Violence as a disease

I find the idea of warfare as an ineradicable feature of human existence faintly ridiculous. Or rather I find it extremely unconvincing, as an idea that’s done so much harm can hardly be described as ridiculous. This comes to mind because Tyler Cowen has praised Randall Collins’ new book on violence, which sounds very promising. It sounds closely related to John Mueller’s The Remnants of War, one of my all-time favorites.

Mueller’s view is that warfare, like enslavement, has mostly vanished thanks to a normative shift that’s spread throughout humanity. What’s left, the “remnants,” amounts to brigandage and other forms of petty opportunism. Left unchecked, this can lead to the breakdown of states and, in turn, chaos. So clearly this is a problem, but the problem is of a fundamentally different nature than, say, what we imagine when people invoke “The China Threat.” China is, in fact, more of a threat to itself than to us, and the real danger is a psychological danger: that the leaders of China or Iran or even France or America fail to understand the limits of what can realistically be accomplished through force of arms, which, in the world we live in, is not very much.

A similar logic applies to street crime. And just as the Pax Americana realists maintained that benevolent global hegemony would dampen security competition (why challenge the hegemon when you’re so far behind?), petty crime vanishes when a neighborhood is flooded with cops. This is part of the reason why Ross and I call for doubling the number of cops in the US.

Thinking about violence in “syndromic” terms is one of the great contributions of vital systems security, a framework championed by anthropologist Stephen Collier.

Now, there’s of course something creepy about this: analogies invoking the “healthful state” invoke a “gardening state,” that prunes and contains undesirable thoughtcrime. But I tend to think of this more as finding intelligent ways to disrupt destructive patterns, and thinking comprehensively about how to solve problems like crime and, yes, war.

If this sounds utopian or Kellogg-Briandish, consider, the differences between their time and our own. Start with the scale of the casualties in the First World War, or for that matter the Franco-Prussian War, and work your way back. Consider how different the gruesome, opportunistic killing that plagues the stateless world is from the kind of warfare Kellogg-Briand had in mind. Something has changed in about four-fifths of the world.

Of course, I’m no Barnettian believer in forcible “systems integration,” certainly not post-Iraq. Like John Robb, I tend to think statelessness is spreading like a cancer, which means the four-fifths could look more like the least-fortunate one-fifth in the future (i.e., in terms of pervasive insecurity). But I also think the opposite scenario is at least possible, and that it’s worth pursuing. If we can’t spread “stateness” through force, my guess is that we’ll need to start developing teethy multilateral policies on migration and food security. We’ll see.