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% 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 the 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 the 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, to blandly endorse such a conclusion without taking note of the drawbacks of such ‘a nuclear peace.’ Goldstein in his book writes on page 42, “[n]uclear deterrence may in fact help to explain why World War III did not occur during the Cold War—certainly an important accomplishment.” Goldstein does insist that this role of nuclear weapons has problematic aspects associated with some risk of unintended or accidental use and cannot by itself explain other dimensions of the decline of political violence, which rests on a broader set of developments that are usefully depicted elsewhere in the book. These qualifications are welcome but do not offset a seeming willingness to agree that nuclear weapons seemed partly responsible for the avoidance of World War III or the liberal internationalist view, perhaps most fully articulated by Joseph Nye, that an arms control approach is a sufficient indication that the threat posed by the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry is being responsibly addressed. [Nye, Nuclear Ethics (New York: Free Press, 1986)]
Steven Pinker in his book takes a more nuanced position on nuclear weapons, arguing that if it were indeed correct to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III, there would be grounds for serious concern. He correctly asserts that such a structure of peace would be “a fool’s paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse.” Pinker goes on to conclude that “[t]hankfully, a closer look suggests that the threat of nuclear annihilation deserves little credit for the Long Peace.” (p.268) Instead, Pinker persuasively emphasizes the degree to which World War III was discouraged by memories of the devastation experienced in World War II combined with the realization that advances in conventional weaponry would make a major war among leading states far more deadly than any past war even if no nuclear weapons were used.
Pinker also believes that a ‘nuclear taboo’ developed after World War II to inhibit recourse to nuclear weapons in all but the most extreme situations, and that this is the primary explanation of why the weapons were not used in a variety of combat settings during the 67 years that have passed since a single atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. But Pinker does not raise deeply disturbing questions about the continued possession and threat to use such weaponry that is retained by a few of the world’s states. Or, if the taboo was so strong, why this weaponry remains on hair trigger alert more than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and why on several occasions a threat to use nuclear weapons was used to discourage an adversary from taking certain actions. (see for instance, Steven Starr, “On the overwhelming urgency of de-alerting US & Russian missiles”) And if the taboo was so valued, why did the United States fight so hard, it turns out unsuccessfully, to avoid having the International Court of Justice pronounce on the legality of nuclear weapons? (see ICJ Advisory Opinion, 8 July 1996) And why has the United States, along with some of the other nuclear weapons states, refused to declare ‘a no first use policy.’ The taboo exists, to be sure, but it is conditional and has been contested in times of international crisis, and its strength rests on the costs associated with any further use of nuclear weapons, including creating a precedent that might work against future interests.
More surprising than these comments on how the presence of nuclear weapons dissuaded the United States and the Soviet Union from going to war was the failure of my co-panelists to surround their endorsement of the war-avoiding presence of nuclear weapons with moral and prudential qualifiers. At minimum, they might have acknowledged the costs and risks of tying strategic peace so closely to threatened mass devastation and civilizational, and perhaps species, catastrophe, a realization given sardonic recognition in the Cold War by the widely used acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction). The questions put by the audience also avoided this zone of acute moral and prudential insensitivity, revealing the limits of rational intelligence in addressing this most formidable challenge, if social and political construction of a humane world order was recognized as a shared goal of decent people. It is unimaginable to reach any plateau of global justice without acting with resolve to rid the world of nuclear weaponry; the geopolitical ploy of shifting attention from disarmament to proliferation does not address the moral depravity of relying on genocidal capabilities and threats to uphold vital strategic interests of a West-centric world (Chinese nuclear weapons, and even those few possessed by North Korea, although dangerous and morally objectionable, at least seem acquired solely for defensive and deterrent purposes).
I doubt very much that such a discussion of the decline of war and political violence could take place anywhere in the world other than North America, and possibly Western Europe and Japan. Of course, this does not by itself invalidate its central message, but it does raise questions about what is included and what is excluded in an Americans only debate (Mack is an Australian). Aside from the U.S. being addicted to war, I heard no references in the course of the panel and discussion to the new hierarchies in the world being resurrected by indirect forms of violence and intervention after the collapse of colonialism, or of structural violence that shortens life by poverty, disease, and human insecurity. I cannot help but wonder whether some subtle corruption has seeped into the academy over the years, especially at elite universities whose faculty received invitations to work as prestigious consultants by the Washington security establishment, or in extreme cases, were hosts to lucrative arrangements that included giving weapons labs a university home and many faculty members a salary surge. Princeton, where I taught for 40 years, was in many respects during the Cold War an academic extension of the military-industrial complex, with humanists advising the CIA, a dean recruiting on behalf of the CIA, a branch of the Institute for Defense Analysis on campus doing secret contract work on counterinsurgency warfare, and a variety of activities grouped under the anodyne heading of ‘security studies’ being sponsored by outside financing. Perhaps, such connections did not spill over into the classroom or induce self-censorship in writing and lecturing, but this is difficult to assess.
The significance of this professional discussion of nuclear weaponry in 2012—that is, long after the militarized atmosphere of the Cold War period has happily passed from the scene—can be summarized: To witness otherwise perceptive and morally motivated scholars succumbing to the demons of nuclearism is a bad omen; for me this nuclearist complacency is an unmistakable sign of cultural decadence that can only bring on disaster for the society, the species, and the world at some indeterminate future point. We cannot count on our geopolitical luck lasting forever! And we Americans cannot possibly retain the dubious advantages of targeting the entire world with these weapons of mass destruction without experiencing the effects of a profound spiritual decline, which throughout human history has always been the prelude to political decline, if not collapse. David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and I explore this range of issues in our recently published book, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012).