My boss and co-author Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently wrote a post at Gunpowder and Lead responding to the question of whether major armed conflict had come to an end. In his explanation, he notes that not only is major armed conflict still a possibility, but that the United States should be skeptical that it can pick and choose what sort of military engagements it will become involved in:
The unpredictability of armed conflict is one reason that, when it comes to current debates about counter-insurgency, I’m skeptical of the idea that the singular lesson of our recent experience is that we should never again put ourselves in a position where we are fighting against an insurgency. Surely, the position that we should be extremely hesitant to do so is reasonable, worthy of discussion; so too is the position that our current military posture is not worth its costs. But, at the end of the day, is never getting involved in another counter-insurgency situation our choice alone? Or not getting involved in another large-scale armed conflict?
This point is unfortunately lost in a lot of commentary on war and warfare. Even wars against state opponents can involve irregular actors. For example, in a potential strike against Iran to disarm its nuclear program, Israel or the United States could find themselves embroiled in retaliatory attacks by Iranian proxies in the Gulf and Lebanon. While such an attack would be a voluntary act on America or Israel’s part, it demonstrates the point. Such expansion of the battlefield is nothing new, and while the Iranian case is voluntary, states have long records of attempting to foment insurgencies and irregular threats against each other during wars. More importantly, though, dealing with irregular threats does not inevitably involve nation-building, state-building, or the exact replication of the population-centric COIN which serves as the boogeyman of the “irregular war, never again” crowd – although such changes would be significant departures from our current strategic and foreign policy assumptions.
This brings me to another one of my pet peeves – the so-called “old wars” and “new wars” paradigm that we are stuck with in the strategic studies literature. Old war, as defined by state-versus-state or “industrial” warfare, is actually a very new phenomenon. The total war arguably evolves between the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War and comes into full fruition during World War I. In other words, in historical terms, so-called industrial war is very new, and the modern state for state-versus-state warfare not much older. Irregular or “new war” on the other hand, is ancient, as wars against insurgent groups for the purpose of state-building and consolidating authority were present at the formation of states themselves. The insurgent, the private military contractor, the autonomous religious organization, the ethnopluralist and loosely networked polity and ungoverned space, the transnational corporation – these are old ideas. Their reassertion in global politics is less a return to the medieval than a return to reality.
Even in the 19th century, concerns about irregular warfare and rogue non-state actors could drive foreign policy. As Orlando Figes describes in his excellent The Crimean War, concerns of realpolitik encompassed not simply rival empires and gunboat diplomacy, but the ideologies and non-state actors such moves could empower. The Tsar of the Russian Empire, during an 1852 diplomatic crisis over Turkish concessions to France, feared the failure of the Ottoman state:
In the chaos of an Ottoman collapse he would be forced to take the capital on a temporary basis (en depositaire) to prevent ‘the breaking up of Turkey into little republics, asylums for the Kossuths and Mazzinis and other revolutionists of Europe,’ and to protect the Eastern Christians from the Turks.
This brings to light a theme I have written on before: if we look at the fuller history of great power politics, war, and warfare in the early 20th, 19th and 18th centuries (and, of course, beyond), the modern United States might profit from an understanding of how to conduct grand strategies such as offshore balancing and the management of an imbalanced multipolar system with a plethora of alternative political actors.
Managing insurgencies, irregular wars, and terrorist groups will certainly be harder in an increasingly austere age (as Daveed has pointed out in another article his post links to). The recent reports of deep cuts to the United States Army underscores this fact, reversing its growth after struggling to meet the personnel demands of regime change and counterinsurgency operations. Of the many erroneous conclusions one could (and some have) drawn from this news, one is that a United States without a large land army will soon find itself unable to face the threat of irregular warfare, weak states, and non-state actors. Another is that, whether this is true or not, a United States engaging in offshore balancing should stay militarily uninvolved in regions without great power competition and thus does not need to particularly concern itself with non-great power threats.
On its face, equating a large army with automatic success in irregular warfare is hardly a truism – Britain had a piddling army compared to its fellow European empires, but was far more successful in amassing an empire overseas than any of them. However, Britain and other European powers, when operating overseas, did craft strategies and operational models that emphasized expeditionary use of naval forces, marines, army deployments, mercenaries, and local partner forces.
