When the organizers of this event suggested ‘peace for our time?’, with a question mark at the end, as the half-whimsical title for this lecture, I accepted gladly. As you are all aware, this was what the British prime-minister Neville Chamberlain promised the cheering crowds that received him on his return from Munich in September 1938, waving the agreement he reached with Herr Hitler on the peaceful resolution of the Czechoslovakian conflict.
And yet, in less than six months Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in less than a year, Europe – and soon after the world – were in the grips of another World War which cost the lives of an estimated 55 million people. Chamberlain, with his umbrella, acquired an eternal image of a clown, and his prophecy of peace – together with similar prophesies of the ‘war to end all wars’ during and after WWI, and a New World Order after the Cold War – may serve as a warning against any pronouncement regarding the demise of war.
Such pronouncements are always in danger of being premature, as Mark Twain quipped about the news of his own death. Thus, I will not try to prophesize the future, which is always open and the realm of probabilities. Instead, I shall concentrate on past trends – including the close and most recent past – to show that war has indeed been decreasing and peace expanding. I shall try to explain why this has been so, and what fed pronouncements such as that by Chamberlain and the others mentioned here, never made by active statesmen – as opposed to prophets or moralists – before modern times. They weren’t entirely misguided after all.
The claim that war has been decreasing in stages throughout history has been made by several scholars during the past decade or two, including recently in Steven Pinker’s best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The first sharp reduction in human fighting resulted from the rise of the state-Leviathan from around 5000 years ago in the most pioneering parts of the world. In Norway, for example, one of the world’s late developers, like the rest of northern and western Europe, the process only took off about one thousand years ago – though you have done pretty well since then, in contrast to your earlier rough record. Indeed, several comprehensive studies of the subject have demonstrated on the basis of anthropological and archaeological evidence that Hobbes’s picture of the anarchic state of nature was fundamentally true. The Rousseauite image of a peaceful aboriginal human past corrupted by the adoption of agriculture, private property and the state, an image that dominated mid-twentieth century anthropology and popular culture, has been proven to be unfounded.
The Rousseauite view rested on the premise that sparse human population could not possibly have had that much to fight about. However, recently-extant hunter-gatherer societies prove the opposite. Australia is our best laboratory of hunter-gatherer societies, because that vast continent was entirely populated by them and ‘unpolluted’ by agriculturalists, pastoralists or states until the arrival of the Europeans in 1788. And the evidence shows that the Australian tribes fought incessantly with one another. Even in the Central Australian Desert, where the population density was as low as one person per 35 square miles, among the lowest there is, conflict and deadly fighting were the rule. Much of that fighting centered on the water-holes vital for survival in this area. The shields which the Australian Aborigines carried were not used for hunting kangaroos. In most other places, hunting territories were monopolized and fiercely defended by hunter-gatherers because they were quickly depleted. The Kalahari Bushmen were the focus of study in the Rousseauite 1960s, and were celebrated as peaceful. Yet it was soon discovered that before the imposition of state authority, they had had four times the 1990 US violent mortality rate, which was itself by far the highest in the developed world. Even among the Inuit of Arctic Canada, who were so sparse as to experience no resource competition, fighting to kidnap women was pervasive, resulting in a violent death rate 10 times higher the United States’ 1990 rate. The great microcosms of primitive agriculturalists which are Highland New Guinea and Amazonia, each comprising hundreds of tribes and languages, similarly reveal incessant fighting and a very high violent death rate indeed.
Furthermore, the human state of nature turns out to be no different than the state of nature in general. During the 1960s it was believed that animals did not kill each other within the same species, which made humans appear like a murderous exception and fed speculations that warfare emerged only with civilization. Since then, however, it has been found that animals kill each other extensively within species, a point pressed on every viewer of television nature documentaries. There is nothing special about humans in this regard.
On the basis of data from dozens of pre-state societies it emerges that violent mortality dropped from a staggering estimated average of 15 percent of the population, 25 percent of the men, in prestate societies (with all the surviving men covered with scars), to about 1-5 percent in historical state societies. The main reason for this drop was the enforcement of internal peace by the state-Leviathan. Hobbes was right in claiming that anarchy is the most significant cause of violent mortality. On the other hand, state authority in most historical states was not merely coercive but also highly oppressive, so socio-economic oppression and greater security of life usually – not always – went together. There was a cost side to the rise of the Leviathan.
