Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 1  /  

How Sanguine Can We Be about Great-Power War?

How Sanguine Can We Be about Great-Power War? How Sanguine Can We Be about Great-Power War?
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antullio J. II, “How Sanguine Can We Be about Great Power War?,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, winter 2018, pages 12-16.

In the years following the Cold War, it became increasingly common to hear claims that the days of interstate wars, of wars among nation-states, were ending. Policymakers, political scientists, and defense analysts were happy to go on record claiming as much. The Gulf War of 1990-1991, a largely conventional conflict that pitted a coalition of nation-states against a despotic Iraqi regime, was regarded by many as the last of its kind. Henceforth, whatever wars might occur were anticipated to be within states rather than among them and, therefore, irregular and small, at least by twentieth-century standards. Even these types of conflicts, however, were expected to become less frequent once decolonization ran its course. The very incidence of armed conflicts overall was thought to be declining. So, too, was the number of deaths caused by war. Indeed, almost every trend related to armed conflict was claimed to be inclining downward, leading some scholars to conclude that war of every kind, but especially armed conflict among great powers, was on the wane.

To be sure, this conclusion is an attractive one. Who would not want major wars to disappear? Or to believe nations have learned to settle their differences through diplomatic means rather than force, especially with the world emerging from the bloodiest century it has ever seen? But, just how reliable are the arguments that war is, in fact, fading away?

The question is of some immediacy because in recent years the aggressive behavior of several states has triggered concern that a large-scale, interstate conflict might occur once again. Russia, for instance, annexed Crimea in early 2014, in a move some called the “most consequential” of Vladimir Putin’s seemingly interminable tenure; soon thereafter Putin brought most of the Donbas under his control through the combined use of irregular forces and modern military hardware.[i] NATO has responded by moving its troops into a better deterrence posture, but the situation remains unsettled. In the Pacific region, many Southeast Asian countries have complained about Beijing’s construction of artificial reefs and islets in the South China Sea, and its establishment of military-grade airstrips on several of them.[ii] Even though China lost its bid to lay legal claim to the Spratly Islands, military construction on the reefs in and around the islands has continued.[iii] To these developments, one must add North Korea’s escalating missile tests, which have caused concern for the United States and its allies in the region, as well as China.[iv] Conceivably, any one of these situations could lead to a violent clash that results in further escalation. It would seem prudent, therefore, to prepare for such a war, if for no other reason than to improve the odds of deterring it.

I. Is War on the Wane?

Yet, if the argument is valid that such wars are fading, then the fear of escalation is itself overblown. Hence, preparing for such wars would be a misuse of precious defense dollars, and would detract from creating the capabilities needed to fight the smallish irregular conflicts that have historically outnumbered major wars in any case. After all, many crises have occurred since the onset of the Cold War—the Berlin blockade, the Korean conflict, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the series of conflicts in the Middle East, and the clashes between India and Pakistan, and China and Vietnam—and none has escalated to the level of a general war among the great powers. Accordingly, the logic of taking prudent steps to prepare for such a conflict runs up against the contrary logic of fiscal sense, and it loses.

It is important, therefore, to determine just how sound this contrary logic is. Unfortunately, much of the research on the topic of war’s disappearance implicitly equates major wars to the “total” wars of the twentieth century. Consequently, rather than explaining why a great-power war will not occur, the research tells us why a world war will not happen. Obviously, a great-power conflict need not approach the global breadth and devastation that characterized the Second World War. It could instead remain limited in aim and scope and play out through proxies.

Furthermore, much of the research on this topic defines war arbitrarily, rather than inductively—which means its conclusions are valid only within the confines of that definition and are not truly generalizable. For instance, an armed conflict is a war if military operations cause 1,000 or more deaths; if a conflict results in 999 deaths or fewer, it is not a war, and thus does not count when one is showing a decline in the incidence of wars. It might be important to know whether wars are really disappearing, or whether they are actually multiplying but causing fewer deaths per occurrence. Databases are growing and improving, but still lack historical breadth and depth. They cannot compare periods for which no data exist, or are incomplete. While some scholars have pointed out the risks of arbitrary definitions and incomplete data, the general practice has not changed.[v]

Even more egregious though, is that most of the research on the waning of major war assumes its occurrence is cyclical or linear, rather than episodic. Thus, downward trend-lines are interpreted as indicative, even predictive. Yet, the shortcomings of this kind of trends-based analysis have been well known to futurologists for decades. Even a superficial survey of history, shows major wars occur perhaps only once or twice per century, and are therefore episodic in nature. Lines and cycles imply something is more or less predictable. Episodic events, by contrast, are not. Their causes may be known but the conditions that bring them about do not submit to regular patterns. Practically every military theorist since Clausewitz has understood this.

