On War: Its Causes and Cure

In a modern and globalized age, one of the foremost theories of international relations is the “Economic Interdependence Theory,” which suggests that war – for the most part – is too costly of an endeavor to undertake and is thus unfeasible when taking into account the interdependence and interconnection of the international economy in this day and age. On balance, however, war is neither impossible nor inevitable, and thus it is imperative for students and practitioners of politics and international relations to understand the causes of war and to assess whether there are any cures for the malady of war at the disposal of mankind.

            Based on Heraclitus’s claim in antiquity that “War is the father of all things,” perhaps it follows that even our modern and postmodern world is shaped in large part by the evolution of warfare throughout human history. What was once a hypothetical concept, today’s “cyberspace,” according to Henry Kissinger, has now “colonized” physical space through its unique set of asymmetries and capabilities. In turn, the effects of cyberspace and the rapid evolution of technology on every aspect of human life, including war, has been profound. Kissinger wrote: “Individuals wielding smartphones…now possess information and analytical capabilities beyond the range of many intelligence agencies a generation ago.” One particular commander of America’s Cyber Command has even gone as far as declaring that “the next war will begin in cyberspace.”

            However, while the form of warfare has evolved, the essence or basic nature of war has remained constant. Carl Von Clausewitz, who is considered by some to be the foremost war theorist in the history of the Western world, considered war to be nothing more than a “duel.” Clausewitz wrote:

“War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance. War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”

Thus, as the humanist G. Lowes Dickinson once suggested, an overwhelming number of “duels” or wars escalate from something petty or trivial.

            In modern terms, Hedley Bull defined war as “organized violence carried on by political units against each other.” It is important to note that violence perpetrated by individuals or groups outside of a state is not considered to be war. Nevertheless, war that is conducted between groups outside of a state is defined as “private war” and it results from the fact that war has been the most fundamental determinant of human life since the beginning of human history. War is also a double-edged sword in the sense that it signals a breakdown in social order that has to be limited and contained, but at the same time war is the most potent mechanism used to establish order and to enforce international law.

            But the prevalent view on war in a nuclear age is that war is a threat to existence and an evil or malady that needs to be curtailed and limited by international society. Even before the nuclear age and well into antiquity, Thucydides said the following about the common notion that war is more of an evil rather than good: “That war is an evil is a proposition so familiar to everyone that it would be tedious to develop it.” Also, more often than not, war is the result of human folly rather than reason. Thucydides also said: “In many cases men have been able to see the danger ahead of them. But they have surrendered to an idea that seduced them into an irrevocable disaster…by their own folly rather than their misfortune.”

Whereas messianic and total wars would occur before the advent of nuclear weapons, the costs and risks associated with total war are now too much to bear in the nuclear age and as a result many advanced societies will risk going to war only if the objective is limited and is tailored towards security in an economic and physical sense. Hugo Grotius, who is considered by some to be the founding father of modern international law, identified three causes for a “just war,” namely, self-defense, the recovery of property, and the infliction of punishment. Also, in some ways, nuclear weapons have been a “force for peace” in the sense that these weapons have established mutual deterrence between the major powers, thereby imposing unacceptable costs and risk on total war. In turn, war is justified only when the objective is to preserve vital interests such as economic and physical well-being. If war is to be rational, it must be limited, not total. As Hans Morgenthau illustrated in “Politics Among Nations,” total wars in European history resulted largely from nationalist fervor and sentiment, and if there is an uptick in this type of fervor and sentiment – which in turn is the most potent type of fervor and sentiment in politics and international relations – the odds of there being a total war will increase.

            However, Morgenthau also wrote that liberal thought as manifested by the liberal international order that the United States brought into being after World War II holds as a basic tenet that both the international state system borne out of nationalism and war itself “belong to a pre-economic period of history and are incompatible with the economic and technical conditions of modern times.” While Morgenthau, as a realist, did not concur with this liberal notion, the fact that the major powers have not confronted each other directly since the advent of nuclear weapons and the liberal international order goes to show the degree of veracity associated with this liberal notion.

            In this day and age, the threat of violence stems largely from non-state actors, crime syndicates, transnational drug mafias and terror groups, civil and ethnic strife, and separatist movements. As a result, war in this day and age is asymmetrical and irregular in nature, not conventional. “Guerrilla warfare” is thus the name of the game, and as Lawrence Freedman suggested, while nuclear weapons dragged military strategy towards one pole, guerrilla warfare has dragged military strategy towards the opposite pole. In guerrilla warfare, human morale and mental fortitude is more important than economic and military power. As Mao said: “It is people, not things that are decisive.” As a result, politics and warfare is psychological and in turn is determined by basic self-awareness as well as a basic understanding of human nature. As has been said: “Know the enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

            Mao was essentially the George Washington of contemporary guerrilla warfare, and his strategy of guerrilla warfare is now the prototype for all guerrilla groups. Essentially, Mao’s strategy consists of three stages, all of which are derivatives of Tai Chi and its corresponding method of absorbing, neutralizing, and countering an attack. The first stage is defensive in nature. Second comes the eventual stalemate after “nebulous and elusive” use of force and pestering the more powerful side. Finally, there is the offensive stage and victory over the opposing force. But what is crucial in terms of both counterinsurgency and irregular warfare and what ultimately precipitates Mao’s final stage of guerrilla warfare is that education and propaganda are more decisive in asymmetrical warfare than the fighting itself.

