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July 04, 2005

Why Is Nobody Willing to Kill Over the Language of Administration in Strassburg?

The highly-intelligent Daniel Nexon restates the "realist" position in foreign affairs, and brings to mind all the reasons that I think it is profoundly misguided:

The Duck of Minerva: Rising Powers, War and the Economists: Given that war is always costly (in terms of revenue, resources, lost consumer production, damage, death, etc.) two rational actors always ought to find some negotiated settlement preferable to going to war. Of course, the presence of an indivisible issue, incorrect information about a rival's objectives, or the inability of one (or both) sides to make a credible commitment to upholding the settlement all may lead rational states to opt for war.

Moreover, we often forget just how close Germany came to winning World War I. The Schlieffen Plan almost worked. Germany would probably have won the war - and, ironically, the next few decades would almost certainly have been much better for humankind - if the United States had not intervened on the side of the Entente. I am not suggesting the war would have been "worth it" in economic terms... but that's the whole problem with Angell's and Brad's analysis: wars are almost never worth the costs, and yet states keep on fighting them.

It seems to me that Daniel's final claim--that "wars are almost never worth the costs" they impose on both sides--is simply false before 1850 or so. To the decision makers and to those who choose them, wars before 1850 or so are not negative-sum but positive-sum contests:

Before 1850, most leaders simply did not care about the death and destruction that make modern democratic states regard wars as negative-sum contests, or do not care enough for those considerations to outweigh others--different beliefs about the will of God, domestic political benefits from war, gaining a reputation as a tough guy in foreign affairs more broadly, or regarding battle as an honorable human enterprise and a short but glorious life as better than a long one--that make wars positive-sum contests.

Since 1850 things have changed. The death-and-destruction costs of war--even non-nuclear war--have multiplied beyond previous imagining. Those who choose leaders are now a broad set of voters rather than a narrow coterie of aristocrats. We--at least we who live in democracies--ought to have outgrown war outside of the limited cases of (i) Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and (ii) missions of mercy to overthrow tyrants.

Have we? Well, quite possibly.

It has been a hundred and ninety years since Britain and the United States fought a war--in spite of sharp conflicts of geopolitical interest and the usual "indivisible issue[s], incorrect information... inability... to make a credible commitment." It has also been a hundred and ninety years since Briton fought Frenchman (save for certain unpleasantnesses involving elements of the French fleet after the French surrender of 1940)--if you'd told the Duke of Wellington on the evening of June 18, 1815 that it was the beginning of more than 190 years of Franco-British peace, he would have choked on his soup. It has been eighty-five years ago since a U.S. president decided to send armed force across the Rio Grande to "teach the Mexicans... to elect good men." It has now been sixty years since an army crossed the Rhine bearing fire and sword. How long do you have to go back to find a previous period of sixty years without a watch on the Rhine? I think you have to go back to the second century BC, before the Cimbri and the Teutones crossed the Rhine to challenge the armies of the Consul Gaius Marius for control of the Rhone Valley.

Before I read any more "realists" writing about a Chinese-American cold (or hot) war in Asia, I want them to come up with an explanation of why the War of 1812 was the last Anglo-American war. Why not 54'40" or fight? The claim that "wars are almost never worth the costs, and yet states keep on fighting them" doesn't seem to apply to relationships between some states since 1850 or so.

The "realist" school has absolutely no clue as to why there has been no Franco-British or Anglo-American war in 190 years, no Mexican-American war in 85, and no Franco-German war in 60. The language of administration in Strasbourg is simply not something that people are willing to kill or die for these days. Which kinds of states study war (against each other at least) no more? And why not? Those are, I think, the most interesting questions in the academic study of international affairs.

Posted by DeLong at July 4, 2005 02:07 PM