The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Orderby Michael Howard
Throughout history the overwhelming majority of human societies have taken war for granted and made it the basis for their legal and social structures. Not until the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century did war come to be regarded as an unmitigated evil and one that could be abolished by rational social organization, and only after the massive slaughter of the
Throughout history the overwhelming majority of human societies have taken war for granted and made it the basis for their legal and social structures. Not until the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century did war come to be regarded as an unmitigated evil and one that could be abolished by rational social organization, and only after the massive slaughter of the two world wars did this become the declared objective of civilized states. Nevertheless, war in one form or another continues unabated. In this elegantly written book, a preeminent military historian considers why this is so.
Is war in some sense still a necessary element in international order? Are war and peace in fact complementary? Does not peace itself breed the conditions that will ultimately lead to war? And if nuclear weapons have made war ultimately suicidal for mankind, what can be done about it? Having devoted half a century largely to studying these questions, Michael Howard offers us his reflections. Unless they can be answered, he notes, the twenty-first century is unlikely to be any more peaceful than the centuries that preceded it.
Sunday Times, London
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Read an Excerpt
'War appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.' So wrote the jurist Sir Henry Maine in the middle of the nineteenth century. There is little to suggest that he was wrong. Archaeological, anthropological, as well as all surviving documentary evidence indicates that war, armed conflict between organized political groups, has been the universal norm in human history. It is hardly necessary to explore whether this was the result of innate aggression, or whether aggressiveness arose from the necessity of fighting for such scarce resources as water or land. Rousseau may have been right in suggesting that men in a mythical state of nature were timid, and only became warlike when they entered into social relations; but social relations were necessary for survival. What Kant termed man's 'asocial sociability' automatically created conflict as well as co-operation.
Peace may or may not be 'a modern invention' but it is certainly a far more complex affair than war. Hobbes bleakly defined it as a period when war was neither imminent nor actually being fought, but this definition is hardly comprehensive. At best this is what is usually described as negative peace. Often it is the best that people can get, and they are duly thankful for it. But peace as generally understood today involves much more than this. Positive peace implies a social and political ordering of society that is generally accepted as just. The creation of such an order may take generations to achieve, and social dynamics may then destroy it within a few decades.Paradoxically, war may be an intrinsic part of that order, as we shall see. Indeed throughout most of human history it has been accepted as such. The peace invented by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, an international order in which war plays no part, had been a common enough aspiration for visionaries throughout history, but it has been regarded by political leaders as a practicable or indeed desirable goal only during the past two hundred years.
Some societies have certainly been more warlike than others, probably from necessity. In some, war may have originated as religious ritual, or as a rite of passage for adolescents, or as a form of play, like football matches, for adult males in which death was risked but not necessarily inflicted; but ultimately it became a more serious matter for the reason pithily stated by Clausewitz, that if one combatant is prepared to use extreme measures his antagonist has to follow suit. When fighting is necessary for physical survival those who are good at it will predominate. If they pass on their genes to their offspring they will found ruling dynasties. They and their companions become warrior elites whose interests and attitudes determine the nature of their culture, including religion, literature and the arts. They create a social and political order, which initially may have no justification but its own strength, but for which utility, prescription and, above all, religious sanction ultimately provide legitimacy. Legitimized order produces domestic peace, and also legitimizes the conduct of war. Success in war further reinforces legitimacy. Failure results either in subjection and the imposition of an exogenous elite whose rule in turn becomes legitimized by prescription, or the eventual emergence of another indigenous elite more successful than its predecessors.
The greater the effectiveness of a military elite, the greater will be its capacity for extending its power and creating hegemonies. Warriors may go off on their own, as did the Nor(se)mans in the tenth and the Spaniards in the fifteenth century, and establish an imperial hegemony over alien populations. The viability of their rule will initially depend on their continuing military power and will to use it a will probably, though not invariably, based on a sense of moral superiority derived from religion, race and general culture. But, ultimately, if their dominance is to survive, it must be legitimized: by their success in converting their subjects to their own system of beliefs, by the co-operation of indigenous elites, and above all by their ability to maintain economic and political stability in the societies they govern.
This last is the most important condition of all, and perhaps explains the longevity of such hegemonies as the Ottoman empire and the successive dynasties in China. Change is the greatest enemy of stability and so, in consequence, of peace. In rural societies which change little over centuries if not millennia, prescription ultimately makes any rule acceptable. The main variable lies in the harvests. Bad harvests make it impossible to pay otherwise acceptable taxes and create peasant unrest; but other things being equal, this is usually isolated and suppressible. If other things are not equal, such suppression triggers wider disorders, as it did in Germany in the sixteenth, or the Balkans in the nineteenth, century. This in itself indicated that, for whatever reason, society was no longer stable, and that order could be preserved or restored ultimately only by adjustment to new conditions.
War, it has rightly been said, starts in the minds of men, but so does peace. For some people perhaps for most any order is acceptable so long as their expectations are met, and for most of human history these expectations have been very basic. This majority will be little concerned about injustice to others, if indeed they ever hear about it. For them peace is what they have got, and they want to preserve it. There will always be a minority, however small, aware of the imperfections of their societies as measured by standards of divine or natural justice, but such awareness usually demands an exceptional degree of education, leisure and independence. In warrior societies such people were normally either born or co-opted into a priesthood which, whatever absolute standards of behaviour it might advocate, was nonetheless dedicated to the legitimization of the existing order. When the increasing complexity of such societies resulted in a class of educated laity, it was from among their ranks that critics of the social order naturally emerged. Francis Bacon noted at the end of the sixteenth century that one of the causes of sedition in a state was 'breeding more scholars than preferment can take off'. For such critics the oppressions and shortcomings of the existing order rendered it so unjust and illegitimate that both internal rebellion and external war against it was justified. For them, peace could come about only through the creation of a new order, Throughout human history mankind has been divided between those who believe that peace must be preserved, and those who believe that it must be attained.
As we shall see, the medieval order, as it developed in Europe between the eighth and the eighteenth centuries, was largely a matter of a successful symbiosis between the ruling warrior class that provided order and the clerisy that legitimized it. Eventually critics emerged from within that clerisy who denied the essential legitimacy of their rulers on the grounds that war was not a necessary part of the natural or divine order, but a derogation of it. It was then that peace, the visualization of a social order from which war had been abolished, could be said to have been invented; an order, that is, resulting not from some millennial divine intervention that would persuade the lion to lie down with the lamb, but from the forethought of rational human beings who had taken matters into their own hands. The significance of that invention, and the difficulties mankind has found in implementing it, provide the subject matter for the following essay.
Meet the Author
Sir Michael Howard is Robert A. Lovett Professor Emeritus of Military and Naval History at Yale University and was Regius Professor of History at Oxford University. He is the author of many books, including The Franco-Prussian War (1961), War in European History (1976), War and the Liberal Conscience (1978), and The Lessons of History (1991, Yale University Press). He is life president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which he helped found.
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