How to Prevent War

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

1. The changing nature of warfare

The nature of warfare is changing. In the aftermath of the Cold War, we have gradually moved from a world of concrete and tangible threats to a world of nebulous risks – from the threat of thermo-nuclear confrontation to the risk of civil war, genocide or terrorism.

Linked to this is a widening of the concept of security and collective defence to include new and variegated risks such as financial crashes, energy security, cyber-war, climate change, piracy (online and on the world’s oceans), nuclear proliferation, failed states and cross-border crime.

In response to the changing nature of risk and broader notions of security and collective defence, the means of waging war have also changed fundamentally. In the period from the late 18th to the 20th century, the greatest novelty in warfare was new forms of mechanisation – for example canons, rifles or tanks. Indeed, the core 20th-century weapon was the modern tank. By contrast, the core 21st-century looks to be ‘unmanned systems’ – drones, robots and similarly computer-directed war machines that will increasingly take the human out of the loop.

Of course progress in robotics is notoriously slow, as we know from the world of consumer goods. After all, the numerous predictions about fully automated robots at home or computer-driven cars or other means of transport have not become reality and are many years or even decades away.

However, it does raise questions about the post-humanist future of warfare and the precise direction in which we are heading. Are science and technology driving strategy? Who is making decisions about what capabilities are acceptable? On what basis and with what goals or finalities?

What links all these different dimensions together is a fundamental transformation in the ethics of warfare. Abstract rules and arbitrary decisions are replacing traditional ethical principles and practices. For example, legal and technical issues now take precedence over notions of honour, justice, legitimacy and warrior ethos – all of which impose strict limits on when to resort to war and how to wage it.

By contrast, contemporary warfare is increasingly instrumentalised and the actions – and even thoughts – of soldiers are patrolled. Little wonder that many armies face a veritable crisis of vocation.

And as key aspects of warfare are more and more outsourced to privately contracted security companies such as Blackwater, there are also new questions about authority, legitimacy and legality that need to be considered.

2. Conditions for preventing war: a shared ‘culture’ of risk perception and risk definition

In an increasingly interdependent world, conflicts and wars can erupt suddenly and unexpectedly because certain risks are transmitted instantaneously through a myriad of mechanisms – interwoven financial systems, global communication and transportation, interconnected computer systems, etc. Today the world does not face the danger of a lone ranger like in the cult movie Dr Strangelove but rather rogue elements such as non-state actors that want to bring about confrontation.

As a result, no state – not even global superpowers or great powers – can really act independently or in isolation – though when they are tempted to do so, their unilateral action tends to engender much greater instability, chaos and violence (as with the 2003 invasion of Iraq).

On the whole, the countries that face similar, systemic risks must act in cooperation with one another and/or via shared institutions that enable them successfully to manage their common security challenges. That is the one of the most fundamental principle underpinning alliances such as NATO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). In different ways, these structures all view nuclear proliferation, global terrorism and cyber-war as systemic risks that require collective action.

However, risk perception and risk definition is highly subjective to individual countries and therefore culturally specific. What may be viewed as a risk to one country is bound to differ from that of another. For example, the conflict over the province of Kashmir can either be seen as a bilateral problem opposing India to Pakistan, which is confined to them, or alongside Afghanistan it can be considered as a proxy conflict between India and China with trans-regional and perhaps even global implications.

3. The importance of bringing culture into security and justice into war

Even if different actors share risk perception and risk definition and even if they agree collectively to manage a risk, they are likely to differ on the strategies and instruments, which are a function of diverse culture and different historical experience.

For instance, the USA has tended to view global terrorism as a new military challenge that involves going to war not just against the Taliban but also against regimes suspected of harbouring terrorists – including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for which there was of course absolutely no evidence whatsoever. The Bush administration also moralised warfare by speaking of an ‘axis of evil’, which the forces of the good – read the free world led by America – must take on and defeat.

By contrast, other Western countries such as France, Germany and Russia view global terrorism primarily as a violent ideology and as an extreme form of criminal association, which must be fought with human intelligence (through infiltration) and preventive action – rather than pre-emptive warfare.

Clearly, what explains this fundamental difference is the spread of liberal interventionism (starting in the late 20th century with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) and the rise of neo-conservatism in some parts of the West but not in others. These two ideologies represent but two variants of moral crusade that embrace ideas of Western supremacism over against other cultures.

Despite widespread popular protest, there was seemingly nothing that could stop the rush to war in 2002/2003. Not only does this raise fundamental questions about the unchecked power of elected leaders. Worse, it creates new forms of war weariness that raise the threshold of intervention to such a high level as to make a truly ‘just war’ nearly impossible.

