Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Pax Americana

Consider the following paradox. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become involved in many "small wars" and a few big ones, yet there is actually less war overall in the world. Don't try to deny the second half of the paradox; Gregg Easterbrook brings some encouraging numbers to our attention to back it up:
The University of Maryland studies find the number of wars and armed conflicts worldwide peaked in 1991 at 51, which may represent the most wars happening simultaneously at any point in history. Since 1991, the number has fallen steadily. There were 26 armed conflicts in 2000 and 25 in 2002, even after the Al Qaeda attack on the United States and the U.S. counterattack against Afghanistan. By 2004, Marshall and Gurr's latest study shows, the number of armed conflicts in the world had declined to 20, even after the invasion of Iraq. All told, there were less than half as many wars in 2004 as there were in 1991
Global military spending is also in decline. Stated in current dollars, annual global military spending peaked in 1985, at $1.3 trillion, and has been falling since, to slightly over $1 trillion in 2004, according to the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan Washington research organization. Since the global population has risen by one-fifth during this period, military spending might have been expected to rise. Instead, relative to population growth, military spending has declined by a full third. In current dollars, the world spent $260 per capita on arms in 1985 and $167 in 2004.
Today, the United States accounts for 44 percent of world military spending; if current trends continue, with many nations reducing defense spending while the United States continues to increase such spending as its military is restructured for new global anti-terrorism and peacekeeping roles, it is not out of the question that, in the future, the United States will spend more on arms and soldiers than the rest of the world combined.
Easterbrook attributes part of the cause of fewer wars to democratization: "In the last two decades, some 80 countries have joined the democratic column, while hardly any moved in the opposite direction.... As ever-more nations become democracies, ever-less war can be expected, which is exactly what is being observed." I have to agree, with the proviso that eventually the trend of democratization may reverse (see ancient Greece and Rome).

Easterbrook mentions several other causes, including the end of the Cold War, peacekeeping troops, and nuclear deterrence, but he fails to mention the pacifying effect of the overwhelming dominance of the American conventional military. A country with a nuclear second-strike capability has an excellent deterrent against nuclear attack and against any external attempt to overthrow its government. However, it is not really a deterrent against conventional war. It is quite possible the U.S. and China could end up fighting a ruinous, massive conventional war over Taiwan sometime in the next few decades. Yet, there's little reason to worry about such a war escalating into mutual nuclear annihilation, because there is a mutual desire not to be annihilated. The actual deterrent to fighting a war over Taiwan lies with having a conventional military strong enough to make such a fight long and costly.

As another example, consider the Gulf War. If the U.S. had had only nuclear ICMBs with which to threaten Iraq, then Kuwait would not have been liberated, because we couldn't have credibly threatened to use them. We only hinted of nuclear retaliation in the event of chemical weapons being used against our troops. It is U.S. conventional military dominance that maintains an equilibrium in which most countries--the big possible exception being China--find it pointless to try to create or maintain a conventional military strong enough for regional conquest. For countries living in a Kantian democratic peace, military conquest may already be undesirable, but about a third of the nations are not democracies.


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