Viewpoint by Jonathan Power
LUND, Sweden (IDN) — Will historians a hundred years hence look at the end of the twenty-first century much as we now look at the end of the nineteenth and twentieth and say, “unfortunately, the peace and prosperity of that moment was but an interlude before the bloodiest century in mankind’s history?”
Will they conclude as Aldous Huxley did, that “Every road towards a better state of society is blocked, sooner or later, by war, by threats of war, preparations for war. That is the truth, the odious and unacceptable truth”.
The pessimists of our day have grist for their mill—Bill Clinton, who, when an Oxford student had hit the streets of London protesting the war in Vietnam, persuaded Congress when he became president to legislate for the largest rise in the military budget since the end of the Cold War build-up under Ronald Reagan.
Then there was the nightmare of the decision by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq based, he averred, on what turned out to be false information, the fact that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Then there was the expansion of NATO right up to Russia’s borders, the direct cause of the Russian decision to invade Ukraine, fashioned provocatively by Clinton and his successors, presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. (The pope has called it Western “barking” at Russia—a wonderful word in the circumstances.)
Then there are civil wars that target civilians more than soldiers—in Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Mali, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Then there are nuclear weapons that maybe soon will proliferate to states that don’t have the secure command and control systems of the old nuclear powers.
Despite all these ominous goings on, the big picture IS good, arguably far better and more inherently stable than it was in 1899. A major war, involving the most powerful industrialised states, those capable of massive destruction far and wide, is much less likely than it has ever been. Unlike in previous ages, neither economic, religious, nor ideological forces point us or push us in the direction of war.
War, pace Lenin, in the age of nuclear and high-tech weapons, is a loss-making enterprise. Virulent religious strife, once the cause of so much bloodshed in Europe, is out of fashion. Northern Ireland was its last bastion. Communism in Europe is practically dead, and the credo of the West, democracy, does not lend itself to wars of conversion.
War, moreover, has lost most of its glamour. Honour and heroism, the old virtues for every war from the time of the Iliad to General Douglas MacArthur, got lost in the jungles of Vietnam and the desert of Iraq.
The state no longer is made by war for the purpose of making war. The modern industrial state is, par excellence, an economic institution. Democracy, not so long ago an uncertain, precarious achievement, is today deeply embedded in all the most advanced economies.
And democracies do not seem to go to war with each other either. Elections, increasing political and economic transparency, the separation of powers, a watchdog media, the urge of young men to make money, not war and, in Europe, not least, the formation of the single currency, make serious all-out war a remote possibility.
(Let us put on one side the aberration of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s mini-war with the Argentine generals as “two bald men fighting over a comb” and such bizarre analysis as Martin Feldstein writing in Foreign Affairs, who argues that a future collapse of the single currency could lead to a new European war.)
But this sense of common security is confined to Europe, North America and Japan—and, it should be added, South America, which, for all its historic tendencies towards bravado, is the continent that has least gone over the last two centuries to war.
In the Middle East, all the old-time ingredients of war-making are present—financial greed over a scarce resource and religious fervour, combined with the new-time ingredients of modern weapons.
Still, combative though many of the countries in the region tend to be, they lack the capacity to wage major war in the World War sense. Outside the Western world, only China and Russia could do that; and it is these two states that hold in their hands the peace of the 21st century, to make it or break it.
Russia, potentially dangerous, claims a sphere of influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union, China, in the South China Sea. Yet neither are in any real sense preparing for a major war. (Ukraine is a back pocket war for Russia and could be solved tomorrow if Ukraine announced it no longer sought membership of NATO.) Both are essentially inwardly preoccupied, and neither are committed, as were their orthodox communist predecessors, to the violent overthrow of present-day political, military and economic arrangements.
“The practice of war, once the prerogative of the strong, instead is increasingly the tactic of the weak,” argues John Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum in Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His argument, eloquently developed at length, is that the great chess game of international politics is finished, or at least suspended.
A pawn is now just a pawn, not a sentry standing guard against an attack on a king. We’ll still have our Kashmirs, Syrias and Rwandas, but, he argues, over time they are becoming less numerous and less bloody, and the stakes for the rest of the world are lower.
That doesn’t mean that this century won’t have some bad wars. Doubtless, there will still be plenty of those. But major war, involving a clash of the best-armed gladiators, with convulsions on a scale that twice consumed the young men and the innocents of the twentieth century, hopefully, is in abeyance.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com [IDN-InDepthNews — 02 August 2022]
Photo: Soldiers with the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Oklahoma Army National Guard, fire weapons over a trench during a live-fire exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, July 24, 2021. (Pfc. Emily White/Oklahoma Army National Guard)
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