We may need to end all war. Quickly.

Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.

Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor.

It’s obvious that such a world would have a completely different balance of power to our own. Arms-control treaties would become pointless, and any single state or statelet, willing to run the risk, could challenge the world in the course of a week or a day.

It may be that the only way to prepare for this is to aim for a world entirely without war. If we can remove war as an instrument of state policy for good, then other means (surveillance, treaties, minimal deterrence) may be enough to contain the remaining risk.

A world without war! How utopic is that? Well, much less utopic than it’s ever been before – the amounts of deaths through wars (of all types) has been on a steady downwards trajectory for decades now. Literally, we’ve never been so peaceful, despite the television cameras that provide a steady diet of conflict from wherever the world is bleeding that day.

What does this mean for Syria? It means that we shouldn’t reach conclusions based simply on the current facts, but on what we think would lead to less war in the future. And there, it seems, the balance is strongly towards non-intervention. For an intervention would be for a large or medium power (USA, France, Turkey…) to project power beyond their borders, invading a sovereign country, in opposition to quite a number of other world powers, and with high risk of getting stuck in there for years. This is the kind of situation we need to end, no matter how well intentioned or justified it may be in this instance. There will be other instances, less justified, less well intentioned, harder to oppose if we intervene now.

If it is important for our future to get rid of war, we’re going to have to start opposing wars today – even “good wars”.

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5 Responses to We may need to end all war. Quickly.

  • Brendan F says:

    “There will be other instances, less justified, less well intentioned, harder to oppose if we intervene now.”
    If we intervene now and get stuck in a long quagmire, that experience will, on balance, make it easier to oppose future interventions, won’t it? Opponents of future interventions will be able to point to our bad experience in Syria as evidence against the wisdom of whatever intervention is being proposed in their time. This has arguably been the historical effect of the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. And even if the intervention goes well from an “objective” standpoint, it could still be perceived as unacceptably costly by the voters of the intervening country. What evidence is there that declaring war in the present increases the likelihood or popularity of future interventions?

    Even if we don’t intervene in this instance, arguments made in favor of interventions in the future could just as easily point to apparently just and wise wars from the past. The folly (or at least the apparent folly) of Neville Chamberlains’s “peace in our time” policy and the wisdom and justice (or at least apparent wisdom and justice) of the Allies prosecution of the Second World War, for instance, will always serve as an historical example for statesman arguing in favor of wars or interventions. Not intervening today will remove a single historical example of war from the history books of the future, but that is relatively insignificant compared to the long history that already exists.

    Also, why would eliminating war as a state policy make it any easier to deal with the hypothetical proliferation of weapons at the non-state or small state level? This seems to be the central point of your post, but you leave it as an unargued-for assertion. Under the admittedly implausible scenario of weapons proliferation you outline, it seems just as reasonable to argue that the world will require strong states to become more bellicose in their defense of global order.

    And how can any particular state (or non-state organization or group) eliminate war as a policy for every individual state, or even for any individual state other than itself? Your proposal to “aim” for a “world entirely without war” is not only utopian, but hopelessly vague—who is it that will be “aiming” to end war? And how will they accomplish this aim? And how will they persuade those who aim to achieve peace through victory in war to renounce war? Disagreement is of course at the heart of all wars (disagreement over who should rule, where they should rule and how) so the idea that we should simply agree to “aim” at peace is just a trivial evasion of the myriad problems that lead states and groups to war.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >Also, why would eliminating war as a state policy make it any easier to deal with the hypothetical proliferation of weapons at the non-state or small state level?

      I’m imagining the proliferation of mega-manufacturing abilities to trickle downwards, starting with rich states when it’s still in the first phases and considerable resources and testing is required, and moving gradually to smaller and smaller organisations. Then if the large players can eshew war, they can also consistently police their own borders for such capacity.

