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4. Different Kinds of War in Human History

© 2017 Agner Fog, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0128.04

4.1. The rise of empires: Contributions from cultural selection theory

Regality is a self-amplifying phenomenon. Regal groups tend to grow bigger by conquering the territory of neighboring more kungic groups and become city states, kingdoms, and finally large empires. After a long period of growth, the empire becomes unable to grow any further and finally collapses. Reasons for the collapse are discussed in chapter 4.2. For now, we will concentrate on explaining the growth.

Figure 7. Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th October 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan. Painting by William Simpson, 1855.1

The growth of a regal society is a cultural process, and we may seek explanations for this in the theory of cultural evolution and other cultural theories (see chapter 3.2).

One widely known version of cultural evolution theory is memetics. Cultural traits, called memes, are seen as heritable units analogous to genes.2 Memetics can be explained by the example of a new food recipe. People will share a recipe with their friends if they find the new dish tasty. The friends will share it with other friends, and so on. The best recipes will be the ones that are shared the most. Such recipes may ‘mutate’ or be combined with other recipes to produce new, even better recipes.

A big problem with the theory of memetics is that it does not always make sense to divide culture into discrete and inherited units of information.3 Some theories avoid these problems by allowing more fuzzy cultural phenomena without a single identifiable cultural parent.4 Another variant includes the selection of quantitative traits. For example, big companies often have a competitive advantage that allows them to grow still bigger. This is an example of a selection process, but the selected trait is quantitative rather than qualitative.5 The latter theory has the main focus on the dynamic structure of the whole social system rather than on individual actors. It is related to systems theory6 and to the mathematics of feedback systems.7

Positive feedback can make a system unstable, while negative feedback can make a system approach equilibrium under certain conditions. An example of negative feedback in a social system is the economic law of supply and demand, which tends to drive a market towards a stable equilibrium. Positive feedback in social systems is often seen in the so-called Matthew effect: whoever has the most power and money can use their influence to manipulate the system in such a way as to allow themselves to gain still more power and money.8 This phenomenon is often seen in weak democracies where the president makes new laws that give more power to himself.

Both versions of cultural selection theory can explain some important aspects of the growth of regal societies. If a group of people invents a more efficient method for food production—for example, a form of agriculture—then they can produce more food per unit area. This allows them to feed more children and increase the population density. A bigger population can make a bigger army, and this enables them to win wars and incorporate neighbor groups under their rule. The new food production technology is now adopted by the newly assimilated population. This allows the population to grow still bigger and make still bigger armies, and so on. There is plenty of evidence that the growth of large civilizations and empires through history has been connected with the spread of agriculture.9 Efficient weapons technology and transport technology may have been spread by a similar mechanism: the groups with the strongest weapons and highest mobility have been likely to win wars over other groups with inferior weapons. DNA studies show that the most prolific male lineages originate from areas with agriculture or pastoralism and domesticated horses.10

As the groups grow bigger and stronger, they also become more warlike in accordance with regality theory. A large-scale war with firearms is probably much more deadly than anything our ancestors saw in the evolutionary prehistory that shaped the regal response pattern. We can regard such a war as a supernormal stimulus leading to an extremely regal response. This allowed populations to accept the very hierarchical political structure and tyrannical leaders of the historical empires.

Certain religious memes may have spread in a similar way. A systematic study of Austronesian cultures shows that beliefs in supernatural punishment precede the evolution of larger, more complex, societies. People who believe that they are somehow punished for clandestine misdeeds or rewarded for bravery are more likely to obey their government and social norms, thereby making their society stronger.11

We can conclude that the growth of warlike societies and empires in history has involved the selection of qualitative cultural traits, such as agricultural technology, weapons technology, and religious beliefs, as well as quantitative parameters, such as food production, population size, and territory size. These factors have all supported and amplified each other in a positive feedback process.12 A systematic study of civilizations through history shows a strong correlation between agriculture, territorial expansion, weapons technology, political centralization, social and economic inequality, slavery, strict discipline, authoritarianism, and warlikeness.13

A recent DNA study shows evidence of an extreme variance in male reproductive success around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. In other words, a few men had many children and many men had none, while no such variance was seen for women. This is evidence of a wave of extreme polygamy, occurring first in Asia and the near East and later in Europe and Africa. This observation is explained by cultural factors connected to the spread of agriculture.14 It is likely that agriculture and other cultural innovations allowed kings and emperors to rule over larger numbers of people and to have more wives. Cultural and religious norms later limited the amount of polygamy.

It has been proposed that the distinction between r—and K-strategies in biological evolution (see chapter 3.3) can be applied somewhat analogously to cultural selection, though the analogy is far from perfect. A selfish meme—or rather a selfish complex of memes—can use different strategies for utilizing the resources of its hosts (that is, the persons holding the memes) to produce either a great quantity or a high quality of cultural offspring. A cultural r-strategy is a strategy where the meme complex makes its hosts spend a lot of resources on propagating their culture and beliefs to others. This is seen, for example, where a warring group impose their culture on the people they conquer, and also where a religious sect spends a lot of resources on winning new converts or competing with other religious groups. The opposite is a cultural k-strategy (written with a small k), which allocates few resources to winning new hosts and more resources to making its hosts satisfied so that they will not choose competing memes. This is typically seen in times of peace, when ideals of individual freedom become more popular than ideals of patriotism and unity.15

This theory predicts that the cultural r-strategy will be most efficient in times of intergroup conflict, while the cultural k-strategy will be most efficient where there is no culturally different neighbor group to compete with. Interestingly, the predictions of this cultural r/k theory are so similar to the predictions of the theory of a psychological desire for a strong leader in times of intergroup conflict that any of these two theories would provide a logical explanation for the same cultural effects. It can be argued that psychological responses to intergroup conflict are likely to be much faster than cultural r/k selection and therefore more effective, but the cultural r/k mechanism probably has at least some effect as well. For now, it is assumed that there is synergy between the two mechanisms, perhaps as the result of some kind of gene/culture coevolution16 and we will use the terms regal and kungic, regardless of which of the two mechanisms is implied.

