In my previous two blog segments, I outlined an argument that economic development, and the management of international interests, are the primary causes of the Long Peace. This segment deals with the final two empirical relationships of the Long Peace, the fact that most of the world has benefitted only obliquely from a “Pax Americana,” or Long Peace.
People, groups and nations fight over either tangible, real goods (territory) that are difficult to divide up, or intangible goods like policy that may be partially public (more than one actor can share in the same benefit). These are not necessarily attributes of contests, but of the interests of actors in relation to a contest. A coalition of states ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, while the Iraqis fought alone in part because each side fought with different objectives in mind. For Iraq to build a coalition, it would have had to agree to split up the oil riches of Kuwait. The U.S. had little difficulty with a coalition, since this meant “sharing” things like the principle of territorial integrity, collective security, or Middle East stability.
The fact that democracies are no less likely to use force in general reflects the fact that they fight non-democracies more often than non-democracies fight each other. It is tempting, if difficult, to explain this behavior with regime type, but very easy to explain it in terms of development. Democracies — mostly prosperous, advanced societies — are fighting with the poor more often than poor nations — typically non-democracies — fight each other in large part because they can. Development makes it is easier to project power, increasing the number of states that a nation can physically fight. Poor states seldom fight anyone, if for no other reason than that they are not physically capable of doing so. A peace between Rwanda and Belize is not, and never has been, remarkable. Yet, while development makes states better able to fight far from home, it also gradually reduces their interest in doing so for the purpose of direct material gain. Developed states face economic conditions that mean they much prefer to buy, rather than conquer. In a study with Dominic Rohner, we show that imperialism initially waxed with power projection capabilities, and then waned.
In contrast, if prosperous states prefer to buy their goods rather than fight for them, they are fully ready to fight to assert preferred policies. The bulk of developed/non-developed conflict can be explained in terms of Western nations attempting to impose their preferred policies on the developing world. Sometimes, these interventions have a normative flavor (Kosovo, Kuwait, Somalia), but the exceptions and inconsistencies suggest that these have less to do with principle than self-interested. Instability in the developing world is ignored if it is likely to remain localized (Rwanda, Congo). Western interest is piqued when and if there is the danger of spillover to important economic or political interests (oil, trade, etc).
The decline of territorial conflict in the developed world (associated with democracies), and a large scale consensus about international politics, has led to peace in Europe and elsewhere. In other regions, peace has been maintained by default, either because nations were incapable of projecting power (Africa, parts of Latin America), or because differences over policy were not easily remedied by war (the U.S. and the Soviet Union, China). There is no reason to believe that Europe will see a return of war in future decades. Similarly, Russia is in no position to assert its dissatisfaction with world affairs more than indirectly, in peripheral disputes. China alone remains a major power capable of attempting to thwart or even upend important aspects of the prevailing order. While there are increasing calls to contain China, it may be prove more fruitful to ensure that China’s interests are addressed and that it prefers some version of the status quo to a costly transformation.
The one place most likely to see more war in the future is the one least touched by the Long Peace. Broadening prosperity will see an increasing number of nations willing and able to pursue old grudges that previously were outside their grasp. At the same time, multipolar politics and a declining hegemon will make it more difficult to police the global commons as effectively as in the past, particularly given the increasing capabilities of developing states. We see this today in talk of a nuclear Iran and in U.S. efforts to co-opt nations such as India. Coming decades may well reveal a race between the unraveling of an existing international hierarchy and growing international power and prosperity generally. If developing nations are quick to evolve economically, there will be little time for their leaders to act to address territorial disputes before territory becomes redundant in a modernizing world. If instead these nations stagnate economically, numerous reasons will appear to seek to revise their borders and reassert authority over lands that are tempting and tractable only temporarily.
Finally, the effects of development on peace assume that the labor costs of occupation will remain high for developed societies. Western nations (the United States in particular) have begun to automate their militaries. If pilotless drones or ground vehicles substitute capital for labor in sufficient numbers, then territorial conquest may again prove profitable. In the movie Terminator, warlike machines take over the world. It may soon be possible, if no less horrible, that part of the planet will be dominated by predatory machines (run remotely by human beings), created not by evil computers or automated empires, but by the citizens of the very democracies that we look up to today for humanity, civilization, and peace. Those who believe that democracy prevents states from doing evil abroad should look to history.
Erik Gartzke is an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. Gartzke’s primary area of study involves the impact of information and institutions on war and peace. He applies bargaining theory, rational choice institutional theory, concepts of power and social identity, and statistical analysis to four substantive areas of interest: 1) The liberal peace, 2) international institutions, 3) diplomacy, and 4) the system overall.