Nevertheless, bringing these non-state entities and issues into the purview of international laws and regulations as well as enabling states to mitigate the threats emanating from these entities and issues is perhaps the foremost contemporary challenge for international society. But the issue that remains outstanding between states is the “security dilemma,” whereby defensive measures taken by a state are perceived as offensive by another state, which in turn leads to an “arms race.” The only perceivable remedy for the “security dilemma” is the forging of arms limitation agreements between states when the diplomatic opportunity to do so arises.

Also, the main reason as to why the notion that “all is fair in love and war” is held to be true is because the ethics, morals, laws, and rules forged by intergovernmental organizations as well as historic international treaties are in essence unenforceable. Furthermore, in theory, the inclination towards both love and war – as well as hyper-religiosity – is situated in the same chromosome within the human genome which in turn is activated in situations of either hostility or romance. The higher one’s emotional intelligence is, the more acute one’s inclination towards love, war, and religion will be.

            However, realist theorists like John Mearsheimer have attributed war more to the nature of the international system, which is dictated by anarchy and chaos, rather than human nature in and of itself. Mearsheimer wrote: “The main causes of war are located in the architecture of the international system. What matters most is the number of great powers and how much power each controls.” It is thus possible to equate the “balance of power” to the distribution of power in the international system. Aside from the architecture of the international system as the main cause of war which in turn is dictated by an anarchic state of human affairs, Kenneth Waltz identified two more causes, namely, human nature and the failure of states to align their respective interests.

But in terms of the distribution of power within the international system, Mearsheimer identified four ways by which power can be distributed between states. For one, there is a scenario called “balanced bipolarity,” whereby there is equilibrium between two major powers who dominate the international system. Second, there is “unbalanced bipolarity” whereby one major power has the edge over its nearest competitor. Third, there is “balanced multipolarity” whereby there is a roughly fair distribution of power between multiple states. Finally, there is “unbalanced multipolarity,” which is the most dangerous scenario in the international system and it is perhaps the actual state of the international system today where there is a “potential hegemon” that essentially scares the other major powers by seeking regional hegemony. Today’s potential hegemon is none other than China.

            Mearsheimer argues that for major powers, the goal is simple, which is to become the sole hegemon in its own region and then prevent other major powers from dominating their own regions, which in the case of the United States would constitute dominating the Western Hemisphere and then preventing China from dominating Asia while preventing Russia from dominating Europe. However, if a major power fails to preserve hegemony in its own region, it will then face difficulties in thwarting the pursuit of regional hegemony on the part of the other major powers. It is also important to note that no major power has achieved global hegemony.

Mearsheimer adds that there are merely four strategic options that the United States can employ vis-à-vis China in order to stem the latter’s rise. However, none of them are actually viable. For one, there is “containment,” which would require the forging of a military alliance against China, which is something that other countries would not sign onto. Second, there is the option of “preventive war,” which would spell disaster for both countries due to the strategic context shaped by “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD). Third, there is the “rollback” option, but there is essentially nothing to rollback given that China has no substantial military installations or satellite governments outside of its own territory. The last option, which is economic pressure, is the most realistic and it might be the most effective in slowing down the rise of China, which is the “potential hegemon” that would perhaps be in a position to alter the status quo of the international system. One should anticipate that China will exploit economic interdependence to push the envelope against the United States regionally in Asia and perhaps globally in the coming future. Thus, given that military strength and strategic depth requires economic strength as a prerequisite, it would be necessary first and foremost to employ an economic strategy in order to slow China’s rise.

When employing a contemporary strategy vis-à-vis a competitor like China, one would also have to take into consideration the “strategic context” at play in this particular day and age. This strategic context is not dictated by conventional military considerations, given that “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) negates the military dimension to a large extent. Given this strategic context, aside from the occasional diplomatic barbs and jabs and hot rhetoric, it is more than likely that the tensions between China and the United States will fail to reach the level of a hot war. Instead, the strategic context has shaped politics and international relations in a way in which human affairs have translated into what Odd Arne Westad has characterized as a battle between “the haves versus the have-nots.” After all, one’s military position rests upon economic underpinnings, and at the moment China’s economy is rising whereas the United States has taken a significant hit with the coronavirus pandemic. Some estimates suggest that about 1/3rd of the entire American economy has vanished due to the coronavirus.

In the end, the only way to maintain the edge over China both militarily and politically in the long run is through economic strength, which may perhaps require a transfigured government role in the economy as has been done in China, which in turn has prompted China’s sudden rise as well as the prospect of China becoming the world’s top economy by 2024, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). Perhaps if more wealth is generated and distributed through economic development and job creation, the more peaceful the world will become. But the issue is that wealth can never be distributed equally, and as a result the political dimension of international affairs will persist.

Moreover, the political dimension of international affairs on a larger scale is of a mysterious nature, which requires bridging the gap between globalists on one hand and traditionalists on the other hand and in essence fostering osmosis between modernity and globalization on one hand along with culture and tradition on the other hand. Fostering osmosis between modernity and globalization on one hand, and culture and tradition on the other hand, will be the foremost challenge politically in virtually every society. Perhaps if the right people are in positions of power at the right time and in the right circumstances, and with the right amount of education and therapy, belligerence and war – along with religious fervor and romantic love – will once and for all be relegated to a recessive chromosomal trait that is never activated again.  

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