Michael KreponWar in Modern Society

Quotes of the week:

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” — Robert E. Lee

“If there is disturbance in the camp, the general’s authority is weak.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

What shape will war take in the future? The question preoccupies me because of current events and after re-reading Alastair Buchan’s book, War in Modern Society: An Introduction. (Elapsed time between reads: forty years.)

I don’t envy military strategists in and out of uniform who grapple with this question. The nature of war can change dramatically over short periods of time. It’s easier to prepare for the last war than the next one. Buchan was preoccupied with nuclear war when he wrote this slim book in 1966. He also focused on a clash of armies across the German divide. The war to stop Communism in its tracks in Southeast Asia was just beginning and didn’t warrant much of his attention.

Major wars to determine the fate of Europe and Southeast Asia are inconceivable today. Nor in the next few decades do I expect an American President to send expeditionary forces in significant number to bring democracy to the Middle East or to prevent launch pads for Islamic extremists in far-away places. U.S. planning for the latter set of contingencies will most likely rely heavily on precision strikes out of an aversion to ground warfare. 

The centennial commemorations of World War I were subdued affairs, befitting a war that was impossibly wrong-headed. (For a magnificent take on trench warfare, see Sam Mendes’s movie, 1917.) My sense is that future generations will view the wars waged by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq as tragic period pieces, much as World War I seemed to Buchan’s generation.

Every war is trumpeted as a just and necessary war by belligerents, but few are worthy of this characterization. The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan began as a just war but quickly morphed into something painfully familiar. World War II remains the primary example of a just war, where great sacrifice was warranted to defeat Germany, Japan, and Italy. A war on this scale, involving seventy million in uniform, is beyond the capacity and interest of great powers. Global conventional war is thankfully behind us. 

Expeditionary wars by “middle” powers can only be conducted on a minimal scale, given their shrinking defense budgets, standing armies, navies, and air forces. Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, wrote in his memoir that the utility of nuclear weapons is “non-existent in terms of military use.” Nevertheless, Blair wrote that giving up Britain’s nuclear deterrent would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation.” Status consciousness comes at a price: Given the expense and opportunity costs of maintaining a minimal nuclear deterrent, Britain’s exertions to reclaim the Falklands from Argentina may also be viewed as a period piece. 

Colonial wars are long gone, and thankfully so. Wars in Indochina and Algeria didn’t end well for France, and Great Britain never recovered from World War II sufficiently to hold its far-flung empire together. What was left of French and British colonial legacies in the Middle East took a beating in their politically indefensible campaign to reclaim the Suez Canal.  

Wasting wars, ill-conceived and poorly executed, diminish middle powers and Superpowers alike, as the Soviet Union learned in Afghanistan and the United States learned in Southeast Asia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. China, the major power that has warred the least over this timespan, has gained the most power while watching others fritter theirs away.

After crossing off global conventional war, large-scale expeditionary wars likely to become quagmires, and colonial wars, what remains of war in modern society? Regrettably and tragically, war hasn’t gone away. The present is pockmarked by wars fought within states that have lost cohesion or have failed. The possibility of nuclear war remains. We are warned often that new types of war in the space and cyber domains lie ahead, with preparatory steps now underway. And two old fashioned types of war haven’t gone away — wars fueled by grievance and rising power.

Russia’s rise is constrained by demographics, resources, and systemic political rot, but Vladimir Putin is determined to claw back some of what was lost from the Soviet Union’s implosion and U.S. overreaching. After the Russian economy and armed forces recovered from a great depression, the demise of the Warsaw Pact, the humiliations of Balkan wars, and especially after NATO expansion – including membership awarded to three former Soviet Republics – Putin became increasingly bellicose.

The worst mistake George W. Bush made in his second term was to enthusiastically endorse NATO’s further expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine. William Burns, then the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, warned his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that this would cross a bright red line for Putin. Others, most notably George Kennan, did so, as well. We’re still living with the consequences of Bush’s decisions. Putin ensured that neither Georgia nor Ukraine would join NATO, first by having his Army march on Tbilisi, and then by carrying out hybrid warfare to occupy eastern Ukraine and by annexing Crimea.

Putin now insists that Ukraine forego its right of national defense by means of military cooperation from the West as well as to give up its desire for NATO membership. His demands are backed up by the positioning of 70,000 troops within striking distance of Ukraine. Burns, now the Director of the CIA, projects that this number might double in size.

Borders didn’t change because of warfare during the Cold War. The status quo prevailed and was codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act that called on both Superpowers and the states residing between them to respect each other’s territorial integrity.

Moscow was satisfied with the status quo back then; now it’s not. If Putin can take another bite out of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity with relative impunity, we shall live in far more unsettling times, where strong states disregard the national sovereignty of weak states, just as in days of yore.

Even greater shocks may be in store if Xi Jinping resolves to use force to bring Taiwan into the fold. Here the issue isn’t one of national sovereignty, per se, as most of the world nominally adheres to a “One China” policy – that Taiwan is part of China, but that actual unification must be consensual. As Taiwan grows more separate from the mainland and as Beijing’s power projection capabilities increase, U.S. contingency planning becomes more problematic. Think of a modern-day Cuban missile crisis in reverse, where distance places Washington at a great tactical disadvantage.

The outcome of a Chinese military campaign against Taiwan would have profound implications for the region and for international relations writ large. Wars on a massive scale once determined the global pecking order. In the case of Taiwan, a “small” conventional war could do so. Now imagine that both Putin and Xi decide to seek military solutions to Ukrainian nationalism and Taiwanese autonomy. All of us would then live in a very different and far more dangerous world.

No, I’m not a war hawk. Never have been and never will be. But I’m plenty worried. In addition to Russian and Chinese muscle flexing, we are witnessing clashes over disputed borders between China and India and between India and Pakistan. When war in modern society includes border clashes and “small” wars involving nuclear-armed states, then, Houston, we have a problem.

What does all this mean for the global nuclear order and for arms control? Arms controllers, like defense strategists, are obliged to do contingency planning. Some long-standing prescriptions do not work in current circumstances. We’ve got to put our thinking caps on. I’ve offered some suggestions in my new book. More on this in later posts.

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