Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (The Penguin Press: New York), 654 pp., 2006, $14.96 USD
By Jeff Collins
How does one explain the vast amounts of blood spilled in the first half of the twentieth century? Just as importantly, how does one explain the decline of Western power and influence since that period? These questions lay at the heart of Niall Ferguson’s 2006 critically acclaimed book The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. For Ferguson, to find the answers requires an understanding of the period of warfare that dominated the last century. Now, grant it, there are quite a few books that have been published over the last number of years tackling the subject of Western decline (see Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules – For Now) which, in of itself, is hardly a new topic either. In fact, one could go as far back as 1918 and read German Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. That being said, Ferguson’s book stands out for both its depth and the manner in which he interweaves several complex arguments summarising the decline of Western civilization’s predominance in world affairs. But then again, one should not expect anything less from one of the world’s most eminent historians. Continue reading
Gideon Rose, How Wars End: Why We Always Fight The Last Battle (Simon and Schuster: New York) 413 pp., 2011 (2nd Edition), $17.00 USD
By Jeff Collins
General Tommy Franks, commander of the 2003 US invasion force in Iraq, once told a civilian colleague during the planning phase of the war “You pay attention to the day after. I’ll pay attention to the day of.” This comment, in a nutshell, gets to the heart of the argument Gideon Rose poses in his new book How Wars End. Rose, currently the editor-in-chief of Foreign Affairs, provides a sweeping overview of the last 100 years of American grand strategy by focusing on how successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have failed to plan carefully in making durable political arrangements once their opponents have been defeated (p. xi).
As Rose puts it, American leaders (both political and military) have failed to grapple with what the famed Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz termed the ‘dual nature of war’. In effect, those individuals in decision-making roles have not made the ‘negative’, or coercive, component of war – the fighting – subservient to the ‘positive’, or constructive, component of war – the overarching political goals (p. 3). Continue reading
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.
by Jeff Collins
“…the use of nuclear weapons is prohibited not because they are or they are [not] called nuclear weapons. They fall under the prohibition of the fundamental and mandatory rules of humanitarian law (which long predates them) by their effects, not because they are nuclear weapons but because they are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.” – Judge Ali-Saab[i]
When it comes to war and armed conflict, international law has always sought to balance military necessity with humanitarian considerations.[ii] It has done so by constraining state behaviour through “regulating the conduct of belligerents and…limiting the weapons that may be used…”[iii] Since 1945, a major challenge to this balancing process has been the threat of nuclear weapons. As the destruction evidenced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrate, in a world of proliferation (horizontal and vertical) and international terrorism, the international security implications stemming from the existence and use of such weapons is potentially catastrophic.[iv] Unfortunately – from an international legal point of view – the politics of Cold War deterrence prevented the emergence of a specific treaty prohibiting the use of nuclear weapons following World War Two.[v] This, despite the emergence of treaties prohibiting the use of ‘less’ destructive armaments (e.g. landmines) and other ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (e.g. the Chemical Weapons Convention) during the same time period (1945-present).