4.2. The fall of empires: Contributions from historical dynamics theory

Ethnic groups that are incorporated one by one into an empire as it grows often preserve some of their culture, ethnicity, religion, and language. Empires that are created in this way have an inhomogeneous population. It requires a great deal of power and discipline to prevent internal conflicts and to keep such an empire together. In terms of regality theory, an empire must be regal in order to stay together. The regality is built up and maintained mostly through territorial wars at the borders. We can predict that an empire will fall apart and split into smaller ethnic groups when it becomes unable to expand further and unable to make wars with its neighbors, and therefore unable to maintain the high regality. This can happen when the empire has become so big that communication between the center and the warzone at the border is difficult. Inhabitants at the center lose interest in what happens at the faraway border and lose the will to defend their country.17

Peter Turchin has given a very similar explanation of the rise and fall of empires based on the theory he calls historical dynamics.18 Turchin explains the rise of empires by the historical observation that group solidarity, loyalty, and military strength grow in a conflict zone between culturally different peoples, such as a frontier between farmers and nomadic pastoralists. Such a conflict zone can form the nucleus of a growing empire. Turchin uses the word asabiya, borrowed from the fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, to denote these forces of social cohesion. The cohesive force, or asabiya, decreases when the borders are far removed from the political center and the state or empire stops growing due to logistic problems, internal competition, and economic collapse.

The main weakness of Turchin’s theory is that his concept of asabiya is poorly defined and it is not very clear how it is generated. Obviously, it is very similar to the concept of regality in the theory of the present book. Regality theory offers the causal link that is missing in Turchin’s historical dynamics. Turchin’s explanation of the rise and fall of empires has so much in common with the explanation based on regality theory that a synthesis of the two theories seems natural.

Turchin has made a comprehensive study of empires through history and found several typical factors that are involved in the disintegration of empires.19 The economy becomes unstable when the territorial expansion stops while the population keeps growing. The overpopulation and shortage of land in an agrarian economy leads to increases in the prices of land and food while the price of labor decreases. Impoverished farmers are forced to sell their land and go into unpayable debt. Elite landowners profit from this situation as they become able to extract more surplus from the peasants. The elite not only become richer at the expense of everybody else, they also become more numerous. The luxurious lifestyle of the growing elite is paid for through heavy taxation or debt.20 There is growing inequality, not only between the elite and commoners, but also within the elite, where strong competition for the most attractive positions leads to conflict.

The starving population makes uprisings and food riots against the extravagant elite. The elite is split between competing factions, some of which may form alliances with the rebellious commoners and start a revolution or civil war. Suppressing the rebellion is so expensive that the government, which is already spending most of its surplus on external wars, goes into debt and starts to lose control. Banditry spreads, and farmland far from the cities is abandoned because it can no longer be protected against raids. The economy collapses and the state goes bankrupt. The weakened state becomes unable to defend its borders and is attacked, perhaps by nomadic pastoralists, perhaps by another growing empire.

This kind of downturn is sometimes ended by dramatic events such as a major war or pestilence. The increasing poverty, famine, and urbanization make breeding ground for disease epidemics, and such epidemics have wiped out large parts of the population several times through history. The survivors inherit the property of deceased family members, and a new cycle of prosperity and growth begins. An empire may go through several such cycles of growth and decline before it completely disintegrates. Each cycle may take one or more centuries.

Combining regality theory with cultural selection theory and historical dynamics, we may summarize the main factors leading to the rise and fall of empires. The growth of an empire can be explained by a positive feedback process involving war, growing regality, increasing food production, population growth, improved weapons technology, military strength, and expanding territory. The decline may involve the following factors:

  • loss of regality when the empire has reached the limits to its growth
  • overpopulation, poverty, and famine
  • a growing elite, growing inequality, and conflicts between elite and commoners as well as between different factions within the elite
  • collapse of the economy and weakening of the state.

4.3. General theories of war and peace

Studies of conflict and peace have produced many different theories of the causes of war. This chapter will review some of the most influential theories.

Political realism theory is based on the premise that the international system is anarchic. The international situation is determined by the distribution of power, where the stronger states are able to conquer territory from weaker states.

