Europe’s lengthy peace should be celebrated — but not counted on
Walking through Westminster in central London this week, I encountered piles of bags filled with poppy wreaths: The remnants of the First World War remembrance last week. They lay, appropriately, stacked up against the railings of Westminster Abbey — the resting place of the Unknown Soldier.
The centenary of the end of the Great War provided a national focal point for the past four years for acts of remembrance, particularly in Europe and the US. With that now past, there is a question about what form Remembrance Day takes in future. The last four years have rightly focused on “the war to end all wars,” but Remembrance Day will now return to its usual role of commemorating the dead of war more broadly.
As direct memory of war in the UK (and across the West) fades, our approach to remembrance is at risk of becoming confused. There is morbid reflection: A sense that our role in war belongs to a past, more barbaric age of petty nationalisms; to be decried mournfully, thankful that we have been swayed by the better angels of our nature. But there is also national celebration: Remembering the days in which Britain was truly a great power, determining the fates of nations rather than engaging in a bitter struggle to leave a European trading bloc.
Both approaches are not only wrong, but dangerous.
Let us take the first. The concept that we are turning toward our better angels and against our destructive impulses, popularized by Stephen Pinker in his famous book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is wrong. Yes, global fatalities through warfare have declined — the facts that Pinker cites are strong. But the causes are not some kind of civilizational impulse. As the global population grows, as medical science advances, as the cost of warfare becomes more acute and the distance at which it can be fought increases, individual wars will, on average, inevitably cause fewer casualties. This trend is enhanced by the existence of mechanisms of international law which, even when violated, impose a norm on behavior that makes gross violations uncomfortable.
But take a broader look at the historical trends and the picture becomes more complex. The first difference is that last influencing factor: International law. It has steadily developed over the past few centuries, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and the capacity of warfare to cause massively more destruction than it could previously. Does it mean that our instincts are changed? Stalingrad or Sarajevo would suggest not. Does it mean that our instincts are harder to satisfy? Perhaps so.
We have an innate desire to protect ourselves, meaning other people are a potential threat.
The second is the cost of war itself. Pinker’s analysis takes no account of wars not fought. The Cold War is one such example. The only time that nuclear weapons have been used in anger was when only one power had the capacity to use them. Unanswerable weapons have only two possible responses: Surrender or death. The cost to the country that deploys such weapons is low. But, as more and more powers gained the capacity to respond in kind, the cost grew exponentially until the risks of using weapons of mass destruction in anger became unacceptably high: Apparently one’s own destruction.
War is rarely irrational: Where a weaker country enters an unwinnable war, it is usually through miscalculation rather than suicidal impulse. So, when the cost of war becomes so apparently unmanageable, the impulse to go to war falls correspondingly.
That fact does not make war — and worse, nuclear war — impossible. Miscalculations still happen. And, when such a miscalculation occurs, Pinker will be proved wrong in the most catastrophic way, although it is unlikely that he will be around to change his thesis.
Morbid reflection, then, is hopelessly and dangerously misguided if it believes that such impulses belong to a past age.
But one can avoid such an impulse without turning to celebration. There is no doubt that war is a tragedy, both in its aims and its effects. War is a sign that other means of dispute resolution have utterly failed. That does not mean it is futile: Sometimes violence can only be met with violence.
The lack of experience of war in the West has been accompanied by a growing relativization of views of the world. An ideal state for many appears to be blissful anarchy: No borders, no governments, in which everyone lives in peace with their neighbor.
Sadly, thousands of years of human history show that this is not a human possibility. Peace is possible, but not without government. Thomas Hobbes was correct: In a state of anarchy, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Not because we have an innate desire to hurt other people, but because we have an innate desire to protect ourselves, meaning other people are a potential threat.
Europe’s extended period of peace since 1945, and particularly since 1990, is an aberration to be celebrated, but not one to be counted upon. Peace has, in part, been maintained through cooperation — but it has also been maintained through deterrence. As most of Europe fails to meet its own defense spending pledges and polls show that 41 percent of British young people would dodge serving in the event of a major war, that deterrence is weakening.
I hope Pinker is right because, if he is not, the West is due a nasty shock.
• Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.