Nor did Britain limit its military engagements to the area of concern for offshore balancing. The vast majority of its military activities and empire were outside Europe – which is precisely the point. By avoiding plunging headlong into European wars where balancing would suffice, Britain freed up resources for expanding British influence outside of Europe. A United States focused on East Asia and the Persian Gulf must integrate its approach there with exploiting opportunities in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere – occasionally pursuing that agenda will require force. What the deep cuts to the Army do make clear is that the old approach of using soldiers and land-bound marines to pay the blood price of full-blown democratic state-building is now economically unsustainable. As Libya and the early days of Afghanistan demonstrated, even limiting US ground commitment does not address the fundamental problem of the smash-build-and-liberalize model, even if it ameliorates its cost.
But there are ways to integrate a more modest strategy, more realistic political goals, and a lighter, more expeditionary force with a US strategy of offshore balancing and the inevitable recurrence of irregular war – and to do so in a way which bolsters, rather than drains, US preparedness for the full spectrum of threats.
The broader question, though, remains – is major armed conflict on its way out? The incidence of major conflict is certainly lower, but the explanation is much less clear. Timothy Snyder, in his review of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, does an excellent job of explaining why the answer for today’s peace may be far more contingent than what many, like Pinker, suggest. Read the full review, as paraphrasing would not do the evisceration justice. While Pinker is correct, as Snyder acknowledges, to point out that the present is very peaceful, and the idealized past was actually an incredibly violent place (in the prehistoric model of raiding warfare against rival villages, the difference between war and genocide is trivial). Where he is likely wrong, however, is to try to fully detach the reductions in violence since the formation of states and other forms of political order from contingency, and his attempt instead to couch it in terms of moral improvement.
Pinker dismisses the World Wars as the product of “a few contingent ideas and events,” but what is important to remember is that contingent ideas and events are essentially the story of modern history. As Snyder ably demonstrates, the technological and moral evolutions which made European states literate and obedient also made them capable of mass murder on an unprecedented scale. Snyder notes that Pinker tries to explain World War II essentially through Hitler, as if there were no other potentially violent tendencies in Europe after the First World War. Perhaps this is unfair to Pinker, but it is a common trope in literature crafting a narrative of the decline of war (Mueller’s Remnants of War springs to mind).
What the proximate contingency Hitler posed unleashed was hardly the same as what it created (and many accounts which remain fixated on Hitler as some almost extra-historical malignant figure regrettably, as Snyder has said elsewhere, feed into the Nazi narrative of the Fuhrer as a man almost outside time). Ernst Junger and Oswald Spengler’s thought (among, of course, many others) and the conservative revolutionaries’ integration of antiliberalism, romanticism and the adulation of technology through the military and war was apparent during and soon after the First World War (if not before), and Fritz Stern’s account in The Politics of Cultural Despair suggest anti-Semitism and illiberalism far antedated Hitler. Nor, of course, was Europe bereft of other reasons for warfare in the period before WWII. Piłsudski’s Prometheism and Intermarum concept all spoke to a deep fear of Russian imperialism, and there were plenty of virulent anticommunists which might have sought military confrontation with Moscow had events in Germany not propelled history in a different course. All of this, of course, leaves aside the issue of Japan, the quasi-fascism of which was never really broke with the Meiji Constitution (the Kodoha’s more radical, revolutionary conception of Japanese fascism, which bore more similarities to German National Socialism or Italian fascism, essentially exhausted itself after the February 26 incident) and which likely would have eventually provoked conflict with either the USSR, the Chinese, or the Euro-American colonial encirclement regardless of went on in Berlin.
The lesson here, I suppose, is that while World Wars I and II were very contingent events, so too has been the pacific trends which followed them. Had World War II not turned out the way it did, fascism would be a prominent ideology with sway over a significant number of the world’s economically developed states, its educated peoples, and intellectual luminaries (and, we should remember, Stalinist communism counted a huge number of moral, refined and powerful Western minds among its backers), and, as Lukacs argued, it would be much harder to ignore that nationalism and socialism have been at least as powerful trends in 20th century thought – arguably the two most important ones – next to liberalism and democracy.
The key, of course, is that war and violence is not a problem prone to extinction or solution, simply evolution. As Daveed and Snyder note, there are many potential causes of war, from non-state actors to the geopolitical aftershocks of economic and environmental change, which might propel future conflicts. Even if we can credit the United States and its unipolarity with the pacification of the global system since 1991, a solution which plays geopolitical and economic shell-games to disguise our limits to doing that is doomed to failure. But neither is simply hoping we will never need to confront wars or the kinds of wars we dislike fighting is a straightforward option. Exhausting American resources or diverting American willpower either to victory on unachievable terms with unsustainable forces, or to a world-transformational liberalism premised on shaky contingency rather than unstoppable moral change, will only impede efforts to husband resources for the fashioning of a global strategy and way of war suited to the coming years.