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War and the impermanence of order

March 2, 2012

There was once a time when liberal democracy appeared to be an idea with an expiration date. To some intellectuals looking back at the past three centuries from the twenty-first, this seems impossible. From the Glorious Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union, history seems very obviously to favor the rise of liberal democratic states, along with peace, economic integration, and the general rise in respect for human rights. As a matter of crude description, this is so. But what is more useful is the question of why it has occurred.

Bernard de Jouvenel, in his On Power, discussed sovereignty and government in the context of a terrible titanomachia scouring the modern world. In 1944, he despaired:

We are ending where the savages began.  We have found again the lost arts of starving non-combatants, burning hovels, and leading away the vanquished into slavery.  Barbarian invasions would be superfluous: we are our own Huns.

Jouvenel was no doubt underestimating the sheer pervasiveness of violence in those primeval days. But his perspective, and point, are unsettling. To Jouvenel, and many other intellectuals of the time, the world was increasingly dominated by states with multifarious and complex bureaucratic machinery, operating under a single will, and even democracy, interlinked as it became with mass politics, served not as a force for individual liberation per se but as a force to clear away the last restrictions on the reach of the state. In a world then dominated by continental giants -Roosevelt’s America, Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union – the most obvious trend in world history appeared not to be the advancement of human rights and individuality, but the triumph of the Hobbesian homo magnus.

What is also striking about that passage is its glimpse into the world that came uncomfortably close to coming to pass in the 1930s and 1940s. There is a certain amount of mimetic behavior in the making and breaking of international norms. Even if morally we do not accept that might makes right, might often looks right – or at least looks like it’s doing something right. The logical trajectory of history appeared to be that the stronger states were necessary components of a stable domestic and international world order. Within the United States of the 1930s, even those who rejected fascism and communism often still felt there was something to learn from those systems. Rexford Tugwell and countless other Americans admired the Soviet Union’s organizational and planning capacity under Stalin, while the corporatist ideas of Benito Mussolini confirmed the biases of progressives involved in the creation and administration of Woodrow Wilson’s economic mobilization during World War I. The Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and fascist Italy all seemed to capture, if not always embody, many of the principles of what a modern state should be. Similarly, while hardly all isolationists were fascists or admirers of Germany or Italy, there were plenty of cases of overlap and cross-pollination, as Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin showed. The rise and clash of modern states and ideologies changed the parameters of debate in a way that often seems bizarre to modern viewers. Even Ludwig von Mises, a libertarian idol, made favorable reference to Mussolini’s fascism in 1927. Even today the authoritarian-sympathetic vestiges of this trend persist in Thomas Friedman’s occasional adulation of the Chinese technocratic party-state.

James Burnham’s work, The Managerial Revolution saw massive bureaucratic states of continental scale dominating the future of the globe. It was a vision perfectly in line with that of Karl Haushofer’s theory of pan-regions or Carl Schmitt’s Großraum idea (and E.H. Carr’s own expectation of the triumph of the Nazi German and Soviet model of superstates over mere nationalism) . The most popular extant work of this intellectual trend now lies in George Orwell’s 1984, in which Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia roughly corresponded to Haushofer’s final division of the world between America, Germany, and Japan. Until the world became confident that the USSR would not really overrun the other tiny independent states of Eurasia, and that the U.S. really would not stumble into Operation Dropshot, many reasonably assumed that the final outcome of world politics would be something closer to the triumph of the state as outlined by Burnham and feared by Orwell, rather than the much happier conditions which would prevail decades later today.

Our expectations of what is normal and the context of international moral debates and even domestic political ones are intimately connected with the geopolitical conditions of the wider world. The Prussian-German historian Otto Hintze, like Hamilton in Federalist No. 8 long before him and NSC-68 after him, was correct to note the relationship between external threats and conditions and the development of state institutions and public administration. The triumph of the norms of the United Nations, the re-institution of a concert of powers which it saw, and ultimately the collapse of the alternatives to liberal democracy did not occur because of inevitability. No, World War II was a case where democracy outside of the Western Hemisphere clung to life mostly in the remnants of the British Empire until the totalitarian USSR dealt the brunt of the death blow to the USSR, while the American military waged a brutal campaign against Japan in the Pacific that would culminate in blockade-induced starvation and mass bombing – and ultimately the triumph of Maoism to China and the bizarre pastiche of totalitarian maladies of the Kim family regime in North Korea.

If liberal morality made winning World War II imperative, it certainly did not make it inevitable, nor did it make the conflict a straightforward clash of good and evil. War drives morality, especially at the scale of states and world orders. It is much harder to predict with confidence that morality drives the outcomes of wars. Adam Elkus, channeling Colin Gray and Clausewitz, has rightly noted that war remains a decisive force, despite the inability of recent wars to fill the gap between incoherent policy and geopolitical reality. That there has been no incidence or need lately of such epoch-deciding wars is not a function of war’s obsolescence so much as the truly staggering decisions achieved through the mid-late 20th century’s wars and warlike struggles. As Timothy Snyder implied in his thorough take-down of Stephen Pinker’s recent work,  it is hard to consider a conflict like WWII an outlier in an inevitable path towards peace when so much of modern political history was contingent not merely on who won, but how it was won.

