IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Nuclear Peace

Francis Harry Hinsley (1918-1998) was a distinguished British historian who published, in 1963, one of the classics in the history of international thought, Power and the Pursuit of Peace: Theory and Practice in the History of Relations Between States (Cambridge University Press, 1963), of which more below. 

The following extract comes from an essay in 1982 on “The Rise and Fall of the Modern International System.” While it has been customary to date the emergence of “the modern international system” to 1494 (the year of the French intervention in Italy) or 1648 (the date of the Treaty of Westphalia), Hinsley proposes a different and later dating based on the transition from an age of constant but limited war (everything up to the end of the eighteenth century) to one marked, concomitantly with the growth in the destructiveness of war, by infrequent wars alternating with periods of long peace. This in turn provokes the reflection—notable at a moment in international history when nuclear fears were again sending people into the streets in massive numbers—that a new international system, based on the abstention from major war among nuclear armed states, had arisen since 1945: (1850 words)

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In the history of relations between the world's leading states since the end of the eighteenth century certain features stand out prominently. One is that infrequent wars have alternated with long periods of peace. From the 1760s to the 1790s these states were at peace; from the 1790s to 1815 they were at war; from 1815 to 1854, peace; 1871 to 1914, peace; 1914 to 1918, war; 1918 to 1939, peace; 1939 to 1945, war; and since 1945 another 36 years of peace already. Another feature, no less pronounced, is that each of these infrequent wars has been more demanding and devastating for all participants, more nearly total, than that which preceded it. In these respects, as also in a third on which I shall enlarge later on, international conduct in the past 200 years has differed from international conduct in all earlier times, when states were more or less continuously engaged in wars that remained limited in scale — and so much so that the rise of the modern system may safely be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century.

It is possible to exaggerate the distinctiveness of the modern system; and it is certainly true that its defining characteristics have become more prominent as it has aged. Thus, the years from 1854 to 1871 did not witness unremitting war between the leading states, but several separate wars, and from each of these wars to the next there was no escalation in the scale of fighting. But this qualification, like others that might be made, pales into insignificance when we contrast the modern pattern of conflict with conflict in earlier conditions. Before the end of the eighteenth century it had commonly been the case that war and peace had not been sharply differentiated — that public war and private war, inter-state war and civil war, civil war and rebellion, rebellion and crime had been barely distinguishable. At some times, in some places, on the other hand, war had become a specialized activity, organized by the state, undertaken after due preparation, engaging professional forces. Yet even when it was so organized, war had remained a natural activity, indulged in with great regularity, not to say seasonally. It had also remained limited in scale. That escalation in the destructiveness of war which has accompanied its almost every renewal since the end of the eighteenth century had not set in.

We generally recognize that warfare even now retains these characteristics in the extreme condition of relations between primitive societies which we call tribes — that for such societies as the Papuan, for example, it was till recently both central to the economy and akin to play, and took the form of a universal seasonal competition. What we do not always remember is that in conditions less extreme than these, far less removed from our own, conflict conformed to the norms of Primitive societies rather than to those of modern times until so comparatively recently as 200 years ago. During the whole of the seventeenth century there were only seven years in which none of the European states was at war. In the first two thirds of the eighteenth century some or other of the European states were still at war during two out of every three years, and of the individual states the United Kingdom, which was not abnormally belligerent, was at war during two and a half  years out of every five. As for the scale of warfare, its very frequency reveals how restricted it was, what lack of intensity marked its conduct, and there is no lack of detailed evidence to that effect. . . .

Until the eighteenth century war was an undertaking for which, like agriculture then or manufacturing now, large sections of society were naturally organized. It was also an activity on which, appearances notwithstanding, societies embarked with scant regard for the wishes or the warnings of their states. Indeed, communications remained so negligible, and state apparatuses so weak, that it may be questioned whether rulers did more than merely reflect and express the social consensus that pressed for war until men were tired or satisfied enough to press for peace. But if the impact of science and technology was producing societies that were more integrated and more capable of sustained and systematic warfare, it was also facilitating from the end of the eighteenth century the rise of regulatory government — indeed, it was necessitating it — and this at a time when the growing burden of being prepared for war and the risks involved in increasingly destructive war were forcing governments to apply their growing competence to the task of avoiding war.

The states of the modern international system failed in this task. If only at long intervals, peace between them continued to break down; and in the fact that each next war was more catastrophic than the last lay one reason why in the twentieth century the system itself became bankrupt and declined. . . .

Strategic studies became a major academic industry in the West in the early 1950s. Nor is this surprising; it was then that the nuclear weapons were superseding the atomic bomb, that the missile was superseding the bomber, that the submarine was emerging as the perfect moving missile platform — and that the West's monopoly of these advantages was shattered by developments in Soviet Russia. It is in no way suprising, either, that until the middle of the 1960s the object of the studies was, as all the literature proclaimed, to reintegrate strategy with policy — to restore to policy the flexibility and the range of options that the latest weapons were taking away from it. But the real, as opposed to the proclaimed objective of the literature was to discover whether nuclear states could evolve strategies and weapons by which they could preserve the options of threatening war with each other and of going to war with each other despite the fact that they had become nuclear states. Techniques of crisis management; theories for the control of escalation; strategies of flexible retaliation; the development of tactical or little nuclear weapons — these suggestions were all advanced in the hope that by enabling nuclear states to evade the logical outcome of nuclear deadlock, the strategy of 'the great deterrent', they would preserve for them the possibility of more limited war.