II. Explaining the Absence of Major War

Leaving aside the problems of definition, data, and analysis, the claim that war is disappearing is buoyed by the fact that no all-out or general war has occurred since the Second World War. Multiple theories have been advanced to explain why, and these can be grouped into six general categories.[vi] It is useful to consider each in turn.

Weapons of Mass Destruction. The first of these is that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, has deterred major wars by pushing the potential costs of conflict beyond acceptable thresholds. States have recognized the risk, and have worked to keep wars limited by explicitly and tacitly agreeing not to use weapons of mass destruction. Many states have signed treaties banning the use of biological and chemical weapons, and have participated in nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament programs.[vii] Yet, most great powers still possess enough weapons of mass destruction to make all-out war just as unthinkable as it was in the 1960s, when only analysts the likes of Herman Kahn dared to ponder it.[viii]

Ironically, the flaw in this theory is that the very element that makes the use of weapons of mass destruction unthinkable also compromises their deterrent value. Just as Western strategists discovered in the 1950s with the US doctrine of “massive retaliation,” weapons of mass destruction raise too many proportionality and first-use issues to make them a credible deterrent in the hands of any liberal democracy. Mao Zedong had it nearly right when in 1946 he declared nuclear weapons to be a “paper tiger.”[ix] The tiger, as it turned out, was not actually made of paper, but it was chained.

Peking (now Beijing) and Moscow responded to the nuclear challenge by manufacturing enough weapons of mass destruction to serve as a deterrent to Western “aggression,” while putting more emphasis on an alternative strategy to tie down the West by instigating revolutionary wars, or wars of national liberation, throughout the developing world. This approach had the advantage of leveraging the process of decolonization already underway, which also afforded ample grievances for revolutionary movements to leverage.[x] Although fought in the age of limited war, these were often all-out conflicts (excluding weapons of mass destruction) for the counter-revolutionary parties; the governments in Seoul and Saigon, for instance, were fighting for their political lives. Fortunately, these wars were geographically containable for the most part; hence, they did not pose a threat serious enough to warrant escalation to nuclear weapons. It is also possible that, in their efforts to avoid resorting to nuclear weapons, states might find themselves engaged in a prolonged conventional conflict.[xi]

Democratic Peace Theory. The second explanation is that the spread of democracy has had a limiting influence on war. Democracies, so democratic peace theory says, do not go to war with one another.[xii] Therefore, the greater the number of democracies, the lower the incidence of war.

Unfortunately, not all democracies are equal. Many governments look the part, but have neither enfranchised their populations fully, nor created institutions that would protect the rights of their citizens. Also, nascent democracies are often fragile. The republics that emerged in Germany, Spain, and Italy after the First World War were weak and unstable, and soon succumbed to fascist movements. It hardly needs mentioning that the transition to democracy, or the reversal of that transition, can lead to civil wars that can spread violence to neighboring areas.

Furthermore, recent research suggests the tide of new democracies reached a high-water mark in 2013, and has been receding ever since. According to a report by the research institute Freedom House, every freedom indicator—expression and belief, rule of law, association and assembly, personal and individual rights, functioning of government, electoral process, pluralism and participation—has declined over the past ten years.[xiii] In addition, of the nine countries that could claim great-power status today—China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—three are not democracies by any measure.

A great power in the current strategic environment is simply any state with substantial military capabilities and the ability to lead, or decisively influence, an alliance or a coalition of states, non-state entities, or a combination of them. It is worth keeping in mind, moreover, that a party does not have to be a great power to initiate a great-power war. North Korea is not a great power, though it appears to want to be treated as such. Its actual status notwithstanding, it could start an armed conflict of mammoth proportions that could easily draw several great powers into it. A great-power war, thus, need not be started by a great power. Democratic peace theory, in other words, will more than likely not be the reason a great-power war does not occur.

