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The Future of War: Less is More

February 13, 2014

The folks over at the New America Foundation (NAF) have launched a new initiative looking at the Future of War.* As Christopher Mewett wisely wrote here recently, NAF’s initial foray into the world of military affairs was a bit of a muddle – confusing “warfare” with “war” and offering a distinctly non-Clausewitzian perspective on the nature of war.

The real problem, however, with NAF’s take is not their interpretation of the dead Prussian’s writing but rather their odd refusal to recognize how war is fought today – or, to put it more accurately, how war is not fought today.

If one embraces the task of understanding the ways in which the nature of war is changing, a good place to start would be to acknowledge the fact that war, as a feature of international relations, is disappearing.

Here, for example, are some of the facts we know about modern war – but that the Future of War project at NAF has, to date, failed to integrate into its thinking:

  • War is Declining: In 2012 there were only six conflicts that caused more than 1,000 battle deaths in a calendar year.  That’s the twelfth straight year that the number of such wars has been in single digits – which represents an historic decline over the past several decades.
  • Great Power War Is No More:  The world is now in its seventh decade of no major power conflict – the longest such period in the post-Westphalia era.
  • Inter-State War Is Virtually Non-Existent: Wars between countries are, for many, the defining element of global relations, and certainly global history. Yet they almost never occur any more. After a seven-year period of no inter-state wars, 2011 and 2012 saw only two such conflicts – one between Cambodia and Thailand and the other between Sudan and South Sudan, two countries that were recently one. But by and large countries simply do not go to war against other countries. In fact, even the proxy wars that defined the Cold War era have gone the way of the dodo bird.
  • War Is Far Less Deadly: We have not reached a point where war has disappeared completely, as the current bloodletting in Syria reminds us.  But when wars do occur, they tend to be intra-state, contained within national borders and far less deadly than they were in the past. In fact, approximately 90 percent fewer people die in wars today than was the case in the 1950s.  According to estimates from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program the battle-related death toll in 2012 was between 37,175 and 60,260 – a slight increase from the year before, but nonetheless representative of the dramatic fall in the deadliness of war.

These facts are far more important to the future of war than the advent of new technologies with which to wage conflicts that are highly unlikely to occur.

The reasons for this seismic shift are many and multi-varied: the decline in usefulness of territorial conquest as well as the growing adherence to a set of global norms dictating the use of force; the rise in political freedom and number of electoral democracies, which is strongly correlated to a diminished national ardor for war (the United States being a notable exception); improvements in national prosperity and human development as well as greater economic and political integration between nations, all of which is correlated to a decline in conflict; the role of the United Nations – and in particular UN peacekeeping – as well as regional organizations in preventing and resolving conflict and enforcing peace agreements; and finally, the development of nuclear weapons has certainly chilled the military ambitions of potential adversaries.

All of this has an impact on the decision-making of political leaders, which is why the long-term trajectory of military spending is heading downward (military expenditures in Asia look to be a possible exception).

Of course, there are those who argue that war is a permanent and unchanging feature of the global system. Even though practically every piece of empirical evidence and the preponderance of human development metrics point to a future of continued global peace and stability, “the human condition,” as Frank Hoffman has argued here at WOTR, has been unchanged for several millennia, and so the pursuit of military advantage will continue.

Even if one chooses to believe this and take it on faith that the future of war is more war, one must at least try to grapple with the reality of war’s downward trajectory in both incidence and severity. If proponents want to talk about a future of more or even continued conflict, it should be a requirement for them to explain why the current period of peace and stability will be reversed – and to go beyond deterministic arguments about the enduring nature of war.

Yet, what is remarkable about NAF’s Future of War initiative is that it exhibits no interest in this question.  Nowhere in the various writings by team members have I seen any reference to actual data about the propensity of countries to fight each other – or the means that already exist for limiting conflict.

Consider for a moment the opening paragraph of the Future of War’s concept paper:

Today, the evolution of autonomous weapons systems, the emergence of ever more sophisticated surveillance technologies, the militarization of cyberspace and outer space, and a range of similar developments are dramatically changing the nature of war — with profound implications for the nature of the international order, the manner in which we control and constrain power and violence, and the nature of the state itself.

Under this formulation, new technologies and unmanned weapons systems (warfare) will change not just war but the global system. Perhaps a more useful exercise than looking at hypothetical cause and effect scenarios would have been for the folks at NAF to think more intently about how “the nature of the international order, the manner in which we control and constrain power and violence, and the nature of the state itself” all currently inhibit and prevent conflict – and have done so for several decades. The importance of technological changes in how countries wage war (many of which, it should be noted, strive to limit the deadliness of conflict to combatants and make full-fledged war less likely) should be weighed against the inclination, rationale or benefit that any one country will gain from initiating conflict.

Rather than looking at “how wars will be fought,” “who will fight them” and “what rules will govern the conduct of warfare,” Ricks, Bergen, Brooks et al should be thinking about the far more important question of why the overwhelming majority of countries seem so disinclined to wage war and how policy-makers can ensure that this extraordinary transformation in global relations is solidified and maintained.

Quite simply, if you want to examine and draw conclusions about the future of war, the best place to begin that process is by acknowledging the present of war.


* Full disclosure: I was previously a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.


Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.


Photo credit: Mikhail Kamarov (adapted by War on the Rocks)

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12 thoughts on “The Future of War: Less is More

  1. “In fact, even the proxy wars that defined the Cold War era have gone the way of the dodo bird.”

    Really? A few counter-examples come to mind.

