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Is War Obsolete?

| May 18, 2012

The debate that Roland Paris and Steve Saideman have initiated about the future of the Canadian Forces is a crucial one, particularly when military expenditures need to compete for scarce taxpayers dollars. I’d also largely agree that one of the key priorities for the Canadian military must be the security of Canada’s sovereign territory (including coastlines and airspace) and the potential for assisting in domestic emergencies. One of the key shifts of the past 10 years, explicitly acknowledged in the Liberal government’s 2005 International Policy Statement, is that North America has become a theatre of operations for the Canadian military in its own right (after years of seeing our army, air force, and navy predominantly focus on contributing to security elsewhere).

It is the second priority that Roland identifies – the ability to contribute highly capable forces to overseas multilateral missions – that needs further discussion and reflection. On the face of it, this seems like a sound approach: Building and maintaining a capacity to take part in collective efforts to enforce international rules, or to maintain fragile peace, is clearly consistent with Canadian interests and values. But we also need to take a hard look at how war and conflict are changing, rather than assuming that what we have seen and experienced will necessarily continue into the future. As I’ve argued in a forthcoming essay in the Literary Review of Canada, war as we know it is undergoing profound transformation.

For one thing, researchers have noted for at least 20 years that there has been a dramatic decline in the incidence of international armed conflict (i.e., conflict between two states). So, for example, while 60 years ago there was an average of six international conflicts per year, there is currently less than one. The reasons for this shift are hotly debated. There are some, such as Steven Pinker (in his highly influential book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), who highlight the impact of norms, institutions, and changes in values. Others take a more pessimistic view about the potential for human beings to learn or evolve, stressing the effects of deterrence (whether through conventional or nuclear arms). And then there are those who, echoing the views of late-19th-century liberals, claim that economic interdependence means that war “no longer pays.” (We can see how well that prediction worked out when the First World War came along in 1914 – but maybe it has a better chance of proving true in today’s international system.)

But whatever the reason, it’s hard to contest the data. (The main sources I’ve looked at include those in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and the most recent Human Security Report.) Even the most ardent realists, who stress the need for states to prepare for the ever-present possibility of armed attack, have been forced to acknowledge that something pretty interesting is going on here. The scholar Robert Jervis, who is a loyal member of the realist camp, admitted in a December 2011 International Relations article that, while realism tends to emphasize continuity and recurrence, the last 50 to 60 years of international affairs do suggest that cost-benefit calculations, norms, and values can change.

All this is about inter-state conflict. What is even more striking about recent data is that they point to the decline in number and severity of all types of conflict, including civil war. So while 81 internal armed conflicts occurred in the 1990s, there were only 39 in the decade that followed. Moreover, despite the horrific images on our television screens, and the negative long-term effects of conflict, those civil wars that did occur were less severe, for both civilians and combatants, than those of previous periods.

These figures challenge the narrative of the first decade of the post-Cold War period, which predicted that new wars, driven by ethnic hatred, would be the major challenge facing western societies in the 21st century. They also suggest that our current government’s tendency to portray the international environment as full of danger – rogue states, terrorism, etc. – may be the product of a common ailment: the tendency to idealize the past and exaggerate the dangers of the present. (Roland suggested as much in one of his past blog posts.) This problem extends beyond our own prime minister. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen argue that the United States is facing “clear and present safety,” despite the litany of threats that most security analysts present. From the American perspective, these authors suggest, the world today is actually remarkably secure, and the U.S. needs a foreign-policy strategy that reflects that fact.

This all sounds pretty rosy. But we can’t conclude our story, or our analysis of the implications for the Canadian Forces, here. For although we are seeing a decline in international and civil wars as they are legally understood, there is a new category of “generalized violence” that is hidden by these formal categories. According to a 2011 report, The Global Burden of Armed Violence, while (on average) just more than half a million people now die annually in violent circumstances, just 10 per cent of those individuals die in formal conflict settings. Instead, the growing phenomenon of generalized violence accounts for most violent deaths around the world, and is concentrated in a relatively small number of countries, such as El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico (where an astonishing 13,000 people were killed last year as part of the so-called drug wars).

These countries do not tend to feature in many discussions about the future role of the Canadian Armed Forces, or our broader foreign policy. They are also not “overseas” in the way that the conflicts of the 1990s that engaged members of the Canadian forces (Somalia, the Balkans, etc.) were. Yet, all of these societies experience widespread, large-scale, and indiscriminate violence – whether through systematic repression at the hands of their government, or through their government’s failure to effectively address drug, gang, or political violence. As such, they deserve our attention and aid. Moreover, some of these countries are connected to Canada in significant ways. (Mexico, for example, is our partner in a free-trade agreement.)

Interestingly, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the non-governmental organization that has done so much to develop international humanitarian law (the law that applies in wartime) – is now actively engaged in developing a new mandate for action in these “Other Situations of Violence” (the ICRC’s term for these kinds of non-war situations).

