Bryan Caplan  

If You Want Peace, Prepare for Peace

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Since 9/11, you've heard it a thousand times: "If you want peace, prepare for war."  My question: What about your enemies?  If they want peace, should they prepare for war, too?

Yes, it's a trick question.  Who's going to say, "If Kim Jong Il wants peace, he'd better pour more money into his nuclear weapons program"?  But it's also a serious point.  Even the hard-line American hawk thinks that if Kim Jong Il really wants peace, he should just back down and disarm. 

When you think about it, the prudential value of peace is one of the most amazing features of the modern world.  Stop scaring people in other countries, and they'll leave you alone.  In the Middle Ages, if one princeling unilterally disarmed, he'd probably be invaded before he could say, "Doh!"  But when Russia disarmed after the Cold War ended, in contrast, not even North Korea saw a golden opportunity to attack. 

Is preparing for peace always the best path to peace?  No.  But especially in the modern work, it works more often than you'd think.  And if you retort, "Yes, but that's only true for our enemies," consider: How many of your enemies would admit that they would be safer if only they were weaker?  In all likelihood, they'd pant, "You'd like that, wouldn't you?!  As soon as we lower our guard, you'll slit our throats!" 

The lesson: "If you want peace, prepare for war," may sound like a universal truth, but at least nowadays, it's something we tend to believe whether or not it's true.

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
blabla writes:

Are you aware of the theories that posit that one of the main reasons that the world has been peaceful over the last 70 years is that the U.S. has been the dominant military and economic power, and it has generally frowned upon aggression? Because that would explain why Russia was never attacked; the only country strong enough to attack it was the U.S., and for cultural reasons, we're not interested. If this theory is correct, then good things would not flow from a unilateral U.S. disarmament, since that would result in increased power for other countries that might not share our distaste for territorial expansion powered by military aggression. China, for example, has been using the threat of military force to try to reacquire Taiwan. If the U.S. weren't so powerful, China would have invaded Taiwan--or, at least, made its threats much more explicit--long ago.

Additionally, if U.S. military power were weaker, we would move from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, and multipolar worlds are often much less stable and more prone to military conflict. This is one explanation for, e.g., WWI.

Tom writes:

"Stop scaring people in other countries, and they'll leave you alone."

Tell that to Kuwait or Georgia.

"But when Russia disarmed after the Cold War ended, in contrast, not even North Korea saw a golden opportunity to attack. "

They still had the most nukes in the world.

Smaller countries exist under the US's umbrella (NATO) or through the UN.

floccina writes:

It seems that in the modern world each country you take over is a drain rather than an asset. We got Iraq but if Iraq kept Kuwait would they be fighting an insurgency?

caveat bettor writes:

Didn't Jimmy Carter's unilateral disarmament actually encourage the Soviet Union to accelerate its arms buildup? I think you are assuming shreds of Scottish Enlightenment throughout the world, and emprically, it is better to assume the doctrine of Original Sin. I believe that the prospect of consequences being tied to decisions--which includes some Big Stick theory--is part of the path to peace.

John Thacker writes:
But when Russia disarmed after the Cold War ended, in contrast, not even North Korea saw a golden opportunity to attack.

Russia's "disarming" included retaining a fair number of nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan (and India and China) fought more hot wars with each other before they all had nuclear weapons. Reducing it down to "disarming" is a bit misleading.

John Thacker writes:

One could more easily say, "If you want peace, stop having designs on external territory and concentrate on oppressing only your own people, and other countries will leave you alone."

Grant writes:

I really don't think the issue is all that complicated: Its a continuous iterative prisoner's dilemma. Peace requires one to prepare for war when its suspected one's enemies may attack, and prepare for peace when they won't. Aggression should be responded to with aggression, and peace should be responded to with peace.

In my opinion, the same things which aid prisoner's dilemmas also aid world peace: Increases in communication and transportation technologies, interdependence (trade), as well as learning from past conflicts.

Do we prepare for war with Canada in order to insure peace with Canada?

Stefano writes:

In the past, war was cheap and its gains relatively large. "Let get some mounted men to raid the other tribe and take away their cattle" was a good business plan.

In modern times war is increasily costly, and its gain wrt trade are lower.

So the maxim could be stated as "if you want peace, prepare to be costly to be conquered (but not too much)"

Garrett Schmitt writes:

Beyond political commitments to be nice, I would argue that offensive armaments are destabilizing because they pose a threat, but defensive armaments raise the cost of invasion, serving as deterrents.

