A new book by Scientific American writer John Horgan has sparked debate with its central thesis that war is not an inevitable feature of human nature but is a cultural invention that can be overcome. In an interview Corgan compares war to a virus: “Imagine your neighbor is a violent psychopath who is out for blood and land. You, on the other hand, are person who wants peace. You would have few options but to embrace the ways of war for defense. So essentially your neighbor has infected you with war.” This scenario has much in common with the security dilemma, in which even defensively motivated arms buildups and alliance formation (assume the violent neighbor only wants to protect himself) will provoke “counterbalancing,” raise tensions, and ultimately leave both sides less secure than they were before this spiral began. This logic of “one bad apple ruining the whole bunch” has also been used by democratic peace theorists to explain how democracies can behave so peacefully toward each other but, when facing an autocratic (and presumably more aggressive) state, their fear of being exploited or “suckered” leads them to act violently and perhaps even preemptively.
As noted realist scholar Stephen Walt points out, Horgan’s argument follows in the tradition of idealist thinkers such as John Mueller, who famously penned a book in 1989 called Retreat from Doomsday: the Obsolescence of Major War. Mueller’s argument in that book and its sequel, The Remnants of War, is that “major war” (war among the great powers) has very likely come to an end. This has occurred because the populations of the great powers have rejected war as a means of settling disputes, just as they earlier rejected institutions such as dueling and slavery when these practices came to be seen as uncivilized and reprehensible. What we are today witnessing, Mueller argues, is the remnants, or the “dregs” of warfare–war not among professional armies controlled by legitimate governments but among thugs frequently running loose in failed states and seeking self-enrichment.
What do you think? Is war an inevitable feature of human society or is it just an invention that can be overcome? If it can be overcome, what can policymakers and ordinary citizens do to make this dream a reality?