Everyone knows that the expectation of any event is equal to its probability times the consequences which ensue if it occurs. (E = p x c).
A rather improbable event, therefore, can still be worrisome if its consequences are severe. Even if the probability of major war has declined, we cannot neglect war’s possible occurrence. After all, the probability of war in 1914 was quite low, though it still took place.
First, a possible glitch in the decline of major war theory is that when one great power rises to challenge a leader, war is more likely. Of the 13 cases of such challenge since 1500, all but three ended in major conflict. Perhaps the reason for peace since 1945 is that (except for the Cold War) there have been no cases of one Great Power threatening to pass the hegemonic leader in charge. Despite Japan’s surge in the 1980s, it posed no such threat. Ernest May shows that when the United States surpassed Britain in 1890s, the British acceded to all American demands, on the Venezuelan boundary, the independence of Panama and the Panama Canal, and the growing size of the US Navy. [May Aspen paper, (Summer, 2006)]. In 2020 the United States is unlikely to concede all Chinese claims (to the islands in South China Sea, the absorption of Taiwan, and an unlimited increase in Chinese armaments). What then?
Second, having recently surveyed the events of the two World Wars, a number of historians and political scientists concluded that leadership or the lack thereof can make a huge difference in the occurrence of truly improbable events. [See E. May, R. Rosecrance and Z. Steiner, eds. “History and Neorealism” (2010)] The First World War was in the parlance of the time, “the war to end wars.” Neville Chamberlain shared that conclusion but nonetheless opted for war against Germany on September 3, 1939. Even Hitler wanted to avoid general war, picking individual opponents as one plucks artichoke leaves, one after other; at the same time, if frustrated, he would attack even bigger countries, leading to war with most of the world. Recent data on Chinese Poliburo debates reveals in 1950 that Mao Zedong was one of the few members who would willingly intervene in the Korean War; others including some military leaders preferred to hold back. Mao’s emotional predominance, dictated the outcome. Similar information indicates the majority of the Ex-Com decision-makers in 1962 initially favored bombing or invasion of Cuba, with all of the consequences that might have involved. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt was willing to push Japan (perhaps toward war) in order to prevent it joining with Germany in the attack on Russia. Inexorable historical trends did not chart leaders’ conclusions. In many if not most of these episodes, a leader acted differently from his associates and from historical trends, with perilous consequences for all concerned.
Steven Pinker rightly says that the probability of major war has been “decimated” but that strictly means reduced by one-tenth, and even if more greatly, we should not be consoled by historical tendencies that no leadership will necessarily follow or even be aware of.
This means that rather than relying on historical trends to protect the world, we have in fact to do something about it. I have suggested a large amalgamation of Europe and the United States to create a positive overbalance of power which will in the end attract China to play an important role in a wider world.