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War: What Is It Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris, Profile RRP£25/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$30, 495 pages
War and Gold: A Five-Hundred-Year History of Empires, Adventures and Debt, by Kwasi Kwarteng, Bloomsbury RRP£25/PublicAffairs RRP$28.99, 432 pages
Our world has been shaped for better or worse by war. The arrangement of the modern state system, including its borders, ethnic composition and political structures, along with the international institutions that stand above it, can all be traced to conflicts of one sort or another. The anthropologist Margaret Mead once deplored war as a malign invention; her case, unfortunately, rested too heavily on an embarrassing misreading of a prelapsarian Samoa, whose natural state she found to be peace and harmony though, in practice, it was anything but.
It was peace that had to be invented. The regular and routine violence of early times, which accounted for 10-20 per cent of total deaths, required the imposition of order. Rescue came in the form of strong states. As they grew in size and stability, civilisations flourished and economies developed. Strong states did not come into being as a result of some mythical social contract but were forged in war and sustained, where necessary, by violence. Nonetheless, the net effect was positive. Prosperity rose steadily while the quantum of violence went down dramatically.
This is the case made by Ian Morris, professor of Classics at Stanford University, who has developed a taste for combining controversial arguments with an ambitious historical narrative. In War: What is it Good For? he acknowledges his debt to military historian Azar Gat and psychologist Steven Pinker, who have both charted the same phenomenon, and to the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who reacted to the English civil war by promoting the benefits of a strong, unified Leviathan.
Thus war is above all good for producing order out of chaos. When the effects are in reverse, and chaos comes out of order, Morris considers this to be “unproductive” and not such a good war. Unsurprisingly, he is on the side of the Romans and has little sympathy for the barbarians who resisted them.
Once he moves to the age of empires, the test becomes one of economic growth in addition to political order, and on this basis the Europeans score brilliantly as they draw new territories into the global economy and create conditions for global trade. Out of all of this Britain emerges as a “globocop”, helping to keep international affairs calm while setting the pace in the development of manufacturing and commerce. Unfortunately, as others catch up the rivalries become overwhelming until, out of the bloodletting of two world wars, yet another, relatively benign, globocop emerges in the form of the US. In the reaction to America’s rise, the question is not only whether it is about to be displaced, with China as the obvious contender, but also whether forms of warfare are developing that undermine the globocop’s position and challenge strong states more generally.
Morris has a lively writing style and enjoys provoking his readers. He knows a lot about the ancient world, so the earlier chapters are the best, makes good points about the importance of geography as much as technology when explaining success in war, and has some intriguing, if not wholly convincing, ideas about what the future may hold. His big idea, however, struggles with the evidence as the narrative rolls on. While Morris does not deny the horrors of war, in his account it appears not as the product of disputes over values or territory, influenced by calculating strategies and furious passions, but almost as an independent agent playing a functional role in system stability.
Hence his regular references to the “paradoxical” nature of war when he is doing no more than observing how complex events often have confusing and contradictory consequences. It is not paradoxical that “for every productive war that produced bigger, safer, and richer societies, a counter-productive war broke them down again”. Empires and strong states are often oppressive, especially if they lack legitimacy and rely largely on brute force, so it is unsurprising to find subjugated people fighting back. Order is not the only political value, which is why the term “globocop” is as inaccurate as it is grating.
Wars of any length and intensity turn out to be bad for sound finance. This provides the focus for Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng’s latest book, War and Gold. This is a complicated story well told, from which financial lessons emerge naturally without Kwarteng finding it necessary to bludgeon the reader with his message. The title leads one to expect a book about the lure of enrichment as a cause of war. It does start that way, with the Conquistadores becoming greedy for the gold and silver they found in the New World. The Spanish did not use their plunder for productive investments but, instead, spent it on more ships and foreign adventures. By flooding the market with gold and silver, they reduced its value and soon the kingdom was in debt.
The financial stability that could come by linking the value of money to a fixed amount of gold was lost in the late 18th century as European governments turned to paper money to finance their wars, leading to huge debts. Once the Napoleonic wars were over, the British government returned to the gold standard. In Kwarteng’s account the genius of Victorian Britain was not about playing “globocop” but carefully managing the nation’s finances with balanced budgets. From 1818, three years after the Napoleonic wars, to 1914 and the start of the first world war, Britain’s nominal national debt fell from £843m to just under £706m. By 1921, with the war over, these debts had soared to £7.8bn. Britain’s position was then less dire than Germany’s because of its far superior tax-raising powers. Germany largely paid for the war by printing money, so that the 2bn marks in circulation before the war had gone up to almost 50bn by its close. Ruinous inflation was the inevitable consequence.
While the Europeans tore themselves apart, the US prospered and the dollar took over from the pound as the most powerful currency. Despite the presence of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, American ideas dominated the construction of the postwar financial system at Bretton Woods in 1944. The system imposed discipline with gold still at its core. By the 1970s, the effects of Vietnam and the Great Society programmes meant that the US was facing a balance of payments crisis. The link with gold had become untenable and, in August 1971, President Richard Nixon unilaterally abandoned gold convertibility and also imposed tariffs on imported goods. The years thereafter saw an explosion of credit and, therefore, of debt. Kwarteng urges balanced budgets. He accepts that there will be no return to the gold standard, although one senses that he wishes it could be so.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King’s College London. His most recent book is ‘Strategy: A History’ (OUP)