Historian and author Margaret MacMillan discusses her new book War: How Conflict Shaped Us, including the evolution and intricacies of warfare as well as how war has influenced humanity and society over the course of history.
The John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 2002 in memory of CFR member John B. Hurford, and features individuals who represent critical new thinking in international affairs and foreign policy.
SORKIN: Thank you. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture with Margaret MacMillan. I'm Amy Davidson Sorkin, a staff writer at the New Yorker, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion.
Inaugurated in 2002, in memory of Council member John B. Hurford, this annual lecture features individuals who represent critical new thinking in foreign policy and international affairs. And I'd also like to welcome Hilga Hurford, Jennifer Hurford, and other friends of the Hurford family who are here with us today.
Margaret MacMillan is professor of history at the University of Toronto and an emeritus professor of international history at Oxford University, where she was also warden of St. Anthony's College. Her books include Paris, 1919; Nixon and Mao; and The War That Ended Peace. She's also a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Companion of Honor. And the starting point for our discussion today, she has a new book: War: How Conflict Shaped Us, which is out this month.
And, Margaret, let me start with an obvious, big question for a book with a big title: what is war? How is it distinct from other human endeavors? How do we know we're at war?
MACMILLAN: Well, war, I think, to begin with, is probably the most organized of all human activities. When you think of the amount of organization and training and discipline and preparation that goes into making war, I think it really is an extraordinarily important phenomenon in human history.
I would define war — and there are many definitions — but I use a very simple definition and that is that war is one organized group fighting another organized group using violence to try and get its will or its power over the other group. And so although we use war a lot in analogies — and we're talking at the moment about a war on COVID-19, and we talk about wars on obesity and wars on poverty — that I think is only analogy. I think war has this element of violence and organization, and it has to be organized. So for me war is not to people brawling outside a bar. That's not war, that's a brawl. But war is this highly organized and group activity.
SORKIN: Is it— does it have to have an element of state activity? Or— because what you're describing could be gang warfare.
MACMILLAN: Well, I would include gang warfare as wars, if the gangs are organized. And some of the gangs, as we know, are very organized indeed, and often control territory. I mean, often wars— group— involves a group that controls a specific piece of territory. I think civil wars are wars, even though they're a different sort of war. I think wars in failed states are wars. I think they all have that element in common of being one group against another group or several groups against several other groups. And, of course, using violence.
SORKIN: We in the U.S. get so caught up in whether a conflict has reached the level of war, the War Powers Act, but you're talking about something that's more woven into the fabric of how people deal with conflict, in any context, throughout the world, throughout history.
MACMILLAN: I think I'm trying to get at the essence of war.
And there are then the legal definitions of war. And of course, this is very important. If a war is classified as a war, for conflicts classified as war, then all sorts of provisions come into play. And you rightly said in the United States, the war— the Act, which allows the president to make war. And there have been attempts to limit the president's power to declare war. And whether or not a war or conflict is a civil war is important. When the British were fighting or dealing with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a lot of those who were involved in the Troubles wanted it declared as a civil war because, again, various legal provisions would have come in. To me, that's the legal side of it.
But that's not what I'm really interested. I'm interested in what makes war, war.
SORKIN: You know, I'm fascinated with the idea that war is so— is organized, in your terms. That it's— you say, like one of the more organized activities and that that aspect of it hasn't been appreciated.
But is it also organizing, because we think of war as sort of a force that disorganizes, that lets loose, you know, havoc and also gets us into a lot of areas where our morals aren't so organized, where our standards aren't— how do you see that? Do you think that war organizes in addition to being organized?
MACMILLAN: I think war does both. I mean, I say yes, I think once the war starts, it's unpredictable. And as von Clausewitz said, war has its own logic. And those who have made war have often discovered to the cost that war takes on its own momentum is uncontrollable. You don't know where it's going to go and you don't know where it's going to end.
But I do think at the beginning and in the whole process of war, you do have this organization. And I think your point about war being organizing as well. And there's a very interesting debate. And I tend to agree with those who argue that war has helped to encourage human organization. Because if you can't organize the war, then you're not going to survive, you're going to become a footnote in history, you're going to be absorbed into perhaps a greater empire.
But the need to make war has often driven government organization. You think of the Roman Empire. When the Romans and the Greeks did censuses so they would know how many people they had to fight. They used it for other reasons. They built roads, so they could move their troops around. And then of course, those roads were used for other purposes. And I think the growth in the United States, our big government, certainly in the First and Second World Wars, was very much because of the need to organize war, but in peacetime, that organization often persisted.
And so a lot of what we think of as strong state government has come about, certainly in the modern age and in the past, through the need to be able to mobilize your resources and get the people you needed to fight and get them into the battlefield. And those structures, of course, don't disappear at the end of the war, often they become part of the fabric of society.
SORKIN: You know, you write in the book about wars as being often turning points or even particular battles. You know, Vienna 1529, is often a what if. You know, would the world have all been different without that. Obviously, we have a tendency to, in retrospect, construct narratives. Do you think that people tend to know where it's going? How often do the combatants have a sense this is going to change history in this direction or that direction? And how often are they right?
MACMILLAN: Well, I think we all like to think perhaps that events were involved in are Earth-shaking and world-altering. And sometimes they aren't. I mean, I think there's always this tension, certainly among historians, between looking at the great currents that run through history: geography, demographics, environment, pandemics. These are things that aren't really altered and changed by political decisions or by wars.
