Christopher Coker on Prospects for a Great Power War

What do you say to those out there Margaret Mead, John Horgan and others who say that war is just an idea, like anything else, and it can be eliminated like anything else?

War is a deeply rooted human activity whose origins have been traced back by some evolutionary biologists to the origins of religion – it involves many of the same rituals: sacrifice; the heroic; deep commitment to community– what William James called ‘the religious appetites’. It also involves what Pagel calls ‘cultural enhancers’ – it is often inspirational; it inspires great works of art and fiction; and it generates inventiveness and innovation.  Human violence unlike that of chimps for example is performative – we evaluate past strategies and stratagems; we gauge the wisdom or not of a war; we are inspired by Hannibal taking his elephants across the Alps, or Alexander reaching the Indus. In a word, it powers progress.

There are many writers who make this claim: Evolutionists like David Sloan-Wilson and Edward Wilson and historians, most recently Ian Morris in his book War! What is it Good For? He answers his own question: it has generated long periods of peace, mostly within imperial systems. It has enriches many societies while ruining others. And yes, it has generated some very bad ideas: of which the worst was fascism which traded in turn on an equally bad idea: social Darwinism – the theory that races would perish for want of conflict, a vision that can be found in the fate of the Eloi in H G Wells novella, The Time Machine whose fate it is to fall victim to the war-like Morlocks living underground. But ideas are not even the half of it – war is hard-wired into us for a reason; competition promoted co-operation within the groups (as religion does). But we have also invented culture, of course, and we are not fated to remain on an evolutionary  leash, any more than we are condemned to be in thrall to our Stone Age brains. My argument is very simple: War will end one day, but only when it has exhausted its own evolutionary possibilities.

You take political scientist John Mueller to task for his famous analogy about how interstate war has gone the way of slavery or dueling, largely because of popular aversion to the practice. Why is this comparison wrong in your view?

The comparison with slavery is deeply misleading. Slavery is merely exploitation of the out group by the in – Mueller’s mistake is to think that the exploitation is over. It isn’t. There are 27 million slaves today according to the UN – though terms change. We call it bondage (children sold into bondage at the age of nine by their parents); or sex trafficking (girls and boys rented out to customers, or traded across the world in vast criminal networks which can take a woman from Moldova to Egypt, across the Sahara to Nigeria and back to a brothel in Tel Aviv). The networking of slavery is as pervasive as the Atlantic slave trade, but unlike the latter it is hidden from sight, or rather hidden in plain sight which makes it all the more pernicious and difficult to eliminate. Dueling, too, persists in the courts as predicted by the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Lord Kames – we sue each other when dishonoured and, if we are lucky, make a handsome profit to boot. And we are in no danger of physical harm. Kames looked forward to an era when we would no longer want to revenge ourselves on those who had dishonoured us – today we are a less naïve.

The great physicist Werner Heisenberg gave a lecture a few weeks before his death in which he expressed the hope that ‘a new kind of thinking’ might emerge, something that in his time might be sensed but not yet described. Yes. If you want to see the end of war that is what we will probably need; science fiction authors call it the Novum (an epiphany); Ray Kurtzweil looks forward to the Singularity when the machines get self-consciousness and save us from ourselves. Don’t believe it – the Singularity, as one sci-fi writer remarks, is the Rapture for nerds – bringing God back into the equation before it is too late!

I think we have a 50/50 chance of avoiding [war]. Not bad odds historically; a rather encouraging in fact, but as astronomers tell us when an asteroid misses the planet by 23,00 miles, in cosmic terms that is rather too close for comfort.

How important are psychological or cultural traits like honor, glory, and so forth, to the perpetuation of war among the human species?

Glory was one of Hobbes’ three causes of war. We often forget what he meant by it. It is honour and reputation because to be dishonoured in international politics is as dangerous as being ‘dissed’ in the inner cities – and we know the response: the flash of a knife or discharge of a bullet. We are an innately competitive species and great powers with much more to lose are more competitive than most. But Hobbes also drew an important distinction between competition and competitiveness. Competition is hard-wired into us. Competitiveness is very different. As Hobbes claimed it leads us to quarrel even over a ‘trifle. The political scientist Ned Lebow has looked at 94 wars in recent history and discovered that the search for security was responsible for only 19. Standing was responsible for 62. Revenge is also a manifestation of status, especially when one’s credibility is on the line (as it was for the U.S. after 9/11) is implicated in another 11. In short spirit  (not the material factors that neo-realists like to emphasise) has been the chief cause of conflict for centuries; nothing is likely to change as long as the nation-state system persists.