A second reason for the steep drop in fighting casualties with the emergence of the state is less obvious and less recognized. The size of states and their armies was larger, often much larger, than that of the tribal groups that had preceded them, creating a spectacular impression of large-scale fighting for state wars. State wars look big, and they are big – in absolute terms. However, the main question is not absolute but relative casualties – what percentage of the population died violently. And relative casualties actually decreased under the state, precisely because states were large. Large states meant lower mobilization rates and a lesser exposure of the civilian population to war than was the case with tribal groups.
Take Egypt, for example, one of the earliest large states and empires. The size of the Egyptian army with which Pharaoh Ramses II fought the Hittite empire at the Battle of Kadesh in 13th century BC northern Syria was 20,000-25,000 soldiers. This was a very large army by the standards of the time. Yet the total population of Egypt was about 2-3 million, so the army constituted 1 percent of the population at most. This was very much the standard in large states and empires throughout history because of the great financial and logistical problems of maintaining large armies for long periods at great distances from home. Thus, in comparison to the high military participation rates of small-scale tribal societies, participation rates, and hence war casualties, in large states’ armies were much lower. Moreover, in contrast to the great vulnerability of women and children in small-scale tribal warfare, the civilian population of Egypt was sheltered by distance from the theaters of military operations and not often exposed to the horrors of war. Such relative security, interrupted only by large-scale invasions, is one of the main reasons why societies experienced great demographic growth after the emergence of the state. It is also the reason why civil war, when the war rages within the country, tends to be the most lethal form of war, as Hobbes very well realized. Thus, the rise of the state meant bigger, more spectacular wars, but, by and large, fewer casualties relative to population.
The second major step in the decline of war, after the rise of the state-Leviathan, has occurred with the modern industrial age, during the past two centuries. Most people are surprised to learn that the occurrence of war and overall mortality rate in war sharply decreased after 1815, especially in the developed world. The so-called Long Peace among the great powers after 1945 is more recognized, and is widely attributed to the nuclear factor, a decisive factor to be sure, which concentrated the minds of all the protagonists wonderfully, as they say about the hanging rope. The (inter-)democratic peace has been equally recognized. However, the decrease in war had been very marked even before the nuclear era, and has encompassed nondemocracies as well as democracies. In the century after 1815, wars among economically advanced countries declined in their frequency to about a third of what they had been in the previous centuries, an unprecedented change. I emphasize: decreased to a third, not by a third. In fact, the Long Peace after 1945, 67 years to date, was preceded by the second longest peace ever among the modern great powers, between 1871 and 1914, 43 years; and by the third longest peace, between 1815 and 1854, 39 years. Thus, the three longest periods of peace by far in the modern great powers system have all occurred after 1815, with the first two taking place before the nuclear age. This striking phenomenon cannot be accidental. Clearly, one needs to explain the entire period of reduced belligerency since 1815, while also accounting for the glaring divergence from the trend: the two world wars.
There is a tendency to assume that wars have declined in frequency during the past two centuries because they have become too lethal, destructive and expensive. This hypothesis barely holds, however, because relative to population and wealth wars have not become more lethal and costly than earlier in history. The wars of the nineteenth century – the most peaceful century in European history – were in fact particularly light, in comparative terms. True, the world wars, especially World War II, were certainly on the upper scale of the range in terms of casualties. Yet, contrary to widespread assumptions, they were far from being exceptional in history. Once more, we need to look at relative casualties, general mortality rates in wars, rather than at the aggregate created by the fact that many states participated in the world wars.
A few examples will suffice to demonstrate that premodern wars were not less deadly and destructive than modern wars. In the first three years of the Second Punic War (218-216 BC), Rome lost some 50,000 male citizens of the ages of 17-46, out of a total of about 200,000 in those ages. This was roughly 25 percent of the military age cohorts in only three years, the same range as the Russian military casualties and higher than the German rates in World War II. Similarly, in the thirteenth century, the Mongol conquests inflicted on the societies of Eurasia casualties and destruction that were among the highest ever suffered during historical times. Estimates of the sharp decline experienced by the populations of China and Russia, for example, vary. Still, even by the lowest estimates they were at least as great, and in China almost definitely far greater, than the Soviet Union’s horrific rate in World War II of about 15 percent of its population. A final example: during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) population loss in Germany is estimated at between a fifth and a third – either way higher than the German casualties in the First and Second World Wars combined.
