“Is war and conflict an inevitable feature of global politics?”
This article was written by Dheevesh Mungroo, year 13 student at John Kennedy College, Mauritius.
War and conflict takes several forms; military or non-military and interstate or state versus organisation. I shall use the steps to war (Vasquez and Henehan, 1999) and motivated biases (Mercer, 2005) theories to support my argument that war and conflict may be an inevitable feature of global politics. These theories have been chosen due to their seemingly increasing relevance to modern global politics. As explained by steps to war, many present day states have been fighting because of irresolvable matters of territory. As per motivated biases theory, human psychology at a large scale, some argue, leads to in-group cooperation and out-group discrimination, which often leads to war. On the other hand, I shall use the democratic peace theory – suggesting that democracies do not fight each other – to support my argument that in fact, war and conflict may be avoidable in global politics. At the core, these theories attempt to explain the causes of war. Yet, it is fair to assume that if cause is avoidable, then at some point, effect can be avoided too and conversely, if cause is inevitable, then at some point, effect is inevitable too.
Consensus exists that matters such as territory are irresolvable in global politics. It is impossible to increase the amount of land in the world and to change the fact that our wants are unlimited. This scarcity often leads to disputes. While often, the disputes are limited to legal and economic conflict, in other instances, concerned parties resort to using force, particularly when those parties are geographically close. The steps to war theory in fact suggests that war and conflict can arise owing to such reasons.
An example of the steps to war theory applying to present day global politics is the case of Israel and Palestine disputing territory which has often escalated to military conflicts (The New York Times, 2009). Another relevant example of violent conflict due to irresolvable matters is the case of Iraq and Syria fighting the Islamic State (IS) terror group to reclaim their territory (The New York Times, 2017; US Department of Defense, 2018; Reuters, 2017). This is evidenced in the following map which shows the significant changes in control of territory, from IS to Iraq and Syria following military conflict (BBC, 2018).
It is true that irresolvable problems, of territory at least, are an integral part of global politics. It can also be argued that when the perceived cost to parties of starting military war and conflict over irresolvable matters is lower than perceived gains, which is often the case, then this could lead to war and conflict.So, it follows from these premises that war and conflict is possibly an inevitable feature of global politics.
Motivated biases and political psychology provides further insights on the topic. According to Mercer (2005), humans get a sense of identity in groups which provide a sense of belonging (part of the emotion in identity). While this emotion in identity builds trust and allows cooperative problem solving, Mercer argues that this emotion also creates self- esteem and pride which as a result could lead to a feeling of superiority and discrimination of other groups. Accordingly, it follows that discrimination could become violent. Quoting Mercer, “Emotion drives in-group cooperation and out-group discrimination” (2005, p. 97). At global scale, this could inevitably lead to war.
Examples of motivated biases leading to discrimination, war and conflict could include:
- several European nations’ invasion and colonisation of countries around the world prior to the 20th century – which implied war, conflict and slavery – possibly on grounds of moral superiority
- Germany under Nazi control, which fought wars, invaded foreign states and which perpetrated the holocaust, allegedly to “reclaim” the superiority of the Nazi “Aryan race”
- wars declared by terror groups against states – arguably on grounds of religious, moral and spiritual superiority as in the case of Al-Qaeda versus the USA and more recently
- several Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, possibly caused by race.
Indeed then, psychology can offer great insight on the inevitability of war and conflict in global politics. Human psychology, generally, may not change much as opposed to the state of politico-economic affairs, tending to be relatively volatile and unpredictable – even for the near future. Hence, predicting human psychology, a relatively easier task, could help answer whether war and conflict is inevitable. While the past may not always be a good indicator of the future in general, because of its seemingly unchanging nature, it seems to be for human psychology. If, then, human psychology remains like it currently is, war and conflict seems inevitable.
However the theory of democratic peace – the belief that democratic nations do not fight each other using force, although they may fight non-democracies – could help argue that war and conflict is avoidable. It may not be democracy, intrinsically, which is the cause of peace between democracies. Rather, the causes of democratic peace are arguably some features of democracy. Such features, according to Russet et al (1993) may include:
- the sharing of global institutions and economic interdependence (e.g. the operations of large multinationals and trading links greatly increases the cost of war),
- the fact that democracies tend to form alliances (e.g. NATO) – making lethal conflict between members irrational in a global politics and power standpoint,
- the commitment of democracies to preserve their political stability and,
- the mutual feeling of liberal values.
The following table (Russett et al, 1993, p.21) exemplifies democratic peace. Dyads, in this context, is a term referring to pair of states close to each other — geographically, politically and/or economically. As it can be seen, during this time period, in no case did a democratic dyad go to war and the number of disputes (conflicts) was far lesser when the dyads were democratic. This could indicate a causal relationship between the features of democracy and democratic peace.
Nonetheless, it would be a fallacy to assume that democracies are absolutely peaceful. While democracies do not use military means to start wars and conflicts among themselves, passive means and intimidation are frequently used. For instance and arguably, economic integration like the creation of the European Union (EU) can be regarded as a form of disguised protectionism against the rest of the world, implying conflict in a more subtle sense. A less subtle example involves the recent tariffs on steel between the USA and the EU (Reuters, 2018a), and the USA’s threatened tariffs on EU car imports (Reuters, 2018b). Moreover, “they (democracies) often initiate international disputes during economic slowdowns or recessions, or if in economic difficulty respond more aggressively when others initiate disputes” (Russett et al, 1993, p.29). Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between the American economic slowdown during the early 2000s and the Iraq invasion of 2003. It is alleged that this correlation is synonymous with causation, rather than mere coincidence.
Limited resources are available to satisfy unlimited wants. Additionally, while ethics change, human psychology seems unchanging. Therefore, humans will never stop fighting over limited resources. Moreover, believing that all nations will become democratic and that democratic peace will end all wars is believing that Earth will be named Utopia. Much sense lies in saying that while it may become less lethal, war and conflict – at present and in the foreseeable future at least – is an inevitable feature of global politics.
BBC. 2018. ‘Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria in maps‘. BBC. [online] <https://bbc.in/2MFgor2>
Mercer, J. 2005. ‘Rationality and psychology in international relations’. International Organisation. 59:1. pp. 77–106.
Reuters. 2018a. ‘EU states back measures to limit steel imports after U.S. tariffs‘. Retrieved from https://reut.rs/2tVO9c8
Reuters. 2017. ‘Iraq declares final victory over Islamic State‘. Retrieved from https://reut.rs/2AajWXX
Reuters. 2018b. ‘Trump relents on EU car tariffs, as U.S.-China fight derails Qualcomm deal‘. Retrieved from https://reut.rs/2C1hBUr
Russett, B., Antholis, W., Ember, C., Ember, M., and Maoz, Z. 1993. Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
The New York Times. 2009. ‘A Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’. The New York Times. [online] <https://nyti.ms/2wwRe2W>
The New York Times. 2017. ‘Iraq Prime Minister Declares Victory Over ISIS.’ The New York Times. [online] <https://nyti.ms/2CqSKpp>
USA Department of Defense. 2018. ‘Syrian Democratic Forces Announce Drive to Reclaim Last ISIS Territory’. [online] <https://bit.ly/2PQIywT>
Vasquez, J. and Henehan, M. 1999. The Scientific Study of Peace and War: A Text Reader. Maryland: Lexington Books.