Roger Cohen at The Atlantic looks at current events and sets out a detailed scenario for how World War III could begin. Interestingly, he leaves terrorist and the Middle East completely out of his “dark imaginings,” focusing on a coincidental escalation of Chinese hostility over disputed islands in the Pacific and Vladimir Putin stepping up his efforts to put the Soviet empire back together. Such coincidences do happen, and he makes the point that security guarantees to Japan and NATO’s Article V (obliging all members to respond to an attack on any member) are not all that much different from the web of alliances that flung the world into war back in the early Twentieth Century.
Events cascade. It is already clear that the nationalist fervor unleashed by Putin after a quarter century of Russia’s perceived post-Cold War decline is far from exhausted. Russians are sure that the dignity of their nation has been trampled by an American and European strategic advance to their border dressed up in talk of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Whether this is true is irrelevant; they believe it. National humiliation, real or not, is a tremendous catalyst for war. That was the case in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles imposed reparations and territorial concessions; so, too, in Serbia more than 70 years later, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, a country Serbia had always viewed as an extension of itself. Russia, convinced of its lost greatness, is gripped by a Weimar neurosis resembling Germany’s post-World War I longing for its past stature and power. The Moscow-backed separatists taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine and proclaiming an independent “Donetsk People’s Republic” demonstrate the virulence of Russian irredentism. Nobody can know where it will stop. Appetite, as the French say, grows with eating.
Conventional wisdom, which Cohen discusses in his piece, holds that the interconnected nature of the modern world holds the warmaking energies of national humiliation in check, at least where the great powers are concerned… but as he points out, this was also widely believed before the outbreak of World War I.
I have often thought the other great factor making large-scale war a constant threat is the endless argument over the legitimacy of authority. The popular TV and book series “Game of Thrones” offers an old-fashioned look at how a struggle over legitimacy turns into bloodshed. The whole mess begins when the king – himself an usurper whose legitimacy is questioned in various quarters – gets killed in a hunting accident, and the political structure of the monarchy is unable to produce a clearly legitimate leader that nearly every faction supports. That sort of thing happened all the time in real-world kingdoms, whose history author George R.R. Martin studied before writing his fantasy novels.
And it still happens now, even though it’s not about quarreling over the legitimate heirs to a hereditary throne. Who is the legitimate authority in Ukraine – in either the capital of Kiev, or the rebel city of Donetsk? What right does Russia have to say anything about it? They moved very quickly to assert authority over Crimea, and they unabashedly did it with armed military force… exactly the sort of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen any more, here at the End of History.
What authority does America or the United Nations have to decide who “owns” the disputed islands of the Pacific, where both China and Japan (and sometimes other nations) can assert reasoned claims? Even if you think one side’s claims are better, the other side didn’t invent theirs out of thin air.
And what authority does any guarantee of security, of peace, have, if it’s not backed up by the certainty of military force? That doesn’t mean opening fire at the drop of a hat, but at some point, the final line in the sand must have tanks and bombers sitting behind it. Otherwise, aggressors can call a long series of bluffs, and they might not be dissuaded by economic sanctions or public denunciations. In the case of Barack Obama’s foolish “red line” buster on Syria, which Cohen mentions as a dangerous example of broken international willpower, declarations were made and then abandoned, because there’s not much short of war that will change the calculations of a brutal dictator fighting an existential threat to his regime.
It’s all about calculations. The best we can say for the modern era is that those calculations are more complex, and slower to produce war, when applied by the major powers. Everything from global economic disruption, to the resistance of Internet-connected populations against getting drafted into wars of conquest, to the threat of nuclear annihilation is factored in. But the calculations can still lead a sufficiently determined authoritarian government to decide they can step across the final line in the sand, and call the last bluff. President Obama’s legacy of recklessness, his abandonment of traditional American allies, and his boundless belief that he can fix every problem by giving a speech have created a world in which the calculations have shifted yet again, and not at all in a good way.