People often assume that more developed military technology during modernity means greater lethality and destruction, but in fact it also means greater protective power, as with mechanized armour, mechanized speed and agility, and defensive electronic measures. Offensive and defensive advances generally rise in tandem and tend to offset each other. In addition, it is all too often forgotten that the vast majority of the many millions of non-combatants killed by Germany during World War II – Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet civilians – fell victim to intentional starvation, exposure to the elements, and mass executions rather than to any sophisticated military technology. Instances of genocide in general during the twentieth century, much as earlier in history, were carried out with the simplest of technologies, as the Rwanda genocide horrifically reminded us. True, nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon, which lethality and destructiveness are indeed unprecedented. Yet, as already noted, the decrease in war began long before the nuclear age, and it also encompasses non-nuclear antagonists in the nuclear age. Thus, although nuclear weapons played a significant role after 1945, military technology cannot be the cause of decreasing warfare since 1815.
Nor is it true that wars during the past two centuries have become economically more costly than they were earlier in history, again relative to overall wealth. War always involved massive economic exertion and was the single most expensive item of state spending. Both sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spain and eighteenth century France, for example, were economically ruined by war and staggering war debts, which in the French case brought about the Revolution. Furthermore, death by starvation in premodern wars was widespread. Thus, premodern wars were neither less deadly nor less costly or ruinous than the modern breed.
Another strand of interpretation of the perceived decrease in warfare during recent times has posited voluntary and ideaic factors, attributing the decline to a social ‘attitude change’ towards war. Why this attitude change and the growing drive to ‘kick the habit’ of war should have occurred at this point in history rather than any time earlier is not explained. After all, most powerful moral doctrines such as Buddhism and Christianity decried war for millennia without this having any noticeable effect. It is suggested that people have suddenly become aware that war is senseless if not crazy, devoid of any rationale. Such a view of war is widespread in today’s modern and affluent world. But try this idea on Chinggis Khan, whose descendants constitute, according to genetic studies, 8 percent of all males in Eastern and Central Asia, evidence of staggering sexual opportunities enjoyed by his sons and grandsons whose houses ruled over that part of the world for centuries. Lest it be thought that only autocrats and military aristocracies profited from war, it ought to be remembered that the two most successful war-making city-states of classical antiquity were democratic Athens and republican Rome. And they were so successful precisely because the people of these polities benefited from war and imperial expansion, championed them, and enlisted in their cause. Moreover, throughout history, people, while often fearing and lamenting war, just as often enthusiastically sang its glory and the glory of its heroes.
In pursuit of their aims, people may resort to cooperation, peaceful competition or violent conflict. Each of these behavioral strategies is a well-designed tool interchangeably employed, depending on the particular circumstances and prospects of success. Violence is not a blind biological instinct but a carefully chosen means to an end. It is the hammer in our behavioral toolkit, which has always been readily disposable and handy; indeed, it often proved necessary and advantageous. Thus, to understand the gravitation of human choices – and norms – from violent conflict towards the non-violent options of cooperation and peaceful competition one needs to understand the changing circumstances and calculus of cost-effectiveness during the past two centuries and in recent decades.
