Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.
Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor.
It’s obvious that such a world would have a completely different balance of power to our own. Arms-control treaties would become pointless, and any single state or statelet, willing to run the risk, could challenge the world in the course of a week or a day.
It may be that the only way to prepare for this is to aim for a world entirely without war. If we can remove war as an instrument of state policy for good, then other means (surveillance, treaties, minimal deterrence) may be enough to contain the remaining risk.
A world without war! How utopic is that? Well, much less utopic than it’s ever been before – the amounts of deaths through wars (of all types) has been on a steady downwards trajectory for decades now. Literally, we’ve never been so peaceful, despite the television cameras that provide a steady diet of conflict from wherever the world is bleeding that day.
What does this mean for Syria? It means that we shouldn’t reach conclusions based simply on the current facts, but on what we think would lead to less war in the future. And there, it seems, the balance is strongly towards non-intervention. For an intervention would be for a large or medium power (USA, France, Turkey…) to project power beyond their borders, invading a sovereign country, in opposition to quite a number of other world powers, and with high risk of getting stuck in there for years. This is the kind of situation we need to end, no matter how well intentioned or justified it may be in this instance. There will be other instances, less justified, less well intentioned, harder to oppose if we intervene now.
If it is important for our future to get rid of war, we’re going to have to start opposing wars today – even “good wars”.