    – Saudi vs Iran in Syria
    – Iran vs Israel in Lebanon
    – Ethiopia vs Eritrea in Somalia
    – Pakistan in Afghanistan
    – Russia vs US in Georgia
    – Venezuela in Colombia
    – Chad vs Sudan sponsoring rebels on each others’ territory
    – Much of Central and Southern Africa in DRC

    And I’m sure I missed a few others.

  2. So was the Russian invasion of Georgia not an interstate conflict? That occurred in 2008.

    Also, lets not forget the role that nuclear weapons have played in deterring Great Power War especially and even many regional conflicts. Look at India and Pakistan in the early 2000s – I think they would have easily gone to war if it wasn’t for each possessing nuclear weapons.

  3. I have been watching these comments for a while with growing dismay. I carefully monitor the use of three terms to gauge the value of any discussion about the “changing Nature of war.” If it doesn’t address two other important aspects, I quickly think the folks are ill-informed. Specifically the character and conduct of war must be included.
    At the nation’s War Colleges, we discuss War and use a reliable- yet deceptively simple- model of the Nature, Character, and Conduct of War. Clausewitz, Sun Tsu (and most other historical sages) have declared that War is part of mankind. It’s in our “nature.” – Perhaps from Cain and Able but who knows? Clausewitz noted that the Nature of war is immutable/ unchanging. But War has two components: its Character and its Conduct.
    The Character of War is who is fighting and why.
    The Conduct of War is the “how” they fight.
    Moreover, the Character and Conduct of war are always changing…. And the fact that they are always changing, is part of the immutable Nature of War.
    I submit that the “changing” character of war of which you speak omits the other part of the model- the conduct- and leaves you missing one-third of the concept.

  4. We’re just in the eye of the hurricane right now. WWIII is coming to those who survive the first strike. It is time that the race of men get off this planet, that we might survive.

  5. Well, one reason the participants may not well on the reduction in war is that at least some of them want more of it: the NAF team are largely pro-intervention types who strongly support the “Responsibility to Protect” idea and who want to see more US military intervention to carry it out.

    Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example, has been in favor of every single post-cold war intervention the US has carried out, and has argued strenuously on behalf of others we did not carry out — most recently Syria, but more/earlier in the Balkans, all over Africa, etc. She’s no US-imperial neocon, but she has famously advocated for the UN Security Council to start issuing “death warrants” against dictators and their henchmen.

  6. AS hinted at by Joshua Smith’s post, the past 70 odd years, in reality, is a comparatively short sample of human history. Perhaps its a little early to begin drawing conclusions about where the future of war is going based on the current historical anomaly?

  7. Very interesting article.
    Still, there is one thing that is not taken under consideration. The escalation factor. An event that
    can lead to war despite all the failsafe treaties and peace initiatives. For example 9/11 that led to 2 wars.
    Although it was not an act by a state against another, the event led to a double attack by a state against 2 countries

  8. I think this post gets it right. There is far too much emphasis on how future wars are going to be fought and not enough focus on who they are going to be fought by.
    The state finds itself at a huge disadvantage. Nuclear weapons made large scale inter-state war obsolete, they turned the concepts of victory and defeat upside now. Clausewitz said that “The final decision of a whole war is not always to be regarded as an absolute one. The defeated state often sees in it only a transitory evil, for which a remedy can yet be found in the political circumstances of a later day.” This was true up until 1945. In Korea, when despite taking a real battering, and just a decade after pushing an offensive across the entire globe with every weapon at its disposal. The USA was not even willing to use its most powerful weapons, nor to extend the war outside a relatively small peninsula, the truth was that these weapons and the proliferation and acceptance of their use in war would mean the end of the state, not just of a state.

    The state is the most powerful war-making organisation in the history of the human race. However in its drive to compete with and defeat other states it created a weapon that would strike and destroy the very concept of the state, that was deadly only to a large-scale concentrated organisation of human activity and materiel. These weapons are useless against the enemies the state finds itself fighting these days. This is because the paradox that comes with nuclear weapons mean that the state cannot fight a total war without sealing its own destruction, whereas the contemporary enemies of modern states can fight a total war, and thus possess an often decisive moral advantage, every war a nuclear state fights must now necessarily be a limited war, with all the moral disadvantages that come with it.

    So, the question of technology, of advanced weapons systems, of network war, or cyber war, or any of the seemingly endless concepts that come out of the various think tanks are irrelevant. They seem to me to be desperate attempts for the state to retain its original purpose: to fight wars. The real question is: ‘Who will be fighting wars in the future’ Since Westphalia the answer was limited to sovereign states, the thought that any organisation fighting major wars without the trinitarian foundations of a state, or without ambitions of establishing or seizing such foundations for its own state was beyond the comprehension of most, and with good reason. I personally believe that we are entering an age where the increasingly visible fragility of modern states and the feebleness of what teeth they still possess will give rise to organisations that reject entirely the notion and the concept of trinitarian foundations. They will be able to go to war without any of the limitations associated with them and have a comprehensive and in-depth blue print of exactly how to defeat such organisations provided for them; another result of states desperately competing with and trying to defeat other states.

  9. I am not convinced that the definition that a War College would present on the “Character and Conduct” of warfare is adequate today. It defines warfare in a traditional sense and this is no longer acceptable.

    The “character and conduct” of warfare today is perfectly unrestricted in the sense as described in the book of the same name. Once again, Western planners are playing a traditional game while the adversary plays the Chinese game of Go.

    I think it would be helpful if the traditional doctrine was ditched and planners got a very healthy dose of Mao and applied it to unrestricted warfare.