Every state needs to have a military power or build alliances in order to protect itself against attacks. A state that sees its neighbor increase its military power is often unable to know whether the intentions are offensive or defensive, so it must increase its own military power to at least the same level in order to assure its security. Such an arms race can leave both states in a less secure situation than before. This paradox is known as the security dilemma. Deterrence does not always work, and a war may result if one of the states launches a preemptive strike in order to remove the perceived threat from its neighbor.21 The probability of war is increased when there is a change in the power balance, for example caused by an economic crisis or a revolution.22 The same states often wage war against each other repeatedly in enduring rivalries.23

The steps to war model describes the process of conflict escalation that may lead to war. The first step is a disagreement over some issue such as a disputed territory. Both parties in the conflict may use various strategies, such as coercive threats, military build-ups, and forming alliances. Each step in this conflict spiral increases the probability of war. Leaders who plan for war are likely to build up military power, mobilize nationalism, and reduce democratic rights before initiating a war. The observed nationalism, etc. is thus not the ultimate cause of the war but part of the steps to war.24

The bargaining theory assumes that it is possible in most cases to negotiate a peaceful settlement that is less costly to both parties than a violent war. The conflict will only escalate into war if some factor prevents the parties from reaching a negotiated settlement. Such factors can include inaccurate information about the opponent’s strength, lack of trust that the opponent is truly committed to accepting the negotiated agreement, or inability to reach a compromise over an indivisible issue.25

The theory of liberal peace argues that democratic structures, free international trade, and international institutions can promote cooperation, mitigate the effects of international anarchy, and prevent war.26 Democracies are widely believed to be inherently more peaceful than non-democratic states. Democratic states almost never attack other democratic states, but peace researchers cannot agree why. Every theory of democratic peace has been met with counterarguments or contradicting examples, and statistical studies fail to confirm that democracies are less likely to wage war than autocracies.27 Azar Gat argues that it is not democracy itself that leads to peace but other aspects of modernization that are typically seen in democratic states, such as economic prosperity, welfare, absence of hard work, non-violent domestic culture, sexual liberation, and lower population growth.28

Historically, peace has almost always come before democracy. Recent studies have found that states do not develop democracy until after all border disputes have been settled. In other words, there is strong evidence that peace causes democracy but little evidence that democracy causes peace.29 Regality theory can easily explain this observation. Contested borders or other external threats to a state will activate regal reactions in the population, who will be likely to support a strong, autocratic leader. Peace and collective security, on the other hand, will make the population prefer democracy.

Politicians are well aware that the population shows more support for their government in cases of war or national insecurity. The diversionary war hypothesis supposes that state leaders sometimes take advantage of this effect and wage war in order to divert attention from internal problems and to make their population rally around the flag and support their leader. This is not a general cause of war, but it appears that leaders in some cases have escalated a threatening situation in order to rally support for themselves.30 This phenomenon, which obviously relates to regality, is further discussed in chapter 6.3.

The interests of leaders and external actors are often decisive for the onset of conflicts. The instrumental model of conflict assumes that leaders manipulate their populations by emphasizing and amplifying public perceptions of ethnic or religious differences in order to rally support for a fight that mainly serves the interests of the leaders.31

Many wars are fought mainly for economic reasons. The liberal economic theories of war assume that state leaders want to maximize economic utility for their country. They will start a war only if the expected gains exceed the expected costs. A high level of international trade will make war unprofitable because the costs of disrupting the trade will be too high. Thus, this theory predicts that economic interdependence between countries will deter war.32

A different line of thought, called the economic realist theory, makes the opposite prediction. A high dependence on international trade makes a state vulnerable. State leaders are concerned that their access to export markets and foreign investments might be reduced by adversaries and that crucial imported goods, such as oil and other raw materials, could be cut off. They want to reduce their vulnerability and to control what they depend on. This will increase the probability of militarized conflict as states that depend on external raw materials will scramble to secure access to these raw materials and try to control or colonize countries that can supply these raw materials.33

The international relations researcher Dale Copeland has developed these theories further. His trade expectations theory confirms that economic interdependence between states can either increase or decrease the probability of war, depending on their economic prospects. Great powers need a strong and growing economy in order to sustain their positions in the international system. This requires a high level of trade. They need to buy many different raw materials and they need to sell products to many different countries. This makes them vulnerable to cutoff of markets and investments or supplies of raw materials. Their rivals may explore this vulnerability in coercive diplomacy.

Great powers are primarily driven by a desire to maximize their economic security and not by other goals such as welfare maximization, social cohesion, glory, or the spread of their ideologies, according to Copeland’s research. Their foreign policy is driven mainly by the desire to reduce economic vulnerabilities and secure access to critical raw materials and markets. They may use military means to secure their access to vital raw materials, such as oil or minerals, if they see a risk that this access may be cut off in the future.

Copeland found that regime type and other domestic factors have much less influence than previously thought for the decision of great powers to make war or maintain peace. By studying the actual decision-making processes of various governments, he found that trade expectations often drove the patterns of peace and conflict even in cases that, on the surface, appeared to be about something else, such as ideology or religion. The conflicts over capitalism versus communism, or one religion versus another, may just be psychological rallying foci that hide more important underlying economic motives.34

Copeland also found that the economic security dilemma was just as dangerous as the military security dilemma. Attempts to improve the economic security of one state will decrease the economic security of its rivals, who are likely to respond with similar countermeasures. State leaders are aware of this danger of escalation. They need to signal their commitment to trade agreements in order to avoid escalation of economic conflicts.

The theories mentioned here are mostly concerned with ‘conventional’ wars between two sovereign states. This kind of symmetrical war has become rare since World War II. Instead, we are now seeing insurgencies, asymmetric wars, proxy wars, and other kinds of conflicts. This is explained in chapter 4.4.

4.4. Changing patterns of war

There have always been violent conflicts between humans, but patterns of war have changed throughout history. Prehistoric hunters, gatherers, and nomads fought over territory, domestic animals, and other material possessions—and over women as well. The level of conflict was determined mainly by geographic and environmental factors. This will be explained further in chapter 7.

