The Great Illusion – Why We Are Unknowingly Slipping Into The Chasm Of Warfare.

Written on 17/7/2016

Update: This article is an early piece of work, written in mid-2016 and thus contains a number of poorly constructed sentences, poorly explained facts and at times poor reasoning. Fortunately my essay writing skills have improved slightly since then. However, the overall point remains the same.

“War, as we have known it for the last two centuries, may, like slavery, have become an anachronism.”

In 1909, 5 years prior to a conflict that would bring Europe to its knees, ‘Europe’s Optical Illusion’ was written by Norman Angell, describing how political elites in Europe believed war between European nations, due to the level of economic interconnectedness would be totally unfavourable, and thus less than likely. Indeed, Keynes wrote in 1919, describing the global state of affairs as it was on the eve of the First World War, saying “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth… he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world.” This perfectly describes the first era of globalisation, while also offering an ominous suggestion on where the second era of globalisation may be leading us.

Within two months of the war in Europe starting, The First Battle of Marne took place, resulting in the deaths of 520,000 troops, from Britain, Germany and France. Around half of these were British, a peculiar situation given the mostly cordial relations between Britain and Germany prior to the war. Britain had of course refrained from involvement in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, while Joseph Chamberlain has sought a potential alliance in the time between 1899 and 1901. Trade flourished, while the political classes considered Russia the natural enemy, with Germany considered an ally on the continent. The words “How German and how right” were sported regularly, highlighting the admiration towards German society and culture at the time.

One can over emphasise this of course, with anti-German hostility both in society and government worsening after 1896 with the telegram sent by Kaiser Wilhelm II to Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, president of the Transvaal Republic, congratulating his success in repelling British troops from Cape Colony. The telegram resulted in resentment in the UK, and inflamed tensions that had appeared after the success of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, though were minor in comparison to what was largely positive German sentiment.

Economic protectionism between European nations was minimal, with protectionism between Britain and Germany being almost non-existent, with this being characterised by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. This period of free trade did though falter prior to the War, with the end of the US Civil War, and the growth of production within the US resulting in a rapid decline in prices, while European colonies increased production further contributing to this process. Consolidating this was the Great European Depression between 1873 and 1896, which saw the decline in prices by one-third over the period. While Britain remained largely committed to its policy of free trade, protectionism began to emerge in continental Europe. Between the period of 1890 to 1913, protectionism grew at its greatest extent. In 1892 more than half of the European trade treaties of European countries expired, while nationalism on the continent grew stronger. For example, mounting demands from agricultural lobby groups encouraged other industries to seek greater protection, while the Meline tariff in France (1892) protected their agricultural industry, resulting in the growth of protectionist policies throughout the continent. Despite these protectionist values arising, world trade continued to expand rapidly, while the negative effects of such protectionism were counter-balanced by falling transport costs due to technological advances, a rise in migration flows, and foreign direct investment.

This highlights the potential for war to emerge rapidly, in a cascade of unpredictability, with the signs being largely unnoticed prior to war. While protectionism in the case of World War I was significant of a greater change, both economically and politically within the continent and sentiment towards integration of European economies, and a sign we should be weary of now and in the future, what the example of World War I so explicitly highlights is the nature of power transitions in a multi-polar world, bloody. World War I also highlights to us the often illogical nature of warfare and its escalation, and the period prior to such a clash where “’tis folly to be wise”.

World War II highlights the effects of protectionism far greater. This period of largely unfettered trade collapsed though with World War 1, in itself supplying the fuel for another devastating war on the continent. With the absence of a ‘grand plan’ for Europe after World War I, Europe fell into a similar mistrust as prior to the war. Indeed, according to League of Nations calculations, tariffs on manufactured goods were higher in 1925 than before World War I. Further trade restrictions introduced in 1930 in an attempt to stem trade deficits and sustain debt repayments contributed to panic and bank failures in 1931, resulting in 16 countries leaving the gold standard, or devaluing their currencies. This breakdown of international trade slowed recovery, while holding broader implications for relations between states. The lack of institutional foundations globally proved fatal in this situation, resulting in the golden period of economic growth prior to World War I being entirely unsustainable, while also proving to be a key cause in the failure of trade prior to World War II, due to the weakness of the League of Nations. Some critics of this argument may suggest this flaw in human reasoning was patched up post World War II, with the establishment of various institutions, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, though recent transfer of economic power and weakness of multilateral institutions perhaps tells us it should be wise to consider the lessons of our past.

