Richard Falk writes: A few days ago I was a participant in a well-attended academic panel on ‘the decline of violence and warfare’ at the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting held this year in San Diego, California. The two-part panel featured appraisal of the common argument of two prominent recent publications: Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Joshua Goldstein’s well-researched, informative, and provocative Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Both books are disposed to rely upon quantitative data to back up their optimistic assessments of international and domestic political behavior, which, if persuasive, offer humanity important reasons to be hopeful about the future. Much of their argument depends on an acceptance of their interpretation of battlefield deaths worldwide, which according to their assessments have declined dramatically in recent decades. But do battlefield deaths tell the whole story, or even the real story, about the role and dangers of political violence and war in our collective lives?
My role was to be a member of the Goldstein half of the panel. Although I had never previously met Joshua Goldstein I was familiar with his work and reputation as a well-regarded scholar in the field of international relations. To offer my response in the few minutes available to me I relied on a metaphor that drew a distinction between a ‘picture’ and its ‘frame.’ I found the picture of war and warfare presented by Goldstein as both persuasive and illuminating, conveying in authoritative detail information about the good work being doing by UN peacekeeping forces in a variety of conflict settings around the world, as well as a careful crediting of peace movements with a variety of contributions to conflict resolution and war avoidance. Perhaps, the most enduringly valuable part of the book is its critical debunking of prevalent myths about the supposedly rising proportion of civilian casualties in recent wars and inflated reports of casualties and sexual violence in the Congo Wars of 1998-2003. These distortions, corrected by Goldstein, have led to a false public perception that wars and warfare are growing more indiscriminate and brutal in recent years, while the most reliable evidence points in the opposite direction.
Goldstein is convincing in correcting such common mistakes about political violence and war in the contemporary world, but less so when it comes to the frame and framing of this picture that is conveyed by his title ‘winning the war on war’ and the arguments to this effect that is the centerpiece of his book, and accounts for the interest that it is arousing. For one thing the quantitative measures relied upon do not come to terms with the heightened qualitative risks of catastrophic warfare or the continued willingness of leading societies to anchor their security on credible threats to annihilate tens of millions of innocent persons, which if taking the form of a moderate scale nuclear exchange (less than 1 percent of the world’s stockpile of weapons) is likely to cause, according to reliable scientific analysis, what has been called ‘a nuclear famine’ resulting in a sharp drop in agricultural output that could last as long as ten years and could be brought about by the release of dense clouds of smoke blocking incoming sunlight.
Also on the panel were such influential international relations scholars as John Mearsheimer who shared with me the view that the evidence in Goldstein’s book did not establish that, as Mearsheimer put it, ‘war had been burned out of the system,’ or that even such a trend meaningfully could be inferred from recent experience. Mearsheimer widely known for his powerful realist critique of the Israeli Lobby (in collaboration with Stephen Walt) did make the important point that the United States suffers from ‘an addiction to war.’ Mearsheimer did not seem responsive to my insistence on the panel that part of this American addiction to war arose from the role being played by entrenched domestic militarism, a byproduct of the permanent war economy that disposed policy makers and politicians in Washington to treat most security issues as worthy of resolution only by considering the options offered by thinking within militarist box of violence and sanctions, a viewpoint utterly resistant to learning from past militarist failures (as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran). In my view the war addiction is real, but can only be treated significantly if understood to be a consequence of this blinkering of policy choice by a militarized bureaucracy in nation’s capital that is daily reinforced by a compliant media and a misguided hard power realist worldview sustained by high paid private sector lobbyists and the lure of corporate profits, and continuously rationalized by well funded subsidized think tanks such as The Hoover Institution, The Heritage Foundation, and The American Enterprise Institute. Dwight Eisenhower in his presidential farewell speech famously drew attention to the problem that has grown far worse through the years when he warned the country about ‘the military-industrial complex’ back in 1961.
What to me was most shocking about the panel was not its overstated claims that political violence was declining and war on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if generally positive contributors to establishing a peaceful and just world, provided only that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means ‘adversaries of the West,’ or more colorfully phrased by George W. Bush as ‘the axis of evil’) as a result of proliferation. In this sense, although not made explicit in the conversation, Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons set forth at Prague on April 5, 2009 seems irresponsible from the perspective of achieving a less war-prone world. I had been previously aware of Mearsheimer’s support for this position in his hyper-realist account of how World War III was avoided in the period between 1945-1989, but I was not prepared for Goldstein and the well regarded peace researcher, Andrew Mack, blandly to endorse such a conclusion without taking note of the drawbacks of such ‘a nuclear peace.’ [Continue reading…]