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War in abeyance?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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September 7, 2009

LONDON - Will historians a hundred years hence look at the beginning of the twenty first century, much as we look at the end of the nineteenth century, and say, Unfortunately the peace and prosperity of the moment was but an interlude before the bloodiest century in mankind's history? Will they conclude, as Aldous Huxley did, that "every road towards a better society is blocked, sooner or later, by war, by threats of war and preparations for war?" This is the truth, the odious and unacceptable truth.

The pessimists of today have grist for their mill. President Barack Obama is engaging America in what is going to a long and bloody battle in Afghanistan. Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace recently warned this could be his Iraq or even Vietnam.

Despite this the big picture is good, arguably far better and more inherently stable than it was in 1899. Major war involving the most powerful industrialised counties, capable of destruction far and wide, is much less likely than it has ever been. Unlike in previous ages, neither economic, religious nor ideological forces push us in the direction of war. War, pace Lenin, in the age of nuclear and high-tech weapons, is a loss-making enterprise.

Virulent religious strife, once the cause of so much bloodshed in Europe, is absent. Communism is dead and the credo of the West, democracy, does not lend itself to wars of conversion.

The state is no longer made by war for the purpose of making war. The modern industrial state is, par excellence, an economic institution. Democracy, not so long ago an uncertain, precarious achievement, is today deeply embedded in all the most advanced economies, apart from Russia where it struggles for light.

Democracies do not go to war with each other. Elections, increasing political and economic transparency, the separation of powers, a watchdog media, the urge of young men and women to make money not war and, in Europe, the formation of a single currency, make serious all-out war remote.

But this sense of common security is confined to Europe, North America and Japan - although it should be added, South America which, for all its historic tendencies towards bravado over the last two centuries, is the continent that has least gone to war. In Africa the number of wars has fallen at a remarkable rate in the last decade.

In parts of West Asia, a number of the old time ingredients of war are present - struggles over land and religion, combined with the new-time ingredients of modern weapons.

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Still, combative though many of these countries tend to be, they lack the capacity to wage major war in the world war sense. Outside the Western world only Russia and China could do that. It is these two states that hold in their hands the peace of this century, to make it or break it.

Russia claims a sphere of influence in the territories of the former Soviet Union, but nothing more. China claims a sphere of influence in the South China Sea and the ownership of Taiwan, but nothing more. Both are essentially inwardly preoccupied and neither are committed, as were their orthodox Marxist predecessors, to the violent overthrow of present day, political, military and economic arrangements

"The practice of war, once the prerogative of the strong, instead is increasingly the tactic of the weak", writes Michael Mandelbaum in Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His argument, eloquently developed at length, is that "the great chess game of international politics is finished or at least suspended. A pawn is now just a pawn, not a sentry standing guard against an attack on the king." Well still have our Afghanistans, Kashmirs, Iraqs and Congos but, he argues, over time they are becoming less numerous and the stakes for the rest of the world are lower.

That doesn't mean this century won't have some bad wars. Doubtless there will be plenty of those. But major war, involving a clash of the best armed gladiators, with convulsions on a scale that twice consumed the young men and innocents of the twentieth century, could be in abeyance.


Copyright © 2009 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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