The introduction of agriculture and the settlement into cities led to larger concentrations of people and a more centralized political organization. The cities and agricultural fields had to be protected, and it became possible to assemble larger armies of warriors. Horses, wheeled vehicles, and large boats made it possible to transport the armies to distant battlefields where they could conquer more territory. The growing territories and growing wealth made it possible to assemble still larger armies and conquer still more territory. Improvements in weapons technology, transport, communication, and food storage contributed to this process. Cities grew into states, kingdoms, and finally large empires by means of this self-amplifying process. An ever more regal political organization was necessary for keeping large numbers of troops disciplined and keeping the empire together. An empire could continue growing until problems of transport, communication, logistics, and economics prevented further growth. The stagnation of growth started a kungic development and the empire began to disintegrate, until a new empire started to grow from a new center. The cyclic process of rise and fall of empires continued for thousands of years, as explained in chapters 4.1 and 4.2. The type and intensity of warfare in large parts of the world was ultimately determined by this dynamic process of the growth and collapse of empires.

Throughout history we have seen different kinds of political units that strived to expand their territories, such as dynasties, city states, nation states, and superpowers. Likewise, we have seen different motives or justifications for the expansive urge, such as prestige, religion, ideology, or alliances.35

The end of World War II was a turning point in the history of warfare. Large-scale interstate wars became rare, while intrastate (civil) wars became more frequent. This development is shown in figure 8.

There are several reasons for this sharp decline in the frequency and scale of interstate wars. The improvement in weapons technology is a major factor in this development. The ever more advanced weapons and defense systems also became extremely expensive. The arms race was a large economic burden for even the biggest superpowers. The destructive capacity of the new nuclear weapons and other advanced weapons grew to alarming heights. The prospect of another large interstate war had become so frightening that it could deter any potential aggressor. Not only would such a war be so expensive that it would ruin the economy of both parties, it would also destroy large parts of the infrastructure and kill large numbers of people, not only in the attacked state, but in the aggressor state as well.36

Figure 8. Historical development in different types of conflicts since World War II. Data from Uppsala Conflict Data Program. By Agner Fog, 2017.37

The decline in interstate wars is also driven by the modern lifestyle, welfare, urbanization, lower population growth, non-violent attitudes, democracy, and other aspects of development.38 Increasingly globalized trade has made most countries so dependent on both import and export that they cannot bear the disruptive effects of large wars on their trade and industry. The development of international law is also an important factor. The norms against war of aggression, promoted by the United Nations and other international organizations, will damage the reputation of any violator.39 The Gulf War of 1990–1991 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a crucial signal to potential aggressors that the international community will punish territorial aggression.40

While analysts have no problem describing the decline of international wars, there is more uncertainty when it comes to describing the kinds of conflicts that have replaced them. The new kinds of conflicts have variously been called irregular warfare, unconventional warfare, low-intensity warfare, fourth-generation warfare, asymmetric wars, new wars, and various other designations.41

The conventional theories of war developed over centuries are based on the perception of war as a symmetric conflict between two or more sovereign states, each with central control and a monopoly of force. Battles traditionally had clear beginnings and endings, clearly located battlefields where uniformed soldiers fought against each other, and clear winners and losers.

The new kinds of conflicts are very different. Violent conflicts are now often fought by decentralized insurgent groups or by guerillas against a state power. The insurgents may have a diffuse organization with many autonomous or semi-independent subgroups. The distinction between combatants and civilians is often blurred. The guerillas mostly use light or relatively cheap weapons. This kind of conflict has more similarities with the old forms of warfare that were common before the strong nation states were formed than with the kind of interstate war that we now call conventional warfare. In fact, insurgence and guerilla warfare is more common in weak states that lack a strong central government and a strong centralized military power. Some historians regard this as a return to old forms of warfare, while the modern kind of warfare based on heavy weapons has become too costly in terms of both money, casualties, and destruction of infrastructure.42

But modern conflicts are not only fought with old-fashioned guns. On the contrary, sophisticated methods, such as cyberattacks, propaganda, public relations smears, and economic undermining have become increasingly important in both local and global contests of power. The distinctions between civilians and combatants, between permissible and off-limits targets, and between economic and military targets seem to vanish when conventional warfare is replaced by such new tactics. These power games have been characterized as low-intensity conflicts because they never mobilize sufficient amounts of military power to win territory. Instead, we have seen prolonged conflicts that ebb and flow without ever reaching a definite resolution. The political and economic costs of increasing the level of conflict to the point where a clear victory is possible are simply too high.43

Insurgents and guerillas rely on many different sources of finance to sustain their operations. Robbery, plundering, and extortion are frequent sources of finance. Production and trade of psychotropic drugs is a very profitable source of finance for many insurgent groups. Other groups rely on the extraction of oil, minerals, and other natural resources. Even though involvement with organized crime initially seems unattractive for many insurgent groups, they quickly become dependent on it. Organized criminals involved in illicit trade depend on armed guerillas and local warlords for protection, while the guerillas rely on the illicit trade for finance. Once this symbiosis is established, it is difficult to break, and many of the actors involved have an interest in continuing the conflict.44 The reliance on criminal sources of funding has a demoralizing effect on the guerillas. The high ideological principles that prompted their resistance in the first place are undermined by the necessary involvement with crime, and many groups have deteriorated into marauding gangs of bandits.45

Support from external sources is often crucial. Many insurgent groups rely on external sources of funding, either from a diaspora of emigrants and refugees or from foreign states.46 Support from foreign states is very common but mostly secret. The clandestine support is typically provided by a secret service and channeled through some seemingly independent organizations in order to hide the original source. This principle is commonly known as plausible deniability: the donor can deny any involvement or responsibility when the support is channeled through an untraceable chain of intermediaries. Foreign support for insurgent groups often involves money, weapons, training, logistics, and intelligence.47

