War, Militarism, and National Security

Ian Roxborough. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

War has been a scourge of humankind throughout history. In the twentieth century, well over 100 million people died as a result of war (Sivard 1996:18-19). Yet for some people, war is not first and foremost a social problem. Traditionally, rulers have seen war as an instrument of policy, a means to attain the goals of the state. As “the last argument of kings,” war has historically been a normal part of statecraft. For nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz ([1832] 1976), war was simply the continuation of politics by other means. That war caused great suffering was not to be denied, but as an inevitable element of normal international politics, war could not in unequivocal terms be described as a social problem.

In a world of sovereign states, the rulers of each state are forced to concern themselves with the security problems inherent in international anarchy. Since no state can ever be sure that it will never be attacked by hostile military forces, all states are under compulsion to maintain defense establishments sufficiently robust to deter aggression. The security dilemma is dynamic. One state’s efforts to increase its security by building up its armed forces generally prompt neighboring states to do likewise. Thus, whatever else might be a contributing factor, the risk of war is inherent in a world of sovereign states.

What Does it Mean to Say that War is a Social Problem?

The belief that war was inevitable and “natural” began to change during the Enlightenment with the development of a critique of war as a purely irrational activity. These philosophical critiques, by philosophers such as Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Kant and by political economists such as Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, however, had little impact until the transformation of European and North American society created the kind of mass public that would take a moral cause and transform it into a social movement. This was to occur with the rise of the business and commercial classes and a large stratum of professionals in the middle of the nineteenth century. A few decades later, organized labor would add its weight to emerging peace movements. War became a social problem when the expansion of the political sphere in Western Europe and the United States and the transmutation of Enlightenment critique into proposals for public policy suggested ways of abolishing or ameliorating war (Howard 2000).

The first peace society was founded in London in 1816 by a Quaker. An international peace convention met in London in 1843, and such meetings continued to be a regular feature of the European and North American scene. By 1900, there were 425 peace organizations in existence. In 1910, Andrew Carnegie established his Endowment for International Peace with a fund of $10 million to promote the study of the causes of war (Howard 1978).

However, countervailing forces were also at work in Europe and North America. As Michael Howard (1978) points out, “the wave of the ‘Peace Movement,’ which by the middle of the [nineteenth] century seemed to be gathering such irresistible momentum, was met head on by an equally strong current of bellicose nationalism” (p. 47). By the end of the nineteenth century, both Europe and the United States were bellicose, and in some ways very militaristic, societies (Gillis 1989). An inflated spirit of patriotism and xenophobia “fuelled an alarmingly intensive arms race [that] could not be laid at the door of the old aristocracy” (Howard 1978:61).

Contemporary discussions of war as a social problem derive from this European and North American intellectual heritage. The twin features of this heritage—the Enlightenment concern to limit or abolish war and the remarkable bellicosity of those societies—define the parameters of modern thinking about war.

We are accustomed to thinking of war and peace as a fairly simple dichotomy. A moment’s reflection, however, suggests that the boundary between war and peace is often fuzzy and porous. Moreover, in times of peace, preparations for war continue and have a major impact on society. To some degree or other, war is never very far away. J. David Singer (2000) has argued that all nations are somewhere along the road to war:

First, every country socializes its children to think in terms of “we” and “they”…. Second, almost every state has an army…. Third, to encourage us to salute the flag, sing the anthem, pay for the armed forces and their equipment, deliver our young people to the tender mercy of the military, tolerate a lot of secrecy, and accept lethal doses of toxicity in the air, water, and soil, we are often pushed along into a hostile frame of mind. Thus we are all moving, at different rates, down the road to war. (P. 20)

The Costs of War

Individual Costs

There is little good to say about war: over the centuries, it has brought untold death, suffering, and destruction. Death, while the most obvious and most easily measurable cost of war, is by no means the only cost. There are also wounds and disfigurement, disease, hunger, loss of property and livelihood, torture, and rape. The pain of war extends from the actual combatants to those civilians caught up in the fighting (Grimsley and Rogers 2002). Increasingly, in the twentieth century, with the emergence of “total” or unlimited warfare, civilians have borne many of the direct costs of war (Chickering and Forster 2000; Sivard 1996; Winter 1995; Winter and Siva 2000). Large numbers of people are forced to flee their homes and become refugees, often living in miserable, disease-ridden camps. The demographic consequences of war are far-reaching (Sillanpaa 2001). War can involve genocide and has done so frequently in the twentieth century. The psychological and emotional scars of war must also be counted among these direct costs (Evans and Ryan 2001; Grossman 1995; Shephard 2001).

On the other hand, war is often experienced as emancipatory and as productive of solidarity. Wars involve, at least for some and perhaps for many, meaningful and valued activity. War is the realm of heroism and self-sacrifice, both among combatants and on the “home front,” as well as the realm of great pain and suffering. It can generate feelings of intense comradeship and solidarity. And for some combatants, combat is enjoyable (Ferguson 1999; Junger 1929). For others, war is profitable, either as a means of employment or as a means of enrichment through plunder, exploitation, or through more “normal” business practices. But while some individuals or societies may stand to gain from war, on the whole, the balance sheet is markedly negative.

Collective Costs

The costs to individuals are but part of the balance sheet. There are also the economic costs to societies. This is a subject that has generated some controversy, since it has been argued that war can frequently have a decidedly positive impact on economic growth. This is true only under certain rather restrictive circumstances and assumptions. When an economy is stagnant, war production may act as a Keynesian pump-primer, stimulating an increase in economic activity.

While war might stimulate some economies, as it did for the U.S. economy during the Second World War (where the national product nearly doubled during the war), it ruins many economies and wreaks havoc with the fiscal systems of nearly all governments (Harrison 1998). The costs of war frequently result in economic dislocation, higher taxation, a rundown of assets and reserves, and inflation. The social dislocations brought on by war and its economic costs have their political effects, leading to mass mobilization, strike waves, political radicalization, and sometimes revolution (Haimson and Tilly 1989; Skocpol 1979). War can also lead to an extension of citizenship, to the rise of welfare states, and to greater social equality (Mann 1993; Skocpol 1998).

