A Response and a Question

Erik Gartzke asks:

Couldn’t the presence of “nonstate 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 nonstate 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.

I would say that phenomena like modern terrorism and transnational organized crime have been around for decades. Less modern versions have been around for centuries and millennia. Their existence does not necessarily mean the permanent decline of state-centric warfare. The rise in terrorist attacks in late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the anarchist movement, and the similar rise in the 1970s were not necessarily accompanied by a decline in state power or a decline in state-centric warfare. And let us remember that terrorism is just one of the threats posed by nonstate actors; it is not prudent to put all types of nonstate threats in one bag in search of an explanation. Thus, when we have to deal with a very large number of very diverse nonstate threats simultaneously, the picture of global security gets much more complicated. Transnational criminal organizations have almost always tried to co-opt state structures to serve their ends. Clearly, at times when international system becomes more fluid, illicit nonstate actors have greater ease of operations (taking advantage of shifting international borders, population movements, power vacuums, etc.).

The dynamics of the last two decades are sometimes compared with the years following World War I in that certain state structures, imposed on various ethnic and national groups of people, kept diverse social forces bottled up for decades. When those borders and states suddenly disappeared in 1918, the effect was a sort of a social explosion—both legitimate and illicit social forces were suddenly released. Crime spilled over the old borders and became, as we would call it today, transnational; hence the need for international law enforcement cooperation and the emergence of Interpol in 1923. A similar process did not take place following World War II because the global scene was almost immediately “frozen” by the dynamics of the East-West competition and the Cold War. Border fences were raised higher instead of being eliminated. The “thaw” following the Cold War, however, certainly resulted in the massive release of both legitimate and illicit social forces. What is really new about this most recent social explosion is that it has arrived in parallel with the processes of globalization and a technological and information revolution that have no precedents in the past and that serve as force multipliers for both legitimate and illicit activities.

As to whether people in 1939 should have been pessimists or optimists about the future, it seems that Erik Gartzke proves my point about the limited usefulness of longer term historical trends for forecasting future conflicts. It is the second graph in his own essay that shows that since the 15th century there has been an overall longer-term downward trend in conflicts in Europe. People in early 1939 could certainly have been optimistic if they were to base their assessments of world security on such evidence. Hence my word of caution about pronouncing the world “more secure” today just because the longer trends demonstrate a decline in warfare. That same graph certainly shows ups and downs, or what the author refers to as “noise”; there is a clear instance of it at the beginning of the 20th century, just as there is a clear instance of it at the beginning of the 21st century (!). If, based on such analysis, people in early 1939 should have been pessimistic, then perhaps we should also be a little more restrained about our optimism.

Gartzke concludes that the overall trend, however, minus the “noise,” shows wars being on a decline. True. But the overall long-term trend was downward in 1939 and it is today, in 2011. Is that a basis to be more optimistic and consider the world today more secure than seventy plus years ago? Twenty years ago? My point is that such long-term historical analyses are just that: historical analyses that cut across very different technological, political, social, and economic eras. They do not indicate that the world of tomorrow is more secure. Contextualization of time and space greatly matters and ignoring it may lead to generalization, leading to a disaster.

As important as it is not to underestimate the enemy, it is equally important not to underestimate the possibility of future wars through wishful thinking, another classic error. Consider the attitudes and actions of key European governments towards the possibility of Nazi Germany starting another war. Their “appeasement” process may be perceived as an attempt either to avoid the war at all costs (including giving up on their allies and, potentially, eventually making huge concessions to the enemy to avoid the war). But it may also be perceived as a strong belief (as unrealistic as it would have been) that the war with Nazi Germany could indeed be avoided. From the historical perspective this may be seen either as a sign of tremendous naiveté or wishful thinking, but both preferably to be avoided in security analysis.

Regarding the question about extremism and rationality: extremism has its logic and so does transnational organized crime—both phenomena that have been with us for a long time and both phenomena that states have had serious problems defeating, not to mention eradicating. Stating that the logic of state interactions cannot be easily applied to the analysis of interactions with illicit nonstate actors does not mean that nonstate actors (and, again, terrorist organizations are just one type of them) do not have their own logic or rationality. But it is different from what states are used to in dealing with other states—hence the limitation of looking at world security from an exclusively state-centric point of view.

Are terrorist organizations rational? We probably would not say that they are rational, but it is certainly a fact that they have their own rationality, just as we have ours. Some of their members believe that it makes sense—it is rational for them—to commit certain hostile acts that most people, especially in the “western” world, would not consider rational in our understanding of what constitutes rationality. That is why that rationality is referred to as “bounded rationality,” to use Herbert Simon’s term, and it is very likely that western rationality may be referred to as “bounded” by those not sharing western values; different cultures have different rationalities.

It is less so in interactions between states, which tend to be more predictable. That predictability is much more limited in interactions with illicit nonstate actors whose very existence is based on strategic denial and deception. These aim at misleading the way states, state agencies, and people staffing them think – misleading “our” rationality. Do we learn about the modus operandi of those illicit nonstate actors and the way they think – reflections of their rationality? And do we apply that knowledge to combat them? Certainly. But they do just the same. That combined with their asymmetric reality (low visibility or invisibility; no assigned territory; not being bound by international law; their purposeful targeting of our weakest spots, which often means civilian targets etc.) puts us on the “catching up” side of the equation in this adaptability contest. To put it metaphorically, while states, even when they are conflicted, speak more or less the same language, states in interactions with nonstate actors usually do not. And when you have two or more actors aiming their weapons at each other and, on top of that, not communicating in the same language, optimism declines rather rapidly. In an era of large numbers of such hostile nonstate actors (terrorist, criminal, and hybrid), which require not only systemic, but also nuanced responses, it is difficult to say that the world today is more secure.

I would also like to pose a question to Erik Gartzke:

There have been a lot of books and articles written about the impact of prosperity on world peace. There certainly is a lot of evidence that prosperous communities live in peace, various theoretical debates seem to confirm it, and, to put it colloquially, it “just makes sense.” Why then is it that many people in various states and institutions, as well as many average citizens in different parts of the world, simply do not buy the notion that prosperity alone will eliminate some of the oldest geopolitical competitions, including the possibility of regular wars? Certainly there is a lot of truth in the idea that one’s views depend on where one lives. But there seems to be more than that. We can certainly think of Russia or China today—granted, wealth in those countries is not distributed as well as it is in “western” countries, but even within their small middle classes people do not necessarily share some of the values of the “west.” Consumerism? Sure. Capitalism? Certainly. Democracy? Well … here we have a bit of a question mark. Some would say a very, very large question mark. A question mark that makes all the other “shared” values insignificant when we think of some of the drivers of international peace. And let us keep in mind that Serbia in 1999 also had a McDonald’s restaurant—yet we went to war with it over serious differences in other values.

In spite of the large body of literature documenting the importance of prosperity for international peace, it may be a good idea to be cautious when thinking of prosperity as the golden cure for conflicts. Prosperity needs to go hand in hand with specific shared values (not just economic and lifestyle ones), otherwise you may have very prosperous individuals (or countries?) who choose to use their wealth to fund very hostile organizations. Analysis of fundraising activities by various hostile nonstate organizations shows the names of people who certainly cannot complain about their wealth and prosperity yet hold some seriously different underlying values from those that the “western” world has come to represent and, therefore, by their financial support they contribute to overall insecurity.

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.