What makes war between the US and China or Russia inevitable?

Battle of Lepanto

There is a dangerous and not so new idea currently making the rounds that not only is conventional war between the great powers inevitable, but that it would be much less of an existential threat to humanity than we have been led to believe and even might be necessary for human progress.

The appearance of this argument in favor of war was almost predictable given that it was preceded by a strong case being made that war was now obsolete and at least in its great power guise was being driven out of history by deep underlying trends towards prosperity and peace. I am thinking her mostly of Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature, but he was not alone.

The exact same thing happened in the 19th century. Then, voices arose that argued that war was becoming unnecessary as values became global and the benefits of peaceful trade replaced the plunder of war. The counter-reaction argued that war had been the primary vector for human progress and that without it we would “go soft” or de-evolve into a species much less advanced than our own.

Given their racist overtones, arguments that we will evolve “backward” absent war are no longer made in intelligent circles. Instead, war has been tied to technological development the argument being that without war in general and great power war in particular we will become technologically stuck. That’s the case made by Ian Morris in his War What is it Good For? where he sees the US in shepherding in the Singularity via war, and it’s a case made from opposite sides of the fence regarding transhumaism by Christopher Coker and Steve Fuller.

The problem with these new arguments in favor of great power conflict is that they discount the prospect of nuclear exchange. Perhaps warfare is the heir of technological progress, but it’s better to be the tortoise when such conflicts hold the risk of driving you back to the stone age.

That said, there is an argument out there that perhaps even nuclear warfare wouldn’t be quite the civilization destroyer we have believed, but that position seems less likely to become widespread than the idea that the great powers could directly fight each other and yet some how avoid bringing the full weight of their conventional and nuclear forces down upon the other even in the face of a devastating loss at the hands of the other. It’s here where we can find Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s recent novel Ghost Fleet: A novel of the Third World War that tells the story of a conventional war, mainly at sea, between the US and China and Russia.

It’s a copiously researched book, and probably gives a good portrait of what warfare in the next ten to fifteen years will look like. If the authors are right, in the wars of the future drones – underground, land, air, and sea will be ubiquitous and AI used to manage battles where sensors take the place of senses- the crew of a ship needs never set sight on the actual sea.

Cyber attacks in the future will be a fully functional theater of war- as will outer space. The next war will take advantage of enhancement technologies- augmented reality, and interventions such “stim tabs” for alertness. Advances in neuroscience and bioelectronics will be used at the very least as a form of enhanced, and brutal, interrogation.

If the book makes any warning (and all such books seem to have a warning) it is that the US is extremely reliant on the technological infrastructure that allows the country to deploy and direct its’ global force. The war begins with a Chinese/Russian attack on American satellites, which effectively blinds the American military. I’ve heard interviews where Singer claims that in light of this the US Navy is now training its’ officers in the art of stellar navigation, which in the 21st century is just, well… cool. The authors point out how American hardware is vulnerable as well to threats like embedded beacons or kill switches given that much of this hardware has come out of Chinese factories.

The plot of Ghost Fleet is pretty standard: in a surprise attack the Chinese and Russians push the US out of the Pacific by destroying much of the American navy and conquering Hawaii. Seemingly without a single ally, the US then manages to destroy the Chinese fleet after resurrecting the ships of its naval graveyard near San Francisco- a real thing apparently, especially a newfangled battleship the USS Zumwalt, which is equipped with a new and very powerful form of rail gun. I am not sure if it helped or hindered my enjoyment of the book that its’ plot seemed eerily similar to my favorite piece of anime from when I was a kid- Star Blazers.

The problem, once again, is in thinking that we can contain such conflicts and therefore need not do everything possible to avoid them. In the novel there never seems to be any possibility of nuclear exchange or strategic bombing and with the exception of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Hawaii the war is hermetically contained to the Pacific and the sea. Let’s hope we would be so lucky, but I’m doubtful.

Ghost Fleet is also not merely weak but detrimental in regards to the one “technology” that will be necessary for the US to avoid a war with China or others and contain it should it break out.

