Two Reasons There Hasn't Been Another World War

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This year has been awash in publications, conferences, and memorabilia commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War-- a war that changed the world more profoundly than any other major conflict in modern history.

World War I started in the Balkans, a poor backwater of Europe in the far southeastern corner of the continent. Although the Balkans was the fuse, it was not the powder keg. While the countries of the Balkans were not immune to indigenous conflict, there were very few characteristics that would have made the Balkans a logical place for a world war to begin. It was, rather, that corner of the world where the Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires came together and where not only they, but Germany, Britain, and France had intense interests—not only with the three empires, but with each other. World War I began as the result of the power rivalries that consumed the great powers at the start of the twentieth century and came together, at least in part, in the Balkans.     

When the war ended in 1918, more than sixteen million people were dead and more than twenty million had been wounded. The map of Europe was changed for all time; the Russian Empire was replaced by the Soviet Union, the German Empire collapsed into Nazi Germany, the Austrian Empire splintered into several small countries, the decrepit Ottoman Empire disintegrated with a portion of it eventually morphing into Turkey, and Yugoslavia took the place of many of the previously independent states in the Balkans. Most importantly, the 1918 peace settlement contained the seeds of World War II which took place a short twenty years later and whose casualties were significantly higher. Best estimates indicate that between fifty and eighty million people were killed and even more wounded.

One of the most interesting questions is why there has been no war on the scale of the First and Second World Wars in the past seventy years. During this period, the world certainly has not been bereft of antagonism and we have moved to the brink of major war more than once—the Korean Conflict (1950-53), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Vietnam War (1954-75), and the Cold War, which despite prediction to the contrary, never turned hot. These and other crises did not plunge the world into a third world war. Why?  

The overriding reason is that the structure and function of the international system has undergone a tectonic shift over the past seventy years due to a variety of factors. First, Europe and Japan are far different than they were prior to World War II and are now extremely reluctant to engage in combat; in Japan’s case, military forces constitutionally must be defensive in nature. Once the origin of aggressive imperialism, Europe and Japan now are almost pacifist in their approach to international politics and their defense budgets have dropped dramatically over the past twenty years.

Second, much of the world was “bled white” by the casualties of the two world wars. Major world powers not only have less capability than in the past, they are now much more aware of the devastating effects of violence on the scale of worldwide conflict. Consequently, there has been a far greater reluctance to repeat the horror of those wars. Third, globalization has altered the nature of war. In the past, most wars were fought between and among states; today they are fought mostly within states, reducing the scope of war, but not its ferocity. States now have a plethora of non-state actors to compete with on the world stage and most of those actors can mount militias, armies, or at least significant armed groups that can pursue violence to reach a specific goal. This does not mean that states are irrelevant—far from it. But it does mean that the international system is much more complex.  

Finally, the evolution of the technology of war, especially atomic and nuclear weapons, has actually reduced the likelihood of a major conflagration. The atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima showed that there would be no winners in a nuclear exchange. This is a precarious balance because accident or irresponsibility could unleash a catastrophic war-- a prospect that necessitates our continued efforts to control and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons. 

However, a different kind of warfare has become more prominent. Some call it “asymmetric warfare” because it differs from the traditional state-on-state warfare that is characterized by a uniformed military and rules of engagement that have been developed over the past 500 years. Others call it “fourth generation warfare” because it is deemed to be the fourth type of warfare since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Whatever it is called, the future of warfare will be characterized by a blurring of the line between politics and war, by intra-state conflict as much as across state borders, by confrontations between and among state and non-state actors, and by decentralized clashes often camouflaged as rebellion. This different kind of warfare manifests currently in Iraq, Syria, and in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva Conventions really have no adequate response for it. International law and diplomacy cry out for ethical solutions—exactly where the Church can and should be making a significant impact.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.