War: What Is It Good For?

This is Craig Perry’s third post for our Emerging Fellows program. Both of his previous articles centered on questions about war.  With this latest post, he continues to give readers much to consider. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Anarchy is a feature of our international system. Not a bug. With no supranational authority capable of policing relations between sovereign states, competition for resources and influence can naturally lead to conflict. Great powers will sometimes resort to war—despite the risk and expense this entails—when their other, nonmilitary instruments of national power come up short. As Carl von Clausewitz famously observed nearly two centuries ago, war is simply a continuation of politics by other means—namely, acts of violence to compel opponents to fulfill one’s will. The nature of war hasn’t changed much in the intervening years, even as armed conflict has become less endemic in world affairs.

If we were to construct a taxonomy of reasons great powers wage war, it might closely resemble Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Regime survival in the face of an existential threat is the most fundamental excuse for conflict, followed closely by the protection of national sovereignty or territorial integrity. Great powers may also go to war to preserve or expand their spheres of influence over less-powerful neighbors, while the defense of allies against a mutual adversary lies higher up the proverbial pyramid. At the top of the hierarchy, we would find enforcement of international law and humanitarian intervention, arguably the most enlightened—or rather, least indefensible—pretexts for war.

Whatever its causes, however, war is always an ugly business, and great powers have long sought to constrain its excesses by codifying laws governing armed conflict. In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allied Powers even resolved “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” once and for all by establishing the United Nations, whose charter provided mechanisms for the pacific settlement of disputes and maintenance of international peace and security. Yet the UN Charter also enshrined the inherent right of states to defend themselves from armed attack, and granted the great powers of the day—in their roles as permanent members of the UN Security Council—sweeping authority to determine when a state of war exists; intervene militarily to restore the peace; and prevent the UN from acting against their interests. Such concessions were necessary to gain buy-in for the UN project, but this design flaw has guaranteed that future generations would continue to experience the scourge of war.

The question of what, exactly, constitutes war has taken on increased urgency in recent decades, as combatants have found ever more innovative ways to wreak havoc. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, for example, commits NATO members to consider an armed attack against any one of them as an attack on them all. Yet the only time in its history the Alliance has invoked this provision was not in response to a conventional military assault, but rather after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2014, the Alliance further warned that cyberattacks could also trigger Article 5 if they reached a threshold that threatened NATO’s prosperity, security, or stability. Meanwhile, NATO has quietly dropped the qualifier “armed” when describing its Article 5 obligations in most of its communiqués—a tacit admission, perhaps, that war can come in all shapes and sizes.

Indeed, while all the great powers maintain formidable forces capable of conducting offensive military operations, they are also fielding new tools and techniques to compel opponents to fulfill their will short of armed conflict—that is, without egregiously violating international law or crossing a collective-defense threshold. Consequently, future wars may not reflect the thinking of Clausewitz so much as the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

© Craig Perry 2018