Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Conflict is Here to Stay

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On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain triumphantly returned home to tumultuous praise, having signed the Munich Agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler. The accord, which acknowledged Hitler’s territorial demands in German Czechoslovakia, was, in Chamberlain’s words, “a symbol of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again… to ensure the peace of Europe.” Six years later, as World War Two drew to a close, 40-60 million people were dead—approximately 2.5% of the global population. Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement, which many historians argue gave Hitler carte blanche to launch total war, became synonyms for ill-considered appeasement and timid passivity.

Chamberlain’s folly—easily apparent in retrospect—was that he believed that conflict could be avoided. In a parliamentary debate before the war he espoused that the accord “averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilization as we have known it.” Almost a year later, a bitter Chamberlain realized that not all conflict is avoidable. As Great Britain prepared for the second massive war in two decades, the British prime minister extolled, “[Hitler’s invasion of Poland] shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.

However, the lesson of this episode has not been universally accepted. Many still believe that conflict— and war—can be eradicated. Whether through the establishment of international organizations, such as the United Nations, or through public education and the construction and dissemination of new morals, proponents of such arguments hold that progress will eventually yield universal peace.

Unfortunately such ideas are both naïve and erroneous. Conflict is an innate aspect of human nature and thus inevitable. Man, who is intrinsically and solely motivated by self-interest, can never realistically avoid every single point of discord. Different perspectives, disagreements, divergent values, competing goals, and overlapping claims will always exist. Individuals, and the states they construct, in the quest to achieve their goals, will thus indubitably come to loggerheads.

The permanence of conflict, though, does not necessarily imply the eternalness of violent conflict—or on the state level, war. Nevertheless, violence is also an element of the human condition that will never be eradicated. Every individual and every state has so-called “red-line” issues or positions where acquiescence is impossible. When alternative forms of conflict resolution fail, as they at times inevitably will, violence—the use of force—to compel one’s counterparty to concede, will be the final and only option available.

It is thus hopeless, and on some level foolish, to endeavor to build a system that both abolishes conflict and makes (permanent) peace a reality. Such utopian dreams are impossible to achieve. As Chamberlain and historians of his dastardly deed have learned, the desire to achieve such lofty goals can often yield considerably worse results.

However, this realistic understanding of human nature does not relegate individuals and states to become pessimistic observers of inevitable and eternal slaughtering of their friends, families, and compatriots. Programs and plans can be developed to both reduce the probability of conflict or war and diminish the severity and duration of conflict when it does other.

This means creating mechanisms for conflict avoidance, mitigation when discord arises, and timely resolution that will reduce the scope and brutality of conflict. However, such institutional and normative programs must be implemented with a clear understanding that conflict and war will happen. Countries and individuals must thus be aware of the potential dangers and plan accordingly. Efforts to diminish conflict cannot be undertaken at the expense of lucid preparation for inevitable strife.

Preparatory actions, such as the stockpiling of weaponry, well-articulated thresholds that adversaries are not to cross, and even small-scale wars, can actually diminish the likelihood of catastrophic conflict.[1] Many historians argue that had Chamberlain been more forceful, he may have stifled Hitler’s expansionary ambitions. Even a small war between Great Britain and Germany over Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland may have prevented the conflagration that enveloped the world in the early-1940s.

Attention to the use of these diplomatic tools can be readily employed throughout the construction of modern foreign policy. All of the braggadocio and saber-rattling from Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu may actually prevent an Israeli-Iran war for which the war-hawks are seemingly calling. Establishing clear positions and limits with China, while openly discussing differences and points of tension, may avoid a third world war. Even a military response—for instance, against a probing but small military action—may send a signal to a challenging country that further aggression will not be tolerated.

The employ of such policy is naturally extremely nuanced. However, successful execution of these tools rests on the basic assumption that conflict is not only possible, but inevitable. To ignore this fact is to lead policymakers, and the people who they are supposed to protect, down a dangerous path. By abolishing certain weapons or reducing the use and availability of tools that can both protect our interests and keep others’ ambitions in check, policymakers do not move us closer to a conflict-free world. Instead, they most likely increase the likelihood of strife—increase it in a manner that may not afford them the luxury of living to regret their mistake.


[1] The promotion of democracy is another “preparatory action” that may have immediate costs, in terms of money and lives, (particularly during democratic transitions, as the Arab Spring is demonstrating) but may ultimately help diminish the probability and severity of inter- and intra-state conflict.

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Josh Grundleger Twitter: anewrepublicanJoshua

Joshua Grundleger is currently is a researcher and analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. He recently graduated with a masters in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington DC where he focused on American Foreign Policy, Global Theory and History, and International Economics. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the SAIS Review of International Affairs. Joshua is a graduate from Cornell University, with a BA in Government and Economics and a Concentration in Law and Society. He formerly worked as a consultant at Cornerstone Research- an economic-litigation consulting firm specializing in economic and market analysis for corporate litigation. Joshua was co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Voices Magazine, a non-partisan political-literary magazine at Cornell University.