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The Survival Manual | Chapter 8.

War and Peace.

THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule



THE DAILY HORRORS of war as we see them on our screens and hear of them in other media are enough to remind us of the pain, destruction, and waste of war. War was thought to be the worst of all tragedies by Thomas Malthus, for it brought with it famine and disease, as it still does today.

Millions have died and suffered appalling wounds, civilisations have been destroyed — it all seems pretty pointless, yet it continues. If we have another World War we will probably destroy the planet. So it is a subject we cannot avoid. Yet it is a huge and complex topic. How can we proceed briefly here and make some sort of contribution?

What I will do is to survey briefly the history of previous and current attempts to bring about the end of war and to suggest some of the reasons for their failure. I will then make some blue-sky suggestions as to how we could re-think our strategies in a world which is more inter-connected than ever before, yet more awash with weapons, many of them capable of destroying the world. It is tempting to leave the subject on one side, yet to fail to think about it, is to collude in the present and future tragedies.

AS WE WATCH the collapse of much of the belt from North Africa to Afghanistan into chaos, which apparently no one can do much about, as well as dangerous confrontations on the borders of Russia and China, we feel that we are at another time of the dissolution of the old rules – and hence require new ones.

If we look at the political relations between distinct and independent nation-states and civilisations we can single out certain turning points when serious attempts have been made to devise a framework to avoid conflict, to invent new rules for the political game. These frameworks have worked intermittently and partially but then broken down.

Leaving out much of history, let us start with one famous attempt to create a set of rules for international relations: the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. In this, a number of exhausted European nations, after a mass slaughter which had laid much of Europe to waste for thirty years, tried to devise a new framework for peace. The terms of this arrangement are simple and can be summarised in two rules: 1.) No state can attack another independent and sovereign state. And 2.) all states, whatever their size and power, are to be treated as equal.

Of course this did not stop interminable wars, culminating dramatically in the great Napoleonic Wars of the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but at least the treaty was there as a kind of beacon or standard. It lay behind appeals such as that of Immanuel Kant in 1795 in his ‘To Perpetual Peace; A Philosophical Sketch’. Kant’s simple rules were:

  1. No treaty of peace that tacitly reserves issues for a future war shall be held valid.
  2. No independent nation, be it large or small, may be acquired by another nation by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or gift.
  3. Standing armies shall be gradually abolished.
  4. No national debt shall be contracted in connection with the foreign affairs of the nation.
  5. No nation shall forcibly interfere with the constitution and government of another.
  6. No nation at war with another shall permit such acts of war as shall make mutual trust impossible during some future time of peace.

Kant’s suggestions were largely ignored. Yet the second half of the nineteenth century was, within Europe, apart from some terrible events such as the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, relatively peaceful.

HOWEVER, THESE OLDER rules, applying to a set of middle-sized European states were always vulnerable to the growing system of alliances of the newly industrialising, highly militarised, and excessively nationalistic entities emerging over the Continent. The whole system more or less collapsed with the First World War in 1914.

It was immediately realised that a new set of rules, enforced by a body above the level of individual nation-states, was needed to try to avert another such war. In the first two weeks of the War, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson sketched out a plan for what he soon termed ‘The League of Nations’. His ideas were expanded and modified by a committee on which he sat, and formed the basis for the future League.

Dickinson was a pacifist and his internationalism and interest in a high level organisation stemmed in part from his recent travels through America, India, China, and Japan. This led him to believe in the common humanity and dignity of man and to feel particularly shocked by the carnage which was starting to occur. He believed that a club or league of all nations could be formed, where rules could be enforced to prevent further wars.

The League was officially launched in 1920, but from the start was fatally flawed in various ways.

Firstly, the United States refused to join and this very substantially weakened it.

Secondly, the punitive attitude towards the losers in the war, which was castigated by Dickinson’s fellow Kingsman and friend, John Maynard Keynes, in his devastating Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), sowed the seeds for another war. Linked to this was the refusal to let Germany join the League at the start, which was bound to cause huge bitterness and, later, tragedy.

As Mussolini boasted, ‘the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.’

Thirdly, the League had no monopoly of force and no certain source of funding. As Mussolini boasted, ‘the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.’ Contributions to the League were voluntary so it only had limited resources of money and arms. So it failed to avert the rearmament and the rise of the biggest eagle of all, Germany, and the consequent Second World War.

That war showed that some kind of world mechanism must again be devised to bind together nations and to avert another World War. So the United Nations was founded within months of the end of the War, using some of the ideas and assets of the League. There were some improvements on the League of Nations, in particular the United States was a central member and funder of the organisation and it had a much wider membership. It also had a firmer way of raising funds and a broader humanitarian remit.

