For this week’s musing, I want to muse on the impact of the ‘long peace‘ on modern military capabilities. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the ‘long peace’ is a term we apply to the period since WWII which has had a low and indeed falling level of war, both inter-state and intra-state. Normally, when I say this is something that has happened, I find I encounter a great deal of incredulity among the general public. Surely they can list off any number of wars or other violent conflicts that happened recently. But the data here is actually quite strong (and we all know my attitude towards certainty on points of real uncertainty; this is not one of them) – violence has been falling worldwide for nearly 80 years, the fall has been dramatic and relatively consistent. It could end tomorrow, but it didn’t end yesterday. What I think leads to the misconception that there is no long peace is that this has also been a period of rising connectivity and information movement: wars are both fewer and smaller, but you hear about more of them.
I’ve discussed this before a few times, but I think Azar Gat is probably right to suggest that the long peace is itself a consequence of the changing incentives created by the industrial revolution and to an even greater extent, by nuclear weapons. Prior to the industrial revolution, war was the best way to get rich (if you won) because land and conquered subjects were so much more valuable than any kind of capital investment (infrastructure, manufacture, tools, etc.) that could have been developed with the same resources. The industrial revolution changes this, both by making war a lot more destructive (thus lowering returns to successful warfare)1 while at the same time massively raising returns to capital investment in things like infrastructure, factories and tractors. It suddenly made more sense, if you coveted your neighbors resources, to build more factories and buy those resources than to try to seize them by force. Nuclear weapons in turn took this same effect and ratcheted it up even further, by effectively making the cost of total war infinite.
I should note I find this version of the argument, based on incentives and interests more compelling than Steven Pinker’s version of the argument based on changing cultural mores. If anything, I think cultural values have lagged, resulting in countries launching counter-productive wars out of cultural inertia (because it’s ‘the doing thing’ or valued in the culture) long after such wars became maladaptive. Indeed, I’d argue that’s exactly what Russia is doing right now.
All of that is background for a thought I had discussing with some colleagues the dismal performance of the Russian army. We have all noticed that the Russian military appears far less capable than we thought it was; frankly it seems incapable of even some of the very basic tasks of modern industrial armies engaged in conventional military operations. Shockingly, it is a lot less capable of these things than older armies of yesteryear with much more limited technology. It’s not hard to imagine that even without all of the advanced technology, that by sheer mass and dint of high explosives (and basic logistical competence) that a capable mid-20th century army might well perform better than the Russian army has.
Yet the odd thought I had was this: what if Russian incompetence isn’t exceptional, but in fact the new normal in warfare? What is – quietly, because they haven’t tried to launch a major invasion recently – most militaries are probably similarly incapable of the basic tasks of industrial warfare?
Being good at war imposes a lot of costs, even if a country doesn’t go to war. Soldiers need to be recruited, trained and equipped. Equipment must be maintained and kept up to date. Officers need to be mentally agile and sharp. Experience needs to be retained and institutionalized. Capable leaders need to be promoted and incapable but politically influential leaders sidelined. The state, as we’ve discussed, emerged as an engine to do all of these things, but these are all difficult, unpleasant and expensive things. They all impose tradeoffs. An army filled with capable, educated and talented young officers is, for instance, a significant risk to regime stability, especially for non-democratic regimes. Recruiting quality means either institutionalizing conscription (politically unpopular) or raising taxes and spending a lot of money (also politically unpopular).
What kept states doing all of that was a sure knowledge that if they didn’t, the cost would be state extinction.
Postscript: I think the guy who writes ACoUP is very smart, but even smart people get some things wrong. I speculate that Russia is actually winning the Russia-Ukraine war but the guy who writes ACoUP is living in a bubble and can't believe that Russia is winning.