Support from foreign states and secret services never comes for free—there are always strings attached. Foreign donors use insurgents as proxies for promoting their own political and military goals in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests or trade interests. Insurgents often become so dependent on foreign sponsors that they lose their ideological purity. Foreign powers have often supported small and insignificant opposition groups and promoted them into powerful insurgents or even fabricated opposition groups where none existed.48

Such proxy wars often have two external stakeholders. This may be two rival superpowers or two coalitions of powerful nations competing to expand or defend their zones of geopolitical influence in the area. For example, one party may sponsor insurgents or coup makers while the other party supports the incumbent government. Instead of battling against each other directly—which would be too costly—the superpowers support their proxies in a war on a distant battlefield, conveniently avoiding any destruction in their own homelands.49

The party that supports the government of the troubled country may openly supply troops or air forces to support the government in the battle against what they consider illegitimate rebels.50 This kind of interventionism has become much more frequent in recent years, as figure 8 shows. The yellow curve labeled ‘Intrastate with external troop support’ covers only those conflicts where external intervention or support includes official foreign troops. Less visible forms of external support on one or both sides is no doubt more frequent, so that in fact the majority of violent conflicts today can be characterized as proxy wars.

External sponsors can have many reasons for supporting a conflict in a faraway country. First of all, it is very cheap compared to traditional warfare. Proxy wars are fought mostly in poor countries where the living costs for the native fighters are low and the fighters mostly use small light weapons. The sponsor states can avoid large casualties from their own forces and reduce the risk of escalation by using proxy fighters, drones, mercenaries, or private military contractors.51 The politicians of the sponsor countries seek to avoid political resistance from their own constituencies and also to avoid international opprobrium by hiding their support behind plausible deniability. In many cases, they have been able to escape accountability to their own jurisdiction as well as to international law by leaving the dirty work to irregular groups or mercenaries in a more or less lawless country and by making their own influence on these groups difficult to trace.52

A sponsor state can harm a militarily strong enemy, without engaging in direct conflict, by supporting insurgents in the enemy state or in a third state that is allied with their enemy. This enables the sponsor to divert their enemy’s resources toward the intrastate conflict and away from external conflict.53 It is often a big problem for the sponsor state, however, that its proxy fighters may be weak, incompetent, uncontrollable, and disloyal, and may have their own political or ideological agendas.54

Proxy wars can be very long-lasting because the external sponsors are never completely defeated, they do not easily run out of resources, and the devastating consequences of the war mostly affects a distant country rather than themselves.55

Today’s conflicts are mostly asymmetric conflicts between unequal parties—typically insurgents or separatists against a state government or an external occupying force. Peace negotiations are often tried but rarely successful. Obviously, the two parties in an asymmetric conflict have very different positions in the situation of a peace negotiation. A negotiation between unequal parties with unequal negotiating powers will naturally lead to a result that is more favorable to the stronger party than to the weaker party. The insurgents will almost unavoidably perceive the negotiation result as unfair. A negotiation result that addresses the grievances of the weaker party in a way that they perceive as fair can hardly be achieved without strong external pressure from a third party.56

The leaders or negotiators for the insurgents may be committed to accepting an unfair negotiation result because they see no alternative, but the negotiated peace remains fragile as long as the grievances are not resolved. The insurgents typically have no strong central organization that can enforce the negotiated peace agreement. Even small frustrated subgroups with uncompromising attitudes can easily break the peace and make the conflict flare up again.57

Growing regality is another reason why intrastate conflicts and asymmetric wars are difficult to end. The insurgents become regalized and radicalized because of the prolonged conflict. Insurgent leaders also deliberately promote a radical ideology in order to justify their cause and to unify their supporters. Leaders on both sides of the conflict will often manipulate religious feelings and identities in order to mobilize their population.58

Insurgent groups often use radical religion in their fight against corrupt and kleptocratic regimes. They see corruption as a result of poor morality, and the most obvious remedy against amorality is religion.59 A process of selection occurs in countries where protesting is difficult: the less radical protest groups are easily crushed by a suppressive regime, while the most regal groups are more likely to have enough strength and courage to survive. Some governments have even deliberately suppressed moderate protest groups while allowing more radical groups to continue. The existence of radical insurgent groups gives the incumbent government a convenient justification for their hardline policy.60

The leaders of insurgent groups face a tactical dilemma here. They can promote a very radical ideology in order to maximize the zeal of a small group of supporters, or they can express a less radical ideology in order to get support from the broader population.61 The most radical insurgent groups are often out of touch with the sentiments of the majority of the population they want to represent, because the perceived level of danger is not high enough to justify their high level of regality. For this reason, the regality of an insurgent movement is likely to fizzle out after a victory. For example, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 led to a strict theocratic rule, but even though the subsequent war with Iraq also contributed to the regality, more kungic sentiments soon began to spread in the population, as evidenced by the fact that the Arab Spring gained considerable support in Iran in 2011.

