Saturday, December 01, 2007

Descending into anarchy

I am giving a broad lecture on the Second World War this week, and as always that sets me thinking about the world that war created, the way my entire (and subsequent) generations have benefited from it, and the issue of whether its legacy might finally be lost along with the generation that lived through it with young adults. As I have noted here before, the 2000s are looking more and more like the late 1920s and early 1930s in many respects, and two small, relatively unnoticed events this week have set off some alarm bells in my unconscious.

The extraordinary achievement of the Second World War, in retrospect, was to bring nearly the entirely industrialized world into a single community led (but not really dominated) by the United States. After a century without a general war (1815-1914), nationalism and imperialism had wreaked havoc in Europe and Asia and had drawn in the United States for the next thirty years. True, the war ended with another totalitarian movement, Soviet Communism, controlling Europe westward to central Germany, and a Communist revolution in China soon followed. The East-West confrontation generated tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, huge armed alliances, two medium sized Asian wars, and countless smaller conflicts and civil wars, but the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States, who remembered the tens of millions who had died during their youth, ultimately kept the peace. That more than anything else allowed my generation in its youth to focus upon other areas of life—especially, in the U.S., after the end of the Vietnam War—and to improve its quality, if not its politics.

In the 1920s Europe and the world were reeling from the First World War and truly attempting to lay the foundation for a lasting peace. A host of theoretically democratic states emerged from the ruins of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Thanks in part to Woodrow Wilson, the Versailles Treaty specified that the disarmament of Germany and its allies was only the first step towards general disarmament, and the British in particular wanted to carry that mandate out. The major naval powers signed naval limitation treaties in 1922 and 1930, and, after unfortunate delays, started working on land and air disarmament as well in Geneva in 1932. By that time, however, the Depression was putting increasing pressure on elected governments, especially in Germany. Hitler took power in 1933 and the disarmament talks collapsed a year later when the French government refused to allow the Germans to increase their army from 100,000 men to 300,000. One democratic government after another fell to some form of authoritarian rule, beginning with Italy in 1922 and continuing through Germany in 1933 and nearly all of eastern Europe by the late 1930s. On the other side of the globe, Japan, which since 1867 had carefully watched its relations with the major western powers, seized Manchuria in 1931 and left the League of Nations a year later. Hitler finally tossed away the Versailles Treaty in 1935 and 1936, building an air force (heretofore prohibited) and remilitarizing the Rhineland. He then set about dismantling the postwar settlement in Eastern Europe as a first step towards the conquest of the Soviet Union.

Disarmament was once again an official priority of the victorious coalition in the Second World War, and both the United States and the Soviets demobilized most or much of their armies in the years after that conflict. The United States also proposed the international control and eventual abolition of atomic weapons, but Stalin preferred to build his own. After the Korean War both sides built up again in preparation for the war in Central Europe that never came, and the nuclear arms race began. But the 1963 Test Ban Treaty was a serious step to control atomic weapons, and the 1969 non-proliferation treaty followed. As I have noted many times, that treaty commits those signatories who do not have nuclear weapons not to seek them, and commits the nuclear powers eventually to get rid of them.

The first SALT Treaty followed only three years later but immediately became a principal target of the emerging neoconservative movement. Arms control, to them, implied that we could trust the Soviets not to unleash a general war—a view that both ideologues like Richard Perle and politicians like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush totally rejected. Only superiority and the willingness to use it if necessary, they believed, could guarantee our superiority. But when Gorbachev gave clear evidence of a new direction in Soviet policy, Reagan (led by George Schultz) resumed arms control, at least in Europe. We have forgotten—and Arthur Schlesinger’s journals provide us with a reminder—how many neoconservatives opposed that change right up until 1991, when Gorbachev barely survived a coup attempt.

The post-cold war era of the 1990s looks a lot like the 1920s now, even though it was a much more prosperous economic era. Every major power drastically cut back its military forces. The United Nations in 1990-1 actually did what it was meant to do, undoing Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. Russia seemed ready to join the western family of nations. But neoconservatives—a presence in the first Bush Administration, and increasingly the dominant foreign policy element in the Republican Party during the 1990s—had no faith or interest in a world ruled by law and general agreement among nation states. The United States, Paul Wolfowitz wrote in 1992, should take advantage of this moment to establish complete, permanent military supremacy and establish its will all over the world. It should also continue the development of missile defense, even at the cost of the ABM Treaty of 1972, the work of those unreliable d├ętentistes, Nixon and Kissinger.

The selection of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court and 9/11 gave the neocons—of whom the President was now clearly one—their chance. Only the naked application of American power in defiance of any restraints, they believed, could solve this new problem (even though no sane person could possibly compare the threat of Islamic terrorists to those posed by the Nazis, the Japanese in the 1930s, or the Soviet and Chinese Communists.) In 2003 the United States defied the majority of the United Nations, which we had so proudly created, and invaded Iraq. That invasion now reminds me more and more of the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. First, both powers claimed, in effect, to be restoring order to a troubled region (and both made false claims.) Secondly, both defied the existing world organization and world opinion. And last but hardly least, both conflicts had the power to trigger broader ones. Manchuria lead six years later to the Sino-Japanese war, while our presence in Iraq, which the Administration now wants to make permanent, threatens to lead to war with Iran.

So what were the two events of last week that brought this whole pattern into sharper focus? First, Russian President Putin—who has restored authoritarian rule to Russia and is publicly rehabilitating the Soviet period—signed a law allowing him to disregard the Conventional Forces Treaty of 1990, which had assured all Europe against a new war.. He did so in response to the Administration’s denunciation of the ABM Treaty and its insistence upon putting missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. In the short run this has no particular significance—Russia’s army today probably isn’t all that much stronger than Hitler’s in 1936. But as another step away from the dream of a secure Europe in which all respect one another’s interests, it may loom much larger in years to come. Belarus is already very close to resuming its status as a Soviet satellite, and the Russians have intervened frequently in the politics of Ukraine. We cannot tell where all this will end, but we must note that another major power has joined the United States in tearing down the structure of peace that the two sides worked so hard to create.