The stimulus of armed conflict sometimes accelerates technical and scientific research, often with massive long-run benefits to society. The development of medical techniques, radar, satellites, and computers are but some of the many examples that can be adduced to support a case that war has greatly accelerated technical innovation and produced widespread improvements for humankind. But war’s contribution must be measured against a counterfactual hypothesis concerning the rate and nature of technical advance in the absence of war’s stimulus. In the absence of a reliable study, it seems reasonable to conclude that the net effect of war is decidedly negative. War is destructive.

Costs of Preparing for War

Besides the costs of war itself, there are the costs of maintaining military establishments in peacetime. Prior to the twentieth century, this has been the major item in government expenditure for the vast majority of states (Mann 1986, 1988; Tilly 1990). With the rise of the complex economies and welfare states of the industrial age, expenditure on the military has come to be a smaller percentage of government budgets, but it still remains a substantial economic cost. The direct cost of military establishments in advanced industrial societies tends to be about 1 or 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The United States spends a larger share, about 3 percent, and in war-prone regions, some states (e.g., Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Eritrea) spend about 10 percent or more of GDP on their military (Stockholm International Peace Research Organization [SIPRI] 2001:283-88).

To confine the discussion to deaths incurred and to the purely economic costs of war, however, would be a mistake. War ruins lives in other ways. War can traumatize entire societies. Collective loss and the grief that accompanies it are both individual and collective (Bourne, Liddle, and Whitehead 2000; Lary and MacKinnon 2001; Mosse 1990; Winter 1995).


Societies organized for war and societies that live in fear or anticipation of war experience effects that must surely be included in the notion of war as a social problem. President Eisenhower expressed concerns that a military-industrial complex was distorting the process of American politics. The cold war had a wide variety of pernicious effects on American society. The confrontation with the Soviet Union produced a widespread, if at times subdued, hysteria that found expression in many ways and pervaded the culture (Boyer 1994; Fried 1990, 1998; May 1988; Whitfield 1991). Red scares and McCarthyite witch-hunts were but the most visible aspects of a general anxiety and conformism that marked American society in the early decades of the cold war. C. Wright Mills (1956) argued that a “power elite” composed of tightly interlocking groups of businessmen, military officers, and the officers of highly centralized states had come to power in the United States. Harold Lasswell (1941) expressed concerns about the possibility of a global trend toward a “garrison state.”

Although a garrison state did not develop in the United States during the cold war (Friedberg 2000), Michael Sherry (1995) has argued that Americans have lived in the shadow of war since the 1930s and that the menace of war has come to pervade everyday language and thought:

War defined much of the American imagination, as the fear of war penetrated it and the achievements of war anchored it, to the point that Americans routinely declared “war” on all sorts of things that did not involve physical combat at all. This militarization shaped every realm of American life … making America a profoundly different nation. (P. x)

Not least, the experience of total war in the first half of the twentieth century led to a moral numbness of Western societies as the bombing of cities from the air reaped a growing harvest of death among enemy civilians (Crane 1993; Sherry 1995).

Militarism, as the term has come to be understood, is largely a state of mind (Vagts 1937). It is not to be equated with the existence of armed forces. Nor is it identical to military intervention in politics. Rather, it is a disposition on the part of a society (or at least large and influential segments of it) to glorify or celebrate martial deeds and martial values. Its most obvious manifestations at the beginning of the twentieth century were the jingoist and patriotic movements that supported arms races and war (Mann 1987). Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the Spanish-American war of 1898 as “a splendid little war” and the crowds that cheered the soldiers on their way to war in Europe in 1914 were both expressions of militarism. Militarism as an attitude of mind was fostered with the creation at the end of the nineteenth century of a wide range of societies aimed at lobbying on behalf of increased military spending, of training youth for war (the Boy Scouts being one notable example), and veterans’ associations (Boemke, Chickering, and Forster 1999). This militarism and its sustaining organizational structure continue today.

Abolishing War and Causes of War

The root question, of course, is: What causes war? For those concerned with abolishing war, or at least reducing its incidence and severity, the question of the causes of war is a pressing one. There has been much debate and some research on this issue (for recent representative work, see Brown, Cote, and Lynn-Jones 1998; Kagan 1995; Levy 2001; Midlarsky 1989, 2000; Rotberg and Rabb 1988; Vasquez 2000). We now can make more precise statements about the causes of war than we could a century or so ago; but there is no simple, universal answer to the question. Most scholars now accept that any adequate theory of war causation is likely to be multicausal and that no single theory is likely to explain well all cases (Levy 2001). The bottom line is simply that wars happen, in part at least, because some decision makers believe, correctly or incorrectly, that they have something to gain by going to war.

Economic Causes

Since the time of the physiocrats and economic Liberals such as Adam Smith, it has been argued that countries that trade extensively with each other or invest heavily in each other’s economies are unlikely to go to war. This was the core of the arguments put forward at the beginning of the twentieth century by Jean Bloch (1899) and Norman Angell (1911) (see also Gallie 1978; Miller 1986). It has been revived by some theorists of globalization (Brooks 1999). The evidence for this is far from conclusive. Economic interdependence of economies has not generally prevented politicians from initiating war. Indeed, on occasion, economic ties have precipitated war (as in the Japanese decision to attack the United States in 1941; Barnhart 1987). The empirical evidence available to date gives mixed support to the notion that the route to a reduced incidence of war runs through increasing economic linkages (Bremer 2000; Copeland 1996).

For these Liberal thinkers, it was not that war was impossible; it simply wasn’t rational because it didn’t pay (Angell 1911). The evidence on this, however, fails to consistently support the argument. Even in the twentieth century, invading states have been able to extract enough economic resources to make conquest pay (Kapstein 1992; Liberman 1996).

