Thursday, February 15, 2007

Will this century be bloodier than the last?

The scale of warfare and the number of casualties inflicted in war during the twentieth century was vastly beyond that during earlier periods in history. This is ascribed by various historians to a number of factors such as the greater capacity of industrial societies, the influence of uncompromising ideology and nationalism and the decline of the European empires which had maintained order. Now, we turn to a new century and I've heard a few too many voices supposing that this century will necessarily be a less violent one. This is supposed to happen for many reasons, the lack of global military challenges to the primacy of the liberal democratic order (a war, even a cold one, with the Tranzis seems unlikely), widespread reliance on international trade with long supply chains that war will disrupt, a reversion to the mean after the exceptional twentieth century and even that international law can significantly restrain nations from violence.

I worry that the reverse might be true. First I'll go through why the arguments for a more peaceful twenty-first century may prove false then I'll move on to make my case for why this century could be exceptionally violent because of the changing character of major conflicts.

While ideological conflict may have formed the basis of many conflicts in the twentieth century the deeper loyalties to religion and tribe which are coming to the fore now are stronger stuff. Look at the difference between Chechnya or Afghanistan and Malaya where the insurgents were communists; the tribal loyalties of the Chechens and Afghans keep their fighters in the field. In Vietnam McNamara believes that a major US mistake was to mistake the old national loyalties of the Vietnamese for a struggle against an unpleasant ideology; had the fight really been against those loyal to Communism alone it might have been far easier to win.

That trade links will make war more costly is pretty uncontroversial but the theory, advanced by Thomas Friedman in "The World is Flat", that it will make war prohibitively costly is difficult to sustain. Before the First World War trade as a proportion of economies was vast and the financial cost of the war was expected, as a fine article by Niall Ferguson some time ago described, to be close to apocalyptic. Despite this the financial cost of war and the damage to trade was clearly a cost that the combatants chose to pay. The global economy is becoming more integrated but there doesn't appear to be much reason to assume that nations will stop coming to the conclusion that the war/peace decision should not be subject to regular cost constraints.

While the twentieth century was considerably more violent than previous centuries a crucial factor in making it so lethal was an ongoing expansion of the industrial capacity to wage war. This is unlikely to be reversed and with asymmetric warfare the economic power required to wage war is falling even more dramatically. Finally, international law is not proven as anything but a mechanism for powerful states to enshrine their own will and for tranzis to criticise liberal, democratic governments. It failed to calm the cold war and I am far from convinced that it has any capacity to curb the activities of the truly evil.

The major reason why we might expect this coming century to be more violent than the last is that conflicts are increasingly becoming struggles between demographics and firepower. While we can expect that net international inequality will continue to decline as China, India and other middle income states develop there will increasingly be a dichotomy between rich and aging countries (Chinese demographics are already looking remarkably Western) and poor young countries. This disparity leaves impoverished, envious nations with leaderships eager to blame their problems on others, the population to sustain wars and the youth to welcome them. By contrast, the West is aging and not very willing to take casualties.

It is a mistaken cliché that the problems in our relations with the Muslim world are due to its feeling of desperate helplessness. Rather, the problem would seem to be an understanding that while Islamic nations might fail to keep up with others in matters of technology or governance the numbers mean that the future is theirs. They share this opinion with Mark Steyn. Rapidly growing populations leave them in a strong position particularly when confronting nations which loathe inflicting casualties or suffering casualties beyond a certain level. Somalia is the classic case of a developing world army that massively lost a battle but won the war thanks to a greater tolerance for casualties. For the moment the lesson that those looking at the West's behaviour are bound to take is that any people willing to sustain and able to inflict casualties can cause the West to withdraw. This confidence invites ever bolder ventures against us.

Things really start to get ugly when these dynamic demographics come up against a massive amount of firepower willing to massacre in order to win. This is what has happened in Chechnya and, in a slightly different way, what happened in the former Yugoslavia. The logical conclusion of matching demography against firepower is massacre. This does not make what was done in the former Yugoslavia or in Chechnya morally acceptable but it does go some way towards explaining it.

The War Nerd has some questionable ideas but the central theme of many of his best articles is hard to avoid, that sooner or later the West, fighting wars against nations more willing to take casualties in war, will lose patience with the losses it sustains fighting wars with one hand tied behind its back and will start to really use the kind of firepower which makes even the Russian military look enfeebled. With its enemies becoming ever more confident the West will at some point face a threat in the face of which it is not willing to compromise, over which it is morally prepared to fight a war of massacres and it is at that point that this century's military carnage will leave the twentieth behind.

This is not an enticing future. Our century will be a terrible one if we cannot prevent this grim hypothesis playing out. I think avoiding our century being the bloodiest is still possible; however, I will leave my thoughts on how to another post as I think that getting used to the stakes is enough food for thought for one article.

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