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The confidence to say 'no' to
would-be warmakers



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 26, 2008

LONDON - "It is hard to deny that war is inherent in the very nature of the state", wrote the eminent war historian, Michael Howard. This is true but it is not the whole truth. War and even more so the preparation for war is commonplace. Yet it is diminishing. The body count may have increased but the occasion of war has unquestionably diminished.

Indeed, what we see today is the culmination of a long process. The decline of the amount of warfare in Europe, the epicenter of most wars on earth the last 600 years, has been in process for some 150 years.

Undoubtedly, the European Union's greatest achievement has been to realize what was in fact its founders' purpose- to cement the often warring nations of Europe into a peaceful whole. So easy to summarize the achievement. So easy too to underestimate the historical magnitude of this quite astonishing and unprecedented success story.

Nevertheless, it is so called 'realists' who appear to have the ear of our politicians, judging from the debates of the presidential contenders in the U.S. primaries, all of whom are united in arguing for increased defense spending. Professor John Mersheimer of the University of Chicago, its greatest practitioner, argues that "the state system is alive and well. In fact there have been no fundamental changes in the nature of international politics since World War 2. Military competition between sovereign states will remain the distinguishing feature of international politics for the foreseeable future."

In short, he says, "great powers have aggressive intentions" and he quotes John Herz with approval, "Striving to attain security from attack, states are driven to acquire more and more power to escape the impact of the power of others."

Is this realism? Or is it pessimism? In truth, it is not even realism when projected back into history and as for the future its pessimism is outrageous.

As Professor Glenn Snyder has argued in the Harvard quarterly International Security neither the U.S. in 1900, when it was already a hegemon in the western hemisphere, expanded into Europe and Asia, nor did Great Britain during the peak of its power in the nineteenth century expand into Europe. Mearsheimer calls these anomalies, explicable by the "stopping power of waters" - the Atlantic in the American case and the English Channel in the British one. Yet his supporting argument is thin and it is not surprising that Synder concludes that "one wonders whether the 'stopping power' resides in the water, or the strength of the opponents - or simply a lack of interest in expansion?"

Mearsheimer posits great instability in the future, perhaps war in Europe or Northeast Asia. As nuclear proliferation gathers pace, he sees a nuclear armed Germany engaged in a security competition for central Europe with Russia. In Northeast Asia he sees Japan developing a nuclear deterrent which both Russia and China would be tempted to pre-empt.

I suspect that Mearsheimer has not read the late Oxford historian, Evan Luard. His big work was a historical study of war in Europe. According to his meticulous arithmetic, over time wars have become less frequent and the number of years in which an average country has been involved in war has declined over the centuries.

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The change over 600 years boils down to the question of the legitimacy of war - what is illegitimate by the reasoning of one age is quite foolhardy, unnecessary and even illegitimate by the lights of another. "Just Wars" may in one age mean fighting for our prince, our tribe, our religion, preserving the balance of power or, in another, the overthrowing of a tyrannical government - causes with the hindsight of history that no longer engage us. What was in one age solved by the brutal application of force is either ignored or solved by quiet diplomacy in another.

The fact is, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the number of inter state wars is lower than it has ever been and the number of civil wars has been declining for at least fifteen years.

It is a grave mistake to allow the 'realists' to dominate the debate in our state rooms if only because there is a real danger that the thinking itself could provoke the wars they claim to predict. They are simply wrong. And their influence diverts resources to arms' build-ups and away from what could be more usefully spent on removing some of the causes of war- poverty or a sense of inferiority and injustice.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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