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The Mystery of Europe and the Decline and Fall of the War System

July 1st, 2011

It is an unexpected dividend of recent history that we cannot imagine a situation in which a Western European state would try to use military force or coercion against a neighbor. The “war system” that made military strength so central to national power and influence and caused so much conflict for five hundred years has simply disappeared from that region.

How could something that had been central to so much human history, and which seemed to be an inevitable result of human nature, so quickly vanish from one of the central parts of the world? Could it be that some temporary or special circumstances make military strength irrelevant to Western European affairs today? Perhaps the experience of relying on US protection against the Soviet Union for so long has had a deep effect. Or the politics of the European Union may have been as valuable a unifying force as its advocates believe. Or these states have been diverted from internal concerns by the potential dangers from outside the region and a perhaps temporary lack of ideological division.

I would propose a different explanation—that the comity between Western European countries is based on real and permanent foundations. It is the result of inherent characteristics of modern countries (North America is the only other region deserving this designation) and is a reliable basis for national security. A traditional war system cannot exist in any region composed entirely of modern countries.

What are the essential characteristics of modern countries that make other countries feel reliably safe—even in a completely unredeemed world driven by aggressive leaders, full of conflict, rivalry, hatred, and controlled by the exercise of power? And even though the war system still exists in most of the rest of the world?


In this argument, “modern country” is not a relative term. It does not necessarily mean the most advanced country at the time. Modern countries have very productive post-industrial, information-dominated economies. The wealth of modern countries is less important than the experience that produces the wealth. And, while both wealth and production are economic matters, the social and political elements of modernization that are inseparable from the economic are also central to the character of modern countries.

While there are only some 25 modern countries today, many other countries are becoming modern, and the difference between a modern country and one that will become modern in a few years is not always clearly defined. The important thing is the near absolute contrast between fully modern countries and traditional countries—that is, all countries in the world before, say, 1900. All countries used to be traditional. Now all countries are either modern or becoming modern. Eventually all countries will be modern countries—by the fixed standards discussed here:



To speak of countries “advancing” to modernity, while it suggests that modernization is “progress,” does not insist that modern must be better than traditional. Certainly there are many undesirable features of modern life. But desirable or not, it is inevitable.

The critical characteristics of modern countries come partly from the way they operate—their economies, cultures, and political systems—and partly from the way the people are. People evolve along with a country. Development—or modernization—is best described by the metaphor of a national learning experience—the people learn and the country “learns.”

The high productivity of post-industrial countries depends on a large part of the population being creative, collaborative, entrepreneurial, independent, widely connected, and informed. The most successful populations have these characteristics to a very high degree.

Because they are productive, the citizens of modern countries live comfortably and safely. Such people are very difficult to tyrannize over. They are habituated to the freedom and comfort their society offers. Their lives are governed by law and politics of various kinds, and they scarcely have any experience dealing with violence. The change in values observed in people as their country becomes modern has been well documented by Professors Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel in their book Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy.

We are all familiar with modern countries. We understand the effect of modernity on the feel of life—the comfort, convenience, and safety of ordinary experience; the predictability of modern life. But why do these features of modern life fatally undermine the war system?

One answer is what transnational violence can “buy” these days. Since the national wealth of modern countries can only be produced by the creative cooperative work of millions of free people it cannot be acquired by conquest or compulsion. There is not much that one modern country can take from another by force or threat of force. So among modern countries, military force is neither a threat nor an opportunity.

At the same time that the possibility of gain from force and compulsion has largely disappeared, a different path for national ambition—another reason for war—is opened to all. Any country can gain status and influence by improving its productivity and wealth, regardless of how much other countries improve theirs. It is not a zero sum game. The wealth of other countries, as Western Europe has shown, makes it easier for each country to become wealthier.

The countries of Western Europe know each other. They realistically feel deeply safe from each other because each knows that the others, like themselves, pursue goals through politics and negotiation in deep reliance on a framework of law. They have seen, after hundreds of years of conflict, that violence or threats of violence are the ways of criminals and pirates. All of these realities come from the modern character of the countries and the life experience of their citizens and leaders. And it is the unexpressed understanding of these realities that cause any ideas of military threats against each other to be so far from the minds of Western Europeans.

What does all this say about the future of the war system outside of Western Europe? Based on two centuries of experience with the spread of modernization, and the fact that the forces that have driven modernization are still working as powerfully as ever, it is reasonable to assume that during this and the next century or two, all the countries of the world that have not yet become modern countries will modernize. To believe the contrary, one must imagine a world in which perhaps three quarters of all people live like the people of Western Europe today, while another billion or so live without freedom and comfort. There is much to object to about modern life: sharp edges are softened, and individual comfort replaces the bracing quality of individual challenge.

Many people will resist the attractions of modernity and fight against it. But it is difficult to imagine many whole countries holding out against these attractions for long. If this is true, then the war system is doomed. When all countries in the world are modern, they will all be as allergic to military force and compulsion as the Western Europeans now are and for the same reasons: there will be little that can be gained by force, and societies and their leaders will be oriented to politics and negotiation within a framework of law and find violence and military threat as far from their minds as dueling.

Can we be sure about this relatively happy picture? Certainly not. People and human affairs are infinitely complicated. We cannot imagine all that is possible. But the reasons for the decline and fall of the war system will be a fundamental result of further steps on the path that most of the world has been following for centuries.

The end of the war system will not necessarily solve all problems of violence and weapons. It may even be possible that some nations will contrive to have a war despite the absence of a war system. Certainly terrorism is on the loose and will require in most cases a military response, even if the modernity of states such as those of Western Europe inclines them to compromise.

And today we are very conscious of how much we have to get through during the many years still to come before the war system is gone. Some states and societies that are not yet modern try to destroy modernity, often by adroitly employing its own tools against it. The challenges they pose—both physical and ideological—must be overcome before they may yield to the modern attractions of freedom, comfort, and reliance on individual choice and effort. But it is only a matter of time. We can rely on the fact that anti-modern forces are already on their way out—even without an improvement in human character, without a world government or world law, in a world still dominated by human greed and aggressiveness where power determines political decisions.

Skeptics about ending the war system point to the human “need” for violence and aggression and the will to power. They are right that these predilections will never disappear entirely. But people will no longer be able to channel them through a war system. The removal of war from social life is just the last, most visible, and symbolic element of the removal of physical strength, violence, and life and death issues from ordinary human experience.

We are still early in the process that has begun. We can see the death of the war system and at the same time the birth of new challenges that will test the modern world as it tries to generate the new ideas capable of sustaining human life and character in a setting entirely different than the one in which our species evolved.

Max Singer is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. His book, History of the Future, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield on July 18th.
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