But on the other hand, I think you can— I would argue, at any rate, that there are times when who wins or who loses really does make a difference. If the Persians had won against the Greek city-states, would the whole of the south of Europe have been different? Would its fate have been different? If Charles the Hammer had not defeated— Charles Martel had not defeated the Moors when they were coming up from Spain, would the fate of Europe have been different? If the Ottomans had won outside Vienna rather than losing, would the center of Europe have been Muslim?
So I do think sometimes wars will help to imprint a particular set of cultural values or a religion or a way of life on a society. And you think of the impact of the wars of the Spanish conquistadores. If the Aztecs or the Incas had managed to defeat those early Conquistadores — and these were very powerful states with all sorts of soldiers — would the fate of Latin America have been different? And I would argue that it would have been.
So not all wars alter the course of history, but I think some really do.
SORKIN: You know, you open the book with a great quote from Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, in which she calls war one of the chief human mysteries. And I have a sense that what she doesn't— what she means isn't, you know, the mystery of what would have happened—that tours—but something more profound. What do you think the essence of that mystery of war is?
MACMILLAN: Well what she's probing in that book—and I think it's, it's a wonderful book—is what war does to people and why— how people feel in war. And she's looking at these women, often very young. I mean, sometimes these were teenagers who volunteered to go off and fight and they ended up sometimes being artillery people or being guerrilla soldiers—
SORKIN: And World War Two and the Belarusian—
MACMILLAN: And yes, on the Eastern Front, and of course, their fate, if they fell into the hands of the Germans, was awful because the Germans regarded, particularly the Nazi ideology, where women are meant to stay in the kitchen and look after the children. And for the Nazis, women who fought were unnatural, and they treated them very badly, indeed. So I think what she's trying to get at is what is war and can we ever get at the essence of it.
And what struck me so much in that book was these women described incredible hardships and great dangers, but they also describe this incredible intensity. One of them said, everything is so alive, you know, when you know you might die, every leaf matters, every bit of sunlight matters. And I think there's that about war. And there's that— one of the mysteries— I mean, then why do people fight? How can people do this? But also, why does it bring out the best and the worst in us? You know, it is something we puzzle about, and it's something— I don't-—There's no clear consensus on what war means, but we keep on worrying about it, I think.
SORKIN: There's so much in what you just said, including the whole question of gender and war. You know, the idea of the unwomanly face of war. How does gender figure into the story that you're telling?
MACMILLAN: Well, one of the things that struck me and you know, just it's a fact, probably 99% of those who have fought throughout history have been men. And why is this? And there is a very interesting debate about it, as about so much else to do with war.
And there are those who would say, well, it's biological, that women are the nurturers, and simply, centuries and millennia of evolution have made them people who don't want to fight but want to nurture and that men, through centuries of evolution, through biology, have been those who fight.
And I just don't think it's enough of an explanation because culture matters enormously. And a lot of men who fight don't want to fight. I mean, they have to be trained to do it, they have to be made into people who are willing to kill or be killed.
And I think the same thing is probably true of women. And we're finding more and more evidence that when they do fight, women can fight, as they did, as those Soviet women did in the Second World War, they can fight and they can do the things that men did. We used to think that the Amazons was simply a figment of Greek imagination, that the Greeks actually terrified themselves by thinking of these appalling beings who would fight women, who would fight like men. And recently, archeologists have been finding tombs around the North Shore of the Black Sea of skeletons of women, which they can identify, dressed in armor, the armor around them, who look as if they suffered trauma, that probably died in battle. So I think in the experience of women in the armed forces today in many countries, where they are now in combat roles, really seems to indicate that women can fight.
So I tend to come down on the side that it's really culture, that women have been brought up to think that war is not for them, and men have been brought up to think that war is for them.
SORKIN: So that's— the idea of the women warriors is so fascinating. There's also— it also raises the question, when you were saying combatants, about what it means to be on the battlefield. One thing you write about is the history of sexual violence as a weapon of war as well.
MACMILLAN: Well, women have often been prizes in war. You know, if you look at things— the memorials the Romans built to their wars, Trojan's Column, for example of a memorial arches, you'll often see women in the in the rows of captives who have been brought along. And they would be taken into Roman households and become either servants or mistresses, or perhaps sometimes even wives of the Romans, who conquered them. And so possession of women has often been a part of war, taking the other side's women has been part of what you do in war.
And rape has been seen, unfortunately, as something that soldiers do. That it's sort of a reward for fighting. But it's also seen as a punishment. When towns held out in sieges in the Middle Ages, they would be threatened with their women being dishonored. And this was, of course, a very dreadful threat. And in Bosnia in the 1990s, when that unfortunate country fell to pieces, when Yugoslavia fell to pieces, the Serbian nationalist fighters would often deliberately rape, often publicly, Bosnian Muslim women. And it was a signal and it was a way of trying to break the will of the Bosnians to keep up the fight. So unfortunately, rape has a long and very dishonorable history and war.
SORKIN: You know, you make an interesting observation in your book. As we've gotten better at killing, we have also become less willing to tolerate violence against each other. And can you talk about that a little more? How much does that depend on the battlefield being remote and on, I guess, the 'we' not being where the fighting is?
MACMILLAN: I think that's part of it. I mean, I think those of us who have lived in the developed part of the world or the north or the other various expressions for it since 1945, most of us have not experienced war firsthand. And most of us don't know what it's like. War has been something that has been fought far away, and often by people who aren't like us. And so I think that has given us a sort of distance from war. And perhaps we don't fully understand what war is like. And I think that is perhaps not a good thing. Because if we don't understand what war is, like, we may stumble into it. And I think it's true.
