Critique of “Winning the War on War”

In his 2012 book, “Winning the War on War”, Joshua Goldstein argues that armed conflicts have drastically reduced in the 21st century. According to Goldstein, modern wars are not only few and far between, but are also small in scale and intensity (5). Using his well-researched examples, Goldstein provides a compelling argument by correctly identifying factors that have led to the decline of armed conflicts. In particular, he succeeds in linking a range of arguments and factors together to explain the positive use of force and the resulting decline in violence. In addition, he offers suggestions that modern peacekeeping organizations will find valuable as they seek to transform the world into a peaceful society.

Goldstein’s first important observation is that societies are “winning the war on war” because of the emergence of international and regional peacekeepers, improved international relations between nations, shuttle diplomacy, and peace organizations such as the United Nations (UN). Curiously, the author does not think that individuals, per se, are responsible for the peaceful world but acknowledges that societies have helped restore world peace through direct and indirect interventions. Realistically, countries can provide military intervention to restore law and order in neighboring states. For example, the ECOMOG peacekeeping force in West Africa ousted the Sierra Leonean Junta in the late 90s to restore the civilian-elected administration (Alie 55). A plausible explanation for the success of recent military interventions is that such campaigns receive the support of other international peacekeeping organizations.

Goldstein further asserts that peace organizations have helped in stemming the emergence and escalation of wars. In his analysis, Goldstein links the decline of global violence to global bodies such as the UN. The author further commends the UN for its role of providing a wide range of humanitarian services to victims of war, thus, reducing human suffering. One key feature of the UN mandate is to intervene militarily by disarming combatants to protect civilian populations. For example, the UN, through its United Nation Protection Force (UNPROFOR), has helped promote peace and prevent the escalation of violence in various parts of the world.

Goldstein further suggests societies can “win war on war” by changing their nuanced perception of conflicts. As a practical and authoritative writer, Goldstein views wars on the basis of two continuums: from bad to worse and from small to large (5). He urges readers to look beyond the small-localized conflicts such as insurgencies and see the bigger picture of war (3). He decries the fact that individuals have used technology in the wrong way; to fan hatred and emotions and downplay the “positive effects of wars” (10). Goldstein does not spare the media either and argues that the international news organizations have done nothing in arresting the negative perception that people have on conflicts. Instead of focusing on peaceful regions of the world, the media, according to Goldstein, “feel at home” when broadcasting the devastating war news.

The author further explains what he terms as the “peace factors”, saying that these factors have been instrumental in promoting a peaceful world. Goldstein’s peace factors include the end of the cold war, dominance of the U.S., globalization, democracy, participation of women in politics, and proliferation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) (15). While democracy, proliferation of NGOs, and globalizations have helped in promotion of peace, others such as the end of the cold war and U.S. dominance have only resulted in more conflicts. The emergence of the Islamic State is a direct result of the U.S. brutal intervention policies in the Middle East. In addition, the end of the cold war has ushered in an era of proxy wars between Russia and the U.S.

In a surprising admission, Goldstein states that peacekeeping organizations are not always fallible; they are fraught with structural and administrative flaws that can make them ineffective. It is frightening that UN peacekeepers can be helpless in the face of violence. No one would want to envisage that the UN could fail under any circumstance, as many people regard it to be the ultimate protector. To underpin his argument that peacekeepers are not the overall savior during war, Goldstein elucidates several failed UN pacifying missions, especially in Rwanda, Somalia, Angola, and Bosnia. In each of these cases, the UN failed to take sufficient measures to prevent the escalation of violence, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from the ensuing conflicts. However, the author observes that the failures resulted from factors that were beyond the scope of the peacekeepers.

To improve peacekeeping activities and sustain peace, Goldstein outlines several areas for improvement. First, he observes that the UN needs to be more culturally sensitive during peacekeeping missions. Goldstein’s assertion of cultural sensitivity are echoed by other writers; Bove and Andrea argue that the UN peacekeeping efforts have been hampered by lack of effective communications and interactions with local populations as a result of cultural distances between the soldiers and the communities (2). Conversely, peacekeeping missions are successful when local populations perceive peacekeepers as sufficiently neutral or distant from the conflicting parties. In fairness, no one would want to see a negotiator appear to show preference to one side. Such an action is bound to result in negative sentiments. To promote lasting peace, peacekeepers must emulate Goldstein doctrine of learning to adapt by meshing one’s culture with that of the local communities (101). At the heart of Goldstein’s idea is the importance of being culturally sensitive when resolving conflicts.

Besides culture, Goldstein suggests that the UN peacekeepers should make personal sacrifices to help stop the spread of violence. For UN soldiers to be more effective in their peacekeeping missions, they must learn to do things that they would not do during conventional military activities. For example, UN soldiers can stop the deployment of combatants by standing in the path of oncoming tanks (105). The author rightly observes that the physical presence of the peacekeepers can help in reducing the risk of renewed hostilities. However, peacekeepers also need to keep out of harm’s way, particularly when they operate in hostile regions. Some of the combatants are known to attack peacekeepers, which in itself is a violation of international code of war. To enhance the safety of peacekeepers in conflict zones, the UN supply them with advanced weaponry such as the armored personnel carriers to protect them from hostile enemy fire.

One problem the author identifies is the skewed distribution of resources among the peacekeepers. According to Goldstein, the U.S. military, which is the same size as the UN peacekeeping force, has a budget that is 100 times that of the UN’s (309). To improve on its conflict stabilization efforts, the UN should have sufficient resources, including a standby peacekeeping force that can be deployed before the breakout of violence (317). Evidently, the author is advocating for the need to prevent the outbreak of war rather than intervening militarily when the conflicts start. Some of the conflicts in the world have escalated to dangerous levels because the UN acted too late. In the lead-up to the Rwandese genocide in 1994, the UN failed to stop the arming and formation of the murderous interahamwe militias, who went on to kill almost 1 million civilians (Melvern 22). Had the UN taken preemptive measures in Rwanda, it is likely that the genocide would never have occurred.

Overall, “Winning the War on War” is an educative and insightful book that readers can use to understand how the wars have declined over the years. The writer identifies various factors that have contributed to a general decline of the wars. First, the proliferation of various peacekeeping organizations has helped in the overall reduction of global violence. Although most of the modern conflicts are largely localized, it is easier for external parties to intervene and force reconciliation among the parties. The author notes that the UN has contributed significantly to the global reduction of hostilities, but some of its successes have been short-lived due to factors such as lack of funding and shortage of manpower. On top of that, Goldstein offers fresh perspective about the steps that peacekeepers should take to prevent the resurgence of wars. Peacekeepers can improve their pacification efforts by remaining culturally neutral when on peacekeeping assignment. In addition, there is a need for the UN to increase their physical presence in war-torn and use force when necessary to protect civilians.

About the Author: Russell White