The Roots and Evolution of Conflict: From Cain to the Present

Authored by: Azar Gat

The Ashgate Research Companion to War

Print publication date:  January  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754678267
eBook ISBN: 9781315613741
Adobe ISBN: 9781317041115




My book, War in Human Civilization, set out to unravel the ‘riddle of war’, to find the answers to the most fundamental and long-elusive questions concerning war. 1 1

Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Why do people fight? Is war rooted in human nature, or did people start to engage in it only with the advent of agriculture, the state and civilization? How has war affected and how has it been affected by modernity and by the spread of democracy? What is the future of war?

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The Roots and Evolution of Conflict: From Cain to the Present

My book, War in Human Civilization, set out to unravel the ‘riddle of war’, to find the answers to the most fundamental and long-elusive questions concerning war. 1

Azar Gat, War in Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Why do people fight? Is war rooted in human nature, or did people start to engage in it only with the advent of agriculture, the state and civilization? How has war affected and how has it been affected by modernity and by the spread of democracy? What is the future of war?

These questions are not new, and they have resisted conclusive answers to the point that both questions and answers appear almost as clichés. But they have very rarely been subjected to a rigorous comprehensive investigation. In pursing the answers, the book took a global view, and ranged from pre-history to the twenty-first century and analyzed interdisciplinary approaches, combining anthropology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, history, sociology, economics, and political science.

The first part of the book – entitled only half-whimsically the ‘The First Two Million Years’ – addresses what I call the human state of nature, when humans lived as hunter-gatherers. This part aims at resolving such fundamental questions as why people fight and since when they have been doing so.

Let us begin with the question of when humans started to fight. Was warfare always there – is it as old as the species? Or was it a relatively new phenomenon, only emerging with humankind’s cultural evolution? For instance, did it begin with the advent of agriculture (that occurred in the most pioneering groups of people some ten thousand years ago), or the emergence of the state (again, some five thousand years ago in some parts of the world and much later in other parts: in the now advanced societies of northern Europe and Japan, for example, only about fifteen hundred years ago)?

What disciplines deal with this question? History does not deal with it at all. It only begins with literacy, that is, 5,000 years ago in the most advanced societies. However, the genus Homo has existed for about two million years, and our own species Homo sapiens, people who are biologically similar to us, has existed for over 150,000 years. Thus, human prehistory comprises 99.5 and 95 percent of our time on this planet. Compared with these time spans, historical times are just the tip of the iceberg. This only underlines the question of whether fighting is a new cultural invention or has always been around.

It was in the field of political philosophy that the question was first addressed systematically. Here the two classical and conflicting answers were formulated – by Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth. For Hobbes, the pre-state condition was characterized by a war of every man against every man, when, in the absence of a peace-enforcing authority, life was ‘poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. For Rousseau, things were quite the opposite: the aboriginal condition of humans was fundamentally peaceful and innocent. In the absence of property before agriculture, there was little to fight over. War, according to Rousseau, is a late development, one of the ills of civilization. So convincing were each of these positions that they have remained with us until today.

But who was right: Hobbes or Rousseau? For political philosophers the question barely exists at all. They usually claim that Hobbes and Rousseau postulated the state of nature as hypothetical, and leave it at that. But this is not an entirely accurate description of Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s views, and, irrespective of how they saw it, the question is unquestionably historical and empirical. Living in the age of exploration and of European contact with a variety of aboriginal societies, Hobbes and Rousseau were well aware of this. And since then, our insight into the distant past of humankind has increased dramatically, and with it also the realization of how recent in human history the development of agriculture and the state was.

This leads to archaeology. What light can it shed on our question? Unfortunately, not that much, and the main reason for this is that weapons for fighting before the introduction of metals are practically indistinguishable from hunting implements: stone axes, spears, and arrows. Were they used for hunting only, or were they dual-purposed and used also for fighting? We cannot tell with certainty. Even when missile-heads are found embedded in human bones, this can be attributed to hunting accidents. As for specialized fighting equipment such as shields that are made of perishable material such as wood or leather, these have not survived. Also, people did not live in sedentary dwellings until the transition to agriculture during the Neolithic Era (and in a few cases as early as the Upper Paleolithic or Mesolithic), and therefore evidence of fortifications and destruction that we find from the Neolithic on does not exist. The same applies to evidence from cemeteries, which also appear only when people settled down in sedentary settlements.

