When I asked Ernie Regehr why he devoted his career to advocating for global arms control, he immediately mentioned Zambia.

A lot of people, myself included, probably couldn’t find Zambia on a map, but Regehr spent a number of years in the African country in the 1970’s as part of his work researching and advocating against apartheid in South Africa. He especially remembers the celebrations surrounding the 10-year anniversary of Zambia’s formal independence from Britain in 1974, when the nation sang and danced…and then cheered as tanks rolled through the streets and fighter jets screamed overhead.

Regehr wondered why a country without regional enemies needed the machinery of war, as well as what development projects the desperately poor government was sacrificing to pay for the accessories of modern warfare. He wondered what the consequences of the sudden influx of arms would be for Zambia and the surrounding countries, as well as which developed nations were targeting these newly-independent countries as arms customers.

They were prescient questions; within the next decade the African continent would be ravaged by conflict, mostly fuelled by imported arms.  The same weapons that had been sold with the promise of security proved to be ineffective at maintaining it, and (as they proliferated throughout the continent), actually became a significant catalyst for destabilization. Manufactured in European, American (and yes, Canadian) factories, bought with crippling loans and political favours, and used to commit an escalating series of atrocities, these weapons became a curse rather than an asset to the countries that purchased them.

Regehr’s latest book, the 2015 work Disarming Conflict, tries to explain why our fundamental expectation of military power – that it will help us win wars – is fundamentally wrong. Even our understanding of military force as a weapon of last resort (while well-intentioned) bows to a mistaken assumption that force is our trump, our ace in the hole.  The truth is that the conflicts of the 21st century have not been ‘winnable’ through conventional military force, and therefore force is not as much a ‘trump’ as an expensive and destabilizing distraction. The world spends around $1.7 billion annually on military force, most of it as a means to an end (national security) that force, frankly, cannot deliver.

Think about it.  Most states around the world (including Canada) would not be able to resist a determined invasion from one of the big players, and no state can reasonably launch such an invasion against one of the nuclear powers. In the particular Canadian context, the Department of National Defence has admitted that a defence of all of Canada is strategically impossible because of the particular challenges of geography and population distribution. The best defence of our sovereignty is not the Canadian Forces, but instead a UN-led international order that vigorously opposes military aggression and armed invasion.

Secondly, military spending along traditional lines prepares a nation for conventional war between nations, not for the primary cause of military conflict in our world today: civil war. According to Regehr, of the 99 wars that were fought at least partially between 1989 and 2014, only six were ‘interstate’ wars between two nations (Eritrea-Ethiopia, Vietnam-Cambodia, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Iran-Iraq, Iran-Kuwait, Israel-Lebanon). The rest were either ‘intrastate’ (civil wars), or multilateral wars in which a coalition of outside forces intervened in a civil conflict. This means that in the last 25 years less than 10 percent of conflicts have been between states, that there hasn’t been such a conflict since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000, and yet the world is still spending exorbitant amounts on preparing for them. The good news is that we have literally fulfilled the Biblical prophecy that ‘nation will no longer lift up sword against nation’ (at least for now); the bad is that that the world still spends more on military force in three days (about $14 billion) than is available for the entire core United Nations operating budget, plus peacekeeping, for a full year.

The problem with conventional military is simple. Armies and conventional weapons are very good at destroying institutions, regimes, or states, and at making areas ungovernable.  This can be useful in interstate warfare, but is obviously a detriment in intrastate conflicts. Additionally, military force is useless at solving the political problems which provide the foundation for civil wars, since they require a political, not a violent, solution.

As Hannah Arendt argues in her essay, Reflections on Violence, power is the authority to rule (the ends), whereas violence is a tool to achieve power (the means). If an institution with little local power (say the American forces in Iraq), tries to achieve it primarily through violence, the end result will almost always be failure. In the words of Arendt, “Everything depends on the power behind the violence.”


