Azar Gat on War
An expert on war, Azar Gat provides a bridge between past and future: from his scholarly work on a wide range of historical battles and ancient generals to reflections on war in the new millennium. Ezer Weitzman Chair for National Security at Tel Aviv University, Gat’s interests span history, anthropology, and evolutionary theory. He speaks to us today about the nature of war, its relationship to economics, and the risks of war in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rabbit Hole: What led you to focus on war?
AG: As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in war. Even in early elementary school! I am tempted to say this is due to being an Israeli who witnessed the Six-Day War at age eight, growing up in this atmosphere of armed conflict. But then again, this is true for most Israelis of my generation, and they did not all end up studying war! Whatever the reason, these interests have been with me since childhood.
Rabbit Hole: Your book, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War, retraces the modern history of war theories, including authors who were once prolific and popular but now are barely remembered. What is the relevance of such authors today?
AG: The connection between classic, historical literature, and the realities of our era is indirect. If you were to ask me whether it is necessary to study Clausewitz and other old authors, my answer would be no, you don’t need to dive into such books to be a good general, just like you don’t have to be an expert on Aristotle to become president.
But on the other hand, Clausewitz said that history is the way to expand personal experience. He himself thought that a successful general should study the most recent campaigns, let’s say the last 50 years of the history of war, because their reality is the closest to that of the present and is therefore the most relevant.
Rabbit Hole: What are the skills that a general requires?
AG: To be a general, Clausewitz said, you have to display a very strong will and be able to withstand adversity, to function under conditions of massive stress and of great physical difficulty because even a modern war still takes a strain on the physical constitution of a commander. He also emphasized the need to be able to understand situations very quickly and to impose your will on these situations.
Rabbit Hole: You just said reading Clausewitz is not compulsory, but you quoted him two times! Although, you quoted him not on practical strategy but on philosophy. Are these old authors more interesting on a philosophical level?
AG: Let me quote Clausewitz a third time: you don’t need to be a professor to be a general. These are two different jobs requiring different skills, and this works in the other direction as well: I am a scholar, not a general. I approach these books first of all on the level of scholarly curiosity and comment on them as such. I do not write strategy manuals! That was the job of Clausewitz and his peers, my job is to give a scholarly perspective on their writings.
Rabbit Hole: Your latest book includes an interesting quote: “rather than modern war becoming more costly (it hasn’t), it is peace that has become more rewarding.” Why is that?
AG: War between developed countries has drastically declined to unprecedented levels since 1815. The two World Wars make this hard to believe, but they are the exception. The 19th century between 1815 and 1914 is well known for being a peaceful century. And since 1945, the developed world has been peaceful as well. Developed countries are no longer at war with each other, nor under the threat of war. The developed countries of North America, Europe, and East Asia do not even consider the possibility of a war. South Korea and Taiwan do not have to fear Japan, the Low Countries do not have to fear France or Germany. Why is Canada not afraid of an American invasion? During the 19th century, the United States believed that, over time, the British would withdraw from Canada, and they would be able to annex it. Well now the British are gone, and the Americans are not invading Canada!
These same countries do not have civil wars either. In short, for the last two centuries, war has taken place almost entirely in the least developed parts of the world.
Why? Because the industrial revolution changed war, not via technology but via the economy. It was the first time in history that economies have been growing exponentially. Up until then, humanity lived in a Malthusian world in which overall wealth was limited, constant, and the only question was how to divide it – and the main way to divide it was war.
But from the 19th century onward, the pie has been expanding, primarily because of domestic investment, from which war is a distraction. Too many people lack awareness of this logic even though it dominates the modern world: it is not worth going to war. This is why we have this long peace, not because of atomic weapons. They did not exist in the 19th century!
Rabbit Hole: We often hear they stopped war, though…
AG: I argue it is not the case. You do not need sophisticated weapons to commit horrendous massacres. Monstruous acts of mass violence were perpetrated long before modern times and in fact, they are still happening in our times: just 30 years ago, the Rwandan genocide was mostly done with machetes, there was no need of modern weapons to cause death on a massive scale.
I have shown in my books that, statistically, pre-modern wars were just as lethal and murderous as modern wars, relative to population.
Rabbit Hole: But if war is less costly, isn’t it contradictory with the rise of high technology? Isn’t this very expensive? Doesn’t it mean that some can afford to fight wars and some can’t?
AG: War is not less costly. It’s as costly as it has always been.
