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Poverty and War

REVIEW: Social Theory of International Politics

Reviews in Brief

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Poverty and War

By C.G. Jacobsen

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An investigation of the role of poverty as a causal factor in war requires re-examination of three generally accepted propositions. The first speaks directly to the issue at hand; the others do so only indirectly, but are also pertinent.

  1. Poverty alone, or even in conjunction with other alienating factors (i.e., ethnic or religious discrimination), is insufficient to spark revolt.
  2. The late 1990s explosion of intrastate violent conflicts was due to the end of the Cold War (which removed the pressure cooker lid) and/or the implosion of the Soviet Union.
  3. Democracies do not go to war against each other.

There were, in fact, historic exceptions to all these 'rules.' Now, there is an argument to be made that the exception, at least to the core, first proposition, is becoming the norm. And that this phenomenon, in turn, may be ascribed to the communications/information revolution attending today's globalization, the fact that this globalization has exponentially increased and diffused poverty, the antipode to extreme, ever-more concentrated wealth, and a largely privilege-protective rich-country-centered middle class, or bourgeoisie, both within and between nations. Poverty today is neither static nor isolated. Monetarization and commoditization have, in most countries, led to breakdowns of traditional structures and economic models, creating vacuums characterized by disruptions and inequalities, vacuums that nurture seeds of violence.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that this review addresses intrastate as well as interstate wars, as well as the above-alluded-to structural and cultural violence that today spawns multiple forms of resistence - such as Brazil's landless movement or India's anti-dam movement - that contain escalatory, confrontational dangers. International organizations' and "laws'" traditional and traditionally preferred focus on interstate wars has been superseded by turn-of-the-century events. Intrastate war and sub-war violence have clearly become the primary armed conflict mode. Current dynamics thus compel a more inclusive approach.

The first proposition, and the most important to our purpose, mirrors Leon Trotsky's observation that "the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause insurrection; if it were, the masses would always be in revolt." It was reinforced by Crane Brinton's classic Anatomy of Revolution study of the great revolutions. Indeed, revolutions appear to need unique or particular sparks, usually in the form of foreign threat or defeat, military and/or economic. There have been arguable and notable exceptions, such as Spartacus' slave revolt, the great Cossack uprisings of Stenka Razin and Pugachev, and the Taiping and other rebellions that swept China in the mid 19th century. The generalization remained more than the norm until the late 20th century, yet it can no longer be sustained.

The 1990s revolts in Chiapas and Upper Egypt conform to the traditional model. Poverty and racial/religious discrimination was long-standing, as was consequent alienation. But its eruption into widespread violence reflected particular stimuli: in the Chiapas case, it was provided by the Mexican financial crisis; in Upper Egypt by post-Gulf War Mid East dynamics that effectively denied previous opportunity dreams.(1) As concerns most late 20th and early 21st century violent conflict dynamics, however (e.g., the conflicts mentioned later), there appears to have been no single precipitating factor. Increasingly, extremes of poverty and discrimination appear to be sufficient conflict fuel, assuming leadership availability, and the revolution in information access has clearly played a major role. Whereas in the past most marginalized knew only of their immediate environs, now they, or those who would organize them, have laptops and the World Wide Web.

One should note that, though a number of late 20th century/early 21st century intrastate conflicts are labeled as ethnicity or religion centered, their eruption also generally derives from perceptions of persecution or exclusion-reflections of reality, though the reality is often made starker than it might otherwise appear through manipulative, power-concerned agendas and rhetoric. The point is, those agendas (most of which take separatist form, though many do not - viz Chiapas) generally require deep economic as well as ethno-religious grievance.

