Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein – Book Review

Joshua S. Goldstein, Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (Dutton/Penguin: New York) 400 pp., 2011, $26.95 USD

by Jeff Collins

According to noted international politics scholar Joshua Goldstein, the greatest untold story of the last several decades is the decline in war and the role the United Nations played in making it happen. Goldstein’s book is actually one of several to take on this ‘decline-in-conflict’ trend, one of the other most notable texts being Steve Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Still, it is Goldstein who mounts the UN and its peacekeeping efforts on the mantle as a way to explain why states and sub-state actors are going to war less and less.

He makes quite the convincing case. Beginning with a brief overview of humanity’s propensity for violence, he scours through most of our history, cutting across every major society (examples include ancient China, the Mongols, Romans, Aztecs, European imperialists, Nazis and Communists), era, and culture to hammer home the point that before the birth of the United Nations in 1945 we were, as a species, a fairly nasty lot.

From there, he proceeds to explain that with the end of the Cold War, the UN was able to stretch its wings and intervene in many of the world’s conflicts: sometimes successfully (Namibia, Cambodia, East Timor, Macedonia) and sometimes not (Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda). Still, he correctly notes that these successes have been overshadowed by the failures, which, in turn, have contributed to the popular perception that UN interventions, and indeed the institution itself, do not work. However, when comparing the failures with the successes he concludes that UN intervention works when it is “multidimensional…with police, civilian, and military components” (p. 100). This he refers to as the ‘Sierra Leone model’ of intervention, in light of the joint UN-UK operation that stabilized the security environment in that West African country following a brutal civil war in the 1990s.

Furthermore, Goldstein argues that successive UN forces have learned from their mistakes in such places as Bosnia by being more robust in dealing with ‘spoilers’ (i.e. those armed groups who have no intention of laying down their arms) and having the mandate to fight aggression with aggression (UN Charter Chapter VII authorisation instead of Chapter VI); most noteworthy is the recent mission in Cote d’Ivoire where a joint UN-French armed force reinstated the democratically chosen president following a contested election. Still, problems remain, UN operations are underfunded and Western nations in particular have been reluctant to put substantial numbers of their forces under UN command. Instead, UN missions are usually composed of poorly-trained and often inadequately-led troops from developing nations – particularly Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jordan, and India. As such, problems of discipline, linguistics and logistics frequently hamper the effectiveness of UN forces whenever they are deployed. But, when such troops are deployed, he notes, conflicts tend to dampen and peace is tenable.

However, herein lays the problem with Goldstein’s argument. He puts a lot of emphasis on the decline of conflicts throughout the world as a product of the increase in UN activity but the UN factor is just one of several sources said to be attributable to this empirical decline in conflict. While Goldstein acknowledges democratic peace theory, the end of Cold War proxy wars, the globalisation of trade and the proliferation of international norms against violence, he is equally dismissive of them. For example, with regard to democratic peace theory (the idea being that democracies do not fight other democracies) he weakly counters that undemocratic China has been at peace with its neighbours since 1979 and therefore in light of this fact this theory does not carry much weight. But this is too simple of an argument to make, for while China has been rather peaceful towards its neighbours it has been often vicious towards members of its own population, particularly in conducting violent campaigns against Tibetans and Muslim Uyghurs.

Moreover, this latter point also leads to the broader issue of interstate wars. Goldstein claims that the decline in such conflicts “represents a triumph for the international system, with the UN at its centre, based on states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity” (p. 276). But this is a bit presumptuous of him. Interstate wars have occurred in a cyclical fashion throughout the better part of the last 200 years – even he acknowledges this. As such, there is nothing to indicate that a lull in such conflicts today is in fact a long-lasting trend. Notably, and contrary to his own statement cited above, Goldstein claims that the decline in interstate wars is partly due to the cessation of such conflicts in East Asia by the 1980s of which, crucially, the UN had little role in ending. Coincidentally, this same area remains one of the world’s most militarised regions. Just as remarkably, China has been rebuilding its naval capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region in order to counter both a naval expansion from India and the repositioning of American naval assets. Furthermore, with the Korean War still unresolved and tensions remaining over Taiwan – in addition to several Vietnamese islands – the potential for a flare up in interstate conflict still remains a probability.

Finally, Goldstein does not account (as realists would argue) for the fact that many UN interventions in the post-Cold War era operations were sanctioned on the basis that they did not counter the national interests of the Permanent Five (UK, US, Russia, China, France) on the Security Council and therefore not subject to its veto. It is worthwhile to note that the US and UK (both in Iraq) and Russia (against Georgia in 2008) each engaged in interstate wars outside of the auspices of the UN when their own national interests were considered to be ‘on the line’.

Nevertheless, as a history, Goldstein’s book remains an insightful read into the role the UN has played in peacekeeping and peace-building throughout the world. Likewise, he is correct in asserting that the world is better off with the UN playing a more prominent role and that it is, indeed, a more positive force when it comes to dealing with conflict. At the moment wars are on the decline and he is right to argue that that is something to celebrate. Let’s hope it continues.


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