Biology has gone through an interesting development which serves as a sobering lesson regarding the evolution of ideas, including scientific ideas. During the 1960s, the founder of ethology, the science of animal behaviour, Noble laureate Conrad Lorenz, popularized a set of controversial ideas regarding violence in nature. Lorenz claimed that fighting between animals of the same species is mostly ‘ritualistic’ and mainly involves display. The loser retreats or submits, while the victor refrains from pressing its advantage to the finish. According to Lorenz, the reason for this pattern of behaviour was the need to preserve the species.

It thus appeared that humans, who fight to kill their own kind, are a deviation from the normal pattern in nature. This notion of a murderous human perversion – a killer ape – sat well with the Rousseauite doctrines of the 1960s regarding nature’s purity, the corruption of civilization, and man as a blank slate, wholly moulded by culture. The view that fighting was a late by-product of human civilization became widely held.

Since then, however, evolutionary theory has undergone a sweeping change, known as the neo-Darwinian revival. It became clear that natural selection mostly takes place within, rather than between, species. As Darwin himself argued, the struggle among individuals from the same species is the most intense, because they compete for the same sorts of food and for the same mates, in the very same ecological niches.

At the same time, there have been major new empirical findings regarding animal fighting in nature. It has been revealed in innumerable studies carried out since the 1970s that within species in nature perpetual violent and lethal competition takes place. This also includes our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, studied in their natural habitats by Jane Goodall and others, and documented to engage in murder, as well as in group fighting and killing. It is true that adult animal males usually avoid a fight to the finish among themselves for reasons of self-preservation – any serious injury might render an animal incapable of getting food and result in starvation. There is no social security in nature. Yet when deterrence by the display and demonstration of force fails, serious fighting, injuries and death often follow. Furthermore, most killing within species in nature is carried out against the young and the weak, including eggs, chicks and cubs. Such asymmetrical killing is performed with relative safety for the killer. No benevolence towards one’s kind exists. Lions killing the cubs of the former monarch of the pride; chicks in a nest pecking their siblings to death when there is a food shortage; birds throwing the eggs of other birds of their kind from nests; and so on.

So as biology has completed a full circle since the 1960s, as it turns out, humans are no longer unique in nature in extensively killing their kind, and do not call for some special explanation. Widespread killing within the species is actually the norm in nature. This still leaves the empirical question: what are the actual findings regarding humans in the state of nature? Is there concrete evidence that people fought before agriculture and the state?

The discipline that is the richest in relevant information for answering this question is anthropology, which studies extant and recently extinct pre-state and pre-agricultural societies – not that access to, and the interpretation of, that information is easy. The main problem is the so-called ‘contact paradox’. These societies have no written records of their own, and documentation therefore requires contact with literate societies that necessarily affect the former. As in quantum mechanics, the very activity of observation changes the object under observation. For example, literate societies have goods – such as agricultural products, livestock and manufactured tools – which hunter-gatherers might want to steal. How can it be determined that a war-like behaviour on their part did not originate only with contact, but had existed before? How can one observe pure hunter-gatherer societies that are free from contact with agriculturalists and states? This is like the light in a refrigerator: does it really turn off when the door is closed?

Because of this built-in ambiguity, anthropologists to this day continue to debate who was right, Hobbes or Rousseau, with their answers changing with the Zeitgeist: the nineteenth century was dominated by the Hobbesian image of the savage and the brute, whereas the twentieth century, with its critique of civilization, was predominantly Rousseauite.