So it was patchily successful, despite tragic failures which are well known. But ultimately it again depended on unanimity in the Security Council to take large-scale action, and the most powerful States were often unwilling to pass resolutions, especially during the Cold War.

YET UNTIL THE END of the twentieth century, the United Nations, combined with fragments of the Westphalian idea of independent sovereignty was sufficient for many of us to feel some hope. We were also comforted by the end of the Cold War and the predominance of an apparently benign United States. We felt we had reached some kind of plateau of safety.

Since the start of this millennium, partly triggered by the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and then given depth by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent invasions into other Middle Eastern states, we have been shocked into a new instability.

Tony Blair in 1999 had set out a new, ‘post-Westphalian’ ‘doctrine of the international community’, arguing that globalization had made the Westphalian approach anachronistic. Along with President George Bush the younger he was formulating the new doctrine that humanitarian motives, and ideological beliefs concerned with universal human rights (which could well include the forced promotion of democracy) overrode national sovereignty.

This in turn, since the U.N. Security Council was split between Communist and Democratic nations, meant that the decision of one or more leading world powers overrode the vote of the United Nations. So Bush and Blair were prepared to break Westphalia and the United Nations with the Invasion of Iraq.

After that huge event, there has been no answer to any country which decides it is in their ideological, economic or political self-interest to attack another, especially if they can claim that they feel under some kind of threat of attack. We are back in the Thirty Years War, but on a global scale and with nuclear weapons.

IN SUCH A SITUATION there are two principal ways in which we, in the West, can react – drawing in on ourselves, or pushing out to understand the rest of the world. The defensive approach basically consists of pulling up the drawbridge, strengthening our defences, trying to preserve what we perceive to be our own identity and wealth.

The other approach is to go out and try to do two things. One is to find out what, precisely, other civilisations actually are, try to understand them in their own terms to see what sort of threat ‘they’ might pose to ‘us’ and ‘we’ to ‘them’, and how much we have in common.

The second is, once we have established how the world works at a civilisational level, to try to set out a new, global, set of institutions and rules that avoids the inadequacies of Westphalia, the League and the United Nations. In other words to build institutions of a new kind, in conditions which have hitherto never existed before, that is to say a proper Harmony of Nations, harmony in the Confucian sense of accepting difference and living with it, not in the sense of uniformity.

EINSTEIN’S APHORISM, ‘PROBLEMS cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them’, explains how centuries of bloody war in Europe were suddenly brought to a halt by the creation of the European Union. Francois Monnet, whose vision shaped the Union, realised that to solve the problem of endless clashes, it was necessary to widen the context. Monnet’s genius was to widen the definition of ‘Us’. He created a European context. We need to widen the horizons, to encourage people to think in a wider, comparative, and collaborative way.

The problems were created at the ‘level of thinking’ of the nation-state and before that of the state. Up to the Cold War, and that means the significantly titled United Nations, the unit of confrontation and analysis was the nation-state. The failure to find a way to control the nation-state is largely caused by the fact that the analysis remains at the level of the nation-state.

MOST GAMES AND SPORTS (and war can be seen as a violent game) require a referee or umpire who is outside the game and above the individual players. The rules of the game are accepted by the players and they implicitly delegate to the referee the power to enforce these rules by imposing penalties on players who infringe them. The League of Nations and the United Nations were set up to do this. Yet as long as America remained the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War, it could break the international rules (as in the invasion of Iraq without U.N. approval) and refuse to accept the rulings and jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (along with India and China) accepted by almost all other countries.

The United States was like the big child in the playground, sufficiently powerful to boss or bully the smaller children.

The United States was like the big child in the playground, sufficiently powerful to boss or bully the smaller children. Such a child sees no virtue in a referee, except when such a referee, as with the I.M.F., W.T.O., or World Bank is heavily biased in its favour.

We now live in a multipolar world, and one where China will become the biggest child in the playground quite soon, so that the United States may well see that it is, after all, in its interest to have a referee. When there are six or seven roughly equal players, it is in all their interests to have the protection of an agreed mediator or referee.

The nature of such referees and the sanctions they have, basically the ‘rule of law’ which stipulates that everyone (even the most powerful) is to abide by the rules of the game and that all disputes are to be settled by due process of law, and not by physical force, is, of course not easy to agree on. Adam Smith’s model of the ‘night-watchman state’, that is to say a non-intrusive person who patrols at night to see that all is working well, might be an idea for a world government. Such a night watchman is there, like all police and courts, not to interfere in the normal workings, but to intervene and protect when necessary.

