can there ever be no war?

recently, i was asked whether we can stop all wars. for me, this is a (surprisingly) easy question to answer: all wars, for ever, you can not stop.

however, it’s not quite as grim and fatalistic as you might think either…

conflict is, i am tempted to say, a “natural” phenomenon – however, since i am not a big fan of the rather fatalistically sounding “it’s nature”-argument, let me rephrase it to say that conflict is a “normal” element of life (any life, not just the human world). within the human world, conflict stems from simple differences – where and when we are born, how we are raised, how we are socialised, how the world around us is organised and what are the moral and normative structures that guide different social beings at a particular moment in time. even if all of these variables where the same (same social context, same social class, same time, same socialisation…), people would still be different, simply because we perceive the world around us in different ways – this has genetic/biological, social, psychological and many other sources. it is simply unavoidable. (to the contrary, considering to and how to change this basis that all humans perceive the world around them in different ways, leads me to conclude a “brave new world”-scenario, which – at least to me – is a far scarier a thought than accepting that conflict is a part of life.)

so, once we recognise that conflict is never avoidable, we have to understand that every element of conflict is just a different stage at the same continuum – it starts with disagreements among family and friends, eventually aggression is added to those discussion and once you flip aggression into violence, this is where we start getting closer to what we consider the difference between “peace” and “war”. what is true in the small social context (i.e. family), is true in the big social context (i.e. society; the state) – not in every aspect of course (societies and states are much more complex due to the increase in actors and institutions and possible outcomes and options) but in the end, there are similar tendencies that remind of a “spiral” – and this can be a spiral towards aggression, violence and war as well as a spiral towards negotiation, appeasement and peace. the exact bar as to when we pass from “peace” to “war” in society is unknown. it’s an academically much debated grey zone and rather a philosophical question or a matter of individual interpretation than an obsolete truth and definition.

now, once we understand this continuum of different levels of conflict – some of which we consider being an acceptable part of “peace” and others not – and we understand the interconnected relationships of individuals/people/actors shaping society and society shaping individuals/people/actors, we understand that although conflict is “natural” and/or “normal” (in the absence of a better wording…), we can have an impact on the spiral along the conflict-continuum on each and every level along the way – by the way we treat conflict in the small setting already, by the norms and values we live and share everyday, by the stances we take in public debates etc., all the way up to the big institutions: which politicians we elect, which corporations we put our money into, which active or passive role we take ourselves in society, etc.

just as individuals can impact the spiral along the conflict continuum, so can states. one example? among the international relations theories, there are some who highlight the need for economic interdependence as a hindrance to war – the idea being that war needs to be so costly for both sides that neither has an interest in starting a war in the first place (see the european union). there are other ideas too – some highlight the need for non-violent norms, others highlight the need to put in “rational” hindrances to war (making war too costly an option to discourace actors – this goes from the mentioned interdependence theory all the way to deterrence – the idea that one nuclear power would not attack another becaus the hit back is too costly). whether the hindrance is normative, emotional and ethical or whether it is economical, rational and political, does not matter (much) in the end. what is – at least for me – relieving to know is that we as human beings, institutions and actors can actually mitigate conflict and put structural hindrances to the downwards spiral on the conflict-continuum.

to take one small sidestep: please note that all of the outlayed arguments are solely based on social sciences and completely disregards the business of war – namely, the fact that there are huge(!) corporations which – following every rule of the book of capitalism (and are therefore absolutely legitimate in our time and world today) – make money and increase country’s gdp by producing ever more deadly machines (yes, they also operate under the pressures of innovation and competition – and they are creative in developing ever more effective machines for warfare). these corporations sometimes work with the states but sometimes they act solely in a business interest – they sell to those who buy; and there we go again: how could one consider stopping war for always and ever as long as there are thousands of jobs and business interests at stake in exactly this business (however amoral you as individual might find it)? let me just reference one war-academic, to illustrate the depth of this issue: ilija stefflbauer, in his fantastic work “war”, shows painstakingly clearly that most wars could be avoided not by stoping to sell nuclear weapons or rpgs and tanks, but simply by stopping the selling of small arms. yet, why would business stop selling those weapons which are a) most requested by the international markets and b) rarely confined even by national bans on arms sales (because it’s only “small” arms … ). this would be against every logic of capitalistic corporates. they are not there to stop war or save the world. they are there to make money.

so, to conclude: we need to understand that a) conflict is unavoidable (the importance of this awareness should not be underestimated! it kicks us from a feeling of being passive victim to the happenings around us into an active awareness that this is an issue so we should and can act about it!), therefore b) war is – at least as a last resort – always an option for international actors and c) what we therefore need to do – and this we can do (on every level of society and at every stage of the conflict-continuum) – is establish mechanisms that hinder the spiral spinning all the way to war (whether though normative/ethical, rational/economic, or political levers).

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