Insurgents and guerillas have a tactical advantage because of their flexibility and their ability to hide. The state military often lacks this flexibility because it has a big, hierarchical organization that cannot adapt as quickly to changing situations. Traditional militaries have a problem of balancing hierarchy against innovation, or discipline against creativity.62 The costs to the counterinsurgent force of maintaining order and legitimacy are much higher than the costs to the insurgents of undermining it.63

Guerillas and paramilitary forces are mostly found in weak states without a strong central military. While a strong military under central governmental control is taken for granted in modern first world countries, such an organization of power is less common in third world countries. A strong, centralized military organization has historically been formed in European countries because it was the format most suited for traditional interstate war. States that failed to build a strong military have long since been defeated by stronger and more militant neighbors.64

Third world countries have different organizations of their forces due to their different histories. Many of these countries have been formed not by interstate wars but by colonial wars. States that were decolonized through negotiation have inherited bureaucratic military organization from the departing colonial powers, but states that were formed through violent rebellion have tended to approbate the local guerillas that were active in the process of decolonization and to convert them into pro-state militias. These states do not need a strong central military if they are not threatened by their neighbor countries or if they are protected by the international community. Relying on paramilitary forces can be an advantage for a state government if they can use the local militias as proxies to quell insurgents and rebels while denying responsibility for any brutality and human rights violation in the counterinsurgency campaign.65

Weak states without sufficient centralized power are more susceptible to intrastate conflicts—and intrastate conflicts tend to weaken the state. This is a vicious circle. It is necessary to strengthen the state if you want peace, but international initiatives to support state building have often had little or no success.

The opinion of the population is essential to the outcome of an asymmetric conflict. Insurgent movements have an advantage over a foreign occupying force in this regard, because they often have the support of the local population while it is difficult or impossible for an external force to win the hearts and minds of the people. The insurgents have an enduring commitment to the cause and they can rely on steady recruitment from the local population, whereas an external occupying force often lacks the patience and political commitment to a long-lasting and expensive conflict.66

The importance of mass communication has increased dramatically as the types of conflicts have changed and new electronic media have made mass communication accessible and affordable to even small insurgent groups. These groups have gradually learned to use electronic communication to their advantage. Insurgent groups can publish news, images, and political statements immediately after a violent event due to their decentralized structure, while a bureaucratically structured state force typically responds more slowly because they need verification, declassification, and political approval before they can issue a press release. This asymmetry in information handling can give insurgents a leading edge towards the highly competitive news media, hungry for breaking news.67

All in all, there are many obstacles that prevent weak states from obtaining internal peace and from establishing a stable central government and economic autonomy. The decisive factor for the outcome of asymmetric conflicts is often psychology rather than violent victories and losses on a diffuse battlefield. Both parties in the conflict need support from their constituency or home base. They cannot continue the battle if they become unpopular with the people they represent or claim to represent. Both parties will try to disseminate information favorable to their cause. Obviously, disinformation and selective information abound in modern conflicts. It has become common for military forces to invite selected journalists to travel with them and report from the battlefield. These embedded journalists live with the troops and depend on them for protection. Obviously, their reports will reflect a one-sided view of the situation. Insurgents and guerillas may have less access to journalists and rely more on electronic communication and social media. This information war is important for consolidating their support. International opinion is particularly important. If one party wins the undivided sympathy of the international community, then they have almost won the conflict. The best chance that insurgents have of winning an asymmetric conflict is actually to sway international opinion in their favor and call for sanctions against their opponent.68

Democracy cannot prevent symmetric wars, but it may reduce the probability of civil war and insurgencies because it gives minorities a forum where their grievances can be heard.69

Terrorism and accusations of terrorism are often significant elements in psychological warfare. The weaker party in an asymmetric conflict may turn their violence against civilians if there are no military targets that they can meaningfully attack, or if they consider that this is the only tactic that has any effect on their enemy. However, terrorism can be a very counterproductive strategy, as explained in chapter 6.1. The definition of terrorism is unclear and contested. It is easy to accuse someone of terrorism in a situation where the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is blurred or where there are no obvious military targets that can be attacked. The concept of terrorism is so vaguely defined, yet so highly laden with psychological, political, and legal significance today, that it has become common practice to accuse one’s enemy of terrorism—with more or less justification.

Asymmetric wars and guerilla wars often generate many refugees because civilians are more directly affected than in conventional interstate wars. A massive flow of refugees can have significant effects—intended or not—on psychological and strategic warfare for several reasons: (1) the flow of refugees can attract the attention of the international community; (2) massive migration can destabilize the region that receives the refugees; (3) refugee camps can be hotbeds for recruiting new fighters; and (4) humanitarian aid to refugee camps often finds its way to the fighting insurgents.70

If we want to examine the regal effect of insurgencies and asymmetric conflicts we should look not only at the casualties but also at the psychological effects. These low-intensity conflicts typically have fewer casualties than interstate wars, but they pose more dangers to civilians and they can be quite long-lasting. Therefore, they have a very significant regalizing effect and they often lead to political or religious radicalization. Even the smallest ethnic or religious differences are amplified in this process. Ethnicity is a result of conflict as much as a cause of it.71

The regal effect is of course concentrated in the conflict zone, while the distant sponsors of a proxy war may be unaffected if their population pays no attention or has no knowledge of the clandestine sponsor activities of their governments. The sponsor countries may be affected, however, if they are hit by terrorist attacks or other forms of retribution or if they receive a massive influx of refugees from the conflict zone. The violence may spill over the boundaries of the initial conflict, and we may see blowback effects when radicalized proxy fighters become enemies of their former sponsors, as in Afghanistan, Syria, and several other countries (see chapter 5.5).72