The argument of thinkers such as Bloch and Angell that the irrationality of modern war would produce its obsolescence was given additional support by the impact of the new industrial technologies, particularly the machine-gun, which had made war immensely costly and would produce a stalemate on the battlefield. The Maxim gun, invented in 1884 and rapidly adopted by European armies, was the first fully automatic infantry weapon and heralded a new age in warfare (Echevarria 2000; Ellis 1975). It was argued that it would be so costly to attack an enemy armed with machine-guns that the opposing sides would lapse into what were, in effect, protracted siege operations. War would be lengthy and would require the mobilization of entire economies and societies. Such an effort would produce widespread hunger and misery and lead to the collapse of governments. War would therefore be impossible.

For their part, the Marxists had a similar analysis, merely substituting the terms of a class analysis of modern society. Although European Marxists such as Lenin and Kautsky believed that capitalist imperialism would lead to war, they believed that the transnational interests of workers as a class would prove to be more important than their identification as citizens of nation-states (Mann 1993). Marxists held it as axiomatic that workers would simply refuse to fight wars initiated by their class enemies. (Marxist thinkers in colonial and underdeveloped areas, such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, N. M. Roy, and others, were to develop rather different theories of war. For them, war was necessary for national liberation and had an entirely different meaning than it did for citizens of the imperialist core.) Unlike the Liberals, European Marxists saw certain features of modern society—the immediate interests of armaments manufacturers, the push to expand markets leading to imperialism, and the limited democratization of late-nineteenth-century societies—as factors leading to war. But the working classes of all countries would simply put a stop to war by refusing to fight, and their parliamentary representatives would refuse to support the increased taxation that would be necessary to fuel the war machine.


Both Liberals and Marxists were wrong in their belief that war was obsolete. When war did come in 1914, workers flocked to the colors, eager to play their role as citizens. The nation-state trumped transnational class solidarity (Mann 1993). Nationalism proved a much more potent force than either Liberals or Marxists had imagined. As the fighting dragged on, the First World War introduced total war to the modern world. Bloch’s (1899) prophecies proved all too true. Hunger, disease, and misery did, indeed, stalk the world. Entire political systems were broken on the rack of prolonged, industrially based total war. The Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed. Soviet Communism triumphed in Russia, and revolutionary movements and strike waves swept Europe. The Liberals were right in this: war in the modern world would revolutionize entire societies, bringing turmoil, political upheaval, and massive social dislocation in its wake (Kolko 1994).

What many Liberal and Marxist thinkers had underestimated was the impact of mass nationalism on war. Nationalism both increased the disposition of citizens to fight for their country, thereby increasing the likelihood of war, and, by enabling states to field larger armed forces, contributed to a quantum leap in the lethality and destructiveness of war. When allied to the technology of mature industrialism, the passions of mass politics would produce the total wars of the twentieth century.

The phenomenon was complex. Along with mass nationalism, there was, at the conclusion of the “war to end war,” a widespread revulsion against war and an upsurge of pacifistic sentiment. Most notoriously, in the Oxford Union debate of February 1933, a majority voted to refuse under any circumstances to fight for king and country. (Six years later, most of them went to war.)

Torn between differing stances, mass publics are neither inherently militaristic nor inherently pacifistic. Depending on the circumstances, mass publics in the twentieth century have ranged from outbursts of emotional patriotism and militarism to widespread revulsion against war, to a dogged determination to “see it through” and endure to the end (Levy 2001; Reiter and Stam 2002).

Ideology, Religion, and Values

If Enlightenment philosophy suggested that the only intelligible causes of interstate conflict were material ones and that these could best be solved through trade rather than war, then it followed that a prime cause of war must lie in the complex of irrational emotions that led to mass hatred, contempt, or misunderstanding. As with nationalism, Liberal (and Marxist) thought had an impoverished understanding of these “unenlightened” belief systems.

The solution to the passions produced by religious and ideological discord would be long-term: rational schooling and the subordination of the passions to the intellect. Tolerance of diversity and a concern for proper, civilized pursuits would ensue. That Christianity was a gospel of peace was taken as axiomatic. This largely Victorian image has recently been given prominence in two variants: the revelation at the end of the cold war of a substratum of primordial “ethnic conflict” and an enduring “clash of civilizations.”

The notion that the world is divided into a small number of discrete “civilizations” characterized by divergent value systems is a plausible notion but one that is difficult to test. In its recent formulation by Samuel Huntington (1996), there is some ambiguity as to what constitutes a civilizational value system. What is lacking is an empirical study of the values actually held by the majority of citizens in a region. Furthermore, it is by no means self-evident that people are actuated by coherent value systems, rather than responding to specific situations by drawing on a toolbox of often contradictory guides to conduct.

Even if the empirical problem of defining the value system were resolved, it would still remain to be shown that such presumed differences of fundamental values were the causes of wars. There can be little doubt that during wars (and during prolonged periods of hostility), negative stereotypes about “the other” are usually developed and often are deeply racist in nature (Dower 1986). Such stereotypes may make the fighting more brutal than it might otherwise have been (Cameron 1994; but cf. also Bergerud 1996 for a contrary view), but to argue that the value differences themselves constitute more than an exacerbating factor in the road to war seems implausible. Cultural differences may make misperception of adversary intentions more likely (May 1973) and so contribute to the likelihood of war, but are in themselves seldom a primary cause of war. (The important exception here are wars of racial conquest, such as the Nazi attempt to subjugate the “inferior” peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia and other genocides in the twentieth century; Bartov and Mack 2001; Naimark 2001).