The live debate in my mind is not whether deterrence works, but how much some weapons (e.g. ICBMs, B-52s, carrier task forces)

a) raise the opportunity cost for foreigners to attack us (deterrence) or

b) decrease the opportunity cost for us to attack foreigners (destablization).

Because all weapon systems accomplish each to some degree, their contribution to deterrence--and thus, sustainable peace--is ambiguous.

Carl Shulman writes:

"But when Russia disarmed after the Cold War ended, in contrast, not even North Korea saw a golden opportunity to attack."

Russia did retain a massive nuclear arsenal capable of incinerating any aggressor.

"Who's going to say, "If Kim Jong Il wants peace, he'd better pour more money into his nuclear weapons program"?"

I'll give it a shot. In what way has Kim Jong Il done badly (for himself, not his unfortunate subjects) with the nuclear program? He has had his nuclear test and has his artillery pointed at Seoul, and because of that enjoys increased security, while his leverage in getting foreign aid (without conditions that threaten his regime with the free flow of information) is improved. Iraq got attacked because it *didn't* have nuclear weapons.

El Presidente writes:


Are you aware of the theories that posit that one of the main reasons that the world has been peaceful over the last 70 years is that the U.S. has been the dominant military and economic power, and it has generally frowned upon aggression?

This is an interesting point. I contend that one purpose of government, in a Hobbesian sense, is to monopolize the use of force. This works well to explain the behavior of governments with respect to their own citizens. As any amateur economist can tell you, a monopoly drives price up and output down -> less violence and a higher social, political, financial premium on its use, at least domestically.

However, it doesn't work so well when applied to the international activities of national governments. Not even the ability to nuke the whole world serves as a credible deterrent in many cases because people are pretty sure we are rational actors and we aren't eager to push the button. This is more like a prisoner's dilemma game (as Grant says) because all parties have means of reprisal short of nuclear war. In most cases, we are dealing with states that have domestic control or non-state actors that don't have a state with which to be concerned. We cannot influence them as readily as the average citizen of our own country because our power is not so great, and cannot be so great as to overwhelm all potential adversaries in perpetuity. To "prepare for war" is thus provoking it in many cases, because it betrays a hostile intent, or at least willingness to objectify others.

Machiavelli's riff on being loved versus being feared is insightful. His reasoning leads me to believe that there is only one end of violence: destruction of one's adversary. So, we would be wise to contemplate that end before we make preparation for it or issue implicit or explicit threats. If we are not willing to kill them all, we would do better to talk about how we can improve our mutual fate. If we are trying to kill them all, it's not a good idea to spook them first. It'll just make it harder to kill them. Either way, publicly preparing for war is not a deterrent. It's either a waste of time and resources or revealing our cards too soon.

Steve Roth writes:

It never ceases to amaze me: game theory experiments in which there is a patently, wildly obvious win-win for both players (this a repeated, not a one-time game)--only about 50% of pairs get to that win-win solution.

All I can say to those at the Discovery Institute, is that it obviously wasn't a very intelligent designer.

John Thacker writes:

I think that the answer might be, "If you want peace, develop nuclear weapons, but forget about all those conventional ones."

DRew writes:

"If you want peace, prepare for defense" ?

DCLawyer writes:

The central premise of this post is that our enemies want peace as much as we do, and their actions are motivated as a response to a hostile US.

Why in the world do Libertarian economists think that laissez faire applies in foreign relations as it does in markets? This is why (to paraphrase Hayek) I'll never consider myself a Libertarian.

Perhaps you'd like to extend this philosophy to medical care? Let the market take care of that infection!

Please - stick to economics.

James A. Donald writes:

Disarming works for our friends, because we protect them. Disarming works for our enemies, for we would like them to be our friends.

Disarming will not work for us.

That said, government violence seems to be painfully inefficient and inordinately expensive. As piracy becomes a rapidly worsening problem, that governments are unwilling or unable to deal with, we need private groups prepared for war - merchant ships, for example, should carry some machine guns and light artillery. Aircraft captains should carry a gun, and have a reinforced cockpit door with gun ports in it. We need to arm for peace.

Bob Murphy writes:

A courageous post Bryan. Now I have to stop ridiculing you on my blog.

