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I want my world to have constant lower level conflict between powerful states, because that gives me lots of stories to write about. I was wondering what type of geopolitical situation can lead to perpetual warfare becoming the norm.

There are some rules, though:

  1. The warfare can't be too devastating, like the Roman-Persian Wars were, because that will be too grimdark. So the conflict needs to be limited and short.
  2. The conflict needs to happen for pragmatic reasons. No warfare for the sake of it, because that will quickly deplete all factions and lead to collapse of the status quo.
  3. There must be lulls in the violence so that all factions can duly lick their wounds and recover for another round. So no Total Warfare that leaves the defeated side in ruins.
  4. The status quo should not change too much. The balance of power needs to be maintained.

I don't really know much about geopolitics, but I've read a little history and feel that maybe Classical Greece and Post-Napoleonic Europe (before WW1) might be a good example of such a state. But I don't have the education to understand what factors these two eras had in common that allowed for this status quo.

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    $\begingroup$ so basically like 90% of human history? $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 31 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ (1) The Roman-Persian wars were so devastating that they continued for about eight centuries. In the end, the eternal never-ending Roman-Persian wars were only ended by the Muslim conquest. (2) You may want to count how many years of peace have France or Spain had between say 815 and 1815. (3) Just use the continuous post-medieval wars of Spain against just about everybody else... (4) Post-Napoleonic western Europe was unusually peaceful; the only wars were occasioned by the revolutions of '48, and even those degenerated into actual wars in eastern Europe -- Poland, Hungary, Transylvania. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 31 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Thales look up the 100 year war that is probably what you are looking for. $\endgroup$ Mar 31 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ Not going to lie, I kind of feel like this is a critique of the real world. What about our quality of perpetual warfare is so deficient to you, OP? Is it not perpetual enough? Not war enough? Has it just gotten boring for you? $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Apr 1 at 13:52
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    $\begingroup$ The thing I never understood about 1984 is, perm them how you like, no combination of two great powers could ever defeat the third. That didn't matter because Orwell wasn't trying to tell the whole history of Airstrip One, or even of that war. Aren't you, too, looking at only a short while in the lives of a few characters. $\endgroup$ Apr 8 at 13:29

15 Answers 15

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Not Politics: Geography.

I think what you are looking for is several large, stable empires that somehow aren't consumed with the desire to destroy each other, yet keep fighting significant wars. Short of a 1984-type world, I think the secret lies in geography, not politics.

You need border regions with valuable resources, symbolic sites (religious, cultural), and good trade access. They should be easy to access by all sides (islands with lots of ports, mountainous-enclosed but with defendable passes) so hard to defend, easy to invade, hard to attack homelands from. The populations will have grown accustomed to war, with adaptations to it (crops hard to burn, food hidden, pacifists who refuse to fight for any side) so they don't degrade significantly with time.

Thus the sides keep trying to obtain control of the valuable resources and the prestige sights for bragging rights, to drive up income and get favorable trade, secure useful minerals or access to trade towns with artisans, etc. Each Emperor can keep score on their greatness by how large they can expand their territory, but most regions wouldn't be in anyone's control for more than a generation or so. If the fighting gets too intense in any one area, the value of it goes down as war ravages it. The longer an area is peaceful, the more valuable it becomes and the more motive for an opposing faction to attack.

Cultural muddling & History:

Cultural and economic demands can add spice to the mix by creating a variety of scenarios in which wars will inevitably break out. A string of strategic islands (think the Caribbean) can be an endless source of conflict. Power 1 seeks to control trade routes. Power 2 keeps restricting trade routes through the area with harassment to stop #1 from gaining control. Power 3 wants a base to project power from, or send out missionaries, or has some cultural ties to the area. Or perhaps the locals want independence, and #3 is their best shot (plus #3 wants to disrupt #1 & #2).

Colonial ambitions can provide a nice proxy for full-scale war, and keep conflict far from the borders of the empires themselves. Severely divided border regions with multiple religious, ethnic, and political entities can consume entire generations in petty conflicts. #1 controlled the region once and has historical claims. #2 married an Emperor's daughter to a local Duke and "defends family claims." #3 sells weapons and/or grain in the region, and stability would make the area self-sufficient.