Multilateral Institutions. The third argument is that the growth of multilateral institutions has reduced the number and scale of wars. Multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, and the European Union are said to have helped create “new normative standards, communication channels, and institutional practices” that have redirected the behavior of states along less belligerent lines. They have accomplished this redirection by offering better avenues for dialogue and by establishing cooperative programs that provide opportunities for resolving differences peacefully.[xiv] The deterrent value of military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is considered but a small factor in the prevention of war compared to the opportunities such alliances provide for cooperation and integration.

The chief flaw in this explanation parallels the problem with democratic peace theory, namely, inclusion. Not all the great powers participate in the same the multilateral institutions. Russia does not participate in NATO, and perceives it to be a threat, for instance. Defensive alliances, such as NATO, in other words, can either deter aggressive behavior, or provoke it. While all great powers participate in the United Nations, some of them have not taken advantage of its opportunities for cooperation, and instead seek to impede them. Therefore, multilateral institutions do not have the power to modify state behavior enough to prevent war.

Economic Integration. The fourth theory is that increasing economic integration has dissuaded governments from using war to settle their grievances. The presumption is that the economic disruption that comes with war would make any political objective more fiscally expensive than it is worth, while also increasing the potential of a global economic crisis. This argument was advanced more than a century ago by the Polish financier Ivan Bloch and the American pacifist Norman Angell.[xv] At the beginning of the twentieth century, as both Bloch and Angell observed, economic integration was the most extensive the world had seen to that point. Surely any state would realize that going to war would risk economic disruption, even collapse, and thus would be irrational.

Nevertheless, Europe chose war in 1914. In fact, rather than dissuading states from going to war, economic interdependence seems only to have made the First World War more painful for all concerned; it also undoubtedly contributed to the severity of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Going to war might not make economic sense over the near or long term, but that does not mean governments will avoid it.

International Law. The fifth explanation is that international law and the law of war have restricted the purposes for which states may legally go to war, as well as the manner in which wars may be waged. Some arguments in this category have gone so far as to say the logic of war itself has changed from a Clausewitzian contest of wills to that of “mutual enterprise.”[xvi] International law and the law of war exist as a corpus of treaties, conventions, and agreements states have established over the centuries not only to limit the barbarity of war, but also to minimize the damage and disorder they themselves might suffer. To be sure, the laws’ provisions are often difficult if not impossible to enforce. But many governments have come to see them as beneficial, and so have entered into Schelling-like “bargains” that frame what states may and may not do in war.

The problem with this theory is that some great powers have found ways to achieve their objectives by exploiting the loopholes in this legalistic framework. The most popular method of late is to use irregular or proxy forces, but to do so in a manner that remains under the threshold of overt war, that is, within the so-called gray zone between peace and war.[xvii] While this phrase is an unfortunate one, this “zone” is in fact where much of today’s great-power competition takes place. The rules of this competition are the same as they have always been, but they are now facilitated by new communications technologies and the global reach of cyberspace. By design, a gray-zone conflict does not seek to escalate to overt war, but that does not mean it could not.

Anti-war Norms. The last explanation for why a great-power conflict has not occurred is that the spread of anti-war norms has made it much more difficult, culturally, to go to war. Pacifism has been a cultural force in the West since at least the early nineteenth century, and it underpins some contemporary anti-war norms. Whereas pacifism abjures war under all circumstances, most anti-norms permit the use of war for purposes of self-defense, or to prevent a greater evil befalling humanity. Anti-war sentiments rose sharply in the West during the Vietnam conflict, when activists openly challenged the war’s legitimacy.[xviii] Anti-war norms have ebbed and flowed since then, but they have left a legacy of skepticism with regard to the use of force. If war is still a legitimate instrument of policy, in other words, it is only barely so.

Unfortunately, anti-war norms are not yet universal; different societies see war differently, and may not have a reticence when it comes to taking extreme measures, up to and including the deliberate targeting of noncombatants. While anti-war norms may currently accord with the West’s ever evolving values they also render it vulnerable to a wide array of coercive practices. Ironically, the failure to address these vulnerabilities also threatens the West’s values. Over the long run, conceding to coercive practices may only increase the likelihood of a more violent conflict at a later point, and on terms more favorable to the aggressor.