If I had to take a vote on one work that summed up the historical differences between the West and everyone else, differences that would eventually bring us the scientific revolution and all of the power that came with it, that work wouldn’t be one of science such as the Principia Mathematica or even some great work of philosophy or literature, but a history book.

The thing that makes Herodotus’ The Histories so unique was that it was the first time that one people tried to actually understand their enemies. It’s certainly eurocentric to say it, but the Greeks as far as I am aware, were first and unique here. It wasn’t just a one off.

Thucydides would do something similar for the intra-Hellenic conflict between Athenians and Spartans, but the idea of actually trying to understand your enemy, no doubt because so much about being an enemy lends itself to being hidden and thus needs to be imagined was brought to its’ heights in the worlds of drama and fiction. The great Aeschylus did this with the Persians as well with his tragedy named for that noble people.

It’s a long tradition that was seen right up until The Riddle of the Sands a 1903 book that depicted a coming war between the British and the Germans. Much different than the dehumanizing war propaganda that would characterize the Germans as less than human “Huns” during the First World War, The Riddle of the Sands attempted to make German aggression explicable given its’ historical and geographical circumstances even while arguing such aggression needed to be countered.

In Ghost Fleet by contrast the Chinese especially are reduced to something like Bond Villains, US control of the Pacific is wholly justified, its’ characters largely virtuous and determined. In that sense the novel fails to do what novels naturally excel at; namely, opening up realms to the imagination that otherwise remain inaccessible, and in this specific case the motivations, assumptions, and deep historical grievances likely to drive Chinese or Russian policy makers in the run up to and during any such conflict. Sadly, it is exactly such a lack of understanding that makes war great power wars and the existential risks to humanity they pose, perhaps not inevitable, but increasingly more likely.

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6 comments on “What makes war between the US and China or Russia inevitable?

  1. amandahem says:

    I am about to start reading this. Insightful critique of both the book and the current American perspective. I especially like your use of “technology” to describe a dulled knife edge of the mind that exists currently.

    I agree with you in that it is incredibly foolish for us to think that the next war will not lead to destruction on American soil…we have been insanely lucky on this front thus far, and it will not continue, should war be something that happens.

    I also had no idea that contemporary intellectuals & prominent citizens were arguing that war is good and necessary. What a damn shame.

    Thanks as always for your insights.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for your words of encouragement re my writing, and you’re right it is a “damn shame”- its like we continuously fall victim to the same collective amnesia the minute the majority of those who have experienced the last big war (or financial crisis) have died off.

      • amandahem says:

        This makes me think of how in Ghost Fleet they get into a Sun Tzu quote-off. There is a deeply embedded, fairly static relationship to core ideas there. Having a core idea of ‘change’ as we do has its pros…but a deeper connection to history sure would be nice.

        I read the first 80 pages, and I agree-that scene where the Chinese ‘decide’ to go to war doesn’t really do a good enough job exploring the complex thinking of that culture, let alone what the Russians are thinking. I did like how they characterize America as not really having a clue what it wants from its relationships with other great powers. in one sense I did like how the lack of complexity kinda shows how those who want power simply want nice sounding rationalizations for the acquisition of more power.

  2. philiprojc says:

    I guess it exists, but I haven’t really heard any mainstream discourse painting military conflict across the Pacific as good or necessary. I’d like to believe (as Pinker seems to) that the current global economy links superpowers together in a categorically different way than a century ago, but it’s hard to tell. Digital communications give us new ways to understand our “enemy.” But there’s always a surprisingly large constituency in every country that loves rattling them sabers.

    • Rick Searle says:

      I did a piece a while back on Pinker’s Better Angels which you might like:

      https://utopiaordystopia.com/2012/12/30/pinker-foucault-and-progress/

      For recent main stream arguments that war is”good” for us see Ian Morris’ “War What is it Good For?” I certainly don’t buy his argument, but he’s not some fringe figure.

      For the continued plausibility of war in the 21st century there’s the military theorist Colin S. Gray’s “Another Bloody Century”.

      I’d like to believe Pinker too, but Gray points out how no major power seems to be adjusting downward their military spending and therefore must still be concluding the plausibility of war- and deterrence itself requires this plausibility.

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