along with announcements at home of multi-billion dollar contracts for fighter aircraft and war ships, confirm that the world is still busy beating ploughshares into swords at a ferocious pace. But in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one it has become increasingly rare for states to go to war against other states to settle conflicts between them.

Having just commemorated the ending of two extraordinary 20th Century wars in which multiple nations took up all manner of swords against each other, it may be hard to absorb the fact that of the two dozen-plus wars now active around the world, not one is an interstate war. All are all civil wars – wars within states rather than wars between states.[ii]

It is in that sense that nations are today not taking up swords against nations. This is a genuine achievement. It’s true that sustaining this phenomenon is far from guaranteed – besides the 21st Century attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the current talk about attacking Iran shows just how dangerously available the state-to-state war option remains. But that does not detract from the fact that in relationships between independent nation states, it is now the exception for two states locked in serious conflict to choose to try and settle
their dispute on the battlefield.

There are many reasons for this. The United Nations’ war prevention efforts,[iii]
international diplomacy more broadly, and peacekeeping all offer alternatives
for addressing intense conflicts. States are increasingly bound together through mutual economic, social, and cultural interests. Relations between states are increasingly governed by international law, with economic, environmental, and other areas of international regulation usually supported by elaborate dispute settlement arrangements.

It is also notably the case that advanced industrial states and even many less developed states have levels of deadly military firepower that are sufficient to lay to waste lives
and physical infrastructure to such a degree that it is impossible to conclude that there is advantage to be gained in drawing these hi-tech swords. Increasingly, states have come to the conclusion that there are no national objectives that could possibly be worth the human costs and physical destruction that would result from two highly industrialized states unleashing their destructive power against each other.

An interesting book that is getting a lot of attention these days is the major work by the American academic Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature,[iv] in which he claims that we are actually living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The book chronicles the long span of human history and traces through it a progressive decline in violence.

Well, that’s the good news. But there is still plenty of bad news to go around.

While the number of civil wars has also been declining (this year, however, the numbers will grow as the result of developments in the Middle East), and while the number of direct combat deaths in today’s wars is declining, the devastating impact of war is not in decline.

The number of people displaced from their homes and communities due to war is in fact increasing – reaching 43.7 million in 2010.[v] And when people are driven from their homes and communities, death rates increase sharply. Societies in the poorest parts of the world, where most of the fighting now occurs, have little capacity to cope with the ravages of war. It takes very few violent attacks and few combat deaths to paralyze communities, to
prevent the planting of crops, and to cause large numbers of people to flee.

The relatively low level of direct combat deaths actually reflects the nature of most contemporary wars. The objective in internal civil wars is not usually to kill as many people as possible or even to defeat an enemy, rather it is to produce the greatest
possible levels of public unease, political and social disruption, and public intimidation, with relatively low levels of direct violent engagement.

But humanity is not condemned to a world of never-ending war – just as wars between states are preventable, so too are wars within states.

Improved economic and social conditions reduce the likelihood of war. Representative and accountable government and the rule of law reduce the likelihood of war. The availability of national institutions to manage conflict and promote reconciliation reduces the likelihood of war.

The international community has made significant strides in creating diplomatic alternatives to fighting between states. The current challenge is to create the same kinds of
alternatives to fighting within states.


[i] “World military expenditure in 2010 reached $1630 billion, representing 2.6 per
cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) or $236 for each person. Spending
was 1.3 per cent higher in real terms than in 2009 and 50 per cent higher than
in 2001.” SIPRI Yearbook 2011.

[ii] The current war most familiar to Canadians began as an inter-state war when the US attacked Afghanistan, but it has now become an internal war in which the core fight is
not between Afghanistan and another state. The fight now is internal, between factions and interests – albeit with extensive international involvement on all sides. The same goes for the US attack on Iraq – which began as an interstate war, but has now morphed into civil conflict, albeit with plenty of international involvement.

[iii] The UN Security Council, for example, regularly addresses issues of war
prevention in specific cases, as well war prevention more generally as part of
its mandate to maintain international peace and security. In September of this
year the Council agreed to a Presidential Statement on issues of conflict
prevention that include early warning, preventive deployments, mediation,
peacekeeping, local disarmament, and attention to the economic, social, and
political roots of conflict. Statement by the President of the Security Council, 22 September 2011 (S/PRST/2011/18).

[iv] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking Penguin, 2011).

[v] “At the end of 2010, some 43.7 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced
due to conflict and persecution, the highest number in more than 15 years. This
included 15.4 million refugees,(2) 27.5 million IDPs(3) and more than 837,500
individuals whose asylum application had not yet been adjudicated by the end of
the reporting period. [Global Trends 2010, UNHCR.]

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