So the challenge is how to observe pure hunter-gatherer societies to determine whether they fought or not. The most significant test case is Australia, an entire continent of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers, with no agriculturalists and pastoralists, whose isolation came to an end only two hundred years ago, in 1788. This is the closest to a pure laboratory on a continental scale that we are ever going to get. Australia incorporated about 300 regional groups, or tribes, when the Europeans arrived. The evidence shows that the Aboriginals fought incessantly among themselves, including the material evidence of shields, which were not of course used for hunting kangaroos. Almost as good a laboratory is the American North-West, from Oregon to Alaska, a huge space of nearly isolated complex hunter-gatherers who also are revealed to have fought incessantly. Even the Kalahari Bushmen which were the focus of study in the 1960s, and were celebrated as peaceful by their chief researcher, the Harvard Marxist anthropologist Richard Lee, among others, were soon recognized to have had four times the 1990 US homicide rate, which was itself by far the highest in the developed world.

To summarize the findings with respect to the many pre-agricultural and pre-state societies studied around the globe, findings which might be vague in any particular case but which consistently repeat themselves in one separate anthropological case study after the other, thereby becoming an unmistakable pattern: around 25 percent of the adult males in these societies found a violent death, while all the rest were covered with scars. Lawrence Keeley’s book, War before Civilization, systematically demolished Rousseauite anthropology, providing extensive and varied anthropological and archeological evidence. This point is reinforced by the fact that mostly different case studies were used, as Professor Keeley concentrated on the Neolithic and horticulturalists, whereas I mainly focus on hunter-gatherers, because Rousseau’s original claim concerned the effect of the transition to agriculture. In any case, the findings are very similar. Contrary to prevailing views, pre-agriculture and pre-state societies suffered from a much higher violent death rate than that incurred in modern societies, with only the world wars coming close. An endemic state of insecurity and fear prevailed in these societies which shaped all aspects of their lives. Hobbes was much closer to the truth than Rousseau in describing the human state of nature.

I shall now pass on very briefly to the question of why people fight. People, like all organisms, fight for the attainment or defence of the very same objects of desire that underlie their lives in general, and which are originally shaped by the calculus of survival and reproduction in the evolutionary state of nature. People can cooperate, compete, or use violence in order to achieve these objects, depending on what they believe can serve them best in any given circumstances. Violence is not a primary drive which requires release, like the desire for food or sex, as some 1960s theorists and popular writers believed, following Freud’s latter-day theorizing about thanatos, which was controversial even among his followers. Think about the Swedes or the Swiss, who have not fought for centuries, and yet exhibit no particular distress on that account. But try to imagine their reaction if deprived of food or sex for any substantial period. So if violence is ‘hardwired’ in us, so to speak, this is not as a primary drive, but as a means, a tactic for achieving desired aims. And it is a very dangerous means, which is therefore mostly activated if other, more peaceful, means fail, or are too costly, and if the chances of success are judged good. Violence is the hammer in our evolution-shaped behavioural tool kit, which also contains a variety of more delicate instruments, to be selected according to the circumstances at hand.

So what did people in the state of nature fight over? Resources such as hunting territories were fiercely competed and fought over – because scarcity often meant the difference between life and death; the stakes were very high. There was no primordial state of abundance and free common land of the Rousseauite anthropological imagination. Women were hotly fought over, again because reproduction is a tremendous selection force, and is therefore central to our system of motivation. Polygamy for the more successful men was the rule, as was fighting caused by the abduction of women, rape, and extra-marital relations.

Status in society has always been a means for getting one’s way and reaping material and reproductive benefits, and has been hotly pursued and fought over as such. People staunchly defend their honour, for if they do not they may be trampled over and encourage further encroachments, that is, create a process of victimization. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: those who prefer shame to war, may beget shame and then war. People retaliate to deter injuries inflicted by others, because as a famous computer game has demonstrated, tit-for-tat is the most effective mechanism in human relations: respond with good will to acts of good will, but pay back on injures. However, tit-for-tat often results in a vicious cycle of retribution, when people find themselves locked into conflict in a sort of ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, irrespective of the original causes that generated that conflict in the first place.

