Gilsinan: [We’re discussing] the dangers of this blurring of the line between war and not war. And yet there are fewer people dying in wars now than in the World War II era, when the boundaries were pretty clear, even if not completely clear. So on the one hand, the U.S. military is in maybe more countries than ever before, almost every country on earth. On the other, the worldwide level of killing going on is substantially lower than [at] almost any time in history. If the long-term trend is in this positive direction, how much should we worry about the categories?
Brooks: I think those are separate questions. I don’t think they necessarily have a whole lot to do with each other. But I also would question whether we have a long-term trend. In the sweep of human history, 50 or 60 years is not a long-term trend, and I do worry about that. Of course it’s good that we, over the last few decades, have seen a reduction in the number of people dying in violent conflict around the globe, but on the other hand, the world we live in remains extraordinarily dangerous in many, many ways, including some quite new ways, driven by technology—the speed at which epidemics can move around the world has increased due to changes in transportation technologies, the speed at which economic disruption can move around the globe because of changes in electronic technologies, et cetera. And, by the way, there are very many thousands of nuclear warheads and old-fashioned sources of destruction.
So I’m not all that comfortable when people say, “Oh, happy, happy news, interstate conflict and death have dropped in the last few decades.” There have been plenty of other decades in world history where you’ve gotten a few decades, a hundred years, or a few hundred years of relative cessation in violence, only to have new catastrophes. I am very, very skeptical of claims that what we have is a long-term trend, as opposed to saying we have no idea whether this continues or not, and lots of things could destabilize it.
Gilsinan: One of the things that could destabilize it is the expansion of the U.S. military all over the world and the tendency to view everything that scares us, as you say, in terms of war.
Brooks: When you build up a national and international legal system where our ability to constrain power and coercion are very much linked to the creation of this particular set of legal and political categories—armed conflict, foreign, domestic, military, civilian—then when those categories get blurry, you lose your ability to effectively constrain power. But that’s not the same thing as saying the answer is necessarily to shore up the categories again. The categories themselves are arbitrary—what’s important is their relationship to a much broader system of consensus, of institutions, of laws, and so forth. We didn’t create these categories because there’s something magical about [them], we created these categories because they were part of a system that helped us achieve certain normative goals that have to do with the rule of law, with promoting stability and peace and so forth, and if the categories aren’t doing it, then maybe the categories don’t make sense anymore. Maybe we now live in a world in which we need an in-between category, something that’s in between war and peace, with a set of in-between implications for law and for power and for rights.