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If you have powerful states fighting each other, you need both the technological/industrial and political conditions which keep this from becoming a total war which exhausts one or more of the involved states.

  • The United States and Russia could not fight a long war today, because sooner or later one of the belligerents would go nuclear rather than a slow, grinding defeat.
  • World War I or II could not have gone much longer than they did because in both cases, Germany's economy was about to collapse. In the case of World War I, while German troops stood deep in France and deeper in Russia.

So one option is what happened during the 1815-1914 era, fierce competition in the colonies while not going to war in Europe all that often. There were plenty of arms races and war scares, but the big wars happened because Germany formed, which was not originally one of the powerful nations.

The other option would be to have a large pool of more or less equal states, and to have one utterly defeated every now and then. A bit like the classic Greek model.

Neither seems to be quite what you require. So let's look at two different eras, the 17th century in Germany and the 18th century in central Europe.

  • The Thirty Years' War was a religious war, but also a fight for power and influence. Some of the factors which allowed it to go on, year after year:
    • Different outside powers (Sweden, France, ...) did enter the conflict, bringing fresh resources and never getting their heartlands wasted. Note how this mirrors the Cold War, with US troops in Vietnam and Russians in Afghanistan.
    • The war covered a large area, and it did not have battles everywhere all the time. Armies could requisition many supplies and also recruits from the areas they marched through.
    • Changing sides, even several times, was a survivable option for the productive population. The warlords wanted to terrorize and exploit them, not exterminate them.
  • Many 18th century wars were fought for limited purposes, like one province, or at least by pretext about which branch of a dynasty would get a certain throne (Spain, Austria).
    • Again, it was survivable for the people of a conquered region to change sides. They were more or less expected to go along with the outcome of the kings' quarrels.
    • Again, only a small part of the involved countries was a warzone at any one time.

So there is your recipe:

  1. Multiple belligerents help, both to get shifting alliances and to cope with the defeat of any one side.
  2. Fight so that the main productive areas of the belligerents remain a sanctuary. Only the region in between gets devastated.
  3. Make the region in between large enough so that you can have clashes somewhere every campaign season.
  4. Exploit the productive capacity of the conflict region, but do not employ a scorched earth strategy as a general policy. Allow the populations to switch sides.
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  • $\begingroup$ The Thirty Years' War is very much worth looking at, because it's the longest war in human history in terms of duration of continuous combat operations. Longer wars (and even shorter ones) tended to have intervening periods without combat because of exhaustion: for example, the Hundred Years' War had lulls lasting as much as 26 years. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Apr 3 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark, even there, "continuous combat" is deceptive, it was not continuous everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Apr 4 at 4:12
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This is a Frame Challenge

People have been "at war" with one another since the dawn of time. It was a powerful image used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The image of the first ape picking up a bone and hitting another with it. So when you ask "What type of geopolitical status quo can lead to perpetual warfare becoming the norm?" it's a bit silly. Humanity has yet to find a geopolitical status quo that avoids war.

There's a difference between hate and war. You can perpetually hate someone or something. I remember from my childhood a political cartoon by an artist expressing the world's exhaustion (haha, considering it's been 50 more years...) with Middle East tension. The image? Two atoms after the Big Bang, one saying "Hate the Jews!" and the other, "Hate the Arabs!"

So we know it's possible to create a darn-close-to-perpetual hatred simply by looking at the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, which has ostensibly been going on since the Biblical Abraham divided some land between his progeny — more or less — somewhere around circa 2100 BCE. Yup, four thousand years. If that's not perpetual hatred I don't know what is.

But perpetual war?

Even the distaste between Arabs and Jews hasn't been boiling for four thousand years to that extent. The problem is simple: war requires resources. And resources get depleted.

The (in)famous Hundred Years' War wasn't one-hundred nonstop years of warfare. It had advantages that did keep it going, though. Low technology, slow transportation, slower communication, and long-held grudges (aka hate) allowed it to bubble into war from time to time. But no war can last forever, which is what "perpetual" means. War depends on economic strength, available raw materials, operable manufacturing and training facilities, and above all, a population willing to hate so much that the pain of loss, exhaustion, and desire for peace are completely overcome.

