Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Extinction of Conflict

"Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" - Matthew 26:52 

Since I'm an atheist, people may be wondering why I'm quoting the Bible. However, like some other philosophies I've studied, I find much more at fault with the notoriously unscientific premises of Christianity than its moral conclusions. I don't entirely agree with those either, but I'm not a moral relativist and there are definitely some accurate bits here and there. Anyway, on with more important things. Edit: Also, since I like quoting fantasy, the New Testament is pretty appropriate.

As a follow up of my discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I wanted to talk about the place for conventional offensive military actions in the modern world, or possible lack thereof. A friend of mine wanted me to discuss things from an IR Theory perspective; the reasons that I don't like to do that is because IR Theories like neorealism and neoliberalism are notoriously unscientific and abstract. As Robert Keohane discusses in Neorealism and its Critics, these theories cannot be tested and proven in nearly as rigorous a fashion as theories in other scientific disciplines. Rather than base an argument on dubious theoretical supports, it is better for my purposes to discuss issues in the context of my own paradigm (hopefully I'll get to discussing that eventually). Then, if I'm wrong, I have nothing to blame but shortcomings in my own understanding. 

Since the end of the Second World War, interstate conflict has decreased in both frequency and extremity. It is apparent that this can be partially be explained by nuclear deterrent and mutually assured destruction, both of which kept the Cold War cold and still prevent at least nuclear powers from fighting each other directly. I am of the persuasion that even if there were no nuclear weapons, or in the case that an insanely efficient way of negating nuclear deterrent emerges, conflict would still stand to decrease eventually over time. Additionally, I assert that although nuclear deterrent has lessened the extremity of military conflict, it has ironically prolonged it's existence. These positions call into question the utility of a large national military, such as the one the US now possesses. 

It is a testament to humanity's collective will for survival that in 67 years of possessing the potential for self destruction we have managed to avoid killing ourselves. Seriously though, even in the context of geopolitical conflict and the desire for advantage through first strike, humanity has only once come even close to risking annihilation. Some political scientists will assert that this is mainly due to desire for one's own survival, and is indicative of nothing more. I suspect that even in the case that one side had the opportunity to destroy the other without retaliation, they would not do so because of the cost in human life. Nuclear weapons are the guns that may never be fired, but merely by their existence they have dramatically changed the way nations interact with each other.

Prior to the development of nuclear weapons, intra- and inter-state conflict was widespread but it had a purpose. It's method was that of natural selection; worse states would inevitably fall victim to internal or external fatal inefficiencies, and would improve over time. We can see this in the history of the United States quite clearly; many of our most important and defining amendments were passed in the wake of conflict. The most recently proposed amendment that was ratified was the one lowering the voting age to 18, passed largely due to the drafting of young men for service in Vietnam who could not vote (27th amendment technically proposed in 1789, and wasn't substantial regardless because the turnover rate in Congress is so high). From Ancient Rome to Modern Europe, conflict has served to advance human organization by process of elimination.

My main point is that continued military conflict in the 20th century was rapidly leading towards less military conflict and more constructive conflict. Industrialized nations that avoided large-scale military conflict, like the US, were quickly transcending states that saw this as a political necessity, like Germany and much of Europe. The shift that was happening on the international level mimicked the shift that had long ago taken place at the domestic level of the most developed states: dominance by debate and cooperation was taking the place of dominance by force. States that counted on offensive military action made themselves vulnerable not only externally but internally. The last visible result of this lesson is evident in the UN, however that organization was never able to actually reach maturity because nuclear weapons rendered it fairly pointless. 

The UN was an organization first and foremost designed with the purpose of preventing another large-scale conflict, like its predecessor the League of Nations. However, large-scale conflict was rendered completely obsolete by nuclear weapons. So instead of having its institutions tested by global conflict, the United Nations remained unused, purposeless, and dying, like a fish out of water. Additionally, small-scale conflict has been used as a proxy for the large-scale conflict that can no longer reasonably happen. These conflicts have without exception nearly always been self-defeating and wasteful, but not so much so (as the previous conflicts were) as to eliminate inefficient institutions. Small-scale conflict has resulted in small-scale change. What it has not resulted in is the rejection of military action as an acceptable way of resolving disputes yet, except notably in Europe.

I would like to draw a picture of the post world war two world sans nuclear weapons as a model: The United States, Soviet Union, Western Europe, China etc. recover slowly from World War Two, but the US more quickly than others. NATO forms. Soviet Union likely makes moves at Western Europe and China moves toward southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. Unable to take sides between members of the SC, UN disbands. WWIII, massive casualties, all countries have damaged infrastructure except probably US (as always), Russia and China crushed in totality, resulting in forced political restructuring of these countries. Second UN established (likely in a completely different structure), most likely dominated by EU, US, rising India, and potentially a newly democratic China. I see all of this happening certainly in a shorter time span than it took the USSR to fall on its own.

I do not however, think that the development of nuclear weapons was a negative thing. Besides the benefits provided by Nuclear Energy and scientific advancement, this forced check on large-scale conflict has provided humanity with an opportunity to advance politically sans military action. It has given humanity an opportunity to reject the practical legitimacy of military action and deduce better structures for international institutions without fighting a World War Three. 


  1. Since the end of WWII there has been constant conflicts in the world - Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia (although these should be viewed as civil wars), Vietnam-Cambodia, Vietnam -China border dispute, several conflicts between India & Pakistan, the Balkans (the dissolution of Yugoslavia), the Israeli/Arab wars (1948, 1967, 1973), Angola, Indonesia-East Timor, Iraq-Iran, Iraq-Kuwait (not including Operation Desert Storm), the conflicts of independence including Algiers, Chad, India/Pakistan (mostly one sided) - and many others too numerous to list including the many conflicts in South & Central America pitting mostly indigineous & socialist parties against capitalist (corporate backed)strongmen like Pinochet and Trujillo - there has not been a significant interregnum since the period between World Wars I & II. Most of these conflicts have been "proxy wars" between Soviet & western proxy states. That there has not been a nuclear conflict since we bombed Nagasaki IS very significant, and I believe the UN has been instrumental in preventing such a conflict.

  2. You are right, there have many many conflicts in the world, but they have been gradually decreasing in extremity and frequency. And these conflicts are never fought to the extremes which conflict had been fought before by any measure. The UN is inhibited by its structure, which pretty much renders it illegitimate and incapable of doing anything significant that MIGHT prevent large-scale conflict, if it could actually happen without destroying the entire earth. If you look at UN Peacekeeping missions, they are mostly successful only when the US assents and send troops as well. I do believe that the UN has prevented some small -scale conflict but I don't think it's possible to say that it is serving the purpose it was meant to serve. We can establish a new international governing body that does its job better.