First, modern technology is not more expensive in relation to the resources available: if you look at military budgets, you see they remain proportionally constant through time, regardless of technological progress. A peacetime military budget is typically around 5% of the national budget or less. During war, it rises around 50%. It is still the case today, as it has always been. We think of technology becoming more advanced and more costly, but we forget that the means available to nations have also risen because of that same technology.
Which leads to my second point: we are wrong to think that modern war is more lethal because of technology. We forget it works on both sides. Yes, technological advances create offensive weapons that are more lethal, but these same advances also create more effective defenses. Just consider mobile mechanized armor, or electronic countermeasures: they get better at the same pace as weapons and missiles! Just look at the Israeli Air Force, which has not suffered from lack of activity, and yet did not lose an aircraft in operational action for 35 years! Why? Because its defensive electronic countermeasures are so advanced. Technological progress works on both sides of the equation.
Rabbit Hole: You talk about the concept of modernization peace, is this what you just explained?
AG: Precisely, yes.
Rabbit Hole: You wrote about a 17th century author on war theory, Raimondo Montecuccolli and quoted his Art of War in which he, precisely, said that money is everything!
AG: Yes, he got it from the French, who in the late 15th century often said that you need three things to win a war: money, money, and money. They also said “no money, no Swiss” because the Swiss mercenaries were the elite troops of the era.
Rabbit Hole: If peace is more rewarding, then why is there not a global peace right now?
AG: There is global peace in the developed world already.
The world is divided between a zone of peace, which is the developed world, and a zone of war where the prospect of war, including civil war, and the fear of war, still exists.
The border is not geographical, it is economical. The two areas of the world which have failed so far to embark on the road to modernization is sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and they are the two regions that are the most warlike and still suffer terribly from conflicts between states and civil wars.
“The world is divided between a zone of peace, which is the developed world, and a zone of war where the prospect of war, including civil war, and the fear of war, still exists.”
Rabbit Hole: Where do you place this border?
AG: A common threshold is $20,000 GDP per capita.
If you look at every dictatorial regime in the world since 1945, reaching this bar is the moment when political liberalization took place. Conversely, every country that has remained authoritarian (except for oil and gas producing countries) is still below this threshold.
Rabbit Hole: That would make dictators less dangerous if they always find themselves on the poorer side, right?
AG: The winner in all the great power wars over the past two centuries was the richest. It is the economy that determined the winner in all of them. The ability to produce weapons fast, in large quantities, and high quality, was the decisive factor. The exception is guerilla warfare which is an entirely different problem altogether.
Up until the financial crisis of 2007, everybody knew that the most prosperous countries were the capitalist democracies. Now, the antiliberal stance is much stronger, and more voices claiming that China or Russia has an alternative system that works better.
We are witnessing the return of the kind of great powers we have not seen since 1945: non-democratic and capitalist great powers. After the fall of the Axis powers, the world only had two kinds of great powers: democratic capitalist, and Communist and thus undemocratic and not-capitalist. China resurrected a kind of regime that had not existed since the end of the second world war: being nominally communist and keeping a vague, theoretical commitment to social justice doesn’t change the fact that, in practice, it has integrated into the global market economy. The only thing that remains from its Communist roots is the dominance of the party. It is a nationalist regime, much more efficient than Communist regimes, because it is an authoritarian capitalist power.
Rabbit Hole: But if wealth inhibits warmongering, why is such a developed country as China acting so aggressively?
AG: China is a developing country, not a developed country.
Yes, you can go to Shanghai and Beijing, see these spectacular buildings, watch the rapid progress of Chinese economy from producing low-value goods up to the highest niches of the high-tech market, and you can rightfully think they will keep going upwards and be very successful. But you should not forget that almost half of China is still rural. It is still witnessing an exodus from an extremely poor countryside to the cities, the kind of exodus Europe experienced in the 19th century! It was only a few years ago that China crossed the 50% mark between urban and rural population. Britain crossed that mark in 1850! Germany crossed it in 1900! China is still in the middle of that transition.
In fact, Germany may be a good comparison. Like China today, Germany in 1900 was on its way to become one of the richest countries in the world. Yet it maneuvered itself into a situation where it united most of the world against it for two consecutive world wars. It was not looking for a war. It was just taking a series of actions that cornered it into conflict, as China might be said to be doing when it alienates its neighbors, from India to Japan. It doesn’t necessarily mean that China’s leadership is genuinely committed to violently assert sovereignty upon territories outside its present control. But they put themselves into this corner, like Germany before: making uncompromising demands, galvanizing Chinese public opinion, to the point that the leadership now have very little flexibility left.
