Wars: how to start and stop one

Strategic Coercion - Why Wars Happen
August 14, 1998

Is war as a way of settling disputes in decline, or has it been repackaged as `strategic coercion'?

It has taken the new Labour government more than a year to analyse its defence needs, and to decide that more than Pounds 22 billion a year is still needed for military purposes. Many feared (or hoped) that public expenditure on defence would be transferred by the new administration to education, health or other domestic needs. Why do we still need the capacity to fight wars, now that the dangers of the cold war are over? Is mankind naturally predisposed to settling problems by state-authorised violence? Is military power a necessary part of diplomacy? These two books give some insights.

Jeremy Black takes a historian's approach to the question of why wars happen. It is a long perspective, looking back to the 15th century as his starting point, and as such may at times seem to have little relevance to the strategist of the late 20th century. He seeks to establish whether wars primarily reflect bellicosity in society and states, or whether they are accidental and should be blamed on poor diplomacy. As if generalisation at this level were not difficult enough, he also seeks a picture that covers the whole world, and not just Europeanised nations.

The canvas is enormous both in space and time, and the task is further complicated by the difficulty of defining what is meant by war. Fighting can range from local tribal disputes to the carnage of the Somme or the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Much of the lower-level conflicts in distant parts go unrecorded even today. The author draws on his encyclopaedic knowledge of wars of the past 500 years, but at times the sheer number of examples leaves the reader unsure of the common lessons to be drawn. He seeks to use diplomatic archives as a primary source for his analysis, claiming that diplomats are reflective and understand the source, use and purpose of power. Less helpfully, they may write from a very particular viewpoint.

The period of 200 years from 1450 ("An age of expansion") was a rough time to be an ordinary citizen. Force was an accepted method of dispute settlement. States became defined by wars, but no generally applicable rationale for war emerges from Black's review of conflicts. The period from 1650 to 1775, which he subtitles "An age of limited war?", is no clearer. Examples range from attacks on tax gatherers to the European fighting at sea and on land. Some were wars of opportunity, some of fear and some of conquest. Rebellions could be far more bloody than declared wars. 85,000 Hungarians were killed in the Rakoczi rising.

Wars of revolution and nationalism characterise the period from 1775 to the start of the first world war. The American war of independence, the French revolutionary wars, the American civil war and Napoleon's campaigns were all motivated by different factors. As Black notes, these are wars that have much more in common with modern conflicts. However, he believes that "the bellicist (sic) culture of the period ensured a greater willingness to kill and be killed than in western society in the 1990s". There could be other reasons for a willingness to accept casualties, and it is not clear that the soldier of the 1990s is any more fearful than his great-grandfather was. The wars of imperialism that overlap this period had yet other causes.

"Total war" arrives in 1914, and for the purposes of this book extends to 1945. This is a somewhat arbitrary period. In earlier days, the American civil war used industrial capacity to support the war effort, and any war after 1945 had the potential for even greater destruction than those that had gone before. The causes of both world wars have been analysed extensively, and Black covers familiar ground. He reflects on the question of whether democracies are less prone to start wars than dictatorships, and concludes there is little evidence to support this view. Indeed, he might have concluded that democracies are more likely to start wars; but only against non-democratic states.

The Cold War chapter covers not just the superpower confrontation, but also the problems of decolonisation. This is a period which generated a massive industry in the arcane field of nuclear strategy, and its application in the prevention of war. Yet the role of atomic weapons in this period is hardly mentioned by the author, who puts no entry against "nuclear" in his index. This is particularly strange as the book has promised to reveal how far the causes of war are related to changes in the nature of warfare. The final period examined is from 1990 to the present day, and this is a rather less academic review of the flash points of today. Black suggests that we may be experiencing a decline in bellicosity in the West. The evidence of this is hardly conclusive after the experiences of the Falklands, the Gulf, and operations in the former Yugoslavia.

A book which covers such a long period of the history of conflict over the whole globe is bound to be restricted to brief analyses of each campaign. The reader is asked to conclude that wars happen because of cultural contexts. That bellicose nations and bellicose leaders initiate wars is scarcely a surprise. However, for the modern strategist, the requirement is to find how to prevent wars.

