Monday, December 16, 2013

Is all-out war in our future?

We can certainly hope not, but over the weekend historian Margaret MacMillan pointed out a similarity between an earlier period of rapid globalization and terrible inequalities and our own times. She's promoting a new book about how Europe plunged the globe into carnage in 1914. (I wrote about her previous volume on the peace treaty that followed World War I here.) She observes in the New York Times:

Like our predecessors a century ago, we assume that all-out war is something we no longer do. The French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, a man of great wisdom who tried unsuccessfully to stanch the rise of militarism in the early years of the 20th century, understood this well. “Europe has been afflicted by so many crises for so many years,” he said on the eve of World War I, and “it has been put dangerously to the test so many times without war breaking out, that it has almost ceased to believe in the threat …”

I wonder whether something similar could be said about the decades since the end of the Cold War. For the forty years prior to 1989, the world lived under the waxing and waning threat of nuclear annihilation by the competing blocs. When the Soviet Union went belly up, that existential threat receded, but we've lived amidst alarms and smaller wars ever since. These have been brutal, devastating conflicts for those who lived directly in their path, but remote for the rest of us. But do citizens of the United States delude ourselves when we assume that U.S. military pre-eminence means that we cannot see big wars again? I want to highlight two potential conflict zones.

First, President Obama is genuinely trying to change the game in the Middle East by talking with Iran. That seems all to the good. After all, Iran exists, a large, populous, historic country that isn't going to fade away. Policies that pretend countries don't exist are both arrogant and stupid. But a strange coalition consisting of Israel and the Middle East's most reactionary oil monarchies is working overtime to derail the prospect of peace. And they have lots of allies in Congress, well bought and paid for over decades. U.S. diplomat Robert E. Hunter points out what a big break with the past the current talks represent:

This is the end of the Cold War with Iran, (accurately) defined as a state when it is not possible to distinguish between what is negotiable and what is not. Going back to that parlous state would require a major act of Iranian bad faith, perfidy, or aggression, not at all in its self-interest.

… like any good earthquake, the extent, the impact, and even the direction it travels will not be clear for some time.  But one thing is clear: much is now different, and despite serious down-side risks, that can be positive if people in power will make it so.  As said by John Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of whose assassination also came this past week, “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.”

The people of the United States are war weary enough so that we mostly hope this policy turn will succeed, despite the concerted campaign in the interest of the states that oppose the deal to change our minds. If the Iran negotiations fail, the stage would be set not only for another foolish, fruitless and deadly Middle East war, but also for escalating tensions with Russia and China. We could blunder into an all-out war of the sort we think currently the world has moved beyond.

The other growing theater of danger is China's periphery. Sometime in the next few years China will become the world's largest economy. That doesn't mean individual Chinese will be as well off as North Americans or Europeans, it means that there are a lot of Chinese and the country has successfully turned their energy, industry and resources toward the production of wealth. From the Chinese perspective, their proud and accomplished country is encircled by suspicious neighbors -- think Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, even Russia -- all to varying degrees in league with the United States to keep it a lesser force in its own region and the world.

Emergent powers can be touchy and a little erratic. They've got something to prove to states under whose dominance they've suffered. The Chinese authorities are riding a domestic political tiger, a state where economic accomplishment is not accompanied by either the political freedoms some of its citizens hope for or the environmental controls that world improve everyone's ongoing welfare. Encouraging an assertive domestic nationalism is how states often respond to such pressures. Many Chinese carry a strong historical memory of past wrongs, especially a brutal occupation by Japan in the 30s and 40s. So do Koreans.

Meanwhile, the United States has enjoyed being unchallenged top empire in the Pacific and East Asia since 1945. Our authorities are not likely to take kindly to Chinese assertiveness. It is going to require brains and restraint from all parties in Asia not to blunder into a wide war. The interests of most U.S. citizens will be best served by policies that integrate us into a multi-polar world rather than policies that seek to continue U.S. pre-eminence over everyone else. But can our political leaders give us such policies?

As MacMillan says of pre-World War I Europeans, we think we live in a planetary civilization that's beyond all-out wars. But are we?
This post owes much the ongoing commentary on U.S. imperial antics at James Fallows' blog and to conversations with my WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras colleagues.


Hattie said...

We can't go on believing in the march of civilization and in the U.S. at the peak of cultural development. Turn of the 20th Century western Europe, especially cultural centers like Paris, Berlin and Vienna, luxuriated in a fools' paradise, imagining that things were going to get better and better. That it couldn't happen here! I don't think we are that foolish these days.
We need to fight poverty and fascism and not pretend we can wave these matters off as not relevant to us.

amspirnational said...

Hillary's vote for the Iraq War and joy over turning Libya into an anarchial state should,among many other things, disqualify her from consideration as a member of the gentler sex who will keep us out of war. Last I heard, even Warren's comparative
positive stands against the banksters are somewhat offset by a
fairly hawkish history of statements.