conclusions:The Unpredictability of War and Its Consequences
Abstract and Keywords
War is unpredictable, as are its consequences. However, it is the job of militaries to prepare for and if necessary fight and win future wars, whatever the uncertainties. Equally, the very fact that war and its consequences are unpredictable remains one of the few great constants in international relations. Therefore, history suggests that the armed forces of the great liberal democracies, whilst of course aware of the political and strategic context of their mission and the societies they serve, must ultimately be permitted to focus on one uncompromising but critical requirement — to win. Furthermore, because armed forces are, have always been, and will likely always be the last resort of the state and its possible recourse to violence as a tool of policy, it is also critical that the very nature of unpredictability and the dangers it portends are at least understood by those who lead and those who command. Unpredictability has of course many dimensions but essentially there are two upon which leaders and commanders must focus and which must drive the act of war in state policy: when war will take place and what form it will take.
War is unpredictable, as are its consequences. However, it is the job of militaries to prepare for and if necessary fight and win future wars, whatever the uncertainties. Equally, the very fact that war and its consequences are unpredictable remains one of the few great constants in international relations. Therefore, history suggests that the armed forces of the great liberal democracies, whilst of course aware of the political and strategic context of their mission and the societies they serve, must ultimately be permitted to focus on one uncompromising but critical requirement—to win.
Furthermore, because armed forces are, have always been, and will likely always be the last resort of the state and its possible recourse to violence as a tool of policy, it is also critical that the very nature of unpredictability and the dangers it portends are at least understood by those who lead and those who command. Unpredictability has of course many dimensions but essentially there are two upon which leaders and commanders must focus and which must drive the act of war in state policy: when war will take place and what form it will take.
The Unpredictability of War
For all the moderating influence of international institutions the world of the twenty-first century would be recognizable to a seventeenth-century thinker such as Thomas Hobbes. In spite of globalization, the international community, such as it exists, remains (p. 664) essentially anarchic, comprised of strong states, weak states, sub-state and trans-state actors. Whilst the concept of the nation-state did not formally emerge until after the Thirty Years War of 1618–48, Hobbes would have understood that today's actors exist in a ‘state of nature’, calculating each other's interests, pursuing their own interests, and assessing daily where progress might be contemplated and where failure and defeat might be suffered.
Naturally, the political, diplomatic, and bureaucratic practices of over three centuries have created conventions and norms for state behaviour such that in regions such as Europe and North America conventional war is today unthinkable. However, it has only been unthinkable these twenty years past and for much of the rest of the world, for which growth, decline, and instability are daily challenges, no such comforting assumptions can be made. Indeed, in spite of efforts to paint the contemporary world as ‘post-modern’, i.e. one in which the state and its interactions are a thing of the past, it is surprising how resilient the state as a focal point for identity has proven. If they were really as weak a concept as some would have it then the struggle for leadership evidenced across the Middle East and beyond would not generate the mixture of hope and fear that concerns Israel and much of Europe.
Wars will happen. And it is likely that most of those wars for the foreseeable future will enjoy the prefix ‘limited’. However, whilst one should not be too dictated to by the lessons of history (one can be doomed to repeat history as much by over-reliance as ignorance), this century is shaping up to be more like the late nineteenth than the twentieth, certainly in terms of the shape of the international system, its relatively instable multipolarity, and the unexpectedly rapid shift of the distribution of power amongst states. No longer can unequivocal world leadership be said to reside in the hands of a few Western capitals. For example, in February 2011 China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy and could surpass that of the United States within twenty years or so. Clearly, these events, pushed as they are by the tide of globalization, will by their very nature impact on geopolitics and strategy.
The comforting assumption of many Western states as recently as a decade ago that the task of grand strategy was to make the world better by transforming it in some way in their image has changed in the post-9/11 world with remarkable and frightening speed. If nothing else, Al Qaeda and the thus-far failed attempts of the West to deal with Islamism, far from demonstrating hegemonic dominance, have rather demonstrated the West's inability to shape the global polis. This has certainly encouraged the more extreme autocracies, such as Iran and North Korea, to seek ‘security’ through the means of catastrophic war, but it has also suggested to emerging powers that neither reliance upon nor opposition to American leadership will provide the assured consequences—both positive and negative—many once assumed.
