Monday, July 28, 2014

100th Anniversary of the Start of World War I

"Jadzia Dax: And as the 34th Rule of Acquisition states 'Peace is good for business.'
Quark: That's the 35th Rule.
Jadzia Dax: Oh, you're right. What's the 34th?
Quark: 'War is good for business.' It's easy to get them confused."

- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 

It was 100 years ago today of the recognized start of the Great War, after an improbable series of coincidences enabled Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand (it’s really a fun, if bloody, story.... I highly recommend Dan Carlin’s podcast on the subject). And it hasn’t escaped many peoples’ notice that once again the world appears to be approaching a similar crisis point. Unfortunately I think they’re right. I don’t think it’s inevitable yet, but the probability is high and appears to be increasing as the months go by. That’s not to say it would be fought the same way or to the same scale, but I think it will be similar at least in terms of most powerful or industrialized nations being involved in it in some way or another. 

There are definitely similarities between now and then, the most notable being that the leadership of some nations (most notably my own country the USA) seem to be eager for a conflict, as most of the great powers were back then. Back then many of the nations imagined that it would be a “good” war, something for them to demonstrate their nation’s honor and prowess on the battlefield against the other power(s) against whom they’d been developing and refining war plans and strategies for years, if not decades. Fast forwarding to the present, though, one might think nations would think twice given the new risks present today. In fact on the surface it would seem highly illogical to risk a widespread conflict now; the global economy and the individual economies of most developed nations are in an extremely fragile state, and war could easily upset the balance of everything, from international trade and shipping (including oil!) to the unraveling of the delicate financial web of collateralized debt obligations & loan obligations. I suppose it’s always possible that one or more of the more significant players today (US, Russia, or China) see an economic collapse as inevitable and are positioning themselves to have convenient scapegoats available to blame when it does (“the economy was doing fine until Russia started a war in Ukraine!” for example). And while I consider that a possibility, history also seems to point to simple arrogance and hubris among the powerful as being one of the common motivation behind such events (again the similarity to the Great War… most powers involved thought it would be a “good” war and over in a matter of months).

But how would it be different? My educated guess is that it will largely involve proxy wars, with the larger powers acting through the peoples and governments of smaller contested regions. It’s a trend already firmly established, with current examples including the US and Russia in Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia and Iran in Iraq & Syria. And given the nuclear capability of the larger powers, even the supremely arrogant have to acknowledge the risk that direct confrontation would entail. And so they’ll probably settle for confining physical conflict to the third parties that involve their strategic interests. It’s an ideal play for sociopathic leaders; they minimize the risks to themselves while transferring that risk to third parties, all the while getting to sell weapon systems to their proxy groups. War CAN be profitable, at least if you’re the one selling the weapons and supplies.

A second major difference would be the use of asymmetric or unconventional warfare, specifically including such things as economic warfare, cyberwarfare, and sabotage of infrastructure. Economic warfare has recently been demonstrated by none other than the US in its sanctions against Iran (which devastated its economy), and to a lesser extent is occurring in the form of the sanctions the US is placing against Russia. But it could include other measures such as China dumping its US Treasury holdings at a time where confidence in the US economy is suffering for unrelated reasons, thereby creating a financial panic. Cyberwarfare is getting more attention these days and thus probably doesn’t need much explanation from me. Needless to say, in my opinion it is one of the very few things that our government and media uses to scare the populace that actually happens to be a very legitimate threat. And then we get to sabotage of infrastructure, which targets the civilian or military lines of transport, power, or communication to disrupt large swaths of the population. This is not really a new tactic, but what gives it a new and dangerous twist is the extremely interconnected nature of our modern infrastructure as well as its lack of redundancy and resiliency in some areas. This is sometimes related to cyberwarfare depending on how it’s carried out, but it can involve attacks as simple as shooting electrical transformers at power stations. Unlike conventional physical conflicts, these I expect to be used against any and all participants. So if you live in the US or Western Europe you may not need to greatly fear direct physical harm from the war, but all the things you depend on for modern living (electricity, water/sewer, heating/cooling, transportation, communication, financial & banking systems) are fair targets for sabotage. As long as there is the ability to act through intermediaries or proxies to provide some level of deniability, then expect any and all nations to take advantage of these unconventional measures.

The third major difference is that I expect the goals of a modern 'Great War' would be focused intensely on securing resources, particularly oil, gas, freshwater resources, rich farmland, and certain mineral resources. Unlike the early 20th century, we are now starting to run up against hard resource limits to economic growth. And while I don't think most world leaders are fully aware of the severity and scope of the problem (again see Chris Martenson's Crash Course for a full breakdown), all are at least clever enough to know that there isn't going to be enough to fulfill the current wants and needs of all nations. In fact, I believe this potential for resource scarcity is one of the primary trends that is bringing the world closer to war. So that would lead one to presume that the future hot points of this series of global proxy wars will be in resource-rich areas (untapped or less-exploited areas of Africa, Asia, and possibly the Arctic) or geographical choke points for transportation of goods and energy (such as Ukraine or the Strait of Malacca). This new Great War, if it comes about, will be much more about economic survival and less about national honor or regaining historic territorial claims.

As for what alliances and coalitions will exist, who really knows? To be honest, over the past few years I expected Russia to play a more neutral role in what would be a future US-China proxy or cold war (Russia stands aside and builds influence while the other parties exhaust themselves struggling for dominance), but recent events seem to be moving Russia into an active role. The US seems to be committing itself to an aggressive stance with Russia, so perhaps China will be the one to step back and let the US and Russia spend themselves over proxy wars in Europe and the Middle East. But I'll pick up on that in a later post....

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