Monday, 4 August 2014

What have we learned?

A hundred years and a month or so ago, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. This triggered a wave of anti-Serb violence across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, because apparently what one Serb did every Serb was responsible for. As he was a minor, Princip got twenty years in prison instead of the death penalty. He died of tuberculosis just a fifth of the way through his sentence. The Empire demanded that Serbia suppress all anti-Imperial actions and publications and accept Austrian control of their police force. Serbia said “OK,” but they didn’t say “OK” to every single demand, and Austria-Hungary declared war.
Some bits of what happened next, I’m not clear on. The Russians felt obliged to intervene on Serbia’s behalf. The Germans had been itching for a war with both Serbia and Russia for some time. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain stepped in to help Russia. I don’t know why any of that was the case. I do know that one hundred years ago yesterday, Britain declared war on Germany. At that time, white New Zealanders and Australians identified as British, so from that point on “we” were at war. Which I guess is why my local newspaper dedicated its front page yesterday to the centennial.
Get used to this kind of thing. You’ll be seeing it a lot in the next four years. Thought for the day: World War I was rich countries invading rich countries. Nowadays you don’t see that, “nowadays” here meaning since 1945. Why not? What changed? Why, for the last seventy years, has it only been poor countries being invaded? What trick have rich countries learned in that time for avoiding being warred upon? (It’s certainly not that rich countries no longer go to war.) Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is required reading here, but has he got it right? He dismisses the popular “nuclear deterrent” theory; I have no problem with that. He also claims that global trade has been a major force for peace, which sits most uncomfortably with my politics but Pinker’s data and logic are persuasive. Basic idea: if country A is a source of trade goods for country B, country B has an incentive not to want country A’s economy disrupted by war.
Something’s missing. One lucrative set of trade goods is armaments, which reverse the incentive structure. If you’re selling guns, you want your customers threatened by wars, so that they’ll buy your guns. Also, protecting trade ships and trade zones has become a major raison d’etre for military deployments. And then look at the protests at all the big free trade conferences; look at the violence governments are prepared to deploy against their own citizens in defence of commerce. Free-trade apologists might reply that the protesters are mistaken or misguided in their choice of political goals, and that trade is a powerful enough force for peace to justify suppressing dissent. But even if trade is a force for peace, so too – taking my information from The Better Angels of Our Nature once again – are democracy and the free exchange of information. Trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement threaten both.
I take Pinker’s point. Economic interdependence links nations together, it helps people put a value on each other’s lives who otherwise didn’t have a reason to care. Yes, that sounds awful, but the reality is no human being could care about every single other one of their seven billion fellow human beings. We care about the couple of hundred people we know personally, and we can have our consciences and our compassion stung by stories and images of a few more, but there comes a point at which it’s just too much. So we can’t hang our plans for world peace on everybody caring, personally, about everybody else. That’s not going to happen.
But granted that economic ties between nations are a good idea per se, is this really the best we can do? Do we have to sign our democracy and our freedoms over to giant corporations and their neoliberal running-dog enforcers? Corporate capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels, which has historically caused shortage crises as well as global warming, and to dirt-cheap labour, which has historically caused large-scale political unrest. Fuel crises and political unrest are both causes of violence. Being better than 1914 is not much to congratulate ourselves on.


  1. Good work. I've thought about his one a bit myself. I agree that interconnection through trade will act as a disincentive to go to war. Another disincentive is the existential nuclear threat (no two nuclear powers have ever gone head to head - though proxy state have been used i.e. cold war. So us lefty liberals are left conceding that globalisation and nuclear proliferation have been good for world peace. That said, globalisation has also resulted in a lot of blood-shed. That is if you subscribe to the very reasonable idea that much of the military activity of the US over the last 70 years has resulted from an internationally expansionist economic strategy on the part of major US banks, corporations and subsequently the government.

    1. "Another disincentive is the existential nuclear threat..."
      Like I said, Pinker is required reading. The whole thing about nuclear weapons making war unthinkable -- the problem with that is that, because it's unthinkable, it's an empty threat and everyone knows it. At the start of the Cold War the US had nukes and the Soviets did not, but the Soviets defied them anyway. Nukes didn't cow North Korea or North Vietnam into submission. India and Pakistan both have, or had, nukes, and that hasn't stopped them shooting rockets over the border. Oh, and Hamas knows full well that Israel has nukes too...

  2. I guess it's worth pointing out that globalised trade =/= free market trade. So it's entirely possible that Pinker is right about increased global trade reducing warfare, but that you and Roger can both be right also about some aspects of globalisation increasing violence, and the need for trade to be regulated in order to increase its benefits and mitigate its downsides.