By Eugène E.
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London from Germany in late September of 1938, the relief was palpable. The prime minister had just signed the Munich Agreement, a non-aggression pact with Hitler that averted war and made it possible for Chamberlain to tell his people he’d brought with him “peace for our time”. Presumably Czechoslovakia, which was the sacrificial lamb offered to Hitler by the terms of the agreement, had a different view of the situation; but nothing could cast a pall on the jubilation (not even the ominously rainy weather that day). We know how that worked out in the end. Less than a year later, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Make what you will of Chamberlain’s statesmanship and political acumen, but one conclusion at least can be drawn: optimism doesn’t pay. Another might be that it does pay to pay more attention to the weather.
When it comes to global affairs, then, pessimism should be the order of the day. This need not be interpreted as a sign of masochistic tendencies on the part of this author. A serious, somber analysis of the current state of the world suggests that the risks of a major war are considerable at the present time and perhaps more considerable than they have been for a very long time. Signs that point to a high possibility of global conflict are evident in all the major spheres of human life and activity. I propose to briefly examine each one individually.
Rising economic inequality has been a much-discussed problem for some time now. The current economic framework of much of the developed world favors a “winner-take-all” approach, where the rich become insanely rich and the economically disadvantaged even more so. The middle class, on the other hand, appears to be shrinking. There is significant stratification between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and this trend shows no signs of a reversal.
Additionally, there’s always the threat of another economic crisis. Neither one of the two major economic crises in the past two decades (the tech bubble and the credit crisis) seems to have been allowed to run its full course. While the credit crisis claimed several major banks, the global economy rebounded with suspicious rapidity, given that it wasn’t too long ago that the dreaded “D” word was tossed about carelessly and economists were painting Bosch-like landscapes of thirties-style queues to food banks and widespread economic destruction. There is evidence that global debt and excess leverage, despite the experience of the credit crisis, are at dangerously high levels, and this has potentially serious ramifications for the global economy.
Several years ago, a Canadian-based investment manager told me he envisioned a future in which the world – its developed part, at least – would be dominated by two groups of people: those who create things (broadly speaking, whose skills, talents, and abilities add value in some way) and those who don’t. In this scenario, the creative class – a minority, by definition – will be composed of architects of cutting-edge technology, artists, sports stars and so on; the other class will be largely idle. The creative class will be in possession of the economy; the non-creative class will have little, if anything at all. The obvious challenge for the governing classes will be to ensure that the basic economic requirements of the non-creative class are met lest its members start reaching for pitchforks. While this scenario is just that – a scenario – and as such may appear to be fanciful, its basic premise is solidly grounded in reality. The continuous development of sophisticated technology and our enthusiasm for artificial intelligence can cause serious displacement in the labor market, leaving millions without work. The problem is not just that they may lack the skills needed to transition to the new economy; it’s that the new economy – powered by machines – might simply not be in any need of them. Will there be enough succor to take care of the displaced? And if not, what will happen? If you’re in charge of a state where there are superfluous people, you may decide to get rid of them. However chillingly Orwellian it may sound, war is an efficient way to do so; and some might be tempted to put that into practice.
That’s all speculation, of course. But the instability inherent in the global economy is real, and economic crises are conducive to warfare. Not to mention that the rise in economic inequality is fueling all the things that economic inequality usually fuels: frustration, resentment, xenophobia, and populism, which leads us to the next major sphere.
Last year Bridgewater Associates, reportedly the largest hedge fund in the world, released a note that investigated the phenomenon of populism. The note mentioned the recent reappearance of populism as a political force and reminded readers that this was the first time populism had made a comeback since the 1930s. Back then it was a prelude to World War II. The implicit conclusion, then, is disquieting – while history does not repeat itself, it can certainly rhyme. There are a number of reasons why populism is on the march again, and economics is but one of them. One thing is certain: the reemergence of populism reveals that, in geopolitical terms, the world has become very unstable. What’s more, this kind of geopolitical instability is no longer the preserve of the undeveloped world.
The United States of America seems to totter on the edge of the abyss. I write these very lines less than a day after the US government avoided a shutdown – just. The election of Donald Trump as US president has introduced a major element of uncertainty into the political climate in the US (to be fair, not without the help of those who believe that pillorying the 45th President of the USA on a daily basis is a form of patriotic duty).
Across the Atlantic, the future of the EU hangs in the balance in post-Brexit Europe. Among the many problems that Europe has to contend with, the most serious one is the Islamization of the European continent. The mass inflow of migrants from the Muslim world – who are too numerous to be integrated into European society successfully – carries the risk of civilizational conflict and, possibly, civil war. The political situation of Russia, which is currently gearing up for presidential elections in March, is unstable and is likely to remain so, not least because its apparent (and, many believe, Potemkin-like) stability hinges on the continued rule of Vladimir Putin; yet Putin is not immortal. The other members of the BRIC club – Brazil, India, and China – are all facing serious structural problems of varying degrees of complexity and gravity, whether economic, political, or both. Rare are the oases and islands of geopolitical stability in the world of today, and this does not bode very well for prospects of peace.
Furthermore, the social institutions of even the most developed countries in the world have been outpaced by technological innovation (the perennial inability of legislators to keep up with new technology is a very good example of this). This can give rise to social discontent and general unrest, which can in turn push to the fore populist forces (reactionary and/or revolutionary). The technological sphere merits its own mention, though.
