The idea that there will always be wars and rumors of wars not only has the imprimatur of scripture, but contemporary belief in the inevitability of war and faith in its utility are powerful enough to drive gargantuan expenditures of human and material treasure in preparation for it. So there must be something to it. Indeed, talk of war prevention can come off as naďve, sounding unschooled in the hard knocks of the real world.
But in fact, schooling in war prevention is sufficiently advanced-in both research and practice—to embolden us heretics to suggest that, just maybe, war isn’t intrinsic to the natural order after all.
Warfare has been in modest but real decline over the past quarter century; today there are 20 percent fewer wars than in 1989, and 25 percent fewer countries are hosting wars. (Check out the annual Armed Conflicts Report put out by Project Ploughshares). Though most intra-state wars are obviously heavily internationalized, there are currently no state-to-state wars in the style of the Iran-Iraq war or the Eritrea-Ethiopia war.
It’s hard to watch news footage from Syria or on the “liberation” of Mosul and still claim that today’s wars are also less lethal—but it’s true. Contemporary warfare produces unprecedented numbers of displaced people and in that sense, is as deadly as ever. Nevertheless, direct combat deaths in war have been declining over the past quarter century and are dramatically lower than they were in the 20th century. Rwanda especially is a post-Cold War exception, producing up to a million dead. The Syrian war, the deadliest of today’s armed conflicts, has had a death toll of more than 50,000 per year (combatants and civilians). In Nigeria, Iraq, and Afghanistan the annual combat death toll has been around the 10,000 level. Then Thailand, Yemen, Ukraine, Somalia, and South Sudan host wars with combat deaths of several thousand annually (South Sudan recently higher).
These are all horrific numbers; but compare them with the 20th century numbers: Cambodia 3 million, Biafra 2 million, and the world wars in the tens of millions.
Current trends don’t determine the future, but the decline is real. Steven Pinker is persuasive in his claim that violent conflict among humans is probably at an all-time low. And that decline is obviously a very good thing, not only for moral and humanitarian reasons, but also for adding to the evidence that war-fighting doesn’t work and that we’re slowly seeing reduced reliance on it.
The Prussian Carl von Clausewitz saw utility in war—a means by which to bend an adversary to your will, to force an adversary to do your bidding. But listen to British General Sir Rupert Smith on contemporary wars: They have, he says, “spectacularly failed to achieve the results intended, namely, a decisive military victory which would in turn deliver a solution to the original problem, which is usually political.” Powerful military forces have less and less utility in bending others to their will-in producing pre-determined political outcomes.
And the numbers back him up: In 85 percent of post-Cold War intra-state wars, neither side wins and the original problem only deepens. Those wars are ultimately ended, not by generals, but by diplomats and politicians. Superior military force can win battles (like driving ISIS out of Mosul), but it’s very bad at delivering intended political outcomes; it can’t solve the political conflict that spawned it. Superior military force can successfully do regime destruction, but not regime change.
You can see why the current US president would say it’s time for the US to start “winning wars again.” His admission that the Pentagon hasn’t been winning may be unusually frank for a president, but his expectation that larger military budgets will turn things around won’t be met.
Meanwhile, the fruits of war are plain enough: unresolved political conflict, deepened social/ political distrust and enmity, shattered infrastructure, and the ruinous depletion of the human, psychological, and material resources that are needed to rebuild. Hence the calls for a more intense, better funded, war prevention agenda. As the new UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has put it, “if we live up to our [war prevention] responsibilities, we will save lives, reduce suffering and give hope to millions…”
War prevention works, but it shouldn’t be understood as a battery of special techniques or formulas to be plugged in wherever war threatens. Just as there is no military shortcut to resolving deeply rooted political conflicts, there are no technical shortcuts. Military solutions aren’t solutions because they are premised on circumventing or overpowering, rather than resolving the deeply-entrenched, destructive, real world social and political conditions that foster war. War-fighting’s ambition is for superior military force to impose pre-determined political outcomes by dint of force. You can’t simply resort to violence to cast aside the conditions that enable war and expect them to be actually removed. Nor can you ignore those realities and come to quick solutions by dint of heightened diplomacy.
War prevention efforts that fail to face-up to the conditions that nurture and entrench conflict won’t endure. And the condition that needs to be addressed and changed is not human nature. To be sure, there is no shortage of evil actors out to exploit conflict, but war is not rooted in some innate human propensity for violence and evil; it is rooted in conditions that are fundamentally intolerable. And war prevention is first and foremost about mitigating those conditions.
So, it’s not an intrinsic or natural impulse that turns humans to war, irrespective of conditions. Instead, it takes entrenched economic and political exclusion that the powerful seek to perpetuate and exploit and that the marginalized seek to confront. War emerges out of powerful currents of alienation from mainstream institutions and political processes that are broadly mistrusted. In other words, war is rooted in grievance. That’s not saying it is justified by grievance, but that is where it is nurtured.
