The Decline of War

The Decline of War

The terrorist threat may suggest otherwise, but major war may be a thing of the past.

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“Policing the Remnants of War” by John Mueller, in Journal of Peace Research (Sept. 2003), Sage Publications, 2455 Teller Rd., Thousand Oaks, Calif. 91320.

Will the world ever war no more? In certain important respects, the ancient institution of war is already on the way out, asserts Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University. Major war among developed countries is now rare and unlikely, and, despite appearances, conventional war in the wider world also is in decline. Much that now passes for war—“ethnic conflict” or outbreaks of the “clash of civilizations”—is actually something else: “opportunist predation waged by packs, often remarkably small ones, of criminals, bandits, and thugs.”

Most of the three dozen or so wars fought since the end of the Cold War have been civil wars in poor countries. Many, if not most, of the combatants have been either mercenaries recruited by weak states (as in the former Yugoslavia) or warlord gangs that developed within weak or failed states (as in Liberia). The ranks of the Serbian (or Yugoslavian) army were filled by emptying out the jails and promising loot to the new recruits; Bosnia and Croatia turned at first to street gangs for their fighting men. In 1990, writes Mueller, Liberia’s weakened regime “was toppled by an armed group initially of 100 or so led by an accused embezzler and jailbreak artist, Charles Taylor, and by a somewhat larger group led by a psychopathic, hymn-singing drunk.”

Since 9/11, it has been tempting to see the world as a Hobbesian nightmare, teeming with violence-prone fanatics and true believers nursing ethnic, religious, or cultural grievances. In fact, says Mueller, the people drawn to violence are relatively few, and most of them are not fanatics or true believers, but criminals and thugs.

Often drunk or drugged, lacking organ­ization and strong motivation or commitment, the thugs may be “the biggest bullies on the block,” he says, but they are no match for “a sufficiently large, impressively armed, and well-disciplined policing force.” That has been demonstrated in recent years in Panama, Haiti, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Croatia, Bosnia, and even Somalia (though the peacekeepers there found the costs too high, given the low stakes).

“Experience suggests that the essential, and long-term, solution to the problems of civil warfare,” Mueller says, “lies not in ministrations by the international community—so often half-hearted, half-vast, and half-coherent—but rather in the establishment of competent domestic governments in the many places that do not now have them.” He sees grounds for optimism in the elevation of “effective” leaders in almost all of Latin America and in some countries in Asia in recent decades. What people around the world need and want, Mueller says, is what Canada’s modest national slogan promises: “Peace, Order and Good Government.”

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