Have We Seen the End of Major Armed Conflicts?
During my radio interview today on Jon Justice’s show, Jon asked an interesting question. “Are we in a place in history right now,” he said, “where we won’t see a conflict on a massive scale because of how developed the nations are? Any type of major event would bring so many factions into it that we almost couldn’t get out. I just can’t envision us getting into another World War-type scenario.”
It was an interesting question — and a fair one that will certainly be asked again in an era of declining defense budgets — but I had to answer with a rather emphatic no. For a bit of historical perspective, about 100 years ago prominent European liberals thought that war had become increasingly unlikely because the intertwining of European economies made warfare prohibitively expensive. This argument was made most prominently by eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Angell in his 1910 book The Great Illusion. The First World War, of course, disproved this rather optimistic assessment of the future of armed conflict. But in another way, Angell was right: World War I was prohibitively expensive, a war in which it can be said that there were no real victors.
Today, we can rather confidently predict that another major conflict would be incredibly costly to whomever takes part. Certainly the U.S. will be quite reticent to commit its forces to another major conflict anytime soon, given the astronomical costs of the Iraq war, and the massive debts that the country has occurred. I think this reticence is justified: that is one reason that I opposed from the very outset the U.S. military intervention in Libya (a foreign policy decision that increasingly appears to have had significant negative unintended consequences). But one resounding lesson of the past hundred years is that unpredictable things will happen when it comes to armed conflict.
Most recently, very few strategic thinkers envisioned an event like 9/11 in advance; and indeed, these attacks heralded the rise of violent non-state actors as a strategic challenge, even to the world’s most powerful country. As I have argued, violent non-state actors are likely to pose an increasing rather than diminishing challenge over the course of the coming decade. And the fact that violent non-state actors are a significant force provides an answer to Norman Angell’s basic argument, as it might be applied today: though major conflicts are likely to be terrible for nation-states economically, non-state actors’ interests are not tied to those of the countries in which they find themselves. They won’t be deterred by the same strategic factors that might deter nation-states. As I argued in my latest book, the economic costs of conflict can in fact work to violent non-state actors’ benefit: one of al Qaeda’s key strategic goals over the past decade was to grind the U.S. down economically, and the jihadi group was quite successful in doing so.
Moreover, even outside the sphere of non-state actors, history rarely proceeds in predictable patterns. Multiple developments could suddenly usher in large-scale armed conflict: tensions fueled by resource scarcity, the escalation of civil wars or non-state violence into full-blown state-to-state fighting, a surprise attack on the global supply of oil, the rise of expansionist ideological parties in any number of vital countries, even a miscalculated nuclear launch in South Asia or elsewhere.
The unpredictability of armed conflict is one reason that, when it comes to current debates about counter-insurgency, I’m skeptical of the idea that the singular lesson of our recent experience is that we should never again put ourselves in a position where we are fighting against an insurgency. Surely, the position that we should be extremely hesitant to do so is reasonable, worthy of discussion; so too is the position that our current military posture is not worth its costs. But, at the end of the day, is never getting involved in another counter-insurgency situation our choice alone? Or not getting involved in another large-scale armed conflict?