Best Defense

Future of War (16): War will become less likely, but those that happen will be total

By Clark Barrett Best Defense Future of War essay entrant As mankind proceeds into the 21st century, four factors will drive modern states back toward a form of warfare resembling total war. Those four factors are: the cultural impacts of globalization, the continuation of the information age, financial trends, and populations’ involvement in war, or ...


By Clark Barrett
Best Defense Future of War essay entrant

As mankind proceeds into the 21st century, four factors will drive modern states back toward a form of warfare resembling total war.

Those four factors are:

  • the cultural impacts of globalization,
  • the continuation of the information age,
  • financial trends,
  • and populations’ involvement in war, or lack of participation.

Yet these four factors will also, counter-intuitively, require a more moral form of warfare. Theory on the ways of war is the realm of both scholar and warrior; it is important that they study and understand the changing nature of war.

In reference to globalization, the interdependencies created by the global trade market, will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to engage in war with current and potential trade partners. The geopolitical concerns of Mackinder, Ratzel, and Haushofer have all but dissolved as the world moves closer to a one-world community and one market. Modern trade, travel, and communications allow near-instant interaction and interdependency. Thomas Friedman argues that "the world is flat" and uses the example of the dizzying number of 45 suppliers required to fabricate one Dell laptop computer. Global corporations that straddle multiple countries are likely to temper hostilities and force interstate cooperation. Globalization thus will prevent the small, limited wars of the recent past. There will have to be a true casus belli, a high hurdle to leap, for any nation to enter into a war; therefore, however, those wars will most likely be total in nature. The Clauswitzian trinity demands a rational logic. "Subject to reason alone," small affronts might be overlooked, but great affronts, if they are to be answered at all, may be answered with total war.

In conjunction with globalization, the continuing rise of the information age will impact nations and prevent the breakout of interstate wars, and it may propagate internal wars within dictatorships. The Arab Spring of 2011 and the impact of technology — specifically Google and Facebook — demonstrate the political mass effect of the Internet and social media. Arguably, these tools were both the impetus and information suppliers required for the put-upon people of North Africa to rise up against their oppressors.

Such interconnectivity threatens dictatorships, but established nations are much less likely to go to war with neighbors as a result. Many reasons for past conflicts are disappearing; miscommunications are corrected in moments instead of months and information is shared. Information is power, and shared information, as exemplified by the One Laptop per Child program, allows the world’s less fortunate to capitalize on global knowledge and improve their condition. These programs aim to set the conditions for mutual success and reduce the competition for scarce resources and resulting war within and among developing nations.

The third reason for the decline of warfare, and especially of limited war, is financial. Beyond the globalization and trade concerns, war has simply grown too expensive, especially for the United States. In the future, only the most severe reasons for war will justify the expense. Limited wars will not justify the expenditure, and thus will not be waged.

Finally, there is the matter of popular involvement. Very few people per capita serve in the U.S. military. Indeed, many decry an increasing disconnect between the military and the people they serve. Bernard Brodie notes that American support for prolonged, limited wars is fleeting, and why should it not be? When nothing is asked of the polis, nothing should be expected.

If ever there were a justification for modern total war, September 11, 2001, supplied it. More so than Pearl Harbor, a military target, the al Qaeda attacks and the ensuing Global War on Terror likely deserved a total response. Unfortunately, nothing was asked of the American populace. There was no call for conservation, no call for a war tax, and no call for conscription. Instead, at the request of the government, Americans went to the mall.

Thus the nation must better select the wars it fights, by selecting only those wars it must fight. Total wars demand utilization of all the resources of the nation, and so are the ultimate disincentive to entering into conflicts. In the future, modern states, like the United States, will avoid secondary efforts such as limited wars. When nation-states engage in total wars, the state ensures the engagement of the populace by demanding something of them.

These four factors will drive states toward the re-employment of total wars. Interestingly enough, the same factors will also force those total wars to be implemented with an increased focus on the moral aspects of war. Total wars occur for clearer causes and reasons; usually the fate of the nation is in question. Future wars will have to be clearly delineated from a ‘just war’ perspective — jus ad bellum. In addition, the incentives for waging just wars justly will increase, because with globalization and the proliferation of inexpensive information technologies, armies can no longer hide malfeasance during wartime. This is the critical aspect of jus in bello — justice in war — or "how to fight" with honor. Take the example of the Abu Ghraib abuses, where the immoral, illegal actions of a few had strategic implications, undermining U.S. activities in Iraq. The further examples of torture in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan emboldened the enemy, besmirched the national character, and acted as a recruitment tool for the opposition.

Furthermore, immoral activity is not supported by the nation’s population or global allies. Popular and financial support diminishes with each atrocity that makes the news. The history of the last 10 years shows that wars fought immorally do not work.

In conclusion, war will continue to remain a viable means for global actors to see that their interests are fulfilled. Military forces will remain the primary warfighters, but their constituents within the state will be more participative members of both the process of declaring war and resourcing that war. Wars will conclude when the reasons for their entry are met or the warring parties have exhausted the goodwill or resources of the populace. Limited wars will rarely be pursued because they will not present a casus belli which justifies superseding the binding effects of globalization and information technology. Nor will a limited war present a viable purchase from the standpoint of financial and population involvement. These four factors will limit the number and type of engagements states will pursue in the future.

All wars will become less frequent. Total wars, though justified by true casus belli, will be less frequent but more severe. The supervising eyes of the global community, facilitated by information technology, will require that even though the wars will be total in nature, they will also need to be moral in execution.

Cark Barrett is a colonel in Army National Guard and in civilian life labors for a big defense contractor. This represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the Army National Guard nor the defense contractor.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola