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April 2014

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World War III? Ask The Economist
by Benjamin L. Landis

The Economist in its “Holiday Double Issue” dated December 21st, 2013-January 3rd, 2014, gave its readers an unexpected and surprising Christmas present: the specter of World War III. Happy New Year to one and all! In its lead editorial (p.17) entitled “Look back with angst” the editorialist has added the subtitle “A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war.” The writer is very wrong in believing that parallels exist between the beginning of 1914 and 2014. The editorial is fraught with other errors in fact and in judgment and with unsubstantiated suppositions. Before addressing the principal issue, i.e., the possibility of a third world war, let us examine these errors and suppositions.

It is painfully obvious that the writer is strongly anglophile, eurocentric, and not well informed.. In the first paragraph he writes, “The hundred years since the Battle of Waterloo had not been entirely free of disaster… But continental peace had prevailed.” As though the lack of peace elsewhere did not really much concern Europeans.  It was particularly during the post-Napoleon 19th century that the Western European powers solidified their colonial empires by military force, except hapless Spain. And it is not accurate to state that “continental peace” endured until 1914. There was the Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1829.  There was the Crimean War of 1853-56. The wars of German unification (The First War of Schleswig in 1848-51, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, The Franco-Prussian War of 1870). He does mention the latter. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The First Balkan War in 1912. The Second Balkan War in 1913.  In addition, there were popular uprisings in 1830 in France and in 1848 in a number of European countries, as well as the Paris Commune of 1870

He importantly states that by 1914, “Globalization and new technology—the telephone, the steamship, the train—had knitted the world together.” This, of course, is a fallacy. In 1914 could, or would, an ordinary Britisher call someone in China by telephone? How many Europeans traveled in 1914 via railroad and steamship to Asia, to Africa, to South America? The answer is very few and generally the well-to do. What percent of the world’s population profited by the international trade in foreign products and materials? How much did the Chinese benefit? And Africans? The major traveling was done by poor Europeans coming to the United States. They came to be Americanized, not to Europeanize Americans. Until after the Second World War globalization meant essentially the same thing as colonization and the latter was not a very effective method for pulling the world together. The colonial powers should be given a D- or an F for the benefits that they brought to the peoples they colonized. What has occurred since the Second World War and the death of colonization is conclusive testimony to that. In fact, prior to 1914, the world was not knit together. The number of persons who could and did profit from the new technologies was abysmally small. What did the ordinary European know of what was occurring in Asia, in Africa, in South America, etc.? And vice versa. Very little, and his interest in knowing was infinitesimal, unless he planned to emigrate.

The writer states that the First World War “cost 9 million lives—and many times that number if you take in the various geopolitical tragedies it left in its wake, from the creation of Soviet Russia, to the too casual redrawing of Middle Eastern borders and the rise of Hitler.” Unfortunately, he glosses over the responsibility of the French and British governments in that “too casual redrawing” and in the “rise of Hitler”. They redrew the boundaries and they created the conditions for the rise of Hitler. He also makes the claim that globalization came virtually to a halt between 1914 and 1945 and even into the 1990s.  This is also patently erroneous. Did the instruments of globalization cited by the writer, i.e., the telephone, the train, the steamship, cease to exist? And were they not supplemented by the airplane and the radio? What does one mean by globalization? Is it a commercial concept that is determined by the amount of trade between countries? Is it the spread of certain political and/or cultural principles? Is it the Western culturalization of the rest of the world? Was not the new League of Nations an instrument of globalization after its establishment in 1919?

Since the writer states that globalization ceased in 1914, one can only infer that he considers “globalization” to mean the colonization of the rest of the world by Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent, Germany. That was the only globalization that existed until then. Since all these colonial “empires” existed between 1914 and 1945 and contributed to the wartime efforts of their colonial masters and continued to be globalized (or “colonialized”, as you wish) through the Second World W ar, it is difficult to understand on what the writer bases his conclusion that globalization ceased between 1914 and 1945. The further idea that globalization ceased until the 1990s “when eastern Europe was set free and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began bearing fruit in China” is simply ridiculous, since it reduces the “globe” to eastern Europe and China. Globalization is multi-faceted: political, cultural, religious, economic. The idea that it suddenly ceased between the world wars and maybe into the 1990s, shows a lack of comprehension of world history between those two wars. Newer technologies than the train and the steamship were instrumental in continuing the globalization of the world: the expansion of overseas telephone service, the airplane, the radio, the development of the automobile, the movies, the League of Nations and its subordinate organizations, and now since 1945 the United Nations and its organizations.