Interstate conflict initiation is rarely, if ever, ascribable to poverty, though it is often ascribable to economic interest calculations (as in colonial/imperial reach in the past and certain "peacekeeping/making" foci today). Less desperate forms of economic grievance may also be conflict inducing in the interstate arena, especially when resulting from abnormal weakness exploited by others' abnormal strength. The rise and revanchism of the Nazi movement owed much to the Versailles Treaty's designation of the Ruhr industrial heartland as a French neo-colony. Similarly, the emergence of resentful chauvinism in Russia clearly reflected the loss of economic assets (as well as 'trapped diasporas') that attended Soviet break-up. There are many such examples. Suffice it to note that economic grievance, even when not reflective of poverty per se, provides grounds for manipulation and, sometimes, conflict advocacy.

The second proposition also appears mistaken. There were, in fact, a number of violent inter- and intrastate conflicts during the Cold War, though most were in the 'Third World'; most were internally generated (and often poverty reflective), but fueled and escalated through direct or, more frequently, covert great power intervention. Covert interventions alone caused over 6 million deaths between 1945 and 1980.

Afghanistan's civil war provides an interesting example. It started at the height of the 2nd Cold War (as such, it did not ignite it; it confirmed it), well before the Soviet intervention, and it continued after Soviet troops departed - and continues still. The dynamics underlying the secession and succession wars that ravaged Yugoslavia, nonaligned and outside super-power 'spheres,' can also scarcely be ascribed to Cold War or Soviet demise (though the hasty, early fuel-to-the-fire recognition of secessionist regimes clearly owed something to residual Cold War mindsets).(2) So also with the multidecade Kurdish revolts, Latin American revolutionary and African independence struggles, and 'post-colonial' and other Cold War conflict arenas.

The third proposition, that democracies do not fight each other, is also open to challenge, and the challenge is relevant to the poverty-war issue. In modern times, democracies have not fought each other (though one might argue that this depends on one's definition of both "modern" and "democracy"; as concerns Nato's 1999 War against Yugoslavia, for example, the bombing was directed against a 'dictator,' who, in the last election, had been defeated by 80% vote in the capital, who had been defeated in other big cities, who had retained a weak hold on power only due to the contrary rural vote).

The US Civil War was arguably the first 'war between democracies.' Amnesty International's designation of the black prison population in the US as, in part, "political," a reflection of the fact that the prison population's racial balance is in inverse proportion to that of the general population, might also be suggestive of a de facto inner-city civil war situation today (with 5% of the world's population the US incarcerates 25% of its prisoners - more than any other nation. Apart from its racially skewered composition, this is clearly also a dramatic manifestation of structural warfare - removing the victimized obfuscates and obviates the need to address causality). On a less extreme scale, the same suggestion would also appear warranted in at least some English and French (and others') cities and boroughs.

If democracies today do not fight each other directly, it is not because they are democracies. It is because they have too much to lose economically (i.e., France and Germany), because that deterrent is further reinforced by a de facto nuclear stand-off (France and Britain), because of manifest US superiority (as in the US versus all others), and/or because the mutuality of interests outweigh the dysfunctionality of interests.

But they do sometimes engage in indirect warfare (as well as industrial and other espionage against each other). In Central Africa, just one example, France has supported national factions and ethnic groups fighting others supported by the UK and/or the US (i.e., in Rwanda and the Congo). And, again, in these conflicts, economic disprivilege and ethno/religious discrimination, or embedded perceptions thereof, have been conflict inducing and fueling.

The increasing causal conflict relevance of extreme poverty is not the only issue. Wealth reduction, if precipitate, may also induce conflict. Brinton notes that one contributing factor precipitating revolutions is nearly always a reversal of previous economic optimism. The Quebec separatists' very-near early 1990s' victory came after nearly a decade of Canadian stagnation. The Nazi plurality victory in Germany came after Weimar's economic near-collapse. Yugoslavia's civil wars came after a decade of European stagnation near-ended the stream of economic remittances from Gastarbeiters in Germany, compounding domestic stagnation (and the legacy of political gridlock). The richer provinces, Slovenia and Croatia, became ever-more reluctant to live up to 'equalization' payment obligations while the poorer, Serbia and others poorer still, became ever-more resentful of their reluctance.