So much of what we now often define as inevitable was only consolidated in the wake of World War II and its inevitability successfully argued  in the shadow of events that war decided – intentionally or unintentionally. International norms about responsible external and internal behavior did not emerge simply because they were morally or rationally self-evident. Had the relations of the great powers which ultimately participated in World War II played out differently, even that constructivist triumph of slave abolition might have proven not to be a foregone assumption of modern politics, but merely part of the historical shift of mass slave labor from maritime-commercial empires to continental-autarkic empires. Geopolitical orders, their equilibria, and the avoidance of systemic breakdown are not outdated questions because they are not important, but outdated because their past breakdowns were decisive enough to make them seem so. Within the conditions, parameters, and context that that history, that order, and the balance upholding it have provided, certain political and moral trends may well play out with the air of inevitability and necessity around them. Disrupt the balance which maintains that order, the order which slows the decay of those historical legacies, and the assumptions and continuities with which we interpret and receive that history, and the trends they sustained or permitted matter far less.

Norman Davies’s excellent Vanished Kingdoms (hat tip to Daniel Larison) wisely notes that all power is impermanent:

More importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order. Sooner or later, all things come to an end. Sooner or later, the center cannot hold. All states and nations, however great, bloom for a season and are replaced.


Of course, human nature dictates that everyone is lulled into thinking that disasters only happen to others. Imperial nations, and ex-imperial nations, are particularly reluctant to recognize how quickly reality moves on.

Understanding that international order, often more transient than the states and other political forces which comprise it, is transient and contingent is a prerequisite to forestalling and mitigating its potentially painful dissolution. To ignore its fragile and even accidental foundations, or worse, to dismantle them in hopes of constructing something ultimately dependent on the very conditions we undermine, is even worse folly. More terrible forms of decision and the unpredictable results which might prevail always loom in the background.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2012 7:22 pm

    I read quickly Snyder’s review in hard copy (or most of it); I think he makes some good points, e.g. on the issue of ‘self-control’. But Snyder is a bit too pessimistic, imo, about the impact of possible future resource scarcity on conflict. I may post something about this in a month or so.

    Does Pinker see the trend toward peace as “inevitable”? Don’t know for sure since I haven’t read Better Angels but certainly Joshua Goldstein (in Winning the War on War) is at pains to point out that he does not see this trend as inevitable but rather as potentially reversible. I am more sympathetic to the Mueller argument than Goldstein, but even Mueller’s is not exactly an inevitability argument.

    Compare what elites were saying and writing about war before WW1 with what was being said after WW1 (esp in Fr. and Br.) and it is hard not to conclude that something pretty basic had changed in terms of general attitudes to war — not everywhere and among everyone, but still an important change. Thus WW2 was not an “outlier” exactly but arguably the product of an unfortunate context — Great Depression, terms of Versailles/German resentment, one leader who actually wanted war, i.e. Hitler, etc. — and in that sense a massively tragic diversion from what ‘ought’ to have been the post-WW1 course. Or so one could argue.

    • March 3, 2012 8:32 pm

      I think Mueller’s argument about WWI is too selective to really pull that much weight. It wasn’t just Hitler and his immediate cohort but huge swathes of elites and intellectuals in Germany and Japan who actually became, in some ways, more pro-war during the 1920s and 1930s. “General” attitudes in the UK and France, sure, but the case is far less convincing for the Germans, Eastern Europeans, Soviet states, Japan, the Chinese, etc. In other words, mostly Westerners felt anti-war, tried to avoid war, had to fight one, and then, fortunately for their conceptions of war, happened to win. Had the Axis won I’m pretty sure whoever was left would not have been seeking refuge in the same attitudes and institutions they hoped would have prevented the conflict they just lost.

      • March 3, 2012 10:59 pm

        I think WW1 did contribute significantly to a de-glorification of war. There is less talk afterward about war testing the moral fiber of a nation, war being an uplifting ‘manly’ experience, peace being equated with weakness, etc. Not only the enormous casualties but the fact that children of the upper classes, notably though not only in the British case, were killed in large numbers must have had, I would surmise, a good deal to do with changes in elite opinion especially. (25 percent of the Oxford and Cambridge students under 25 yrs old who were serving in or joined the British army when the war broke out were killed. [Hobsbawm, ‘Age of Extremes’, p.26] And a substantial additional percentage no doubt were wounded.) The change in opinion, admittedly, was considerably less pronounced in Germany, where some swung in an even more militarist direction, and Japan is a different case for various reasons, including that its losses in WW1 were, relatively speaking, negligible. But for now I guess we’ll agree to disagree on this point.

        Re your last sentence: well, yes, though this is
        one counterfactual scenario I’d just as soon leave
        unexplored, I suppose.

  2. March 3, 2012 7:50 pm

    P.s. (sorry for going on) : no one says that norms emerge and progress simply b/c they are morally or rationally ‘self-evident’. This is a straw man. Ideas have to be accompanied by some kind of driving force and sometimes of course that will be armed force; sometimes it won’t. There is a big constructivist literature now, as I’m sure you’re aware, and none of it says that ideas triumph just b/c they are right.

    • March 3, 2012 8:20 pm

      Right – that critique isn’t leveled so much at the academics as to policymakers who often interpret theoretical models and empirical observations as moral truths – e.g. the “right side of history” arguments that are often used to justify democracy promotion/intervention, liberal internationalism becoming “enlightened self-interest” and so on.


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