You have problems with all those things.

  • If you balance your economy so you can fight a war without ruining your economy, it means the war is limited. You can only commit so many soldiers and supporting equipment for so long before you must back away from the conflict. Interplanetary war might, maybe, have a strong enough economy to fight a perpetual war due to having an entire planet to work with — but a believable interplanetary conflict is also limited by the number of ships that can be built and the distances involved. In other words, from a certain point of view, low tech, slow transportation, and slower communication. (Yes, I say "low tech" because once you have fast transportation and fast communication you're tech is too high to sustain a war without all these consequences.) Now, I say this despite the U.S. economy during and after World War II appearing to contradict my statement. But you're missing the point. Axis-controlled Europe was larger than the U.S. and yet crushed economically by the war. The roots that caused those two differences would make a full semester college class, but the fact that the Axis powers couldn't sustain a war for more than a handful of years is really the point here. It takes two to tango.

  • No matter what you do, you won't have an infinite supply of metal, wood, oil, energy, etc. Materials used to fight a war are, simplistically, lost. They're consumed by the effort. Rationing occurred in every country that participated in World War II. I suspect that a close examination will demonstrate that at least one if not all participants of every war in human history has led to rationing. The truth is, unless you sustain your hate through attrition and continue fighting with sticks, stones, and your bare hands, a war can't be fought perpetually.

  • The more advanced your technology, the more your nation depends on manufacturing and training to prosecute a war. Manufacturing and training facilities are obvious targets for attack because they reduce the nation's ability to continue fighting. If your nation relies on these to any degree, they're weaknesses that will eventually be exploited. We're back to having so much hate that the war continues with sticks, stones, and bare fists.

  • Finally, people get tired of war. They tire of losing sons and daughters, friends, even complete strangers. They tire of the increasing burden of keeping the nation running due to depleting human resources (aka, people dying). Good news in the form of victory can keep people temporarily sustained, but a perpetual war will never have enough good news to do this. The inevitable (yes, IMO) end result of a nation's attempt to prosecute a perpetual war is revolution, inevitably leading to the end of the war. To add to this, unless your nation is very small, very homogeneous, and really hates the enemy, there will always be people who prefer peace at any cost over war at any cost. Those people would need to be subdued, even oppressed, leading to increased dissatisfaction among the populace. I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that people hate police states more than they hate political and/or cultural enemies. Could be wrong about that, but I don't think I am.

So, what does "perpetual war" look like?

It looks like the Hundred Years' War: sufficient cultural or ideological hatred to lead to sporadic clashes with time between to allow economies to re-stabilize, resources to be gathered, manufacturing to restore depleted stores, and for the population to relax from war-caused stress.

And that can be had with any geopolitical structure. The U.S. during WWII painted the Japanese people as sub-human. Soviets painted the U.S. as morally weak. Monarchies and tribes have been fighting for eons over everything from land and resources to personal grudges. Even today, all the gloves come off regardless of geopolitical conditions over a good soccer match.

If you believe in creationism, humanity is plagued by the temptations of evil. If you believe in evolution, humanity clawed its way to prominence through eons of competition (aka "war"). Either way, conflict and war is what we do and the proof of our really having become enlightened begins with a desire to stop fighting.

The desire to fight abounds, geopolitics be damned.

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    $\begingroup$ You realize that my OP specifically pointed out that these aren't Total Wars that leave both sides devastated, just quick and limited conflicts to let me have a Heroic Fantasy story? $\endgroup$
    – Thales
    Apr 1 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Thales Yup... but you're the one who used the phrase "perpetual war." Frankly, perpetual war is even harder to maintain when neither side is left devastated - that's the highest resource consumption condition. The point of my answer is that perpetual hatred you can have. Perpetual war you cannot unless you define it to be something other than what the words mean. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Apr 1 at 7:56
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The entire cold war period, from the end of WWII until the collapse of the Iron Curtain, was more or less what you want.