But, clearly, it is the fact of extreme poverty's increasing conflict relevance, in the context of today's apparently inexorable global increase in extreme poverty, debt-load, and concomitant inability to fund education, health, or development, compounded by prospects for ever-easier and cheaper access to weapons of mass destruction, that compels our immediate attention.

The profusion of (usually) interaccessed protest movements spawned by the systemic and cultural violence integral to current dynamics, violence all-too-reflective of still-ingrained racism, beliefs in the superiority of the chosen few, and 'natural' divisions of labour between rulers and ruled, usually embrace nonviolent visions. They seek, organize, and depend on communal support. But when grievances are not attenuated, or when states or other power-wielders resort to force (as in Chiapas and elsewhere), then vehicles for persuasion can become vehicles for protracted resistance and escalating violence - war.

Today's dynamics are nonsustainable. Past answers have utterly failed to reverse the trends of polarization and immisserization. Systemic change, in both economic and security paradigms, is now urgent.

Systemic change in the economic arena would need to address the life-draining and development-denying obscenity of interest payments to rich country banks, now five times the sum total of proffered "aid," as well as that aid's all-too-narrow recipients' list (it is focused on 10 countries, leaving 164 "out of the loop" - the 47 poorest receive less than 1%). It would need to reverse the perverse dynamic that saw the rich-poor country income differential rise from 3:1 in 1800, to 10:1 in 1900, to 60:1 in 2000 (and still increasing exponentially). It would need to address currency and terms of trade imbalances that impede poor countries' inability to develop. Finally, it must alter the nature of aid, excise its currently dominant functions as a de facto subsidy to donor home industries (because it is tied to purchases from these) and/or bribery for political, economic, or other favour, and refocus it on more development-conducive projects (in particular education for women, health care, the elimination of preventable diseases and plagues, and the rural power and communication potentials that the current technology revolution now allows).

A new Bretton-Woods type negotiation and agreement may indeed be needed.(3) This time, however, it would need to be both inclusive and transparent, allowing for more democratic representation, including the United Nations (UN), rich and poor countries, nongovernmental organizations (NGO), and citizen groups. Or one might consider empowering and redefining the missions of ECOSOC ***Spell out and UNCTAD, ***Spell out placing responsibility for global trade and related issues directly within the structure of the UN.

But true development prospects demand not just more equitable and better-focused aid distribution. Significantly increased aid is essential if current trends of nonsustainable resource and environmental extraction and degradation are to be reversed. The poorer countries (average per capita income of US$400) clearly do not have the means to fund the programs required. The rich countries (average per capita income of US$24,000) clearly do not have the will. The solution, then must come from elsewhere. There are two obvious candidates. One is the "Tobin tax" on speculative international financial flows, first floated in the 1970s when these first became evident. They have since sky-rocketed and now stand at US$3 trillion a day, growing at a compound rate of 32% a year. A farcically minimal tax of 0.025% would suffice to fund the most ambitiously calculated, comprehensive development program. The "Miller tax," calling for taxing commercial exploitation of the "global commons" (oceans and space) could generate similar wealth. That such taxes have not been agreed on is stark confirmation of systemic failure.(4)

Finally, however, one should note that while money is clearly needed, if only because of globalization's local-impact devastation of subsistence and alternative economic model foundations, poverty should not be narrowly ascribed to a dollar figure. As noted earlier, education, preventable disease eradication, environmental restoration, water access and purification, and health are equally crucial definers of poverty - and prospects for development.

In the security arena, most of the problems derive from the United States' refusal to contemplate or allow for the 1991 'New World Order' dream of a more collective global security regime, administered-if only because there is no other foreseeable option--by the UN. The refusal was no surprise. The debate over UN efficiency and need for reform was not and is not dismissable, but these issues are manageable. In essence, the refusal reflected the natural posture of a power that finds itself uniquely advantaged, economically and militarily. No superior power in history has willingly given up the advantages of hegemony.

