The beginning of this century was a time of extraordinary promise. The British Navy policed the seas. The nations of the world were more entangled in trade and exchange than any time since. The ruling houses of the leading nations of Europe were bound by marriage. A stable and relatively peaceful balance of power had been maintained in Europe for decades. The industrial revolution was generating new wealth, and, as Norman Angell argued in a best-selling book, making war unprofitable. Arms control negotiations focused on limiting the buildup of navies, the offensive weapons of the time. Immanuel Kant’s prediction that the liberalizing influence of commerce, democracy and law could produce perpetual peace seemed prescient. There followed the most violent century in recorded history.
Forsberg displays an ineffably American fixation on technology and technical fixes—as both solution and problem.
Now, as Randy Forsberg notes, the new millennium begins at another remarkable time. Of the day’s great powers, only the United States sustains a global military force. The others, by experience or circumstance, are wedded to defensive postures: Germany and Japan from defeat in World War II, Russia from bankruptcy, China from poverty and backwardness. Once again, a global economy is being forged. The information revolution is generating new wealth. Powerful global corporations and banks find war unprofitable. The liberalizing influence of commerce and the spread of democracy suggest that a new era of peace may be possible.
Forsberg, renowned for her historic work on the freeze campaign, now focuses our attention on arms control—on limiting offensive capabilities to bring an end to war. In doing so, she displays an ineffably American fixation on technology and technical fixes—as both solution and problem, answer and threat. Yet in its own muddle, her argument reveals the shortcomings of this approach.
Forsberg argues that nuclear weapons have made all-out war “unthinkable.” If that were so, then why all the fuss around the freeze in the early 1980s? Rather than shoring up non-proliferation, the U.S. should be peddling nuclear arms to trouble spots across the world, increasing stability and making money at the same time. But Forsberg herself warns that in most of the world—the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia—the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction “increases the risk that they will be used on cities.” Sounds like thinkable all-out war to me. Some America First-ers would suggest that the leaders of the rest of the world aren’t as responsible as those in the current nuclear powers. But Forsberg surely would be the first to point out that only U.S. leaders have actually used a nuclear weapon in warfare “on cities.”
Forsberg also suggests that “smart weapons” have made “protracted major war impracticable,” more costly than profitable even for the winner. But it didn’t take “smart bombs” to make conventional war unprofitable—as World War II demonstrated to every major combatant except the United States. In fact, smart bombs offer the (generally false) promise of “surgical strikes,” salving the conscience of warriors launching attacks on cities, as the U.S. military did on Baghdad. They might arguably make all-out conventional war more rather than less likely.
Forsberg implies that the countries that spend more on their military seem less likely to become embroiled in war. But as the U.S. has shown since the Cold War—in Panama and the Persian Gulf—spend enough and you can embroil others in war, while you simply enjoy relatively bloodless triumphs.
In passing, Forsberg also notes that the spread of democratic values makes war less likely, echoing the popular theme that democratic nations don’t make war (at least against each other). Surely democracies are preferable to dictatorships, but it is worth remembering that Hitler was elected. The U.S., the most stable and secure of democratic nations, managed to go to war—overt or covert—about once every 18 months during the Cold War years. The spread of democracy in Algeria, Saudi Arabia or the emirates, Jordan or Iraq (at least prior to the Gulf War) has been deemed so threatening to peace that the U.S. works actively to suppress it.
Moreover, commerce and trade, with their sober calculations of profit and loss, have not yet sufficed to end war. In many ways, the global economy was more integrated at the beginning of this century than it is today. And today, the destruction—creative or not—wrought by the global economy seeds brutal conflicts which feel like major wars to those caught in them.
What needs to be done to secure the blessings of this age? Forsberg suggests that we should focus on ridding ourselves on the very weapons she earlier argued made war virtually unthinkable. She sensibly favors a strategic shift from offensive postures to defensive defense—to defense postures and weapons mixes that are less useful for offensive operations and preclude cross-border operations. Logic aside, the argument is unconvincing.
The U.S. has shown the future: spend enough and you can embroil others in war, while you simply enjoy relatively bloodless triumphs.
First, in every country the military argues that the best place to fight any potential war is on someone else’s territory, and the best way to deter any attack is to be ready to do exactly that. More sensible arguments by arms controllers will be a difficult sell. Second, as Forsberg notes, the capacity to defend the borders of a large country—like China, Russia, the European Union, India, Indonesia—entails the same mobility as that needed to invade a neighbor.
Third, the U.S. claims an impossible exemption. As Forsberg notes, the U.S. demands the ability to defend its allies—in the Middle East, Europe and Asia — from external (and possibly internal) attack. This has justified maintaining military spending at virtually Cold War levels to pay for a conventional force that can be dispatched rapidly to all corners of the earth. If the U.S. sustains this capacity, it is hard to believe, as Forsberg admits, that other countries will voluntarily limit themselves to a defensive defense (instead, Russia and China are more likely to go to a hair-trigger nuclear posture). Yet in her argument here Forsberg gives the U.S. a limited pass.
Finally, military strategies change. Creating an advanced military isn’t easy or cheap, but a move from a self-limiting defensive posture to an offensive one doesn’t take much. A decade ago, the Chinese army—built for defense and so backward it communicated by banging on drums—still managed to invade Vietnam.
Technology provides neither cause nor cure for war. Neither the arms race nor arms control brought the Cold War to a peaceful end: it was the internal collapse of the Soviet Union, and the decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to end the game. Detente furthered the erosion, particularly in Eastern Europe. The campaigns for disarmament and against nuclear war helped expose the madness of the arms race. But the Red Army went from fiend to sometime friend not through arms control, but by the transformation of a political and economic relationship.
No justice, no peace. In this extraordinary time, our focus should be on building the structures of peace—the harder, softer tasks of securing minimal decency, bolstering democracy and the rule of law, strengthening international peacekeeping and peacemaking institutions, and dealing with such real world causes of tension as economic upheaval, mass displacement, environmental catastrophe, resource rivalries, religious and nationalist passions. Resolute campaigning against war—for disarmament, for peaceful resolution of disputes, against foreign interventions, against incessant arms development—is surely a part of this. Arms control proposals like Forsberg’s offer, at best, creative way stations along the way. But peace comes not from a perfect arsenal or a military posture, but from a continuing process of diplomacy, finding peaceful resolution of disputes, creating justice, building a rule of law and reason.