USA and USSR never directly faced each other, but rather fought proxy wars here and there, with the pragmatic reason of protecting people from the negative influence of the "other" side, only shifting few digits after the coma in the relative balance of power.

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    $\begingroup$ But they never fought each other at all. $\endgroup$
    – Thales
    Mar 31 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Thales that doesn't matter in this case. Let's say there's a Vietnam for the USA and a Ukraine for the Russians. Even though not a single shot is fired at the other nation, their men die in the war. You just support a nation with weapons and training,like communists did in Vietnam and the West currently does in Ukraine. It is still a war, but because we're 'not directly involved' it is ok. This can backfire, where some groups like Wagner were supporting some group. America saw no actual Russians present, so could bomb it to hell with impunity. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Mar 31 at 18:26
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Population control

Two or more large nations are fighting. Is annihilation of the other feasible, or even possible?

Theoretically yes, but in practice it'll be next to impossible. You need to get the strategic advantage in so many ways to not break yourself, as the Ukraine war is also showing. Even if the military is victorious, you'll have so many people against you still. They are unhappy, which can be a great toll on your empire. But before that can happen you'll likely run into moral issues, supply lines, weapon shortages, dissidence on the home front for the families going to war.

Not to mention war is simply economically rarely positive. War is detrimental for normal growth. Current economic models have included military spending in special ways so people do not complain too much about it, but the value for a country, besides deterrent, is negative. You only spend on something you need to store and maintain, or use and lose.

Control

Why then have a war? A small scale war can still have it's benefits. In the current climate between Russia and 'the West' there is suddenly more cohesion within each faction. With proper care, you can get more control over a population. Propoganda, laws and the like can much easier be accepted. Ask about military spending for the EU 5 years ago and they laugh. No one wanted to disappoint their voters. Better to put it into something the people see as useful for them. Ask them now and the support for military spending is very strong.

The two countries can realise this, and can even work together to keep a low key war going to both control their populations better.

Polulation

The population is also an interesting point. You might have a growth that is unsustainable. Sure we can see if it finds any healthy equilibrium somewhere, but why wait and hope if you can actively control the growth? Send certain amounts of people to the front! Some die, some become heroes for your propoganda, some territory is taken and lost. The big nations look at each other, nod and move some around so no one starts touching WMDs. Maybe some less people to the grinder for now and more propaganda, so when needed you can send some more people to their deaths.

Cold and calculated control from the nations over their own population is a valuable commodity, in exchange for some smaller(satellite) war.

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One option I have played with before is a renewable, but temporary resource. For this to work, you need a couple of things.

  1. The resource must be valuable. Having it will give whoever has it a boost of some kind, preferably not in a military sense.
  2. It should be limited. Ideally, it can only be harvested in a certain time period. This allows for a cooldown period between fights over the area.
  3. The area where it is harvested is not suitable for long term habitation except during harvest periods. This prevents anyone from camping out the area during the off season.
  4. Too much destruction of the area will cause the resource to become unavailable for that cycle.
  5. Nations that are too large to easily take each other over. This prevents the large scale warfare, since all sides know that that level of fighting is unsustainable and pointless. There simply isn't enough resources available to control the other nations.

What the resource is, why it is valuable, and how it is harvested are all fairly flexible. What matters is that the nations are willing to fight over it. You have your perpetual, but periodic, war in a sustainable manner.

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After reading the answers i found a surprising lack of real world examples that i have the feeling should still be mentioned. Those examples which have been mentioned like "The Cold War" won't be mentioned separately though.

1. A Stalemate:

  • This for conflict is generally between 2. powers that are equally matched and generally the kind of "Forever War" i used in my world.

  • For this both sides must see winning the war as something existential that they must win.

  • Very important here is that you keep the balance of power as 1. Side getting to strong destroys the whole balance.

  • This kind of war also relatively versatile in how much conflict you want. Though keep in mind that both sides here are on their limit.

  • Closest real world example might be the 100 year war though i am sure there are others.

2. Frozen Conflict:

  • Pretty much what 1. turns into from time to time or can for a longer period of time time if you want it too.