The end of the cold war witnessed what many commentators (e.g., Kaplan 2002; Peters 1999) described as an upsurge of “ethnic” conflict. With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the removal of the restraints of great power rivalry, long-held and deeply rooted ethnic conflicts resurfaced. They had been merely suppressed for a half century. This analysis, too, like that of a clash of fundamental values, while immensely popular, is by no means unproblematic as an explanation of war (for a general critique, see Brown 2001; Gurr 2000).

Ethnic conflict stems from the identification of the warring parties with supposed communities of inheritance, whether on racial, religious, or other grounds. However, some social scientists (Kakar 1996; Kaufman 2001; Sadowski 1998) argue that ethnic identities and grievances are created, or at least made salient, by contemporary politicians with quite different, nonethnic agendas. War is, after all, a complicated business, and it would be surprising if a single dimension such as ethnicity would adequately explain the diverse motives and issues involved. Whatever the evidence in any particular case about the degree to which the central dimensions of a conflict are deliberately and recently manufactured as “ethnic,” such conflicts were widely noted in the early 1990s. Beginning in 1991, the former Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed into a series of warring states. Hundreds of thousands were killed, displaced, tortured, and raped. In Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus resulted in over a million deaths. (See the chapter on “genocide” in this volume.) There is, however, a need for caution in extrapolating from this sudden burst of supposedly “ethnic” conflict into the foreseeable future (Gurr 2000). Frequently, as important as the tensions between ethnic groups was the failure of states to maintain elementary levels of security for their populations. Research on the causes of “state failure” and on what can be done to reverse such trends is still at an embryonic stage (Crocker, Hampson, and Aall 2001; von Hippel 2000; Hirsch and Oakley 1995; Stevenson 1995).

The Security Dilemma, Arms Races, Miscalculations, and Misperceptions

As noted in the introduction to this chapter, in a world of international anarchy, all states face a security problem. This alone is a sufficient explanation of the occurrence of war (Mearsheimer 2001). But there are specific conditions under which the security problem is more or less likely to produce war.

Sometimes the security dilemma triggers arms races that become destabilizing and lead to war, as happened with the outbreak of World War I. The naval rivalry between Britain and Germany, the fears of the German general staff that a modernizing Russia might soon overmatch a smaller Germany, and the belief that the side that got in the first blow would stand a better chance of winning the war all produced an increasingly volatile powder keg in Europe from the 1890s on. Seizing on a relatively trivial incident (the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo), the German general staff launched a preemptive war against Russia. The European alliance systems rapidly drew in all the great powers, resulting in general war (Hammond 1993; Kennedy 1980; Miller, Lynn-Jones, and Van Evera 1991). Statistical analysis suggests some mild support for the proposition that arms races do increase the probability of war (Sample 2000).

Pondering the experience of the First World War, some thinkers drew the conclusion, in the 1920s and 1930s, that the risk of war might be reduced by controlling arms races. The most notable efforts were the treaties limiting naval construction in the 1920s and 1930s. While they did not prevent war from coming in 1939, they had some utility in bringing some stability to a volatile international situation (Goldman 1994). Similarly, in the later stages of the cold war (and thereafter), the nuclear forces held by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet Union (and now Russia) were closely monitored and held to mutually agreed levels. That these levels were more than enough to destroy all life on earth several times over does not mean that the nuclear arms limitations treaties were of no consequence.

Given the security problem, it is not just arms races that can trigger war. Governments may miscalculate the balance of military power, they may miscalculate the likely response of adversaries, and they may misperceive many aspects of the security environment (Jervis 1976).

States do not always behave as rational, unitary actors. Sometimes the rulers of states act on a nonrational or irrational basis. Governmental decision making is a complex game involving all sorts of coalitions and subordinate actors with goals, interests, and perceptions of their own (Allison and Zelikow 1999; Halperin 1974; Kupchan 1994; Snyder 1991). Agendas from domestic politics are often mixed in with calculations about the security situation. Even when rulers use rational cost-benefit calculations, given the limitations of intelligence about enemy intentions and capabilities, these calculations may be fatally flawed (May 1986, 2000; Murray and Millett 1992; Snyder 1984). Finally, the cognitive belief systems of decision makers must be taken into account in any explanation of decisions for war. The use of analogic reasoning often precludes an examination of mistaken assumptions (Burke and Greenstein 1989; Khong 1992; May 1973; Record 2002; Vertzberger 1990, 1998).

World Systems, Long Cycles, and Hegemony

In a world where some powers are militarily more capable than others and where economic, technical, and military capabilities of states grow unevenly, there will be dynamics in the global system that affect the intensity and frequency of war. Periods when there is a well-established hegemony are likely to be periods of relative peace. As a state begins to lose its hegemony and challengers arise, the global system is likely to collapse into a new round of extensive warfare (Doran 2000; Kugler and Organski 1989; Mearsheimer 2001; Modelski and Thompson 1989; Rasler and Thompson 2000; Thompson 1988).

These dynamics can be traced back at least to the formation of the modern European world system in the sixteenth century (Kennedy 1988). The entire nineteenth century was the century of British global dominance. But by the late nineteenth century, both Germany and the United States had begun to overtake Great Britain as economic powers. The German bid for global hegemony resulted in the two world wars of the first half of the twentieth century and was soundly defeated. The aspirations of the United States toward global dominance were ultimately more successful, though driven by complex and contradictory internal pressures (Iriye 1993; LaFeber 1963; Zimmerman 2002).

American intervention in the European war of 1914 to 1918 was followed by a period of isolation in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet America, as one of the most powerful nations on earth, could hardly remain aloof from the storm clouds gathering in Europe and the Far East, despite large domestic constituencies seeking to avoid entanglements in overseas quarrels. Once committed to world war for a second time, the United States assumed a global stance commensurate with its economic power. The rivalry with the Soviet Union that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War cemented American globalism. By midcentury, the United States was hegemonic in the “free world.” The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union then left the United States as the sole superpower (Bacevich 2002; Ikenberry 2002; Kupchan 2002).