Therefore, it might be increasingly important to insulate decisions over war and peace from short-term partisan political calculation. At the same time, such decisions cannot be taken by entirely unaccountable elites either. So one way of balancing the need for democratic, popular assent with the ability of leaders to decide could be a ‘just war’ law.

Such a law would define all the conditions which would have to be met in order for a military intervention to be considered just. That would dramatically raise the threshold of going to war, while at the same time ensuring that the decision over war and peace is not determined by either elite manipulation or fickle public opinion – or somehow both at once.

4. From the ‘clash of civilisations’ to a new culture of security dialogue

Based on recent experience – whether in Iraq, Libya or Syria – it is politically realist to recognise that different countries will always tend to disagree on account of genuine cultural differences. For example, Germany seems more permanently wedded to a form of ‘constitutional patriotism and pacifism’ whereas US politics is linked to a sense of universal mission in the world that involves waging war.

But far from legitimating Samuel Huntington’s simplistic thesis of an inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’, such a recognition takes at its starting point the need for dialogue precisely because conflict and war are never unavoidable or wholly necessary. On the contrary, they are highly contingent – like all history – and they can be prevented with the right sort of institutions and policies.

Indeed, human nature is not by nature selfish, greedy, distrustful of others and therefore violent. That is merely the assumption of essentially liberal thinkers – from Hobbes and Locke via Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls and George Weigel – a prominent US public commentator who in 2002 justified the then looming Iraq invasion in terms of the Just War tradition.

Here it is worth pointing out, first of all, that this kind of thinking is distinctly modern. Indeed, both late Antiquity and the Middle Ages held that man is by nature a social, political animal who is born into certain bonds, ties and mutual obligations – not an atomised, isolated and purely self-interested individual.

Secondly, modern liberalism brings about in practice what they assume in theory – conflict, violence and war. But that does not make these assumptions true because it is the ideas, institutions and practice of liberalism alone which have produced the circumstances that the liberal creed originally assumed and asserted to be universally true and unavoidable.

In turn, the self-fulfilling prophecy of liberalism suggests that liberal ideology ultimately abolishes itself and undermines the very universal principles and forms of progress, which it purports to provide but fails to deliver. This is particularly true for liberal interventionism and neo-conservatism, its ideological mirror image.

For all these reasons, it is crucial to link the imperative of dialogue with an alternative anthropology that considers man to be by nature a political, social animal who combines self-interest and certain ties with those close to him with universal sympathy and realistic forms of generosity, solidarity and assistance for those in need.

5. Preventing war through shared institutions and leadership

But how can we promote dialogue in a world in which diverse and different values seem to be incompatible – even incommensurable? Here one may argue that most human cultures and societies share some perennial principles that translate into distinct yet often shared practices – a sense of fairness, an injunction of justice, a sense of honour and decency, a rejection of humiliation, forms of respect and toleration.

Of course no ‘list’ can ever be exhaustive, not least because the particular practices that embody universal principles are constantly evolving. Cultures have no fixed essences. Rather, they can be described as the moving images of certain ideals, which no specific period in the history of a culture or nation can ever fully realise.

As such, all those cultures which are not static, regressive or in a process of atrophy tend to be dynamic and in search of their own best traditions. Dialogue both presupposes and promotes the idea that cultures can change for the better. It draws on the willingness of both elites and ordinary people to live up to the ideals of their professed values, and it directs their efforts accordingly.

In terms of preventing war, dialogue requires some form of institutionalisation and decisive leadership. Without an institutional framework, dialogue lacks a concrete ‘embeddedness’ and an effective mechanism of changing policy. Such a framework cannot be purely procedural but requires some recognition of substantive values and goals – including the recognition that all parties concerned have legitimate security interests and no one power can unilaterally dictate to others.

Brave, courageous leadership cannot be legislated or institutionalised, but it can be fostered by political cultures. Above all, courage is a virtue that charts a radical middle path beyond two equally unpalatable extremes – cowardice and recklessness. In other words, it is a universal principle that translates into different yet similar particular practices. All cultures can recognise courageous acts, and all can be held to standards of courage – or justice or dignity or indeed peacefulness.

So instead of abstract rules or arbitrary decisions (or both at once), different countries and civilisations must come together around shared ethical goals – above all the primacy of peace over war and the need to exhaust all available means before the use of force can be considered legitimate.

For example, the Helsinki Process (1973-75) was perhaps the most striking case in recent history when Europe’s powers came together and agreed that no power would launch a first nuclear strike. It marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In today’s context, all the great powers in Europe would do well to remember the courage and steadfastness of their forebears.