Indeed, under conditions of competition and potential conflict, the other’s very existence constitutes a threat, which requires vigilance, increase in strength and even preemption, all of which, in turn, only intensify the sense of mutual insecurity. The result is yet more vicious circles, such as the ‘Security Dilemma’ variant of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, when fear and suspicion of the other, in themselves, even in the absence of offensive intent on his part, pushes the sided to arm themselves, fight, and even expand, all for defensive reasons. One result is arms races, which exist all over nature; they are the reason why trees have trunks: they take the enormous expenditure involved in growing trunks only in order to outdo one another in getting to the sun. But arms races often result in a ‘Red Queen Effect’, called so after one of the paradoxes in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where the sides run as fast as they can, spending energy and resources, only to remain in the same place relative to one another. So there are real enough reasons for conflict and war, which, however, may then get inflated because of mutual hostility, fear and suspicion, with conflict seemingly assuming a life of its own – escalating and perpetuating itself – causing heavy losses to all sides almost irrespective of their original motives.

Finally, people prefer kin to non-kin – which is the root cause of tribalism, ethnocentrism and nationalism – and they may support kin even by force. Also, they have cultures and comprehensive outlooks – religious and secular ideologies – which they regard as crucially important for ordering life in this world, and sometimes the afterlife, and which again they may defend and promote by force.

Part Two of my book, War and Civilization, traces the interrelationship between warfare and such landmark transformations of human history as the transition to agriculture and the rise of the state and civilization. Just a few of the general themes will be discussed here.

Increasingly dense and sedentary populations, stationary means of production and accumulated property now made possible a differential appropriation and concentration of surpluses. In a process first outlined by Rousseau, existing natural differences between people were enormously magnified and objectified by accumulated resources. On this at least Rousseau was right – relying on concentrated wealth, and the social power that emanated from wealth, the rich and powerful dominated social life. State emergence was the culmination of this process, as a single power nucleus won against all others in an often-violent competition. It established command over a population, institutionalizing power, driving other social power nuclei into subordination, and introducing hitherto unprecedented levels of hierarchic organization, coercion, systematic resource extraction and force mobilization, while competing with neighbouring state structures.

This highly violent process was the main driving force for the growth of civilization. As political societies grew in size through forceful means, they created economies of scale, aggregated and purposefully directed resources and human activity, and gave rise to monumental building, literacy, and high culture.

Another major consequence of state emergence was the gulf that opened up between internal and external – ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ – violence, which had been far less distinct from one another in both scale and methods in pre-state societies. To be sure, the prospect of violent conflict dominated state existence not only abroad but also at home, as in struggles for the throne and civil wars. Still, in ‘normal’ times statehood created a sharp difference between small-scale murder and feud, now outlawed, on the one hand, and large-scale organized violence, construed as war, on the other, a distinction which we take for granted but which is as recent as the state itself.

State wars, with their coercive mobilization of people and resources and growing scale, resulted in a continuous increase in the size of the fighting hosts and in a wholly new level of regimentation: participation became obligatory rather than voluntary as in pre-state societies; armed forces grew from scores of men-warriors into thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands; warriors became soldiers; disorganized kin-based hosts gave way to orderly fighting formations; stricter hierarchic command replaced leadership by example. Fortifications, much denser sedentary settlement, and greater distances spelled a decline in the significance of the raid – the predominant and most lethal form of warfare in pre-state societies – because wholesale surprise of the enemy community became more difficult to achieve. The siege and the battle became almost synonymous with war. Large-scale and long-distance campaigning required complex logistics, and the state’s bureaucracy was called upon to support and sustain larger and more permanent armies, securing finance and supervising over the acquisition and requisition of provisions. Indeed, it was the state apparatus that also made possible permanent conquest and direct rule over foreign people – that crucial upgrade in the activity of war which was responsible for the state’s continuous increase in size.

It should be realized, however, that although growing scale was an underlying trend of state warfare, overall violent mortality rates actually decreased with the growth of the state. The state’s success in imposing internal peace – limited and fragile as it was – was probably the major reason for this decrease. But there was another factor involved, largely at variance with commonly-held intuitions. As states grew in size, their civilian populations became less exposed to fighting, and adult male participation rates in their armed forces declined in comparison to tribal societies, simply because of the constraints imposed by far greater distances. Despite the state’s coercive powers, in large-scale polities it was possible to call into military service only a limited part of a country’s manpower, because the rest of the men had to be left behind to produce food. Warfare was no longer close to home as in small scale societies, when people could leave their productive occupations for a day’s, or a few days’, campaigning. For these reasons, whereas armies, wars and killing all grew conspicuously larger in absolute terms, they actually decreased in proportion to population.