In recent years, as American predominance has moved into a new phase, commentators (Held et al. 1999; Kugler and Frost 2001; Roxborough 2002) have pondered the implications of “globalization” for world peace. They tend generally to see two countervailing tendencies: on one hand, the increasing integration of the world through open markets and the Internet is seen as promoting peace, much as Liberal thinkers in the nineteenth century had hoped that international trade and improved communications would abolish war. On the other hand, a “backlash” is anticipated from peoples and states that either reject, or are unable to take advantage of, the most recent phase of globalization. Most analysts see both trends occurring simultaneously (Friedman 1999; Kugler 2001; Johnson 2000). Rejection takes many forms, from a dislike of fast food to a concern that the entire moral order of a society is under threat from the “Great Satan” (for a critique, see Sadowski 1998).

Some writers (such as Barber 1995) believe that the new axis of global conflict will be a contest between the “West,” or “McWorld,” and a rejectionist jihad, frequently equated with radical Islam. The sting in the tail of globalization is thus held to be the possibility of conflict between the core and parts of the third world. In the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, in 2001, President Bush and his advisers began to talk of a “global war on terrorism,” which they thought would last a very long time. In addition to military incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, American troops were deployed to several countries to help hunt down terrorists. Whether further “regime change” in the name of the war on terrorism would be pursued was an open question. Quite how this new war will evolve remains, at the time of writing, still to be seen.

Democracy and War

Democracies almost never go to war against each other. They may be attacked (or they may attack) nondemocracies, but seldom do democracies initiate war between themselves (Brown, Lynn-Jones, and Miller 1996; Weart 1998). While this finding is quite robust (Levy 2001), it is based on a limited database. After all, depending on the definition, democracies have not been around for very long. It is risky to extrapolate a finding based on a relatively short historical time period into the indefinite future.

Why democracies do not go to war with each other remains, still, largely a matter for speculation. Is it because the electorate is reluctant to pay the cost in lives and material damage that war involves? Or perhaps the open debate in democracies reduces the possibility of miscalculation on the part of decision makers. Or is it that democratic electorates tend to hold more pacifistic values and worldviews because they are accustomed to resolving differences by negotiation? Whatever the causal mechanism involved, the finding that democracies generally don’t fight other democracies has a clear policy implication: to reduce the incidence of war in the modern world, democracy should be extended and solidified.

International Norms and Regulations

There has gradually developed a series of norms, conventions, and laws that regulate the behavior of states. There are a large number of international treaties to which most states have subscribed. With the establishment in 1919 of the League of Nations and then in 1945 of the United Nations (UN), institutions for managing international conflict were created. Of course, if a particular state decides to ignore such conventions, it may do so. Nevertheless, to the extent that most states voluntarily abide by international law and convention and to the degree that this proves enduring, those laws, conventions, and norms become more solidly established and have greater power.

The original advocate of global institutions was Immanuel Kant (1795), who believed that an international order conducive to permanent peace could be initiated only when

[c]ertain governments freely abjured their right to make war on each other; and it would expand only as other governments, observing the benefits…which accrued from this initiative sought membership within the bond of mutual non-aggression. (Gallie 1978:20)

He argued that a condition of peace was that

[t]he individual’s rights [would] come to transcend the boundaries of his own nation, being secured—and of course also limited—not by any supernational authority, but by the mutual recognition, among the confederate states, of their rights and duties vis-à-vis each other’s nationals. (Gallie 1978:27)

Kant’s solution required widespread democracy and a normative underpinning on the part of the citizenry. This was only to become (partially) the case in the second half of the twentieth century.

The central problem with treaties between states is that there is no enforcement mechanism. As Thomas Hobbes ([1651] 1958) said, “Covenants without the sword are but words” (p. 139). It was partly the search for an enforcement mechanism that led to the creation of the League of Nations in 1919. The central idea was that collective security would be maintained by the collective punishment of transgressors. Eventually, the system foundered as a result of free riding on the part of individual states. Judging that their specific security concerns were best served by turning a blind eye to aggression in some particular instance, individual states failed to act together with others in a true concert of nations.

The establishment of the UN in 1945 was more successful. Always limited, of course, by the realities of great power politics, the UN has nevertheless served as a force for peace in a variety of ways (Doyle 2001; Held et al. 1999; Koivusalo 2002; Martin and Simmons 1998; Ruggie 1996). It has been the arena through which a series of conventions limiting the use of certain kinds of armaments (weapons of mass destruction, land mines) have been created. It has also served as a vehicle for legitimating military intervention to respond to aggression or in the form of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. By the end of the twentieth century, it had become an established norm that states intending to wage war needed the sanction of the UN to legitimate their actions. Although the UN was seriously underfunded, controlled no military forces of its own, and could be disregarded when states wished, it nevertheless played an important role in creating a body of international law and conventions.

Humanizing the Conduct of War

Besides efforts to abolish or contain war, efforts have been made to humanize the conduct of war (Best 1980). War has always been fought within a normative (that is, cultural) framework. But the inherent escalatory dynamics of war, together with the fact that wars are often fought between culturally dissimilar opponents with different notions about the rules of war, make mutually agreed normative understandings fragile.

At times, perhaps distressingly frequently, war degenerates into a struggle with no restraints on conduct, where all actions, no matter how repulsive, are condoned. But war is always waged by men who have culturally defined notions of what war is and what purposes are to be sought in war. Nearly always, this means the acceptance of some ethical constraints on conduct in war. That such ethical norms are at times more honored in the breach than in the observance does not mean that they have no efficacy. The treatment of prisoners of war, for example, indicates widely held and generally observed moral codes of conduct. Of course, some military organizations (the Japanese in the Second World War, for example) have treated prisoners of war more harshly than international norms dictate. These variations, however, do not alter the fundamental point that normative constraints generally operate in war.

