Books interview with Ian Morris: “War can be a productive force in that it produces larger, more peaceful societies”

Ian Morris talks to Matt Elton about his new book which argues that war has often been a positive force in global history – and that we may need a single dominant power to ensure a peaceful world

Portrait of Ian Morris

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What sense do we get of warfare and violence in the Stone Age?

One of the big things we see from studies of more recent Stone Age societies is that such people lived in very small groups, usually of between 10 or 12 people. There was very little structure of any kind, and violence was a technique that was available for people to settle disputes. This doesn’t mean they were running around all day bashing each other’s heads in, as 19th-century images of savages suggest, but they did bash heads in a lot more than people do today.

As our environment changed, humans didn’t have to wait for biological evolution to change – we changed our own behaviour, institutions and so on. And so we see rates of violent death steadily declining. In Stone Age societies, as far as we can tell, 10 to 20 per cent of people died a violent death. In the 20th century, with its world wars, nuclear weapons and holocausts, 1 to 2 per cent of people died violently – a huge decline.

What factors do you think contributed to this decline in rates of violent death?

The storyline that runs through the book is that humans, so far as we know, have always used violence on occasion to settle disputes. Stone Age hunter-gatherer societies tended to live in relatively empty landscapes with lots of room, so when the losing group in a fight realised things were going badly, they often just moved away and started hunting and gathering somewhere else. The population just exploded after agriculture began, however, and in the parts of the world where farming was possible the landscape filled up and it became harder for losing sides to run away. So increasingly losers were swallowed up by the winners to form larger societies.

That makes it all sound very clean, when you had terrible things such as slavery, rape and plundering happening. But in the longer term, you also got larger societies forming. And what you generally wanted if you were the ruler of one of these societies was for your subjects to shut up, work hard and pay taxes. You didn’t want them to be killing each other and burning each other’s farms down all the time. So there was a lot of pressure on rulers to pacify the groups that they ruled. Cultural institutions and values played a big part, and – although it took thousands of years – people started to accept they couldn’t just go around bashing each other’s heads in.

As time goes on, however, these centralised empires disintegrated. What we see happening next is interesting: rates of violence start spiking back up as you go into the Middle Ages and these big empires break down.

This teaches us a big lesson: that values and institutions are really important in holding down the amount of violence that people commit, but they depend on there being a single controlling power to enforce them. Someone has to have a huge advantage and tell people that if they get violent, much more violence will be used against them.

So war can be a productive force in that it has the potential to produce larger, internally pacified societies that make the world safer – and richer, because you can’t have lots of trade without a peaceful world. That obviously doesn’t mean that war is always productive. There are periods of ‘counterproductive war’, in which the net effect is to break larger, safer societies down into smaller, poorer, more dangerous ones.

In your book you refer to dominant world powers as ‘globocops’. When did these controlling forces emerge?

In the 18th century, when there were enough ships to make ambitions of global domination a reality. Whereas the old attitude was that you could conquer nations for plunder, people started thinking that flows of trade could change the way war was fought. If you kept other European powers busy by fighting them, you could snap up global trade. Instead of being the means that pays for the end, trade could be an end in itself. This changed the idea of empire dramatically: even by the time of Napoleon, I suspect there was no way an old-fashioned land power could outgun or outspend the more commercial empires.

Can we see a global conflict such as the Second World War as being caused by the lack of a ‘globocop’?

Very much so. People who say the Second World War was all Hitler’s fault are absolutely right: if he had never been born, it’s hard to imagine any other leader taking Germany in such a disastrous direction. But the only reason the Hitler situation could happen is that no globocop was available. After the First World War, the British hadn’t grasped that they couldn’t fulfil the role any more, and the US weren’t yet keen because they couldn’t see the point – although that changed.

Does the US now act as a ‘globocop’?

One of the things that I’ve already found has most irritated people about the book is the idea that we have now got to the point where the US is like a ‘globocop’, overseeing a sort of world order with its ability to apply far more violence than anyone else. The implication of this is that if you want a safer, richer, more peaceful world, you must support US global domination.

But it’s important to stress that the US can only act like this because it exists alongside the European Union, which has little desire to compete for the right to police the world in this way. The EU is an incredible, almost unprecedented experiment in history: for the first time, millions of people have come together in a larger, richer society without anybody being forced to do anything. Rates of violent death are lower than anywhere else and it’s almost completely renounced war as a policy tool. I have to admit that, living in Britain in the 1970s, I thought the EU was  tedious – and I was sort of right. It is monumentally uninteresting. But, of course, that’s the point: you make it uninteresting, because people don’t often get shot on committees.

Some people think the greatest danger to the world today is warmongers in the US who push for intervention, but in the States, you get the opposite side of the argument: that the Europeans are a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys who give up every time there’s a conflict and won’t spend money on the military. But the only reason that the EU can do this is because it doesn’t have to get into fights with people – because you now have a globocop. The EU has moved to its position because the US has been willing to take responsibility for global security, and vice versa.

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War: What is it Good For? by Ian Morris (Profile, 448 pages, £25) is on sale now