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Does war have a future?

November 11, 2017

‘History is made by people who don’t know what is going to happen next’. With this truism – a truism we too often forget, whether thinking about our own future history, or trying to interpret the past – Lawrence Freedman introduces his wide ranging and literate analysis of how commentators, experts and society at large over the past 150 years have envisaged and prepared for war and peace, and how they have all too often got it wrong: The Future of War – A History.

From the mid 19th century to today, we have all too often misunderstood how and when war would happen, and how it would play out, whether in understanding how what became the Great War would be precipitated and why – to this day people argue about its causes – whether Nato and the Warsaw Pact forces would fight, how post-colonial polities would resolve their inevitable conflicts, how great civilisations might ‘clash’, …. And no-one seemed more surprised at how the Cold War ended, than those who were paid to monitor its progress. Not a great track record.

Freedman quotes Hannah Arendt who claimed that ‘predictions .. are never anything but projections of the present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens; every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern in whose frame the prediction moves and where it finds it evidence.’ So trying to map the future is a mug’s game.

Nevertheless, people are paid or otherwise motivated to do it. In line with Arendt, what this book shows, in its analysis of how future conflicts were and are framed and planned for, is that our perceptions and predictions of tomorrow are routinely shaped by the ideology and underlying values which shape our view of today – as well as by the genuine difficulty of understanding the complex phenomena and trends which might lead to war and violence. Realism, pacifism, idealism, populism, nationalism, racism – and a whole host of -isms – place lenses before our eyes which distort our view of what may come to pass. A fascinating example of this can be seen in the way some writers of the modern, digital age, have come to believe that they can develop algorithms which predict how people with certain profiles will be drawn into joining violent extremist groups – no doubt reflecting our present-day fascination with automated knowledge.

The Future of War is well worth reading, especially for the non-expert, as its middle section is a kind of tapestry of all the different kinds of conflict which have been going on since the end of the Cold War. So, a useful summary of the turbulence of our era. It has become routine to say that modern day conflicts are increasingly fragmented, interconnected and intractable, and the book reflects this. It pretty much rejects the various attempts which have been made to bring a ‘scientific’ analytical lens to the study and understanding of how wars happen. Such methods don’t seem to have added much to the understanding we had before, imperfect as that has always been. Wars – and the politics and geopolitics they reflect – are so multi-faceted, it is hard to explain them usefully in a scientific way. Just try transposing the constantly evolving Syrian conflict(s) into the straitjacket of a database, if you want to test this.

Perhaps on some level, it’s encouraging that we are still making history without knowing what is going to happen next – despite the valiant attempts of think tanks to predict societal processes and outcomes. This also has lessons for peacebuilding and other social change endeavours: just as it’s hard to predict the onset and character of conflicts accurately, we should be wary of claiming to know how well-meaning actions designed to promote peaceful co-existence within and between societies will actually work out.

Nevertheless, I think Freedman’s analysis bears out the idea that, even if we can’t predict how tomorrow – our future history – will be, we can at least see that there are a number of factors more associated with peace, than with war. And that these factors are also negatively correlated with the presence of violence within society (domestic violence, organised criminal gangs, and violent politics, for example).  So, even if we can’t control how peace evolves or is built, if we focus our attention on trying to strengthen these factors, we can be relatively confident that we’ll become better at redirecting human energy away from war, towards more positive forms of interaction and investment. The attributes which create this kind of resilience to conflict are imbued with the idea of fairness, and can be summarised as:

  • Good governance, and trusting, functional relationships among people and between peoples, and between people and their governments
  • Decent, fair opportunities for people and communities across and between different groups in society, to earn a livelihood
  • Fair access to the means of justice, and the means to stay safe from harm, and
  • Fair access to opportunities for education, health, a decent living environment, and to improve our families’ lives.

Fig 1 peace factors

These are what International Alert, in its Programming Framework, calls the Peace Factors. Even if we can’t predict and prevent all wars, if the global community, nations and local communities were to focus more of their attention on strengthening these attributes of resilience to violent conflict, we’d be heading in the right direction, and the Future of War would be a declining one. Not a bad way to think, today, of all days: 11th November, the anniversary of the Armistice signed at the end of the Great War in 1918 – after millions of people had died.

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