Hindsight is, as the saying goes, 20/20. We find it amazing that the cataclysmic world events of the past were a surprise to anyone because, of course, what was about to happen was obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.
This said, I have lately begun to wonder whether we are wandering into a catastrophic period of international warfare.
The worldwide immigration/refugee crisis is generally treated as a stand-alone issue, and we sometimes fail to remember that tens of millions of people around the globe are now afoot in order to escape the armed violence that has forced them to flee. Europe is dealing with theaftershocks of warfare in Syria and Libya that has shattered the entire region and is still each minute killing and maiming many. The United States is seeing refugees fleeing the breakdown of civic order in Central and South America. Africa is dealing with never ending civil wars in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, and The Philippines has been fighting insurgents and drug gangs for many years. In China and Myanmar, religious and ethnic minorities are dealing with horrific persecution because their beliefs and cultures are seen as a threat by their own governments.
And let us not forget the saber rattling and economic jousting now taking place between the U.S. and three long term and implacable competitors/enemies: China, Russia, and North Korea. The potential for conflict with each on its own is enough to cause a sleepless night or two.
To blame Donald Trump for the rise in world tensions is like blaming your umbrella for a rainy day—the cause and effect is flipped the wrong way. These regional and international problems existed long before he came on the scene, and it may not be all that bad that he has, as is his habit, blithely torn off the scabs of so many festering wounds. The veneer of calm that hid so many major issues from public view while we obliviously argued about mindless marginalia was probably not to our benefit. Ignoring Chinese industrial espionage or North Korean nuclear weapons tests did nothing to enhance America’s long term security, but we apparently felt a lot better about ourselves when Michelle Obama was mom dancing with Jimmy Fallon on late night television, our children routinely received a shiny trophy for the dull distinction of being the least uneducated child in their school, and Facebook was still that sweet and innocent place where we posted photos of our dog wearing a Santa hat.
The anxiety that the sudden realization we occupy a dangerous and disturbing world has induced is remarkable, and the rapid policy shifts around the world as powerful nations have mobilized to defend their borders and national interests have given many a case of the heebie-jeebies. This is understandable. Ignorance can be bliss, and being forced to now deal with the reality that cut-throat competition is sometimes necessary to win a fight is both frightening and astonishing to those who thought every problem on our planet could be solved with a harmony circle. The coarsening of our national and international political dialogue is both unfortunate and necessary. A winner-take-all world is by definition going to be just a tad short on pretty please and thank you.
Although old school bullets, bombs, and bayonets still inflict much of the daily misery of war, the amazing hi-tech weaponry available now makes armed conflict much more likely because a first strike can be decisive—and nuclear weapons need not be involved. Sinking an enemy aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic rail gun, disabling a regional power grid with a graphite bomb, or shutting down a nation’s entire communications network with a satellite attack can end a battle before it begins, and the hardware and techniques of mass destruction that are still unknown to the general public are likely more devious and devastating than we can possibly imagine.
Nations occasionally fight wars to defend great principles, but most conflict is motivated by money, self-defense—or the defense of money. Right now most major nations are jostling for position in a world of rapid economic change, scarcities of vital resources, population pressures, and fears of being overwhelmed by aggressors who see benefit for themselves in the weaknesses of others. America, Russia, and China are each seeking regional domination, market access to drive economic expansion at the expense of one another—and are all hanging the threat of military action over the course many supposedly civil discussions.
The trade wars of history have typically led to the shooting wars that allowed nations to dominate. The rise of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and up to the First World War was, for example, built upon a trading empire backed by cannon fire. The “American Century” was created by industrial might that produced both Buick sedans and B-52 bombers in abundance. The ancient kingdoms of China garnered unimaginable wealth and power at the point of a sword and maintained their riches through terror and torture. To presume the world has magically outgrown brute force as an instrument of state policy is the most delusional and dangerous sort of wishful thinking.
I am not a war monger, and I hope that an all-out shooting war involving two or more of the world’s great or near-great powers is further away than it seems at the moment. However, it could be the case that greed and stupidity will once again be more in evidence than reason and common purpose. If this occurs—for not the first time in the bloody span of human history—we will see the fabric and function of our daily lives undergo a stark and fundamental shift that will continue long after the peace treaties are signed. Nations at war rarely emerge unscathed or unchanged.