Brad DeLong has a long, interesting post on the writings of Norman Angell, a British writer who thought that the terrible nature of modern war, as evidenced by the Great War, would result in permanent peace. The Great War is, of course, now popularly known as World War I because, alas, it had a much larger budget sequel.

John Mueller updated Angell’s thesis in the early 1990s with “The Obsolescence of Major War,” in which he noted that, like slavery, large scale war was simply beyond the pale in modern societies. So far, he, too has been proven incorrect.

We haven’t solved the fundamental problem of international relations: anarchy between states. While we have something termed “international law,” it exists only as an administrative code rather than an enforceable set of norms–especially as against major powers that find it in their interest to disobey. States have interests, the interests sometimes clash, and compromise is seen as unacceptable. Given the lack of a legitimate mediator, the military instrument of power comes to the forefront. So it has always been. We don’t seem particularly close to solving this problem and, indeed, may be further than we have been in a long time, as evidenced by the US-UK-EU-UN split on Iraq.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Matthew says:

    In the generic premise that war among major powers has gone out of fashion, I think the jury may still be out on Mueller’s primary thesis. That said, war between majors has been replaced with economic rivalries and normative contests. With regard to Mueller’s related premises, namely, that war has become an unacceptable discourse among nations and that it has become too economically costly an affair, you’re absolutely right — there’s more than a touch of the hopelessly naïve in Mueller’s writings.

    What I call the “you big dummies, can’t you see the costs?” approach to critiquing war always seems to ignore the normative dimensions of conflict. For example, the war on terror, like so many wars throughout history, cannot be expressed in terms of national balance sheets or arms races, but rather, can only be understood on the basis of mutually exclusive ideas – open society democratic capitalism vs. closed society Islam — competing for their share of the human imagination.