The New State of War

We are witnessing the emergence of a new state of war that has no precedent: mutual distrust and jockeying for position in a thoroughly interdependent world, despite the gestures of populist, nationalist, and irresponsible leaders.  The two main competitors are the US and China.  Unless they arrive at a satisfactory détente in which smaller nations are given a rightful place and voice, the likely result is chaos.

In other circumstances, one could say “Forget the Leaders and Focus on Deeper Issues and Trends.”  Today this is difficult under Donald Trump.  As leader of the (still) dominant superpower, he is the first reality-TV president.  He makes it hard to forget his antics and rants.  He constantly bombards the social media and the more traditional mass media as well.  It is all about himself and the shock value of his outrages.  All bluster and little substance, he keeps everyone on their toes.  What is lost in the Trumpian circus is attention to the big road ahead beyond the short-term needs of an electoral process that has become a caricature of democracy.  The president is no statesman but a superb showman.  He acts like a serial single-issue destroyer –what in my latest book I call an accabador.[1]  This he shares with other lesser “leaders” around the world: nationalists and reactionary populists that multiply like maggots on the corpse of an unfair globalism.  In their thirst for power they’ll do anything to keep it, violating old norms, weakening institutions, and pursuing economically risky policies to win voters’ support.  They can take their clue from the US president, who in only two years has managed to damage both the American republic (balance of power between autonomous institutions) and American democracy (always flawed, but this time turning against itself, like a scorpion).  Such “leadership” is akin to the rat catcher’s leadership of Hamelin.  Put simply, it leads to the abyss of war. 

In this article I will tackle three important questions: (1) Why have the risks of war increased?, (2) What is the nature of today’s new war (first cold, and then possibly hot), and (3) What are the prospects of third countries –and Latin America in particular—in the new bi-polar conflict that is emerging between the US and China?

I begin with a quote from a foremost sailor about the nature of competitions at sea, and then extrapolate the statement to the present geopolitical situation.

Dennis Conner is probably the most accomplished racing sailor of all times.  He won, lost, and won again the most cherished sailboat race in the world: the America’s Cup.  On his experiences he wrote:

Strategy we will define as sailing in response to

wind, weather, and current. Strategy involves decisions

aimed at getting the boat around the race course or to your

next landfall quickly without regard to other boats. […]

Tactics, on the other hand, are defined more narrowly as the

moves and countermoves you make to get ahead of other boats

when you are racing. To put this another way: Strategy has

to do primarily with the laws of nature; tactics primarily with

the laws of humans, some might say the laws of the jungle.[2]

We can extrapolate from boats to nations, and say that strategy involves decisions aimed at getting a nation to a chosen landfall (power, prosperity, and happiness as defined by its culture) in response to the social, economic, and technological currents in the world –which include the path chosen by other nations as well, and the general conditions of the globe.  Strategy has to do primarily with the objective “laws” of geopolitics.  Tactics, on the other hand, are defined more narrowly as the moves and countermoves a nation makes to get ahead of other nations. In Conner’s words, these are “the laws of the jungle.”

With the rapid erosion of the norms that have ruled globalization –flawed as it was and is—there has been a loss of strategic vision on the part of many actors.  What have remained are tactical moves and counter moves to place one’s nation first, at the expense of others and of the planet as a whole.  A game of zero-sum ensues, and this results in blindness or worse, contempt, for the pursuit of an overall win-win world order. In short, it is Hobbes’ warre:[3] the struggle of all against all.  One does not have to be an Enrico Fermi[4] to calculate the exponential increase in the probability of war among actors who elbow each other on multiple fronts.  Of all these, the two largest powers –the US and China—are on a collision course.  We are on the threshold of a new global conflict that, in the words of the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolff, can last 100 years,[5] way beyond the many colorful and irresponsible leaders of the moment.  The bigger question is whether humanity can last 100 years if the trend continues.

The new cold war, as it unfolds, is quite different from the “old” cold war between the US and the USSR with their respective allies.  The very nature of globalization means that the production and value chains are so interpenetrated that they complicate the equation in any future conflict, increasing the probability that everyone would lose.  Another factor also intervenes, namely, that military hardware, conventional and nuclear, is so dependent on cyberspace that any war, hot or cold, will take place in this invisible dimension.  Total war today is a different type of Armageddon: everything and anything can be weaponized, from outer space to one’s own home.  Life is so dependent on electronics that it will be paralyzed before shooting begins.  It is a disquieting prospect, and especially terrifying because the threat is abstract.  At the height of the nuclear age, the prospective of mutually assured destruction (MAD) in a fiery holocaust assured mutual deterrence and a peculiar kind of peace (balance of terror).  Today it is hard to convince both politicians and the public of such imminent danger, and this leads people to be cavalier about their own fate in war. [6]

Most analysts in the realm of geopolitics agree on the dilemma facing international affairs at present: will new rules of coexistence emerge so that the conflict between the superpowers is managed in a new world order, or will separate blocs emerge seeking to contain each other in mutual distrust?  In either case, the scenarios lead to my third question: What will happen with small and middle-sized nations caught in between?  In particular, what are the geopolitical prospects for Latin America?  I will explore these issues in future notes for Opinion Sur. At the moment I will venture two overall scenarios. 

The worst case scenario is one in which these countries will suffer because they become zones of proxy wars –cold and hot—to the detriment of their own peoples.  In that case, their only alternative would be to chose sides and succumb to one type of dependency or another –the lesser of two evils.  The best-case scenario is one in which a new world order emerges that gives them a rightful place and voice.  To prevent the worst even if the best is not yet in sight, a number of preconditions seem essential:

  • Countries (I have Latin America in mind) will have to pool their sovereignty into regional blocs by developing common policies on security, trade, environment, and social justice.  They could thus avoid losing their sovereignty to become mere appendages of the bigger powers.
  • Each country will have to prioritize education, scientific and technological development, and infrastructure, while mitigating social inequality at the same time.
  • Each country will have to greatly improve the quality of its leaders, with emphasis on statesmanship rather than short term and mere political gain.
  • Such leadership, if it emerges, will have to develop a new tool set of pragmatic skills in dealing with the superpowers in conflict, trading costs and benefits in negotiations with both sides on a number of issues.  They will have to excel in performing balancing acts, thus increasing the margin of geopolitical freedom.

It is a tall order, but not an impossible one.  I will elaborate on these issues in future articles.  Two things are clear: these tasks are indispensable, and the time is short.


[1] Juan E. Corradi, Strategic Impasse, London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

[2] Dennis Conner and Michael Levitt, Sail Like a Champion; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992; p.233.

[3] https://timeoutcorner.wordpress.com/2011/04/17/state-of-war-the-nightmare-of-thomas-hobbes/

[4] One of the great scientific geniuses of the 20th century, Fermi went as far as to calculate the probability of self-destruction of intelligent species in the universe.  See https://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html.  See also David N. Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age, New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[5] https://www.afr.com/news/world/asia/the-looming-100-year-us-china-conflict-20190605-p51un3

[6] For a reasonable overview see The Economist, issue of May 18, 2019.

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