the lighter side of the russia-ukraine conflict, or steven pinker wins again

This week, I’ll focus my attention on war and conflict. Today’s post will be on the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Then we’ll talk about ISIS’ leadership, Soviet Deep Battle doctrine, and then wrap up with a revisiting of the Powell doctrine.

I used to teach a book called The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin Van Creveld, one of the leading military and political historians. It’s an old style magisterial survey of the state. I used to teach it to explore the reasons for why the state exists and to help students see that strong nation-states are a very specific historical phenomena. Usually, students would get depressed because they realized that state building and warfare go hand in hand.

Then, one of my students offered this rather insightful analysis of war in the historical perspective. It went something like this:

Look, war is horrible but this book actually can be viewed in a positive light. Early on, wars happened all the time and for insanely long periods of time. Rome was perpetually at war; medieval states would fight decades long wars; and so forth. But something important has happened in the last two hundred years. People started regulating war. Treaties were invented. Then, rules of war were introduced.  Then, war prevention organizations like NATO and the UN. Then, wars that minimized civilian casualties. In other words, the nation state system has been, slowly, developing a number of successful mechanisms for preventing wars.

To this correct and insightful analysis, I add a new development: making wars (relatively) invisible. Think about it. Inter-state conflict is so discouraged, compared to the past, that Putin had to pay people to pretend that they were actually Ukrainian. Instead of just invading, as Peter the Great or Stalin might have done, he had to be invited. The international environment so discourages wars that you have to pretend to not to invade a country when you are invading a country.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

5 Responses

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  1. The emergence of the state has the purpose of ‘order.’ But, the nature of order serves particular interests. The way that order works through authority, law and sanctions is sometimes considered to contradict the ideal of justice.

    The “”reason”” why states engage in warfare is because of the ever present possibility of invasion. The notion that the US is somehow protected by the oceans and will never be invaded is nonsense. There is no excuse for vigilance. If students are depressed because of the interconnection between the state and war then it sounds like there is lack of historical knowledge. There is also the problem of implosion or revolution, so the state, as a set of actors and groups, must regulate social relations to ensure proper vigilance in relation to other nations and to prevent uprisings from within.

    The comment by the student who seems to believe that there were fewer wars in the past than today is woefully misinformed. War is more and more frequent as humanity changes through historical time.

    Perhaps, you should dedicate a lecture on the precursors of serious wars, point to the 8 French Civil wars preceding the French Revolution, contrast the US Civil War and the Chinese Taiping Rebellion, and compare the Thirty Years war of 1618-1648 and the 30 years of war from 1914-1945. Wars have been getting worse and worse during history.


    Fredrick Welfare

    August 25, 2014 at 2:26 am

  2. Since you (or rather, your student) mentioned Rome, I think it’s worth noting that the Romans conceived of themselves as only fighting defensive wars and would engage in Putinesque contrivances of extending protection to provocatively situated minor polities and then “defending” those polities against rival great powers. For instance, the First Punic War started when the Romans extended protection to the Mamertines (a bunch of Italian thugs who had taken over a Sicilian city) and the Second Punic War started over a dispute over Saguntum, a tiny Iberian city within Carthage’s sphere of influence but under Rome’s protection. This strikes me as very similar to the Putin shtick of issue passports to foreigners then defend your new nationals, even as I agree with your general point that open territorial aggression is ever less acceptable.



    August 25, 2014 at 3:32 am

  3. Gabriel: Do empires openly admit to being aggressors? Isn’t the “Defensive war” the default?



    August 25, 2014 at 4:15 am

  4. Fabio,
    Yes, exactly. But my point was that in your final paragraph you were treating the issue of making euphemistic excuses for imperialism as a novelty when in fact it is very old.



    August 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

  5. It is illogical to call an invasion a ‘defensive war.’ Putin influenced the Ukrainian PM to oppose the strikers who wanted Ukraine to join the EU. Then, after losing that but ramping up the tension between the strikers and the police, he invaded Crimea. Then, he massed at the Ukraine border. Then, he invaded Ukraine and he shot down a Malasian flight. Defensive?, who are you kidding??


    Fredrick Welfare

    August 25, 2014 at 11:32 pm

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