While the amalgamation of circumstances that lead to both wars were relatively precise, a mixture of nationalism, ignorance, protectionism and weak bodies of multilateralism, the underlying cause can be seen again and again. Multipolarity was, at the time prior to both world wars the dominant world order. Whilst various academics cite multipolarity as a blessing, given the potential implications for the strengthening of institutions of multilateralism, such as Noam Chomsky who argues the alternatives of unipolarity and bipolarity offer more severe implications, while multipolarity offers a situation in which more evenly matched states are capable of acting in a self-interested manner, along with also serving the best interests of the international community, it seems history presents a different picture. Neo-realists such as John Mearsheimer argue that multipolarity is unstable as a system where various poles is more unstable and fluid in nature, creating more fear and uncertainty. Thus, prior to World War I, the unification of Germany, and the rise of its economy created fear in Europe, especially Britain, while once again prior to World War II, multipolarity encouraged the attempted rewriting of the European map for the second time, as power lay relatively evenly distributed throughout the world. It must be emphasised of course is that the ability of such a situation depends almost entirely upon the nation states. Their willingness to communicate through bodies of international law and multilateralism can result in the situation being peaceful and beneficial to all, while the alternative of alliances and fear is a polar opposite, being far more dangerous. Indeed, the example of the power transition following World War II between the US and Britain highlights how, given the special relationship in this situation between the countries, communication ensured a peaceful transition, with almost all air bases in the western hemisphere being re-occupied by the US by 1945. Such communication could be replicated in multilateral institutions, preventing current and future transitions becoming fractious, minimising the chances of war. This of course is problematic, given China’s record of adhering to international law.

“Change 1914 to 2014, and Sarajevo to Homs or Mosul or Donetsk or Kashmir or Panmunjom or the Senkaku Islands or the Spratlys or name-your-own conflict zone. Now as then, fights over small places whose names belong on a quiz show threaten to embroil the world’s most powerful armies.”

While it would be irresponsible to suggest the human race is on the brink of a Third World War, the signs should not be ignored. We should not fall for the same illusion that our forefathers succumbed to. Indeed Angell spoke of undemocratic nations in defiance of international law, thus weakening international institutions being a key cause of warfare. Thus, it is not a stretch of the imagination to suppose sparks may fly in the South China Sea, as they once did in Sarajevo. The idea that the human race has evolved beyond a point where war on such a scale is impossible is of course unrealistic, and simply the product of minds lacking imagination. This is of course the same flaw humans fell for prior to the ‘war to end all wars.’

Chinese territorial claims over the Spratley islands in an attempt to bolster her blue water fleet and power projection, while also claiming right to the abundance of natural resources that lie below the water, are indeed significant, having impeded upon the sovereignty of six South East Asian nations. A court ruling in 2016 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea clearly highlighted the unlawful nature of Chinese behaviour, though has failed to stop the militarisation of the waters, based upon a historical claim known as the nine-dash line drawn upon a 1940s Chinese map. In fact, the ruling served to further ignite Chinese nationalism, which remains at an all time high. Given the close connections of the US government with the nations at the mercy of Chinese expansionism, a misunderstanding is becoming increasingly possible. US diplomats recently consolidated an alliance with the Philippines to the disdain of China, while US alliances with other nations in the region have escalated massively. US shows of power are becoming increasingly common, in an attempt to calm the nerves of states in the region, such as on June the 18th with the deployment of two air craft carrier strike groups into the Philippines Sea, or the various example of US fly bys through Chinese established no fly zones. As Marx once wrote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” In a state where state-sponsored religion is absent, it is becoming clear that Marx may have been wrong in the case of China, with nationalism taking its place.

Such territorial claims are not exclusive to the South China Sea. Anti-Japanese sentiment has also raged as a result of a dispute over the Senkaku islands, to the East. Chinese claims over the Senkaku islands have similarly raised nationalistic sentiment towards Japan, with anti-Japanese sentiment towards Japan being at a historical height, indeed, being higher than during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Anti-Japanese riots have raged in China consistently since around 2005, when anti-Japanese riots destroyed Chinese businesses connected to Japan. In 2012, following an initially peaceful protest against Japan and their claims to the Senkaku islands, signs appeared in Guangzhou, saying “Japanese and dogs are forbidden here”. In 2000, before anti-Japanese sentiment became heated, a film ‘Devils on the Doorstep’ was banned by the CCP as it portrayed a Japanese soldier being amicable towards Chinese villagers. Again the tinder is dry, with 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan, and a military alliance dating back to post World War II. Indeed, a 2015 Japanese vote on legislation ended a 70-year-old law preventing foreign intervention, essentially transforming the defence force into a conventional army. The various requirements are there, multipolarity, strengthening alliances, build up of forces, nationalism, weakness of international institutions and a multitude of places in which a spark could light a flame, engulfing the region.

