Public Release: 

Traditional wars are in decline, but criminal warfare and terrorism will demand new government responses

Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio - While the federal government may focus on military reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the best response may be more akin to police work, according to a national security expert at Ohio State University.

"Dealing with terrorists is more of a police problem than a military problem," said John Mueller, a professor of political science and the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State's Mershon Center.

"The United States can't just declare war or bomb something to deal with these terrorists. There has to be surveillance, infiltration of groups, information gathering and the arrest of those responsible."

Mueller said the terrorist attack comes at a time in history when there is a general decline in traditional warfare between countries. Most wars today are really the acts of criminal groups who use warfare to enrich themselves. These criminal wars, as well as terrorism, will force the United States and other countries to adopt different strategies - outside of the traditional military -- to protect themselves.

Mueller discussed the decline of traditional war and the rise of criminal warfare in a presentation earlier this month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. He said the war in the former Yugoslavia is a good example of the new type of criminal warfare.

"While many people said this was an ethnic war, it was far from being an expression of deep and long-standing hatred among neighbors," he said. "The perpetrators used ethnic and nationalistic rhetoric, but they were really criminals acting as mercenaries under the direction of weak and desperate political leaders."

Other wars, such as those in Africa during recent years, are essentially violent conflicts conducted by warlords and bandit gangs.

"Where government is weak, crime tends to surge and in some cases, the crime will require substantial organization, and so will look like war," he said.

At the same time, conventional war - war between disciplined armies representing developed countries - has declined because of changing attitudes and beliefs. The two world wars discredited the notion that war was beneficial to nations, and left many citizens unwilling to go to war.

"This process has roughly followed the pattern by which the ancient and formidable institution of slavery became discredited and then obsolete," Mueller explained.

As a result, the remaining major sources of international violence are criminal warfare and terrorism. And while these two types of violence are different in some ways, they both require a similar response, Mueller explained.

"We need to deal with terrorists and criminal warriors through police work, not military action," he said. "Controlling them will require patient, dreary, endless, routine and often frustrating police work, not warfare."

Moreover, Americans must accept the fact that there will never be a decisive victory over terrorists and criminal warriors as there were over traditional armies, Mueller said.

"There are no decisive victories to police work," he said. "Wars may end, but policing never does."


Contact: John Mueller, (614) 247-6007;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

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