How To Make a Civil War

There are three basic types of civil war: state control, state formation, and state failure. Regehr identifies four basic conditions for driving political conflict to military conflict, and alternatively suggests that addressing these four conditions politically rather than militarily is the more effective resolution strategy.

The four conditions are political grievance, the identification of grievance with particular ethnic or religious groups or regions, capability of group and availability of weapons, and the perceived absence of political alternatives and pathways for nonviolent resolution. These four factors together do not directly cause civil wars, but they are the basic building blocks of conflict. A population that believes it is being discriminated against, has access to arms, and sees no effective path but violence, is a profoundly dangerous foe for any government.

This is partially because the ‘win’ condition for insurgent forces in a state is generally far lower than that of the governing authority.  Most insurgents seek to win a place at the negotiating table by military means, and therefore even a military stalemate that leads to political talks is a ‘victory’ of sorts.  The government, by contrast, only ‘wins’ if it crushes the rebellion and regains control and security in the region – an almost impossible task through military force alone.

History corroborates the difficulty of either side destroying the other outright. Of the 64 civil wars that have ended since 1989, only four show a clear government victory (Iraq’s defeat of Shia rebellion, Georgia’s defeat of the 1993-94 rebellion, Angola’s defeat of UNITA, and Sri Lanka’s defeat of Tamil Tigers). Insurgents achieved military victory around eight percent of the time, but the rest (85 percent) ended in a negotiated solution (a qualified ‘win’ for the insurgents, and ‘loss’ for the government).

The challenge to this paradigm is of course the rise of extremism, movements like Boko Haram or Islamic State, whose goals are not primarily political but instead ideological and religious. Even so, these movements do often arise out of political situations, and can be blunted through political negotiation. Even the act of ‘terrorism’ has a political component because terrorism, after all, “is to some extent in the eye of the beholder…in Pakistan from 2009 to 2011 there were sixty-nine high casualty terrorist bombings that killed 2,642 people. In the same period in Pakistan, there were thirty-two “high casualty drone attacks’ that killed 798 people.”[1] Intrastate wars, because they so rarely involve two professional military forces engaging in true battle, blur the line between conventional war, asymmetrical warfare, and terrorism.

Civil wars are both hard to start and difficult to end. Once the cycle of violence has begun, and retaliatory strike begats retaliatory strike, it is generally difficult to convince both sides to lay down their arms. Of the 29 civil wars going on in 2015, 24 were already more than five years old, five were more than 40 years old, and the longest (Israel-Palestine) was almost 70. The longevity of such wars is partly due to the easy access to light arms in certain parts of the world, as well as the instability of the surrounding region. For example, Islamic State enjoys the benefits of decades of arms imports to the Middle East, as well as the instability created by political vacuums in Iraq and Syria.

It is interesting that our world spends so much on preparing for interstate wars (which are increasingly rare), struggles so mightily to apply military force to civil wars (where it so rarely leads to victory), and invests so little in political solutions and human development (which can prevent intrastate conflicts before they begin).  Of the four factors that Regehr identifies as driving conflict towards violence, it is the absence of political alternatives that is easiest to remedy in the short term. If the world waits until conflict breaks out to take notice, it is as if both sides have already lost. After all, modern wars “are most effective in ensuring that none of the stakeholders to the conflict escape its legacies of death, injury, displacement, debt, stunted economic development, and political and psychological upheaval – the effects of which continue to be felt and born by succeeding generations.”²

War may be an option of last resort, but that does not make it a guarantee of success. In fact, war has become an increasingly poor way to pursue political goals in the modern world, and provides a clear victory for one side or the other only a small portion of the time. What exactly is humanity getting in return for its annual offering of $1.7 trillion? Can we consider the possibility that security cannot be achieved through military force, and our continued efforts to do so ignore the root causes of global conflict?

Part 2 coming soon.

[1] Disarming Conflict, 35.

² Disarming Conflict, 5.

I'm a graduate student at Laurier University in Ontario. I used to be a journalist, and I moonlight as a writer / tennis player / LOTR nerd.

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