The Last War


The Last War

We are living in the most peaceful era in history. International wars have dropped to an all-time low. With few exceptions, since 1945 states no longer invade other states in order to conquer and swallow them up. Such conquests had been the bread and butter of political history since time immemorial. It was how most great empires were established, and how most rulers and populations expected things to stay. But campaigns of conquest like those of the Romans, Mongols and Ottomans cannot take place today anywhere in the world. Since 1945, no independent country recognized by the UN has been conquered and wiped off the map. Limited international wars still occur from time to time, and millions still die in wars, but wars are no longer the norm.

Many people believe that the disappearance of international war is unique to the rich democracies of Western Europe. In fact, peace reached Europe after it prevailed in other parts of the world. Thus the last serious international wars between South American countries were the Peru-Ecuador War of 1941 and the Bolivia-Paraguay War of 1932-1935. And before that there hadn’t been a serious war between South American countries since 1879–1884, with Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other.

We seldom think of the Arab world as particularly peaceful. Yet only once since the Arab countries won their independence has one of them mounted a full-scale invasion of another (the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990). There have been quite a few border clashes (e.g., Syria vs. Jordan in 1970), many armed interventions of one in the affairs of another (e.g., Syria in Lebanon), numerous civil wars (Algeria, Yemen, Libya), and an abundance of coups and revolts. Yet there have been no full-scale international wars among the Arab states except the Gulf War. Even widening the scope to include the entire Muslim world adds only one more example, the Iran-Iraq War. There was no Turkey-Iran War, Pakistan-Afghanistan War, or Indonesia-Malaysia War.

In Africa things are far less rosy. But even there, most conflicts are civil wars and coups. Since African states won their independence in the 1960s and 1970s, very few countries have invaded one another in the hope of conquest.

There have been periods of relative calm before, as for example in Europe between 1871 and 1914, and they always ended badly. But this time it is different. For real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war. There has never been real peace in the world. Between 1871 and 1914, a European war remained a plausible eventuality, and the expectation of war dominated the thinking of armies, politicians, and ordinary citizens alike. This foreboding was true for all other peaceful periods in history. An iron law of international politics decreed, “For every two nearby polities, there is a plausible scenario that will cause them to go to war against one another within one year.” This law of the jungle was in force in late nineteenth-century Europe, in medieval Europe, in ancient China, and in classical Greece. If Sparta and Athens were at peace in 450 BC, there was a plausible scenario that they would be at war by 449 BC.

Today humankind has broken the law of the jungle. There is at last real peace, and not just absence of war. For most polities, there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year. What could lead to war between Germany and France next year? Or between China and Japan? Or between Brazil and Argentina? Some minor border clash might occur, but only a truly apocalyptic scenario could result in an old-fashioned full-scale war between the latter in 2014, with Argentine armored divisions sweeping to the gates of Rio, and Brazilian carpet-bombers pulverizing the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Such wars might still erupt next year between several pairs of states, e.g., between Israel and Syria, Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the USA and Iran, but these are only the exceptions that prove the rule.

This situation might of course change in the future, and with hindsight, the world of today might seem incredibly naïve. Yet from a historical perspective, our very naivety is fascinating. Never before has peace been so prevalent that people could not even imagine war.

Scholars have sought to explain this happy development in more books and articles than you would ever want to read yourself, and they have identified several contributing factors. Two among them are particularly important. First, the price of war has gone up dramatically. The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.

Secondly, while the price of war soared, its profits declined. For most of history, polities could enrich themselves by looting or annexing enemy territories. Most wealth consisted of fields, cattle, slaves, and gold, so it was easy to loot it or occupy it. Today, wealth consists mainly of human capital, technical know-how, and complex socioeconomic structures such as banks. Consequently it is difficult to carry it off or incorporate it into one’s territory.

Consider California. Its wealth was initially built on gold mines. But today it is built on silicon and celluloid—Silicon Valley and the celluloid hills of Hollywood. What would happen if the Chinese were to mount an armed invasion of California, land a million soldiers on the beaches of San Francisco, and storm inland? They would gain little. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley. The wealth resides in the minds of Google engineers and Hollywood script doctors, directors, and special-effects wizards, who would be on the first plane to Bangalore or Mumbai long before the Chinese tanks rolled into Sunset Boulevard. It is not coincidental that the few full-scale international wars that still take place in the world, such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, occur in places were wealth is old-fashioned material wealth. The Kuwaiti sheikhs could flee abroad, but the oil fields stayed put and were occupied.

Excerpt from chapter 18, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind