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Why do we still have war in this world?

The nuclear deterrence does not prevent wars erupting among non-nuclear states or as proxy wars started by nuclear powers in other states

London anti-war protest in 2003 - WIKIPEDIA

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Over a year ago, I spoke in a webinar on the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, and this war still rages on.

Over the last few days, the horrendous images of the never-ending Arab-Israeli ‘conflict’ in Gaza have inundated our print and social media.

As I write these lines, Gaza, which has been described as an “open-air prison”, is being pounded by Israeli rockets, which have killed over 2,300 Palestinians, including children, and injured 9,000. The death toll in Israel stands at about 1,300, with over 3,200 injured in this current conflagration.

War has become the leitmotif – the dominant and recurring theme – of our so-called human ‘civilisation’ (a word which for me has increasingly become a misnomer). Today, 110 ongoing armed conflicts have scarred the world, with North Africa and the Middle East accounting for 45 of them.

In his classic 1959 book Man, the State, and War, Kenneth Waltz identifies three causes of wars: human weakness, the territorial state and the anarchic world system. He remains absolutely spot on till today.

First, weak and flawed humans have failed to avoid war for over 2,000 years. That said, humans have been able to cooperate and establish social contracts to bring about some measure of social peace in many societies.

The problem is such social contracts over time became lodged within the territorial, modern state, which itself grew into the driving force of war.

Ironically, it was the European state system, which emerged after the Thirty Years War following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, that gifted the world this territorial state. Practically all modern states have adopted the Westphalian model and therein lies the nub of our human condition and its tendency towards war.

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The majority of so-called ‘nation-states’ are neither peaceful within their own boundaries nor do they seek peaceful relationships with their counterparts outside. Thus, we see the emergence of the second Waltzian image – that of warring territorial states.

There is a third image of war. There is nothing to stop these states from going to war because of global anarchy – because of the lack of an enforceable international legal order among states. Our so-called ‘world order’ is anchored on the good behaviour of states or their leaders, not on a legal framework.

We do have a global entity called the UN, which was crafted after World War Two. But it has no means to impose any rules or sets or laws for state behaviour.

A further complication in our anarchic world emerged because of the Oppenheimer moment. This was when the atomic bomb was made and detonated over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. A powerful movie has documented this important historic moment.

Because of the invention of nuclear weapons and the emergence of several nuclear powers, the political theorist John Gaddis has talked of “The Long Peace”, owing to what is sardonically termed mutually assured destruction (Mad).

This is a reference to the balance of terror that exists among the nuclear powers. No nuclear power will start a war against another nuclear state for fear that it will lead to mutual destruction. This is certainly true of the US and Russia today, with their respective arsenals of over 5,000 nuclear warheads each (see graphic below).

However, this nuclear deterrence does not prevent wars erupting among non-nuclear states or as proxy wars started by nuclear powers in other states. This is the horrific world we live in today.

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John Gaddis began his famous essay with a fable, quoted below:

When, after years of fighting, one side finally prevailed over the other and the war ended, everyone said that it must go down in history as the last great war ever fought. To that end, the victorious nations sent all of their wisest men to a great peace conference, where they were given the task of drawing up a settlement that would be so carefully designed, so unquestionably fair to all concerned, that it would eliminate war as a phenomenon of human existence. Unfortunately, that settlement lasted only twenty years. 

There followed yet another great war involving the slaughter of millions upon millions of people. When, after years of fighting, one side finally prevailed over the other and the war ended, everyone said that it must go down in history as the last great war ever fought. To everyone’s horror, though, the victors in that conflict immediately fell to quarreling among themselves, with the result that no peace conference ever took place. Within a few years each of the major victors had come to regard each other, and not their former enemies, as the principal threat to their survival; each sought to ensure that survival by developing weapons capable, at least in theory, of ending the survival of everyone on earth. Paradoxically, that arrangement lasted twice as long as the first one, and as the fable ended showed no signs of coming apart anytime soon.

– John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System. International Security, Vol 10, No 4, 1986

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Unfortunately, the fable is incomplete as an important part of the storyline is missing. Let me try to make up for this by an addendum:

There were many years of a long peace between the victors, who now became superpowers. Weapons of mass destruction were multiplied, made more sophisticated by the day. However, multiple wars broke out in many parts of the world which saw millions of people getting slaughtered. 

Remarkably, all of this happened under the watch of the victors of the Great War – the superpowers – whose own worlds were stabilised now by the fear of the outbreak of a nuclear war.

Thus, three worlds were created on Earth; the first and second where no major wars occurred, and a third, where there was constant waging of war usually caused by the superpowers since they could not fight on their own territories and risk annihilation of themselves and the whole world. And thus, it was that underdevelopment, poverty and misery and wars prevailed unabated in the third world.

As I reflect on our human condition today and its incapacity to ensure peace for the majority of humankind, the words of two individuals I admire come to mind.

“Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” – Isaac Asimov

Johan Saravanamuttu
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
15 October 2023

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, a long-time Aliran member, is emeritus professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, adjunct professor at the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya and adjunct senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He believes in politics as a vocation but is frustrated that it is often the refuge of opportunists and the morally depraved
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Wong Soak koon
16 Oct 2023 3.57pm

I enjoyed this excellent essay very much. Thank you, Johan.

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