The editorialist writes, “Humanity can learn from its mistakes [This is, of course, wishful thinking. There is absolutely no proof that humanity learns by its mistakes. In fact, it is closer to the truth to state that humanity will always repeat its mistakes, because the life of an individual person is short and his memory even shorter.], as shown by the response to the economic crisis, which was shaped by a determination to avoid the mistakes that led to the Depression.” The European countries in particular and the United States to a lesser extent repeated the mistakes that their governments made at the beginning of the Depression. It’s as though Keynes had never lived.

The editorialist criticizes both Putin and Obama for their attitude toward the Syrian revolution. “Vladimir Putin has been content to watch Syria rip itself apart.” “Barack Obama has pulled back in the Middle East—witness his unwillingness to use force in Syria.” I suppose that if he had been editorializing in the early 1860s the editorialist would have been criticizing the British government for failing to use military force to bring peace to the war-torn United States. Even if Russia or the United States were to employ the same magnitude of armed force in Syria as the United States did in Iraq, peace and stability would not be restored. Look at Iraq today. To think otherwise is to lack even elementary comprehension of the forces at play in the Islamic World. One could also infer that the writer’s belief that the United States should have intervened militarily in Syria is an expression of anti-Americanism: “Let the Americans waste their human and financial resources in a futile effort in Syria as they did in Iraq and that will reduce significantly their hegemonic arrogance.”

The editorialist obviously is not well acquainted with the history of the human race. There is a fundamental and irrefutable fact about what one could call human progress: No betterment in the condition, political or social, of the human race has ever been accomplished without bloodshed. That is a very sad and tragic fact. So, the Syrian revolution, the Egyptian revolution, the Ukrainian revolution must inevitably be resolved in violence and blood. And future revolutions will be the same, unless the nature of the human species changes. And neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Obama can achieve that. Why the editorialist does not understand this is incomprehensible, given the striking examples in his Western past: the 17th century English Civil War, the 18th century American Revolution, the 18th century French Revolution, etc.

Now, let us look at the writer’s primary thesis: the possibility of a third world war because of parallels between the geopolitical situation in 1914 and 2014. He sets up an absurd analogy. “The United States is Britain, the super power on the wane, unable to guarantee global security.” Neither Great Britain in 1914 was nor the United States is on the wane. The British Empire was at its zenith. The United States has never been more powerful economically and militarily than it is at the beginning of 2014. Agreed, its influence has waned, but this is not the result of a diminishing power, but of poor political decisions by the American leadership. As for global security, this is a mission that outsiders, such as this editorialist, have been trying to thrust upon the United States. There is nothing in the Constitution that mandates such a role and the heritage of the American people has never included such a role. As the writer should know, Great Britain never assumed or pretended to such a role. The British government was primarily focused on maintaining and even increasing its colonial empire. Global security did not interest it beyond a possible impact on its empire. The idea that Great Britain considered itself the guarantor of global security prior to 1914 is simply ridiculous.

The writer continues his analogy: “…China, plays the part of Germany, a new economic power bristling with nationalist indignation and building up its armed forces rapidly.” Was Germany “bristling with nationalist indignation” in 1914? Hardly.  It had recently defeated the French in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. It had just created itself as a nation-state. It had been the instigator of the Berlin Conference of 1885 which divided the continent of Africa among France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy, except for Liberia. The writer later mentions Germany’s “territorial ambitions’. Were these the result of “nationalist indignation”?

Is China in 2014 “bristling with nationalist indignation”? How does one define “nationalist indignation”? The use of such a term smacks of demagoguery, not editorializing or reporting. Are the Chinese nationally indignant over the Rape of Nanking that occurred over 60 years ago? Are the Chinese nationally indignant because the Tibetans and Uighurs don’t like them? Has the United States, the only other world power, done anything to make the Chinese indignant? The writer has created an inept analogy and tries to justify it by using terms that have no sense. The writer also states that China is “building up its armed forces rapidly”. Again, what does “rapidly” mean”? There is no doubt that China is intensively modernizing its armed forces, particularly its Navy and Air Force. One can also state the same for the United States, as well as for other developed and emerging nations. The international trade in weapons of war attest to that. However, The Economist itselfin its 2013 edition of “Pocket World in Figures” shows that as of 2010 China’s armed forces totaled 2,285,000 with 510,000 in the reserves. In the 2014 edition of this same document the strength of China’s armed forces for 2013, 3 years later, is shown as 2,285,000 with 510,000 in the reserves. Thus The Economist-divined rapid buildup totaled zero over a three year period.