Yet our times are dramatically different from those of Rome or any other era. The pace of scale is qualitatively different. New power constellations may ascend, descend, and re-ascend within decades. The Soviet Union's ability to weather the onslaught of Barbarossa (as much as 90% of German land and air forces were directed to the eastern front!) so soon after the devastations of civil war and foreign interventions is a case in point, though today's pace of change is incomparably more rapid still; so are the few decades since Nikita Khrushchev, during whose tenure every space "first" - first satellite, first dog, first man, first spacewalk, first woman, and first lunar exploratory vehicle - was testimony to Soviet vigour, and, indeed, the calamity of Yeltsin's "democratic" and "capitalist" years, which in one decade produced a 60% loss in industrial infrastructure - very nearly as calamitous a loss as that wrought by the Wehrmacht.

What has Washington's posture, the natural, indeed visceral posture of any dominant power, wrought? It has led to marked unease even among its closest allies, an unease that has encouraged core European Union (EU) members to seek a distinct, independent security role and potential, and encouraged both Germany and Japan to forge and solidify regional influence spheres and seek further extensions of role and influence.

More importantly, it has led to an extraordinary deepening and extension of the Russian-Chinese rapprochement and normalization effected by Gorbachev. The power and unilateralist impulse demonstrated by US policy toward the Gulf War, and subsequent policy towards other arenas, notably Yugoslavia, propelled and sustained the development of an ever-closer "strategic partnership" - one, today, that is astoundingly far closer than any achieved during the years of their "Mutual Friendship and Cooperation Treaty," during the 1950s. Russia has sold China state-of-the-art, nuclear-capable destroyers and submarines, advanced fighters and fighter-bombers, and other sophisticated weapon systems and trains China's top pilots, its first cohort of astronauts/cosmonauts, and other specialists. In return, China effectively saved Suchoi (its first purchase of SU-27 planes came when the plant was working on its last two orders with no prospect of follow-up orders from Moscow), and a number of other prime Russian military-industry assets. They provide active support for each other's postures against Islamic insurgencies (in Russia's southern 'Near Abroad' and Xinjiang). Russia supports Chinese opposition to the westward extension of AMPO ***Does this stand for anything (the US-Japanese security pact) responsibilities; China supports Russia's opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) eastward expansion. The alliance, propelled by both sides' recognition that their stand-alone potential alone could not balance US military-economic potency, is more than the sum of its parts. Its possible future extension to India, Moscow's traditional South Asian ally, and perhaps even to Pakistan, China's, may be the most promising vehicle for conflict resolution in that volatile subcontinent.

There is no question that Russia and China, and of course India and Pakistan, wish to continue to develop and nurture the economic and other benefits that derive from good relations with the US, the EU, and Japan. But there is also no question that history's lesson, that great power hubris leads others to seek countervailing alliances, is being repeated. And it is clear that even current US preponderancy will not suffice to extend 'Roman authority' globally.

In other words: what current US policy has wrought is not sustainable; in fact, it is destabilizing and dangerous. It is the clear evidence thereof, and not moral reasoning (always proclaimed, but never really part of great power calculations), that - in an optimistic scenario-will compel American re-evaluation of interests and prospects.

But if the alternative of the UN as a serious (if not the final) global security arbiter - rather than the US alone - is to be realized, then some changes in UN structure are clearly essential. The primary need is to change the composition and operating rules of a Security Council whose structures derive from 1945 realities, whose veto powers are all nuclear, excluding the world's second and third ranking economic powers (thus inviting the dangerous inference that nuclear potency alone brings first class status), exclusive of entire continents (South America, Africa, and South Asia) and, in particular, of some of the word's most populous and potentially important nations (i.e., India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and, perhaps South Africa and Brazil).