Furthermore, with many states no longer compelled by or with a compelling belief in Western liberal democracy, the return of autocracies means that the very concept of legitimacy is changing. Democracies are of course legitimized by the ability of the people to replace under-performing leaderships, whilst in today's sophisticated autocracies and oligarchies it is economic growth that provides ‘legitimacy’. Taken together (p. 665) with the precipitous retreat from power and status of many Western states in the wake of the systemic financial crisis, it is likely that the world is entering into a period of hyper-competition leavened by the weakening of state identities driven by globalization.
It is comfortingly current to suggest that at least such competition is no longer about the nature and governance of the international system itself. The ideological confrontation between Soviet Russia and liberal America is, one is told, a thing of the past. However, in this globalized world the self-evident preparations for war that arms procurement reveals suggest a world breaking down into identifiable blocs, far less strident but not dissimilar to those prior to the First World War. This is reinforced by the very nature of the systemic struggle between the state and the anti-state which has its epicentre in the Middle East, in which the opponents have very different Weltanschauungen, based on diverse philosophical and religious values, further increasing the already enormous unpredictability of war.
The bottom-line is this: what might appear as a relatively stable international system is also beginning to show signs of a potentially rapid descent into instability as nationalism, energy competition, burgeoning and spreading advanced military technology, and state instability suggest that systemic war, whilst unlikely, could well happen far more quickly than many have hitherto thought. Today the possibility of a war between peoples must begin to be seriously considered, not just war amongst the people.
Unpredictability in the Nature and Expression of War
The new systemic uncertainty and the unpredictability of war are compounded by unpredictability in the very nature of war. If the consequences of political, social, and economic dynamics are uncertain, so is the consequence of rapidly developing technology, particularly military technology.
Technology has substantially modified the way wars occur, the way they are launched and fought, not least because the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is rapidly reducing the options and ability of great powers to confront middling and smaller powers. Indeed, with potential and/or real access to nuclear weapons the possibility of strategic equalization through technology has not been lost on the likes of Tehran and Pyongyang, even though they both may have exaggerated the extent of American weakness, given the nature of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the simple fact remains that in the business of war the technology factor and its capacity to drive rapid change in the correlation of opposing forces and resources is a massive factor in the emerging concepts and doctrines of modern warfare. As with all the great technological breakthroughs intended to end war for all time, in fact technology adds an additional layer of complexity in what is already a hideously complex set of political, military, and technological considerations.
(p. 666) Has technology made war more or less likely? Whilst during the Cold War the answer was hopefully the latter today it is not all clear, with many new actors gaining access to weapons technology they could only have dreamed of in the not so distant past. And yet, America's advanced technology, whilst useful, has often proved decidedly ineffective against insurgents in Afghanistan often armed with little more than the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. What can be said with some certainty is that today a new unpredictability parameter has been introduced into the complex equation on war that could compel as much as deter war and which only serves to thicken the fog of war through which Clausewitz so famously peered in 1832.
The unpredictability of war and in the nature of war is further reinforced by unpredictability in the very expression of war. The combination of high-tech means and capabilities and processes, reinforced and strengthened by ‘cultural-historical’ components, makes it very difficult indeed to predict what form future war will take or indeed how it will be expressed. The possible strategic, geographical, military, technical, not to say social permutations and combinations are almost beyond imagination, particularly for those charged with defending open societies in which societal resilience is low and for which the balance between protection and power projection may be being steadily eroded by a mixture of political myopia and financial distress. War could at one and the same time be global, regional, and/or local, flaring and dying down rapidly. It could involve high-tech forces in long, low-intensity struggles or low-tech forces in sudden technology-rich attacks. It could take place simultaneously within state borders and between states and in time it could be both conventional and nuclear. It is hardly reassuring.