Nuclear deterrence was important in preventing a superpower war, but we still need effective mechanisms for preventing conflict below the level of world war. Coercion offers one approach, and Lawrence Freedman has assembled an impressive collection of views on concepts and cases of strategic coercion. The essence of strategic coercion is to persuade the target to change his behaviour to the desired mode through a threat of punishment for failing to comply with the demand. Deterrence seeks only to prevent a hostile act by an enemy; coercion seeks to change the situation. Coercion is not just an instrument of the state. It can be, and is, used by sub-state actors as well as multilateral organisations.

This year we have seen the United States, with the support of some allies, deploy a naval force to the Gulf in order to coerce Saddam Hussein into accepting the United Nations inspection teams. Although many had severe doubts about the outcome if an air attack had to be launched against Iraq, the strategy of coercive deployment of military force had the desired diplomatic outcome. Again, Nato has attempted to modify the behaviour of the Serbs in Kosovo by the deployment of allied air power. In this case the effect has been less clear-cut, but seems to have accelerated the diplomatic process. There is no lack of opportunities for applying coercion around the world, and Freedman has timed his book well. As he notes, the cold war literature was dominated by the special case of deterrence theory, in which states were coerced into not doing anything hostile to one another. The use of threats to pressure others into doing things that they did not wish to received less attention.

The dozen contributors range broadly. The Balkans, as a target for coercion by great powers in the last century and in 1914, are covered in one chapter. Later in the book, the use of coercion in recent days in the region is examined. The break-up of Yugoslavia is rich in examples of coercive behaviour by both internal and external parties. Asia is also a source of many contemporary case studies. The interaction between India and Pakistan is well covered, and has a topical relevance given their recent nuclear tests. Latin America has been the target for a number of strategic coercion measures by the United States in recent times. Three cases are outlined: Haiti, Cuba and Brazil. While the first two events will be well known to the security specialist, the use of coercive diplomacy for economic bargaining over intellectual property rights in Brazil reminds us that not all cases will be security related. Indeed there seems to be a trend for the US to use its powers for coercion in the economic field more and more.

The role of coercion in dealing with terrorism and drug traffickers is addressed briefly and inconclusively. We are asked to take comfort in the fact that both are easier to deal with if state sponsored. Coercion and non-state actors are covered in an interesting chapter on the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Lebanon from 1969 to 1976. Oil is a key economic issue for Russia, and another section examines recent Russian actions towards its neighbours in the new oil regions. Control of pipeline routes becomes a powerful coercive weapon.

Africa remains an area of great concern to the international community. The methods of resolving recent conflicts and crises in Liberia, Somalia and the Great Lakes are reviewed. Here the solutions are less easy to find. The difficulties are well illustrated by the attempts of the international community to influence events in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire over the past seven years. Clement Adibe concludes that the intervention in Africa by the international community has probably made things worse. He advocates the use of preventive diplomacy in preference to strategic coercion.

In an age where human rights abuses are graphically shown in every home as they happen around the world, the clamour for the international community to do something is ever present. The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and many other states, continue to maintain significant military forces despite there being no direct threats to their territories. The deployment of these forces offers one way for governments to be seen to be doing something about the world's problems. Strategic coercion can only work if the implicit threat of the ultimate use of force is real. This means that from time to time fighting will happen because coercion has failed.

The policy framework for Britain's defence strategy was published as part of the government's strategic defence review in early July. "The new challenges we face will call for the combined application of all the tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, trade, developmental, as well as the Armed Forces. In the changed world there is a new and growing role for preventive diplomacy which brings all these tools to bear to avert conflict before military intervention is required." Both of these books reinforce that message from the defence white paper.

Strategic coercion can lead to military involvement that fails to solve the underlying problems. Yet armed forces provide an easy answer for politicians who wish to be seen as doing something. Economic aid, diplomacy, training and working through non-governmental organisations may produce better results in many troubled areas at lower cost. Military forces will be needed for the intractable cases where national interests are at risk, or where all forms of preventive diplomacy have failed and instability is likely to spread. While both volumes will be of interest to the strategic specialist, the case studies in Freedman's excellent collection should be required reading in the corridors of power of the United Nations, Nato and those nations who claim a special responsibility for peace in the wider world.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a former director, Royal Institute of International Affairs, and former commandant, Royal College of Defence Studies.

Strategic Coercion

Editor - Lawrence Freedman
ISBN - 0 19 829349 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48.00
Pages - 400

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments