The Future of War: Less is More

February 13, 2014
Benin AK

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)