As the comments above show, it would be very hard to convince people who have the opposite world view, just like in macroeconomics. (E.g. Krugman thinks, "Yep, laissez-faire gives you a housing bubble," while I think, "Yep, Greenspan flooding the market with unbacked credit gives you a housing bubble.")

For those above who are arguing that the US is keeping the world safe: Look at the disparate treatment of Saddam versus Kim Jong Il. If I were a two-bit tyrant, the lesson would be clear: Acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, since it's the only sure way to keep the US out of your country.

Jacob Oost writes:

Well, the saying goes for one's own country, and it is rational that in a world governed by the aggressive use of force, a strong defense would create more peace.

Actually, the world *is* probably safer with more nuclear arms floating around, to act as a deterrent to war and/or as an incentive for nations that would otherwise ignore defense (and thus create the risk of invasion) to pay more attention to defense.

I think the best thing for peace is economic liberalization, though. If war as we know it is ever made obsolete, it will be thanks to every economy on Earth becoming a free one that trades freely with all other economies. NOT from bureaucrats sitting around a table, hashing out treaties and pretending they don't all really hate eachother..... We see how well that works out in the Israeli/everybody else conflict.

John V writes:


The World has been peaceful over the last 70 years?


Since 1938:

Korean War
Cuban Revolution
Bay of Pigs
Indo-China war
Algerian War
Suaez Crisis
Six Day War
Indo-Pakastani War (Twice?)
Vietnam War
Soviet-Afghan War
Iraqi-Iranian War
Kuwaiti Invasion/Gulf War
X number of terrorist attacks
More terrorist attacks
Iraqi Invasion
Russia-Georgia Conflict

I'm sure I missed some.

What are you talking about?

thebastidge writes:

"If Kim Jong Il wants peace, he'd better pour more money into his nuclear weapons program"?

Overly simplistic: Preparing for war is not simply amassing weapons, it is strategic positioning and alliances. The DPRK is in a very poor strategic position.

No real allies, no leverage to get what they want except for military threats. They can only push that envelop so far before somebody gets pre-emptive on them. The nuclear option is on the table, but there are plenty of theorists who point to the limited nuclear war option, particularly with the example of Japan behind us.

The ROK doesn't want the DPRK nuked: they still see the possibility of reunification as a national goal. China doesn't want radioactive fallout or the precedent. Russia probably doesn't much care except for fallout and whatever they can gain in concessions by playing a role. Japan is horrified by the thought of nukes whatsoever, but even more so by nukes in the DPRK under the control of someone so clearly unstable as Jim Jong Il. The US really doesn't want to ever nuke anyone, ever again, not to mention the political fallout of being seen as a bully.

The DPRK's best bet would be re-unifying with the ROK, but it would require "losing". And yet, DRPK continues as a borderline beligerant, not integrating into a social and economic and military framework that allows other nations to relax their guard and get on with the business of improving everyone's lives.

Indeed, prepare for war. Hopefully the preparations will have secondary and tertiary benefits to offset the (hopeful) waste of time and resources.

guthrie writes:

John V

I understand your point and am also confused by blabla's assertion... but here's a question... how many of those conflicts occurred on US soil?

Oh, there were a couple of unprovoked terrorist attacks...

Is there such a thing as 'world peace'? Are humans able to co-exist with each other without conflicts that escalate to combat? Isn't the best we can honestly hope for is to keep combat as limited as possible and to keep ourselves and those with whom we have good relations as 'conflict free' as possible, and if that means intimidating a few bullies along the way then so be it?

I think Jacob has it. Aggressive force is always somewhere on the table weather we like it or not, weather we ignore it or not. Israel will *always* be in danger. It’s not rational, it just is. So, if we don’t have it on the table, and there will ever be someone who does, what will happen if we don’t respond in kind? At some point, I think we are the victims of aggression.

RL writes:

Bryan, it seems many commentators are not convinced. I wonder if they're willing to test the limits?

"If you REALLY, REALLY want peace (or if you want UNIVERSAL, EVERLASTING peace), prepare for ABSOLUTE NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST."

I also wonder how many apply their theoretical concerns in their daily lives:

"If you want to not be mugged, prepare with concealed carry." I am personally in favor of concealed carry, though I do not practice it. But how many who feel the only way to achieve peace is through preparing for war apply that principle at the micro level to themselves?

ThomasL writes:

WW2 is a bit of a tired example, but in the context of disarmament, peace, and war I do not think there is one more apt.