If we read these elaborations today we bring away from them one unmistakable impression. They possess all the cogency, all the intellectual rigour and all the irrelevance of the scholastic writings of the middle ages. And whence their irrelevance? The answer lies partly in the fact that they did not pause to ask whether disciplines accepted by one nuclear state would be accepted by another, or whether disciplines accepted by all nuclear states before the outbreak of hostilities would be observed by all after hostilities had broken out. But it lies mainly in the fact that since the mid-1960s, no doubt as a result of deeper reflection, the response of strategic thinkers had undergone a fundamental change.

Their message since then has been that should provocation lead to war between the world's most developed states — or should accident or miscalculation do so—there is no reasonable hope of avoiding massive nuclear exchanges and no possibility of providing civil defence against them; that if it is thus imperative to avoid war, then, far from trying to avoid dependence on the great deterrent of massive retaliation, it is imperative to ensure against provocation and miscalculation by seeing to it that all nuclear states shall be able to rely on deterring each other; and that they will be deterred by the risk of massive retaliation if all possess a retaliatory nuclear armoury that is invulnerable to a nuclear first attack. They have concluded — to put this message in other words — that whereas the chief purpose of military establishments has hitherto been to fight wars, from now on their chief purpose is to avert war, and that the advance of technology has at last made it possible for them to fulfil it.

You may grant the interest and the significance of these developments and yet remain apprehensive lest they prove to be reversible. The initiative which produced the establishment of the League of Nations was significant; but the League was ineffective and short-lived. It was already a feature of the modern international system before 1945 that its leading states contrived to enjoy long periods of peace; and the fear that the present period of peace between the leading states will break down in its turn is understandable at a time when the world economy is again in serious disarray, d├ętente is again under strain and some voices, however few, are again suggesting that nuclear war would not in the event be total and devastating. There is much force in these points; it would indeed be unwise to assume that the advances to which I have drawn attention cannot be reversed. But I derive some comfort from the belief that the conjunction of circumstances which proved fatal to the international system in 1914 and again in 1939 is unlikely to be repeated. The modern international system collapsed on those occasions because states continued to hold the view that they had the legal right to go to war. It also collapsed because states holding this view were confronted with massive shifts in their relative power which persuaded them in the last resort that war was a reasonable means of defending or advancing their interests. States hold this view no longer, and in the wake of the great acceleration of scientific and technological development that has taken place in the last forty years and that has ensured that even conventional war between developed states would produce insupportable damage, they are unlikely ever again to make this judgment. Indeed, they are unlikely, such of them as have been caught up in this acceleration, to be confronted ever again with shifts in their relative power that will disturb the equilibrium between them. That shifts of power will continue to take place — this goes without saying, as does the fact that interests will continue to conflict. But these states have passed so far beyond a threshold of absolute power that changes in relative power can no longer erode their ability to uphold the equilibrium which resides in the ability of each to destroy all.

Such are the grounds for suggesting that we are now witnessing the formation of an international system which will be even more different from the modern system than that system was from all its precursors, and which will be so because its leading states will abstain from war with each other. But since it will also be a system in which conflict and confrontation continue, between those states as between the others, let me conclude by reminding you that Immanuel Kant, he who first foresaw that precisely such a system would one day materialize, allowed that it would remain subject to constant danger from 'the law-evading bellicose propensities in man' but judged that, once constructed, it would survive for that very reason.

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F.H. Hinsley, The Rise and Fall of the Modern International System,” Review of International Studies 8 (1982): 1-8. This extract is about a third of the original essay, available online at the Martin Wight Memorial Trust.

The “equilibrium which resides in the ability of each to destroy all” was clearly disrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though Russia, as heir to the Soviet nuclear arsenal, continues to maintain a rough balance of power at the nuclear level, the distribution of forces has had a different political meaning since the evisceration of Russian power following the Soviet collapse. An important question to ask, however, is whether Hinsley’s self-described “Kantian” take on the nuclear stalemate continues to hold good. So long as the image held in the mind of the “nuclear armed states” consisted primarily of the Soviet Union and the United States, the logic of deterrence, and of the transcendence of major war, seemed virtually axiomatic to most observers, but anxieties over nuclear weapons continued to rise in the few years after Hinsley’s article appeared and, after a brief lull in the 1990s, rose again to war-provoking dimensions in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Hinsley's masterwork in the history of international thought, Power and the Pursuit of Peace, is not an easy book for students to read, but well worth the effort. Part I offers an examinations of central figures in the history of internationalism, including Henry IV, Penn, Saint-Pierre, Rousseau, and Kant. Then he turns from the philosophers to the diplomats, examining the history of the modern states’ system to the end of the nineteenth century. In Part III, he considers the course of international relations and international organizations in the twentieth century. Though Hinsley wrote two other well regarded works in the same vein—Sovereignty (1986) and Nationalism and the International System (1973)—his major scholarly effort was as editor and primary author of the multi-volume official history, British Intelligence in the Second World War.