Michael KreponAggressive War, Redux

Note to readers: For those who enjoy reading diplomatic history in general, and the diplomacy of nuclear arms control in particular, check out my magnum opus/door stop, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control.

Quotes of the week:

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
Mark Twain

“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
George Orwell, 1984

“I maintain that without optimism, we’ve already failed.” – George Takei

With so much at stake in the event of a large-scale war in Ukraine – horrific death and suffering, as well as impacts on U.S.-Russia relations, the future of U.S. global leadership, NATO, and arms control – it’s possible to lose sight of something no less and perhaps even more consequential: the revival of aggressive war as an instrument of statecraft.

Wars of conquest used to be common practice, sanctioned by international law. In the nineteenth century, that’s what strong states typically did to weaker neighbors. Now wars of conquest are the exception rather than the rule. Is this about to change?

The stigmatization of wars of conquest began in the 1920s. There was an international campaign to end war, culminating in the much-derided Kellogg-Briand Pact, named after the two principal signatories, U.S. secretary of state Frank Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand.

The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Pact of Paris, is easy to caricature as a naïve fantasy. This view is too simplistic. A powerful idea was conceptualized during this period, the idea that international law should condemn rather than reward war. This story has been told in The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, an important book by Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro.

War used to be considered a legitimate pursuit to settle grievances and to win rewards. For this we can blame, among others, a Dutch jurist and philosopher named Hugo Grotius. Hathaway and Shapiro, with the help of their data collectors, found that between 1816 and 1928, wars of conquest occurred, on average, once every ten months. The average amount of territory conquered annually was equal to the size of eleven Crimeas.

Those who wished to ban war in the 1920s held two high cards. One was that Europe had just hosted a hellish war. Another was a matter of simple framing: who, exactly wanted to go on record as being in favor of war making?

The radical idea about abolishing war was hatched and promoted by unfamiliar names, including Salmon Levinson and James T. Shotwell. One tool of this international campaign to outlaw war was the nonrecognition of territorial gains achieved by force. This doctrine was first enunciated by Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson after Imperial Japan took a rather large bite out of China in 1931 — just three years after the Kellogg-Brand Pact was signed.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact became an object of derision after Germany and Imperial Japan embarked on wars of conquest in which more than seventy million people lost their lives. The Pact of Paris was hopelessly ambitious, but it did lay the groundwork for something real and consequential: the beginning of a norm to stigmatize a subset of wars — those of aggression and conquest.

It took the ravages of World War II, the defeat of Germany and Japan, the return of their captured lands, and the creation of a new liberal international order led by the United States to repudiate wars of aggression. War crimes tribunals helped to clarify new laws of armed conflict. The opening words of the UN Charter expressed the founders’ determination to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”  These words echo Kellogg, Briand, Levinson and Shotwell.

Wars, of course, didn’t end. Colonial powers receded, leaving wars behind. States failed or subdivided, followed by bloodletting. Border wars never went out of fashion. Israel gained territory after a war prompted by an Egyptian mobilization. The Superpowers used force against wayward states within their respective orbits. As painful as these wars were, they were different from wars of conquest in the past.

A bi-polar world reinforced the norm against wars of conquest. The “unilateral moment” after the Cold War ended didn’t. Instead, aggressive war took a new form, called regime change.

The combination of great hubris and injury prompted President George W. Bush to make the achingly unwise decision to topple Saddam Hussein. Only the thinnest of legal arguments could justify Bush’s war of choice, and these evaporated into the acrid air of a broken country with the discovery that Saddam was covering up the absence, rather than his possession of nuclear weapons.

A multipolar world in which two major powers are unhappy with the status quo does not bode well for the norm against waging aggressive war. Vladimir Putin has already carved out “independent” enclaves in Georgia and Ukraine. He has now declared those in eastern Ukraine to be independent states while rejecting the independence of Ukraine as a whole. If Putin tries and succeeds in subjugating Ukraine by force of arms, the norm against aggressive war will take another serious hit. As would the unification of Taiwan with China by means of force.

You never appreciate how useful norms are until they are badly broken. One way to repair a badly damaged norm is through punishment meted out to the norm breaker. Wars of choice will stop only when states that have the power to wage them are chastened as a result.


  1. Mark P (History)

    I saw a Ukrainian official being interviewed a couple of days ago. He was asked if he regretted giving up the nukes that the USSR had left behind in Ukraine. He said he did. Is that one of the lessons small states will take from Russia’s war against Ukraine.

  2. Gregory Matteson (History)

    All notions of Arms Control and International Norms in the modern age are thrown off by a major actor being irrational. Putin and his yes-man Lavrov have repeatedly, emphatically claimed that they are fighting Nazis in Ukraine. People are in denial that Putin is nuts.