Steven Pinker and others, have argued this, that we've become less tolerant of violence within our societies. And we no longer have these public displays of brutality. I mean, we would no longer have public executions. And when Daesh or ISIS did public executions, opinion was appalled outside those particular circles at such barbarity. So I think in some ways we have become gentler and more law abiding societies. But that's not the same as fighting wars.
And what we know is that the military have, over centuries, learned how to take people from civilian society and turn them into soldiers. And we also know that if people are motivated enough, even if they don't think they want to fight, they will. I mean, I don't think— probably a majority of Americans didn't want to get involved in the Second World War. But after Pearl Harbor, that changed almost overnight. And so I think, you know, that people will fight, sometimes surprising themselves.
SORKIN: I just want to push a little more on that idea of, you know, that we're both at once not at war here, but our nation is at war over there. How can we both be not at war and at war at the same time? Is it just a trick? Is it— are we just diverting our eyes from the fact that we are at war? And how much, as you say, of a problem is that?
MACMILLAN: Well, I think it may be a problem because it may mean that we don't take fully into account what's happening to those other peoples over there. And I think with the end of conscription for most countries, I mean, some countries still have equivalents of the draft, but it's ended, of course, in the United States, it ended in Britain. It means that by and large, most young people, most young men it used to be in society, won't have experience of the military.
And increasingly, I think what we're seeing is the military being drawn, either from families who have a tradition of military service, or from very specific social groups, and often those social groups, in the United States, for example, I think soldiers, people in the military recruited very largely from rural areas, often from Hispanics, and from black people, often from poorer people in urban areas. And so that means that it's been confined, military service has been confined to fairly small groups and societies, which mean that the rest of us don't know much about it.
I think there's another thing that comes in, and that is the use of modern technology. I mean, it's now possible to direct things like drones, for example, or self-guided missiles at targets far away without actually witnessing what happens to those targets. And so I think there's possibility of a detachment from war, I think, for a lot of this.
SORKIN: Now, obviously, the technological part is new, but as a historian, do you have models for what it does to a society if the fighting class and the rest of society sort of grow apart from each other?
MACMILLAN: Well, sometimes the fighting class can be very badly treated. In the case of the British, while the offices came from the upper classes and so they were privileged and often treated very well, the ordinary soldiers came, certainly up until the end of the eighteenth century, from what Wellington in fact called the scum of the earth. I mean, they came from people who were felt to be expendable. They came from those who were poor, who had no other opportunities in life. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, if you committed a crime, a capital crime for which it could be executed, you are often given the choice between execution and going into the army. And that's how little you were thought of.
And what it meant was that the ordinary soldiers were treated very badly, indeed. And it really took a series of scandals in the nineteenth century to show how appalling the medical conditions were, how badly they were fed, how badly they were led, how badly they were treated. For a long time, the British public just didn't care what was happening to their soldiers, because they weren't generally people they knew, they weren't people they valued, they were fighting way over there somewhere else.
SORKIN: And how unhealthy is that for— in terms of how war shapes us? That aspect of war, if there isn't a conversation between those groups, between those populations in terms of leadership and decision-making?
MACMILLAN: I think it's bad both ways because I think it means that societies will not treat their military well, although they expect them to go and fight and die for them.
But I think it's also bad because you can get, within the military themselves, a sense that they are somehow caste apart, that nobody understands them, that they only have each other to rely on. And, you know, often in Roman history you see this with a Praetorian Guard around the emperor, began to think that they were somehow special. And they began to make and break emperors. Or the Janissaries in the Ottoman Empire. And I think that can be bad.
And we've seen in the present and in the certainly in the twentieth century, examples of the military in certain countries seeing themselves as the most important part of the country, seeing themselves as saviors of the country and intervening repeatedly in politics. I mean, this is not good for societies.
SORKIN: It's interesting, we tend to— when we hear some government has become a military government, we tend to think that something has gone wrong. Is that because the model of war has come into spaces it shouldn't be in?
MACMILLAN: I think that's part of it.
And I think there's also, certainly I would argue, that the military aren't trained to manage complex societies and actually all societies are complex in their own ways. They are trained to do certain things, but they don't make very good governments. They don't have the patience to deal with the complexities of civilian life, and they're not necessarily very good at trying to bring people together. They're good at giving orders. And I think we've seen military governments, on the whole, it's not been very successful.
And of course, then the temptation is that the military will use the chance to look after themselves. And so the problems of military and power. I mean, we've seen it in Pakistan. And we saw it, certainly for a time in Indonesia, is you get immense corruption at the heart of the state, which is bad for society as a whole, and means people lose faith, both in the military and their own government.
SORKIN: I wonder if you could talk about the complicated and I think evolving question of war crimes. I mean, from some perspectives, you know, the crime is war. But how old is the attempt to say that, you know, there are limits to war and also to enforce those limits?
MACMILLAN: I think as far as we know, it goes almost back as far as war itself. And it seems odd that we try and harness something that is in itself violent, but we have tried as a species repeatedly to try and deal with war. I mean, the Greeks had various understandings, not necessarily laws, but they had understandings. I mean, they tended, the Greek city states tended to fight on the plains. And they tended to fight on foot. And by the end of the day, they tended to decide that one side or the other had won. I mean, they tended not to have long, prolonged wars that went on. And they would have a sort of truce. When things, like such as when the Olympics were on, they didn't fight.
