Ian Roxborough: Future of War

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Future of War


Ian Roxborough



Weapons do not make war, and the future of war is not simply an estimate of the possibilities of military technology. Technological change certainly impacts how military organizations will fight in the future, but it says little about who will fight, and for what, or even whether they will be fighting at all.

Predicting the future is both difficult and inescapable. In military and strategic matters, governments and their military organizations must plan ahead for a decade or more. In part this is because, in an era of constant technological change, they must make choices about weapons systems. There is a vast literature on future military technologies: drones, robots, cyberwar, war in space, and so on. Governments and their military organizations must also assess likely causes of conflict and identify likely adversaries. It is these latter questions that should drive force planning. That they do not, that it is often technological change that drives force planning, is a result of organizational interests and world views.

People have thought systematically about the future of war since the late nineteenth century. The rise of general staffs and of a broad literate public, together with widespread and constant technical change, institutionalized debates about the future of war. Some predictions have been borne out; others have not, most notably the assertion immediately prior to the First World War that war between modern industrial powers was unthinkable and impossible because it would ruin their economies.

Until recently, the field of international relations has been dominated by Realist theories, suggesting the need to worry about the shifting power relations between a rising China and a (possibly) declining United States. Other social science literatures, focusing on both material and ideological sources of violent conflict, have explored the likelihood that wars in the future will occur not between great powers but in the poverty-stricken periphery of the world system. The increasing salience of ecological issues in both social science and policy debates has focused attention on these issues; and the continuing importance of a range of ethnic- and religious-based conflicts reminds us that, in many parts of the world, the sources of violent conflict remain with us. This line of thinking generally leads to pessimistic prognoses.

On the other hand, there are those who think either that war is gradually becoming obsolescent or that it is radically changing its nature, and that “new” wars are what the future holds. Certainly, for the countries of the developed core, a “zone of peace” seems to be emerging. This line of thinking suggests two questions: will the trend towards the obsolescence of war continue in the developed core, and will it be extended to the rest of the world? Answers to these questions will only come from a large collective research effort.

A zone of peace in the global North has emerged, and seems reasonably stable. The theory of the inter-democratic peace argues that war between stable democracies is most unlikely and that the road to peace runs through democratization. There are skeptics, the data are relatively short-run (since there haven’t been many democracies until recently), and there are indications that recently-democratizing states are more war-prone than others. Nevertheless, there is a large measure of consensus on the inter-democratic peace theory. Together with theories of the obsolescence of major war, this means that the future of war lies in the global South.

Thinking about the future of war must now focus less on the possibility of great power conflict (though that cannot be discounted) and more on wars, armed conflicts, and military operations in the global South. Here social scientists must recognize that we understand less about the dynamics of conflict in these societies than we do about the societies of the global North. This means that the foundations of thinking about future war require more research on ethnicity, religion, development, democratization and state-building in these societies.

A central difficulty is defining “war” and associated phenomena. As recent research into the cultural dimensions of war has demonstrated, war is itself a cultural construct. What is considered as “war” varies from society to society and over time. There are constant debates about what constitutes “war.” These are often normative in nature: actors ask what sorts of actions are permissible in war, and if actions do not conform to the moral norms of “war”, should the term “war” be used at all, or should other terms, like terrorism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc. be used instead? This matters for empirical social science as well, since different framings of the problem will lead us to different answers. Does all armed conflict constitute war, or only organized armed conflict between states? What about civil war, revolution, rebellion, insurgency, ethnic cleansing, genocide, etc.? Are these phenomena “war,” or something different? How much violence must occur for us to label something as “war?” Is every instance of violence to be called “war?”

These questions about how wars will be fought, about who will fight them, and for what, and whether the nature of war itself is mutating have been addressed by different groups of thinkers that often communicate poorly with each other. Military organizations generate a considerable literature on the future of war. Much of this focuses on the technological and organizational aspects of military operations (e.g. the discussion in the 1990s of the “revolution in military affairs”). When it comes to questions of who will fight and for what, military writings tend to rest on an impoverished version of social science, informed more by pundits and futurologists rather than by professional social scientists.

There exists a vast and varied industry of pundits from academics to journalists, from professionals in think-tanks to independent scholars and writers, who earn a living by making pronouncements about possible futures. Some rely more on professional social science than others: they are a diverse collection. For many, driven by ideological visions, empirical testing is a minor consideration. Nevertheless, they have a receptive audience and influence decision-makers.

If it is the case that the findings of professional social science have not been well incorporated into the thinking of the military and other policy-oriented thinkers, part of the responsibility for this rests with social scientists themselves. Sociologists have been reluctant to study war. When they have done so, they have worked on the fringes of the phenomenon, leaving out – inter alia – the actual conduct of war itself.

In part this stems from a reaction to the war in Vietnam, in part to concerns about disciplinary boundaries. Sociologists have been, with few exceptions, reluctant to enter into territory claimed by political scientists. Michael Mann has argued that the failure on the part of sociology to fully grasp the centrality of war to processes of social change is embedded in the very liberal foundations of the discipline. In recent years historical sociologists have gone some way towards remedying this neglect, but much remains to be done. The way forward is not simply through better sociology. The future of the sociology of the future of war also depends to a considerable extent on a more considered engagement with more policy-oriented thinkers.

Among the questions sociologists should be asking are the following: What are the likely causes of war in the next twenty years or so? What are the risks of major war? How new are the so-called “new wars?” What shifts in the world-system are occurring, and how do they impact the future of war? What kinds of ethnic and religious issues will generate war? What are the links between poverty, resource scarcity, democracy and state capacity and the likelihood of war? How can war be prevented? Once war has started, can it be mitigated? How can non-combatants be protected? What do we need to learn about state-building? Finally, should we perhaps be self-reflective and ask how assumptions and projections about the future of war shape the present?


Ian Roxborough is sociology professor at Stony Brook University with an interest in comparative-historical study of warfare, empire, and revolution.


Banner Image: F15E aircraft from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deploys flares during a flight over Afghanistan (U.S. Air Force Photo by Sgt. Aaron Allmon 2008; photo in public domain).


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