Consider the Second World War. Everyone knows the Allies won. But judging from the representation of the war in British memory you would find at least as many instances in which it is not altogether obvious that London was among the victors. 1984, famously, projected the material deprivations of London 1948 into the future; it was as much a work of observation as of speculation. And the weird nature of the postwar settlement made it hard for ordinary Britons to gloat about their role in winning the "good war":
By "winning" we can mean two things. The first is a question of contributions: Without X strategy or Y materiel, would the war had been won? The counterfactual then takes the form of "Had the U.S.S.R. not entered the war, would the U.K. and the U.S.A. not won?" or "Had the Western Allies made a separate peace in 1940, would the U.S.S.R. have defeated Nazi Germany?" These questions are impossible to answer for certain, but we can make a plausible case. In this instance, it becomes more plausible to argue for a solo Soviet victory, and even more for a solo Soviet near-loss, than for a joint Anglo-American victory or for a solo Anglo victory or near-loss. In this sense, then, it is meaningful to talk of the Soviet Union "winning" the war.
The more important sense is that of outcomes. Who in the international system benefited the most from the international environment at the war's end compared to their position at the war's beginning? This focus on relative power accords with most theorizing about the international system. A player who goes from having 10 percent of the distribution of power to 50 percent is strictly better off, regardless if the size of the pie has shrunk.
An alternative definition of winning, of course, would simply assert that the top-ranked player at the end of the period won. That is inadequate. It implies that a hegemon could engage in a costly, pointless battle, lose every engagement and waste scads of money, and yet still "win" simply because they didn't lose enough to become the second-ranked player.
As a corollary, I should note that it is much easier to identify the losers of a war: anyone who moves down the relative or ordinal league tables. The greatest loser, however, need not be the player who fell the farthest; here, losing the top spot and falling to second place may be much worse than falling from 25th place to 100th, given a flat distribution of powers (the familiar "long tail" effect).
There are three ways to measure changes in relative power. The first is strictly relative: Who arithmetically gained the most? A player that increases from 20 percent to 40 percent has probably gained more than anyone else in the system. This leads to the second definition: the moment at which changes in relative power lead to qualitative changes in the organization of the international system. The United States entered the Second World War as the largest power in a multipolar world; it exited the conflict the hegemon in a uni- or bipolar system. A system shift is a major consequence, and a system shift in your favor surely counts as a different category of "win."
I argue there is a third kind of victory: the relative proportion of relative gains. That is to say, in the universe where player A goes from a 20 to a 40 percent share as a consequence of war, he has doubled his share of power in the system; but if player B goes from a 2 percent share to a 10 percent share, they have quintupled theirs. Assuming that the structure of the system has not changed (that is, that A is not a unipole), I contend that player B is also a winner, and in some ways even more of a winner than A, since they have produced gains more efficiently.
Consider the Korean War. Arguably, the United States won; definitely, the North Koreans lost a lot and the South Koreans lost a little bit (in the short run). But I contend the real winner was the Mao regime, who was left with a firmer position at home and abroad.
Here are some other Startling Propositions which, as Dean Acheson would say, are clearer than the truth:
- Japan was the real winner of World War I. It managed to eliminate its major security threat (the USSR), marginalize its principal offshore competitor (the UK), and make major gains in China at low cost to itself.
- Southern poor whites were the real losers of World War II. The real winners? Northern industrialists.
- The real winner of the Seven Years' War was the United States of America. The real loser was Britain.
- Actually, the United States really did win the Spanish-American War.
- The winners of the Mexican War were Southern plantation owners. This was recognized at the time but bears repeating.