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What’s left to fight about?
Wars of the future
Humans have fought countless wars during the many thousands of years of our history. But the objects of the fighting have been fairly limited in number. Perhaps the most common objective, taken over all that time, has been territorial: to gain control of land. Hunters wanted control of the best hunting ranges, farmers sought fields to till. Societies with growing populations needed territory to expand into.
Other material objectives also brought out the weapons. Wars were conducted to acquire slaves and women, precious and useful metals, spices and other rare commodities. Wars were fought for booty and tribute. As empires grew, wars were waged to capture seaports and other sites of strategic importance. Wars pried open societies closed to trade.
Nonmaterial reasons, too, triggered armed conflict. Wars were launched to advance a favored religion. Wars were fought to aggrandize leaders and consolidate their regimes. Wars created a feeling of common purpose and identity within the warmaking nations.
And wars were fought for defensive reasons. Countries that were attacked fought back; those fearing attack sometimes struck first.
Of the above causes of war, the territorial motives have dramatically diminished. People still have to eat, but they no longer have to grow their own food. And despite occasional worries about food security, most people are willing to purchase from other countries what they don’t grow themselves. Hunting no longer figures importantly in the sustenance of any but a handful of societies, although maritime fishing rights still provoke squabbles. The habitable portions of the planet have largely filled in, leaving little room into which invaders might expand.
Some other ancient causes of war have likewise lost their power. Trafficking in slaves occurs, but it takes place in the shadows of criminality rather than with the approval of societies and governments. Likewise with sex trafficking.
The Gulf War of 1991 was partly about oil, but these days oil, gold and other resources are more readily acquired by trade than by force. Russia's seizure of Crimea was a strategic move, but that seizure and the continuing conflict with Ukraine have strong nationalistic overtones as well. Religion no longer rises to the level of a legitimate casus belli; armed jihad today is conducted by terrorists.
On the other hand, political motives for war may be as great as ever. From a material standpoint, China might be better off leaving Taiwan alone and promoting closer trade ties. But Xi Jinping knows he will become a Chinese hero for the ages by reclaiming the island. Meanwhile, allowing it to remain independent and democratic undermines his autocratic model at home. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had political motives: to topple and replace regimes seen as unfriendly to the United States.
It is not out of the question that resource wars will come back into fashion, perhaps under the duress of climate change. Agricultural productivity has increased enormously, but the supply of water is not much larger than it has ever been. Should Egypt conclude that its share of the Nile is threatened by Sudan and Ethiopia, it might take action against them.
Climate change could cause wars in other ways. Rising sea levels or unbearable heat might prompt refugee flows that will destabilize governments and lead to armed conflict.
In the old days, trade wars were actual wars about trade. The Opium Wars forced China to allow trade with Western nations. Trade wars these days are about erecting tariff barriers, but such metaphorical conflicts could become actual if they combine with other grievances, as occurred in the 1930s when tariff wars loosened ties that might have kept fascism in check.
Yet all these motives seem minor compared with the enduring duress or temptation that gave rise to the wars of territorial conquest. At the time and in hindsight, American expansion from the Atlantic to Pacific appeared inevitable, given the imbalance between the large and growing population of the United States and the small and diminishing populations of the indigenous peoples. The imperialistic urge that drove several European nations to carve up Africa in the nineteenth century and Japan to capture Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and Indochina in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has fallen into deep remission if not gone extinct.
This is not to say future wars must be minor. The causes of World War I were minuscule compared with the destruction which that war produced.
But the remaining motives for war would seem to be less abiding and more negotiable than the territorial ones. Taking Taiwan may be essential to Xi’s pride, but Xi won’t live forever. Trade balances rise and fall. Climate change will be painful to many but intolerable to a comparative few.
Can we look forward to a world without war? In the sense of hoping, yes. As expectation, not yet.