Not Yet a World Without War

Not Yet a World Without War
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A recent issue of Commonweal contains an article by David Carroll Cochran, a political science professor at Loras College. "A World Without War" is well worth a careful read. It is clearly written and -- appropriate for the Christmas season and the start of a new year -- hopeful.

Ultimately, however, it is too optimistic and, worse, fatally ambiguous about its policy implications.

Cochran begins the piece by highlighting the central tension in Catholic teaching about war and peace. While calling for the abolition of war, the Church allows under just war principles, resort to war. "[C]hurch teaching is not pacifist, but it is abolitionist." Cochran's argument is that abolition is possible; indeed, war already is well on the road to its eventual extinction, following the precedent of other institutions once considered indispensible: feuding, slavery and capital punishment. The movement towards a world without war is propelled by many forces, including the alleviation of inequalities, the spread of human rights and democracy, effective use of diplomacy and nonviolent conflict resolution mechanisms, economic sanctions, international peacekeeping and nonviolent resistance to oppression. Of special note is the enhancement of international authority in the development of global governance, the "interlocking web of global institutions [to wit:] international laws, treaties and their enforcement regimes, non-governmental organizations, United Nations agencies, civil-society groups."

The author is certainly correct that the amount of war and other forms of organized violence have been declining for centuries. The number of wars and the number of dead and wounded have not been consistently declining, but when one looks at those numbers in relationship to the number of nations and the number of people in the world, the trend has been starkly downward. A number of leading scholars have documented this important change in human affairs, notably the political scientist John E. Mueller and the psychologist Steven Pinker. Cochran nicely dovetails those findings with trends in Catholic social teaching.

Nevertheless, several reservations remain.

First, there is an implied and perhaps unwarranted extrapolation of the past into the future. The historical decline in violence may or may not be continued into the future. The decline in violence is clearest in some parts of the world than in others. The forces that fueled the decline do not seem particularly effective in large parts of the world: Africa, the Middle East (broadly and loosely understood), the borderlands around Russia or the waters east of China. Indeed, some of them -- e.g., human rights and democracy -- fuel anti-Western rage and thus feed violence. In that sense, the late Professor Samuel Huntington's famous gloomy prediction (or warning) of a "clash of civilizations" seems substantiated by events and a brake on the optimism of those who await a warless world.

Second, and most important, the piece finesses the critical question of when resort to military force would be morally acceptable or even mandated. Although the author begins the piece by acknowledging that the church's teaching is not pacifist, he presents an argument whose implications seem to be. Here is his penultimate paragraph:

Today's wars are almost all civil wars fought within impoverished, frail, or failed states. There is no reason to think that the tools of peacemaking emphasized by Catholic social teaching cannot be effectively used to bring such states into existing zones of peace, where war is simply no longer considered a valid option.

That assertion may very well be true if one's time frame stretches far into the future. With regard to the near future, however, it would seem that there would be every reason to think that those tools are not going to work to rein in ISIS or the Taliban or Boko Haram or end the multifaceted chaos in Syria or prevent a genocide in Burundi or persecution of Muslims in Myanmar or India. After all, they have not yet worked in those places.

Failure -- refusal -- to grasp that reality means that the questions of whether a particular act of aggression or mass atrocity crime calls for a just war of collective defense or humanitarian intervention simply never get asked.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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