There’s long been a theory that peacetime is bad for maintaining the global order — turns out a war now and then does a nation good.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A striking trend in contemporary world politics is the apparent erosion of political unity in so many different places. In the Middle East, we’ve seen the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the continuing bloodbaths in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. In Europe, support for the European Union continues to drop, Great Britain may vote to leave it, and Scotland might still decide to exit the United Kingdom. Here in the United States, we have a level of bitter partisanship not seen for many decades, the two main political parties are themselves deeply divided, and the presumptive GOP presidential candidate is a rank amateur (in several senses of that term). To say “the center cannot hold” seems like an understatement these days.
What’s going on here? Some people believe today’s fractious politics is a consequence of globalization, which has accelerated the pace of change, threatened traditional cultural norms, and left millions of people feeling marginalized. Other observers blame economic policies that have enriched the One Percent and insulated them from their own misdeeds, leaving the rest of us to forage for the crumbs from their table. Or perhaps the digital revolution and new media are the real culprits, with the combination of cable TV, Twitter, and other modern means of communication lowering barriers to entry, coarsening the national dialogue, spreading extremism, and making the nastiest forms of political innuendo seem legitimate.
There may be some truth in each of these claims, but they all overlook an even more important explanation for the fractious state of contemporary politics: peace. Don’t get me wrong: I think peace is wonderful, and I wish more politicians talked about it openly and did more to further it. But prolonged periods of peace may also have a downside: They allow divisions within different societies to grow and deepen. Even worse, they may eventually drive the world back toward war.
I wish I could claim this was my original idea, but this explanation for our present divisions has been around for quite a while. Indeed, 20 years ago, political scientist Michael Desch published a fascinating article in the academic journal International Organization, titled “War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?” Drawing on the earlier work of Max Weber, Otto Hintze, George Simmel, Charles Tilly, Lewis Coser, and others, Desch argued that war (and external threats more generally) were perhaps the single-most important factor explaining the emergence of strong, centralized states and cohesive national polities. In particular, the pressures of international competition forced rival states to develop effective bureaucracies, efficient systems of taxation, and formidable armies, and it also encouraged the promotion of patriotism and a dampening of internal divisions. When the wolf is at the door, domestic quarrels are put aside in order to deal with the more immediate danger.
Unfortunately, this argument also implies that the arrival of peace can have a negative effect on national unity. Desch quotes sociologist George Simmel approvingly: “A group’s complete victory over its enemies is thus not always fortunate in a sociological sense. Victory lowers the energy which guarantees the unity of the group; and the dissolving forces, which are always at work, gain hold.”
Does the historical record support this view? Desch thought so. In his words: “Variation in the intensity of the international security competition also affected the cohesion of many states. From the end of the Napoleonic wars and the Treaty of Versailles in 1815 until the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the external threat environment facing European states became relatively benign. The period between 1815 and 1853 witnessed an unprecedented breakdown in state cohesion manifested in a series of internal upheavals in various European states.”
He also saw a similar pattern in U.S. history. By 1850, he noted:
“[T]he external threat environment facing the United States had become quite benign. At the same time, long-standing internal tensions reemerged in the United States…. By the election of 1860, the country was so divided that Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected with little more than a third of the vote and three other parties did quite well…. It is reasonable to conclude that the American Civil War was in part the result of the breakdown of national cohesion due to the changing external threat environment.”
The two world wars, by contrast, helped create the modern American federal state and were a powerful source of national unity, a trend reinforced even more by the subsequent Cold War. In Desch’s view, “The cold war was the ‘perfect’ type of threat. It never escalated to a major war … although it was serious enough to be a unifying factor.”
The end of the Cold War removed this source of unity, however, and as Nils Petter Gleditsch, John Mueller, Steven Pinker, and Joshua Goldstein have all argued, the level of conflict (and external threat) in the world has been declining (until a recent modest uptick). The result, as Desch foresaw two decades ago, has been growing internal disunity and a weakening of state effectiveness, although the strength of these tendencies varies widely around the world. States that mobilize power through market mechanisms appear to be more robust than those that do so through coercive extraction, and there is also a “ratchet effect” when states go stronger. Because bureaucracies and institutions created at one point in time rarely go out of business as soon as their original rationale disappears, and because modern states do more than just prepare for war, a decline in external threats does not necessarily cause modern states to shrink all the way back to their pre-threat proportions. But as we are now seeing, it can make their internal politics far more divisive.
