War, Peace and Civilizations

By Melko, Matthew | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

War, Peace and Civilizations


Melko, Matthew, Comparative Civilizations Review


Identifications

In order to discuss this rather broad set of relationships, it is probably desirable to limit the contexts. Definitions of war, peace and civilizations are all controversial, so rather than attempt them, it may be well to identify what is being considered here, and grant that each could be extended further.

War encompasses violent, physical conflict among political entities or among substantial factions within these entities.

Peace is considered to be an absence of such violent conflict. It includes situations in which anger or hostility is openly expressed, and in which arms buildups occur, if there is little physical conflict. A situation of mutual war preparation between potential adversaries who nevertheless do not fight would be a period of peace. The term cold war has been used to describe such a period, but it could better be described as a cold peace. Situations in which there is a high rate of violence, as in some large cities, or episodes of terrorism, do not fit comfortably within either of these parameters. Still by almost any measure, peace is normal, war exceptional (Melko, 1996).

As for civilization, attempts to define it by groups of critical thinkers usually fail. For the purposes of this essay, let us say that they are large societies possessing a degree of cultural autonomy, agriculture, literacy, cities, religion and government. They date back about six thousand years and have their origins along the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile rivers. There will be debates, however, about the sequence and importance of the qualities mentioned or omitted and the extent to which they can be distinguished from primitive or nomadic societies.

Political Forms

Civilizationists tend to distinguish three political forms within civilizations. Terms frequently used to describe these are feudal, state and imperial. The forms have been recurrent as political systems emerge, disintegrate, or reconstitute; they tend to be periods of stress in which political systems arise or reconstitute.

I am going to focus on state systems, probably the most prevalent form in history, as it is today. State systems contain political entities we call states that are limited in boundary by other states and are at least minimally autonomous. They lack a central government.

Usually this enlarged system occurs within a single civilization, although states on the periphery are likely to interact with peripheral states in neighboring civilizations. At some periods there may be more than one system within a civilization, but they tend to coalesce. (Toynbee III: 301-306, Wilkinson 1985, Wesson 1978: 10-18).

As these states begin to encounter one another, conflict among them ensues. Such a system of recurring conflict would seem to be unstable in that power obviously increases and decreases within the states as leadership changes or succeeding generations lack the taste or skill for governance, diplomacy or warfare. Yet such a system can also have long-term stability, continue for decades or centuries, experiencing recurrent warfare, but also longer periods of relative peace. (Toynbee IX: 234-287; Coulborn 1966: 414-416; Wight 1977: 46-72, 110-152; Wesson 1978: 28-35; Wilkinson 1985).

How do groups of states, having no dominant government, maintain stability? One theory is that if one state threatens to become too powerful, others may form alliances against it. Thus a balance of power may come into existence and preserve the system. This leads to frequent changes of alliance as perceptions of power change, hence a degree of instability within such systems. This has been the prevailing view of the realist school of thought in the West, perhaps because it describes the European state system from 1618 to 1945 (Morgenthau 1978: 171-228; Wight 1977: 66-67, 96-97, 150-152; Levy 1983: 8-49; Waltz 1979: 1 17-128, 163-170).

While dominant states have conquered all others and created spectacular empires that have received much attention from historians, it is probable that dominant powers more often could not or did not seek to conquer all other states. …

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