III. Implications for the West’s Defense Policies

As shown above, the argument that war is disappearing offers little reason to be sanguine; neither do any of the supporting theories that attempt to explain why a major war has not occurred since 1945. In fact, the claim itself borders on the irresponsible—the product of wishful thinking, or of a rigid ideological perspective, rather than serious scholarship. Yet, it has spread and may be the cause of more than a little complacency. To be sure, some scholars have ignored the literature to consider the conditions under which a great-power war might occur.[xix] Their efforts have met with mixed results, however. The mainstream view—that such wars will not occur—still prevails, and this opinion has for some time been shared by most Western governments.

Yet, as we have seen, the possibility that a great-power war might occur cannot be ruled out. It seems pertinent, therefore, to ask how well prepared the West is should such a conflict occur. Again, no rational person would want to see a major war unfold, especially with the destructive power of contemporary weapons. All the same, preparation is not only prudent, it is a constitutional responsibility for some militaries. It lies beyond the scope of this article to assess the preparedness of all the West’s militaries. Suffice to say that, given the comparative size of its budget, if the US military is not prepared, it is likely the West’s other militaries are not well prepared either.

The collective status of the US armed forces is unclear—generals always want more troops and equipment and resources for training. The service that would bear the brunt of a great-power war, in many scenarios, is the US Army, and it has admitted to a number of critical shortfalls that require attention. For instance, consultations with some of the Pentagon’s specialists have highlighted several areas of concern. First among these is the US Army’s mobilization policies; these have not been updated in almost three decades.[xx] Nor has the US Army recently war-gamed mobilization scenarios for anything but its lowest level of mobilization.[xxi] Hence, it does not yet know the complete range of problems it might have to solve if it were to shift from partial to total mobilization, such as the time and other resources that might be necessary to get its mobilization stations up and running; most are now in a “cold” status. Second, to increase its fighting capacity by a mere factor of two, the US Army would have to make several tradeoffs in training and accept uncomfortable levels of risk in the quality and experience of its new units.[xxii] Third, even tougher decisions would be required in terms of materiel. America’s industry is not geared to mass-produce equipment the way it was during the Second World War; new programs would have to be implemented to bring US industry to that point, and these would certainly take time to develop.[xxiii] In addition, while the US Army’s branches are always modernizing and improving, their plans were not designed with the demands in tempo and volume in mind that a great-power war would most probably impose.[xxiv]

What’s more, several important skills, such as coordinating fire and maneuver at levels of command above brigade, have been lost due to decades of conducting small-scale, decentralized operations.[xxv] The US Army needs to conduct more “deep-fire” training exercises and war games to redevelop those skills.

Moreover, combat operations between Russian-backed separatist forces and Ukrainian troops in the Donbas in 2014-15 revealed the importance electromagnetic warfare (EW) in defeating aerial reconnaissance vehicles such as drones; maintaining an electromagnetic umbrella is critical for unit survival, and the US military will require more long-range EW capabilities. It also needs more indirect fire systems capable of area coverage, not just launching individual precision strikes. The United States spent a great deal of money developing highly precise weaponry over the last two decades, but mobile high-volume rapid-fire counterbattery systems comparable to Russian weapons will also be required.

Finally, more mid-level maintenance and sustainment organizations are needed; maneuver organizations have become too lean in organic logistical support. The US Army’s principle of modularity—of rotating forces tailored specifically for certain types of missions—has created the impression it has more depth in supporting units than it actually does. In the words of two of the US Army’s senior generals, “modularity has wrecked the Army’s ability to fight a major war.”[xxvi] The greater speed, range, and destructive potential of modern aircraft means air defense systems must be increased in number and equipped with enhanced detection and fire capabilities. The ability to conduct mass casualty evacuations has not existed in the US military for decades; it will need to be recreated. In addition, new rules of engagement will have to be developed for dealing with irregular forces operating amongst civilian populations.


Although this assessment focuses entirely on the US Army, informal discussions with officials in the British, Canadian, French, German, and other ministries of defense suggest most Western militaries are in a similar state. Again, part of the reason for their unpreparedness is the attitude of complacency caused by the belief that major wars among great powers no longer occur. As we have seen, that argument is unreliable—but that does not mean it does not enjoy considerable approval and influence. Another reason, of course, is the constricting influence that two decades of conducting counterinsurgency and stability operations have had on military thinking. These operations have surely been demanding in their own ways, as modern militaries have discovered. At root, however, is the question whether today’s militaries can prepare themselves mentally for more than one grammar of war at a time. It is a question that cannot be answered by simply increasing defense budgets. It requires a change in mindset, a cultural adjustment, that consciously cultivates expertise in two timeless yet in some ways disparate categories of war.

