Is battle between great powers obsolete?

Will we ever again see countries with modern, well-equipped and well-trained militaries engaged in battle against one another?

For myself, I rather doubt it. Most of the world’s top-tier militaries are NATO members, EU members, or allies of the same, with political, economic and military ties that preclude armed conflict. (Can we even imagine another war in Western Europe? Or between the United States and Canada?)

Those countries with top-tier militaries not restrained from battle against another by alliance or affinity are often deterred by nuclear weapons. We may have no special love for Russia or China, nor they for us - but war between nuclear powers is universally understood to be folly beyond even the reach of madmen.

Thus, I conclude that battle between great modern military powers is more-or-less a thing of the past. Poorer nations will continue to slug it out amongst themselves, and occasionally a great power will stomp a far lesser one (as Russia did to Georgia in 2008). And great powers might play the same sorts of games they did during the Cold War - financing terror groups and proxy wars, that sordid business. But the US will never come to blows with China, nor China with Japan, and so on.

Does anyone disagree? Or is this sufficiently obvious that this thread will sink like a stone? :slight_smile:

While I wouldn’t say it would “never” happen again, I would agree that it’s extremely unlikely. In addition to what you’ve stated, I think an even bigger reason is economic. Both in terms of the unsustainable costs of maintaining a modern military on a war footing for a length of time, and in the sense that modern nations are so financially intertwined that any damage to one is likely to cause some damage to the other.

I think financial “wars” and IT “wars” (like stuxnet) are the way large, modernized nations will be competing in the future.

In war games, as played by NATO, simulating a chinese or russian war, someone always brings out the nukes.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a war. Just that someone will use the nukes if they’re present.

What gives me pause for thought is that similar arguments - that the great powers now had mechanisms for working together, that war between the powers was too terrible to contemplate, that their economies are too intertwined to make war-making make any sense, that war - if it happened - would be fought between proxies - were all advanced by some experts in the years prior to WW1 (and made perfect sense then).

Certainly, war between the great powers makes no rational sense. But rational sense doesn’t always restrain war-makers. All it takes is one actor to up the ante - to seek some advantage at the expense of the other powers, threatening war - and war becomes a possibility. Otherwise, if war is simply unthinkable and impossible, that actor would have a winning strategy each time …

Hence, as long as our world is populated by autonomous nation-states with ultimate sovereignty over their own actions for war and peace, war between them remains possible - even if the outcome is likely mutual destruction. This may well be an argument for doing away with te nation-state - but, without war, how would that be accomplished?

NATO wargames are highly contrived exercises that are intended to test out specific strategies or coordination between forces. They should not be taken as credible projections of how an actual conflict would unfold. The use of nuclear weapons is a political decision, not a strategic one per se, and as wargames are typically conducted outside the executive chain of command (the philosophy, in the United States at least, being that it would be a security risk to present how the president would actually respond to a threat) they may not represent what the political leadership would do.

As for the o.p., there have been fairly recent (within the last twenty years) conflicts between India and Pakistan, China and Mongolia, Israel and the rest of the Middle East, involving well equipped armies using modern tactics. These are all regional conflicts rather than (as I suspect the o.p. is referencing) world-wide conflicts like World War II, but they can still be incredibly destructive and utilize a “total war” philosophy. I think ideological conflicts like those that led to the Napoleonic Wars, European Fascism, and the Cold War are probably a thing of the past insofar that the ideology actually served as a cover for vested self-interest and autocraticy personality cults, and the economic interconnection of even hotly vying nations is so strong that it is prohibitive for nations to go to war. For the Peoples Republic of China to go to war with the United States would be losing their biggest customer and vice versa; it is no longer pragmatically viable to go to large scale war against a well-equipped opponent for material gain.


That’s pretty much what I was going to say. In fact, I’ve just been reading a history of WWI. If any war ever did not make sense, that one was it. Every country realized that going into war was foolish, yet every country thought they were being forced into going into war because of some other country’s actions.

After the War of Independence, though, Israel tended to win its wars because it massively outclassed the opposition in quality of equipment and (far more importantly) training. Israel’s had a first-rank military for decades - I don’t think that even Egypt could credibly make that claim. (It’s not enough to have the hardware, fellows - you’ve got to train your people to use it.)

China had a fairly modern and well-equipped army in its war with Mongolia, but did the other side? For that matter, were India and Pakistan trained to NATO levels?

Because that’s really what I’m getting at here - not so much the scope of wars, but the quality of the forces involved. I don’t believe we’ll ever again see battles between NATO NATO-caliber or NATO-rival militaries - we might see battles between low-end militaries (Africa, with some exceptions) or midranked militaries (India and Pakistan), or between top-tier and lower-tier militaries, but the guys at the top of the game just arne’t going to slug it out any more, and haven’t for some time.

