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The Realist Guide to World Peace

You don’t have to be an idealist to want to put an end to war.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A Peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory on top of an armoured vehicle on the front line of fighting with Islamic State (IS) militants 20 kilometers east of Mosul, on August 18, 2014.
A Peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory on top of an armoured vehicle on the front line of fighting with Islamic State (IS) militants 20 kilometers east of Mosul, on August 18, 2014.
A Peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory on top of an armoured vehicle on the front line of fighting with Islamic State (IS) militants 20 kilometers east of Mosul, on August 18, 2014. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

It’s the holiday season, that brief period each year when we are encouraged to think about peace. Warring armies sometimes declare cease-fires at this time, and around the world different communities of faith are told that pursuing and preserving peace is a sacred duty. If we are fortunate, most of us will spend some part of the next few days enjoying the company of friends and family and trying to put humanity’s crueler instincts to the side, at least for the moment.

Let’s be honest: 2022 was not a good year for peace. In addition to a brutal and senseless war in Ukraine—a war that shows no signs of ending and could still get much worse—violent conflicts are still underway in Yemen, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Syria, and many other places. Although U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping managed a fairly cordial meeting at the G-20 summit in Bali in November, the two most powerful countries in the world remain divided on a host of important issues. Given the state of the world and the United States’ desire to remain the leading global power, it should surprise no one that the Senate just voted an 8 percent increase in the U.S. defense budget. Even formerly pacifist-leaning countries such as Germany and Japan took dramatic steps to rearm during 2022.

For a realist like me, these developments aren’t surprising. Realism’s central lesson is that in a world of independent countries without a central authority, the ever-present possibility of war casts a shadow over much of what states do. Because warfare is inherently destructive and often uncertain, realists tend to be wary of idealistic crusades and mindful of the danger of threatening what others regard—justifiably or not—as vital interests. Instead, realists of all stripes emphasize the tragic features of a world in which leaders are easily misled by poor information or their own delusions, where even noble aims can produce regrettable results.

It’s the holiday season, that brief period each year when we are encouraged to think about peace. Warring armies sometimes declare cease-fires at this time, and around the world different communities of faith are told that pursuing and preserving peace is a sacred duty. If we are fortunate, most of us will spend some part of the next few days enjoying the company of friends and family and trying to put humanity’s crueler instincts to the side, at least for the moment.

Let’s be honest: 2022 was not a good year for peace. In addition to a brutal and senseless war in Ukraine—a war that shows no signs of ending and could still get much worse—violent conflicts are still underway in Yemen, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Syria, and many other places. Although U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping managed a fairly cordial meeting at the G-20 summit in Bali in November, the two most powerful countries in the world remain divided on a host of important issues. Given the state of the world and the United States’ desire to remain the leading global power, it should surprise no one that the Senate just voted an 8 percent increase in the U.S. defense budget. Even formerly pacifist-leaning countries such as Germany and Japan took dramatic steps to rearm during 2022.

For a realist like me, these developments aren’t surprising. Realism’s central lesson is that in a world of independent countries without a central authority, the ever-present possibility of war casts a shadow over much of what states do. Because warfare is inherently destructive and often uncertain, realists tend to be wary of idealistic crusades and mindful of the danger of threatening what others regard—justifiably or not—as vital interests. Instead, realists of all stripes emphasize the tragic features of a world in which leaders are easily misled by poor information or their own delusions, where even noble aims can produce regrettable results.

But neither realists nor their critics can simply throw up their hands and declare there is nothing to be done about the possibility of serious conflict. War between and within states may be a constant danger, but the real challenge is to devise and implement policies that will minimize the risks of new wars and help bring existing ones to an end. Because the benefits of peace and the costs and risks of war have never been greater, this imperative may be more urgent today than at any time in human history.

First, the benefits. Many people believe economic interdependence promotes peace both between and within countries, an idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine casts doubt upon. The reverse is more likely to be true: Peace makes interdependence more feasible and allows us to enjoy the benefits of economic exchange at lower risk. When the danger of war declines, investors can safely send capital to other countries; governments can worry less about whether their trading partners are gaining a bit more from the exchange; states can welcome foreign visitors and students without concern that rivals will be acquiring knowledge that might be used to harm them; elaborate supply chains are less risky; and everyone can pursue joint gains instead of constantly striving for relative advantage. The absence of serious rivalry among the major powers facilitated the recent era of globalization, producing enormous benefits for mankind despite its deficiencies. And when war is off the table, societies can be more open to exchanging ideas and lessons from cultures that are different from their own.