A proxy war may be cheap for the external sponsors but devastating for the country that serves as battleground for the proxy war. The infrastructure is often severely damaged; powerful crime organizations do not disappear when the conflict ends, and a proxy may continue to be dependent on its sponsor.73 The country cannot easily escape the vicious circle of lawlessness, corruption, instability, poverty, and economic chaos that follows after a prolonged conflict. Such a failed state can be very difficult to recover. It can continue for years to be an international center for drug production, organized crime, and a training ground for insurgents from other countries.74

The international community has been very slow in coming to terms with the new forms of conflict. The traditional understanding of civil war does not fit the new pattern of low-intensity warfare.75 Analysts are using a variety of names for these conflicts suggesting that it is something exceptional. Research on asymmetric conflicts has mostly relied on the paradigms of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism based on the strategic interests of the stronger party in the conflict. This research is often sponsored by state actors who are parties to the conflict,76 and there has been less research by neutral observers analyzing this as the ‘new normal’ kind of conflict.77 International relations theory and international law and norms have not yet adapted to the new pattern of non-state actors and decentralized violence.78

The poor understanding of asymmetric conflicts has also led to ineffective responses. Many strategies aimed at ending the conflicts have even been counterproductive. A highly militaristic approach is likely to escalate the conflict and make the population more regal and less inclined to accept a peaceful compromise. Prompted by the proclivity of the mass media to personalize conflicts and focus on individual leaders, politicians, and military strategists have often put the blame on tyrannical heads of state and individual terrorist leaders as responsible for the violence. These media phenomena are explained in chapter 5.1. The strategies have quite often had a narrow focus on removing ‘evil dictators’ or hunting down terrorist leaders.79 Such a strategy ignores the regal psychology that brought these militant leaders to power in the first place. A strategy that removes a militant leader by violent means is likely to make the affected population still more regal and make sure that his successor will be even more militant. Attempts to create democracy by violent means have failed time and again.80

The international community will not be able to deal appropriately with asymmetric conflicts until it develops a better understanding of the root causes and grievances behind these conflicts and develops norms to regulate external sponsorship.

Attempts to establish peace, stability, prosperity, and democracy in third world countries have often been sabotaged by wealthy elites and foreign actors, especially in resource-rich countries. This will be explained in chapter 5.4.

4.5. Theories of revolution

Regality theory predicts that rebellion or revolution is likely to happen when there is an overly repressive regime and no external conflict or other dangers that can justify such a strong regime. In other words, a regal regime with a kungic population will be unstable. We will now look at existing theories of revolution to see if this is a likely path from a regal to a kungic society.

Early theories have often interpreted revolutions as manifestations of a class war where peasants and workers fought against a capitalist elite. However, this view had to be revised when historical studies found that members of a divided elite play a leading role in revolutions, and that some revolutions were not based on class issues at all but on other political or religious issues.81

The sociologist and political scientist Jack Goldstone has studied revolutions through history and found that they have a number of factors in common. The most important condition for a revolution to be possible is that the government is weakened or unstable. There is a remarkable similarity between the factors that make a revolution possible and the factors that make an empire collapse, as discussed in chapter 4.2, even though a revolution is not necessary for an empire to disintegrate. Economic crises and conflicts between members of the elite are typical factors that make a state weak and vulnerable to revolution.82

Elite members who lose their privileges, see their wealth being undermined, or are excluded from influence will not support a weak regime with economic problems. A regime can also lose the allegiance of the elite if it squanders its wealth, wastes human lives in wars that it cannot win, or fails to respect the culture and religion of the people. A government must provide effectiveness and justice in order to maintain popular support.83

Revolutions happen more often in periods of high population growth. Overpopulation may lead to falling wages and rising prices for food and land. Inequality grows and the economy becomes unstable. There is growing competition for elite positions and increasing conflict between different factions of the elite. A critical event such as international pressure, military defeat, state bankruptcy, or famine—which a healthy state would be able to withstand—may trigger a revolution.84

Another consequence of high population growth is the youth bulge effect, discussed in chapter 3.4. A combination of high population growth and a growing and divided elite can produce a surplus of well-educated and resourceful, but frustrated, young people who have both the skills and the motivation to lead a revolutionary movement.85 A large popular mobilization around a common ideology, and an alliance between commoners and frustrated elite members is necessary for a revolution to succeed. A dissatisfied and impoverished population is not enough to start a revolution. A strong and stable government with a loyal elite can always crush a rebellion.86

Sociologist John Foran has studied revolutions in third world dependent states where the interplay of internal and external factors is decisive. Colonial rule or a government that depends heavily on foreign support and foreign interests will always cause structural problems, inequalities, political exclusion, and repression. A political culture and ideology of resistance may develop, but this is not sufficient for a successful revolution. A revolutionary movement can only succeed if the state is weakened by economic problems, lack of loyalty from parts of the elite, and changes in the international situation.87

A revolutionary movement can often be seen as a kungic reaction against a regal and tyrannical government, but this is not always the case. Revolutions can happen for other reasons as well. An autonomous ruler who excludes the country’s elite from influence is vulnerable to rebellion because he lacks the support and loyalty of the elite. This was the case in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, for example, which happened because the Shah failed to respect the religion and culture of the population.88

Democracy is often the goal of a revolution, but rarely the result. It is difficult for a new revolutionary regime to establish the political and economic stability and safe living conditions that the old regime lacked. The failure of the new regime to create stability and welfare may lead to continued conflicts where the moderate reformists are replaced by more radical forces. The youth bulge adds fuel to internal conflicts that can last for years. In order to deal with these conflicts, the new regime may end up being more centralized, bureaucratic, and repressive than the one it replaces.89