  • Usually here a longer term cease fire is agreed upon though there could be other reasons for it too. Though tensions remain high.

  • This is probably the most versatile option as you can apply to almost any conflict. And can restart the conflict whenever your story demands it.

  • Real world examples are the whole "Israel-Palestine" conflict and the "Korea war" if you want to be specific.

3. Guerilla War:

  • Is basically a war between a stronger power and some local forces.

  • Because of asymmetrical warfare it is very hard for the stronger power to stomp out the weaker one.

  • Normally this only ends with the stronger power giving up. Though if the stakes are to high this might not be an option.

  • Probably not the most versatile of conflict and better used to accompany any conflict to keep tensions high.

  • Real world examples are basically the USA in the Middle East but if you want to be more specific look up "Afghanistan"

4. Heightened Tensions:

  • Technically not a war but for this scenario it can just be treated as such. Also technically the "Cold War" is part of this category but does not really represent this kind of conflict in its totality.

  • Basically you have two powers that don't like each other but can't easily get rid of the other.

  • This can lead to a cold war competition but doesn't have to necessarily. You could also have 2. powers fighting a series of wars for dominance.

  • This is probably the most long-term sustainable kind of conflict and really it can go on for centuries.

  • It is probably a good setup for your general conflict to lead over to what you want. As with this one there are generally a lot of piece periods in between which you may not want. Though i don't think it has to necessarily be that way.

  • Real-life examples are the whole thing France had going on with the British or The Germans.

So that are all examples i have so far. Please if you think i made mistake somewhere tell me in the comments and I'll make sure to correct it.

Note: English is not my primary language so please excuse any grammar or spelling errors.

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A combination of two systems of war can achieve this outcome handily, as long as you're flexible on your definition of "state."

First-system warfare

Turns out that "war never changes" is wrong. Bret Deveraux describes the four different systems of warfare here. Of interest to us is warfare in the first system: that used by nomadic tribes.

In this system, war is the default state of affairs between neighbors. This type of warfare is relatively low-casualty because it doesn't do pitched battles; the societies involved are not highly populous and any own losses hurt a lot. But so do enemy losses hurt them. So the focus is on raiding and ambush to cause ongoing pain to the enemy so that they will leave the territory they currently occupy and abandon the resources there, rather than any notion of a fair fight.

Since in a nomadic society, every adult male (and often, every adult of any gender) is a warrior on top of their other roles, this warfare also happens at fairly low scale. You can't pull your people off subsistence hunting & gathering for too long, unless it's to steal enemy livestock (likely their only stockpiled food resource). Hence the emphasis on lightning-quick raids by temporarily organized war parties.

Feudal warfare

Europe in the Middle Ages saw almost constant warfare, but critically the majority of warfare was low-level. While the King of France might be able to call 20,000 soldiers to his army, the vast majority of those men are coming from his vassals, and those from their vassals, and so on.

The most common military leader is not a king, but a minor baron who might have a few knights that owe him fealty, some men-at-arms in his household, and a peasant village where he can raise a small levy from for part of the year (usually during the summer, between the planting and the harvesting - otherwise the peasants will have nothing with which to pay their taxes to the baron).

Outside of being mustered for the king's army, this baron is his own commander-in-chief, and can use this small gang of a few dozen soldiers for his own needs. And his own needs often involve border and inheritance disputes with neighboring barons.

What conditions can sustain these systems?

There is a notable commonality between these two systems: they are not states. There is no powerful centralized authority that can directly equip, supply, and pay massive armies, there is no standing army of professional soldiers that can fight for years and years.

So we're looking at a situation superficially similar to the High Middle Ages: the king is beginning to centralize his kingdom into a state. He is not starting with the marginal periphery, but rather with the wealthy central lands (often controlled by powerful dukes - the biggest threat to the king's power). The periphery is mostly left to its own devices as long as it does its job which is to keep the borders in roughly the same place.

These may even be semi-settled peoples - transhumant pastoralists and/or slash and burn agriculturalists who do not permanently occupy one land in the style of a village, but move around from area to area over the seasons and years. This allows you to bring in more of the first system of warfare - losing a war doesn't mean your villages are torched to the ground because the loses take the village with them when they leave. Only fertile grazing/planting land is lost, and it can always be taken back next year.