Next, the costs and risks. Foremost among them, of course, is the human and economic price tag. Nearly 200,000 Ukrainians and Russians may have been killed or wounded since that war began, and millions of refugees have fled. The economic costs on Ukraine have been frightful, Russia’s own economy is in decline, and the war has exacerbated economic problems and food shortages in many other countries. Similarly, the civil war (and Saudi Arabia’s intervention) in Yemen has killed nearly 400,000 people and devastated an already poor country, while civil conflicts in Africa and Latin America continue to immiserate these regions and drive outward migration.

But the direct costs of conflict are just part of the price. As competition between states intensifies and the risks of war go up, the ability to cooperate even on matters of mutual interest goes down. Humanity faces a host of daunting problems today, including climate change, pandemic disease, and rising refugee flows. None of them will be easy to solve and all of them are arguably of greater importance than who ends up governing Crimea, Taiwan, or Nagorno-Karabakh. The more nations fight, or the more time and effort and money they devote to preparing for war, the harder it will be to address these other problems.

There is also the unavoidable risk that a war will escalate or expand. States are invariably tempted to do more to try to achieve victory (or avoid defeat), and third parties often become more deeply involved either be deliberate decision or through inadvertence. Needless to say, such dangers are especially worrisome if a state with nuclear weapons is involved. Nuclear escalation may still be extremely unlikely, but it would be foolhardy to discount the possibility entirely. That’s not an argument for pacifism, but it is a powerful reason to prefer peace to war.

It’s tempting to blame the elusiveness of peace on the arrogance and folly of individual autocrats, and lord knows there’s no shortage of either of those qualities this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have had legitimate reasons to worry about NATO enlargement and its impact on Russia’s security, but his “solution” to those concerns has caused thousands of innocent deaths and vast human suffering and will leave Russia neither stronger nor safer. One could say the same for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s intervention in Yemen or the brutal crackdowns imposed by the regime in Iran and the military junta in Myanmar. But before you conclude that dictatorship is the problem, remember powerful democracies sometimes succumb to the same dangerous combination of paranoia and hubris, as former U.S. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their minions showed back in 2003.

I don’t have a formula for permanent peace up my sleeve, alas, but I do have an observation. A striking feature of most recent wars is how frequently they seem to backfire on the countries who start them. The days where major powers could start a big war and make dramatic strategic gains—as Japan did against Russia in 1905 or Bismarck’s Prussia did in the wars of German unification—seem to be behind us. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and invaded Kuwait and lost big both times. The United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and ended up in costly quagmires, and its intervention in Libya in 2011 produced a failed state. Israel’s intervention in Lebanon led to an 18-year occupation, one that ended no better than the United States’ long effort in Afghanistan. Serbia’s assault on Kosovo eventually led to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s indictment as a war criminal and removal from power. Indeed, there don’t seem to be many recent examples of a decision to start a war paying off handsomely for the responsible party. Ethiopia’s campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front may have ended with a peace agreement that favored the government, for example, but the war tarnished Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s once-glittering reputation significantly.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The fact that starting wars rarely pays tells us something important about the modern world: a combination of nationalism, rapid diplomatic communications, a flourishing international arms market that can fuel resistance movements, an imperfect but widely accepted norm against conquest, the sobering effects of nuclear weapons, and the powerful tendency for states to balance against manifest threats may have combined to make most offensive wars a dubious proposition for the initiator. This fact hasn’t ended international competition—far from it—but there seem to be real limits to what even powerful states can accomplish by launching a war.

So, my holiday message to every world leader is this: By all means, maintain defense forces that can protect your territory if you happen to be attacked or that can help a key ally if something similar happens to them. At the same time, ask yourself if your own foreign and national security policies might be unwittingly encroaching on another state’s vital interests. If they are, consider whether there is something you could do to mitigate the problem without leaving your own country vulnerable. Explore that possibility with them sincerely and openly—it just might work.

Most important of all: If one of your advisors starts trying to convince you that you can solve some political problem by starting a war, and if they tell you that conditions are optimal, the stars are lining up, the time is right, the costs will be low, the risks are small, and the time to act is now, thank them politely for their advice and immediately seek a second opinion. While you’re at it, spend some time thinking about all the former leaders who went to war confident of victory, and who would have been better off to have chosen peace instead.

Postscript: I wrote this column thinking of my late friend Sid Topol, who passed away last March at the age of 97. Sid was a remarkable man who repeatedly challenged me (and many others) to make peace a greater priority in our work. Inspired by his example, I decided a few years ago to devote at least one column each year to the subject of peace. This year, I do so to honor his memory.

 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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