Sunday, June 24, 2018

Could the Unthinkable Happen Again? Sure.

Like most of us, Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has lived her entire life during the era known as the "Long Peace." The term describes the past 70-years without war between major world powers. It also encompasses the nuclear age.

All good things must end, we're told. Could the Long Peace be one of them?

There's certainly a major superpower re-alignment underway. America is looking at a world in which its supremacy is being challenged economically, geo-politically and, potentially, even militarily. The world has seen these transitions before and they usually, about two-thirds of them, are accompanied by war between the rival powers and their respective allies.

After nearly 20-years of chasing its tail in the Middle East, the Pentagon wants to move on by shifting its focus from counter-insurgency to what is known as "peer on peer" warfighting. They want to prepare for another Clash of Titans - i.e. the United States and whatever allies would still be willing to jump in alongside it versus China, Russia or China and Russia and whatever allies they could get to march to the sound of the guns.

Much of today’s war is low level, fought with submachine guns, portable rockets, even machetes and hoes, but the great powers continue to prepare for advanced technological war on a massive scale. Moreover, war is making one of those technological leaps that it has made so often in the past, from bows and spears to gunpowder, or from horses and mules to the internal combustion engine. The current generation of fighter planes is probably the last that will have pilots. They will be replaced by computers with increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. And while in the 19th and 20th centuries war moved increasingly into new dimensions, whether below the sea or into the air, it is now moving into cyberspace.

The range of weapons at the disposal of military powers is terrifying in its capacity to damage the world and its inhabitants, perhaps even to bring humanity’s long story to its end. Nuclear proliferation has never entirely been brought under control and the arsenals of nuclear powers contain bombs far more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are treaties governing the development of biological and chemical weapons, but they are only as effective as the will to enforce them. At the other extreme among weapons of mass destruction are drones and killer robots, which are cheap to make, easy to manipulate and often tiny but deadly.Yet many in the military and their civilian masters continue to think and plan as if war remains a feasible option. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, who seems to have the president’s ear for the time being, has talked about invading North Korea or Iran. Equally worrying, officials and opinion makers in the US and China talk with resignation – or perhaps anticipation – about how history shows that declining and rising powers are bound to fight each other. Once you accept that something is inevitable, you risk bringing it closer. History is not much help when it comes to predicting the future, but it can remind us of the warning signals that always come before wars – the heightened rhetoric, for example, or the inability to understand the other side. What both sides learned in the cold war, sometimes nearly too late, is that they needed to grasp how the other side was thinking and feeling and how it might read or misread signals. In 1983, the Soviet Union became convinced, wrongly, that the United States and its allies were planning a sneak nuclear attack in retaliation for the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner KAL 007. Luckily, the west realised this in time and called off a planned military exercise.
The past can show us how wars start, how rarely they turn out as planned and how difficult they can be to stop, much less end in ways that won’t provide fertilisation for future wars. Much has changed about war, but certain things remain constant.

Nations and the individuals who lead them fight out of greed, when they think they can wrest something – land, spoils or people – from another. Conversely, we fight to protect what we have and hold dear. Or wars can be about political ideology and religion, which can have many of the same features. Some of the most terrible wars we have seen have been fought in the name of making a perfect society. When you are creating utopia, existing lives are the price to pay for a future in which everyone is happy. Finally, wars are fought for the most basic of human emotions. Fear, for example, of what others might do. In 1914, the German high command felt the timing was good for war because by 1917, so they calculated, Germany would no longer be able to take on a rapidly strengthening Russia. Feelings about honour – maintaining it, defending it, showing it – have led to wars between countries, just as they do between gangs.
This reminds me of an article published in the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute by a mid-grade officer who worried that America might let China grow more powerful than the US "without a fight." He perceived it was the American civilian and military leadership's obligation to at least try to put Beijing in its place, with force, before it displaced the US to become the dominant power.

And that business above concerning "feelings about honour" also comes into play in the Chinese military's high command. American commanders reporting on interactions with their Chinese counterparts have warned of great hostility lingering over China's "Century of Humiliation" when their country was reduced from the largest economy in the world to a peasantry state through Western intervention, the Opium Wars, seizure of Hong Kong and Macau, etc.

In other words, you've got fear on one side - loss of prestige, dominance, having to share the world stage - and a potentially deep-seated urge to restore honour sullied on the other side. What could possibly flow from that?

Elsewhere we're seeing the unraveling of liberal democracy, credited in many circles with seven decades of peace in Europe. The far right has taken hold in Hungary, Poland and, most recently, Italy while it is on the upsurge in Germany, France, the Netherlands, even Britain. The European Union, imprudently expanded, is viewed by some as about to come apart at the seams.

Unintended Wars of Blunder
As history reminds us again and again, wars are not always made on the basis of rational calculations; often the contrary. Many commentators pointed out before 1914 that Europe risked a massive and costly stalemate if its powers went to war and that, in the end, no one would benefit. Four years later, that had been demonstrated in the tally of lives lost and resources wasted. War, as Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said, has its own logic and once started cannot be easily stopped.

