Waiting for World War III

The Consequences of War Paul Rubens

Everyone alive today owes their life to a man most of us have never heard of, and that I didn’t even know existed until last week. On September, 26 1983, just past mid-night, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was alerted by his satellite early warning system that an attack from an American ICBM was underway. Normal protocol should have resulted in Petrov giving the order to fire Russian missiles at the US in response. Petrov instead did nothing, unable to explain to himself why the US would launch only one missile rather than a massive first strike in the hope of knocking out Russia’s capacity to retaliate. Then, something that made greater sense- more missiles appeared on Petrov’s radar screen, yet he continued to do nothing. And then more. He refused to give the order to fire, and he waited, and waited.

No news ever came in that night of the devastation of Soviet cities and military installations due to the detonation of American nuclear warheads, because, as we know, there never was such an attack. What Petrov had seen was a computer error, an electronic mirage, and we are here, thank God, because he believed in the feelings in his gut over the data illusion on his screen.

That is the story as told by Christopher Coker in his book Warrior Geeks: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Fight and Think About War. More on that book another time, but now to myself. During the same time Petrov was saving us through morally induced paralysis I was a budding cold warrior, a passionate supporter of Ronald Reagan and his massive defense buildup. I had drawn up detailed war scenarios calculating precisely the relative strengths of the two opposing power blocs, was a resident expert in Soviet history and geography. I sincerely thought World War Three was inevitable in my lifetime. I was 11 years old.

Anyone even slightly younger than me has no memory of living in a world where you went to sleep never certain we wouldn’t blow the whole thing up over night. I was a weird kid, as I am a weird adult, and no doubt hypersensitive to the panic induced by too close a relationship with modern media. Yet, if the conversations I have had with people in my age group over the course of my lifetime are any indication, I was not totally alone in my weirdness. Other kids too would hear jets rumbling overhead at night and wonder if the sounds were missiles coming to put an end to us all, were haunted by movies like The Day After or inspired by Red Dawn. Other kids staged wars in their neighborhoods fighting against “robot”like Russians.

During the early 1980’s world war wasn’t something stuck in a black and white movie, but a brutal and epic thing our grandfathers told us about, that some of our teachers had fought in. A reality that, with the end of detente and in light of the heated rhetoric of the Reagan years, felt as much part of the future as part of the past. It was not just a future of our imaginations, and being saved by Stanislav Petrov wasn’t the only time we dodged the bullet in those tense years.

Whatever the fear brought on by 9-11, this anxiety that we might just be fool enough to completely blow up our own world is long gone. The last twenty three years since the fall of the Soviet Union have been, in this sense, some of the most blessed in human history, a time when the prospect of the big powers pulverizing each other to death has receded from the realm of possibility. I am starting to fear its absence cannot last.

Perhaps it’s Russian aggression against Ukraine that has revived my pre-teen anxieties, it’s seizure of Crimea, veiled threats to conquer the Russophone eastern regions of the country, Putin’s jingoistic speech before the Kremlin. Of course, of course, I don’t think world war will come from the crisis in Ukraine now matter how bad it gets there. Rather, I am afraid we were wrong to write the possibility of war between the big powers out of human history permanently. That one of these times, and when we do not expect it, 10 years or 20 years or 100 years from now one of these dust ups will result in actual clashes between the armed forces of the big powers, a dangerous game that the longer we played it would hold the real risk of ending in the very nightmare we had avoided the night Petrov refused to fire.

Disputes over which the big powers might come to blows are not hard to come up with. There is China’s dispute with Japan, the Philippines, other, and ultimately the United States, over islands in the Pacific, there is the lingering desire for China to incorporate Taiwan, there is the legacy conflict on the Korean peninsula, clashes between India and China, disputes over resources and trade routes through an arctic opened up by global warming, or possible future fights over unilateral geoengineering. Then there are frictions largely unanticipated , as we now see, Russia’s panic induced aggression against Ukraine which brings it back into collision with NATO.

Still, precise predictions about the future is a game for fools. Hell, I can still remember when “experts” in all seriousness predicted a coming American war with Japan. I am aiming, rather, for something more general.   The danger I see is that the big powers start to engage in increasingly risky behavior precisely because they think world war is now impossible. That all of us will have concluded that limited and lukewarm retaliation is the only rational response to aggression given that the existential stakes are gone. As a foolish eleven year old I saw the risk of global catastrophe worth taking if the alternative was totalitarian chains. I am an adult now, hopefully much wiser, and with children of my own, whose lives I would not risk to save Ukraine from dismemberment along ethnic/linguistic lines or to stop China from asserting its rising power in the Pacific. I am certainly not alone in this, but fear such sanity will make me party to an avalanche. That the decline of the fear that states may go too far in aggressive action may lead them to go so far they accidentally spark a scale of war we have deemed inconceivable.