Lots of evolutionary biologists challenge the assumption that war is embedded in human nature, pointing to peace-loving primitive species like bonobos. Is it really a biological or evolutionary story that war is inevitable?

Is war embedded in human nature? To be sure. Chimpanzees, our nearest relation, remain in an evolutionary  rut; we have managed to crawl out of it. We are both highly aggressive (forget the bonobos – there is an exception to every rule) but we have culture. In bonobo societies the females manage to gang up whenever an Alpha Male tried to be too Alpha. It is a local strategy and it works.  But we don’t need to emasculate Alpha males We can domesticate them by channelling their  aggression  into more productive channels. Just as we first domesticated plants and animals, so we have domesticated the natural-born killers amongst us. In The Republic Plato mentions Achilles 13 times and every time he criticised him for being ‘untamed’. By then the Greeks had tamed their warriors, and learned to use them for instrumental ends. What they also knew however is that we can revert back in a second.

 If baboons had invented nuclear weapons, they would have wiped themselves out in a week.

The most moving  scene in the Iliad is the reconciliation between Priam and the man who has taken the life of Hector, his oldest son. Achilles and the king break bread together, and Achilles returns the body of Priam’s son for burial. But in a scene too often forgotten at one point he finds the old man’s lamentations so infuriating that he has to bound out of his tent for fear he will strike him. Finally, what makes us the co-operative species we are is that we share things, and stand in queues, and work in teams, and use language to evaluate social qualities such as good parenting, and being team player. Chimps do social grooming. They don’t share food with each other – the Alpha male always eats first. Edward Wilson said it best – and it probably infuriates primatologists who love to tell us that only 1.5% –of DNA differs from theirs (so it does, but that includes 32 million variations, and the DNA is not important, it is the genome, and the interface with the environment). If baboons had invented nuclear weapons, they would have wiped themselves out in a week.

How do you account for conflict data, cited by Steven Pinker and others, that violence is ebbing, and that wars, at least between states, are becoming ever rarer events?

Pinker is right though his thesis is not new. Norbert Elias got there first in The Civilising Process. We do live in less violent times; our chances of being murdered are the lowest in history. And yes, wars between Great Powers are not in fashion. But inter-state wars are only one part of the equation. Read Clausewitz and you won’t find a single mention of civil war; but civil wars are the worst – the Chinese lost 20 million in 20 years in the Taiping rebellion, in what was the bloodiest civil war in history. Visit the Middle East or West Africa and see the violence first hand, and these wars tend to last for years – 30 in the case of Afghanistan, South Sudan and Angola. And be careful not to dismiss the incidence of Great Power conflict  The statistic Pinker doesn’t mention is how each Great Power war has been more destructive than the last. The Great War the British call WWI, but that is the term they also invoked for the Napoleonic Wars in which 2 million soldiers died, 800,000 in one campaign (1812). The First World War saw the death of 37 million people; WWII [saw]  twice that number. If the Cold war had gone hot the estimated death rate was 100 million. And what of war between the U.S. and China, which could very well break out? It probably won’ involve nuclear weapons; it may well be played out in cyberspace with devastating results. Even more worrying would be a war in space. The Chinese knocked out one of their own satellites in 2007. Both sides may try to disable the other by knocking out communications satellites. In one scenario, the Chinese knock out nine U.S. satellites in one day.  As the result they create 20,000 pieces of space debris which would clump together and render space unusable for the next 100 years. Forget credit card transactions or transatlantic flights. The world economy could be sent into reverse. The next Great Power war may well be the last because even with little loss of life it will be the most destructive we have seen.

You write that market-states are as much in the war business as nation-states. Why? So based on that, do you expect China, which has argued its primary foreign policy is economic growth and stability, to be war-like in the years ahead?