Those who have sought to ameliorate the social problem of war by controlling its conduct have attempted to establish internationally agreed codes of conduct. The first such attempt was the 1864 “Red Cross” convention in Geneva, concerned mainly with the “amelioration of the condition of the wounded on the field of battle.” Conferences at the Hague in 1899 and 1907 established what are now the basic rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, the wounded, and civilians. They also outlawed the use of poison gas and dumdum bullets. Subsequent conventions at Geneva in 1928, 1929, and 1949 further specified these issues, and in 1975, biological weapons were added to the prohibited list.

Rules pertaining to the nonuse of certain classes of weapons have had mixed results. From time to time, the appearance of new weapons, such as poison gas, land mines, submarines, and aircraft, has prompted calls for conventions preventing their use in war. While it is clear that some states have simply ignored such prohibitions and that certain classes of weapons (aircraft and submarines, for example) were so desirable that no state could refrain from using them, it is nevertheless the case that a majority of states have generally abided by the Geneva conventions. While the trend toward the increasing destructiveness of war seems unstoppable, efforts to regulate the conduct of war have met with at least partial success (Best 1980).

Value Change

It is sometimes said that war starts as an idea in the minds of men. This is undoubtedly true in many senses. The language and metaphors of war form part of our everyday discourse. Boys play with war toys. War movies continue to be a popular form of entertainment. Some right-wing groups style themselves militias and arm themselves for what they see as a coming war. Tens of thousands spend much of their leisure time reenacting the Civil War. Certainly, nationalism, patriotism, and “team spirit” are all essential if a modern state is to mobilize its population for war; they are part of the problem of war. Such attitudes are widespread in the populations of modern democracies. Certainly, modern culture celebrates violence in many ways. Yet there are countervailing tendencies.

Some contemporary social scientists (Mueller 1989; Shaw 1991) see an emergence of postmilitary societies and the obsolescence of major war. They see a diffusion of global values (most notably, respect for human rights) as operating to reduce the likelihood of major war, at least among the countries of the industrial core (Held et al. 1999; Shaw 1991). Nineteenth-century Liberal thought was simply ahead of its time; only now are we beginning to see the widespread diffusion of antimilitaristic values.

To explain this, political scientist John Mueller (1989) has used the analogy of dueling. Dueling, he argues, was a way of resolving conflicts about honor that gradually fell out of use. Eventually, it became inconceivable as a way to solve disputes. In much the same way, Mueller argues, war is becoming—at least in the countries of the democratic core—an increasingly unthinkable, and hence obsolete, way of resolving disputes. War will not be abolished; it will fade away.

Unfortunately, even the most parochial citizens of the core can take but little comfort in this. Quite apart from the moral issues attendant on being a spectator to armed conflict in the rest of the world, the pacification of the states of the democratic core will not prevent them from becoming involved militarily with states elsewhere in the world.

Currently, many advocates of world peace hope that social movements and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will provide the basis for the spread of values conducive to peace and for protest and opposition to war making. The evidence suggests that on particular issues, such as the banning of land mines, concerted efforts by NGOs seem to have paid off (Maddocks 2002). However, in the absence of specific issues, the impact of these social movements and NGOs is likely to be diffuse and hard to measure.

An objective evaluation of the spread and influence of antiwar values is difficult. There is no denying the growth of popular antiwar sentiment. On the other hand, this has proven both episodic and ineffectual in the past, and the metaphors and phrases of war remain deeply entrenched in modern culture.

There are links between the arguments about democracy, international regimes for mediating conflict, and the spread of pacifistic values. For democracy to produce peace, it is necessary that the citizens of democracies evaluate the costs of war as excessively high. In part, this depends on the valuation of human life, primarily among the citizens of the country concerned, though there may also be some concern for the lives of citizens in adversary societies (Mueller 1994).

Nuclear Armageddon and Contemporary Peace Movements

The nature of war changed fundamentally with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. Within a few years, humanity had acquired the technical capability to destroy civilization, and perhaps human life as such, in a truly apocalyptic scenario. For 40 years, humankind stood poised on the brink of a war, the destructiveness of which beggared the imagination.

Since the end of the cold war, the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation appears to have receded. The hair-trigger standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union has been ratcheted down, and nuclear stockpiles have been reduced in size and alert status. However, the United States and Russia each retain very considerable nuclear forces on active status. Moreover, Great Britain, France, Israel, China, India, and Pakistan all now have nuclear capabilities, though in greatly varying degrees of sophistication. Other nations may well acquire nuclear capabilities in the not-toodistant future (Lewis and Johnson 1995; Paul et al. 2000; Utgoff 2000).

There remains also, of course, the danger of accidental nuclear war (Blair 1993; Sagan 1993). And since the end of the cold war, there has emerged the new problem of “loose nukes,” the danger of nuclear weapons or dirty bombs getting into the hands of a variety of state and nonstate actors (Ford and Schuller 1997).

To the proliferation of nuclear weapons, one must now add the proliferation of the means of waging chemical and biological attack and the increasing proliferation of sophisticated weapons systems such as cruise and ballistic missiles (Falkenrath, Newman, and Thayer 1998; Johnson 1997; Lavoy, Sagan, and Wirtz 2000; Roberts 2000; Tucker 2000). How likely the use of such weapons of mass destruction is cannot be accurately gauged. It does seem plausible, however, that the general shift from mutual deterrence on the part of two responsible and identifiable state actors to a situation with multiple actors, some of which are neither responsible nor identifiable, is fraught with great peril. Insofar as deterrence worked during much of the cold war, it may well become less reliable in coming decades.

War has not been abolished, and this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Some of the proposals for the abolition of war rest on slender empirical evidence. The widely held notion that increasing economic ties reduces the risk of war, for example, has only mixed support (Levy 2001). Some other avenues for policy seem much more promising. It seems fair to say that the most promising ways to promote peace involve the spread and consolidation of democracy throughout the world, the global diffusion of pacifistic values, and a continuing search for more effective international mechanisms for preventing crisis escalation. If we see progress on these dimensions, then perhaps war will disappear from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, as long as some states believe that war is an effective instrument of policy, war will remain with us.

