War is a recurrent phenomenon in the international System. Wars cause extensive destruction and suffering, and can potentially lead to collective self-destruction of humankind.
Despite numerous efforts, the identification of patterns in war dynamics has so far remained elusive. Our understanding of war dynamics and their impact on the development of the System still is very limited.
The study ‘2020: WARning’ shows that insights in the workings of complex systems and networks contribute to a better understanding of war, and its dynamics. Patterns and at least several underlying mechanisms can now be identified. The study shows that historical research methods require fundamental change.
In this article, I address the question why the cycles I discuss in the study ‘2020: WARning’ were not identified at an earlier stage.
Shortcomings in basic concepts.
Several reasons – related to the basic concepts and research methods of historians – explain why the patterns discussed in the study ‘2020: WARning’ were not identified:
(1) Too short horizon. Historians normally use relatively short time spans to study events and processes. A longer-term perspective is required to be able to identify patterns. Wars are ‘tension releases’ and are inherent to anarchistic Systems.
(2) Wrong ‘start points’. Historians typically study historic events from the ‘inside out’. ‘Start points’ typically are specific events, and the longer-term context is mostly ignored. This study shows that the context – the longer-term – is crucial to be able to make sense of events, including wars. The study ‘2020: WARning’, for example shows that the stage of development of the life-cycle at the moment of the war, to a high degree determines and shapes certain properties of wars and of war dynamics.
(3) Wrong unit of analysis. War data has been studied and analysed extensively by historians and social scientists. Typically, historians use periods of hundred years and centuries as units of analysis, in their efforts to identify patterns in war dynamics. This study shows that cycles – that accompanied the finite-time singularity dynamic – should be used as units of analysis, to be able to identify patterns and make sense of these dynamics. ‘Natural’ cycles, and not ‘man-made’ centuries are the only sensible units of analysis.
(4) Ignorance of the fundamental difference between systemic and non-systemic wars. The study ‘2020: WARning’ shows the fundamental distinction between systemic and non-systemic wars. Systemic wars are not ‘just’ larger scaled-up versions of non-systemic wars; systemic wars fulfil a very different function, and have fundamentally different properties.
Because historians did not use the cycles as unit of analysis, and did not make a fundamental difference between systemic and non-systemic wars, systemic wars were considered ‘accidents’ or anomalies; consequently, it was not possible to understand the war dynamics of the System. Historians for example determined that on the longer term, the frequency of wars decreased. This observation is correct even when systemic wars are included in these calculations and suggest that this trend points to a decrease in war activity in the System.
However, this is not a full and correct analysis: Although, the number and frequency of non-systemic wars decreased, at the same time, the frequency of systemic wars increased, as well as their severities: The System became more robust, but also increasingly instable at the same time.
When the severities of successive cycles are related to the size of the population in Europe, analysis shows that the severities of successive cycles is more or less constant, circa 2.4 percent of the European population. However, the same number of casualties during successive cycles, was produced in increasingly shorter periods, because of the shortening of the lifespans of successive cycles. A cycle perspective provides us with a completely different insight in the war dynamics of the System. The conclusion of historians is in other words correct.
(5) Unawareness of abnormal war dynamics during the period 1657-1763. Abnormal non-systemic war dynamics during the second relatively stable period (1657-1763) were not recognised as such, and for that reason they put historians on the wrong foot. Contrary to the (by definition) large size of systemic wars, the large-size of a series of non-systemic wars during the period 1657-1763, indeed were ‘just’ large scale non-systemic wars the System could produce through a lack of a third (constraining) degree of freedom. The lack of a third degree of freedom was a consequence of the intense rivalry between Britain and France during that particular period.
(6) Unawareness of the – at least partially – deterministic nature of the dynamics and the development of the System. Until now, historians and social scientists were not aware of the deterministic nature of the war dynamics of the System, and the shaping effects this had, not only on the wars themselves, but also on the development of the System. Until now, historical research was based on a biased concept.
Historians, in their efforts to make sense of historical events and processes in some cases ‘constructed’ causalities that in fact not existed, or they assumed that certain events were just coincidences or abnormalities.
Discussions amongst historians about the relationship between the First and Second World Wars (respectively the third (1914-1918) and fourth (1939-1945) systemic wars), are a case in point: In what I call the deterministic domain (see also point 11) of the System, the wars make up the third and fourth systemic wars respectively, that mark the final stage of the third (1815-1918) and fourth (1918-1945) cycles, two of the components of the finite-time singularity dynamic the System produced during the period 1495-1945. Both wars do not constitute one war, as some historians suggest, but are two distinct critical periods; the war data analysis shows this clearly.
However, because of their proximity in time, events and social processes that are related to these two systemic wars (in the contingent domain) of the System are much more intertwined, than was for example was the case for events and social processes that were involved in the second systemic war (the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815), and the third systemic war (the First World War). Increasing interrelationship between events and social processes in the contingent domain, does not make the First and Second World Wars – the third and fourth systemic wars – into one critical period, in the deterministic domain of the System. Although the fourth international order (1918-1939) was highly dysfunctional, it is an integral part of the fourth and final cycle the finite-time singularity produced.
The study ‘2020: WARning’ also shows and can explain that the First World War (the third systemic war, 1914-1918) was not an ‘accident’, that could have been prevented as certain historians suggest. The third systemic war – as well as the other three – were produced by the self-organised finite-time singularity dynamic the System started producing at its inception in 1495, and that was accompanied by four accelerating cycles. The First World War, as we experienced and know it, was a contingent version of the third systemic war.
Basic concepts and research methods need fundamental change.
Above mentioned reasons prevented the identification of cycles, and of the properties of war dynamics, the System produced, and till I producing.
It is also important to observe, that new insights in the workings of complex systems and networks, now can contribute to the development of an alternative framework for analysis. The study ‘2020: WARning’ is a contribution to these efforts.
It is time for a fundamental change in the basic concepts and practices of historians and international relations scientists: The study ‘2020: WARning’ also shows that the System again is approaching a critical period.