Britain relentlessly "prepared for peace" through disarmament for almost twenty years. The effect was lowering the cost of territorial expansion for any other party so interested.

I am not quite sure why Libertarians think the world is a safe place. The problem is glaringly obvious: peace requires the agreement of all parties and war only requires the disagreement of one.

What of self-interest, opportunity, and incentive which Libertarians and economists normally understand? For many years Germany managed greatly to increase its financial and strategic positions at low cost through preparing for war. It did this sagely and frugally, conquering two neighboring countries without great expenditure and without firing a shot. The return was tremendous for such a small investment.

Choosing one of those countries to continue the point, I think any reasonable person would admit that Germany made a far better investment preparing for war than Czechoslovakia did preparing for peace.

Even the fact that Germany ultimately returned its gains fails to reverse the balance for two reasons. The first, and most important, is that Germany lost its position through unrelated action. There was no imperative to attack Poland and so embroil the whole continent and ultimately world powers against them. They could have "quit while they were ahead," as the saying goes. The other is that Germany actually recovered much more quickly. The region which was once Czechoslovakia was entirely subjugated while even at the worst at least half of Germany was free. As a related argument, Czechoslovakia's continuing subjugation was the result of the West "preparing for peace" with Russia...

This is one of the strange cases where I think Libertarians make a blatant moral assertion--that is, that peace is good--without any scrutiny as to whether people actually act in way compatible with that assertion, and will do so even against self-interest.

John Thacker writes:
"If you want to not be mugged, prepare with concealed carry." I am personally in favor of concealed carry, though I do not practice it. But how many who feel the only way to achieve peace is through preparing for war apply that principle at the micro level to themselves?

I feel that having a sufficient number of people around with concealed carry benefits me. I don't necessarily have to carry; there simply has to be enough people carrying that any mugger is wary. I don't carry; I have friend who do and on whom backs I free-ride.

So, yes, in analogy to international relations, having a close ally that pays for a lot of defense and pledges to defend you while you don't pay for it and "prepare for peace" instead is even better.

John Thacker writes:

Disarming is less important than developing trade and business links. The interdependency of Venezuela and the US does decrease the chance of war, for example, even though closer ties are certainly possible.

Curt Doolittle writes:


Wow, I am stunned.

You would only come to some such reasoning if you misunderstand the foundations of human interaction, and if you’re really an austrian (the psychological method), then you would only get to that conclusion by misunderstanding psychology, or applying cultural biases or cultural philosophies as universal truths, rather than biases of a group. (THe traditional humor about economists applies here.)

Debate itself is a byproduct of property. Debate assumes weakness on the part of both parties. Or at least differnces in power that are insignificantly marginal. It assumes that each must choose to debate in the first place. And that there is a reason for debating. (that you need the other person’s resources)

Debate then, comes AFTER choosing between the question: not ‘what do we do to coexist’ but ‘why don’t I just kill you and take your stuff’. And therefore, economic cooperation is a function of realative weakness in the first currency, force.

Furthermore, Peace is determined by the presence of sufficient force to enforce order such that punishment results from failing to trade. Since If I am powerful I can usurp trade (governments do this all the time, so do brigands), we know violence actually is what controls the ability to trade. The STRONG pay an opportunity cost to finance trade from which they benefit more than if interfered with trade.

The contrary belief is caused by cultural beliefs for SMALL GROUPS, not LARGE groups with different resources and social orders. In other words, it’s largely Religious. Traditional. Nietzsche started the conversation about power, and writers like Kagan are addressing it in the field of history and military strategy. But there are still people in this world who do not yet comprehend the silliness of ‘belief’ (a small group process) in that we all should get along, in contrast to getting along is determined by relative powerlessness. Not the choice to be less powerful, but the choice that both possessing power, the only profitable choice is cooperation.

Economic and political idealism are cute. But in the end, cooperation is determined by power and weakness. And massive power, overhwelming power creating order, creating certainty, are what make the economic basis of exchange possible.
And this is the difference between the two cultural biases in western capitalism. The weak (jewish) who are diasporic city dwellers maximizing capital by following trade routes but who do not have to pay for social order, and the strong (christians) who are land-controlling managers of social order who create and maintain trade routes, and pay for it. Best thought of as long wave and short wave capitalism. With the masses of labor and peasantry in the middle as consumers and producers. It doesn’t matter if it’s athenian greece, rome, mongol china, or wherever, it’s the same structure in all societies that create sufficient order to maximize trade.

