The Obsolescence of War?
“[W]e should not forget that history has not been
kind to forecasts of the end of international warfare.”
—Jack S. Levy

Throughout history, a variety of theories have been proposed in the attempt to describe the nature of war and peace within the context of the international system. Before World War II, the dominant schools of thought were political realism and political idealism. The former focuses on the propensity of nation-states to seek power (usually described as military power) above all else in order survive in the anarchical environment of the international system, while the latter stresses the role of international organizations in the promotion of peace and security between states. During the Cold War, realism and idealism were supplanted, to a large extent, by the theories of neorealism and neoliberalism. Like its ideological forebear, neorealist thought emphasizes the need of nation-states to survive in an anarchical environment, but in this case survival in a world now filled with weapons capable of unspeakable destruction can best be achieved by maintaining stability through the management of power, rather than the blind pursuit of it. Thus the system constrains the behavior of states. On the other hand, neoliberalism contends that anarchy is now mitigated by an environment of growing interdependence between states, and thus both state and non-state actors are moving the system toward greater international cooperation.

With the end of the Cold War, the nature and direction the international system will take have become unclear. Will the new order—possibly a return to multipolarity—be more peaceful or less peaceful? Naturally, political scientists have fallen back on the above mentioned theories to describe what shape the system will likely take in the future. In his article “The Obsolescence of Major War,” John Mueller argues that the idea of war has begun to “shrivel up and disappear.”1 Contrasted with this view are Eliot A. Cohen and Jack S. Levy. While Mueller predicts and end to war, Cohen contends that “War, and potential war, will remain a feature of international politics.”2 For his part, Levy warns that all the factors that have influenced the decisions for war or peace in the past will continue to exist in the future.3

Mueller’s argument for the obsolescence of war is flawed from the very beginning. In order to describe his dynamic, he seeks to draw two analogies: “the processes by which the … institutions of dueling and slavery … vanished.…” Accordingly, war will also vanish, because, as slavery and dueling once did, it “has gradually moved toward terminal disrepute because of its perceived repulsiveness and futility.”4 What this reasoning fails to take into account is that slavery and dueling, unlike war, were not characteristics of the international system itself but rather social factors within various individual states. Dueling and slavery were practiced by citizens within states whose governments possessed the power and thereby the authority to outlaw such practices. (You can be sure that if dueling were not tantamount to premeditated murder by today’s legal standards, it would still be going on quite openly.) However, in the international system, anarchy still reigns, and there is still no world government to enforce an injunction on warfare.

Clearly, Mueller is writing from the perspective of an idealist, but despite his enchantment with his own theory that war will soon go the way of dueling and slavery, he proceeds to hedge his bet. “War has not,” he writes, “become fully obsolete.” While war seems to have gone out of style among the developed states, it “continues to flourish elsewhere,” namely the Third World. However, Mueller dismisses this annoying little discrepancy by suggesting that the developed world’s apparent aversion to war will likely spread to the rest of the world as well.5

In his article, Mueller also admits that the state which would abolish war as an instrument of its national policy “must continue to be concerned about those that have kept it in their repertory.”6 This, of course, is the classic security dilemma. As Levy writes, “since it is possible that any state might use force, all others must be prepared to use force or be willing to suffer the consequences of weakness.”7 No state is willing to do this, Levy would contend, so the potential for war continues.

Despite being cautiously optimistic about the future prospects for peace,8 Levy’s discussion of the structural causes of war lies on the line between realist and neorealist doctrine. He sees the balance-of-power structure as still the best method of maintaining stability in the international system, despite the fact that such arrangements unfortunately seem to require periodic readjustment through a so-called “hegemonic war.”9 The conclusion is inescapable, as long as anarchy exists at the international level, states will continue having to fend for themselves, war being a result thereof.10

Unlike Levy, Eliot Cohen grounds himself firmly in political realism when he quotes Alexander Hamilton’s assessment of human nature as “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.”11 In his case for the continuing utility of military force, Cohen attempts to refute, with more or less success, three arguments which predict the obsolescence of war in the international system: the development of advanced military techniques and technology, the spread of free trade and liberal democracy, and the rise of global economic interdependence.12 He is also quick to belittle the efforts of international organizations and world-government movements, citing the failures of the League of Nations.13 However, he fails to cite the successes the U.N. has achieved, most recently in the Persian Gulf War.14

In the final analysis, however, none of these theoretical approaches seems adequate to describe the prospects for war and peace in the 21st century A.D. Surely it is foolish to assume that the institution of war will simply fade away, as Mueller has suggested. But is the balance-of-power structure that Levy is prepared to accept a truly viable method of promoting stability, especially when it is prone to “hegemonic wars”—the same type of conflict as World War II—every few decades? History has shown its lack of utility. Cohen, unfortunately, offers no real solutions. In his world view, states must carry on the cycle that extends back through cultural and genetic history all the way to when one group of protohumans first slaughtered another in order to get more food or more water or better shelter.

The one school of thought not represented in the articles discussed above, neoliberalism, provides little more utility in answering this question than do the others. Global interdependence is by no means a guarantor of lasting peace. In 1941, Japan broadened its war in Asia and struck Pearl Harbor precisely because it did not want to depend on other states for anything. And how many people (in the U.S. or the European Union, for example) will be extolling the virtues of interdependence when the world’s supply of petroleum begins to become exhausted?

Another alternative is still required, perhaps a merging of the countervailing theories of neorealism and neoliberalism. Anarchy must be addressed and limited through some form of world-government system. Without the support of military force, however, such a structure would be no more effective than the League of Nations. “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” wrote von Clausewitz,15 and so it will likely remain as long as national policies are prone to bring states into conflictual modes of operation. War cannot be entirely eliminated, but certainly no progress toward lasting peace can be made when peace is viewed as “merely what emerges when the institution of war is neglected.”16 Theorists must address war and peace as separate phenomena.

John Mueller, “The Obsolescence of Major War,” in Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds., The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1995), p. 45.
Eliot A. Cohen, “The Future of Military Power: The Continuing Utility of Force,” in Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds., The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1995), p. 42.
Jack S. Levy, “War in the Post-Cold War Era: Structural Perspectives on the Causes of War,” in Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds., The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1995), p. 74.
Mueller, pp. 46–53.
Mueller, p. 52.
Ibid., p. 48.
Levy, p. 67.
Levy, p. 65.
Ibid. p. 70.
Ibid., pp. 67–68. Levy elaborates: “These conflicts between the concrete strategic interests of rival states trying to provide for their own security in an anarchic state system have undoubtedly been one of the most important causes of war.” Is Levy calling for a world government here? Perhaps there is something of the idealist in him after all.
Cohen, p. 42.
Ibid., pp. 36–41.
Cohen, p. 41.
Though it is not clear, Cohen’s article was probably written in 1990, before U.N. coalition forces began offensive operations against the Iraqi military and ultimately brought about victory in early 1991.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Everyman’s Library series, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 99.
Mueller, p. 53.

Copyright © A.D. 1995, 1999 by 
M. D. Van Norman. All rights
Dancing Giant
“If you want peace, then you 
must prepare for war.”         .