Tuesday, July 05, 2005

War, Krieg, Guerre, etc.

Two interesting posts from Brad Delong and Matthew Yglesias illustrate the... naivete of liberals in the field of international relations. First, Brad:
Since 1850 things have changed. The death-and-destruction costs of war--even non-nuclear war--have multiplied beyond previous imagining. Those who choose leaders are now a broad set of voters rather than a narrow coterie of aristocrats. We--at least we who live in democracies--ought to have outgrown war outside of the limited cases of (i) Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and (ii) missions of mercy to overthrow tyrants.

Have we? Well, quite possibly.
Brad then goes on to list a number of positive examples of democratic states that have been at more-or-less peace in the last century. Matthew Yglesias picks up this line of thought:
That we proceeded from the conflict-strewn world of the early 19th century to the contemporary one, where Americans recognize that even though we could concur Canada there would be no point in doing so is quite the remarkable achievement. That even earlier the rulers of the British Empire saw that establishing friendly relations with the rising power of the American Republic would better serve Britain's interests than a futile attempt to contain it is, in many ways, much more so.
Well, in the argument of British-American relations in the 1800s, I would simply say that the British House of Commons was never terribly interested in fighting for North America - Britain actually proposed giving Quebec back to the French after their victory in 1753, because no one in London could figure out what to do with it. So long as American interests in North America didn't directly threaten the UK's, there wasn't going to be a problem.

Brad and Matt are both advocating the so-called "Democratic Peace" thesis. It goes back to Kant, and essentially argues that once the world is full of Democracies, then poof! No more war. And there's some facts to this argument - the Democracies of the world do seem to have had far more peaceful pasts than their autocratic cousins. There is some argument against it, but we can tentatively say that there is a "fact" of Democratic peace - whether it conforms to the theories of democratic peace is another matter entirely.

(One of the big wild cards in this deck is how we count a "democracy", of course. Japan had regular multi-party elections throughout WWII. Does that mean anything?)

Despite my generally progressive and liberal outlook on politics, when it comes to international affairs I'm a "realist" (scare quotes only because I dislike the term) - the idea of containing the power of sovereign states seems to me to be a far more difficult idea than most liberals want to admit. The realist explanation for the democratic peace usually revolves more around national interest then liberal ideals - for example the peace in western Europe is due more to the existence of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 than anything else. Notably, the period of time in which Communism was a threat to liberal democracies also includes the largest chunk of time in which liberal democracies existed.

Absent an external threat, do I believe that democracies will make war with each other? Well, until this latest war in Iraq I might have said no. But the transparent lies that were used to sell this war, combined with the complicity of the press and the apathy of the American people (not to mention the complicity of Good Liberals like Brad and Matt who refused to see an bad war for what it was, until it was too late) have more-or-less convinced me that if the US propaganda machine geared up for Operation Liberate Canada, I'd quickly find myself living in the newly-renamed Greater Buffalo.

Go back to Brad's "exceptions" for outgrowing war - "(i) Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and (ii) missions of mercy to overthrow tyrants." Does he seriously not believe that any war, indeed every way can be sold as one of these two variants? Does he actually think that Hitler sold Barbarossa as an act of conquest and expansion? Even tyrants are smart enough to use the fig-leaf of "self-defense" and "missions of mercy" to justify their conquest. And they can usually rely on the complicity of the press - as can the US government, at least at first. Hell - two and a half years in to this disastrous war in Iraq, and the US mainstream press still insists that "staying the course" is the only option.

Brad throws down the gauntlet in his last paragraph:
Before I read any more "realists" writing about a Chinese-American cold (or hot) war in Asia, I want them to come up with an explanation of why the War of 1812 was the last Anglo-American war. Why not 54'40" or fight? The claim that "wars are almost never worth the costs, and yet states keep on fighting them" doesn't seem to apply to relationships between some states since 1850 or so.

The "realist" school has absolutely no clue as to why there has been no Franco-British or Anglo-American war in 190 years, no Mexican-American war in 85, and no Franco-German war in 60. The language of administration in Strasbourg is simply not something that people are willing to kill or die for these days. Which kinds of states study war (against each other at least) no more? And why not? Those are, I think, the most interesting questions in the academic study of international affairs.
Brad's right - the question of "why war?" is the fundamental question of international relations. But he's wrong when he says the realist school has no clue: The Franco-German case is the easiest to chalk up to national interest - the USSR had tanks inside Germany, so the threat was very real for both Germany and France. I don't have research in front of me right this minute, but realist explanations for the other examples Brad cites can't be too hard to find.

Moreover, I think the opposite argument is at least as strong - "liberals" have absolutely no clue as to why there has been none of those wars, either. That they didn't happen isn't evidence for either theory, on it's own. The liberal and realist camps are arguing over the mechanics of why they didn't happen, not the facts. Realists point to national interest, liberals point to a variety of internal and external checks on state power in democratic systems. I side with the national interest argument because the war in Iraq has absolutely demolished the idea of check on state power, at least in the Republic to the south.

The sad thing is that, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I'd love to think that, if the Weimar Republic had survived WWII would have been averted. Who knows - that may be true: World War II as we saw it might never have happened. But the evidence is a lot sketchier than liberals like to admit.


LeoPetr said...

Does he actually think that Hitler sold Barbarossa as an act of conquest and expansion?

Barbarossa? Actually, yes. They called it Lebensraum.:P

john said...

Sure, they talked about Lebensraum. Hitler also worked very hard to build Russia in to a threat, so that nobody would complain when he went to smash the bolsheviks.