August 10, 2011
Will There Be War?By Adam Yoshida
An American credit downgrade. Europe in turmoil. Israel menaced by an Iran with nuclear ambitions. Mexican drug cartels run amok. Chinese ghost cities. With each passing day the news gets worse. To my amateur historian's eye, we seem to be drowning under the greatest flood of crisis, both international and domestic, since the 1930s. We all know how that ended. Will it be possible, in terrible 2010s, to resolve the world's problems without war? I'm not so certain.
About a decade ago, The National Review's John Derbyshire wrote that the odds of us, or our children, dying in a "genuine mass-mobilization-type, carriers-going-down-with-all-hands-type, flattened-cities-type war" were higher than most people believed. At the time, even after September 11th, it didn't seem likely to come to pass -- at least in the short term.
Yet, even a decade ago, it was clear to some that we were headed towards some sort of cataclysm. Nations all over the world have made promises that, because they have been undermined by demographic change, cannot possibly be kept. It was always clear that, eventually, the laws of fixed numbers would catch up with us and that there would be a day of judgement. It's just that, until very recently, it had always appeared that it would be in a further future and that maybe -- just maybe -- the white heat of technological advance would propel us faster than the danger. It had always been my belief that the crisis would come, but that it would arrive much later -- perhaps in the third or fourth decade of the century when I would be, God willing, in a position to influence events directly. Alas, it increasingly appears that that will not be so. The world's problems are so entrenched and so far-reaching that it seems doubtful that they will be resolved without the resort by some to the expedient of war. Worse, it now seems possible that a cascade of conflict will wash over the entire world as it did some seven decades ago.
Let's consider just a few of the wars that seem possible to occur before this decade is out:
A Second Mexican War
I believe that a war involving the United States in the affairs of Mexico is all but inevitable. The existence of what appears to be becoming a failed state on the borders of the United States will compel some sort of military intervention. This is the tragic product of policies in both nations that have drained Mexico of much of its best human resources and allowed the growth of Mexican criminal organizations of vast strength.
Those who praise the work ethic of many of the millions of illegal aliens of Mexican origin in the United States come near to but fail to identify one of the true tragedies of the disastrous immigration policies of the United States: the sort of people who are now working at menial jobs on the margins of American society are just the sort people who might sustain and rebuild Mexican civil society. The absence of individuals of such character is one of the major factors that has allowed the drug cartels to gain such incredible power in Mexico.
Ultimately, I believe that this war will take one of two forms. In the first, the violence of the drug cartels will grow so extreme and the Mexican government so helpless in the face of it that they will ask for, and eventually receive, the intervention of the American armed forces. In the second, the cartels will capture the Mexican government which will eventual result in such a government being deposed by the United States.
A War of Chinese Distraction
I find it incredibly difficult to believe that more do not see that China's economic "miracle" is every bit as much a bubble as tech stocks in 1999 or real estate in 2006. China's export-driven growth has been financed by billions -- perhaps trillions -- in bad loans that have temporarily sustained enterprises that are, at best, marginally profitable. The house of cards built by the Chinese state will blow away and expose China as an unimaginably unequal nation where hundreds of millions still live in horrible subsistence-level conditions alongside a middle and upper class who enjoy a level of wealth and security beyond the imagination of an ordinary Chinese.
When the bubble pops -- and it will -- what choices will be available to the rulers of China? A misstep at that particular point will be fatal for them, living as they do in a nation of a billion and a half people with a history of fantastically bloody and brutal internal convulsions. Faced with bad debts on an unimaginable scale, falling demand for labor in the face of advances in robotics, and -- thanks to the one-child policy and selective abortions -- a massive surplus in young men, there will be one terrible temptation for China's leaders: war. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the present Chinese government -- and perhaps even the state itself -- can be sustained without resorting to external aggression. Democracy, given China's internal contradictions, would almost inevitably lead to economic collapse and civil war. Repression of internal dissent with force will trigger revolution. The party needs to open a release valve -- and the pressure will have nowhere to be released but over China's neighbors.
A Middle Eastern War
This one is obvious and well-known to all, even if current events have turned our attention away for the moment. Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons. The pressure against Israel continues to intensify on all fronts. Unless Israel or the United States acts soon to prevent the advent of a nuclear-armed Iran, the best long-term result for the Middle East will be an atomic balance-of-terror with terrorist-sponsoring, murderous lunatics on one side. The worst-case scenario ends with a hundred million people dead.
A European War
I am surprised that few have commented on the potential for the economic situation within Europe to devolve into military confrontation. On the basis of historical precedent, it certainly seems possible to me. The members of the European Union, lacking the common bonds and sentiments that have allowed other federations to be successful in forming a common state, will not hesitate to betray each other if there is a real advantage to be gained by it. While most of Europe's current leaders do not appear to be the sort inclined to resolve matters through the use of force, is not impossible that the deepening of the crisis will result in the arrival of leaders who will.
This situation is complex and unpredictable, but let's just consider one scenario for how we might see a European conflict arise out of the present conditions. Imagine that the bailouts continue for several more years, dragging Germany and other solvent nations deeper and deeper into the morass of the south. Economic conditions in, for example, Greece continue to worsen. Eventually the Greek government is replaced -- through either legal or extra-legal means -- by a government intent on repudiating the debts of the nation. Such an act would likely trigger similar moves elsewhere and would, by such a point, totally ruin Germany. It is not hard to imagine Germans under such conditions -- threatened with being impoverished by spendthrift Southern Europeans -- advocating that an army be dispatched to Athens to ensure that payments were forthcoming. Who knows where that would end but, at that point, what would be the choice?
A Second Civil War
Finally, watching events unfold in the United States, it becomes impossible to rule out what was recently unthinkable: that the economic and political crisis will spin entirely out of control and eventually lead to some form of organized political violence. No one on either side desires it and practically everyone, at present, would argue that there is no plausible scenario leading to it. Yet the astute observer of history will recall that, as late as 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was sitting in his office and reviewing plans for the construction of the Capitol Dome.
The unknown factor here is how far some are willing to go in defending a plainly nonviable welfare state. Perhaps some future president, stymied by the Congress, will attempt to resort to extra-constitutional means in order to continue funding benefits. Or maybe some future government, distorted by some political pressure or another, will impose taxes or regulations that some states consider to be intolerable. Though, I should say here, I consider it more likely that such a conflict would resemble the English Civil War and its conflict between the Crown and Parliament than it would the first American Civil War with its struggle among the states.
None of the possibilities I have outlined needs to become reality. But all of them could. The worst-case scenarios all share a common root cause: the failure of our politicians to recognize that, in the words of the late Enoch Powell, "the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils." There must be a genuine recognition, both on the part of the state and of the people, that our problems are a result of an excessive reliance upon government and our foolish faith in the ability of legislation to resolve flaws in the human character. Governments have not only spent too much already, but they have set expectations for the future that will not be met. The question is not how we can distort math to make the impossible continue to seem possible; it is whether our obligations shall be unwound in an orderly or disorderly fashion. As the old economic maxim goes, "those things that can't continue won't." To that allow me to add that the impossible does not become possible through hope and wishes. Our leaders must act now. Either we will shake them, or worse days endure.
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