Is Military Power Becoming Obsolete?

CAMBRIDGE – Will military power become less important in the coming decades? It is true that the number of large-scale inter-state wars continues to decline, and fighting is unlikely among advanced democracies and on many issues. But, as Barack Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “we must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

When people speak of military power, they tend to think in terms of the resources that underlie the hard-power behavior of fighting and threatening to fight – soldiers, tanks, planes, ships, and so forth. In the end, if push comes to shove, such military resources matter. Napoleon famously said that “God is on the side of the big battalions,” and Mao Zedong argued that power comes from the barrel of a gun.

In today’s world, however, there is much more to military resources than guns and battalions, and more to hard-power behavior than fighting or threatening to fight. Military power is also used to provide protection for allies and assistance to friends. Such non-coercive use of military resources can be an important source of the soft-power behavior of framing agendas, persuading other governments, and attracting support in world politics.

Even when thinking only of fighting and threats, many analysts focus solely on inter-state war, and concentrate on soldiers in uniforms, organized and equipped by the state in formal military units. But in the twenty-first century, most “wars” occur within, rather than between states, and many combatants do not wear uniforms. Of 226 significant armed conflicts between 1945 and 2002, less than half in the 1950’s were fought between states and armed groups. By the 1990’s, such conflicts were the dominant form.