Coming Conflicts

By O'hanlon, Michael | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Coming Conflicts


O'hanlon, Michael, Harvard International Review


Interstate War in the New Millennium

Is interstate war becoming obsolete? Many thoughtful observers, including political scientists, now believe so. Six key arguments--not to mention the modest number of interstate wars in recent decades--support their thesis. The nuclear revolution has made such conflict between major powers far more foreboding. The memory of the world wars and an understanding of the destructiveness of industrial-age conventional weaponry have further chastened any global leader who might contemplate acts of aggression. The US-led Western alliance system has also made the international political environment less anarchic. The spread of democracies, which have tended not to fight each other, has added a further stabilizing element. Modern economics has made the acquisition of additional territory less important for enhancing national wealth than in previous eras. In any event, anti-colonial movements of the 20th century made imperial conquest far more difficult politically and militarily. These six major developments in human h istory suggest that the 2 1st century will involve far less violence between countries than did the 20th century--even if civil conflict, terrorism, and other nontraditional threats to security remain serious worries.

On the whole, these broad assessments about trends in human conflict seem correct. For the foreseeable future, international acts of violence appear much more likely to arise at the intrastate or nonstate level than between countries. Conflicts between major powers seem particularly unlikely.

However, it would be a major intellectual error--and quite possibly a tragic policy mistake--to discount the possibility of war between the international community's larger actors. Those who point to the declining frequency of interstate wars sometimes forget that such conflicts have rarely been numerous. Their prevalence matters less than their severity once they do unfold. In addition, there has been no continual decline in their frequency over the past half-century, and recent years have witnessed a slight upturn in their number, according to a recent analysis by Ted Gurr, Monty Marshall, and Deepa Khosla of the University of Maryland.

Of the six major factors listed above that make countries less apt to go to war with each other, not all are absolute. Memories of World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts will fade with the passing of the generations that waged them. The US-led alliance system, remarkably successful by the standards of human history and still quite strong today, could face severe challenges in the years ahead. Given the absence of a clear external threat, and in the face of disagreements between Washington and many allied capitals over issues such as Iraq, Iran, Taiwan, and national missile defense, the alliance system's cohesion cannot be presumed to last forever.

Of the remaining four global realities discouraging interstate war, each has its limitations. As for nuclear deterrence, it certainly reduces the risk that countries will march on each other's capitals. It is less obvious, however, that nuclear deterrence is reliable for preventing wars over more limited stakes such as Kashmir or Taiwan. Democracies do tend to fight each other less often--once they are constitutionally and politically consolidated, and once they fully perceive each other as democracies, as scholars such as Edward Mansfield, Jack Snyder, and John Owen have argued. Democracies in transition have far less stabilizing effects. Moreover, countries that become democratic may not always stay that way, as the example of Weimar Germany reminds us. Colonialism may be dead, but irredentism is not, and some countries still reserve the right to use force to defend or acquire disputed lands. Finally, modern high-technology market economics may reduce the need for large swaths of land to assure national po wer and prestige. But key resources remain as critical as ever to the success of nations' economic systems, and it is not difficult to imagine wars driven by governments' desires to secure such resources. …

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