Taken together, these arguments led Desch to some striking predictions, including:
“First, the viability of multiethnic states facing a less challenging external security environment will certainly decrease … [T]hose that survive will have to cope with a much higher level of ethnic separatism and demands for autonomy.
“States with deep ethnic, social, or linguistic cleavages facing a more benign threat environment should find it harder to maintain cohesion. Key cases to watch here are Israel (secular versus religious Jews and the Jewish majority versus the Arab minority), multiethnic Arab states such as Syria (Alawites) and Jordan (Palestinians), Afghanistan (various political factions), much of black Africa (tribal), and especially South Africa (Zulus and whites).
“[T]he longer the period of reduced international security competition, the more likely are developed states to be plagued by the rise of narrow sectoral, rather than broad encompassing, interest groups. [The United States is] now witnessing significant challenges to federal authority, a growing consensus on the need to cut spending to balance the federal budget, serious efforts to eliminate cabinet departments and other federal agencies, skepticism about a state-dominated industrial policy, and a Republican-controlled Congress committed to, and so far successful, in its efforts to limit the growth of the American state.”
Sounds about right to me.
Although some of Desch’s predictions were not fully borne out, his article anticipated many of the fissiparous tendencies that characterize political life in the United States, Europe, and parts of the developing world. At a minimum, his crystal ball has performed much better than Frank Fukuyama’s belief that we had reached the “end of history,” or the late Samuel P. Huntington’s forecast of a looming “clash of civilizations.”
“Not so fast,” I hear you say. What about al Qaeda and the threat that states face from violent extremism of all sorts? Didn’t 9/11 actually produce an upsurge of national unity in the United States along with the creation of state structures like the Department of Homeland Security? And doesn’t the growing political rancor in the face of the dangers posed by al Qaeda, the Islamic State, or even Putin’s Russia cast serious doubt on Desch’s argument? Don’t shocking events like the recent attacks in Orlando, Florida, give us reason to put aside our differences and pull together once again?
It would be nice to think so, but I have my doubts. The threat from al Qaeda and its ilk is just not serious enough to galvanize the national unity that a genuine international rivalry produces. The attacks of 9/11 were a shock, of course, and so were the Boston Marathon bombings, the shootings at Fort Hood, and this latest outrage in Orlando. And, yes, the George W. Bush administration was able to exploit the initial post-9/11 reaction to take the country into a foolish war and to ramp up executive authority in various ways. But Americans soon adjusted, mostly because the actual threat proved (fortunately) to be smaller than many feared in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Domestic terrorism continues to shock us, but it’s hard to rally the nation over the long term when the risk of dying in a terrorist incident is still about 1 chance in 4 million each year. In this, still mostly benign, environment, narrow interests remain free to pursue their particular agendas.
Moreover, international terrorism is also the shadowy, hard-to-measure danger that can turn a nation’s fears inward and magnify domestic divisions. When a hostile group uses terrorism, and is able to attract a handful of supporters abroad, it inevitably triggers fears of “fifth columns” or “lone wolves” or even some vast and well-orchestrated plot to attack us here at home. Contemporary Islamophobia is a perfect illustration of this sort of concern, and it is precisely this thinking Donald Trump has exploited in his unexpected march to the Republican presidential nomination.
In short, if the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was the “perfect” threat for generating national unity, terrorism is perhaps the worst type of danger for holding the United States together. It’s not fearsome enough to bring a new “Greatest Generation” to the fore, and politicians eager to play on our worst fears can easily exploit it in ways that are more likely to divide than to unite the country.
If Desch is right — and I think he is — the implications are both ironic and disheartening. Reducing external dangers turns out to have a downside: The less threatened we are by the outside world, the more prone we are to ugly quarrels at home. Even worse, peace may even contain the seeds of its own destruction. As we are now seeing in the Middle East, the collapse of unity and state authority can easily trigger violent internal conflicts that eventually drag outside powers back in.
Yet the obvious solution — looking for some external bogeyman to rally against — is hardly appealing either. The result, alas, may be a recurring cycle of conflict where periods of peace give way to new sources of tension and division. I suppose you might say this disturbing possibility is part of what makes me a realist.
Photo credit: Philippe Lissac via Getty Images