Ed Lotterman: Belief that war can’t occur won’t stop it

January 31, 2014 

Increasingly sharp geopolitical skirmishing over islands in the South and East China Seas coincides with this year’s centennial of the outbreak of World War I.

If Europe could stumble into a war that eventually killed tens of millions, might a conflict over the Spratly or Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands similarly push Asia into a war that would kill millions and plunge the global economy into chaos?

Norman Angell, an English journalist, politician and 1933 Nobel Peace laureate, was not an economist. But his 1909 book, “The Great Illusion,” raised an economic question that is as relevant now as it was a century ago. Does economic integration of the economies of different nations keep them from going to war with each other?

In 1909, Angell argued that it did — and hence an increasingly industrial, economically integrated and prosperous Europe had outgrown war. Its nations had so much to lose from conflict that peace would prevail. If war somehow did break out, economic considerations would force all combatant nations to seek peace quickly.

That, of course, proved spectacularly false when World War I broke out only five years later.

Fast forward 100 years and one hears similar arguments about Asia.

Yes, some argue, territorial disputes exist, including symbolic spats over ownership of islets in the South or East China Seas.

Yes, many old wounds and resentments remain raw. This is particularly true of Vietnam, which was attacked by China in 1979. And China and several other nations remain aggrieved in regard to Japan’s actions from 1935 to 1945.

However, the argument goes, in the past 60 years Japan and the original Asian Tigers — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — demonstrated how to move from privation to prosperity or even opulence. Others followed, including China after 1978, with great success.

Living conditions have improved tremendously for billions of people. All that wealth would be at risk if war broke out in Asia. Too much is at stake and rational citizenries and their leaders will never slide over the brink.

Perhaps. I certainly am not predicting war in Asia in the next few years.

Remember, however, that impulses that drive leaders and populations to war seem deeply embedded in human nature. Economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart demonstrated that financial crises break out every time people assert that such crises are a thing of the past.

The same could be said for war. Whenever anyone like Angell says that civilization or technology has made war a historical artifact, events seem to prove him or her wrong.

Indeed, widespread belief that war cannot occur actually may make it more likely. Historians of 1914 note how frequently men being mobilized into army units that soon would be decimated told others that they would be back soon because inexorable economic forces would limit the war to a few weeks.

So much was at risk of being lost that no rational person would choose for war to continue. Hence, peace had to break out. This belief that the war would be short and mild made it easier to enter into.

But there was a flaw in the logic. Each side expected the enemy to be the one to wake up to some harsh economic reality and toss in the towel.

And there was a flaw in Angell’s reasoning. He depended on the same erroneous assumption that underpins most contemporary economic theory, namely that rationality dominates all important decision making.

But modern war clearly proved him right in terms of the cost. All the European combatant nations suffered grievous economic as well as human losses. All emerged from the war essentially bankrupt. None secured the territorial gains or control over economic resources expected at the onset of hostilities.

And many instinctively knew that John Maynard Keynes was right when he warned in his 1919 book, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” that the postwar settling of economic and geographic accounts was going to touch off another war.

So if you read that China and Japan will never come to military blows over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands or that disputes among several nations over the Spratly and Paracel Islands farther south won’t erupt in violence, take it with a grain of salt. And if you hear the argument that nations who both have McDonald’s restaurants have never gone to war, don’t pay it any heed at all.

A sense of honor, however warped, was a factor for nearly every World War I combatant nation. National pride, especially when whipped up by demagogues, is even more powerful — especially in a continent like Asia where memories of lasting humiliating domination by outside nations remain strong, even if most of the individuals who suffered such domination are dying off.

Don’t expect war. But don’t dismiss its possibility either. Despite being proven tragically wrong in 1914, Angell spent the rest of his life working for peace, and he deserved the Nobel he got in 1933.

Ponder this assertion from his Nobel lecture: “Let us face squarely the paradox that the world which goes to war is a world, usually, genuinely desiring peace. War is the outcome, not mainly of evil intentions, but on the whole, of good intentions that miscarry or are frustrated. It is made, not usually by evil men knowing themselves to be wrong, but is the outcome of policies pursued by good men usually passionately convinced that they are right.”

Write Ed Lotterman at ed@edlotterman.com.

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