Indeed, if wars have not become more costly and destructive during the past two centuries, and an attitude change against war has not just sprung out of thin air, why have wars receded, particularly in the developed world? Even before the middle of the nineteenth century, thinkers such as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, and the Manchester school, who were quick to note the change, realized that it was caused by the advent of the industrial-commercial revolution, the most profound transformation of human society since the Neolithic adoption of agriculture. In the first place, given explosive growth in per capita wealth, about 30 to 50-fold from the onset of the revolution to the present in the parts of the world that underwent industrialization, the Malthusian trap has been broken. Wealth no longer constitutes a fundamentally finite quantity, when the only question is how it is divided, so wealth acquisition progressively shifted away from a zero-sum game. Secondly, economies are no longer overwhelmingly autarkic, having become increasingly interconnected by specialization, scale and exchange. Consequently, foreign devastation potentially depressed the entire system and is thus detrimental to a state’s own wellbeing. [This reality, already noted by John Stuart Mill, starkly manifested itself after World War I, as John Maynard Keynes had anticipated in his criticism of the reparations imposed on Germany, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920).] Thirdly, greater economic openness has decreased the likelihood of war by disassociating economic access from the confines of political borders and sovereignty. It is no longer necessary to politically possess a territory in order to benefit from it. Of all these factors, commercial interdependence has attracted most of the attention in the scholarly literature. But the other two factors have been no less significant.
Thus, the greater the yield of competitive economic cooperation, the more counterproductive and less attractive conflict becomes. Rather than war becoming more costly, as is widely believed, it is in fact peace that has been growing more profitable.
If so, why have wars continued to occur during the past two centuries, albeit at a much lower frequency? In the first place, ethnic and nationalist tensions often overrode the logic of the new economic realities, accounting for most wars in Europe between 1815 and 1945. They continue to do so today, especially in the less developed parts of the globe. Moreover, the logic of the new economic realities receded during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the great powers resumed protectionist policies and expanded them to the undeveloped parts of the world with the New Imperialism. This development signalled that the emergent global economy might become partitioned rather than open, with each imperial domain becoming closed to everybody else, as, indeed, they eventually did in the 1930s. A snowball effect ensued, generating a runaway grab for imperial territories. For the territorially confined Germany and Japan, the need to break away into imperial Lebensraum or ‘co-prosperity sphere’ seemed particularly pressing. Here lay the seeds of the two world wars. Furthermore, the retreat from economic liberalism in the first decades of the twentieth century spurred, and in turn was spurred by, the rise to power of anti-liberal and anti-democratic political ideologies and regimes, incorporating a creed of violence: communism and fascism.
Since 1945, the decline of major war has deepened further. Nuclear weapons have been a crucial factor in this deepening process, but no less significant have been the institutionalization of free trade and the closely related process of rapid and sustained economic growth. The spread of liberal democracy has been equally potent. Indeed, although nonliberal and nondemocratic states also became much less belligerent during the industrial age, it is the liberal democracies that have been the most attuned to its pacifying aspects.
Relying on arbitrary coercive force at home, nondemocratic countries have found it more natural to use force abroad. By contrast, liberal democratic societies are socialized to peaceful, law-mediated relations at home, and their citizens have grown to expect that the same norms be applied internationally. Living in increasingly tolerant societies, they have grown more receptive to the Other’s point of view. Promoting freedom, legal equality, and political participation domestically, liberal democratic powers – though initially in possession of vast empires – have found it increasingly difficult to justify ruling over foreign peoples without their consent. And sanctifying life, liberty and human rights, they have proven to be failures in forceful repression. Furthermore, with the individual’s life and pursuit of happiness elevated above group values, sacrifice of life in war has increasingly lost legitimacy in liberal democratic societies. War retains legitimacy only under narrow and narrowing formal and practical conditions, and is generally viewed as extremely abhorrent and undesirable.
The fruits of these deepening trends and sensibilities have been nothing short of miraculous. Their most striking and widely-noted manifestation is the inter-democratic peace. With growing liberalization, democracy, and economic development, the probability of war between affluent democracies has declined to a vanishing point, where they no longer even see the need to prepare for the possibility of a militarized dispute with one another. For the first time in history, the security dilemma between neighbours – that seemingly intrinsic feature of international anarchy – no longer exists, most notably in North America and Western Europe, the world’s most modernized and liberal-democratic territorial blocs.
With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the integration of the former communist powers into the global capitalist economy, and rapid economic growth coupled with democratization in Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, the prospect of a major war within the developed world seems to have become very remote. War’s geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted radically. The modernized, economically developed parts of the world have become a ‘zone of peace’. War now appears to be confined to the less developed parts of the globe, the world’s ‘zone of war’, where countries that have lagged behind in modernization and its pacifying spin-off effects occasionally still fight among themselves, as well as with developed countries.