We will never agree on the causes – who, what, why – of the Great War, but we should remember that mistakes and incorrect assumptions played a key role in the final crisis in July. Austria-Hungary was determined to destroy Serbia and Germany gave its infamous blank cheque without properly thinking through the consequences. In Vienna and Berlin, they deluded themselves that Russia would not enter a war in defence of Serbia and that, if the war spread, Britain would not intervene to protect France. They could not predict, and we cannot predict today, how nations and their leaders will react in moments of extreme crisis, especially if public opinion is taken into account. If, say, American and Chinese vessels clash in the South China Sea, will those at home insist on standing strong? 
So we in the west need to beware of complacency. We are as much a prey to violent emotions, to blundering into war, as the Spartans and Athenians once were. We need to remember war, not so we can draw from it lessons about how to use it and how to win, but to understand how easily it can happen and escape control and how hard it can be to end in a way that gives some basis for a lasting peace. We really do need to think about war if we want to avoid it.


Owen Gray said...

It's so easy to blunder into a war. And, given current world leadership, I'm afraid it's more than likely.

rww said...

We would be looking at a war with a lot less dead soldiers and a lot more dead civilians.

Trailblazer said...

Long peace!
It's been a long time since we had a declared war.
Nowadays we have humanitarian intervention and other bastardisations to justify war.
War is now being fought not by armies but by mercenaries, contractors and 'special forces all of whom do not show up on the official log book.
Add to the melee AI, artificial intelligence , which we already suffer from albeit in it's infancy.
AI, begat false news which is everywhere .
The west has been inoculated against it's transgressions around the world.
Our view of Syria, for example, differs greatly from that of independent media.
Africa is also a haze.
What do we know of the USA intervention in that country?
World wide drone attacks are now commonplace and do not seem to be controlled by government bodies.
Really; I think these years of peace have been little but cover ups for aggression without authority.
A nationalistic complicit media shields us from the obscenities of our era.
Just think of the consequence of advanced AI in which the news report you see on your TV screen is one of total manipulation that bears no resemblance to reality?
We could well have wars that we did not know exist ,wars that were over and done for without our knowing!
The next major wars will be wars of AI not missiles.


Northern PoV said...

Please fasten your seatbelts, you are entering an extinction event.
Stay tuned ladies and gents and before it's too late, place your bets on the ultimate knockout punch...

Will it be climate change, rising seas and Ecological collapse?
Ocean Acidification?
Nuclear power plant meltdowns?
AI driven Nano-bot viruses?

or the mother of all shock and awe phenomenon ... nuclear war?

The Mound of Sound said...

There are those who see in major warfare a purgative quality that, out of mass carnage, resets social mores. War itself restores social cohesion as longstanding divisions and grievances are set aside for the "greater good" of the nation. Yet that seems more likely for he winning side whereas the losers are more apt to see chaos and recriminations in the post-hostilities aftermath.

We've been on the winning side of both world wars and, especially after WWII, were positioned to reap enormous benefits witnessed by our broad-based, robust and inclusive postwar middle class. Perhaps it was a phenomenon that can only last a few decades until something similar to the old order is reinstated. The flourish of liberal democracy seems to be on the wane. Social cohesion is being dismantled by those who stand to profit from that. It's difficult to make sense of it all.

NPoV, unfortunately is right. The prospect of "peer on peer" warfare is just one of several potentially exponential threats we now face that seem to grow larger and more intractable with each passing year.

A few years ago I read Martin Rees' "Our Final Hour." Rees was the head of the Royal Society, Britain's Astronomer Royal, and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He's even been invested as Baron of Ludlow.

If you're interested, you can watch his Ted talk here:

The Mound of Sound said...

Sorry, I posted the wrong link to Martin Rees' Ted Talk

Anonymous said...

China is rewriting its history. Buried at the end of the most important Chinese political speech in a decade, President Xi Jinping’s 66-page address to the 19th party congress in November 2017, was one short line: “The Chinese Dream is a dream about history, the present, and the future.” Tired after 71 ovations over three-and-a-half hours, the audience may have missed this sentence. Yet it illuminates how history underpins President Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.
History plays an increasingly important legitimizing role in China.
Every country has its national myths, most of which are grounded in or derived from history; but in China, history alone is the bedrock. The People’s Republic doesn’t have a religion, and it doesn’t have a constitution – or at least, not one that counts. It no longer even has a revolutionary ideology. It just has history, lots of it. Clive Hamilton an Australian, has brought the Chinese "Dream" to light in his latest book which almost didn't get every one is on the band wagon...give credit where it is most due. Anyong

Northern PoV said...

Martin Rees' Ted Talk

Good piece, thanks

I'd change his meme from "unlikely event" to "unexpected event" ala Taleb.

On China... fastest evolving place on the planet at the moment