World War I was triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne. This wasn’t the reason why the war started – things are never that simple – but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the catalyst to end all catalysts. Yet the world of 1914 was still a world in which a traveller leaving London for New York had to spend a good week before he could finally glimpse the Statue of Liberty. In the globalized world of today, even the most remote locale is accessible within a day or so as long as there’s a functioning airport in the vicinity. Data can be transferred in milliseconds; information is available worldwide instantly. Events happen so fast it is much easier for things to spiral out of control; an incident in one corner of the world can send tremors to other parts of the world considerably faster than at any point in the past. Advances in technology magnify the proverbial “butterfly effect” and also increase the speed at which this effect can spread.
What’s worse, this rapidity makes it much more difficult for decision makers to assess critical situations and formulate adequate responses to them. This leads me to the fourth and final sphere that I would like to discuss.
Societal / Social
It is a curious paradox that the extraordinary technological progress of recent years seems to be enjoying an inverse relationship with the intellectual development of those whom this progress is meant to serve. The overall level of education and literacy has been falling. This might be news to anyone who has read that the number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions is at an all-time high, but that’s just the crux of the problem. Post-secondary institutions are based on a profit-oriented model, so it’s all about numbers. They need and want to admit more students than ever. The more students you admit, however, the lower the criteria and standards you have to set for admittance. You also need to lower the quality of education provided so that all those students you’re admitting can stay and continue to pay their tuition fees. Academic institutions, therefore, annually churn out legions of graduates who, despite being armed with diplomas, cannot put together a coherent paragraph without subjecting it to a bevy of typos of the most embarrassing kind; their knowledge of history (including the history of their own country) and geography is often dismal, etc. It doesn’t help that much of the academe in the West is a fiefdom of ultraliberals, who seek to instill not knowledge but values, something they have been doing through rigorous indoctrination, blunting students’ critical faculties in the process and stymying their desire to ask questions.
The growing use of technology has exacerbated this blunting. The indiscriminate use of social networks (particularly such social networks as Twitter, which caps the number of characters a user can put into a “tweet”, thereby encouraging the atrophy of language), text messages, and other functionalities that promote the visual at the expense of the textual, has laid siege to traditional modes of entertainment and interaction that help cultivate the mind (for example, reading and the art of conversation), and contributed to its further impoverishment. Technology empowers – as long as it is used as a means and not a means to an end.
Most of the people currently living in the developed world fortunately have no experience of war. At best, they know war from video games, Hollywood blockbusters or, if they happen to have an interest in the news, from news footage – in a word, their familiarity with war, if it exists at all, is bound to be virtual. While not having an intimate knowledge of war is a blessing, it also blinds people to its horrors and makes them more complacent. Memories of war were in short supply in Europe before the outbreak of World War I; consequently, when the war was announced, it was greeted with enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was far more tepid when World War II broke out: there were still many veterans of the first world war with searing memories of the trenches and mustard gas. Most Westerners under the age of seventy-five today have no such recollections – as far as war goes, their minds are a tabula rasa. Coupled with a poor understanding of history, this can make them more susceptible to start a war or be led into one.
But the decision to go to war is made by governments. Alas, things are not very promising in that regard. The ruling class in much of the developed world (and beyond) is made up mostly of pygmies, mediocrities, lightweights, and nonentities. Typically, they are representative of the societies they have been chosen to lead. We need not venture far to see how low the level of discourse has sunk among the ruling class. It is very awkward, to say the least, when presidents and prime ministers take to social networks to spar with enemies and announce seminal family events (POTUS, who seems to have installed a presidency by Twitter, belongs to the first category; the current prime minister of New Zealand, who gushingly informed the world of her pregnancy on Facebook, to the latter) – hardly statesmanship at its best. It is rather trying to picture Bismarck, Churchill, or General de Gaulle on Twitter. This is not to deride either POTUS or the prime minister of New Zealand – they are symptoms and not causes; but it does say a few things about the intellectual depth of those who are governed and those who govern. We live at a time when even the most sophisticated minds might find themselves daunted by the challenges of today, never mind the much more inferior political establishment currently clinging to high office.
Also of concern is the number of women who are trying to elbow their way to the “decision-making table”, as the New Zealand PM has called the playground of the ruling class. While the ability of women to hold leadership positions is not in question, it should be asked whether gender-engendered self-consciousness and a nagging sense of victimization – and recent events have shown that far too many women, including those who theoretically should know better, are highly susceptible to both – are useful assets for those who are expected to manage some of the greatest crises that can befall mankind.
Given all of the above, it is perhaps surprising that a war has not yet broken out. That it hasn’t is very good news for humanity, particularly when one remembers that a number of countries now have weapons of mass destruction. Some see WMD as a blessing in disguise since they have put in place the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which prevents any one country from starting a war of annihilation. Possibly. But many eminent thinkers have also said that war is innate to mankind and is thus an inevitable part of human life. Unfortunately, that is quite possible, too. If true, it is something like natural disasters: the longer you don’t see one, the higher the chances that one is approaching. As the developed world has been spared wars for many years, this is not reassuring. The semi-anecdotal reports of billionaires buying dugouts all around the world start to make sense – when in doubt, see what the “smart money” is doing.
As to the where and when of it, no one can know for sure. The future is much kinder to promises and illusions than it is to forecasts and predictions. As with all such things, the catalyst can occur anywhere, possibly in a place you’d least expect. A conflagration in Jerusalem. A showdown in the Taiwan Strait. A terrorist attack in Los Angeles. An aerial accident over the Baltic Sea. If the world is in luck, the storm clouds will skate along the horizon, bypassing the skies above us. Should it happen, though, one can only hope that our societies will, at the critical moment, be led by those who are equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.