The sharp decrease in interstate wars has been paralleled since 1945 by an increase in civil wars, so it has been tempting to claim that war has not declined but has merely transformed. It is as if there were a law of conservation of violence in the system, which kept the sum total of violence constant. This, however, is a misleading notion, rooted in an undifferentiated interpretation of the evidence, of the proverbial sort that finds that a person drowned in a lake whose average depth is two inches. In reality, socio-economic development in different parts of the world has been very uneven, and is the reason why the same trend we have seen with respect to interstate wars is very much evident in civil wars as well. Modernized, economically developed and liberal democratic countries have become practically free of civil wars – on account of their stronger consensual nature, plurality, tolerance, and indeed, a greater legitimacy for peaceful secession. By contrast, undeveloped and developing countries remain very susceptible to civil wars. Since scores of such states, many of them ethnically fragmented and possessing a weak central government, have joined the state system with decolonization after 1945, the prevalence of civil war has increased. Thus, both inter-state and civil wars occur overwhelming in the world’s undeveloped or developing parts. To the extent that these parts are eventually going to modernize, this gives hope for the future.
And yet, having so far delineated the causes of the sharp decrease in war and the spread of peace during modernity and in recent decades, it is time to emphasize that this hugely improved, and improving, condition is far from being full-proof and free from shadows and major challenges. The euphoric post-Cold War moment may have turned out to be a fleeting one, with the New World Order threatened by new Disorders. The probability of major wars within the developed world remains low. But the deep sense of change after 1989, based on the triumph of capitalism and democracy, has much eroded.
Perhaps the most significant challenge is the return of capitalist nondemocratic great powers, a regime type that has been absent from the international system since the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945. The massive growth of formerly communist and fast industrializing authoritarian-capitalist China represents the greatest change in the global balance of power. Russia, too, has retreated from its post-communist liberalism and has assumed an increasingly authoritarian character. Whether these powers eventually democratize with development is perhaps the most crucial question of the twenty-first century. In a Foreign Affairs article published even before the onset of the current Great Recession, I suggested that the lessons of history were not as clear about the inevitability of the process as progressivists – recently and most famously Fukuyama – tend to believe. And since the outbreak of the economic crisis, the authoritarian great powers have gained much in confidence, while the hegemony and huge prestige of democratic capitalism have suffered a massive blow unparalleled since the 1930s and the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism that throve on the apparent failure of capitalist democracy. One hopes that the current economic crisis will not be nearly as catastrophic. And yet the global allure of state-driven and nationalist capitalist authoritarianism may grow substantially. At the same time, America might, the main reason – not sufficiently appreciated – for the triumph of democracy in the twentieth century, is undergoing relative decline, though probably not as steep as it is sometimes imagined.
Deeply integrated into the world economy, the new capitalist authoritarian powers partake of the development-open-trade-capitalist peace, but not of the liberal-democratic one. Thus, it is crucially important that any protectionist turn in the system is avoided, not only because of its ruinous economic implications but also to prevent a grab for markets and raw materials such as that which followed the disastrous slide into imperial protectionism and conflict during the first part of the twentieth century. Even barring such a bleak scenario, China is likely to become more assertive as it grows in power, flex its muscles and behave like a superpower, even if it does not become overly aggressive. The democratic and nondemocratic powers may coexist more or less peacefully, armed because of mutual fear and suspicion. But there is also the prospect of more antagonistic relations, accentuated ideological rivalry, potential and actual conflict, intensified arms races, and even new cold wars. China’s and Russia’s support for oppressive regimes around the world – most notably today, Syria and Iran – may be a foretaste of things to come.
A second conspicuous exception to the reduction of belligerency has been the persistence over the past two decades of limited wars by mostly the United States and its NATO and other allies with far more backward rivals, little affected by either modernization or democratization. Counter-insurgency warfare in particular has drawn a great deal of attention and criticism, and indeed constitutes an enigma. Mighty powers that proved capable of crushing the strongest great power opponents fail to defeat the humblest of military rivals in some of the world’s poorest and weakest regions. It has been barely noted, however, that rather than being universal, this difficulty has overwhelmingly been the lot of liberal democratic powers – and encountered precisely because they are liberal and democratic. Much of the democracies’ conduct in this respect – the butt of heavy criticism, some of it justified – may actually be regarded as a badge of honour for them.
