Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pre-empting Preemption

As 2014 is exactly 100 years after 1914, we are going to see a lot of stories saying something about how 1914 speaks to today.... as if World War III may break out soon.  Of course, anytime somebody says it ain't gonna happen, folks mention the various experts who said in 1914 that war was not going happen.

Well, I am not afraid to be wrong--I tweeted a few minutes ago that if Vegas set an over/under line on World Wars in 2014 at 1, I would bet on the under--that there will not be a world war this year.  Of course, this depends on what one means by a World War.  How about a conflict that takes in multiple hemispheres (north and south or east and west--I am not picky)?  How about one that involves more than three great powers with at least two great powers on either side (or just two superpowers like if the cold war got hot, but there is only one superpower still, right)? 

Of course, then we would have to figure out who is a great power, and that is not always easy.  But any half-assed list of Great Powers would include: US, China, Russia .... maybe Japan, Germany, France, UK, and if we stretch further perhaps Brazil, India, Indonesia and a few other places.  Great powers are those who can project power and can make a difference around the world, so all those with nukes and the ability to deliver them around the world stand up (US, UK, France, Russia, China, India [if you have a space program, you can drop nukes far away]).  We can come up with other lists, but the question of WW or not WW basically entails whether some combo of US, China and Russia (with European countries to be named later) will get in a war together. 

So, what is the likelihood that the US will engage in a war with China and/or Russia?  Pretty close to zero.  Why?  Those aforementioned nuclear weapons have a great deal to do with it--MAD and all that.  The difference between 1914 and 2014 is precisely the reversal in preemption temptation.  In 1914, there was a sense that moving first had great advantages and most countries had war plans built on those assumptions.  Now, attacking first just means you make more rubble bounce, but that your own country will be destroyed as well.  So, even if North Korea does its damnedest to suck us all into a world war, it is far more likely that China and the US will not get sucked into a war.  MAD ain't perfect (there is ye olde Stability-Instability Paradox), but pretty sure the preemption temptation is not relevant 100 years after WWI.

Furthermore, we are likely to see far less US intervention in the next couple of years.  Politicians can read polls, too, so the numbers on Afghanistan speak to them (and the numbers on Syria and Iran do, too).  We are exhausted.  So, don't expect much in the way of new wars this year for the U.S. 

China? No need to engage in war anytime soon.  Russia?  Not until after the Olympics, right?

Anyhow, the point here is that numbers are fun, anniversaries are swell, and we like to think about how the past matters for today (which it does).  But don't buy into what the fear-mongers want to ... monger.

1 comment:

Wes Hamilton said...

I really appreciate your views on MAD, and their applications on the modern world. Would you claim that it could be utilized to deter Russia in the current Ukrainian crisis? I know it was a joke that you offhandedly added to the end of the article, but it was certainly the only prediction of the crisis that I have seen.