2014: The Road to Peace and the Road to War

should it break out; the Third World War will resemble not the Second but the First.The Second World War was at the same time the first and the last serious (that is, with industrial weaponry) and conventional (between national forces armed and with proper insignia) total war. It left the following sequels: over 50 million dead, the end of the European world, the nuclear bomb, and a bipolar global system divided into two non-European superpowers with rival and opposed ideological and societal models.

Afterwards, the world entered the Cold War era, in which both rivals got armed to their teeth with thermonuclear equipment they didn’t want to use, since its launch guaranteed mutual destruction, and thereafter, mankind’s. Peace was holding up only due to the fear of reciprocal and collective suicide. It was a balance of terror. The only acceptable wars in such situations were indirect wars, by intermediate actors, acting as peons in a chess board.

The Cold War didn’t end with the military victory of capitalist and liberal West, but with the Soviet Union’s implosion and collapse, and the abandonment of the socialist economy by the People’s Republic of China. At that time many thought a new peace era was beginning, this time based on the compatibility of economic and political systems. Capitalism and democracy claimed to be indisputable models, as a way of living without any ¨outside¨ and therefore, as the (happy) ending of human history. At least that was the opinion of some public intellectuals, always rushing to publish a plausible opinion before analyzing the situation thoroughly.

The optimism was premature and didn’t last long. The surviving system’s domain blinded almost everyone – winners and losers – regarding the victorious capitalism’s problems and contradictions, which were: unregulated markets going haywire, growing internal and international social inequality, asymmetry between capital and labor, marginalization of large masses, financial capital’s prevalence over the production apparatus, the search for swift profit, short-term mentality, the entire system’s vulnerability to a financial crisis, the global entwining of repeated and increased crises, fictional and anemic recovery, increase of tensions, corruption in high spheres, environmental risk, metastasis of resistance and violence, and a clear tendency of government systems towards dysfunction. Far from reaching the new and fairer global order’s utopia, we are standing in front of a multipolar disarray and a new struggle between declining and ascending powers.

The geopolitical corollary is disturbing. In order to find parallelisms, we must skip the latest historical precedents (Cold War and Second World War) and go back exactly a century ago, to the global scenario between the years 1913 and 1914. The geopolitical challenge of those times was finding a pacific and consensual answer to the growing tension between an open global economy and a rising autocracy (Imperial Germany then, China and Iran today). So, same as now, mistrust between the powers increased. We all know how that story ended: in a great war, which back then everyone discarded as improbable, or in case it burst, of short duration and scarce transcendence. Four years of bloodshed and ten million dead cleansed our grandparents of their complacent suppositions. We don’t know how our own story will end, but we can still avoid making that mistake.

In the current world, the probability of an error of immeasurable consequences is as high as it was back then. In those days, the focus of instability was located in the Balkans. Now there’s at least three: the overlap of aerial defense zones between China, Japan, and South Korea, in addition to North Korea’s warmongering exploration in the same region and the active involvement of United States in defense of a weakening hegemony; in the Middle East, rivalry between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, enhanced by ethnic and religious conflicts, plus the Russian involvement; and in Southern Asia, the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. The slightest provocation on behalf of any of the actors in those regions can trigger a global conflict of gigantic consequences. In that conflict the small, medium and large will participate: United States, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, and Pakistan, just to name a few. As always, with any luck Latin America would be excluded from the main actions.

There’s a lesson to be learned from that fateful 1914, which is: we mustn’t underestimate the capacity of regional and smaller actors to involve larger actors in a multiplying war process. Two hundred years before Christ, Archimedes said: ‘Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.’ Two millenniums later, Churchill said: ‘The Balkans tends to produce more history than it can consume.’ China/Japan, Israel/Iran, India/Pakistan are levers perfectly capable of producing more history than they can consume. To this explosive series of States in tension we must add the influence of violent not-public actors (terrorist networks) that also played a detonating part in the First World War. The other lesson from that war is that everyone who took part in it –winners and losers- suffered catastrophic consequences, as the British author Norman Angell foresaw in his book The Great Illusion (1909) though he was mistaken about the corollary, since he thought that a war would be so bold no one would dare. Today we have the advantage –for those who seek to learn something from history- of excellent documentation on the series of errors, complacencies and distractions that lead to the 1914 war. Among them I highlight the recent book by Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (2013) and the older and more extensive volume by Niall Ferguson The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (1999). To stay alert, I recommend the reader to review, at least in Wikipedia, the up until then calm January of 1914 –a world that was complacent, globalized, embellished with the technological novelties of the moment, a busy and distracted world, that thought nothing strange could happen. Have a nice January of 2014, everyone.

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