Besides expanding the 'permanent' membership to make it more congruent with today's world and values, the question of veto power must obviously be addressed with more vigour than hitherto. The current absolute veto is already all-too-often crippling. In the context of an expanded 'permanent' membership, it would be even more so. Existing veto powers' first inclinations remain, quite naturally, to veto any prospective diminution of their prerogative.

The point, and hope, here, is that the international dynamics generated by that stance will be seen to be the more dangerous prospect. One suggestion, made previously by this author, would look to a compromise agreement whereby the veto power would be diluted rather than eliminated. Permanent members might be given 'half-veto' powers, requiring the agreement of at least one other permanent member. Indeed, some such dilution of single-member obstructionist power would seem to be the sine qua non of any prospect and hope for institutional efficacy - and a more promising international environment.

Even this might not suffice; Noam Chomsky, Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen, and others have noted that the ever-increasing intertwining of Washington's and London's security policies might negate its effect (ditto for the counter-emerging Russian-Chinese "strategic partnership"). Yet it probably constitutes current structures' maximum 'give.'

All the more reason, then, to look for more creative alternatives. If internal regimes based on the rule of the 1st and 2nd Estates of nobility and clergy needed to be transformed and democratized, whether through consent or revolution, then so, surely, must the (still essentially nondemocratic and nontransparent) triple Estates of our time - the domination of states (the UN), the military (NATO) and economic elites (the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank). Conservatives are right: the sometimes-proffered complement of an assembly of NGOs would also be nondemocratic, nontransparent, and scarcely reflective of "civil society."

Johan Galtung and others (including organizations such as TRANSCEND and ICL/Praxis for Peace) espouse the idea of a directly elected UN People's Assembly. With one representative per one-million-person constituency (and per each nation with lesser populations), a six billion global population might elect some 6000 representatives. With today's technologies these would not need to assemble in one grand structure; they could debate and vote while remaining regionally, or indeed locally, based. Clearly, 'great' powers are still unwilling to concede even limited sovereignty. However, as in the land mines treaty, a prototype People's Assembly might be organized and subsidized by lesser nations initially, with some expectation that accumulating moral authority would compel future change. As the British House of Commons was once forced on and eventually superseded the unelected House of Lords, is it too much to hope for a future UN People's Assembly that might do the same to the "UN Government Assembly," today's General Assembly?

The first UN World Summit for Social Development, convened in Copenhagen in 1995 (and attended by a record number of Heads of Government), designated "social development" the world's number one priority, pledging also to "eliminate" poverty and extend human rights. Five years later, when the UN World Summit for Social Development +5, "Geneva 2000," convened, the development and anti-poverty commitment remained central to its agenda, ever-more urgent in the fact of ever-compounding immisserization and polarization, yet now shorn of their "human rights" complement. Initially designated one of the four 'pillars' of the UN's Millenium Assembly, "human rights" was dropped from its mandate too (and excluded from the Secretary General's report).(5)

Yet the dynamics and violence attending nonresolution are clearly nonsustainable and noncontainable. Unless the underlying structures and dynamics of violence are addressed, and the poverty that breeds conflicts and war is eliminated, prospects for peace will remain illusory. Development and peace (and human rights - political, economic, civil, and cultural - are integral to both) are also two sides of the same coin. Without the one the other is unattainable. The systemic change demanded by the one is also the life-blood of the other and, therefore, the lifeblood of survival - for us, for all.

1. Le Monde Diplomatique, January 2000.

2. Ref "The Yugoslav Secession and Succession Wars", in C.G. Jacobsen, The New World Order's Defining Crises, Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1966.

3. Morris Miller, "Beyond Aid", presented to 49th Pugwash Conference, Rustenburg, South Africa, September 1999; to be publ. in forthcoming conf. Proceedings.

4. See Johan Galtung and Carl G. Jacobsen, Searching for Peace; the Road to TRANSCEND, London: Pluto Press, April 2000; esp. chapter 2.

5. For further information, ref


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