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 here 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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Living in the Divided World of the Internet’s Future

Marten_van_Valckenborch_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_-_Google_Art_Project

Sony hacks, barbarians with FaceBook pages, troll armies, ministries of “truth”– it wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the early pioneers of what we now call the Internet freed the network from the US military they were hoping for a network of mutual trust and sharing- a network like the scientific communities in which they worked where minds were brought into communion from every corner of the world. It didn’t take long for some of the witnesses to the global Internet’s birth to see in it the beginnings of a global civilization, the unification, at last, of all of humanity under one roof brought together in dialogue by the miracle of a network that seemed to eliminate the parochialism of space and time.   

The Internet for everyone that these pioneers built is now several decades old, we are living in its future as seen from the vantage point of the people who birthed it as this public “thing” this thick overlay of human interconnections which now mediates almost all of our relationships with the world. Yet, rather than bringing the world together, humanity appears to be drifting apart.

Anyone who doubts the Internet has become as much a theater of war in which political conflicts are fought as much as it is a harbinger of a nascent “global mind” isn’t reading the news. Much of the Internet has been weaponized whether by nation-states or non-state actors. Bots, whether used for in contests between individuals, or over them, now outnumber human beings on the web.

Why is this happening? Why did the Internet that connected us also fail to bring us closer?

There are probably dozens of reasons, only one of which I want to comment on here because I think it’s the one that’s least discussed. What I think the early pioneers failed to realize about the Internet was that it would be as much a tool of reanimating the past as it would be a means of building a future. It’s not only that history didn’t end, it’s that it came alive to a degree we had failed to anticipate.

Think what one will of Henry Kissinger, but his recent (and given that he’s 91 probably last major) book, World Order, tries to get a handle on this. What makes the world so unstable today, in Kissinger’s view, is that it is perhaps the first time in world history where we truly have “one world”, and, at the same time have multiple competing definitions over how that world should be organized. We only really began to live what can be considered a single world with the onset of the age of European expansion that mapped, conquered, and established contact, with every region on the earth. Especially from the 1800’s to the end of World War II world order was defined by the European system of balance of power, and, I might add, the shared dominant, Western culture these nations protelytized. After 1945 you have the Cold War with the world order defined by the bipolar split between the US and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, for a good few decades, world order was an American affair.

It was during this last period of time, when the US and neo-liberal globalization were at their apex, that the Internet became a global thing, a planetary network connecting all of humanity together into something like Marshal Mcluhan’s “global village.” Yet this new realm couldn’t really exist as something disconnected from underlying geopolitical and economic currents forever. An empire secure in its hegemony doesn’t seek to turn its communication system into a global spying tool or weaponize it, both of which the US have done. If the US could treat the global network or the related global financial system as tools for parochial nationalist ends then other countries would seek to do the same- and they have. Rather than becoming Chardin’s noosphere the Internet has become another theater of war for states, terrorist and criminal networks and companies.

What exactly these entities were that competed with one another across what we once called “cyberspace”, and what goals they had, were not really technological questions at all, but born from the ancient realities of history, geography and the contest for resources and wealth. Rather than one modernity we have several competing versions even if all of them are based on the same technological foundations.

Non-western countries had once felt compelled to copy the West’s cultural features as the price for modernity, and we should not forget the main reason that modernization was pursued despite it upheavals was to develop to a level where they could defend themselves against the West and its technological superiority. As Samuel Huntington pointed out in the 1990’s, now that the West had fallen from the apex of its power other countries were free to pursue modernity on their own terms. His model of a “clash of civilizations” was simplistic, but it was not, as some critics claimed, “racists”. Indeed if we had listened to Huntington we would never have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet civilization is not quite the right term. Better, perhaps, political cultures with different ideas regarding political order along with a panorama of non-state actors old and new. What we have is a contest between different political cultures,concepts of order, and contests for raw power, all unfolding in the context of a technologically unified world.

The US continues to pursue its ideological foreign policy with deep roots in its history, but China has revived its own much deeper history of being the center of East Asia as well. Meanwhile, the Middle East, where most states were historical fictions created by European imperialists power in the wake of World War I with the Sykes-Picot agreement, has imploded and what’s replaced the defunct nation-state is a millenium old conflict between the two major branches of Islam. Russia at the same moment pursues old czarists dreams long thought as dead and encrypted as Lenin’s corpse.

That’s the world order, perhaps better world disorder, that Kissinger sees, and when you add to it the fact that the our global networks are vectors not just for these conflicts between states and cultures, but between criminals and corporations it can look quite scary. On the Internet we’ve become the “next door neighbor” not just of interesting people from all the world’s cultures, but to scam artists, and electronic burglars, spies and creeps.

Various attempts have been made to come up with a theory that would describe our current geopolitical situation. There have been the Fukuyama’s victory of liberal democracy in his “end of history” thesis, and Huntington’s clash of civilizations. There have been arguments that the nation-state is dead and that we are resurrecting a pre-Westphalian “neo-medieval” order where the main story isn’t the struggle between states but international groups, especially corporations. There are those who argue that city-states and empires are the political units not only of the distant past, but of the future. All of these and their many fellow theories, including still vibrant marxists and revived anarchists takes on events have a grain of truth to them, but always seem to come up short in capturing the full complexity of the moment.

Perhaps the problem we encounter when trying to understand our era is that it truly is sui generis. We have quite simply never existed in a world where the connective tissue, the networks that facilitate the exchange of goods, money, ideas, culture was global but where the underlying civilization and political and social history and condition was radically different.

Looking for a historical analog might be a mistake. Like the early European imperialists who dressed themselves up in togas and re-discovered the doric column, every culture in this big global knot of interconnections we’ve managed to tie all of humankind within are blinded by their history into giving a false order to the labyrinth.

Then again, maybe its the case that what digital technologies are really good at is destroying the distinction between the past and the future, just as the Internet is the most powerful means we have yet discovered for bringing together like- minded regardless of their separation in space.  Political order, after all, is nothing but a reflection of the type of world groups of human beings wish to reify. Some groups get these imagined worlds from the past and some from imagined futures, but the stability of none can never be assured now as all are exposed to reality of other worlds outside their borders. A transhumanist and member of ISIS encountering one another would be something akin to the meeting of time travelers from past and future.

This goes beyond the political. Take any cultural group you like, from steampunk aficionados to constitutional literalists, and what you have are people trying to make an overly complex present understandable by refashioning it in the form of an imagined past. Sometimes people even try to get a grip on the present by recasting it in the form of an imagined future. There is the “march of progress” which assumes we are headed for a destination in time, or science-fiction, which give us worlds more graspable than the present because the worlds presented there have a shape that our real world lacks.

It might be the case that there has never been a shape to humanity or our communities at any time in the past. Perhaps future historians will make the same mistake we have and project their simplifications on our world which was their formless past. We know better.