Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing our Better Angels?

August 20, 2013

It may surprise readers of this journal, but peace has broken out and become the norm.  Plato misspoke; the dead are stone cold and we the living have seen the end of war.  Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot.  Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept.  North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom, while Beijing’s central committee has turned in all their Swiss bank accounts and scheduled elections for this fall.  If you did not hear it yet, the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.

Sound like a fantasy?  Plato would think so; he thought that only the dead had seen the end of war.  But a host of scholars and pundits who embrace near term trends appear to believe that major violent conflict is a thing of the past.  These observers seem unintentionally bent on ensuring that history gets to repeat itself in even more violent cycles. Collectively, they advocate for continued cuts in U.S. defense spending as well as assorted strategic shifts that would ironically destabilize the international system and accelerate human misery in many regions of the world.

Steven Pinker, author of a chaotic book titled The Better Angels of Our Nature, contends that mankind is evolving in a permanent and linear way.  He argues that war (between states) will fade away like other barbaric practices such as slavery (except it has not vanishednot even close), public executions, and lynching.  Pinker is not alone: Bruno Tertrais boldly asserted last year in The Washington Quarterly, “we are nearing a point of history where it will be possible to say that war as we know it, long thought to be an inevitable part of the human condition, has disappeared.”  Think about the impact of such a hubristic statement that tosses a few millennia of history and Plato’s most famous quip into the trash.

This kind of thinking brings to mind Pitt’s speech before Parliament early in 1792, during a debate on the budget:

We must not count with certainty on a continuance of our present prosperity during such an interval; but, unquestionably, there never was a time in the history of this country when, from the situation of Europe, we might more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace, than we may at the present moment.

Of course, within a year, the Continent plunged into war and revolution lasting, with one short interval, until 1815.

Tertrais concurs with Pinker and believes that organized conflict “is on the verge of becoming a historical relic.” This recalls the claims of Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch a century ago, comments that were dashed by the tragedy of World War I.  Tertrais claims that they may yet have the last laugh.  More likely, Mr. Tertrais will join a long list of infamously bad prognosticators.

Troubled Analysis

This hopelessly optimistic contention has been seized upon by advocates of reduced U.S. defense spending in today’s ongoing political contest.   For example, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have written in Foreign Affairs that the notion that our post–Cold War world “is a treacherous place, full of great uncertainty and grave risks,” has too strong a hold on our public’s understanding of our security and “is simply wrong.”  They aver that our country “faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon.”

There are three problems with this analysis: It is flat wrong.  It misconceives the foundations of contemporary stability. And it perpetuates an idealistic view of the linear and inevitable progress of mankind.

While life expectancies and access to Starbucks and the internet are high, there are many forms of risk.  There are lethal threats.  Many of these, such as terrorism, may not be existential, but the United States should not limit defense or security to only those threats that can eliminate us.  Moreover, the United States does have a great power rival, at a regional level in Asia. China exhibits a belligerence, condescension to its neighbors, and scorn for international opinion that recalls German behavior in the decades prior to World War I.  Zenko and Cohen’s framework is also warped by its scale.  Near-term competition need not be global to threaten our interests or mandate a substantial reduction in our defenses.

The second omission is the rampant “presentism” in their interpretation of the state of the world.  Pinker’s acolytes think only of the recent past, and fail to account for what the last two generations did to make the world the more stable place it is today.  They ignore the fact that American power is required to sustain an international system we’ve invested so much to create during the Cold War and since.  By removing that applied hegemonic force, they would open the playing field to other, less benign forces at the state and sub-state level.  They may also inadvertently reduce other constructive and preventative resources that help dampen violence.

Finally, Pinker’s “New Peace” thesis that is embraced by Tertrais, Zenko and Cohen argues that mankind and history are on an ineluctable path.  In doing so, they ignore longer-term perspectives and potential future trends.  The databases they use to buttress their arguments show that wide fluctuations are normal in the cycle of human conflict.  Zenko and Cohen prefer too narrow a sample so that they can draw their preferred conclusions.  They argue that the world has never been safer.  Not true.  We’ve been at this level of violence twice in history, and it has spiked frequently.  We need to ask why, not deliberately distort the history to win policy points.

The principal basis for positive and optimistic assessments about war and human strife comes from databases like those generated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.  These indicate that for the past 20 years the number of conflicts has declined substantially.  These research organizations show that the number of ongoing conflicts has dropped forty percent from 53 to 31 between 1992 and 2010.  The statistics also suggest that wars are shorter and less lethal, measuring direct combat deaths and other human casualties.  All these databases show that major interstate warfare is a rare occurrence, but with great fluctuations and dramatic consequences.  The data is not generally contested, but the meaning of these trends is.

The observed reduction in both the frequency and violence of human conflict today confers the appearance of a benign world, one in which states would logically reduce their investments in security.  However, this is a simplistic view of threats and risk.  The conflict data is simply a thermometer of the atmospheric temperature today.  It makes no pretense about prediciting  the future.  These databases are useful but not more than  a record of past levels.  Is that the basis for future security planning?  It is undoubtedly true that that the aggregate number of conflicts from 1991 to the 2010 has declined pretty steadily.  But one should not infer that the risk of war tomorrow is reduced or that this trend can continue indefinitely.  At least the prudent strategic planner or even an amateur historian would not make that prediction.  The small print on the bottom of a stock prospectus is more honest: past performance is not proof of future performance.  A cursory review of the last two centuries provides a larger sample to consider.  We are at the same level of aggregate numbers of conflicts that the world faced in 1880 and 1920.  It would be interesting to know what conditions helped secure the peace during those eras.  It would also be interesting to know why both these remarkable periods were immediately followed by eras of dramatic violence.  It’s scary that policy commentators are uninterested in those questions, as if they perceive history and trends as being capable of moving in only one direction.

