I believe that there is a sense in the world that we have arrived at a very dangerous juncture in history. In the United States both the Tea Party and the new “Occupy” movement – whatever you may think of either – represent a response by many citizens to a quiet realization that we are living through momentous times. While the millions who have perished in armed conflicts over the last sixty-six years – including nearly one hundred thousand Americans – would doubtless have reason to dispute this, the truth is that we have all lived through one of the longest periods of peace that the world has ever known. People have been born, grown old, and begun collecting Social Security without seeing a day when two Great Powers were at war. It is difficult to think of another time in the history of the nation-state when, conflicts at the periphery aside, peace has been sustained for so long a period of time. Now, however, it may all be coming to an end.
In my new book The Blast of War, I warn – in the form of a future history of a war that may someday be – that without resolute American leadership we may well see the world plunge into war. Indeed, it is my opinion that we are now living through the most dangerous period since the late 1930’s.
Are the present days more dangerous than those of the Cold War? I believe so. In the Cold War, despite their mutual antagonism and willingness to engage eachother through proxies, both the United States and the Soviet Union had no real incentive to engage the other in a general war. Once the USSR developed a full-blown nuclear arsenal the ability of the United States to engage, as some advocated during the early days of the struggle, in a war to liberate the states that the Russians had subjugated evaporated entirely. The Soviet leaders that we faced after Stalin were rational actors and, faced with the nuclear might of the West and our seeming willingness to use history’s most terrible weapons to stop them, there was little that they could hope to gain from war.
What kept the peace during the Cold War was the fact that both sides had, at most times, nothing to gain and everything to lose in a war. That is why the few moments of American weakness were so dangerous. Had the Soviet Union ever calculated that the United States had lost the will to respond to aggression with every available weapon the entire psychological balance would have changed and war would have become a distinct possibility.
The things that deterred Russia do not hold true in the case of the Chinese. No web of alliances, backed by an American nuclear commitment, surrounds China. It remains a matter of doubt whether, in the event of external aggression, the United States would even offer conventional assistance to the aggrieved party.
China has – or will soon have – real incentives that make war an attractive option to its leaders. Indeed, rarely in the history of the world have we had a more-obvious accumulation of risk factors in one place.
First, China is surrounded by attractive targets. China needs two things vitally: it requires resources and, with a billion and a half people and counting, it needs space. It happens to be surrounded by weaker neighbors with surpluses of both and, to make matters worse, most of these neighbors hold territory to which the Chinese can make plausible claims of historic ownership.
Second, the position of the Chinese leadership depends upon continued economic growth. China is a poor country of more than a billion people with a few hundred million people who happen to be middle-class or better. The Chinese working classes are kept in check today by the promise that continued economic growth will bring them greater access to the new riches that China is producing. The revocation of that promise, under present conditions, would likely be fatal to China’s leaders.
Third, as a result of its “One Child” policy and the decades of abortions for sex-selection that were triggered by it, China now has millions of surplus young men who will never be able to find wives. Millions of young men without corresponding women are certain to cause trouble for someone – whether China’s leaders or the leaders of the nations that they are sent to invade.
All of these factors impel China towards war. As things stand today, China has the motive and opportunity to go to war. Only a determined United States, prepared to protect the peace, could give the Chinese leadership pause and that is not what we see today.
Nor is China the only theatre of possible conflict where American irresolution has the world headed towards disaster:
Successive American governments have allowed ten million of Mexico’s most-enterprising citizens to take up positions on the margins of American society. Partially as a result of this, Mexico has increasingly descended into chaos, with drug cartels essentially ruling large tracts of the country. The short-sighted policies of the United States seem to make it certain that eventually a crisis will arise that will draw the American military into Mexico yet again.
Though some have been warning for a decade or more of the dangers of a nuclear Iran, the United States appears to be prepared to allow such a beast to be born with all of the dangers inherent in that. Even without nuclear weapons and a leader who believes himself to be speaking directly on behalf of some sort of Shiite Messiah the Iranian leadership proved itself willing to engage in egregious acts of murder and international terrorism: who knows what they shall do once they have the bomb? I’m afraid we’re likely to find out.
Likewise Europe, however fond it has become of hugging close the delusive phantom of peace, ought to remember the words of Plato who reminded us that, “only the dead have seen the end of war.” Not a few of history’s conflicts have been triggered by matters of money. It does not seem at all impossible to me that, at this juncture, some in Europe might decide that a prudent exercise of force might be a viable alternative to the abandonment of the “European Dream.”
All of these things might be avoided if the United States, as the only nation capable of maintaing global order, stepped up and faithfully discharged her responsibilities. However, America’s leaders appear increasingly to not be up to this great task. Thus, I fear, that we may soon find ourselves living through the sort of events that most of us, if we had our way, would consign forever to the past.