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The Gods Demand It

While some lesser religions use religion as a scapegoat for their petty wars, the eternal battle is demanded by our gods. All peoples, at least those who believe in our gods, send warriors every year to join the great eternal battle in the spaces between our homelands.

Though it costs us the lives of many of our great young people, it keeps us safe from the gods' wrath, and it's not so easy for mortal enemies to invade through an eternal war either; our holy warriors do not take kindly to heretics who think themselves brave enough to wield a weapon but too cowardly to fight for the gods.


What you basically have here is border regions between religously-claimed homelands which are constantly supplied with new warriors for religious reasons. The various "sides" reorganize weekly or monthly or yearly to mix things up, but it's more or less a massive training grounds.

I imagine the warriors of all sides would often congregate and have a few nights of good fun before setting back off to battle. Perhaps there are sacred common grounds where they all meet after battle to drink and discuss tactics, even with the "enemy".

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Very simple. Low crop yields.

Anybody who's starving is willing to kill for food...you might believe you wouldn't do so, that you'd sooner starve, but what about your family, dependents, friends and community? If you can't feed yourself, you'll raid your neighbor, either for food stores or for arable land. The Vikings were famous for it, although the martial culture started to evolve during the famine of 536; even today, low-level intermittent warfare tends to follow patterns of starvation and poverty.

Just constrain resources enough so that normal population growth would overwhelm them. People will fight enough to keep the population down.

https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA549223805&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=09673407&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=mlin_s_abingpl&aty=ip

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    $\begingroup$ Didn't I tell y'all that I don't want a grimdark story? $\endgroup$
    – Thales
    Apr 2 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, sorry. Just replace food with fluffy magical bunnies who live under rainbows and shit lollipops, and everyone can go to war over who gets to pet them. $\endgroup$ Apr 10 at 12:19
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Technology itself is destabilizing by its very nature

To be more specific, technology is actually a peace-bringer, as in it stabilizes harvests and living conditions, resulting in a long lasting episode of peace, stability and prosperity, that could be easily mistaken by those prone to self-flattery for a changed nature as a species.

However- the technologies of warfare, are ever more destabilizing, as they reward asymmetric attack and punish defenders. The guards keeping the power-monopoly of a state, are almost always in the defending role. Thus from the introduction of the ak-47/FAL, to the IED, FPV drone and seadrone - there is a clear pattern that once a region descends into perma-conflict, in which nobody can re-establish a state and stabilize the region on its own.

In to many ways can be the supply lines rerouted, giving the "perma"-war a eternal basis of bullets, guns and DIY-explosives. Extreme expensive external effort has to be applied to re-stabilize a region. And even then- the original culture is gone, replaced by could be best described as "cyberpunk lord of the flies" with no ability to even establish permanent warlord fiefdoms.

Even the assumption that a conflict burns itself out (did not happen in Afghanistan and parts of Africa) does not hold. All parties involved will trade resources for ways to continue the conflict.

It could also get worse the faster technology progresses. But as the effect spirals at some point technology producing centers are caught up in the perma-war is the only thing preventing any side from escaping this wood chipper by leveling up.

So what creates this circumstances? Proxy wars- and a running out of resources to bribe the species, without a chance to find new easy reachable ones. Add to that the likelihood of any species, to adapt to a swinging habitat, early in its evolution and you are stuck for all eternity within a behavioral loop.

As this ending is not properly sugarcoated for futurists https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurism - here is an addendum. In theory one could escape this by heavily modifying the species stuck- for example by introducing social networks, implants and other cybernetic crutches to the behaviour. What would walk away from that, capable to remain "social" even in dire times, able to peacefully give up on itself for a group or idea, capable to be morally stable even in abstract big groups, would be barely resembling a human.

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War by Proxy

A civilization, whether world-bound, or Galactic, might evolve to the point where it is realized that actual hostilities between divisions are contra-indicated. Loss of resources, be them beings, money, whatever, is too expensive. So the leaders of those divisions create a world, country, area, that is separate and distinct from any of the divisions, and administered by independent authority. The divisions send representatives to the area to fight in proxy of the divisions, instead of the divisions themselves doing so.

