Has the global order largely evolved beyond war? Indeed, the recent closure of a military base suggests that the world might be more peaceful than we appreciate.
By Gerard DeGroot
RAF (Royal Air Force) Leuchars, in Scotland, has been a lynchpin in Britain’s defenses since 1916. The deployment of a new squadron of Typhoons last March seemed an indication of the British government’s long-term commitment to the base. But then, on 18 July 2011, Defense Secretary Liam Fox announced the base’s closure as part of the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR). Many in this corner of Scotland were outraged, failing to consider the possibility that a military base closure means that peace is in the ascendancy.
Balancing security and expenditure
No government will willingly endanger national security. Granted, mistakes are made, as happened during the interwar period when assumptions about a peaceful Europe inspired dangerous cuts in British military spending. But, more often, the opposite mistake is made: nations spend more on defense than is needed. Periods of recession therefore often produce sober assessments of defense needs since governments are forced to decide what is essential and what mere luxury. This suggests that RAF Leuchars is closing because it is no longer necessary.
That does not mean the SDSR was a paragon of good sense. Inane decisions were made. In truth, the review didn’t go far enough: military hardware was retained which had little relevance to Britain’s actual security needs. Prestige unduly influenced priorities. For instance, the government approved construction of two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, despite the fact that their utility in today’s world is dubious. In fact, while the ships will be built, money will be saved by not buying airplanes for them – a decision which provoked ironic comment.
Nevertheless, it needs to be stressed: cuts were made because they could be made. If the world were still as threatening as it once seemed, savings would have been made elsewhere, probably in social services. What we don’t know, of course, is whether the British government is repeating the mistakes of the 1920s by being overly optimistic. The evidence suggests that while confidence was misplaced back then, it is justified now.
War is absurd
Though chronic conflict in the Middle East and Africa might suggest otherwise, the world order has never been so peaceful. We’re living in the longest period without war between great powers since Roman times. Cross border small state conflicts and civil wars continue to erupt, but they’re shorter and less costly than in the past. To the younger generation, a major war seems inconceivable. Recently, I attended a conference discussing Britain’s military needs. An ‘expert’ interjected that the UK needed aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons for a future war against China. The room erupted in disbelief. Two points were significant about that exchange: firstly, war with China was the best example of potential conflict the expert could propose and, secondly, the vast majority of participants thought it inconceivable.
So how do we explain this situation? In 1910, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which argued that war “belongs to a stage of development out of which we have passed”. In rather convoluted language he made a simple point, namely that economic interdependence renders war absurd. The idea that war would cease because it had become illogical proved attractive to Angell’s generation – his book was a bestseller. But then came the Great War, and out went Angell. Nations proved perfectly capable of pursuing power through war and perfectly willing to bankrupt themselves while doing so. Angell’s reputation did not survive contradiction.
Globalization and peace
We would do well to read Angell again. While he was wrong about the state of his world, the scenario he describes bears a remarkable resemblance to our world. At the heart of his argument is the idea that the global economy renders it impossible for nations to go to war, since the costs of doing so far outweigh the benefits derived from conquest. In short, Angell believed that power in the modern world was most efficiently amassed through cooperation, not conflict. Behaviour in the marketplace, not the battlefield, made a nation great.
The validity of Angell’s argument is perfectly illustrated by the modern example of China. Simply by selling things to the rest of the world, it’s set to achieve the kind of empire that great powers once coveted – without having to kill anybody. In this scenario, aggression seems ludicrous, since what advantage lies in a shopkeeper killing his customers? The Chinese seem to understand this, as evidenced by their reluctance to amass the huge military machine that once went with great power status. China only recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier. Per capita military spending is similar to that of Australia and less than half the American level.
Granted, the shift of economic domination eastward might upset peaceful relations between nations. It remains to be seen how America will adjust to the inevitable loss of economic supremacy. In particular, the prospect of a resurgent Republican party is cause for concern in Beijing. But the history of the Cold War demonstrates that, bluster aside, America acts rationally when threatened by a great power. No sane president could possibly perceive advantage to his country in launching war with China. Nothing could be gained, and so much could be lost.
The modern version of The Great Illusion is the Golden Arches theory, which holds that no two countries with a McDonald’s have gone to war. Painful as that theory might be to accept, the basic point is sound. The country that opens itself to Big Macs has given in to globalization. As has been suggested, the global market renders war increasingly unthinkable.
Another variation of the Golden Arches theory is the old adage that democracies do not fight one another. While exceptions exist, the general premise is sound. Democracies adhere to the liberal ethic, which militates against autocratic force. That ethic spills over into economics; democracies believe in free market liberalism – the Golden Arches. In addition, democracies tend to be wealthier, healthier, better educated and more inclined to become involved in international organizations – characteristics which exist in inverse proportion to belligerence. Wars tend to be fought between nations that perceive a difference between themselves and fear that difference. Democracies have too much in common. While this does not mean that the world can be made more peaceable by forcing democracy (or Big Macs) down the throats of the recalcitrant, it does suggest that the steady spread of democracy bodes well for world peace.
The Book of Isaiah, rather like Angell, prophesizes a time when war will become obsolete. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
The closing of Leuchars needs to be seen in this light. A military base is an industrial plant that produces security. As in any industry, the viability of the plant depends on demand for the product. As global harmony rises, the need for RAF Typhoons falls. The most logical future for Leuchars, then, is that it should rise again as a cut-price civilian airport. That would be a genuine plowshares moment. Tourists are like amateur peace emissaries. Cheap travel, like Big Macs, has a way of making large-scale war unlikely.
Dr Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and author of The Dark Side of the Moon (New York University Press, 2006). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)