Two Questions

To Bartosz Stanislawski: Couldn’t the presence of “non-state threats” imply an important corollary for Andrew Mack’s thesis? If states really are not fighting much any more, extremists must resort to the admittedly more marginal acts of insurgency and terrorism. Even Mao Zedong said that these tactics seldom work in and of themselves, except that poor policies by states open avenues to the capture of state power, which then can be used for revolutionary ends. In other words, instead of seeking non-state conflict as more than it is, perhaps the rise of this type of conflict is a sign that state warfare is one the wane, long term.

As an aside, and as a matter of fact, people in 1939 could have only been optimistic if they ignored the statistics and history. There was a brief respite of warfare in the 1920s and early 1930s, but the longer-term trend was still increasing in the first decades of the 20th century.

Also, it is simply not good theory or policy to treat nonstate actors as irrational, especially when treating other actors as rational. Extremism may be abhorrent, but to doubt that it has a logic is to commit the classic error of underestimating one’s enemy. Again, as a point of fact, there is a considerable and growing theoretical literature that does exactly this, treating extremists as if they have reasoning abilities too. Why conflate extremism with irrationality and moderation with rationality, especially when this disarms to some degree both sets of concepts?

To John Owen: Could your argument not support a more optimistic conclusion than even that of Andrew Mack? In Dr. Mack’s world, the decline of U.S. hegemony does pose important potential risks, particularly if, as you note, the United States has been carrying the burden of sponsorship of global markets and the like. If instead we think of the “nuclear peace,” then paradoxically there is reason for more optimism. No one seriously thinks the United States will be unable to maintain a large nuclear arsenal far into the future, even if it does decline in relative terms on other dimensions of power. The Soviet Union completely collapsed in 1992. If we are to believe the nuclear peace, then we must also accept that a humbled Russia has succeeded in maintaining global stability by its nuclear balance with the United States, despite all sorts of problems both in its nuclear and conventional forces, and in its larger economy. Presumably, the United States will also be able to maintain a stalemate with any rising powers, because of the presence of its nuclear arsenal. Strangely, this implies that an Owenesque future could be more peaceful than Mackian one. (!)

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Andrew Mack outlines a dramatic decline over the last several decades in the number of battlefield deaths and of wars overall. Reason, he argues, for cautious optimism. He reviews several arguments for why this decline has taken place. He dismisses the “nuclear peace” theory, noting that the world’s nuclear powers have been involved in many wars. He suggests that several other things may be driving the trend. First, democracies tend not to fight one another, and there are more democracies now. Second, the gains that nations realize from international trade now far exceed those they could otherwise realize through plunder. In our era, conquest doesn’t pay like it used to. International support of insurgent groups shriveled after the Cold War. And International peacekeeping institutions grew. Mack argues that while each has its partisans, these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Response Essays

  • Erik Gartzke argues that modern states have engaged in fewer and less deadly wars because it is now very often more profitable to trade than to plunder. The wave of midcentury wars had two causes; these wars were often either anticolonial conflicts, in which the great powers effectively surrendered their strategies of plunder, or ideological proxy conflicts stemming from the Cold War (or, of course, a mixture of both). Yet neither cause obtains much anymore. Today’s wars tend to be between poorer, less militarily capable countries, with the great powers acting in a policing role. Whether this trend continues will depend to a great extent on the trajectory of the economically rising east Asian states.

  • John Owen agrees that both democratic peace theory and commercial peace theory have some explanatory power, and that both of them may be working in tandem right now. But what started the virtuous circle? Is there a deeper explanation? Owen suggests that U.S. hegemony is that underlying factor. Hegemonic peace theory is distasteful to many, in that it claims one nation must be richer and more powerful than the rest to set the world at peace. Though distasteful, it might still be correct; if so, we should not welcome the decline of American hegemony.

  • Bartosz Stanislawski offers a mixed assessment of today’s human security picture. Although wars have become fewer and less deadly, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Nonstate actors are of particular concern today, in that, while states’ behavior may be modeled rationally, groups with an eccentric ideological or religious motivation cannot be so modeled. The result, obviously, is insecurity. The role of the mass media is also important, in his view. While much progress has been made, and while that progress is underreported, the media tend strongly to report violent conflict in a way that fills up the 24-hour news cycle. The result can be unjustified pessimism. Neither it nor its counterpart, unjustified optimism, is warranted.