Of course critics of argument that China and the West could ever go to war hasten to add that economic ties between the countries are too strong, and thus destroy any possibility of a conflict due to the potentially devastating impact upon their economies. While this argument does hold some legitimacy, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, economic ties prior to World War I between Germany and Britain were massive, though failed to prevent warfare. Indeed, in the situation of the US and China, while economic ties are equally massive, a Trump presidency could cost Chinese exports around $420 billion, wiping up to 5% of Chinese GDP potentially. The diplomatic implications of this could be massive, while many have pointed out in the past, a weak China is likely more aggressive, considering the fact China’s political legitimacy throughout the globe relies almost entirely upon its economy. If its economy were to stagnate badly, it may seek to “express itself” to a greater extent internationally, in a different way, militarily perhaps.

Worryingly, this situation is seen similarly in Europe, where nationalism has taken hold of a population and weakened the centre ground. The rise of right-wing parties have undermined the foundations of the European Union, designed to encourage political and economic integration on a level that would prevent war, while NATO and Russia have sparred in the East diplomatically.

Britain’s exit from the European Union some fear is significant of a coming collapse. Indeed, the dramatic exit was surprising given the relatively high levels of support for the project in Britain, especially when compared to the contempt felt towards the EU from Greece or France, at 60% and 71% wanting exit from the project respectively, both far higher than seen in Britain prior to the referendum. There are currently up to 60 active nationalist parties in Europe, 12 of which are the governing party, such as the VMRO-DPMNE in Macedonia, or The Law and Justice party in Poland. Various rapidly rising parties also threaten the European Union, such as the National Front under Marin Le Pen, which has seen support soar.

Indeed, while a European collapse may be a stretch, especially given the strong levels of support in places like Germany, and the utter contempt felt towards nationalism in the upper ranks of the European elite, it does seem that nationalism, and the same cultural and ethnic divides that have always rendered Europe problematic, continue to do so. An increasingly diverse national identity, and as a result national self-interest in Europe could weaken Europe significantly on the international stage. Its response to recent events such as the immigration crisis, or Russian exertion into the Ukraine exemplifies this inability to unite on a common foreign policy, especially when European nations such as Hungary close their borders, undermining Schengen, while cosying up towards Putin.

What perhaps is the more significant result of this, is the corresponding assertiveness of Russia. It is no surprise that Putin would relish the prospect of a weak Europe, enabling him to fulfil the nationalistic intents of the population currently so electrified by his leadership with little reaction. This of course should not be over emphasised, Putin’s involvement in Syria resulted in a rapid drop in popularity, while in late 2011 and early 2012 thousands of middle class Russians took to the streets of Moscow, demanding a European style state. Despite this, the minority has been left unheard, as Moscow waltzed into Ukraine, annexing the Crimean region, to mutters of ‘Tanks? What tanks!’ and a surge in support for Putin, in 2014, showing a total disdain for international law, as it did in 2008 in an attempt to quell a Georgian attempt at NATO membership. While the Rouble did collapse, and wages did fall from $850 to $450, along with the economy contracting by 4%, what this essentially served to do was point the trembling Russian finger at the West, with the sanctions and drop in oil prices resulting a further rise in Russian nationalism. In fact, such sanctions pushed Russia and China into a closer relationship of trade and diplomacy, contributing to recent military exercised conducted between the nations, amid plans for an increase in future exercises amid tensions in South Asia and the Baltic. Recently, the Research Council of Norway conducted a project looking at Russian nationalism. It confirmed that Russian nationalism was rising, but also observed the similarities between Russia 100 years ago, perhaps highlighting that the Soviet Union was simply a fleeting break from Russia’s natural form, and that we should take heed of Russia’s previous behaviour on the continent, enabling us to shape our foreign policy around this threat, rather than collide head on.