Historically, the crushing of an insurgency necessitated ruthless pressure on the civilian population, which liberal democracies have found increasingly unacceptable. Premodern powers, as well as modern authoritarian and totalitarian ones, rarely had a problem with such measures, and overall they have proved quite successful with suppression. Suppression is the sine quo non of imperial rule. The British and French empires could sustain themselves at a relatively low cost only so long as the imperial powers felt no scruples about applying ruthless measures, as the British, for example, still did as late as 1857 in suppressing the Indian Mutiny. However, as liberalization deepened from the late nineteenth century, the days of formal democratic empires became numbered even while outwardly they were reaching their greatest extent. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British setbacks and eventual compromise settlement in South Africa and withdrawal from Ireland were the signs of things to come for other liberal democratic empires as well. It has scarcely been noticed that the massive wave of decolonization after 1945 took place only vis-à-vis the liberal democratic empires (most notably Britain and France). The nondemocratic empires, far from being made to withdraw by indigenous resistance, were either crushed in the two world wars, as with Germany and Japan, or dismantled peacefully when the totalitarian system disintegrated, as with the Soviet Union.
Sceptics might cite the successful guerrilla waged against Nazi Germany in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. However, there can be little doubt that had Germany won the Second World War and been able to apply more troops to these troublesome spots, its genocidal methods would have prevailed there too. The Soviet Union’s failure in Afghanistan is another obvious counterexample, but Afghanistan was the exception – the outlier – rather than the rule in the Soviet imperial system. Chechnya may be more enlightening in this respect, and the sequence is unmistakable: Soviet methods under Stalin – including mass deportation – were the most brutal and most effective in curbing resistance, while liberal Russia of the 1990s proved to be the least brutal and least effective, with Putin’s authoritarian Russia constituting an intermediate case. Indeed, it is in fact the comparative ease with which the empire was held down within the Soviet Union itself and in Eastern Europe that is worthy of attention. And indeed, the sample of successful insurgency is entirely skewed, suffers from a heavy selection bias, for as Sherlock Holmes has noted, it is ‘the dog that didn’t bark’ – the imperial domains lying helpless under the totalitarian iron fist – that are the most conspicuous, and most telling. The same applies to China, whose continued successful suppression of Tibetan and Moslem nationalism is likely to persist so long as China retains its nondemocratic regime.
People point to the brutality of the Assad regime and its failure to suppress the insurrection in Syria. The tragedy in Syria continues for a year and a half now, and is estimated to have cost the lives of over twenty thousand people. Yet the elder Assad inflicted a similar number of casualties in three days when suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood’s uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. For fear of foreign intervention, the younger Assad is not free to emulate his father. Putin’s Russia is no substitute for the backing of the former Soviet superpower, regrettably gone.
This is not to say that the democracies’ conduct has been saintly. Atrocities, tacitly sanctioned by political and military authorities or carried out unauthorized by the troops, have regularly been committed against both combatants and non-combatants. All the same, strict restrictions on the use of violence against civilians constitute the legal and normative standard for liberal democracies. And although many, probably most, violations of this standard remain unreported, those incidents that have been exposed in open societies with free media are met with public condemnation and judicial procedures. All these developments radically limit the liberal democracies’ powers of suppression, judged by historical and comparative standards.
The notion that ruthless brutality is the sine qua non of successful counter-insurgency suppression conflicts with the ‘winning of hearts and minds’ that has been posited as the key to success in the recent liberal democratic discourse. Indisputably, winning over at least the elites of conquered societies – through benefits, cooptation, and the amenities of ‘soft power’ – has always played a central role in imperial ‘pacification’. Yet that velvet glove always covered an iron fist that had crushed local resistance mercilessly in the first place and remained unmistakably in place as the ultima ratio of foreign control. The ‘winning of heats and minds’ has indeed become the liberal democracies’ very tenuous and expensive guideline for the pacification of foreign societies, but only because they have practically lost the ability to crush such societies by force.
