The Long Peace, a term coined by the eminent military historian John Lewis Gaddis to describe the absence of military conflict between the great powers since 1945, may be coming to an end.
While the US focuses on the potential for violent conflict with China over the independence of Taiwan, recent European efforts concerned themselves with the looming specter of an expansionist Russia.
A NATO official accused Russia of undermining peace efforts earlier this week, following the Eurasian nation’s amassing of an immense array of weaponry in the Arctic and a buildup of Russian troops on the eastern border of Ukraine, which corresponded with an uptick in violence in the ongoing War in Donbass.
Russia, for its part, did not stymie those fears, and instead threatened “additional measures” should NATO attempt to react to its buildup of forces on the periphery of Europe. The move sparked fears of an imminent invasion.
Everywhere, it seems, the stitched-up peace of the Post War era is unraveling.
But is the ending of this peace, this global liberal order, something to be unequivocally mourned?
The term peace is, of course, something of a misnomer. International liberalism has not so much ensured global peace as it has exported conflict to less powerful nations in a similar manner to how Western nations “ended” the inhumanity of child labor by exporting it to China. Indeed, there is no shortage of irony in the fact that, as American strategists whisper of the legacy of the long peace, the American president is unwilling to end a 20-year long war.
Herein lies the crux of the long peace fallacy. The belief that democracy has somehow spurred human progress beyond war, or that the idealism of universal human values can somehow change the nature of the human condition, is not only erroneous, but also requires an untruth to sustain itself.
That untruth is the supposed criminalization of war.
In 1928, fifteen nations came together in Paris to sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a radical internationalist agreement with one goal: To outlaw war forever. Obviously, the pact was a failure. Its primary aim of criminalizing war, however, created a lasting impact that remains a key basis of United Nations security policy today in the form of the crime of aggression.
The crime of aggression holds that it is illegal to wage an “aggressive” war, and its language (along with the Responsibility to Protect doctrine) has been used both to justify foreign involvement in wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, as well as to challenge the legal basis of the Iraq War.
It is not difficult to see the problem. Such regulations are of virtually no use in holding great powers to account for their actions, yet simultaneously present a grave risk to the sovereignty of middle and lesser powers by offering a legal basis for foreign military intervention.
This apparent outlawing of aggressive war is itself a necessary condition of global liberalism, and has provided a smokescreen to great-power conflict by cloaking military action in the language of policing action. By understanding this belief, that international military action can be redefined in terms of judicial punishment rather than in terms of war itself, it becomes possible to understand that the long peace is something of a long lie.
The great danger of the great powers is not then conflict between them. That conflict already exists in the peripheries and in the realm of lawfare. The great danger is in the increasing opportunities for catastrophic damage that always accompany the acceleration of armament and rising paranoia in the political sphere.
Since the so-called return to great power competition in recent years, the language of a new Cold War has often been touted to refer to a rush to develop next-generation technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. But the fact is that it has also spurred a huge growth in nuclear modernization and re-armament, as well as a geographical extension of troop placement into regions more prone to conflict.
When three Russian nuclear submarines recently broke through the ice in a showy military drill in the Arctic, this real danger was made clear. The world need not fear military action between the great powers for any good reason, but ought to fear the possibility of catastrophic violence due to the danger of potential black swan moments when combined with an accelerating development of weaponry. It is those moments of random, indeterminate historical significance that suddenly create a cascade of previously unforeseen violence, which must be feared and prevented.
It is good then that the concept of the long peace is finally losing its traction. Perhaps now the US and its allies will be able to speak about the reality of war and what it requires, and about how war might best be used as an instrument of national policy. But with this realization must also come the admission that clearer minds must be placed at the helm of our ships of state, and more nimble fingers are required to linger over the big red buttons.
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