In the Second Punic War (218–202 bc), ancient Rome’s most devastating conflict, of which we have relatively good census and other demographic statistics, Rome (and Italy) lost, according to one minimalist estimate, at least 17, if not more than 20, percent of its adult male population. 2

Peter Brunt, Italian Manpower, 225 B.C.–A.D. 14 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971), 54, 63, 84, mainly addressing the calamitous years 218–216 bc.

But a calamity of such magnitude was exceptional. Some parts of Germany are estimated to have suffered even greater demographic losses during the Thirty Years War. In relation to the general mortality, death in war in France, one of the most warlike nations in Europe, is estimated by one source at 1.1 percent in the seventeenth century, 2.7 percent in the eighteenth century, 3 percent in the nineteenth century and 6.3 percent in the first three decades of the twentieth century. 3

Quincy Wright, A Study of War (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1942), i. 665, Table 57; these estimates appear to be very tenuous, but can still serve as a rough indicator.

In the American Civil War 1.3 percent of the population were either killed or wounded. In World War I about 3 percent of both the French and German populations died, representing roughly 15 percent of the adult males. In World War II over 15 percent of the Soviet Union’s population perished, and around 5 percent in Germany. However, when averaged over time, even the dreadful figures from these cataclysmic events fall short of those for primitive societies. Thus, contrary to perception, only particularly catastrophic spates of state warfare resulted in anything near the twenty-five percent violent mortality rates among adult males that small-scale pre-state societies are recorded to have incurred as a matter of course in their incessant inter- and intra-group violence. As Hobbes rightly saw, only protracted civil war or particularly severe foreign invasions resulted in something akin to a return of pre-state anarchy, pervasive insecurity and great violent mortality.

The substantial decline in violent mortality under the leviathan thus runs counter to the view that blames fighting on the state. The state has been aptly likened by Charles Tilly and others to organized crime, in the sense that it monopolized force and compulsorily extracted resources from society for its own profit in return for the promise of protection from both internal and external violence. 4

Charles Tilly, ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’, in P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, and T. Skocpol (eds), Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169–91.

Indeed, some would further extend the analogy by arguing that the main threat of violence came from the state itself; that it offered a solution to a problem of its own making. However, in view of what we have seen, at least the latter conclusion should be regarded with caution. While violence under the state, as under organized crime, was of greater magnitude and more spectacular, it actually produced fewer casualties than pre-state violence. Systematic ‘extortion’ by the state was economically less disruptive than pre-state violence, and the state offered more protection. Undeniably, though, ‘protection money’ was channelled upwards, to the state’s socio-political-military leadership and elite.

Finally, there is a strong interrelationship forged during modernity between wealth, technology and power, all undergoing tremendous growth with the rise of capitalism and especially with the Industrial Revolution. 5

Azar Gat, Victorious and Vulnerable: Why Democracy Won in the Twentieth Century and How It is still Imperiled (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. Inc., 2009).

For the first time in history wealth means power. Poor tribal folk from the barbarian frontiers of wealthy civilizations had regularly taken over by force, but, as Adam Smith discerned, this was no longer possible. Generally, the wealthier a country, the more powerful it is.

But there is also another side to this correlation, and this is that economically developed societies have demonstrated a markedly decreasing tendency to fight each other, and today they scarcely fight each other at all. A so-called ‘long peace’ has existed among the great powers since 1945, which is often attributed to nuclear deterrence. But the second longest peace among the great powers in fact took place long before the bomb, between 1871 and 1914, and the third longest peace took place between 1815 and 1854 – all occurring in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the wake of industrialization. After 1815, wars among the great powers and other economically advanced countries declined in their frequency to about a third of what they had been in the early modern period, when the great powers fought on average in one out of every two or three years. This decline in warfare, relating to the advent of industrial society, was already noted in the first half of the nineteenth century by thinkers such as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill.

