Peace and Economic Man

Apologies, yet again, for the lack of posts. My blogging is like Wayne Rooney’s goal scoring – sometimes frequent, sometimes rare, but always with an ugly adorable face.

Anyway, a question: do modern economics make major war (or even limited war) between states obsolete, or so remotely unlikely as to be almost inconceivable?

Various folk such as Thomas Barnett argue this almost to a determinist degree. They argue that conflict between the giants has been just about extinguished by the reality of commercial integration, the linking together of the affluent powerful states in a web of wealth, and the alteration of the very human condition that this has created. By and large, most people want Sony, not soil. Moreover, the link between wealth and warmaking has been broken. Or at least, where economics was once a driver of conflict between the heavyweights and war was an act of plunder, the balance has shifted decisively. The cost of munitions and technology, the sheer expense of maintaining fighters in the field and caring for the wounded, the profound damage to modern markets sensitive to even the smallest fluctuations in trade, speculation or investment, mean that it just doesn’t pay, and eclipses other war-producing causes. Other complementary factors that probably also discourage war, such as nuclear weapons, unquestionably have an economic dimension.

I’ve always tried to resist this kind of monocausal thinking. It smacks of the ipod generation’s frivolous self-regard. For a start, we’ve been here before. Pitt’s speculation about an era of peace on the eve of the Napoleonic wars, or Norman Angel’s prophecies on the even of world war one, are historical warnings against premature visions of commercial peace. Also, future economic scenarios such as resource depletion could tilt the balance. And since when were states purely economic creatures? China’s beef over Taiwan drives much deeper than profits, Pakistan was willing literally to starve itself in order to acquire nuclear weapons, and before they knew about the minerals and raw materials there, the UK was willing to stretch itself anxiously to wage a war over the Falklands, for things like credibility, deterrence, sovereignty and the instinctive pride of a country that didn’t want to be pushed around by brownshirt regime in Buenos Aires. Russia was willing to bet and run the risk of miscalculating that its strike on Georgia would not draw in a NATO intervention.

But maybe the question still needs to be entertained. Economics don’t monopolise states’ attention but they do claim a large share of it. Western populations for now and possibly some time to come obviously are more concerned about banks than tanks. Western European, American and Japanese populations expect unfettered access to the flow of material goods and luxuries, as probably will the people of the emerging Asian giants. In the wealthiest states, the overwhelming majority of people have no experience of military life and its ethos, and the specialists in violence are a fractional, technocratic and culturally separate part of society. While populations broadly support the legitimacy of their armed forces, they are not exactly conditioned to accept the normality of war.

Whatever role economics plays exactly, states still seem keen to invest, whether their expensive militaries are intended as symbols of ‘stateness’ and prestige, or as instruments of deterrence, or whatever. But even if war itself is becoming so unlikely as to be vanishingly small, the emerging multipolar order of states with growing economies, territorial sensitivities and uncertain shifting alliances means that there is likely to be confrontation, competition and a quieter constant chess game. The military will remain an important piece on that chessboard. And just maybe, moments of sabre rattling will have unintended consequences.

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