Why war for wealth has fallen out of fashion

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As the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq drag towards their third decade, and Syria’s civil war ticks towards 400,000 dead, it may seem trite to observe that nobody really “wins” a war. But it nonetheless represents a significant historic change, and one that can help account both for the fact that the number of wars is declining as well as the type and location of wars that remain.

War always has been “negative sum,” in that any resource gain to the victor was matched by an equal loss to the loser and both sides paid in lives and arms. But those who prevailed on the battlefield could more than compensate for their military costs through occupation, plunder and enslavement.

Anthropologist James Scott discusses the earliest wars in his book “Against the Grain.” He suggests that city-states such as Umma and Lagash in Mesopotamia fought over land and water, but most of all people, and that was still the case when Caesar brought back as many as a million slaves from his invasion of Gaul. People, land and resources remained prizes worth fighting over well into the 20th century. Germany’s demand for Lebensraum (“living space”) and Japan’s obsession with obtaining an independent oil supply helped motivate World War II, for example. 

But economic change means that land and the stuff on or under it no longer is the key to prosperity and power worldwide. The World Bank calculates a measure of global wealth that divides it into natural capital — land, oil, gold — physical capital, including roads and factories, and “intangible capital.” That last category includes education and the institutions and knowledge from double entry bookkeeping to phonics-based literacy programs that allow economies to produce more value with the same amount of physical inputs. In 2014, natural capital accounted for 9 percent of planetary wealth, according to the World Bank. That compared to 27 percent for physical capital and 64 percent — almost two-thirds — in intangible capital.

The fact that wealth is driven by intangible ideas, institutions and relationships, rather than tangible goods and land, means that it can’t be expropriated by an invader. So even winning on the battlefield simply can’t pay off. Take one recent example: The Iraq war has cost the U.S. alone around $2.2 trillion, according to the Watson Institute at Brown University. Oil revenues earn the Iraqi government less than $100 billion a year. Even if President Trump carried out his one-time plan to expropriate the country’s oil, and despite Iraq’s huge share of global reserves, the war would not pay off economically.  

At the same time, intangible capital is “positive sum” — unlike a barrel of oil, if I use the technology of the internet, you can use it too — indeed, we both benefit from more people using it at the same time. That strengthens the payoff to peaceful cooperation and trade.

For all of the continued horror of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the changed basis of wealth and power helps to account for the global decline of war. Since 1975, an average of less than two interstate conflicts have been ongoing in the world each year, and recent years have seen even fewer. No major power war has erupted since 1939 — an 80-year stretch.  Most of the wars that remain are in regions where resources still have an outsized share of wealth: The low-income countries most at risk of civil conflict see an average share of natural capital in total capital of just under one-half, for example.  

Territorial disputes in richer regions of the world have not gone away, from the South China Sea through Ukraine, the West Bank, Gibraltar and The Falklands. And wars often are launched for reasons of domestic politics or ideology disconnected from calculations of power or wealth. But that no developed country could ever “win” a war, in terms of wealth, may help explain why interstate conflict is so much out of fashion. And it also suggests a powerful solution for those who would like to see even greater global peace: Help the poorest countries grow out of resource dependency.

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow and the director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development. He is the author of “Close the Pentagon: Rethinking National Security for a Positive Sum World.” Follow him on Twitter @charlesjkenny.

Tags Afghanistan War Donald Trump Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War War wealth World Bank Group

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