And in the Middle Ages, you have the Church trying to enforce no fighting on certain holy days, no fighting at Christmas, no fighting at Easter. And so this goes back a long way in pretty much all religions. I mean, there are also things in Islam and Judaism, sort of rules about what you should do and what you shouldn't do and when you should fight and outlawing certain weapons.
When gunpowder first appeared, it was regarded as absolutely appalling. And people weren't going to use it until of course, they did use it. And so we keep on trying.
You know, there's now a whole lot of discussion around the new breeds of weapons that are coming, the weapons guided by artificial intelligence and drones, and arguments about can you build something into a drone so that it won't attack an innocent target? I mean, these are things, attempts that go on, and they seem futile, but we keep on trying them.
SORKIN: You talk about, in the book, you talk about the killer robot problem. That in a way, it's an inverse, it's very easy to get a robot to follow orders. But how do you train a robot, in a way, not to follow orders at a certain point? At the point where you would expect a human soldier to know this is an order I can't follow? How do you—
MACMILLAN: You could build into the robots algorithms. I mean, I don't know enough about the technology, but you could build into the robot's algorithms prohibition on, say, attacking hospitals, or attacking schools, or an injunction or pause where the robot actually has to check if it can attack a human target.
SORKIN: The idea of mercy—
MACMILLAN: Yeah, and the trouble is, I'm not sure people are going to do this. You know, I'm not sure that— will people really build controls and pauses into robots? And I'm not sure they will. I mean, I think that the feeling will be this is such a great new weapon. Let's just use it.
SORKIN: How about reckonings after war, though? For war crimes, war crimes trials? Do you see that? Have we gotten better at that, in some ways, in the last decade?
MACMILLAN: I think introducing the idea of war crimes and introducing the idea that someone should pay.
After the First World War, there was an attempt to find and punish those responsible for it. And there was talk of trying the Kaiser of Germany for the equivalent of crimes against humanity. And then eventually it was abandoned. I mean, there were some trials.
And after the Second World War, of course, there were the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials and new concepts were introduced. And I think the concept can be important because then you have something to measure against, and you can hold people up against it. So the concept of crimes against humanity and the concepts of genocide were introduced after the Second World War. And I think we still work with those. And we have developed a whole body of law on war. And we have attempted to set up courts, we have set up courts to try and try those responsible for war crimes.
So we keep trying, the fact that they don't always work, I don't think means it's a bad idea. It's like trying to stop crime in civil society. It doesn't always work. But we want to keep trying.
SORKIN: Oh, that raises an interesting question. You know, your book is how conflict shaped us. What about peace as that sort of ideal you're talking about? Has the attempt to not go to war shaped us in some essential way as well?
MACMILLAN: Oh, I think so. And I think again, there's a very long history in many languages in many parts of the world, on trying to classify wars as just or unjust. In other words, trying to limit the reasons why people can go to war. And then Saint Augustine, for example, said, you know, war is only just under certain circumstances. And so this goes back a long way. And I think we do try very hard to try and distinguish between different types of wars.
But ending wars is very difficult. And there's always a danger that when you win you might be inclined to, you know, treat the other side very badly and accuse them of all sorts of crimes.
But no, I think we do. And we set up international organizations. I mean, the UN's charter says, very specifically, the UN is there to stop war. And so I think we have tried, and we continue to try to find ways to maintain peace.
SORKIN: Do you think that, in a way, that requires more organization than war on some level? Not going to war?
MACMILLAN: Well, I think not going to war needs international organization and international support. And I think it needs international public opinion. You know, in 1928, partly sponsored by an American, the Pact of Paris was signed, and nations eventually I think, some ninety or more signed up. I think it's still in force. To pledge that they would not use war against each other to settle their disputes. And I think this is important.
But maintaining peace is more than just signing documents. And the trouble with maintaining peace is how do you actually do it? And that's what the League of Nations wrestled with. And that's what the UN wrestles with. At what point do you use sanctions, economic sanctions, blockades, whatever? And at what point do you actually use force? And it's, again, the same dilemma that all democratic societies face. You know, we want to live as citizens together, but we recognize that at some point, the state may use force to oblige us to live peacefully together. And it's the same thing I think with peace, you can't just wish peace.
I mean, Ghandi, I think, believed, and I think he was extraordinary, but I don't think I can agree with him on this, that, you know, soul force eventually would bring peace, that you should never counter violence with violence. And I think sometimes the only way you get peace is, unfortunately, by using violence.
SORKIN: I want to—we're going to go to questions from members in a minute. But just— one thing you deal with in your book is the question of studying war as a field, as a subject. You say that it's become a little unfashionable, in some ways. Why do you see it still as crucial?
MACMILLAN: In North American university, generally, I think less so in the UK, there's been a move away from political history, diplomatic history, and military history. And, I think, because these are seen— Maybe it's partly a holdover from the Vietnam period and the sort of criticism of government at the time, but these are seen as being about power, and perhaps seen as being complicit with power. And it seems to me that there is power in the world, and there are wars in the world, and there are politics in the world. And we actually need to study these things, and to understand them. And so I think to turn our eyes away, to say these are very distasteful subjects, we don't like them, is not helping. You know, I think we do need to study these things.
But generally, I'm concerned because, you know, the study of history in North American universities has declined so precipitously. And of course, I'm biased, but I think it's a useful subject. And I think it's a subject that helps to open our eyes to possibilities and formulate questions.
SORKIN: Speaking of questions, I think it's now— I still have more for you, but I'm going to let our members jump in. And, I think Sam, are you going to explain how we do that?