What this long-term analysis indicates is that interstate war is generally a low probability event, and there is great variance in intrastate or societal conflict.  Such a longer-term view accepts where we are today, but recognizes that history is not reversible.  Understanding this history is important, not because it provides a ready answer, but because it helps frame the right questions.  Are these cycles avoidable or unlikely to reoccur?  Will those circumstances be more or less likely to come about after 2015 than now?  Can we reduce the likelihood of disruption, discontent and disorder that history suggests are naturally reoccurring?  Are there signposts or other trends we should consider before we turn our swords into ploughshares and keyboards?

Signposts of a Darker Future

Signposts in the character of conflict suggest that challenges are not imminent but they are expanding.  Nuclear weapons and other technologies are proliferating, and threats either mutating or growing.  Transnational threats, religious extremism, narco-terrorism, cyber espionage and crime, nuclear proliferation, and failed states could all present greater cycles of violence and mayhem (not existential, just disruptive).

Geography and history are not prescriptive, but they caution us to think about the emergence of great powers.  While there is no “near term” competition for global hegemon, we certainly have an emergent power rivalry in the Asia-Pacific theater.  China’s economic clout, growing military modernization, and autocratic political authority pose challenges to our interests and our treaty partners’ interests that warrant consideration.  The overall scope of its military spending and modernization is not inconsistent with its economic clout, but we should be more concerned about its outlandish claims in the South China Sea and its attendant aggressive behavior.  There is little doubt that the Middle Kingdom is striving to employ its growing power at greater range and with increased ambitions.  This is a region where we have core interests at stake, and numerous treaty obligations which my academic friends tend to gloss over.

We must also consider the nascent nuclear programs of the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea.  They cannot pose threats to our homeland at present but they appear to be closer to being able to harm close allies and seriously injure U.S. interests with catastrophic impact.

In addition to the frequency of conflict, the intensity and lethality of conflict can also swing the other way.  Given the diffusion of lethal means to super-empowered networks and the availability of possibly toxic bio- or chemical-based weapons, one should pause before suggesting that large-scale violence is no longer part of the human condition.  It may not be massed armor formations, but it could be mass violence.  Consider the potential for groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, like the al-Nusra group, to gain access to sarin stocks in Syria. These possibilities distinguish the mere frequency of conflict in the present tense from its consequences or costs in the future.  We cannot base our defense on the number of conflicts alone.  We seek to shape the world to prevent wars or mitigate their impact.  Preventing wars via deterrence is still a critical element of our strategy. We cannot just be reactive: we need to anticipate risks and consequences.  As General Dempsey noted in Joint Force Quarterly, “…less violence does not necessarily mean less danger, particularly if both the probability and consequences of aggression are on the rise.” 

It is true that these are not immediate threats at the existential level, but they do pose clear and present dangers to U.S. allies and interests in key regions of the world.  This is not a distorted or dystopian perspective hopelessly infected by bureaucratic self- interest or unreasonable anxiety.  We simply do not live in a world that is, in Chris Fettweis’ terms, “a remarkably safe and secure place.”

For these reasons, despite contrary assertions about past trends, the overall risk of interstate war is increasing due to numerous factors.  Shifts in power, demographic declines, emergent regional powers, and technological diffusion portend more problems rather than less.  What Mearsheimer called the tragedy of great power politics has not gone away.  Rising powers, failed states, and the political aspirations of many Arab populations will ensure that our security remains challenged.  The greatest threat won’t be our debt.  Our principal problem will derive from the real or perceived decline in U.S. interest and capacity to work with others to preserve the present stable global order.  The National Intelligence Council noted in its most recent long-range assessment that “A declining U.S. ability or willingness to serve as a global security provider would be a key factor contributing to instability.”


We live in a better world right now, one which America’s influence has helped shape.  Continuing the conditions that have been positive trends likely will not be achieved merely by massive cuts in defense spending or retreating from the world stage.  I am on record for smart and substantial defense cuts, but not for retreat or willful ignorance.  The combination of China’s assertiveness, the dawning of revolutions in cognitive, bioscience, and nanotechnology, and the socio-political eruptions of the Arab world, might make a prudent strategist question any assumptions about a world in which peace is assumed rather than accepted as the aberration it has always been.   These are not reflexive screeds of “frenetic scaremongering”; merely simple assessments of a plausible future and one we can shape with the right strategy.  We have had a habit of magical thinking and misunderstanding the world for far too long.  That was a luxury we could afford in an area of booming resources and more chastened rival states.  But that era is over.  We too often want to sweep aside the unfamiliar or the undesirable as low probability challenges, a practice fraught with risk.  Making that error again would be a huge mistake and do more to ensure the return of history in short order.

We should be prudent and not overlook strategic history, politics, nationalism, our competitors in Asia, and the issues posed by Russia’s decline.  Nor should we overlook the potential for miscalculation from misguided policy makers in Iran and North Korea.  Finally, we cannot ignore our allies in critical areas of the world, including Japan and Israel.

So take a deep breath into a brown paper bag—human nature and history have not changed.  Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz.  They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer.  A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.  We cannot predict the future, but the long arc of history is a sure guide to what lies ahead.  The only question is whether we will be prepared or rendered vulnerable by optimistic but flawed thinking.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, and serves as Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  These insights and comments are his own.