The Wikipedia article on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises the Army, Navy, and Air Force, does agree with The Economist in setting its active duty strength at 2.3 million. But the article also states, ‘… much of the PLA Ground Force [Army] was being reduced over the past few years…”  The article does substantiate what I have written above, i.e., that there is an intense effort to modernize all elements of the PLA. Who is the more authoritative? The Economist editorialist or the author(s) of the Wikipedia article? Who has, or is using, the better sources of information? In any case, the size of the PLA, particularly its Navy and Air Force, would not permit it to launch an attack against the United States. And given the internal problems that China faces, which will not be resolved in this century, and the enormous military capacity that would be required to attack the United States (Think of 4,000 miles of Pacific Ocean to be traversed by a fleet carrying several hundred thousand soldiers initially, to be followed by hundreds of thousands of more soldiers, needing to be supported logistically, in the face of a United States Navy and Air Force that would have to be reduced to virtually nothing if the invasion were to have the slightest chance of success.) it is not conceivable that China will attack the United States at any time in the future. The era of countries taking over other countries and colonizing them has disappeared forever. This was a Western European aberration and successful instances of it will be virtually nil in the future.

Does this mean that China has other “territorial ambitions”, such as Germany in 1914? Except for Taiwan, which is arguably a legitimate part of China alienated by the Kuomintang. China’s taking over Taiwan would be as though one were to say that the United States had “territorial ambitions” when it fought to bring the Confederate States back into the Union. There is no present indication that China intends to retake Taiwan by military force. Nor is there any indication that China has any “ambitions” to overrun Southeast Asia or to attack Mongolia, Siberia, or even Japan. It can more readily and less expensively exert its influence in those regions by peaceful means rather than by colonizing them. And what could be gained by colonizing them? Certainly nothing, but a lot of people to feed and the prospect of waging guerilla warfare against resistants.

The final leg of the three-legged stool analogy is the most inept of them all. “Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power.” Remember, the writer is comparing 2014 Japan to 1914 France. The “retreating hegemon” is, of course, Great Britain in 1914 and the United States in 2014. Great Britain was not “retreating in 1914 nor did it pretend to be a hegemon. As I have written above, Great Britain was at the zenith of its power in 1914 and had as its primary interest the maintenance and stability of its colonial empire. In 2014 the United States is not a hegemon and has never been one, except in the minds of certain members of the media and of supra-nationalist American politicians. The fact is that the world has never had a hegemon. The Roman Empire at its greatest extent, as well as its predecessor empires, controlled only a fraction of the world and did not exert much influence or power beyond its boundaries. In fact, the world of the Americas was totally unknown to these empires. Southeast Asia and China and Russia were barely known and certainly outside their area of influence. So, the world with its various civilizations has never known a hegemon. The question is: Does the world need one?

The editorialist treats France in 1914 as a “declining regional power”. Nothing could be further from the reality. France under the Third Republic had recovered from the defeat of 1870 and had even expanded its colonial empire. The proof is in the fact that France fought and won, with substantial assistance from “waning” Great Britain, the First World War. And yet he compares 1914 France to 2014 Japan. This is comparing apples and oranges. Japan is not a “declining regional power” because it never has been since 1945 a regional power. Japan overcame the trauma of its defeat and worked its way to prosperity in the second half of the 20th century, but it never translated, or could translate, its economic success into geopolitical power. Geopolitically it was, and is, no more significant than Taiwan or South Korea. The writer states that “Shinzo Abe stirs Japanese nationalism”. The implication is that this is dangerous for peace in the region, even though his country is described as a “declining regional power”. Japanese nationalism is not going to go beyond the boundaries of Japan. Japan has a rapidly aging population and one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. Japan’s constitution forbids it to have armed forces, although this has been somewhat stretched to permit the maintenance of a small homeland defense force that is lightly armed. The “Pocket World of Figures” for 2014 of The Economist shows Japan’s military forces in 20th place in the world, well behind South and North Korea, and even Columbia and Iraq, not to mention China. So, Mr. Abe can start marching and waving the flag, but there is no one to follow him in an aggressive nationalist parade.

