In an era when wars never end, America’s definition of peace needs to be defined down.
- By Lawrence FreedmanLawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His new book, The Future of War: A History, will be published by PublicAffairs in October.
Over the next few weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is due to provide President Donald Trump with a new strategy for Afghanistan. This will be the latest in a long series, produced on a regular basis since 2001, all with the core objective of preventing the country reverting to a sanctuary for terrorism. Mattis cannot be accused of ramping up expectations for the new approach he is seeking to develop. He describes the current situation as a stalemate, but with the balance having swung to the Taliban. Reversing this, he argues, will require more troops to help develop Afghan capabilities. When asked what it would mean to win, he says violence must be brought down to a level where it could be managed by the Afghan government without it posing a mortal threat.
There are several obstacles to even this modest definition of victory. First, it envisions an Afghan government able to competently deal with groups such as al Qaeda without outside assistance; it envisions, in other words, a government very different than the one Afghanistan has had for some time. Another obstacle is posed by the supporters of the former Taliban government, who are well embedded in Afghanistan and have sympathetic backers in Pakistan. Regardless of the strategy Mattis settles on, the war offers little prospect for a stable end-state in which the Afghan government will be able to think about issues other than security, or U.S. forces can withdraw without having to rush back to repair the damage as the Taliban surge once more.
But Afghanistan is not unique in this regard. The situation in Iraq is similar, as are the wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Ukraine, and any number of other international conflicts. We have entered an era of wars that wax and wane in intensity, and at best become manageable, rather than end with ceremonies to conclude hostilities. The challenge posed to traditional notions of war by these endless conflicts has been the subject of much debate. What is long overdue is reflection on the challenge posed to our definition of peace.
Once upon a time the distinction between war and peace was clear-cut. Peace ended when war was declared. Almost immediately acts which had previously been considered criminal, harmful and obnoxious became legal and desirable. Trade would be blocked and aliens interned. Neutrals had to pay attention. Eventually the war would end when a treaty was signed, setting the terms for a new peace. The fighting would stop, trade would resume and aliens would be released. Neutrals could get on with their business. As the previous peace had been flawed, for it had ended with war, the new peace must address those flaws. In addition, as wars involve sacrifices and pain, the new peace must provide a degree of reward and compensation. It must represent progress.
It has been a long time since we enjoyed such clarity. Wars are no longer declared. The trend began in the 1930s, including the use of euphemisms for war, as those states which had renounced war as an instrument of national policy (the language of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact) embarked on invasions. The trend was set by the Manchurian Incident of 1931, when Japan invaded China. The Second World War involved lots of declarations, but few wars have been declared since. In those many contemporary wars that involve civil conflict, formal declarations are obviously irrelevant. Cease-fires and peace settlements are regular but they have a habit of not sticking. Meanwhile, international wars now frequently conclude with no more than a cease-fire agreement (as with Korea in 1953 or Iraq in 1991), explicitly leaving open the possibility that they can resume at a later date.
So, warfare has become less of a separate, marked-off activity, demarcated in time and space, and instead a messy condition, marked by violence, found within and between states. It can involve examples of force that are intense but localized or else widespread and sporadic. Borders have become permeable, so that neighbors move in and out while denying that they are engaged in anything so blatant as aggression. The absence of large-scale hostilities at any particular moment in any particular region does not mean that peace has broken out because they are often on the edge of war. A true peace needs to be for the long-term, with disputes resolved and relations getting closer — not a pause to allow for restocking and some recuperation before the struggle continues.
As the line between peace and war has become blurred, international relations scholars have used a simple measure of 1,000 battle deaths in a given year to mark when the line is crossed into war. A conflict with fewer battle deaths, then, for analytical purposes is not a war but merely a militarized inter-state dispute. With civil wars the threshold is much lower in the key databases than inter-state wars, so fighting can sneak below the required level but then sneak up again. Over long periods countries, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, can experience many different sorts of violence without ever enjoying a lengthy period of tranquility that might deserve to be known as peace. The literature now refers to “war prevention” and “war termination” without requiring any references to the “peace” being left or to which it is hoped to return.
There are still “peacekeeping” missions, meant to sustain a tentative peace, but when these missions have been sent into situations without any peace to keep the term has proved clearly inadequate. Some variations were attempted to recognize this difficulty – such as “‘peace enforcement” or “peace support” — until it was accepted that a durable peace might prove to be elusive and so instead the designation became “stabilization operations.”
