May 08, 2015

Violent Borders: Will There be Another Great War?

Writing about web page http://daily.rbc.ru/opinions/politics/08/05/2015/554c800c9a79473a8f5d6ee2

This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.

This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.

Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.

Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.

A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.

In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.

But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.

Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.

In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.

Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.

The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.

Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).

How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.

Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.

Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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