The more violent a revolution is, the less likely it is to produce democracy. Democracy is more likely to emerge by gradual reform or by non-violent ‘velvet revolutions’ or ‘color revolutions’ than by violent overthrow of a despotic ruler.90 The outcome of a revolution also depends on whether important resources can be monopolized. Where industrialization has produced great concentrations of economic power in the form of large factories, mines, oil fields, and heavy infrastructure, a revolutionary regime is likely to seize these resources in its drive for power and create an autocratic regime. But when the sources of wealth are widely dispersed in the form of farmland, small shops, and artisan businesses, the revolutionary regime cannot seize control of the economy. In such cases, the likely result is a less centralized regime.91 These historical findings confirm the theory of contest competition versus scramble competition discussed in chapter 3.1. Concentrated resources that can be monopolized and defended by a group are more likely to lead to a centralized government and a regal society than widely dispersed resources.


2 Tyler (2011)

3 Richerson and Boyd (2008), Edmonds (2005)

4 Sperber (1996, chapter 5)

5 Fog (1999, p. 64)

6 Laszlo and Laszlo (1997), Luhmann (1995)

7 Richardson, G. (1991)

8 Rigney (2010), Pierson (2015)

9 Eckhardt (1992, p. 178)

10 Balaresque et al. (2015)

11 Watts et al. (2015)

12 Gat (2006, chapter 12)

13 Eckhardt (1992)

14 Karmin et al. (2015)

15 Fog (1997)

16 Lumsden and Wilson (1981)

17 Fog (1999, p. 111)

18 Turchin (2006), Turchin and Gavrilets (2009)

19 Turchin and Nefedov (2009, chapter 10)

20 Gat (2006, p. 371)

21 Gat (2006, p. 97), Levy and Thompson (2010, p. 30), Cashman (2013, chapter 7)

22 Cashman (2013, chapter 11)

23 Levy and Thompson (2010, p. 56)

24 Levy and Thompson (2010, p. 60)

25 Levy and Thompson (2010, p. 63)

26 Levy and Thompson (2010, p. 70)

27 Cashman (2013, chapter 5)

28 Gat (2017, chapter 6)

29 Owsiak (2013), Gibler and Owsiak (2017)

30 Cashman (2013, chapter 6)

31 DeRouen (2014, chapter 4), McCauley and Posner (2017)

32 Cashman (2013, chapter 5), Copeland (2015, chapter 1)

33 Copeland (2015, chapter 2)

34 Copeland (2015, chapter 8)

35 Luard (1986, p. 133)

36 Mumford (2013, p. 2)

37 Data from Uppsala Conflict Data Program (2017), Pettersson and Wallensteen (2015)

38 Gat (2017, chapter 6)

39 Münkler (2005)

40 Snow (2015, p. 203)

41 St. Marie and Naghshpour (2011), Rid and Hecker (2009), Münkler (2005), Hughes (2012)

42 Münkler (2005, p. 24)

43 St. Marie and Naghshpour (2011, p. 3)

44 Münkler (2005, p. 15), Adams (1986)

45 Münkler (2005, p. 14)

46 Mumford (2013, p. 65), Hughes (2012, p. 38)

47 Hughes (2012, p. 15)

48 Bale (2012)

49 Mumford (2013, p. 3)

50 Mumford (2013, p. 14)

51 Mumford (2013, p. 4), O’Brien (2012)

52 Mumford (2013, p. 42), Carter (2014), Hughes (2012)

53 Hughes (2012, p. 38)

54 Hughes (2012, p. 47)

55 Mumford (2013, p. 107), Cummins (2010)

56 Cummins (2010, p. 6), Rouhana (2011)

57 Münkler (2005, p. 13), Rid and Hecker (2009)

58 DeRouen (2014, chapter 4), McCauley and Posner (2017), Toft (2007)

59 Chayes (2015, p. 64)

60 Chayes (2015, p. 69)

61 Rid and Hecker (2009, p. 44)

62 Mumford and Reis (2014, pp. 4–17)

63 Rid and Hecker (2009, p. 3)

64 Ahram (2011, p. 8)

65 Ahram (2011, p. 4)

66 Rid and Hecker (2009, p. 3)

67 Rid and Hecker (2009, p. 131)

68 Münkler (2005, p. 25), Kellner (2011)

69 DeRouen (2014, chapter 4)

70 Münkler (2005, p. 18)

71 Turton (2003), Francis (2009)

72 Mumford (2013, p. 78), Hughes (2012, p. 47ff), Williams (2012), Carment and Samy (2014), Anderson (2016, chapters 2 and 11)

73 Mumford (2013, p. 105), Münkler (2005, p. 75)

74 Williams (2012), Carment and Samy (2014), Münkler (2005, p. 128)

75 Münkler (2005, p. 135)

76 Speckhard (2012, p. 467), Richardson, L. (2006, p. 11), Bale (2012)

77 Arreguin-Toft (2012)

78 Keen (2006, chapter 1), Geiss (2006)

79 Keen (2006, chapters 2 and 5)

80 Keen (2006, chapter 2)

81 Skocpol (1994, p. 273), Goldstone (2001)

82 Goldstone (2001)

83 Goldstone (2001)

84 Goldstone (2003)

85 Heinsohn (2003)

86 Goldstone (2003)

87 Foran (2005, chapter 6)

88 Skocpol (1994, chapter 10)

89 Cincotta and Doces (2012), Goldstone (2001, 2003)

90 Pop-Eleches and Robertson (2014)

91 Skocpol (1994)