The writer finishes his strained analogies by stating, “The parallels are not exact...but they are close enough for the world to be on its guard.” Not at all.

Let us now turn to the primary thesis of the editorialist, i.e. that the third world war is a dark cloud hovering somewhere in our future. Both the First and Second World Wars were essentially European wars. Their causes were European, the principal protagonists were European. Why, then, do we call them “world wars”? Because the Western European protagonists—Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands—all had colonial empires. And when their colonial masters went to war the colonies fell into ranks and followed suit. And since among them the western colonial empires represented a significant portion of the world, the wars graduated from European power struggles to world wars. One may ask, “What about the United States?” It was no one’s colony, yet it entered both wars...tardily. The United States entered the First World War because Germany was sinking U.S. shipping, even though president Wilson in 1916 had campaigned on a platform of not entering the war. The United States entered the Second World War because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It can be argued by anyone who knows the history of American attitudes during the years prior to American entry into these wars that if Germany and Japan had not made those fateful decisions, the United States would possibly have not gone to war. Other nations participated for different reasons. In the First World War the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had military alliances with Germany. Brazil participated in the second world war out of solidarity with the United States, but the rest of Latin America did not. But the classification of these European-fomented and Asian-fomented wars as “world wars” is only based on the colonial empires that the protagonists possessed. And even though we call them world wars, a good part of the world did not participate in either of them.

Today there are no colonial empires. Today the world is not under the sway of a handful of Western European nations jockeying for dominance in Europe or a warlike Japan jockeying for domination in Asia. So, how does the world launch itself into the third world war? It doesn’t. There are only two world powers—China and the United States. They have no colonies. As I have written in previous articles archived on this site, it is absurd to believe that they would go to war against each other. First, because neither one country nor the other has anything to gain by doing so. The days of small Western European countries vying for dominance and embroiling a large part of the rest of the world have passed. The concept of the “balance of power” is outdated, since the concept implies the ability of a country striving for dominance to invade the territory of another power. One could envision that China would invade Taiwan, even though Taiwan cannot be considered a major, or even a second tier, power. This would be foolhardy. Since Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by water, China would have to have complete air and sea mastery over these straits in order to support an invasion. With American air power and nuclear submarines this mastery would be virtually impossible to achieve. If the United States chooses to react militarily to such an invasion. If it does, there would still be no threat of a third world war. China cannot invade the United States. And American nuclear power is much greater than China’s. And what countries are going to join China in such an invasion? And what countries would join the United States in defending the Taiwanese straits? There are no colonial “servants”. In any case, the probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is remote, even though China and a large part of the comity of nations acknowledge that Taiwan is a part of China. And it is highly possible that by the end of this century the Taiwanese will voluntarily rejoin mainland China, perhaps pushed a bit by the United States.

What other conflicts could lead to a third world war? Pakistan versus India? There would likely be a nuclear exchange, but no other nations, except perhaps Afghanistan, Iran, and a few other fellow Muslim states, would join in on the side of Pakistan and no other nation is likely to ally itself with India.. What if a coalition of Muslim states attacked Israel? The United States would most likely intervene militarily on the Israeli side. Would there be others? Unlikely. Maybe the United Kingdom, but its contribution would forcibly be negligible. None of the former European powers that wreaked havoc on the world in the first half of the 20th century has the capability or the will to engage massively in a military effort. Where else to look for a potential third world war? Africa? No. South America? No.

What about Russia? Russia is no longer dominated by an expansionary Communist doctrine. Its population is diminishing because of a low fertility rate. By the end of the century the populations of Russia, Germany and France, if current demographic trends continue, will be approximately the same. This translates into seriously diminished military capability. Certainly very much less than that of the United States and China and likely less than that of India, Pakistan, Brazil, maybe even Iran. Russia has shown no warlike attitudes toward China or Western Europe. In fact, it no longer has the capability of successfully invading these countries. Yes, it can destroy them because of the size of its nuclear arsenal, but to what purpose? One of the collateral effects of such an action would be to destroy itself as well. In short, Russia is no longer a threat unless it decides to commit nuclear suicide. And if the United States had a more coherent nuclear warfare policy, as I have discussed in previous articles archived on this site, such unlikely Russian suicidal tendencies would not even exist. In the final analysis, Russia is a “waning” power, to use The Economist’s vocabulary.