When a war was undertaken for purposes of conquest then success could be measured in terms of territory gained or held. But conquest, pure and simple, is no longer represented as a legitimate objective of war, even when territory is being seized. The old imperialism was also often presented as a civilizing process, and not just about plunder and exploitation. Once the empires were dismantled after 1945 there was no appetite to construct anything comparable. Instead help with “state-building” is offered. “Victory,” for which Gen. Douglas MacArthur told us there is no substitute, is another word that has fallen out of fashion, except when talking about a specific battle. President George W. Bush tried “mission accomplished” in Iraq, but it turned out that it wasn’t. When describing a desirable situation these days ‘order’ is used as much as peace. The concept of peace has become a notable absentee in contemporary strategic discourse.
Even university departments of “peace studies” spend a lot of time talking about conflict and violence and how to stop it. Those working in this tradition are heirs to the idealism that saw war as unnatural and representing the worst of human nature and national conceits. They continue to oppose militarism and its representations in mainstream thinking. But even within this tradition there has always been a tension between those who are essentially pacifists, so that any violence is retrograde, and those who believe that war can only be banished through the defeat of injustice and the promotion of freedom. On the one hand is the absence of war, the negative peace when hatreds may still simmer and repression may be rife; on the other the more positive peace, which might require taking sides once fighting has begun.
The importance of this distinction is that when we do get around to discussing peace it is largely in positive terms. Peace must be “just and lasting.” A coming peace is rarely described in terms that acknowledge the challenges facing war-torn societies as they attempt to recover and reform. The promise, once the “evil-doers” are defeated, is of freedom and democracy flourishing, bringing with them prosperity and social harmony. Even when intervening in societies whose future we cannot (and should not) control the West is reluctant to say that we have done little more than calm things down and made things less bad than they might have been. It is difficult to justify the lives lost and the expenses incurred in the most discretionary intervention by proclaiming a so-so result. Indeed, the temptation is to cover the promised outcome with the full rhetorical sugar-coating. Looking back at the claims made about what could be achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ambition is extraordinary: terrorism defeated, a fearful ideology discredited, whole regions turned toward the path of democracy and away from dictatorship, an end to the drug trade, and so on.
Yet we know, and have been reminded, that the brutality and violence associated with war is not a natural route to a good peace. War leaves its legacy in grieving, division, and bitterness, in shattered infrastructure, routine crime, and displaced populations vulnerable to hunger and disease. There were “good peaces” achieved after 1945 with both Germany and Japan (which is why the wars that led to their defeat were considered unambiguously good). But these required more than military victory. They also demanded the commitment of a considerable amount of civilian planning and resources that would have been quickly lost if the Cold War had ever turned hot.
The astonishing feature of the invasion of Iraq was the refusal to put any effort into what was described as the “aftermath” of the occupation, and the complete lack of preparedness to take advantage of whatever opportunities for a better society that might have been created. If we look back at policy failures here and elsewhere they often lie in the reluctance to make the effort and deploy the resources to address the long-term issues of reconstruction once fighting subsides. In short, there has been no agreed view about the demands of peace.
Thucydides’s observation that wars are undertaken for reasons of “fear, honor, and interest” has been quoted by members of the Trump administration. These three words allow for a wealth of interpretation and all can be said to be in play when dealing with the Islamic State or Afghanistan. Of the three, doing justice to fear would require not only the elimination of terrorist sanctuaries in the respective countries, which might be possible, but preventing their return, which seems optimistic. Securing American interests might require the establishment of states that are more stable, and societies that are more free, and less sectarian, internally violent, and corrupt. These are individually matters of degree and also do not come as a package. The tension between social order and individual freedom runs through political theory as well as Western foreign policy and is no closer to resolution. Even the best likely outcomes now will feel unsatisfactory even if further calamities can be avoided.
Which leaves honor as the final path to peace. This is the simplest to achieve as all it requires is acting in a principled way with high standards. It does not preclude a disappointing material outcome. Indeed, when we think of peace with honor, two great failures that come to mind. In 1938 this is what British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain claimed to have achieved when he came back from Munich after meeting with Hitler, as did U.S. President Richard Nixon when talking about the Paris Peace Accords at the start of 1973. Honor means you did what you could, not that you achieved what you set out to achieve.
We talk about peace as a utopian condition, as a set of desiderata for a better world to keep us motivated when times are tough, or when inquiring into the requirements of postwar reconstruction. But the nature of the peace we seek needs to be integrated as a matter of course into any military strategy, and in contemporary conditions requires a renewed commitment to realism. There is no point in describing an attractive future if there is no obvious way to reach it. Military planners should remember that the conduct of a war, as well as the cause for which it is fought, shapes any eventual peace. Opportunities need to be taken to consider what might seriously be achieved through the use of force, nonviolent alternatives that might achieve comparable objectives, and also what can be done with a war that others have started but we wish to see finished.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war,” goes the Roman adage. But if you prepare for war then at least think about the peace you want.
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