More alarmingly, NATO is currently testing the boundaries of Russia’s influence, as Russia continues to do so to NATO. With increasingly abundant numbers of troops in the Baltic, and on the Russian border, the risk of a clash has risen dramatically. NATO, on the 6th of June undertook the largest military exercise since the Cold War in Poland, involving 31,000 troops, while Russia similarly carried out a ‘mock invasion’ of Sweden in 2013, targeting military and intelligence installations, along with a nuclear strike, catching the Swedish air force entirely off guard. With Russia regularly testing response times of Baltic nations, shadowing, and conducting low fly bys of NATO ships asserting western dominance in the Baltic, and carrying out snap, large-scale exercises on the borders of NATO, Baltic states, tensions have quite severely mounted, with the situation being described by a senior US State Department Official as “on the edge of being very uncomfortable”. Indeed, 650 British troops were recently deployed to the Baltic in an attempt by NATO to deter Russian aggression, again calming the nerves of NATO members in the East.

Critics of this argument of course insist that, due to the nature of US military spending, and NATO military spending as a whole, the military budgets of China or Russia are eclipsed, which is currently true. America currently spends more on its military than the next 15 nations combined, and has beyond any other nations capabilities in power projection, with as many as 662 sites in 38 countries. This though should not provide a sense of security. China’s economy is predicted by the IMF to outstrip the US by 2020, with it currently outstripping the US in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. US military spending is also declining, having been cut 18.8% since 2011, with top military leaders believing current US readiness is “at a near all time low” while China and Russia have invested heavily in bolstering spending, with China boosting spending 29.7% since 2011, and Russia by 30.5%. Moreover, China has, in man power available 750,000,000, while America has 145,215,000, along with 20,000,000 reaching service age annually, compared to America’s 4,000,000. China’s investment in Africa and Southern America, not only signifies a shift to the East, or a “re-orientation of the world and a decline of the west”, as Niall Ferguson states, undermining the Monroe doctrine and historical dominance of waters in Southern Asia, but as Tim Marshall pointed out in ‘Prisoners of Geography’, Chinese companies and workers are all over the world, and most likely the prequel to Chinese power being projected throughout these regions militarily. Indeed, NATO as an alliance has also weakened in recent years. Only 5 of 28 countries pay the 2% NATO guideline, while the basis of NATO, article 5 ensuring a unified response to Russian aggression has been called into question due to expansion in recent years to include various Baltic states such as Estonia, which if attacked would be unlikely to result in a unified NATO response.

When added to this mix, the free radical that is North Korea, now nuclear, with direct strike capabilities through artillery on South Korea’s capital Seoul over the border, combined with the 30,000 US troops in South Korea and the alliance with nearby Japan who is increasingly feeling the threat of North Korea, the possibilities of conflict are slowly, but steadily widening. Such a situation does of course not take into account conflicts and border disputes elsewhere, such as over the Nile, between Ethiopia, Egypt and potentially Sudan, Iran and Israel in the Middle East, or India and Pakistan. Indeed, one shudders to imagine the bloodshed the Middle East is capable of if oil stocks ran dry. Some have suggested water wars are a possibility in the future. Given the potential for climate change to spiral out of control, and its ability to exacerbate already existing conflicts, and create new conflicts through the displacement of people, thus creating enormous political instability as highlighted in the Stern Report of 2006 threatening the very fabric of civilisation. Indeed, the UN believes that all but one of its emergency appeals for humanitarian aid in 2007 were climate related. Despite this, international attempts at mitigating the effects remain insufficient, and lacking in legal enforcement.

In 2016, I believe the world is more dangerous than it has ever been. Military spending as a whole occults that of the highest point during World War II, and nuclear proliferation has safely, or unsafely secured 9 countries throughout the globe with nuclear warheads, 10 by 2030 given the Iranian deal, while not accounting for the possibility of non-state actor nuclear capability, biological and chemical warfare, and the ease with which nuclear material and information can be transferred, such as war heads on the Bulgarian black market. It is clear multipolarity, given its record for the bloodiest transitions of power in human history, is unsafe, and yet we find ourself in the same position, only 70 years on, as Western power falters, and the East once again regains, or is soon to regain its top spot. While some argue the internet is capable of acting as a “town square for the global village of tomorrow”, its propensity to create suffering has as of yet been greater than prevention, allowing for ideologies to flow freely through sovereign states, indoctrinating otherwise untouchable victims. It also, may prove to be a deadly weapon, enabling states to bring economies to collapse in seconds. The transition we are currently seeing, the redistribution of power throughout the world, but primarily towards the East, is the largest in history, with the most amount of states, and non-state actors holding equal amounts of power, and thus holding with it the capacity to bring about the most pain, bloodshed and damage to society as we know it. States change, fashions change, and technology changes, but people do not. We must, as a species go forward into history, learning from its past, enabling us to avoid mistakes that otherwise, we are doomed to repeat.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. Albert Einstein.


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