Coping with Unpredictability
The unpredictability of war, with the many strategy and policy uncertainties it engenders, is itself a reflection of the blurred distinction between risk and threat. Such blurring makes it very hard for policy-makers to agree a main effort or indeed shape for future armed forces. It is a dilemma further compounded by the merging of military and criminal threat through the great strategic multiplier that is cyberspace.
The twinning of unpredictability with uncertainty explains much of the effort in the West to establish new classifications of war and its many forms—classical war versus atomic war; high-intensity war versus hybrid war; asymmetric war versus humanitarian interventionism—and the role of armed forces therein, etc. In the end such efforts may prove to be, in large part, both circumstantial and peripheral. Indeed, they could essentially miss the point if they drive leaders to recognize only as much threat as they can afford.
The rationale of such efforts on the face of it appears relatively sound: providing political and military leaderships with immediate political, military, industrial, and bureaucratic tools for critical decision-making processes. This, after all, was the appar (p. 667) ent motivation behind, for example, the 2008 French Livre Blanc, the 2010 US National Security Strategy (NSS) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and the UK's 2010 National Security Strategy (UKNSS) and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). In fact much of the strategic ‘consideration’ and the bureaucratic process they entailed were driven almost exclusively by short-term budgetary necessities. Consequently, much of the ‘strategy’ was in fact the politically correct, financial flavour of the month. Consequently, such reviews can all too easily contribute to false security offering elusive ‘certainties’ and reassurance to hard-pressed leaders confronted with the many unknowns of the current age and increasingly uncertain and insecure publics. Sadly, as has been all too often demonstrated in the past, when real certainty comes knocking the pretence is revealed for what it is and disaster ensues.
What can also be said with some certainty is that the unpredictability of war does not and must not cloud or erase past assumptions about war and how wars should be fought. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz remain essentially correct—if one is going to fight a war, fight it to win and to win it quickly. This basic constant in the teaching of war has as direct a consequence for today's military as it did for ancient China or post-Napoleonic Europe.
Armed forces should concentrate on training and preparing for successful military operations. Hard though it is for political leaders, the more armed forces concentrate on this core mission (ils s’instruisent pour vaincre) the more they should be protected and left unaffected by the excess and contingent stakes of political and bureaucratic debates about defence. The failure of past strategic reviews and their findings are examples of what happens when armed forces are forced to take a position in such a debate. Why? War has its own undeniable and dangerous logic. When the cards are on the table, at the point of contact with danger, history is all too eloquent in showing that by then it is too late to remedy past errors. It is therefore precisely (if admittedly naively) that the central argument herein is that the unpredictable character of war must demand a rigorous separation of the military from the many ‘ancillary’ contingencies that any budget-led process necessarily creates. This is not to argue that armed forces should be immune from economic and financial realities but that first and foremost defence reviews should be strategy-led, not budget-led.
This distinction between the strategic and the budgetary is of course easier for autocratic, undemocratic societies to realize, at least over the short to medium term. In democratic countries it is possible to achieve such distinction only if innovative means of planning and budgeting are sought over the longer term. Such an approach avoids the shaping of core military competencies by immediate and more conjectural imperatives. Such a dramatic reappraisal of roles and costs could be achieved quite quickly, contrary to the apparent inclination of many Western states today. If armed forces must do everything, everywhere, all the time, they very rapidly cease to be armed forces.
In a period of scarce financial resources and growing disinterest about military affairs amongst large sections of society, the military itself may be advised to focus on its core competence. At the strategic level, military leaders must of course reach out to the politi (p. 668) cal and civil society. Moreover, civil-military relations will require new forms of contact. However, armed forces are not armed social workers and soldiers are not policemen, and the proliferation of tasks and roles evident in the recent past is in danger of producing people who are poor social workers, poor policemen, and poor soldiers. At the very least the officer corps in particular needs to refocus on their professional art, which is to fight and win wars. Only then will they be able to make the case to politicians to justify their cost, for only then will they be able to speak with one voice as to their purpose and role. As the French writer Alfred de Vigny once wrote, it is both the ‘grandeurs et servitudes militaires’ of the officer corps.
Then war might be just a little less unpredictable.