By Jonathan Power
An ugly cloud of pessimism hangs over many parts of the world. War that seemed to be in retreat, has returned with a vengeance with the second-largest military in the world, Russia’s, battling a very under-resourced neighbor, Ukraine. It’s getting a lot of people down. Yet there are many more grounds for optimism
“We need jaw-jaw not war-war”, said Winston Churchill, albeit hypocritically. Still, he would be glad to see that because of his pithy advice the number of wars around the world has fallen dramatically since the end of World War 2. This is despite the wars in Korea, Africa (many), Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Pakistan versus India, Central America, Cyprus, ex-Yugoslavia, Syria, Yemen and now Ukraine.
Compared with centuries past this has been a remarkable era, yet one not often acknowledged.
Interstate wars, apart from India versus Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen and lately, Russia and Ukraine, have vanished off the map. Relative to the size of their populations these wars involve a very small percentage of humanity. The wars that remain are civil wars. Indeed, the Ukrainian war is seen from Moscow as a civil war since Ukraine was part of Russia for 500 continuous years compared with the only 30 years of independence since the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Unions’ president Boris Yeltsin decided if the Ukrainians wanted independence they could have it. Not a shot was fired.
Democracies do not go to war with each other, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher long ago observed. Academic research at Harvard University backs her up.
The Economist weekly magazine has made a detailed study which analyzed all international wars since 1900, along with the belligerents’ wealth and degree of development. It counted all conflicts in which at least 100 people per year were killed, excluding deaths from terrorism, massacres of civilians outside combat, starvation or disease. The data showed a strong correlation between democracy and peace, with the exception of the US.
The countries most prone to war these days are not democracies nor autocracies, they are countries in between. A similar finding applies to prosperity. Middle-income countries are more warlike than very poor or rich ones.
Why? Wars are expensive, and citizens in tyrannies struggle to organize uprisings. Perhaps a little political competition or wealth makes it easier to take up arms.
The development and growth of international law have undoubtedly had a cooling impact. Grotius, the great Dutch philosopher, wrote in the early 17th century: “Where judicial settlement ends, war begins”. To wage war was not a criminal act. It was what states did to uphold the law. Grotius was a clever man but in fact, his writings sanctioned the two terrible world wars. We now realize that “legalizing war legitimized violence and blocked routes to peace”, as Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro write in their seminal book, “The Internationalists”.
It was a successful Chicago corporate lawyer, Salmon Levinson, who wrote in 1917, “The only real way to bring an end to war is to outlaw war”. All the plans made before assumed the legality of war. Levinson drew up a plan to outlaw war unlike any other peace plan then under discussion.
Levinson organized a global social movement around the idea of “outlawry”. He made an impact. At a special conference in Paris of major countries on August 27th, 1928, the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand, declared that the day would mark “a new date in the history of mankind” and the end of “selfish and wilful warfare”. By signing a treaty, soon to be known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the nations of the world would no longer treat war as a lawful means to resolve disputes. Briand said the treaty would “attack the evil at its very root” by depriving war of “its legitimacy”.
That day 15 nations signed the Peace Pact, and within a year nearly every nation in the world did the same. For the first time in history, war was considered to be illegal. Tragically, the Pact didn’t survive the pressure of events and the selfish, nationalistic, views of antagonistic countries.
The first challenge came from Japan when it invaded Manchuria in 1931. The League of Nations was paralyzed. The other important institution, the International Court of Justice, whose charter said that disputes had to be submitted to it, was ignored.
The American secretary of state, Henry Stimson, started to think about sanctions- “sanctions of peace” to replace the “sanctions of war”. In January 1932 Stimson delivered diplomatic notes to Japan and China, saying, “The US government does not intend to recognize any situation, treaty or agreement which may be brought about by means contrary to the covenants and the obligations of the Pact of Paris.” Later, other signatories of the Pact- Germany, Japan, and Italy- ignored it.
At the end of the Second World War, the United Nations Charter included the words of the Pact verbatim: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There was one exception- if the Security Council authorized force to keep the peace.
Today we look at a world where territorial conquest has all but disappeared. Immunity for heads of state no longer exists. The International Criminal Court (ICC) can prosecute those accused of war crimes- President Vladimir of Russia is considered by many as a leader who should end up in the ICC’s dock.
Before 1928 the average state could be expected to be conquered once in a person’s lifetime. Now it is once or twice in a millennium.
Progress? Yes, a lot of it. Most people, especially journalists and politicians, even historians, are blind to this momentous achievement.