Is War Obsolete?

War is undergoing profound transformation. The Canadian military needs to change with it.
By: /
May 18, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

The debate that Roland Paris and Steve Saideman have initiated about the future of the Canadian Forces is a crucial one, particularly when military expenditures need to compete for scarce taxpayers dollars. I’d also largely agree that one of the key priorities for the Canadian military must be the security of Canada’s sovereign territory (including coastlines and airspace) and the potential for assisting in domestic emergencies. One of the key shifts of the past 10 years, explicitly acknowledged in the Liberal government’s 2005 International Policy Statement, is that North America has become a theatre of operations for the Canadian military in its own right (after years of seeing our army, air force, and navy predominantly focus on contributing to security elsewhere).

It is the second priority that Roland identifies – the ability to contribute highly capable forces to overseas multilateral missions – that needs further discussion and reflection. On the face of it, this seems like a sound approach: Building and maintaining a capacity to take part in collective efforts to enforce international rules, or to maintain fragile peace, is clearly consistent with Canadian interests and values. But we also need to take a hard look at how war and conflict are changing, rather than assuming that what we have seen and experienced will necessarily continue into the future. As I’ve argued in a forthcoming essay in the Literary Review of Canada, war as we know it is undergoing profound transformation.


For one thing, researchers have noted for at least 20 years that there has been a dramatic decline in the incidence of international armed conflict (i.e., conflict between two states). So, for example, while 60 years ago there was an average of six international conflicts per year, there is currently less than one. The reasons for this shift are hotly debated. There are some, such as Steven Pinker (in his highly influential book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), who highlight the impact of norms, institutions, and changes in values. Others take a more pessimistic view about the potential for human beings to learn or evolve, stressing the effects of deterrence (whether through conventional or nuclear arms). And then there are those who, echoing the views of late-19th-century liberals, claim that economic interdependence means that war “no longer pays.” (We can see how well that prediction worked out when the First World War came along in 1914 – but maybe it has a better chance of proving true in today’s international system.)

But whatever the reason, it’s hard to contest the data. (The main sources I’ve looked at include those in the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and the most recent Human Security Report.) Even the most ardent realists, who stress the need for states to prepare for the ever-present possibility of armed attack, have been forced to acknowledge that something pretty interesting is going on here. The scholar Robert Jervis, who is a loyal member of the realist camp, admitted in a December 2011 International Relations article that, while realism tends to emphasize continuity and recurrence, the last 50 to 60 years of international affairs do suggest that cost-benefit calculations, norms, and values can change.

All this is about inter-state conflict. What is even more striking about recent data is that they point to the decline in number and severity of all types of conflict, including civil war. So while 81 internal armed conflicts occurred in the 1990s, there were only 39 in the decade that followed. Moreover, despite the horrific images on our television screens, and the negative long-term effects of conflict, those civil wars that did occur were less severe, for both civilians and combatants, than those of previous periods.

These figures challenge the narrative of the first decade of the post-Cold War period, which predicted that new wars, driven by ethnic hatred, would be the major challenge facing western societies in the 21st century. They also suggest that our current government’s tendency to portray the international environment as full of danger – rogue states, terrorism, etc. – may be the product of a common ailment: the tendency to idealize the past and exaggerate the dangers of the present. (Roland suggested as much in one of his past blog posts.) This problem extends beyond our own prime minister. In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen argue that the United States is facing “clear and present safety,” despite the litany of threats that most security analysts present. From the American perspective, these authors suggest, the world today is actually remarkably secure, and the U.S. needs a foreign-policy strategy that reflects that fact.

This all sounds pretty rosy. But we can’t conclude our story, or our analysis of the implications for the Canadian Forces, here. For although we are seeing a decline in international and civil wars as they are legally understood, there is a new category of “generalized violence” that is hidden by these formal categories. According to a 2011 report, The Global Burden of Armed Violence, while (on average) just more than half a million people now die annually in violent circumstances, just 10 per cent of those individuals die in formal conflict settings. Instead, the growing phenomenon of generalized violence accounts for most violent deaths around the world, and is concentrated in a relatively small number of countries, such as El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico (where an astonishing 13,000 people were killed last year as part of the so-called drug wars).

These countries do not tend to feature in many discussions about the future role of the Canadian Armed Forces, or our broader foreign policy. They are also not “overseas” in the way that the conflicts of the 1990s that engaged members of the Canadian forces (Somalia, the Balkans, etc.) were. Yet, all of these societies experience widespread, large-scale, and indiscriminate violence – whether through systematic repression at the hands of their government, or through their government’s failure to effectively address drug, gang, or political violence. As such, they deserve our attention and aid. Moreover, some of these countries are connected to Canada in significant ways. (Mexico, for example, is our partner in a free-trade agreement.)

Interestingly, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the non-governmental organization that has done so much to develop international humanitarian law (the law that applies in wartime) – is now actively engaged in developing a new mandate for action in these “Other Situations of Violence” (the ICRC’s term for these kinds of non-war situations).

Clearly, Canada’s broader set of foreign-policy tools might have something to offer these seemingly intractable conflicts. And yet, we haven’t even begun to think about how. There is little to no chance of anything resembling peacekeeping occurring in these contexts. But does that mean we can’t conceive of other possible vocations for our armed forces? Now that is an interesting and provocative question for a debate on the future of the Canadian military.

Photo courtesy of Reuters