Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 07:00 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 07:00 | SYDNEY

Choice and necessity in War 2.0


Michael Wesley


This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

4 June 2010 11:04

This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Hugh White's discussion of the balance of motivation and material strength, complete with literary flourishes (you can take the boy out of Oxford...), brings our debate back to where it all began: my point that wars of the twenty-first century will be decided not by who's better at inflicting damage, but by who's better at bearing pain.

This debate so far has focused around the question, 'why do states choose war?' It seems to me that an equally crucial question is, 'why do states choose not to go to war?'

I think two examples tell us a great deal about this. The first was China's agreement to the 1858 Treaty of Aigun with Russia, which many see as China's ultimate humiliation at the hands of foreigners. The Qing Court chose not to call Russia's rather far-fetched bluff of uniting with an Anglo-French force to enforce the treaty. The reason? They wanted to get foreigners out of Beijing as soon as they could.

The second is the fateful meeting between Hitler and Czech President Edvard Benes at the Reichschancellory in March 1938. Hitler, who had already swallowed up the Sudetenland, made Benes an offer: either the Wehrmacht could occupy the rest of Czechoslovakia unopposed, or the Luftwaffe would bomb Prague flat. Benes was so horrified he had a minor heart attack – and Hitler got his way.

In both cases, capitulation was seen to be preferable to calling the opponents' bluff. But in other cases, capitulation is out of the question, irrespective of the imbalance in material strength. The Vietnamese stood up to a nuclear-armed superpower not because they thought they would lose but because they could not imagine losing. The Pashtuns are doing the same today.

There's a calculus at work here: the amount of pain a society is willing to bear in war rises the closer its aims are to the heart of the body politic's sense of being. Avoiding yet another unequal treaty was not as dangerous to the Qing Court as the continued occupation of Beijing by foreigners. The preservation of a 20-year old sovereign state was not as important to the Czechs as the preservation of the centuries-old culture embodied in their capital.

This is important because it separates wars of necessity from wars of choice. Societies are willing to bear enormous pain in what they see as wars of necessity – by which I mean a conflict that, if lost, would negate what the entire society stands for, and defines itself by. Societies will bear considerably less pain for wars of choice, the outcomes of which are not seen to have a major effect on how a society defines itself.

This pain threshold for wars of choice is lowered dramatically by the rise of mass politics in which societies in both democracies and non-democracies expect their opinions to count. Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard were reminded of this quite recently.

A pretty good way of picking winners is by working out for which party the war is one of choice, and for which it's one of necessity. For the latter, the war's not over even if it loses the fighting stage. For the former, societal support is likely to fall well short of the effort needed to prevail.

Thanks to the communications revolution, societies are much more able and inclined to interrogate governments' decisions to go to war, and their level of scepticism rises with their material prosperity. This means the ambit of wars of necessity is shrinking. That's why neither side has pushed the Taiwan issue towards decision. That's why the possibility of war in the coming years is dropping dramatically.