The Trend of War in the World: Evidence from the Arab-Israeli Dispute

By Payne, James L. | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Trend of War in the World: Evidence from the Arab-Israeli Dispute


Payne, James L., Independent Review


In devising foreign and military policies, policymakers can adopt one of two broad perspectives about the nature of war. One is the "war-continuity" theory. In this view, war is a constant feature of human existence, an ever-present danger. This is the perspective of the "realist" school of foreign policy, which holds that nations have always strived and will always strive to dominate each other militarily. Those who adopt this position tend to argue that preparations for war must always be pursued strenuously because one can never tell who the next enemy will be or when the next big war will occur.

Thus, for example, the prominent University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer, a self-declared "card-carrying realist," sees great danger for the United States in China's continued prosperity: "Can China rise peacefully? My answer is no. If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war" (2006, 160). Another exponent of the pessimistic view is Colin Gray, who declares that war "will always be with us" (2005, 24).

This perspective of ever-present danger appears to dominate thinking about U.S. security policy. The nation maintains at least 662 overseas bases in thirty-eight foreign countries, and planners work continually to develop additional sites (the latest proposals are for new bases in Australia and the Philippines). The U.S. Navy maintains a fleet with 11 aircraft carriers and a total of 282 warships. Although some categories of military spending have been reduced recently, these cutbacks are justified only in fiscal terms as part of the effort to control the federal deficit. They are not defended as strategically appropriate reductions in view of military threats to the United States or any changing probability of war in the world.

The problem with the "realism" school of military preparation is that it is not realistic. That is, it is not empirical--not based on actual measurements of the trend in the use of force. Those who have studied these trends are beginning to elaborate a second, alternative perspective, which might be called the "war-decline" theory. In this perspective, the world has been undergoing a long-term decline in the extent and severity of war; furthermore, the rate of decline has been accelerating. The broad picture indicates that warfare was highest in primitive, prehistoric societies, where some 15 percent of the population died in war. The level of fighting gradually declined over many centuries of civilization, so that by the first half of the twentieth century less than 1 percent of the population was dying in war (Keeley 1996, 90). Since 1950, the decline in violence has accelerated, so that in recent years international war has disappeared almost completely (Mueller 2009).

Political scientist John Mueller was perhaps the first to emphasize this perspective. War, he suggested in his little-noticed 1989 book Retreat from Doomsday, was becoming obsolete in the twentieth century. Indeed, if one studied the historical record carefully, one could discern that for certain countries, war had been in the process of becoming obsolete for several centuries. The wars of the first half of the twentieth century were not business as usual, but--for Europe, at least--a final "learning experience" about war's horrors and disadvantages (Mueller 1989, 218).

Mueller and others have continued research on this topic, amassing considerable support for the war-decline theory (Howard 1991; Keegan 1993; Mueller 1995, 2004; Kaldor 1999; Gurr, Marshall, and Khosla 2000; Payne 2002, 2004; Human Security Centre 2005; Lacina and Gleditsch 2005; Lacina, Gleditsch, and Russett 2006; Human Security Report Project 2011; Russett 2010; Goldstein 2011; Pinker 2011).

A variety of theories and perspectives have been advanced to explain this decline in war, though perhaps in the end we shall conclude that an elaborate theory is not necessary. …

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