Clearly, Canada’s broader set of foreign-policy tools might have something to offer these seemingly intractable conflicts. And yet, we haven’t even begun to think about how. There is little to no chance of anything resembling peacekeeping occurring in these contexts. But does that mean we can’t conceive of other possible vocations for our armed forces? Now that is an interesting and provocative question for a debate on the future of the Canadian military.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

  • Janet

    After all these millennia when war was all the rage, thinkers (and most women) recognize that it hasn’t done the planet much good: the damage far exceeds any perceived advantage gained. No one would deny that.
    We have never learned how to share the planet or to save it from ourselves. World leaders of all stripes who are in charge of the propaganda that instigates wars, insist on doing it over and over again as if the cost meant nothing, as if the ‘glory’ on the world stage meant everything.

  • Jim Cox

    Dr. Welsh presents and interesting issue, to which I’d like to contribute a few observations.

    I am of the school that differentiates between ‘war’ and ‘warfare.’ Accordingly, I believe that the nature of war is a constant, but that warfare does indeed change with the times and means available. I think too that war is a topic that should encompass much more than just a discussion on the evolution of armed forces. States make war and so any examination of war should include wider consideration of elements of state power and instruments of state power. We should also recognize the enduring contexts of war – political, historical, social, cultural and technological. I didn’t expect to see all that in the space provided above, but I think it is worth mentioning.

    When asking, “is war obsolete?” it might imply we have a choice to do something else, something ‘better’ and that we can choose to make war obsolete, or take some action to make war obsolete like we made ice-boxes obsolete; or like we made quills obsolete. I don’t think war can, in this way, be made obsolete.

    Might we ask, “is war extinct?” That formulation recognizes the persistent nature of war throughout human history and the chance that, like dinosaurs or the Quebec Nordiques, natural evolutions will wipe it out. I personally don’t believe this to be the case, but I do think, as Dr. Welsh so ably discusses above, that there is an ebb and flow to war. Right now, the numbers appear to be in favour of an ebb. I doubt the trend will ever reach zero before war flows again.

    With regards to warfare, there are different domains here too, the traditional three being sea, land and air. Today and in the future we can add space and cyberspace. Warfare is certainly an ingredient of war, but warfare can be found in many situations short of war. I tend to link warfare with ‘conflict’ and, thanks to the ICRC initiative noted above, with ‘other situations of violence.’ In other words, I agree that there is a continuing program of ‘fighting’ going on around the world and that such fighting is evolving in new and novel ways, but these new methods usually augment the ‘old’ ways, rather than replace them. As well, the intensity of warfare is another aspect that can be controlled to suit circumstances.

    There is another aspect of warfare that finds itself on a parallel path with the evolutions in foreign policy and public safety. In all three cases the significance of state boundaries is fading fast. Transnational crime looks the same no matter which side of the border you stand on. Most government departments have international programs that are rooted in domestic interests. Warfare too can look the same at home or abroad, depending on the adversary. Accordingly, I think that any priorities that might be assigned to the future CF should capability-based, not boundary or mission-based. That is to say, rather than saying the F will defend Canada first (of course they will) or that they’ll defend the continent second in cooperation with the US (of course they will), the CF should be developed with the capabilities that will most likely be needed in defending the security of Canada, wherever they go to do it.

    The fact is that the CF will continue to operate abroad (just as they have always done since Gordon’s Khartoum expedition in the late 19th century) because our strategy is to work for peace and stability ‘over there’ before trouble reaches us. It is also true that we will continue to cooperate with US forces abroad and that is why we need to ‘keep up with the Jonses’ and ensure we are ineroperable with US forces on the sea, on land, in the air; and now in cyberspace; and soon, in space. This is the kind of priority framework to be applied to the CF.

    Happily, it so happens that if such priorities are appllied, the capabilities acquired will be effective in any theatre for almost any type of warfare. Many of these types of capabilities can be easily ‘scaled down’ for non-combat operations, such as emergency humanitarian airlift, short-notice humanitarian assistance, or domestic natural disaster mitigation. There is nothing new here. This is how the Canadian military forces have operated since 1946.

    I think the three priorities listed in the Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS) are just so much political hot air. Although defending Canada is apparently priority number one, we have spent many times more on operations abroad in the past four years than we have on military operations/preparations in Canada. I don’t think the CFDS priorities have any meat at all. They are just fluff for public consumption. The only time we will have to invoke the priority to defend Canada is when the invasion is coming from the US. At that point, the other two priorities don’t matter.

    On the other hand, if we interpret ‘defend Canada’ in its broadest sense, the other two priorities still don’t matter because we ‘defend Canada’ by operating abroad in cooperation with the US.

    In the end, the only real priorities that matter are the ones that provide the CF with appropriate capabilities to engage in the type of warfare in which they will be engaged on behalf of Canada. All these capabilities should be developed within the more substantial intellectual context of war. That is, capabilities that are prioritized now, should be those to be used in war in the future, leaving only the need to mobilize additional capacity if and when it is needed.

    And I haven’t even started to talk about what other departments of government and operating agencies need to do to play their part in all this. I’m sorry for going on so long.