The typical institutional response of pushing the proverbial pendulum away from thinking about counterinsurgencies and stability operations toward concentrating on major wars will not avail in this case. Skill in the former would likely be needed in crucial stages of a great-power conflict in any event, even if such a war were fought for limited aims. The kind of cultural change Western militaries need is one that encourages excellence in limited unconventional conflicts as well as large-scale conventional wars. In this way, the transition from one to the other can be seamless, as indeed it must be in any contemporary war. With the proper outlook and guidance from the West’s senior political and military leaders, there might be just enough time to overcome this conceptual dilemma to get the balance right.


[i] Daniel Treisman, “Why Putin Took Crimea,” Foreign Affairs 95, 3 (May/June 2016): 47-54.
[ii] Julian Borger and Tom Phillips, “How China’s Artificial Islands Led to Tension in the South China Sea,”
[iii] Mira Rapp-Hooper, “Parting the South China Sea: How to Uphold the Rule of Law,” Foreign Affairs 95, 5 (September/October 2016): 76-82. Azar Gat, The Causes of War & the Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), esp. 129-85, examines this question more thoroughly and deconstructs the prevailing peace theories.
[iv] Brian Barrett, “North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Puts the Entire US in Range,” Wired, Nov. 28, 2017;
[v] See Bear Braumoeller, “Is War Disappearing?” (August 27, 2013), APSA Chicago 2013 Meeting. Available at SSRN:
[vi] Raimo Väyrynen, ed., The Waning of Major War: Theories and Debates (New York: Routledge, 2006) offers an excellent summary of the main arguments.
[vii] Examples include the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1970), the Biological Weapons Convention (1975), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (1997).
[viii] Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Praeger, 1965).
[ix] Reprinted in Mao Zedong, “Nuclear Weapons Are Paper Tigers,” in “Talk with American Correspondent Anna Louise Strong,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. IV (Peking, China: Foreign Language Press, 1961).
[x] Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel, Deconlonization: A Short History, trans. Jeremiah Riemer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[xi] Joshua Rovner, "Two Kinds of Catastrophe: Nuclear Escalation and Protracted War in Asia," Journal of Strategic Studies 40, 5 (August 2017): 696-730, argues efforts to avoid a nuclear war might eventuate in a long, grueling conventional conflict.
[xii] Compare: Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller, Debating the Democratic Peace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
[xiii] Arch Puddington, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians, Freedom House, 2017; See also “Democracy Index 2016” Economist Intelligence Unit; January 25, 2017;
[xiv] Väyrynen, Waning of Major War, 19.
[xv] Ivan Bloch, Is War Now Impossible? (London: Richards, 1899); Norman Angell, The Great Illusion (London: G.P. Putnam’s, 1910).
[xvi] Christine Chinkin and Mary Kaldor, International Law and New Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
[xvii] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Operating in the Gray Zone: An Alternative Paradigm for US Military Strategy, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 2016.
[xviii] Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Washington, DC: Scholarly Resources, 2002).
[xix] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017); Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Power (New York: Basic Books, 2016).
[xx] Olen Chad Bridges and Andrée Navarro, “Mobilizing for Major War,” Parameters 47, 2 (Summer 2017): 87-93.
[xxi] Ken S. Gilliam and Barrett K. Parker, “Mobilization: The State of the Field,” Parameters 47, 2 (Summer 2017): 95-101.
[xxii] Esli T. Pitts, “Expanding Brigade Combat Teams: Is the Training Base Adequate?” Parameters 47, 3 (Autumn 2017): 89-99.
[xxiii] Robb C. Mitchell, “Rapid Expansion and the Army’s Matériel: Is There Enough?” Parameters 47, 3 (Autumn 2017): 101-110.
[xxiv] Rose Keravouri, “Army Expansibility and Military Intelligence;” and Eric Shwedo, “Army Expansibility and Army Special Operations Forces,” Parameters 47, 4 (Winter 2017-18), forthcoming.
[xxv] David E. Johnson, The Challenges of the Now and Their Implications for the U.S. Army, RAND (PE-184), 2016.
[xxvi] Interviews of US generals conducted on 2 March 2017 and 27 July 2017.