Since I've been intentionally generic, I'll give a (more) specific example.

Within the known galaxy, there are many polities. The Federation, the Empire, the Collective, etc. In the far past, humanity fought almost to extinction and after the rebuild, human-kind could never allow themselves to re-enter the dark ages again, so now, when the Empire has a disagreement with the Federation, each group hires expert mercenaries who fight on their behalf on War-World. WW is a world that is run by groups who remain independent of all other polities and the winner of the battle determines the outcome of the Federation/Empire disagreement.

This concept can be scaled as necessary, to be countries on a single world, to galaxy-spanning. Now this is not precisely what you wanted, as warfare is not allowed to be perpetual to the greater populace, but within the constrained area, it is.

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Set your world in a pre-industrial setting. That satisfies all your conditions.

Most of human history saw constant warfare. That is because the wealth of a nation (nation as a general term, not necessairly as in the modern nation state) was almost exclusively measured in agrarian output. Wars of conquest increased the amount of farmland you had, both to feed a larger military and to reward your loyal officers. Improving farmland had quickly diminishing returns because the technology and the capital was not there, so conquering more farmland was by far the easiest way to increase your agrarian output.

Pre-industrial warfare is not very destructive in the long run. There are no explosive or other high-powered weapons on any significant scale. Cities could be burned and populations massacred, but populations bounce back quickly because more food is available for the survivors, and cities can be rebuilt. Crops can be looted by invaders but the farmland itself can't be permanently spoiled or destroyed. As mentioned above, valuable infrastructure that could be destroyed is rare.

This satisfies all your conditions:

  1. No permanent destruction as discussed.
  2. War pays because it increases the available farmland.
  3. Pre-industrial logistics (no railroads!) dictate that invading armies must supply themselves by foraging in enemy territory for any significant operation. That mostly means food, which limits your armies to a "campagin season" when crops are about ready to be harvested and eaten. If you want to introduce a particularly threatening civilization, you can model it off the Roman Empire, which, in a rare for an agrarian society, managed to organize year-round campagining on multiple fronts with sea-based logistics.
  4. If one nation becomes very powerful and might turn into a "runaway threat" that can dominate all others, formerly neutral nations, and even its allies, would gradually join its enemies, because they would eventually be too weak to oppose that nation themselves. Thus you can maintain a balance of power.

All those calculations except 4 change with indutrialization. Wars become extremely destructive because of modern weapons, epitomized in real life by nuclear weapons. Modern logistics supply your army with whatever they need, so there is no need to hold back against enemy supplies. Farmland is still somewhat important as a prize, but factories and infrastructure are much more important factors to determine the power of a nation. Wars of conquest no longer pay, because a modern war destroys whatever it is you wanted to conquer. Wars are now mostly a tool to destroy the opponent, not to increase your own wealth. Therefore, a post-industrialization setting are poor fits for the kind of warfare you're looking for.

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The standard human condition leads to a lot of fighting. People have multiple children who need feeding and there is always a limit to the resources available. Young men need to fight. Enough people have learned that it is easier to take resources from someone else than to do the hard work of growing or gathering food yourself. Population growth leads to fighting.

Thus, hunter-gatherer societies have had ritual warfare or regular raiding events. One anthropologist reported that the small group he was with (in the Amazon) was raided about once every 3 weeks.

The more organized the society, the larger the fighting and raiding.

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Wars are fueled by easy money printing. Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kim regime were all fueled by their central banks. They print more money to pay their soldiers and buy weapons, all while stealing from their citizens through inflation. The same is true of the roman empire.

The solution is a return to hard money, which is not easily printed. The ancient solution to this was a gold standard. Societies which used the gold standard tended to thrive and be prosperous, because the citizens could save money without it being devalued. This is called Austrian economics.

This is all described in the book, "The bitcoin standard".

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    $\begingroup$ TIL the Roman Empire had a central bank. $\endgroup$
    – Hackworth
    Apr 2 at 8:02

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