Market states are only the latest incarnation of nation states. They fight war more economically because they can’t tax their citizens as they once did, and they can’t put them in uniform cheaply and send them to the front. They prefer to subcontract out to private companies. They outsource and go in for disintermediation – cutting out the middle man. So do terrorist groups of course; they mimic their enemies. War is intensely mimetic. In many science fiction scenarios corporations go into the business of raising their own private arms. Why not? They already rely on private security companies for their security at home; they no longer rely on national police forces.  The East India company not only disposed of a private army that helped conquer India; we forget it also ran a 122 ship navy in the Napoleonic wars, with better and bigger ships than the Royal navy could boast, thanks to reinvestment of the profits in infrastructure. I expect this is what we will see in the years to come – read Jacques Attali’s bookA Brief History of the Future.

How would you define peace? We hear about a phrase tossed about in post-conflict environments like Iraq ugly stability. Is that the best we can hope for? 

Peace is a contested concept. It is your peace, not someone else’s. It was Aristotle who wrote that the only purpose of war is peace; it was St. Augustine who insisted that even bandits want peace – they would love people to be submissive (that was before they turned themselves into states  with taxation as protection money). Only the Nazis ever preached that peace was bad for your health on the understanding that the survival of the species required a permanent state of struggle. They lasted for only 12 years. I see no reason to think that we will ever be able to agree on a common definition, and therefore that we will ever live at peace with each other. To be at peace with others you have to be at peace with yourself. Are we? Witness growing social inequality at home; nationalist sentiment is on the rise; so is localism in politics – Catalan and Scottish nationalism; and the private security option for those who can afford it: gated communities and panic rooms. Kant thought that perpetual peace was possible, but only with ‘moral uplift’ and there is no evidence that we are on the point of lift off.  And as my students might say, ‘Here is the thing, prof. Wouldn’t we soon get bored with peace? Michel Howard wrote a book called the Invention of Peace to remind his readers that peace was precisely that – an invention. The second edition to the book had a subheading: the reinvention of war. I ended my book by quoting Howard: peace in the end is rather boring. William James said the same; we will only have it when we invent a moral equivalent of war. Of course, one day we may be able to do this; we can sublimate war into entertainment; films and video games and one day perhaps we will. All I am arguing is that that day is  some time off.

If you look at the geopolitical map today, what worries you most? Climate change? Non-state actors? The rise of market-states like China?

James this time Henry, not William his brother once wrote of ‘the visitable past’. You can only write a proper historical novel he suggested if the sensibilities of the characters were very similar to our own – go back say 100 years and you might capture the times; but how could you live vicariously the life of an Elizabethan or a Roman? I would talk of the visitable future – yes, I think we can speculate what challenges we will find most urgent say in 2035, but we can’t really speculate profitably about life beyond that event horizon. Climate change? Undoubtedly – resource wars are not in fashion; some claim there has even been one – in Darfur. Non-state actors – the U.S. has spent $3 trillion in fighting just al-Qaeda, and there are many more, probably much nastier groups out there coming to a theatre of war near us. But for me the big one is China. Only the U.S. and China have the capacity as thermonuclear powers to take us into World War III, and only states at the end of the day can inflict really serious damage on another. And the dynamic of global power conflict still obtains: a status quo power, the Globocop like the UK in the late 19th century struggling to defend ‘the rules of the road’; and a young, assertive  power struggling with its own problems one of which, to quote Edward Luttwak, is its strategic autism, its chronic inability to make friends, or establish diplomatic networks.

So, we are set for another world conflict if we are not lucky, and in my next book I explain why both sides are sleepwalking into it. Of course, we are told they can’t go to war; they are too economically interdependent. But we heard that argument in 1914. Historians now think war was probably inevitable. It would only have been ‘unlikely’ if they had more steps to avoid it, and been willing to engage in less brinkmanship and bluffing; they didn’t. The war was improbable but it happened and it happened I would argue because everyone thought it so improbable that they failed to take enough steps to prevent it. The Improbable War is the title of my book – I think we have a 50/50 chance of avoiding it. Not bad odds historically; a rather encouraging in fact, but as astronomers tell us when an asteroid misses the planet by 23,00 miles, in cosmic terms that is rather too close for comfort.


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