My current war pessimism over the long term might also stem from the year I am in, 2014, a solemn centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Back when I was in high school, World War I was presented with an air of tragic determinism. It was preordained, or so we were taught, the product of an unstable system alliance system, growing nationalism and imperialism. It was a war that was in some sense “wanted” by those who had fought it. Historians today have called this determinism into question. Christopher Clark in his massive The Sleepwalkers details just how important human mistakes and misperceptions were to the outbreak of the war, the degree to which opportunities to escape the tragedy were squandered because no one knew just how enormous the tragedy they were unleashing would become.

Another historian, Holger Afflerbach, in his essay The Topos of Improbable War in Europe Before 1914 shows how few were the voices in Europe that expected a continental or world war. Even the German military that wanted conflict was more afraid until the war broke out, and did not end quickly, that conflict would be averted at the last minute rather than stopped. The very certainty that a world war could not be fought, it part because of the belief that modern weapons had become too terrible, led to risk taking and refusal to compromise, which made such a war more likely as the crisis that began with the assassination of Archduke Fransferdinad unfolded.

If World War II can be considered an attempt by the aggrieved side to re-fight the First World War, what followed  Japan’s surrender was very different, a difference perhaps largely due to one element- the presence of nuclear weapons. What dissuaded big states in the Cold War era from directly fighting one another was likelihood that the potential costs of doing so were too high relative to the benefits that would accrue from any victory. The cost in a nuclear age was destruction itself.

Yet, for those costs to be an effective deterrent the threat of their use had to be real. Both sides justified their possible suicide in a nuclear holocaust on the grounds that they were engaged in a Manichean struggle where the total victory of the opposing side was presented as being in some sense worse than the destruction of the world itself. Yes, I know this was crazy, yet, by some miracle, we’re still here, and whether largely despite of or because of this insanity we cannot truly know.

Still, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps I should not be so uncertain over the reason why there have been no wars between the big powers in the modern era, perhaps my anxiety that the real threat of nuclear annihilation might have been responsible is just my eleven year old self coming back to haunt me. It’s just possible that nuclear weapons had nothing to do with the long peace between great powers. Some have argued that there were other reasons big states have seemingly stopped fighting other big states since the end of World War II, that what changed were not so much weapons but norms regarding war. Steven Pinker most famously makes this case in his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

Sadly, I have my doubts regarding Pinker’s argument. Here’s me from an earlier piece:

His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

I am sure you have noticed that Ukraine is on that list. Had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons it is almost certain that it would not have seen Crimea seized by the Russians, or find itself facing the threat by Moscow to split the country in two.

A little more on Pinker: he spends a good part of his over 800 page book showing us just how savagely violent human societies were in the past. Tribal societies had homicide rates that rival or exceed the worst inner cities. Human are natural Hobbesians given to “a war of all against all”, but, in his view we have been socialized out of such violence, and not just as individuals, but in terms of states.

Pinker’s idea of original human societies being so violent and civilization as a kind of domestication of mankind away from this violence left me with many unanswered questions. If we were indeed so naturally violent how or why did we establish societies in the first place? Contrary to his claim, didn’t the institutionalization of violence in the form of war between states actually make our situation worse? How could so many of us cringe from violence at even a very early age, if we were naturally wired to be killers?

I couldn’t resolve any of these questions until I had read Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. What Pagel showed is that most of us are indeed naturally “wired” to be repulsed by violence the problem is this repulsion has a very sensitive off switch. The way it can be turned off is when our community is threatened either by those who had violated community norms, so-called moral anger, or when violence is directed towards rival groups outside of the community. In such cases we can be far more savage than the most vicious of animals with our creativity and inventiveness turned to the expression of cruelty.

Modern society is one that has cordoned off violence. We don’t have public hangings anymore and cringe at the death of civilians at the hands of our military (when we are told about them.) Yet this attitude towards violence is so new we can not reasonably expect it has become permanent.

