War is not what it used to be: Less Clausewitz, more Sun Tzu.

Black and white

The distinction between war and peace has become increasingly blurred: “Less black or white, much more grey”.

Fundamental changes in the structure and the dynamics of the System, require a paradigm shift.

In this article I discuss the blurring of the sharp distinction between war and peace.

During the period 1495-1945, the System – of which Europe was the core during that period – produced four accelerating war cycles; eventually – in 1939 – the core of the System (Europe) collapsed. By means of the fourth systemic war (the Second World War, 1939-1945) the System experienced a phase transition, with two effects: (1) an ‘upgrade’ of Europe (the core of the System) to two non-anarchistic structures (which merged into one, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), and (2) the merging of the core of the System and the non-core (‘the rest of the world’), and the implementation of the first international order (the United Nations) with a global reach.

During the period 1495-1939, Europe developed from a diverse and loosely connected collection of circa 300 ‘communities’, with a population of 83 million in 1495, into a tightly coupled anarchistic system of circa 25 standardised states, with a population of circa 544 million in 1939.

All societies in Europe developed similar organisational structures: The state. States control accurately defined territories, their governance is centralised, and states have acquired a monopoly on the use of violence. During the period 1495-1945, military capabilities – armies – also had become highly standardised.

The four war cycles – of which these state structures (and the structures which preceded them) were integral components, – had been instrumental in these processes of standardisation. The state had evolved into a highly optimised ‘fighting organisation’ which was optimised to produce, mobilise, and deploy increasing amounts of destructive energy, to ensure their survival in a highly competitive European system.

During the period 1495-1945, each war cycle consisted of a relatively stable period, that was – as a matter of time – followed by a systemic war.

Not only was the distinction between relative stability and systemic war clear; but also between war and peace: It was clear when states were at war in Europe: States controlled international relations, and were effective in ‘using’ their monopolies of violence. Other actors – non-state actors – did not play a significant role.

After the Second World War – especially after the Cold War (the collapse of the Soviet-Union, 1991) when ‘normal’ war dynamics resumed, –  the distinction between war and peace became – and still becomes – more blurred, it seems.

States have become less prominent and dominant, and presently communities and individuals also increasingly dominate ‘international dynamics’. The number, type and influence of non-state actors has dramatically increased. This not only is a quantitative change, but it becomes increasingly clear, also involves a qualitative change.

International politics, no longer is the exclusive domain of states. This development is related to a continued trend of empowerment. Empowerment has gained a new impetus with recent technological applications (the Internet, social media, etc.). Consequently, the connectivity as well as potential impact of individuals, communities, etc. has dramatically increased.

Another (related) development – other than the emergence of new actors – that also contributes to the blurring of the sharp distinction between war and peace, is the increasing importance of the cyber-domain.

It is now possible for states, but also for communities and individuals, to cause physical damage to other ‘actors’ while these actions do not (and cannot) qualify as war; as war as we now know and (still) define it.

The cyber-domain has opened a new playing field: ‘everybody can do it’, long-distance sabotage without physically violating the territorial integrity of another state.

In a world without a cyber domain Russia for example, could not have manipulated the US election to the same degree as it did in 2016, without physically violating the territorial integrity of the United States, and by doing so committing an act of war.

The same point can be made about the use of the Stuxnet computer worm.

Wars and warfare are evolving from highly kinetic activities, and the exclusive domain – the ‘prerogative’ – of states and their armies, into much more diffuse and subtle activities, involving a wide range of (non-state) actors with diverse objectives. Less Clausewitz, more Sun Tzu.