Thus, despite undeniable brutalities and policy mistakes, the democracies’ counterinsurgency war record is very much a testimony to their noblest qualities. This is surely the case with humanitarian interventions, which inevitably encounter the same intractable problem just describe, which, indeed, partly deters such interventions. Still, foreign intervention has risen also in response to yet another shadow hanging over the decline of belligerency – unconventional terror.
The September 11, 2001, mega-terror attacks in the United States constitute a landmark in history, not so much in and of themselves but in demonstrating an ominous potential that is yet to unravel. This is the threat of unconventional terror, employing weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, biological, and chemical. Of these, chemical weapons are the least dangerous, with lethality from a highly successful chemical terror attack estimated in the thousands. Biological weapons pose a threat of a much greater magnitude. The revolutionary breakthroughs in the decipherment of the genome and in biotechnology open up new horizons in terms of lethality and accessibility. A virulent laboratory-cultivated strain of bacteria or virus, let alone a specially engineered ‘superbug’ against which no immunization exists, might bring the lethality of biological weapons within the range of nuclear attacks, while being far more easily accessible to terrorists than nuclear weapons. Fortunately, in contrast to chemical and biological agents, terrorists cannot produce nuclear weapons. Yet they might obtain them from those who can.
At the root of the problem is the trickling down to below the state level of the technologies and materials of mass killing. The greatest threat of nuclear proliferation into countries with low security standards and high levels of corruption is the far-increased danger of leakage. In the most famous case to date, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who headed his country’s nuclear program, sold the nuclear secrets to perhaps a dozen countries. Furthermore, states in the less developed and unstable parts of the world are ever in danger of disintegration and anarchy. When state authority collapses and anarchy takes hold, who is to guarantee the country’s nuclear arsenal? Again, Pakistan is a much discussed case. Indeed, the collapsed Soviet Union rather than the former nuclear superpower may be the model for future threats. Because of all the above reasons, terrorists’ ability to buy, steal, rob, and/or manufacture weapons of mass destruction has increased dramatically.
Scenarios of world-threatening individuals and organizations, previously reserved to fiction of the James Bond genre, suddenly become real. One no longer has to be big in order to deliver a heavy punch. Because deterrence based on mutually assured destruction scarcely applies to terrorists, the use of ultimate weapons is more likely to come from them than it is from states. In contrast to the norms crystallized between the great powers during the Cold War, unconventional capability acquired by terrorists is useable. Indeed, once the potential exists – and it does and is expanding, especially biological – it is difficult to see what will stop it from materializing, somewhere, sometime.
This is a baffling problem, which does not lend itself to easy or clear solutions. International cooperation against proliferation and in the pursuit of terrorists is essential, but quite a number of states either actively work against it or stand on the sidelines. Foreign military interventions remain highly controversial and fraught with difficulties. As this event takes place, military action against a nuclearizing Iran by either Israel or the United States may be in the cards, and may escalate into a war with major consequences for the world. Defensive measures are almost as problematic as the pre-emptive, especially in the democracies. Detainment of suspects by means of extraordinary legal procedures, debriefing methods, surveillance of people and communication, and other infringements of privacy, are hotly debated and litigated in the liberal democracies. Regarding both the offensive and defensive elements of the ‘war on terror’ this debate assumes a bitterly ideological and righteous character. And yet the threat of unconventional terrorism is real, is here to stay, and it offers no easy solutions.
We are clearly experiencing the most peaceful times in history by far, a strikingly blissful and deeply grounded trend. Yet it is also true that at least since 1945, this is also the most dangerous world ever, with people for the first time possessing the ability to destroy themselves completely and even individuals and small groups gaining the ability to cause mass death.
Proverbially, predictions are just fine as long as they are not applied to the future. Past trends, even of the most fundamental nature, may change direction or interact differently over time. Indeed, only time will tell. We can only hope that, despite ups and downs, the general trends will endure and will deepen the peace for and in our time. With a possible objection from the whales of the ocean, we all aspire that the entire world will be more like Norway.
- This text is based on the PRIO Annual Peace Address, given by Azar Gat 20 September 2012.
- The Peace Address can be viewed here.