I have no intention of picking on the Russians, and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech would have done just as well or better here, but to keep things current: Putin in his bellicose oration before the Kremlin pressed multiple sides of the Pagel’s violence “off switch”:

He presented his opponents as an evil rival “tribe”:

However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.

And called for the defense of the community and the innocent:

Let me say one other thing too. Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means. But it should be above all in Ukraine’s own interest to ensure that these people’s rights and interests are fully protected. This is the guarantee of Ukraine’s state stability and territorial integrity.

What this should show us, and Americans certainly shouldn’t need a lesson in here, is that norms against violence (though violence in Ukraine has so far, thankfully been low), can be easily turned off given the right circumstance. Putin, by demonizing his Ukrainian opponents, and claiming that Russia would stand in defense of the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine was rallying the Russian population for a possible escalation of violence should his conditions not be met. His speech was met with a standing ovation. It is this ease by which our instincts for violence can be turned on that suggests Pinker may have been too optimistic in thinking war was becoming a thing of the past if we are depending  on a change in norms alone.

Then there is sheer chance. Pinker’s theory of the decline of violence in general relies on Gaussian bell curves, averages over long stretches of time, but if we should have learned anything from Nassim Taleb and his black swans and the financial crisis, its the fat tails that should worry us most. The occurrence of a highly improbable event that flips our model of the world and the world itself on its head and collapses the Gaussian curve. Had Stanislav Petrov decided to fire his ICBMS rather than sit on his hands, Pinker’s decline of violence, up to that point, would have looked like statistical noise masking the movement towards the real event- an unprecedented expression of human violence that would have killed the majority of the human race.

Like major financial crises that happen once in a century, or natural disasters that appear over longer stretches of time, anything we’ve once experienced can happen again with the probability of recurrence often growing over time.  If human decision making is the primary factor involved, as it is in economic crises and war, the probability of such occurrences may increase as the generation whose errors in judgement brought on the economic crisis or war recedes from the scene taking their acquired wisdom and caution with them.

And we are losing sight of this possibility. Among military theorists rather than defense contractors, Colin S. Grey is one of an extreme minority trying to remind us the war between the big powers is not impossible as he writes in Another Bloody Century

If we, grant with some reservations, that there is a trend away from interstate warfare, there hovers in the background the thought that this is a trend that might be reversed abruptly. No country that is a significant player in international security, not least the United States, has yet reorganized and transformed its regular military establishment to reflect the apparent demise  of ‘old’ (interstate wars and the rise of new ones.

Grey, for one, does not think that we’ll see a replay of 20th century world wars with massive, industrial armies fighting it out on land and sea. The technology today is simply far too different than it was in the first half of the last century. War has evolved and is evolving into something very different, but interstate war will likely return.

We might not see the recurrence of world war but merely skirmishes between the big powers. This would be more of a return to normalcy than anything else. World wars, involving the whole of society, especially civilians, are a very modern phenomenon dating perhaps no earlier than the French Revolution. In itself a return to direct clashes between the big powers would be very bad, but not so bad as slippage into something much worse, something that might happen because escalation had gone beyond the point of control.

The evolution of 21st century war may make such great power skirmishes more likely. Cyber-attacks have, so far at least, come with little real world consequences for the attacking country. As was the case with the German officer corps in World War I, professional soldiers, who have replaced draftees and individuals seeking a way out of poverty as the basis of modern militaries seem likely more eager to fight so as to display their skills, and may in time be neurologically re-engineered so as to deal with the stresses of combat. It is at least conceivable that professional soldiers might be the first class to have full legal access to technological and biological enhancements being made possible by advances in prosthetics, mind-computer interfaces and neuroscience.

Governments as well as publics may become more willing to engage in direct conflict as relatively inexpensive and expendable drones and robots replace airmen and soldiers. Ever more of warfighting might come to resemble a videogame with soldiers located far from the battlefield.  Both war and the international environment in which wars are waged has evolved and is evolving into something very unlike that which we have experienced since the end of the Cold War. The father out it comes the more likely that the next big war will be a transhumanist or post-human version of war, and there are things we can do now that might help us avoid it- subjects I will turn to in the near future.

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Welcome to the New Age of Revolution

Fall of the Bastille

Last week the prime minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, resigned under pressure from a series of intense riots that had spread from Kiev to the rest of the country. Photographs from the riots in The Atlantic blew my mind, like something out of a dystopian steampunk flic. Many of the rioters were dressed in gas masks that looked as if they had been salvaged from World War I. As weapons they wielded homemade swords, molotov cocktails, and fireworks. To protect their heads some wore kitchen pots and spaghetti strainers.