      > Disagreement is of course at the heart of all wars (disagreement over who should rule, where they should rule and how)

      And the “aim” is to have such disagreements resolved without war. This has been done very successfully for developed countries and great powers (in their direct relations with each other). Why would it be so inconceivable to extend this to disagreements between more and less developed countries, and between less developed countries?

      As for “we”, I’d be thinking of anyone in a position to decide whether to go to war, or not to.

  • Brendan F says:

    > Then if the large players can eshew war, they can also consistently police their own borders for such capacity.

    If larger players don’t eschew war, they will still be able to police weapons manufacturing technologies within their own borders. I’m not sure what would be inconsistent about the US policing the manufacture of weapons within its own borders and going to war with Syria to prevent the manufacture of chemical weapons there. Unless what you mean is that large powers should eschew not only war but the capacity for war (i.e. weapons manufacturing.) But while such a policy would give large powers (though, I guess they wouldn’t really be large powers if they have given up the capacity for war) the ability to take a morally consistent stand against the manufacture of weapons in smaller countries, this moral consistency will be bought at the price of the practical ability to prevent smaller states or non-state actors from manufacturing such weapons. Unless you can think of some very clever ways of making treaties and surveillance techniques that do not require enforcement (and didn’t you say that it would be arms control treaties that would be made worthless by this kind of proliferation?) then I’m not sure that moral/logical consistency in arguments over proliferation is worth the practical ability to control proliferation and deter aggression.

    > Why would it be so inconceivable to extend this to disagreements between more and less developed countries, and between less developed countries?

    It’s certainly conceivable, but conceiving of the possibility of peace and expressing a preference for is in itself simply trivial.

  • Andrew R says:

    I found this to be a very interesting article but the conclusions about the way forward a little depressing. For me the conclusions focus too heavily on the status quo of sovereign state at war (or not) with another sovereign state. Fundamentally Syria appears to be another example in the ever growing long list (and that’s important – genocide did not end in 1945) state orchestrated civilian attack where prevention of ongoing loss of life and unimaginable suffering is within the gift of neighbours. If we continue to focus on the issues at state level rather than the individuals concerned we will not make any progress. Entering into a genuinely ‘good’ war may marginally impact the wellbeing of your own state’s people (paying for war through marginally increased taxes or the risks of ongoing war or suffering a negative impact on diplomatic relations etc) but the impact of not doing so means with no uncertainty the continued murder / torture of people who happen to have been born within a different set of arbitrarily carved borders. As Brendan F points hints at too, there are scenarios where non-intervention allows a small fire off in the distance to become a blazing inferno on your doorstep. This is true of individuals who turn a blind eye to state persecution as well as neighbouring states.

    I accept that there is a line to be drawn as to when there is intervention as there is with domestic law enforcement and that is not a simple assessment to make in itself. In principle however shouldn’t we all be able to expect help if suffering extreme state orchestrated violence from other persons capable of providing it at comparatively little cost?

    What I would like to see us gradually work towards is unity in tackling fundamental abuses of human rights. Yes that would mean erosion of sovereignty to a degree and yes I know we are a long way off that today. If we are talking about the future though this appears to be inevitable and necessary in the same way that tribal societies many years ago (although many still exist I know) had to give way to the unifying fundamental laws of the land. A vehicle for consistent and well resourced intervention regardless of borders where there are significant humanitarian crises is needed just as we need our local law enforcement agencies. Not increased reliance on the independence of sovereign states to not get involved for the risk of future unforeseen consequences to that state and its people (regardless of the levels of suffering elsewhere).

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      You’re pitching the other avenue for getting to peace: international moral consensus intervention. What I fear is that there isn’t enough time to get that before the manufacturing revolution, and that we’ll need to get to peace without widespread international moral agreement. A consensus on non-aggression seems easier to build.

      And even if we are aiming for international consensus, Syria seems a very dangerous place to build that. Since the probability of things going wrong is so high, you really don’t want to go against the strong wishes of other major powers to prove a point… if that point ends up being a mistake.

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