STAFF: Yes. [Gives queuing instructions.] We will take our first question from Tim Ferguson. Please remember to state your affiliation.
Q: Thank you. I'm Tim Ferguson, a journalist in New York. Professor, I want to get at the kind of cynical notion that war is a periodically necessary expression of an aggressive young cohort, usually males. You noted that the developed world ex the U.S. has avoided war for about seventy-five years. Are there other examples of significant cultures that have been spared war for significant periods?
MACMILLAN: Yes, I think Europe in the nineteenth century had what was, in European terms, the most peaceful century, as far as we know, it ever had. And that's not to say there weren't wars, but they tended to be short. They tended to be between two countries like the war between France and the German Confederation in 1870. And they tended to come up with a decision. And Europeans by the end of the century were rather like us. They said we've moved beyond war, we don't do it anymore. We're too peaceable, we're too civilized.
So I think we have, you know, we have got examples of peaceable countries and, you know, the fact that you have a lot of young men around doesn't mean you're going to get a war. It may mean that you get a lot of excitement outside bars, and you get a lot of excitement at sports. You know, the youth in the society does affect how it behaves. But it takes more than that to make those energetic young men into soldiers. And that's a decision more of society as a whole, I think.
SORKIN: In both of those cases, you're talking about wars elsewhere.
MACMILLAN: War was mostly elsewhere. Europe didn't have much war on the continent. The Franco-Prussian War and the Wars of Italian Unification. But for most Europeans, it was an amazingly good century. And actually, if you look at Latin America, it's not had a major state-to-state war for decades now, although it has had civil unrest. So I do think it's possible to have large periods of peace.
There's always a danger—and this is why I keep on coming back to why we need to look at war — but there's always a danger that the peace may end and I think we need to keep that in mind.
SORKIN: Sam, do we want to take the next question?
STAFF: Yes. Our next question is from Lee Cullum.
Q: Thank you very much. I'm a journalist in Dallas. You said, and I certainly agree, I think you've been proven correct, that the military's takeover— Well, actually Amy said we did think oh there's bad trouble there, something's gone very wrong. Can you think of a time when a military takeover did turn out well. And may I add I certainly admire your work.
MACMILLAN: Thank you. I think perhaps possibly in Turkey, and I'm not thinking of present-day Turkey, but Ataturk, who was really the father of modern Turkey and managed to prevent its dismemberment, was a general himself, and he and his generals did rule the country. But he did begin to step back. And he did begin to try and limit the influence of the military.
So if you have a military that are prepared to exercise what Oliver Cromwell called a self-denying ordinance, that they will come in, they'll protect the country, and then they will step back. I think that is possible. And I think we've seen examples of that.
But the danger is, of course, that once in power, people get very comfortable, and they begin to enjoy the perks and their families begin to enjoy the perks. And so stepping back is not something they want to do.
SORKIN: And let's have the next question, Sam.
STAFF: Our next question is from Glenn Fukushima.
Q: Can you hear me?
SORKIN: Yes, go ahead.
Q: Great. Professor MacMillan, I'd like to ask you about the future of war and the potential that there could be a war that is not announced or even recognized, but is going on with use of technology. And you've mentioned drones before, but also cyberattacks, where you have an organized, systematic attempt to degrade or destroy another country or society. But it's not really, you know, people on the battlefield, who are fighting each other, which has been the traditional, you know, definition of war up to now. I mean, do you see in the future, the possibility with the use of technology, and with the ability to use technology so that things aren't even visible through cyberattacks that you could have a sustained attack? And yet, I mean, what are the boundaries of defining war? Do you think that the twenty-first century with technology allows for a new definition of war?
MACMILLAN: I think you may be right. I mean, I still like to think that somewhere is that element of violence that you want to destroy something, either the people or the things on the other side, but cyber war is a new type of war. And I'm still trying to work out what I think about it. Because a lot of what happens in cyber war is misinformation or disinformation or trying to undermine the trust of publics in their own institutions. And that, I think, is perhaps a type of warfare, but I wouldn't call it fully war.
But if you have cyber war, where you try to destroy the infrastructure of the other side, in ways that is going to cause tremendous destruction and probably loss of life, then I would say that is war. But I'm still sort of trying to work out. I mean, it's sort of fuzzy around the boundaries. But I think, you know, we— it's a curious thing. I mean, you talked about undeclared wars. I don't think — and someone can correct me — I don't think we've had a declaration of war pretty much since 1945. We've had UN resolutions, but for some reason, declaring war seems to have gone out of fashion, but that doesn't mean lots of wars. It's curious.
SORKIN: Alright, let's get the next question here.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Dov Zakheim.
Q: Hi Margaret. Nice to see you. You can't see me but I see you. You know, I've read your book. As you know, I'm going to be reviewing it. And in many ways, it's a sociological book. So I want to ask you a sociological question.
One of the— you know, you mentioned the sort of reactions to Vietnam. One of the things that I found — and I'd like to see your sense of this — is the reason that academics may not want to teach about war is that so many of them are products of the Vietnam era still, or are acolytes of these particular academics. And you look at the difference between the way the general public thinks of the military. And the military right now is the most respected group of people in the United States, well beyond Congress, journalists, you name them, it's the military. And on the other hand, where the military fits in academia, where every time they want to set up a Reserve Officers Training Corps, it's an uphill battle. And they may take the hill, but it's uphill. What are your thoughts about that?