The protestors were met by riot police in hypermodern black suits of armor, armed with truncheons, tear gas, and shotguns, not all of them firing only rubber bullets. Orthodox priests with crosses and icons in their hands, sometimes placed themselves perilously between the rioters and the police, hoping to bring calm to a situation that was spinning out of control.

Even for Ukraine, it was cold during the weeks of the riots. A situation that caused the blasts from water cannons used by the police to crystalize shortly after contact. The detritus of protesters covered in sheets of ice like they had be shot with some kind of high tech freeze gun.

Students of mine from the Ukraine were largely in sympathy with the protestors, but feared civil war unless something changed quickly. The protests had been brought on by a backdoor deal with Russia to walk away from talks aimed at Ukraine joining the European Union. Protests over that agreement led to the passage of an anti-protest law that only further inflamed the rioters. The resignation of the Russophile prime minister  seemed to calm the situation for a time, but with the return of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych  to work (he was supposedly ill during the heaviest of the protests) the situation has once again become volatile. It was Yanukovych who was responsible  for cutting the deal with Russia and pushing through draconian limits on the freedom of assembly which had sparked the protests in the first place.

Ukraine, it seem, is a country being torn in two, a conflict born of demographics and history.  Its eastern, largely Russian speaking population looking towards Russia and its western, largely Ukrainian speaking population looking towards Europe. In this play both Russia and the West are no doubt trying to influence the outcome of events in their favor, and thus exacerbating the instability.

Yet, while such high levels of tension are new, the problem they reveal is deep in historical terms- the cultural tug of war over Ukraine between Russia and Europe, East and West, stretches at least as far back as the 14th century when western Ukraine was brought into the European cultural orbit by the Poles. Since then, and often with great brutality on the Russian side, the question of Ukrainian identity, Slavic or Western, has been negotiated and renegotiated over centuries- a question that will perhaps never be fully resolved and whose very tension may be what it actually means to be Ukrainian.

Where Ukraine goes from here is anybody’s guess, but despite its demographic and historical particularities, its recent experience adds to the growing list of mass protests that have toppled governments, or at least managed to pressure governments into reversing course, that have been occurring regularly since perhaps 2008 with riots in Greece.

I won’t compile a comprehensive list but will simply state the mass protests and riots I can cite from memory. There was the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran that was subsequently crushed by the Iranian government. There was the 2010 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia which toppled the government there and began what came to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring”. By 2011 mass protests had overthrown Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and riots had broken out in London. 2012 saw a lull in mass protests, but in 2013 they came back with a vengeance. There were massive riots in Brazil over government cutbacks for the poor combined with extravagant spending in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, there were huge riots in Turkey which shook the government of the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a military coup in the form of mass protests that toppled the democratically elected Islamist president in Egypt. Protesters in Thailand have be “occupying” the capital since early January. And now we have Ukraine.

These are just some of the protests that were widely covered in the media. Sometimes, quite large, or at least numerous protests are taking place in a country and they are barely reported in the news at all.  Between 2006-2010 there were 180,000 reported “mass incidents” in China. It seems the majority of these protests are related to local issues and not against the national government, but the PRC has been adept at keeping them free of the prying eyes of Western media.

The abortive 2009 riots in Iran that were the first to be called a “Twitter Revolution” by Western media and digerati.  The new age of revolution often explained in terms of the impact of the communications revolution, and social media. We have had time to find out that just how little a role Western, and overwhelmingly English language media platforms, such as Twitter and FaceBook, have played in this new upsurge of revolutionary energy, but that’s not the whole story.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say technology has been irrelevant in bringing about our new revolutionary era, I’d just put the finger on another technology, namely mobile phones. In 2008 the number of mobile devices had, in the space of a decade, gone from a rich world luxury into the hands of 4 billion people. By 2013, 6 billion of the world’s 7 billion people had some sort of mobile device, more people than had access to working toilets.

It is the very disjunction between the number of people able to communicate and hence act en masse and those lacking what we in the developed world consider necessities that should get our attention- a potentially explosive situation. And yet, we have known since Alexis de Tocqueville that revolutions are less the product of the poor who have always known misery than stem from a rising middle class whose ambitions have been frustrated.