People tend to believe that the reason for the decline in warfare between developed countries is that wars have grown more lethal, expensive and destructive, but in reality they haven’t – at least not when measured relative to population and wealth. The Second Punic War, or the Thirty Years War in Germany, were no less lethal and destructive than the World Wars, and these are only examples. The real change since the takeoff of the industrial revolution is that peace has become more profitable. Several interrelated developments are responsible for this. First, in the past, wealth was finite, and the only question was how it was to be divided. But now the Malthusian trap has been broken, and production and wealth have rocketed. Wealth per capita in the developed countries has grown about 30-fold since the beginning of the industrial era, with the acquisition of wealth ceasing to be a zero-sum game. Indeed, more widely recognized is the second development: commercial interdependence for the first time in history makes the enemy’s loss also our own, because it depresses the entire system. This reality, already noted by Mill, materialized after World War I, as Keynes predicted it would in his Economic Consequences of the Peace. Third, greater economic openness has decreased the likelihood of war by disassociating economic access from the confines of political borders and sovereignty. It is no longer necessary to politically possess a territory in order to benefit from it. Thus, the greater the yields of competitive economic cooperation, the more counterproductive and less attractive conflict becomes.

As previously mentioned the role of sexual competition in sparking pre-state fighting played a major role. It is interesting to look at the effect of the sexual revolution on warfare over the past generation, an effect which comes not from the state level but, no less powerfully, from the grass roots. One of the reasons men enlisted in the past was the allure of sexual adventure away from the restricting norms of their home communities. Much of the adventure took the form of mass rape, something we could still witness horrifically in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sudan. Like looting, rape was one of the perks of war. However, with the sexual revolution, the balance changed completely. Young men are that much more reluctant to leave the pleasures of civilian life for the rigour and chastity of the front. It is no coincidence that the slogan of the anti-war campaign of the 1960s, when the sexual revolution took off, was ‘make love not war’. There is no need to fully embrace the theories of Freud, Reich and Foucault to appreciate the significance of this factor.

The virtual disappearance of war among developed countries is hugely encouraging. Throughout history, the greatest and most destructive wars have always been those fought among the great powers. By contrast, the only wars that we have today are against relatively weak states, either taking place among non-developed countries, or between them and developed powers. The affluent parts of the world constitute a ‘zone of peace’, which is a great novelty. And the trend is even stronger among liberal democracies.

For, indeed, liberal and democratic societies have proven most attuned to modernity’s pacifying aspects. Although this proposition was long regarded with scepticism, the supporting evidence has become quite overwhelming. Relying on arbitrary coercive force at home, non-liberal and non-democratic countries have found it more natural to use force abroad. By contrast, liberal democratic societies are socialized to peaceful, law-mediated relations at home, and their citizens have grown to expect that the same norms be applied internationally. Living in increasingly tolerant societies, they have grown more receptive to the Other’s point of view. Promoting freedom, legal equality and political participation domestically, liberal democratic powers – though initially in possession of vast empires – have found it increasingly difficult to justify rule over foreign peoples without their consent. And sanctifying life, liberty and human rights, they have proven to be failures in forceful repression. Furthermore, with the individual’s life and pursuit of happiness elevated above group values, sacrifice of life in war has increasingly lost legitimacy in liberal democratic societies. War retains legitimacy only under narrow and narrowing formal and practical conditions, and is generally viewed as extremely abhorrent and undesirable.

The fruits of these deepening trends and sensibilities have been nothing short of miraculous. Their most striking and widely-noted manifestation is the inter-democratic peace. Although modern democracies have been extensively involved in wars with non-democracies, they hardly ever fight among themselves, and this trend is deepening with growing liberalization, democracy and economic development. Domestically too, on account of their stronger consensual nature, plurality, tolerance and, indeed, a greater legitimacy for peaceful secession, advanced liberal democracies have become practically free of civil wars, the most lethal and destructive type of war.

The inter-democratic peace is increasingly found to be merely the most conspicuous element of a larger whole. The liberal democracies’ particularly poor record in counter-insurgency wars is a case in point.