I challenge the editorialist of The Economist to present one feasible scenario that could lead to a third world war. I do not imply that the twenty-first century is going to be a peaceful one. On the contrary, it is already one of strife and bloodshed and these will continue. World wars are a phenomenon of the “colonial” past. This does not mean that warfare will cease to be a plague on human society. But the warfare of the future is most likely to be primarily rebellion and revolution. Let me take as the most striking and important example, the Islamic World.

From Morocco to Indonesia this world is in turmoil and will likely remain so throughout the century. There have already been popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria. There is fighting in Iraq. There is civil war in Afghanistan. There have been demonstrations in Algeria, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Iran. The demonstrators and fighters want primarily freedom from the oppression and corruption of their respective governments. They mostly do not have clear ideas on what should take their place. Most of them do not understand democracy and how it functions. Much like the French people when they overthrew Louis XVI.
One needs to remember that much of the Islamic World until after of the Second World War was colonized by Western European nations. Starting at the beginning of the 17th century by the Dutch colonization of Indonesia and continuing through the colonizing of the defeated Ottoman Empire by Great Britain and France after the First World War, the Islamic World was either colonized or dominated by Western European states, except for Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Muslims were strangers in their own countries. Secularly powerless, they turned to their religion and their religious leaders for succor and self-identity, and although a minority of them Westernized themselves by preference or by interest, the great majority of these Muslims not only remained faithful to their culture and the tenets of their religion, but made their religion the essential spiritual and motivating force in their lives. In other words, as a society the Islamic World did not evolve. In fact, it regressed. Their colonization pushed them back to the long-ago centuries of Islamic glory.

Then, after the Second World War these Muslim countries found themselves unshackled or in a position to fight against their colonizers. After they became free, they found themselves in a world that had evolved and become Westernized, but they were not in a psychological or political position to transform their cultures. They could not accept the culture or the form of government of their colonizers. They thus remained faithful to their pre-colonization culture and governmental forms and succumbed to authoritarianism, religious and secular. But today, fifty years later, Western culture and political concepts are beginning to permeate Muslim culture. The recent and continuing uprisings that I have cited above are evidence to that. These will continue throughout this century. Uprisings, repression, civil wars, failed efforts to create democratic governments, the return of autocratic leaders, further uprisings, re-establishment of democratic governments. It will be a tumultuous and blood soaked century for the Islamic World.

And as it strives to bring itself into the twenty-first century it is also faced by the serious possibility of religious conflict. The differences between Sunni and Shia recall the differences between French Catholics and Cathars that led to the religious wars of the 13th century, as well as the persecution dealt to non-believers by the Inquisition, and finally, the differences between Catholics and Protestants that led to the bloody religious wars that endured for more than a century. This phenomenon is occurring today in Iraq since the departure of the United States Armed Forces. So, the struggle for the freedom of the Muslim people is going to be mixed with the struggle for religious dominance. And the non-Muslim countries of the world would be well advised to stay out of the fray, to let the Muslims resolve their problems themselves, as the Western European nations resolved their religious problems in the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries and the Americans resolved their problem with slavery in the nineteenth century.

It’s not pretty, it wastes lives and resources, but humanity has not yet discovered a better way to resolve what opposing groups consider to be life-and death issues. The Islamic World is attempting to move from a feudal mindset to the spirit of the 21st century. Intervention by nations of Western and Chinese culture will only retard, and even, in some cases, put the process into reverse.

What I have written does not mean that the rest of the world should hold itself aloof from the bloody tragedies that are and will be occurring throughout the 21st century, not only in the Islamic world but in Southeast Asia, in Africa, in Central and South America. But their efforts must be educational, diplomatic, and humanitarian. The use of military force will only worsen these situations. The turmoil will be internal to the societies involved and should certainly not be considered a threat to the national security of the United States. The United States and the rest of the world must always remember, as I have written above, that all improvement in the social and political condition of mankind has been bought with strife and blood. This will not change in this century, nor in the next, nor the next…

For the editorialist, a final counsel: Cease your writing on this subject until you have completed a course in modern world history, starting in 1700 at the latest.bluestar



American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Author Benjamin L. Landis retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after a 27-year career that included service with the Military Assistance Advisory Group at the U.S. embassy in Paris and as Senior U.S. Liaison Officer with the French Forces in Germany. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the French Army Ecole d’Etat-Major, and has an MSA from The George Washington University. After retirement, he was Director of Administration and Finance for several major law firms in Washington. He is the author of Searching For Stability: The World in the Twenty-First Century.  

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