The big question remains the same: will China liberalize politically after it becomes wealthier? In the past, people in the West believed this process was inevitable, and I challenged this view in an article in Foreign Affairs more than a decade ago. Today few believe that such a development is inevitable. In 40 years China’s GPD per capita went from a mere $100 to $10,000, but it remains comparably low. Western European countries are typically four to five times wealthier in these terms. The United States has a six times greater GDP per capita. So China has a long way to go, and you could look at the example of earlier “Asian Tiger” economies to reach the conclusion China will catch up. However, it has a demographic problem of a rapidly aging population that did not exist for these Tiger economies at the time of their growth.
The question remains open, and it is the biggest political question of our time. I, for once, am not convinced the optimistic strategy of accepting China into the world economy would inevitably lead to its liberalization. I still think this is an open question.
“Like China today, Germany in 1900 was on its way to become one of the richest countries in the world. Yet it maneuvered itself into a situation where it united most of the world against it.”
Rabbit Hole: What is your own hypothesis?
AG: I don’t think China wants war. But in 1914, none of the great European powers wanted war either. See, this is the value of scholarly study of past wars: we still think there was warmongering at the highest level in 1914 but it was not really the case. If you read texts from the 20s and 30s you will see it was already a big debate at the time: did anyone want that war or did we sleepwalk into it? Already in the Interwar Period, researchers opened archives, analyzed them, and concluded that no side actually wanted war, and yet they all found themselves engulfed in a major catastrophe. We should know better by now, sometimes we slide into war without wanting it, because each step that leads to war has no acceptable alternative.
Now, I don’t think we are facing the conditions of an all-outwar between great powers anymore, if only because of the nuclear factor. But very intense limited conflicts could have catastrophic consequences too, and they can happen in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait.
Rabbit Hole: It has been observed that, when the Chinese Communist Party itself is warmongering, you soon hear the People’s Liberation Army saying they’re not going to war…
AG: I personally do not think that a war with China is inevitable. I merely note the dangers, but again, the question is open as to what China will become.
Rabbit Hole: Let’s assume your “$20,000 GDP per capita threshold” stays valid in the future: if China becomes more prosperous, would it make peace more likely?
AG: There is a paradox here. There is one side of the story, the one everybody is aware of: if China becomes wealthier, it becomes more powerful, has more means to invest in its military, etc. On the other hand, if China is more prosperous, it will be less inclined to risk everything in a war. A reluctance to jeopardize this comfort will exist at every level, from citizens to leadership. This is, again, why I call it the greatest open political question of the century.
And another element that will influence the outcome is China’s rapid aging. This will affect its economic performance and disrupt its ambitions. Will it reach the threshold and become more war-like? Or will its ageing population focus inwards and reject foreign ambitions? Who knows? We never had such a large country going through this process. The question is an open one in my opinion.
Rabbit Hole: Russia has a certain tradition of war and doctrine. But China hasn’t been at war for a very long time. What do Chinese generals read? Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, your books, maybe?
AG: *Laughs* I wish I knew! We know they used to read the classics, both Chinese and Western. They were also heavily influenced by Communist military literature, which is abundant, and before that by German theoreticians. Clausewitz was translated several times into Chinese. My own book, War in Human Civilization, is about to be published in China by one of the university presses. It has already been translated into Japanese and Korean. But no one knows exactly what they read.
China is much more important than Russia. It is 10 times larger in population and much more successful economically. Russia is a failed modernizer, which finances itself only through the export of mineral resources, gas, oil, etc. The Russian GDP is, at best, on par with that of Italy alone. The European Union is much, much more powerful than Russia.
Rabbit Hole: Even militarily?
AG: Again, its economic base gives it the advantage. But Europe invests only 1% of its GDP in defense, while Russia invests 10%. Obama said Russia is a giant with feet of clay, and he was right. Europe was already wealthier than the Soviet Union, and Russia is only a shadow of the power that the USSR was. This is not the same as China, an economic Tiger with the basis for superpower status, and whose assets are growing every year.
Of course, Russia has a large number of nuclear weapons, and it waves them around once in a while to show its might. But its economy is nothing compared to that of Europe, so I argue Europe could contain Russia by its own means if only it was willing to invest more in its military.
Rabbit Hole: But even if Europe is wealthy, it doesn’t have a united army…
AG: Europe’s main military problem is not the existence of a united army. It is the unwillingness to invest. It is addicted to American protection, and that pre-dates Trump’s loud statements on the matter: every president since Eisenhower has been requesting that Europe would invest more in its own defense.