Historically, the crushing of an insurgency necessitated ruthless pressure on the civilian population, which liberal democracies have found increasingly unacceptable. Pre-modern powers, as well as modern authoritarian and totalitarian ones, rarely had a problem with such measures, and overall have proved quite successful in suppression. Suppression is the sine qua non of imperial rule. The British and French empires could sustain themselves at a relatively low cost only so long as the imperial powers felt no scruples about applying ruthless measures, as the British, for example, did most memorably in Ireland, the Scottish Highlands and India as late as the 1857 Mutiny. However, as liberalization deepened from the late nineteenth century, the days of formal democratic empires became numbered even while outwardly they were reaching their greatest extent. At the turn of the twentieth century, the British setbacks and eventual compromise settlement in South Africa and withdrawal from Ireland were signs of things to come for other liberal democratic empires as well.

Sceptics might dispute democracy’s uniqueness, citing the successful guerrilla war waged against Nazi Germany in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. However, there can be little doubt that had Germany won World War II and been able to apply more troops to these troublesome spots, its genocidal methods would have prevailed there too. Russia’s failure in Afghanistan is another obvious counterexample, but Afghanistan was the exception, the outlier, rather than the rule in the Soviet imperial system. Chechnya may be more enlightening in this respect. Indeed, the sequence is unmistakable: Soviet methods under Stalin – including mass deportation – were the most brutal and most effective in curbing resistance, while liberal Russia of the 1990s proved to be the least brutal and least effective, with Putin’s authoritarian Russia constituting an intermediate case. The Soviet empire only fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet totalitarian system. Indeed, Germany and Japan lost their empires because of their defeats to other great powers in the world wars, and not because of indigenous uprisings. The same logic applies to China, whose continued successful suppression of Tibetan and Moslem nationalism is likely to persist so long as China retains its non-democratic regime. The record of counter-insurgency wars is sharply skewed towards the democracies’ post-colonial conflicts, but as Sherlock Holmes pointed out, it was the ‘dog that did not bark’ under the totalitarian iron hand that was in greater need of an explanation.

This is not to say that the democracies’ conduct has been saintly. Atrocities, tacitly sanctioned by political and military authorities or carried out unauthorized by the troops, have regularly been committed against both combatants and non-combatants. All the same, strict restrictions on the use of violence against civilians constitute the legal and normative standard for liberal democracies, radically limiting their powers of suppression, judged by historical and comparative standards. Indeed, legal and normative constraints on the conduct of war – ‘lawfare’, as they have been called – are increasingly gaining in potency in liberal societies and their international institutional offshoots, influencing the outcome of wars no less than warfare itself.

There is a catch that lies at the root of affluent liberal democracies’ torment in conflict situations. Since wars are abhorred in liberal societies as antithetical to both their interests and values, they are sanctioned only as a last resort. Yet it is difficult to determine if all alternative policies have indeed been exhausted, that war has really become unavoidable. A feeling that there may be another way, that there must be another way, always lingers on. Errors of omission or commission are ever suspected as being the cause of undesired belligerency. Moreover, it never becomes clear that the democracies come to a conflict with entirely clean hands – morally – because of past or more immediate alleged wrongs, given the inevitable gap that separates ideals from reality.

The democracies’ reaction to the Axis’ challenge during the 1930s amply epitomizes this predilection. Everything was done to avoid military action, even if this meant allowing Germany to regain its power, grow in confidence owing to the democracies’ inaction, and cross the point of no return on its road to expansion. The democracies’ feelings of guilt for not having treated Germany in good faith after World War I contributed to their paralysis. To be sure, as critics caution, Hitlers are rare and not every crisis is the 1930s. All the same, the 1930s are a standing reminder that the democracies’ strong aversion to war, while immensely beneficial overall, can become a grave problem in serious conflict situations.

In conclusion, an affluent and liberal democratic world promises to be pacific, yet most countries are still far behind on the road to modernization, and some develop in directions which are not liberal and democratic. Huge and fast-industrializing non-democratic China is the most obvious case, with Russia too retreating from democracy and liberalism. Another ominous development is the trickling down of weapons of mass destruction to below the state level. We now face the fearful prospect of unconventional terror, especially biological and nuclear. This cannot be deterred, as between states, because terror organizations are often composed of a small number of zealots who have no clear address against which to retaliate, and who in any case are willing to sacrifice themselves. This is a mighty challenge we are facing today and shall increasingly face tomorrow. War has been receding, but a world without war has yet to materialize.

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