That doesn’t deny imperial ambition or aggrandizement. The powerful can and do run roughshod over the rights and territories of the weak, but when states in the bottom half of the human development index are several times more likely to experience sustained war on their territories than are those in the top half, a commitment to war prevention requires a commitment to address political and economic marginalization experienced by those countries. Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.” It links that to the pursuit of justice and “effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.” Promoting justice, accountability, and inclusion amounts to a pretty good summary of what a war prevention agenda should be. Official development assistance (ODA) is obviously a key mechanism for pursuing those ends, and the declared objective of maintaining ODA expenditures at .7% of GDP or higher, though usually honored in the breach, is a concrete way of affirming its importance.
When the grievances that drive political conflict are linked to identity, the prospect of political conflict turning violent only increases. When economic, political, and social exclusion are perceived to be based on ethnicity, religion, geography, or some combination of them, the hope and trust that remedies might be available through public institutions and processes collapses. In other words, quality governance that reaches beyond identity and universalizes a sense of inclusion and respect for basic rights is central to war prevention. This obviously represents a major challenge in an interconnected global order that seriously limits the capacity of states to shape their own economies, cultures, and physical environments.
The OECD makes war prevention part of its peacebuilding guidelines with the simple insistence that each state requires “institutions capable of managing socio-political tensions and avoiding their escalation into violence.” It is no surprise that contemporary warfare is concentrated in states that lack the means to build trusted and durable social/political infrastructures.
While armed conflict is politically enabled by neglecting grievances and ignoring festering communal divisions, it is physically enabled by an uncontrolled arms trade and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. It’s not easy to mount a sustainable war, but the ready availability of the means of repression emboldens governments to repulse demands for political inclusion and respect for basic rights. If you want to undermine human rights and facilitate political violence, be prepared to sell the means of repression to gross violators of human rights. And if you want to make war an early option for dissidents, ignore the proliferation of small arms.
The earlier global action plan on small arms and the new Arms Trade Treaty are important achievements and qualify as fundamental war prevention measures, but a critical test case for the latter will surely be its impact on flows of arms to states like Saudi Arabia. And its effectiveness will also depend on the extent to which the Treaty’s Article 16—the mandate to assist states in developing control measures and demobilizing combatants—is honored. The small arms action plan has similar assistance provisions.
The resort to both armed repression and resistance obviously intensifies when there is an absence of the most basic trust in public institutions-when aggrieved parties assume that working through established channels and processes means their interests or voices are ignored or discounted, and when authorities bent on holding onto power manipulate institutions to serve their own exclusivist purposes.
Armed violence has proven to be very effective in one important mission-in getting the aggrieved a seat at a table. In that sense, when there appear to be no viable alternatives, when there appear to be no political remedies, the resort to violent resistance (albeit at great cost to all those affected) does in fact create new political alternatives. And that reality clarifies another urgent political/diplomatic imperative for war prevention: to get aggrieved parties access to a table by means other than the resort to violence.
When the enabling conditions of war are seriously addressed, and are seen to be addressed or ameliorated, more specific war prevention techniques and mechanisms become effective. The UN Secretary-General reports on such war prevention efforts from time-to-time and the most recent report (2015) highlights research, conflict analysis, early warning measures, and the potential for using the good offices of the UN Secretary-General and the UN’s conflict mediation services more effectively.
Gareth Evans, formerly Australia’s Foreign Minister and then head of the International Crisis Group, attributes declines in overt interstate and intrastate armed conflict largely to “the huge increase [since the end of the Cold War] in the level of international preventive diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for the most part authorized by and mounted by the United Nations….” António Guterres has emphasized the importance of shifting from response to prevention: “We spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them. People are paying too high a price […] We need a whole new approach…. Prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority.”
Promoting the full range of war prevention efforts—from addressing the root conditions to employing specialized skills in conflict mediation to formal and citizen diplomacy—needs to be defined as a strategic interest for all states committed to a stable international order. Such stability requires the rule of law and a well-funded and operationalized strategic objective.
But under-funding remains chronic. Canada, a country committed to playing an active role in preserving and strengthening the global order, “from which,” the foreign minister recently insisted, “we have benefited so greatly,” offers no new money towards those ends. That’s more than a shame. It’s a dangerous betrayal of the decades-old collective promise to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
Ernie Regehr is Senior Fellow with The Simons Foundation of Vancouver and Research Fellow with the Kindred Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo. The foregoing was a talk to the 60th Anniversary Conference of the Canadian Pugwash Group, held at Dalhousie University in July 2017.