Contemporary Trends in War

The central dynamics of war in the recent period have been (1) the increasing destructiveness of war; (2) the pacification of the democratic core; (3) the migration of war to the third world; (4) the rising importance of irregular warfare, in the form of people’s war, struggles for national liberation, terrorism, and low-intensity conflict; and (5) the emergence of the United States as the key hegemonic power.

Increasing Destructiveness of War

With the rise of industrial society and the application of science to war, war has become more destructive, both in actuality and, perhaps more significantly, in potential. More and more civilians are victims of war, and entire societies have been set on a war footing or have become militarized. War has become the business of whole populations and not simply of the soldiers engaged in the actual fighting.

The first half of the century was marked by two world wars, which, directly or indirectly, dragged most of the world into their orbit and caused untold suffering, mocking Liberal expectations that material progress and civilization would usher in a peaceful world. Since 1945, there has been no equivalent global conflict, but with the development of atomic weapons, humanity has had to confront the possibility of destruction on a scale sufficient to destroy civilization.

Whether these trends in the frequency and intensity of war can be extrapolated in a linear manner into the future must be a matter of debate. A long historical optic suggests that there is little linearity in trends in the destructiveness of war. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) spread mass violence throughout European society. In those parts of Germany where the Thirty Years War was most intense, the population declined by perhaps onethird. For much of the Middle Ages, many regions in Europe were prey to armed mobs, often of demobilized warriors, and the predatory activities of feudal lords. Yet there were also periods of more or less prolonged peace.

Pacification of the Democratic Core

While war has become more destructive, there are trends in the countries of the democratic core toward demilitarization. During the second half of the twentieth century, war, at least between European states, was for many people simply unthinkable (Kagan 2003; Mueller 1989). There was a tendency to believe that this meant an increasingly peaceful world. This was an illusion. The threat of nuclear annihilation remained ever present, even if its appearance in the public consciousness in the form of protest movements remained episodic. Wars within the third world and wars between the democratic core and the rest of the world showed little sign of abating.

War Moves to the Third World

The geographical locus of war has shifted in the period since the Second World War. For much of the modern period, the global dynamics of war were set primarily by the Europeans (and partly by their North American offspring).

By the middle of the twentieth century, European warfare had become globalized. While the aftermath of the Second World War saw a half century of peace in Europe, that war’s vast disruptions spurred national liberation and revolutionary movements throughout much of Asia and imparted a new dynamic: that of people’s war (Kolko 1994). Asia, the Middle East, and to some extent parts of Africa now became the geographical loci of war.

During the cold war, much of the actual conflict between the superpowers occurred in the periphery, in places such as Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, and Central America. These were sometimes proxy wars, though large numbers of American, Chinese, and Soviet troops also became casualties. There were also many wars fought in the periphery that had little or nothing to do with cold war issues, and this continues to be the case today. While wars in the third world seldom attract much attention in the Western media—at least as long as Western powers are not directly involved—they have been, and continue to be, the proximate cause of widespread suffering, political instability, and poor economic performance.

There are many causes of war in the third world (Harkavy and Neuman 2001; Neuman and Harkavy 1987), and we need to make some distinctions. First, there are a number of middle-range powers, such as China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, and North and South Korea. These typically have large military forces, are capable of fighting conventional wars (and have done so in the last half century), and some of them are armed with nuclear weapons, missiles, and chemical and biological weapons. The zones where they are clustered are potential zones of interstate warfare. Some of these states, notably China and India, are of a size such that they can seriously entertain aspirations of regional hegemony. In those cases where the United States, Russia, and Europe (and in some cases, China) feel that they have security interests involved, international conflict in these war-prone regions always entails a risk that the conflict will be globalized.

War involving these middle-range powers will occur for much the same sorts of reasons that war has broken out between European nations in the last several centuries. Conflicts over scarce resources (Homer-Dixon 1998; Klare 2001), tensions arising from economic interdependence, and straightforward security tensions and miscalculations will all, no doubt, contribute to the emergence of more wars.

There is a second group of third world states where armed conflict is also likely. These are fragile or collapsed states. In parts of Africa and Central Asia, the extent of effective state control over territory varies enormously. State collapse is neither inevitable nor irreversible, but it is currently endemic. When states lose control of their territory, power is effectively devolved, leading to the emergence of warlords and armed predatory bands. The attendant evils of economic destruction, disease, rape, child soldiers, and a culture of endemic violence follow as a matter of course.

Guerrilla and Irregular War

In the third world, the boundaries between war, banditry and piracy, economic entrepreneurialism, crime, and revolutionary guerrilla struggle will often be opaque, shifting, and amorphous. Control over internationally traded commodities—minerals, particularly diamonds, and drugs—finance these war efforts and indeed provide much of the stimulus for war in the first place. War becomes little more than a protection racket on a large scale (Tilly 1985). Mercenary armies will intermingle with local militias, religious fanatics, bandits, and warlords (Silverstein 2000). At times, these conflicts will be fused with ethnic, religious, or nationalist struggles aimed at creating new nation-states or at a revolutionary transformation of society (Beckett 2001; Moran 2001). Nationalist impulses are powerful, particularly among peoples without states, such as the Palestinians and Kurds, and among ethnic groups that aspire to nationhood.

The solution to the endemic nature of irregular armed conflict in these weak states is painfully obvious—more effective government and better economic performance—but the magnitude of the task is daunting. Here, indeed, is a social problem of immense proportions.

There are zones of peace in the third world. Some countries have been blissfully free from massive violence, whether in the form of conventional interstate war or in the form of domestic insurgency and civil war. Indeed some, Costa Rica for example, have managed to survive without an army of any appreciable size. What little research there is on how such zones of peace are created suggests that it is the relative weakness of the military that is responsible (Centeno 2002).