MACMILLAN: I think I'm going to agree with you. You know, Dov and I were graduate students together, and I didn't always agree with him. But I will agree with you on this occasion.
I think Vietnam casts a particular shadow over the United States. And I think you're still working through it. And I was very struck when I read books — I think it was Fiasco by Christopher Ricks — about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and how much the experience of Vietnam had affected key decision makers in Washington, and shaped the ways in which they looked at what was going to happen in Iraq and their plans for Iraq. And I think you're probably right, that the generation of people who went into university teaching came out of that world, which was very, by and large very opposed to the American involvement in Vietnam. And it was, and also, of course, very concerned about race relations. And I think there is a feeling somehow that has persisted that war is illegitimate. And you don't see it as much in other countries.
I mean, in the UK, teaching about war is still very much something that universities do. And there's not, I think, quite the gulf between the military and the academic world that there is perhaps in the United States.
And so I do think your generation, what happens to your generation matters as to how you see the world. So I think I really agree with you on that.
SORKIN: How about just the question that Dov brought up about the strange split character to the honor that military service people are given. You know, on the one hand polls would show that they're the most respected group, on the other hand, that respect might take the form of cheering at a baseball game, but maybe doesn't have practical effect? Is there some sort of split there?
MACMILLAN: I wonder if — and this is only speculation and you all know much more about your own country than I do — but I wonder if it's partly because the military seems to be the one institution that is nationwide, that has not been tarnished by scandals, which seems to have people— has people in it who are doing it not for lots of money, but are doing it because they have a sense of duty and service.
And so I suspect in there's sort of admiration that these are people who put things other than material gain high and consider them as important and I think there tends to be such as cynicism now — and it's not just in the U.S. but elsewhere — about politicians, about civil servants, about industrialists, about bankers. And the military seem to look like a decent bunch who care about decent things. I'm putting it very simply, but it may be that. That they have somehow survived the general unfortunate cynicism about institutions and are seen as people who really do care about the good of the country.
SORKIN: All right, and let's go to the next question.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Dane Erickson.
Q: Hello, my name is Dane Erickson. I just took a new job with a company called Watershed Partners. It's a Canadian company and I'm opening up the U.S. office to enhance international collaboration.
My question is about an essay that you wrote six years ago, The Rhyme of History and the Lessons of the Great War. And I only recently came across it. But you warned about kind of the tides of nationalism, the perils of globalization, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-COVID. And I guess I would ask if you were to give a few comments six years later, and what trends are you seeing and how close are we to— do you see indicators that— unforeseen indicators about conflict that we're not— that maybe would surprise us?
MACMILLAN: Well, I'll start by saying thank you for the question. I'll start by saying that, you know, I don't think history will ever give us very clear guidance, but I think it can give us warnings. And it can give us ways of thinking about the present. And when I wrote that essay, I was thinking a lot about the First World War and its origins. And so I did think about what I saw happening in our own times.
And I think, you know, that it's always— there are always trends in societies, and some are positive and some negative and so that I don't think society's ever moving in one direction. I mean, before the First World War, there were certainly forces pushing in a direction of war. But there were also lots of forces pushing in the direction of peace.
And I think it's the same with our society today. I mean, I think we're seeing contradictory impulses. I think we're definitely seeing — and I can't remember I mentioned it six years ago — we're certainly seeing a reaction against globalization. And this has become much more pronounced, and I think it's been exacerbated by the pandemic. And I think some of the many flaws in globalization — the fact that so many people have left been left behind by it — have become much more apparent and the pandemic has helped to, to stress that. I think the rise of populism is something that is still a worry.
But I think we've also seen in the past six years, in fact, a revival of democracy in a number of countries, I think we've seen a willingness to compromise, you know, we notice the polarization. And we notice that when groups shadowed each other, but perhaps what we need to remember also is that societies have quite often worked together on a number of issues and have come together on things like the pandemic.
So I think we're in— it's very difficult to see, in other words, clear trends. But I think we always need to keep our eyes open for things that could turn nasty and could turn nasty quickly.
And one of the things that concerns me, and this is, I think, you know, we're now beginning to realize much more than we did the dark side of the internet. One of the things that concerns me is the spread of conspiracy theories. And this has so often happened in the past when there has been a terrific crisis. And when the Black Death hit Europe in the fourteenth century, there were all sorts of conspiracy theories about it was the Jews who were doing it or someone else was doing it. And this is happening again, and there was a very alarming survey — and then I'd like to think it's data is flawed — in the UK, which said, one out of four British people thinks that the conspiracy theories around actually makes sense.
And that, I think, is alarming. And I think that's something that we really need as a society to keep an eye on because once people begin to believe these theories, they get drawn down these strange sort of wormholes into these strange worlds where everything is explained, and they lose faith in their own institutions, and they lose face in democracy and rule of law. And that I find very worrying.
And I think we also have, I mean — others have talked about this much more eloquently than I have — but I think we also have a number of tension spots in the world, which remind me of some of the tension spots before the First World War. Areas where there are local conflicts, which threatened to draw in other powers, and that we know can be very dangerous indeed.
SORKIN: That was fascinating. I'm tempted to follow up with you. But let's take another question first.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Ron Shelp.
SORKIN: Ron, go ahead.
Q: Professor Macmillan, every year at the Council, we have a meeting of all the chiefs of the military. And for about three years, I would ask them do you really think this kind of military—drawing from, in many ways a much lower class of society and underprivileged people— is as strong. I got beat down after three years when I was told it's the best it's ever been. Going from that question.