Thus, in Smith’s formulation, the night-watchman state should only deal with the very large universal problems – with things which stretch beyond the local level. Although Smith did not envisage this at the world civilisational level, it could scale up to deal with all the matters where we are bound together between civilisations, and where one of the actors’ extreme behaviour is deeply affecting others. This might include the following:

  • Global warming and environmental degradation – including such ‘commons’ as the air, oceans, forests, mountains, deserts, rivers.
  • International communications, including both physical communications such as ships, planes, and railways and the electronic communications which are now so important.
  • International illegal trading – including people smuggling, prostitution, drugs, arms dealing.
  • International crime, including terrorism.
  • International disputes – potential wars between nations and civilisations.
  • Weapons control – particularly chemical, biological, and nuclear.

If each civilisation had representatives on the world body and that body, like the International Court, considered the conflicts and adjudicated or mediated, the due process of law and regulation might be achieved. There are of course dangers – bureaucratisation, delays, wounded pride — but either we do something like this, recognising our mutual involvement in a global world, or we are dead. We are back in a tribal world, but armed not with bows and arrows but nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

THE BASIC IDEA is a club, in other words; one either applies to join or is asked to join by the members, after fulfilling certain conditions. In this way it is like the European Union (often described as a club). So it is voluntary and one can be expelled or leave it. Like a club, it has a clubhouse and amenities. Like a club, it has a name and a ‘being’. Like a club, it has rules and conventions about how one should make a contribution to it (financial or otherwise). Like a club, it has elected officers. So far, it is quite a bit like the United Nations but it would not be composed of nation-states but of civilisations.

Secondly it would be like a Trust. In other words trust and trusteeship would be involved – and a task, namely to save and improve the world in various ways, which would be its purpose as a trust.

Thirdly it would have elements of a game – it would be fun, it would administer world sports and cultural activities. The game would have rules and ways of playing that would bind people together.

Fourthly it would be like an orchestra, in that the different civilisations would be free to continue to play their own notes on their own instruments, but in harmony, as long as they maintained an agreed rhythm and scale.

Fifthly it would be ritualised – that is, it would have the binding power of rituals, words, sounds, costumes, panoply, repetition, and symbolism which would both reduce difference and inequality (by being choreographed) and also affirm the relations between the disparate parts.

Sixthly, it would have elements of the division of labour of a body, in that the different civilisations would be principally responsible for different tasks – education, economy, culture, ecology, and climate, poverty reduction.

THE BIGGEST QUESTION, of course, is how to recruit members. If it is too small it will not work; if it is too large, likewise. The simplest membership would either be a fixed quota irrespective of size as in the UN, or proportional to size.

Another question is the control of force. It would not work unless it overcame the problem of the League and the United Nations, which is that neither had the force sufficient to stand up to the eagles. It must be the biggest eagle.

Like the plan after the Second World War to ban all weapons (except those of the United States), it would ban all weapons except those held by the club. It must have a monopoly of force if it is to replace the state in the nation. It will take time – but this must be the goal.

THERE IS BOUND to be opposition to this idea from various quarters. Among the predictable ones are:

  1. The United Nations will fear its position and role will be weakened. This may indeed be the case in the long run– where its goals will be better met. For a while, the United Nations may well become more powerful.
  2. The United States which opposes any organisation of the less powerful which might challenge its government – as recently with the ‘World Development Fund’ successfully launched by China and which the United States tried to squash. But there will be a time when the United States either has to join or be marginalised. So we need to push and dangle the membership prize.
  3. Nation-states within civilisations where, like the nation-states within the European Union, may feel for a while that their sovereignty is diminished – as in the current European Union debate. That is fine. They will, as with the EU, finally see the benefits outweigh the costs.
  4. Numerous marginal groups, most obviously fundamentalist groups such as ISIS who do not want an end to battle and fear. If the world comes together it will be frozen out of the present power structure.
  5. The arms industry, drug traffickers, international people smugglers and others who would be so restricted in their profiteering.

So, one small step at a time. I just float the idea and then, if it has the right incentive structure, it will grow. This dream may not be attainable in the way I have specified, but if we fail to attempt to think of a new way for the world to move from our present, near-destructive situation, we are all dead, or, at the best, living in an Orwellian world of ‘1984’, on ‘a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night’.

What is certain is that current structures are not working or preventing wars.

What is certain is that current structures are not working or preventing wars. We need to think of all alternatives. The one above, raising the level of government one level, may not appeal to all, and others will call for the reverse – in line with the general downward delegation recommended in this book. This would return power to the nation-state, or whatever was the real body of collective sentiment. This would only cede minimal rights to a higher body – perhaps the control of nuclear and other powerful weapons and some kind of court to adjudicate disputes. Whether this would lead to a return to the pre-Westphalian ‘war of all against all’ is not clear.

What we do know is that we need a new path.

Serial Preface and Contents

Alan Macfarlane FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.

Prof Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for subscribers to the Fortnightly.

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