The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought a terrible price from humanity and will continue to do so in the months ahead. Meanwhile, it exacerbates an already dangerous international situation.
Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan argued in 2013 that the world looked a lot like it did in the lead-up to World War I. The pandemic is mixing in additional toxic ingredients. Indeed, the current situation combines the worst elements that led to World Wars I and II.
Causes of the World Wars
World War I and World War II are sometimes viewed as wars that could have been prevented, but for very different reasons. World War I, the late American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in 1962, was a war no one wanted. It started because of a lethal combination of nationalism, colonialism, and a host of other reasons, all intensified by inept leadership. Once the machinery of war started, it could not be stopped.
Caution and compromise might have prevented that tragedy. Yet compromise 20 years later helped start World War II.
British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and other leaders in the years before World War II sought to avoid a replay of World War I. Appeasement, rather than rushing headlong into war, was the order of the day. But in that case, where a clear aggressor existed in Germany, compromise and conciliation failed. Another conflagration followed.
The causes of each war are therefore viewed as contradictory. Different variables pushed us into war on each occasion. War might have been avoided in each case by better understanding of those variables.
Unfortunately, today we may be witnessing the gathering of the worst variables of both of those earlier periods. The pandemic may have made it more difficult yet to avoid another great-power war.
World War I
Key variables leading to war in 1914 included an industrial/technological revolution, rising nationalism, a focus on the offensive, mercantilism, a declining hegemon, a rising challenger, and inept leadership. All of these variables are present today. We are in the midst of the fastest, most comprehensive technological revolution in history, combining computers, communication and, increasingly, automation and artificial intelligence. The human race is going through far more change, far faster, than ever.
Nationalism too is rampant. Nationalism is used to justify President Xi Jinping’s leadership in China, especially in the face of decreasing economic growth. In the US, President Donald Trump, with his “America First” rhetoric, resorts to populism and nationalism.
A cult of the offensive is present today too. China’s armed forces are heavily dependent on missile systems that are inherently offensive – they must be used early in any conflict, before they are destroyed. The US in turn believes it must destroy these systems before they can be used.
Mercantilism is resurgent. China has always engaged in mercantilism and the US under Trump now follows suit. There is little doubt that with a debt of more than $24 trillion (probably increasing another $6 trillion in the coming year), the United States is a declining hegemon. It is overstretched across the globe, it demands fealty, yet it is incapable of carrying (or unwilling to carry) the burdens of hegemony. Meanwhile, a rising great power seeks to tear down the rules-based international order and replace it with what is of yet unclear – perhaps a tribute system.
Over all of this, we have incompetent leaders. Xi Jinping is a corrupt tyrant masquerading as the leader of a great people. Donald Trump is a narcissistic, two-bit carnival barker blessed by some mischievous god with his father’s money and connections. Emotionally, he is a child. Yet these two deeply flawed men are charged with guiding humanity through the most dangerous time in 60 years.
World War II
The events leading to war in 1939 included a sharp division between the wealthy and everyone else, economic catastrophe in the Great Depression, sharp reductions in global trade, a breakdown in international cooperation, and the end of liberal governance in much of the world. Once again, these variables are present.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, trade was decreasing and beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies had become the norm. It might be tempting to place this blame on Trump, but he was elected by people in his country who have suffered 40 years of criminal economic competition from China. It is no wonder they elected Trump and it is no wonder he undermined a global trade system that has failed America’s working class.
Similarly, evidence of the breakdown of international cooperation and liberalism are everywhere. The world is unable to deal with the existential threat of climate change. Authoritarian regimes have seats on the UN Human Rights Council. There is a great and increasing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, a new Gilded Age. Liberalism, unable to cope, is in retreat everywhere, from the US and the UK to fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Our world is gravely ill.
Into this morass we stir a global pandemic, with its origin in a corrupt, authoritarian state that is hostile to openness, human dignity and truth. That China denied and then exported the pandemic was as predictable as it is lamentable. The pandemic will bring a global economic depression, the only variable from World War II not present today. We should expect more governments to fall, we should expect liberalism to retreat further, and we should expect increased nationalism and violence upon our own species. In short, we are in for dark days.
Dictators attempt to divert the attention of their people from corruption and injustice by seeking external enemies. Wars will therefore increase, and status quo powers such as the United States may attempt to defend a crumbling system. The chance of war between China and the United States has increased dramatically because almost all of the structural variables today point toward war.
Both World War I and II were avoidable because different variables were present. Consequently, had skilled leadership been present, each war might have been avoided by correctly diagnosing the causes of the impending crises. That the wars were not avoided does not mean they could not have been; it simply means leadership was not up to the task.
But today the causes of both of those wars have been combined in a single cauldron. So it is reasonable to ask, even with good leadership (of which there is no doubt we are lacking), can great-power war be avoided?