Number one, do you believe that if we did have conscription, it would have a chance of lowering the chance of war? Because a broader base of society, including people from different kinds of families, would be there?
And as an alternative or supplement to that, what do you think of the idea of required national service, either by the military or by something else, say for one year? Thank you.
MACMILLAN: If I may answer your second question first, I think some form of required national service is good. And I think for two reasons. One, I think it helps the young who are often very idealistic—and I think this is something that we should all collectively capitalize on — it helps the young to express their idealism in constructive ways. But I think national service—and I'm not talking of military national service here, I'm talking more like things like FDR's Conservation Corps—national service also helps to break down social barriers. You know, what it does is throw together young people who come from very different backgrounds, and I think this is good for a nation to do and it's good for social cohesion that people begin to understand each other and begin to overcome some of the stereotyping and presumptions about each other.
Would there be less war if people were conscripted? And I suspect not. Before the First World War, the German military were very worried about extending conscription to the lower classes of society because, as one General said, it will be teaching the working classes how to turn their rifles on us. And in fact, what happened was far from that happening. Most of the often left-wing working class who went in and did their military service became more patriotic and, in fact, more conservative, and so I'm not sure conscription will help people to resist war. In fact, it may make them readier for it. I think it depends, though, very much on the society. And I think also, if you try and bring in conscription in a society which doesn't support it, you will get into real trouble.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Rita Hauser.
Q: Hi, Margaret, good to see you after all this time. And Margaret, you indicate that the attempts to limit war like with the UN and Hague Conventions and so on have all been futile. Why not think about the old spheres of influence and maybe accept the idea that China would be the dominant force in Asia, and Russia in its area, and they would be charged with making the first determinations about war, at least within their regions. I'm trying hard to think of something other than legal structures, which you quite properly have said have been to mostly no avail despite all the efforts of we lawyers.
MACMILLAN: Well, Rita, I will disagree with your tiny bit. And that is I do think that laws of war are better than nothing, and that sometimes they have made a difference. And there is an accountability, which I think is important. And it may well be — but it will be difficult, I think, to prove it — it may well be that people hesitate before doing things, dictators, for example, or hesitate before doing things because they know that can be held to account. And so I don't think they're completely futile. I think they are a step forward. But I think much more has to be done. And I agree with you that so far the record is very mixed indeed.
Spheres of influence work as long, I suppose, as both sides respect it. But I think they're inherently unstable. And what you get in a sphere of influence is you get both the predominant power, but then you get the lesser powers. And the lesser powers can often, especially if they're on the edge of the sphere, can often cause trouble by threatening to leave by threatening to change sides. I mean, Romania did it before the First World War. And it was actually quite destabilizing for the Balkans. And what I think the problem can also be is that you have to have some sort of understanding that each dominant power, each hegemonic power in its sphere, will respect the boundaries.
Now China has attempted and is building a sphere of influence in its own neighborhood. But will it try and move further afield? And at what point does it come up against what the Americans regard is their interest? I mean, it already is butting up against what the Americans regard as their interest.
So spheres of influence, if they were to remain stable, might be a way of managing the world, but in my experience, they tend not to remain stable. They always have this potential for instability.
SORKIN: That's great. And let's go to the next question.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Frank Wisner.
SORKIN: Go right ahead, Frank.
Q: Margaret, what a privilege it is to hear you today and hear you range as widely as you have. I want to go back twenty years. And twenty years ago, in the Balkans as a result of Rwanda, a concept gained some footing called the responsibility to protect. In other words, the responsibility of nations to reach out in humanitarian catastrophes or grave challenges to a humanitarian order and go to war. I think we've seen the limits of that in recent years. What's the historical record of the right responsibility to protect? And what limits do you, reflecting on history, put around it?
MACMILLAN: Well, I think that the idea of responsibility to protect and humanitarian intervention goes back further than the annunciation of the doctrine in the 1990s. In the nineteenth century, the powers intervened on several occasions in the Ottoman Empire to oblige the Ottomans to treat their Christian minorities better. And so the idea that— the Westphalian idea was that states did not interfere in each other's internal affairs, but that was beginning to break down by the nineteenth century. And there was an idea that, if you saw a dreadful injustice or a dreadful horror happening, that, in fact, you had some responsibility. And I suppose it goes along with the idea of an international community with international norms and international values, and is it a bad thing? I don't think it is.
But the trouble with responsibility to protect—and I think the actual doctrine, if I may just put in a plug for Canada, was promoted and annunciated by a Canadian prime minister — but it was something that was very much the mood of the times and, I think, what has happened to the responsibility to protect, I think it got devalued, partly as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where humanitarian intervention was used as one of the reasons that the British and the Americans were going in. And I think a lot of people felt that it was a cover, it was a fig leaf. And so the idea itself got discredited, and I think a lot of people in the non-European Western world saw it's simply as yet another example of Western hypocrisy.
Now, I think that's a shame because I think we do face, as an international society— I think, there is such a thing. We do face real moral questions when we see dreadful things, genocides being carried out on peoples inside another country. And sometimes, I'm afraid, you know, we there's not much we can do about it. But I do think we're right to take it seriously.
I mean, what is happening to the Uighur in China, for example, at the moment, the Chinese insist is an internal problem. But it seems to me that it really is of international concern.
And I think this is something we're going to have to wrestle with. You know, it is very hard to intervene in the affairs of another country. But there are times when the violent— the offenses are so egregious that I think we do want to intervene. And I don't think the idea of humanitarian intervention is going to disappear. It may have been somewhat discredited, but I think there is still a core, something which is saying, you know, there are norms and values that apply to everyone in this world.
