Currently wars are being fought in the Balkans, in Russia, in Southeast Asia, and in various parts of Africa, but they involve relatively few people. Despite these wars, we live in reasonably peaceful times, and no threat of a major war appears on the horizon. Yet, although we don’t know when war will break out next or where, we do know that war is unavoidable. Not because human nature requires it. Nature makes it possible, but it is the organization of the world that makes war unavoidable, and that in turn is not avoidable.

The world has always been and still is divided into countries of various size and power. Each has an independent (sovereign) government. Hugo Grotius defined sovereignty in the 16th century as potesta legibus absoluta—power independent of law. Sovereignty of course existed before the word did. Governments are power-holders and lawgivers. They cannot be bound by any law except what they choose themselves to create and (spottily) observe. If they disregard their own laws they cannot be compelled to obey them. Nor can governments be effectively bound by laws other than their own or even by treaties and rules they may choose to subscribe to at any moment.

The many independent governments that run the world have divergent interests, real or imagined, material or moral. They independently pursue these interests that may be in conflict with the interests of other governments. Usually such conflicts can be settled by negotiations; but not always. Whenever a government feels unable to pursue or protect through negotiations what it perceives as its vital interests, when it calculates that it can win a test of force, it will risk and bear the costs of war to achieve its goals. Governments do not go to war lightly; yet there is nothing to prevent them except their own calculations of costs, benefits, and risks. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, wars won’t occur: nobody fights if defeat is certain. But if each prospective belligerent believes that victory is in its grasp and that the benefits are worth the costs and risks, war is likely. Fortunately, most of the time conditions conducive to war can be avoided, mostly by making war unrewarding. Still, in the long run, conflicts and, ultimately, war are as certain as death is for individuals.

The ineluctability of war need not discourage us from trying to postpone it as we try to postpone death. Physicians and hospitals do their best to increase the lifespan of individuals. Reasonable persons are not angry at them for merely postponing rather than altogether avoiding death; nor should we be angry at governments or diplomats for merely postponing war. The parallel may be extended: occasionally small wars are prophylactic and avert bigger ones, just as surgery may postpone life-threatening developments. World War II might have been avoided had the Allies intervened when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland. Some argue that the Persian Gulf War prevented a bigger war that would have occurred had Iraq been permitted to conquer its neighbors.

Couldn’t conflicts among sovereign nations be settled by adjudication when negotiations are unsuccessful? Not really. Conflicts among citizens of any nation are settled peacefully by adjudication. Violence is avoided because each country has laws and courts that settle conflicts, as well as police and military forces that enforce the verdicts of the courts. The legitimate use of violence is monopolized by the government. Individuals are not allowed to use force and are actually prevented from doing so by the threat of the overwhelming power of the government. A reasonably efficient government is stronger by far than any individuals or small groups and can, therefore, deter the use of force by most individuals most of the time as well as violent attempts to overthrow it.

The conditions that prevent nongovernmental use of force domestically do not exist in international relations. International law is not effectively binding on sovereign nations. Each nation proclaims adherence to international law but interprets the law as it wishes. The international court of justice in the Hague has but non-binding jurisdiction; parties appear voluntarily; verdicts not voluntarily complied with are unenforceable. There are other international organizations that attempt to banish war and sometimes are useful in postponing it. But this tends to obscure more than to change the essential situation: nations have the right—more importantly, they retain the power—to go to war, however much they subscribe to treaties renouncing it.

Organizations such as the United Nations are meant to outlaw and prevent war. They do the former but not the latter. Whether one looks back at the Korean War, the Persian Gulf War, or U.N. actions in Somalia (and the rest of Africa), the best that can be said is that the organization occasionally has been helpful in preventing more violence than actually occurred. However, the U.N. cannot avoid war when the divergent interests of its members impel them to use force. The U.N. has no independent will, or judicial or police powers. It can enforce the will of some members only when it is lent military force by these members. And when the members themselves use force, they can do so with or without the U.N.’s blessing.

Optimists believe that a world government could avoid war. Not so. To begin with, it is unlikely that the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, or even the English and the French would be willing to surrender their sovereignty, i.e., their power to make war or to defend themselves. But let that go. Suppose they did. Experience is showing currently that territories united under one government but including different nationalities tend to fall apart as soon as they are no longer compelled to stay together. Furthermore, the American Civil War teaches that different nationalities are not necessary to bring about a civil war within a nation previously united. And as the former Yugoslavia shows, newly independent nations may engage in war with each other about the size of the respective national territories. After the Soviet Empire fell apart, there was and still is unrest and violence not only among the nationalities previously governed from Moscow but also within the Russian territory that remained. Many of the more than 100 nationalities included within Russia are striving for independence.

If there were a world government, international wars would be replaced by civil wars. The change of label would not reduce the frequency of war, or the suffering of peoples. On the contrary: civil wars tend to be particularly vicious, as those in Spain or the former Yugoslavia show. One must conclude that the essential situation permits us to postpone, even to avoid, specific wars but not ultimately to avoid war. We should concentrate on avoiding specific wars as we avoid specific illnesses, without expecting to live forever, or wasting time and resources on attempts to banish war or death altogether.