Questions I would ask a visitor from the near future if I wanted to gauge the state of the world a decade or two hence would be if the rising middle class in the developing world had put down solid foundations, and if, and to what extent, it had been cut off at the legs from either the derailment of the juggernaut of the Chinese economy, rising capacity of automation, or both?

The former fear seems to be behind the recent steep declines in the financial markets where the largest blows have been suffered by developing economies. The latter is a longer term risk for developing economies, which if they do not develop quickly enough may find themselves permanently locked out of what has been the traditional development arch of capitalist economic development moving from agriculture to manufacturing to services.

Automation threatens the wage competitiveness of developing economy workers on all stages of that scale. Poor textile workers in Bangladesh competing with first world robots, Indians earning a middle class wage working at call centers or doing grunt legal or medical work increasingly in competition with more and more sophisticated ,and in the long run less expensive, bots.

Intimately related to this would be my last question for our near future time traveler; namely, does the global trend towards increasing inequality continue, increase, or dissipate? With the exception of government incompetence and corruption combined with mobile enabled youth, rising inequality appears to be the only macro trend that these revolts share, though, this must not be the dominant factor, otherwise, protests would be the largest and most frequent in the country with the fastest growing inequality- the US.

Revolutions, as in the mobilization of a group of people massive enough and active enough to actually overthrow a government are a modern phenomenon and are so for a reason. Only since the printing press and mass literacy has the net of communication been thrown wide enough where revolution, as opposed to mere riots, has become possible. The Internet and even more so mobile technology have thrown that net even further, or better deeper, with literacy no longer being necessary, and with the capacity for intergroup communication now in real time and no longer in need of or under the direction of a center- as was the case in the era of radio and television.

Technology hasn’t resulted in the “end of history”, but quite the opposite. Mobile technology appears to facilitate the formation of crowds, but what these crowds mobilize around are usually deep seated divisions which the society in which protests occur have yet to resolve or against widely unpopular decisions made over the people’s head.

For many years now we have seen this phenomenon from financial markets one of the first area to develop deep, rapidly changing interconnections based on the digital revolution. Only a few years back, democracy seemed to have come under the thumb of much more rapidly moving markets, but now, perhaps, a populist analog has emerged.

What I wonder is how the state will respond to this, or how this new trend of popular mobilization may intersect with yet another contemporary trend- mass surveillance by the state itself?

The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with his now famous concept of the “fog of war” defined as “the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.”  If one understands revolution as a kind of fever pitch exchange of information leading to action leading to exchange of information and so on, then, all revolutions in the past could be said to have taken place with all players under such a fog.

Past revolutions have only been transparent to historians. From a bird’s eye view and in hindsight scholars of the mother of all revolutions, the French, can see the effects of Jean-Paul Marat’s pamphlets and screeds inviting violence, the published speeches of the moralistic tyrant Robespierre, the plotting letters of Marie-Antoinette to the Austrians or the counter-revolutionary communique of General Lafayette. To the actors in the French Revolution itself the motivations and effects of other players were always opaque, the origin, in part, of the revolution’s paranoia and Reign of Terror which Robespierre saw as a means of unmasking conspirators and hypocrites.

With the new capacity of governments to see into communication, revolutions might be said to be becoming transparent in real time. Insecure governments that might be toppled by mass protest would seem to have an interest in developing the capacity to monitor the communication and track the movement of their citizens. Moore’s Law has made what remained an unachievable goal of total surveillance by the state relatively cheap.

During revolutionary situations foreign governments (with the US at the top of the list), may have the inclination to peer into revolutions through digital surveillance and in some cases will likely use this knowledge to interfere so as to shape outcomes in its own favor. States that are repressive towards their own people, such as China, will likewise try to use these surveillance tools to ensure revolutions never happen or to steer them toward preferred outcomes if they should occur despite best efforts.

One can only hope that the ability to see into a revolution while it is happening does not engender the illusion that we can also control its outcome, for as the riots and revolutions of the past few years have shown, moves against a government may be enabled by technology imported from outside, but the fate of such actions is decided by people on the ground who alone might be said have full responsibility for the future of the society in which revolution has occurred.

Foreign governments are engaged in a dangerous form of hubris if they think they can steer outcomes in their favor oblivious to local conditions and governments that think technology gives them a tool by which they can ignore the cries of their citizens are allowing the very basis on which they stand to rot underneath them and eventually collapse. A truth those who consider themselves part of a new global elite should heed when it comes to the issue of inequality.