SORKIN: You said something in there that just maybe to expand a tiny bit on about what happens when a population feels that it's been lied to about the reasons for war or had them misrepresented to them.
MACMILLAN: Well, that's very dangerous, because I think— well both in the case of Iraq, I think, you know, the Iraqis who— a lot of whom welcomed the disappearance of Saddam Hussein, have become very cynical about the motives for the invasion and occupation, and increasingly think it was just a cover for getting hands on their oil or whatever. And I think that is dangerous because when people get cynical about other governments, or get cynical about their own governments, then I think it's corrosive.
And you know, again, to go back to a point we were talking about earlier, I mean, cynicism about your own institutions, which is sometimes justified. I mean, we shouldn't take them all as being absolutely wonderful. Of course, we have to criticize them. But if you get to this point where you think ah they're all corrupt. They're all horrible. You know, the danger then is you just give up. And you got that mood very much in Weimar Germany in the 1920s when people would say, sort of, oh well, they're all corrupt, I'm not going to make an effort. And that's so dangerous because if we all stop making efforts, then yes, indeed, the institutions probably will get worse.
SORKIN: All right, let's take another question.
STAFF: Our next question is from Jeffrey Laurenti.
Q: Thank you very much, Dr. MacMillan, I want to actually come at the question of the delegitimization of war from the opposite direction than Rita Hauser's question, because certainly between states, the norm since 1945 is that it has been almost entirely respected as taboo. The non-acquisition of territory by force has been deeply embedded in international relations. The notion that we saw just before the First World War that was so widespread in Europe of war and the shedding of blood in war as somehow purifying a purgative for national greatness has entirely disappeared, and in saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, as the UN Charter begins, or building the defenses of peace in the minds of men, as UNESCO's constitution begins, you've had both a normative declaration, and then we've elaborated institutions, from peacekeeping, to arms control and arms limitation, and you had massive worldwide protests against the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq.
Don't you see that war has kind of lost its historical attractiveness? And we have been building circuit breakers that have been more successful than not in limiting, containing the kind of natural aggressiveness that you sometimes find in people?
MACMILLAN: I think I would agree with you that we've seen fewer state-to-state wars. And although you know the one we all tend to forget about is Iran-Iraq in the 1980s.
But we've certainly seen a great many civil wars. And those, I think, we've been less successful at dealing with. But I do agree that we have had circuit breakers. But the problem with circuit breakers is you have to maintain them. And what I'm concerned about now is that we've seen breaches on what were fairly strong norms after 1945.
And for example, the acquisition of territory by force. It seemed to have gone out of favor, it seemed to be something that was no longer approved. I mean, even Saddam Hussein, when he when he invaded Kuwait, tried to come up with some sort of rather fake, in my view, historical justification for doing it, claim to Kuwait.
But what we've seen recently with Putin's seizure of Crimea is, I think, simply naked aggression again, and no punishment. I mean, there have been sanctions, but really very little punishment to those around Putin. And I think the recognition by the United States of the settlements on the West Bank seems to me to perhaps be a dangerous step towards that. It seems to be recognizing this territory is de facto becoming part of Israel. And so I'm worried that this very strong sense that you don't take territory by force is now beginning to be breached.
And again, as I said, I mean, these things are only as good as the will and the ability to enforce them. So it may be that some of the norms are disappearing, and also that the sort of distaste for war is not universal.
You know the idea that war is an ennobling thing is still there in some countries. And I was very struck, I think, it was last week when Xi Jinping was talking to the Chinese military, I think, it was two military cadets and he said something about, you know, you must be brave and prepared to die for the country. And it struck me this is this is something that someone could have been saying in the days before the First World War.
SORKIN: We've only got about a minute and a half left. There's still so much to say, but let's try to get one succinct, quick question. One more in.
STAFF: Our last question will be from Clifford Krauss.
Q: Thank you, Professor MacMillan. Traditionally, one of the objectives of war-making was to change the leadership of your opponent. When is it war— when is it an act of war when a country tries to influence an election as has been happening here. The Russians been doing this to different countries?
MACMILLAN: Yeah. Well, I'll try and be succinct too. I think, traditionally, in fact, governments have not always wanted to change the government of their opponents. As long as they've had someone they can deal with, they've been prepared to deal with that person. I don't think— it really was the Second World War where the Allies made it a point that they were simply not going to deal with the Nazi regime. And I think that was a very important step forward. As far as, sorry, the second part of your question was about— oh, what's happening in the United States?
SORKIN: Whether it's an act of war—
Q: Yeah, when is it an act of war?
MACMILLAN: Yeah. I mean, it's a hostile act. Is it an act of war? If you accept my definition, and you don't have to, that war involves violence, then it seems to me this is a warlike activity, but it's not yet war. I tend to try and keep the definition fairly narrow because otherwise it just gets so broad, but it certainly is a hostile act. And, you know, it is, I think, increasingly common. I mean, I think military everywhere, quite rightly, and their governments are taking cyber war very seriously, indeed, because it's a whole new frontier. And I think we're just beginning to realize how very dangerous it is.
SORKIN: And maybe that's a good note to end on, this question of when war begins and when war ends, but I know that that we need to very seriously take that our meetings end promptly. I just want to thank members so much and thank you, Margaret MacMillan. It was a wonderful talk. And thank you all for joining us today.
MACMILLAN: Thank you very much, and thanks for all the lovely questions.