One should never try to make your cultural or ideological biases into utopian realities. (I”m saying that you think you made an economic comment but you really said a prayer.) These biases are just pleas to let others allow your weakness to be viewed as a strength. (ie: they’re prayers) As groups with different beliefs, different organizing strategies, different social goups operating at different capital-tempos, our biases are another division of labor, an intertemporal division of labor concentrating skills on some faster or slower moving capital, and we need each other to respect how they interact just as we need to respect individual expertise and craftsmanship. Otherwise, such silly pleas are asking the strong, who DO PAY FOR SOCIAL ORDER USUALLY WITH RISK TO LIFE, to give you permission to usurp them by other means. Or more clearly stated, to steal from them the investment that they have made in creating order by means of daily opportunity costs. Systems of ‘Belief’, utopian social orders, like you’re unintentionally advocating, are means of getting everyone to pay opportunity costs, or to forgo opportunities for their minority, so that another minority can benefit. In other words, you’re simply making a different form of the argument to egalitarian communism. It’s a plea for the weak to become the strong at the expense of the strong.

In the end, it’s just violence that our cooperative pyramid sits upon. Violence is the first currency, the capital of cooperation. It is only by the concentration of that capital, and to some degree the exhaustion created by maintaining that capital across land, that makes the less expensive and more productive trade rather than violence profitable.

Peace is not determined by equality and consent then. It is determined by the economic limits imposed by creating the power needed to make trade and peace possible. Or “prepare for war if you want peace.”

And the very idea that you could propose something so silly as mutual weakness, and can have such idle utopian thoughts without being daily confronted with their fallacies, is because empire anglo-europa, like empire Greco-Roma, creates order by the threat of violence, so that the cost of cheap territorial expansion is made so high that only trade is an affordable means of conflict. The strong compete with the strong so that they can profit from the weak competing with the weak.
In historical terms, the great historians call what you’re thinking, the “skeptical” phase of civilization. It’s part of the process of decay.


(Sorry Bob Murphy, I hate to criticize a Rothbardian, and especially one I admire. I’m a Misesian in terms of understanding calculation, but pacifism is just paying with time and opportunity costs, rather than direct costs of action. It assumes I have the resources to simply pay with time - to finance my activities in the interim.

And furthermore it’s utopian: A group of people will never cooperate by ‘belief’ except AGAINST others. There isn’t any other means of holding a belief in a populace. A fact which negates the entire premise of anarchy except against some other group, failing to make it egalitarian anarchy. Any group sufficiently weaker at trading and production will resort to violence. Any group sufficiently constrained in resources will resort to violence. This is an axiom of human action. It is no good to follow an a priori method if you’re SELECTIVE in the a priori causes.

This was Mises’ error, and it is the source of Hayek’s gentle criticism him. He was selective either by intent or cultural bias. Rothbard made the same mistake. Hoppe does not. He’s actually got the answer: the corporeal state is the problem, not government, laws are the problem, not government, and only intertemporal property under monarchy solves the issue of social order necessary to create sufficient costs to conflict that trade is simply cheaper for everyone to engage in, while maintaining intertemporal calculability, creative freedom with creative destruction, hayekian knowledge, and long term capital accumulation in the population.

THe issue for Keynesians and for the rest of us is simply to determine if there is a vehicle, a set of tools, for borrowing against ourselves rather than another group, so that we can continue producing incentives, or accelerate prosperity and investment, or to provide mutual cultural insurance against variances, without falling into the moral hazard of undermining calculation, and destroying what we have built the social order specifically to maintain. The court is out but I suspect that we will find a happy medium.)

liberty writes:

Would Ghandi, going up against any power other than Britain, have succeeded as well as he did -- or would he have been executed for treason?

Bob Murphy writes:

Would Ghandi, going up against any power other than Britain, have succeeded as well as he did -- or would he have been executed for treason?

C'mon guys, let's "think like economists" here and reason on the margin. You're saying, e.g., that Ghandi would have been slaughtered by Hitler. Yes he would have. So what that means is the way to beat Hitler is to try to kill him with a suitcase bomb placed under his table! Violence is clearly a more successful strategy.

(And yes, I understand you will say, "Huh? I'm talking about the Allies coming in with tanks and bombers." But Ghandi didn't have tanks and bombers at his disposal. I get exasperated when people somehow flip the example of Ghandi to show that nonviolence doesn't really get you anywhere in the real world.)

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