By Griffin Edwards ’17
As of the Second World War, our understanding of war has radically shifted. Gone are the days of massive empires gobbling up their neighbors at the end of a sword. Since 1945, the liberal world order and the institutions it has created have ensured peace and prevented another large-scale conflict.
Paradoxically, however, today’s world seems forever embroiled in conflict. The Middle East seems perpetually tumultuous, rebel groups in Africa terrorize rural areas, and a few “rogue nations” persist. But by and large, the foes the United States and its allies find themselves fighting are no longer rival powers wielding vast, technologically advanced armies, but rather terrorists, rebels, and extremist groups made up of self-trained civilians-turned-combatants.
Although our world has undergone this change, our politics of war have not. War has changed, but the process by which America’s government declares war hasn’t.
The Constitutional provisions for declaring war delegate the responsibility to Congress. Surprisingly, Congress has only declared formal war five times in all of American history. But with the credible threat of a multi-national conflict suppressed, at least for now, it’s time we reframe the concept of war in a modern context.
We ought to broaden our idea of “war” as a whole. Congressional declarations of war are only required if certain conditions are met. At their most basic, “war,” in the American sense, is against another national government. For this reason, no formal declaration of war was necessary to fight the Confederacy, send troops to Vietnam, or fly attack drones into the Middle East. What’s more, the 1973 War Powers Resolution allows the President to order American troops to a combat area at his orders for a finite period of time- a privilege presidents like Clinton, Bush and Obama (and now Trump) have been not been shy to use. Because these instances don’t require full Congressional approval, they are politically expedient; however, America too often becomes ensnared in minor conflicts, costing precious resources, destabilizing regions, and often exacerbating the crisis.
The effects of reexamining how the American government treats “war” would be both wide-reaching and positive. If these small-scale conflicts also required Congressional deliberation, America would be slower to march into a deadly confrontation. Relations with other nations would improve as well: America’s headlong interventions in the Syrian Civil War, for instance, sparked tensions with Russia. In addition, American military costs- quantified both in dollars and lives- would drop. By making war less politically expedient, future unnecessary conflicts will be prevented, while still allowing for those Congress- the public servants of the people- deems necessary.
And in today’s world, this shift is overdue. As the Pax Americana sees few serious signs of faltering, wars may be smaller and more decentralized, but that doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous. In fact, on the contrary: in today’s connected world, conflicts can swiftly spread from one region to another in a matter of days. But this volatility is no excuse to beef up an already bloated military system. Instead, it requires us to reflect more sincerely on our idea of “war” to effectively confront true enemies while at the same time encouraging peace.
War would change from a minor engagement to a serious commitment requiring the consent of the governed. As a global leader, other nations may even follow the example of Washington. By more seriously analyzing our reasons for entering a conflict, the United States and its allies will find themselves in a safer, more peaceful world.