In September 2001, with the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the kind of lowintensity, “dirty war” characteristic of the third world came to the United States. The attack focused the attention of Western publics on the issue of terrorism. Of course, terrorism has a long history (Laquer 1999). It was a matter of intense concern to political elites at the end of the nineteenth century. Assassinations of political leaders by nationalists and revolutionaries were a regular occurrence. In one form or another, terrorism has persisted throughout the twentieth century. Sometimes described (like guerrilla warfare) as the “weapon of the weak,” it has been employed in a range of nationalist, ethnic, and religious struggles and also as a tool of personal and criminal vendettas. By the 1990s, analysts were beginning to be concerned about the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists (Cameron 1999; Hoffman 1998; Lesser et al. 1999; Stern 1999).

The intent of terrorists has usually been coercive. They have aimed to raise the costs to their adversaries and persuade them to change policy. Unaccustomed to the irregular warfare of the third world, Western societies have been torn between treating terrorism as crime and accepting the view of the terrorists themselves that they are engaged in a war.

In the West, we are accustomed to thinking of war as a contest between regularly constituted armed forces. This is a historically relatively new form of armed conflict and far from universal in today’s world. Indeed, some commentators, such as Martin van Crefeld (1991, 1997) and Ralph Peters (1999, 2002) have argued that such forms of irregular and people’s war will increasingly dominate. If they are right, we will need to rethink many of our basic assumptions about the nature of war and armed forces (Davis and Pereira 2002). The distinctions between war and peace and between war and crime may dissolve or at least become increasingly problematic. In one of history’s many ironies, the face of war in the third world may perhaps come to the advanced industrial societies, forcing Western societies increasingly to wage war in “irregular” ways.

Terrorism has now emerged as a serious social problem in the United States in the sense that increasing measures are being taken to counter a widely perceived “threat” of terrorism. The magnitude and exact nature of the threat is entirely unclear; but the measures currently being taken to combat the threat of terrorism certainly constitute a second-order social problem. As in the early days of the cold war, there are concerns about governmental surveillance of citizens, civil liberties, widespread moral panic and hysteria, enforced conformism, and so on. Clearly, any administration would have to devote enormous resources to preparing for further attacks, possibly with weapons of vastly greater destructiveness. The cost to American society of the September 11 attacks must be measured not simply in terms of the lives lost and damage incurred on that day, but in the myriad costs of societal response. If Al-Qaeda sees itself “at war” with America, and if the United States remains committed to a global “war against terrorism,” then we have yet another instance of the high cost of war.

The Centrality of the United States

The fifth trend of war in the recent period has been the rise of the United States to global hegemony. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the sole superpower. This was bound to change the global dynamics of war in ways at which (at the time of writing in 2003) one could only begin to guess.

As a status quo power, the United States has fallen into the role of attempting to control the many sources of change and instability inherent in global social change. It has intervened in the form of peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Somalia (1992-1995), Bosnia (1994-present), Haiti (1994), and Kosovo (1999-present). It has sought to act as creator and enforcer of international norms, particularly with regard to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. When the United States (and other powers to a lesser degree) has felt its interests threatened, it has intervened militarily, as in Panama (1989), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (1990-1991 and 2003-present). These expeditionary wars have largely been aimed at preserving the status quo, particularly in regions of concern to the United States.

The United States has backed its pretension to hegemony with vast military spending. As a large and wealthy country, when it devotes 3 percent of its GDP to the military, this results in 37 percent of all global spending on the military. (SIPRI 2001:277-82). Moreover, the U.S. military is increasingly configured for “expeditionary” operations anywhere in the world.

The United States is now in the position where almost any adjustment in international relations can be seen as a challenge to its global hegemony. But a hegemon will be the focus for much resentment and will likely see the development of counterbalancing coalitions among other states. How it will react to perceived challenges to its dominance will be a central question in the years ahead (Kupchan 2002; Mearsheimer 2001).

Michael Sherry (1995) has discussed how Americans perceived the threat of war in the twentieth century:

War came from outside America to intrude upon their lives and to wrest them from their pacific ways…. And war itself seemed a murky phenomenon…. Regarding military vigilance and action as imperatives imposed upon them by external forces, they rarely acknowledged that their immersion in those imperatives arose also from their own values and ambitions…. In the understandable but simple moral drama they saw, bad guys—Nazies, Japs, Commies, Russians—made them take up arms. (P. ix)

Meant to describe the period of the Second World War and the cold war, Sherry’s description remains relevant in the post-cold war world. The temptation toward the moralization and demonization of conflict is ever present to Americans. It can, under the appropriate circumstances, lead to “crusades” aimed at improving the world. For a superpower, such hubris is dangerous.


The 30-year cataclysm of the two world wars, followed immediately by the threat of nuclear annihilation, seemed to have unleashed the destructiveness of war beyond all human control. It made a mockery of efforts to abolish war or to fight a “war to end wars.” Yet in the second half of the century, nuclear Armageddon failed to occur. For the states of the democratic core, the immediacy of war—if not its terrible threat—was removed. For the democratic core, the second half of the twentieth century was a “long peace.” That this “long peace” was simultaneously a cold war does not detract from the importance of its achievement. The pacification of the democratic core led to hopes that war between great powers was becoming obsolete.

Whether peace would spread from the democratic core to the rest of the world and whether war in the third world would draw in the states of the democratic core were still, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, open questions.

War has not gone away. In large part, it has migrated to parts of the third world, where it thrives, largely unnoticed by the publics of the West. These wars are often brutal, messy, and intractable. They stem from a variety of circumstances. Reducing them all to instances of “ethnic conflict” or various “failures” of development leads to an impoverished understanding of the complexities of human conflict. Outside the democratic core, war continues to be a scourge, and the second horseman of the apocalypse continues his terrible ride.