The OP is correct in general, but it doesn’t rule out an escalation of a smaller war.

WWI similar. You had a tiny nation Serbia, allowing terrorists to use their soil. Austria-Hungary, by then a third rate power (with a first rate reputation) could only go to war by getting assurances and encouragement Germany. Which Germany did. This is oversimplified but it will give you a scenerio how the next major war could occur

The most likely spot for this is Pakistan and India. Israel is unlikely as the Arabs realize the US would never tolerate it falling so their efforts would only wind up in defeat for them, eventually.

Iran is a hot point but no one in the area really likes Iran, so any war there would have trouble drawing others in.

Africa has tons of conflicts. Look at the World War of Africa. Has anyone really heard of that. Second deadliest conflict since WWII. As you can see, no one really cared about it much.

South America is pretty peaceful in terms of international relations and internal troubles are more at issue.

Central Asia and Russia is full of small local conflicts that no one outside of the area has much interest in.

The EU has pretty much resolved to work out issues for peace.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only flash point in Europe. The peace is uneasy and it would involve the Serb portion of the country seceding and with Kosovo setting precident, that wouldn’t be too much of a conflict anyway.

So the best option for a “What if” is to take Pakistan -v- India and then work from there to get other nations involved.

Both India and Pakistan were equipped with relatively modern military hardware, and their training standards equal or exceed many modern large militaries (the former Soviet Union, the PRC). To be precise, in the last sixty-odd years, major superpowers like the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Britain, France, et cetera never faced each other on the battlefield in a manner described by the o.p.; they either fought via proxy or against smaller, less well-equipped armies in Indochina, Africa, the Middle East, et cetera in a very asymmetrical conflict. The last real conflict between economic and military superpowers was WWII, and everybody involved except for the United States and the Soviet Union came out of it with less power and influence than before the war. (It can be argued that Japan ultimately benefited economically, but as a military superpower its days were over.)

It is also noteworthy that of the wars fought by the major powers, in very few could the major powers be described as having emerged uncategorically victorious. In the case of Indochina, Algeria, Afghanistan, and even the Falklands War, the superpowers almost uniformly came off as either outright losing or accepting a Pyrrhic victory.


Have the economies sink into a ‘double dip’ recession even worse than we have experienced in the past couple of years and have it stick for awhile…

…and we’ll see if a big war isn’t possible :frowning:

Just conspire. Works every time.

Treason never prospers. What’s the reason?
Because if it prospers, none dare call it “treason”!


Precisely, There was no rational reason for the United States and its allies to invade Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, we did it. It could be argued that there will never be a rational reason for two major countries to go to war again, but that’s different from saying that no such war will ever occur.

I’m dreading the next cycle in the perpetual Hans Island crisis.

There’s a famous analysis called “Why Arabs lose wars” by Norvell B. De Atkine. He goes into several reasons but the main one he points out is that countries ruled by one party states headed by dictators or perpetual presidents don’t dare allow their militaries to be too good.

What I wonder is if somewhere down the line two regional powers will fight a nuclear war, and although they will be badly maimed by the fight the rest of the world will go on, meanwhile taking note of just how nuclear warfighting worked out in practice and considering at least the modest use of nukes a viable strategy.

I think war is obsolete-it costs too much, relative to the “rewards” of winning.
That is why there will never be a war between major powers-suppose the USA decided to go to war with China? The Chinese would dump their US Treasury bonds, and the NYSE would crash-unemployment in the USA would hit 70%.
Also, the USA military would be unable to service its hardware (spare parts components made in China).
Oil would skyrocket, and public demonstrations in the USA would demand an end to the war.
What about the “pariah” states like Iran? Lots of bluster, but little else-the Iranian leaders know that pissing off Israel (to the point of starting hostilities) would be a fatal mistake-the Israelis just might USE their nuclear missiles-and Tehran would be a radioactive wasteland.
Oddly enough, smart people in Europe (in the arly 1900’s) knew that a huge european war would be an economic disaster (see Israel Bloch-“War: Is It Possible”). Bloch accurately forecast that a general european war would kill millions and bankrupt countries. Unfortunately, unstable monarchs (like Kaiser Wilhelm) made the war possible, and caried it on to its horrible conclusion.

I guess the only hope we have for a good solid donnybrook will have to come from Korea.

I fully expect a major world war towards the end of my life (I’m 38), once the people who lived through World War II are all dead and most of the people who would have heard about their experiences second-hand are retired and irrelevant.

Hey, they won in the Algerian War.

They weren’t really Arabs.