And on the same day—Friday—it emerged that China has now rejected two U.S. requests to have naval vessels make port calls in Hong Kong, as they have frequently done in recent years. The Chinese made no public announcement, but “sources” say they are unhappy about the American government’s decision to honor the Dalai Lama (the kind of slap in the face to foreign governments that neocons always love) and unspecified arms sales to Taiwan. Dana Perino at the White House got a question about this in a briefing yesterday. Here is her response:

“No, I -- what I'm expressing is what the President believes, which is that we have lots of different areas of cooperation with China. We have a complicated relationship in some regards. We're two big countries. We have lots of issues regarding trade; we're working with them on a variety of issues at the U.N., including the issues regarding Iran; we have military-to-military exchanges that we're working towards. And this relationship is growing and maturing, and this is something that two nations should be able to work through, and I don't think escalating it everyday is necessary. We've asked for a clarification and we have a -- we are communicating with them both from here and also at DOD; they're talking to their counterparts as well.”

She got no question about the Russian move.

Historically, world order (and often, domestic order) has often been established with the help of a massive exertion of force. (That is simply another way of restating the idea of a crisis every 80 years—even though some such crises do not involve widespread violence.) Those explosions put an end to anarchy and can create as many as six decades of stability. That is what the Second World War did; but it also proved (especially at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that the world could not afford to go through another conflict like that one. I am very concerned at how little of the American political class seems to understand this, and appalled that this time, my own government has taken the lead in tearing down the structures that our parents bequeathed to us.


RoseCovered Glasses said...

Well written.

The world is so tightly wired and moving at such warp speed in communications, technology and dangerous weapons that it is extremely difficult to know when tyranny is sprouting because we get overwhelmed with the details and ignore the trends.

Tyranny sprouts within massive beaurocratic organizations that imbed themselves in economies and assume a life of their own. These organizations become entrenched and difficult to change because they are wired to so much of economic and public life (a defense company in every state, a pork project tacked onto a defense appropriation.

We target our elected officials as figureheads for our frustration, when in fact the real culprit is a big, faceless machine grinding onward, never changing, because we (the citizenry and the politician) will not bite the bullet and dismantle it. It finally collapses of its own weight.

Some who analyze tyranny believe the best way to avoid it is to avoid violations of the constitution. That is a bit simplistic in our era. The conundrum is detecting complex circumstances with the potential to become violations of the constitution before they become horror stories like Iraq and do something about them IN ADVANCE.

As students of history we know much of what we are experiencing today in war and politics is tied to human nature. I believe the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) must collapse before that brand of tyranny changes.

A new brand of politics and accountability must then emerge, one that will deal from within when organizations such as the MIC self-destruct catastrophically from greed and avarice. The big issue after such events will be: "What do we put in the place of such beaurocracies gone afoul to manage something as important and expensive as our national defense?"

The US political system classically appoints a blue ribbon panel to study such problems spread the blame and write a detailed report no one reads. We must do better then that in the future. The impending trauma will not permit it.

Anonymous said...


In stock markets, we reckon on a 20 year cycle. Careers are short, so those who are running financial services businesses, typically have retired/ moved on about every 20 years or so.

Most of the young fund managers now (say, aged 35) don't remember what a real bear market is (the period 1968-1980, when the Dow oscillated between 600 and 1000, and adjusted for inflation, fell by 60%). Agreed that's longer than 20 years, but 1987 is, indeed, 20 years ago. So we have a cult of equities, and the costs of innovation in finance (in the 1980s, it was junk bonds) have yet to be fully measured.

The turnover on the 'sell side' (investment banking, stock broking etc. ie businesses that sell ideas and products, rather than make investments), is much faster-- you don't meet a lot of brokers over 40.

I suspect something similar in political elites. The brains that made the mistakes of Vietnam, like Robert Macnamara, are just about dead or gone-- and no one is listening to him. Ditto the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is no longer an institutional memory of the mistakes of Vietnam. Those officers, intelligence analysts and diplomats have retired.

Cheney, Rumsfeld et al formed their view of international institutions in the 1970s, when the US seemed to be a whipping boy, defeated after Vietnam and domestically divided, and the prevalent policy was Kissinger's neo-realism about limits to US power and influence.

Confronted with a post-millennial world where the dangers are of non-state actors obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and of chaos spilling across borders (see the Horn of Africa and Darfur, also the Congo, the Balkans, and the Turkish-Kurdish-Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi pile on (not to mention Lebanon and Hamas)) their intellectual conception and understanding proved inadequate.

Their response to 9-11 was to attack a quasi non-state (Afghanistan) and a totalitarian state (Saddam Hussein and Iraq). One felt (in the case of the latter) like one was watching Charlie Brown try to kick Lucy's ball, yet again. Both of those missions appear to be failing.

So the institutions of international regulation and negotiation (see the Kyoto Treaty) are discarded as inconvenient. And once again, the world becomes a steadily more dangerous place.

When you say '80 year crisis' though, I think you mean longer? I am thinking of the European Crisis of Revolutionary France (1789-1815) which was followed by 99 years of peace, then a 20 year ceasefire (if you weren't Spanish, Ethiopian, Chinese) and then Gotterdammerung with 50 million people dead and Europe smashed into pieces and 20 million permanent refugees (I'm not counting the Chinese and Japanese war dead, or the Bengalis dead in the famine, in that number).

I suppose before 1789 the preceding European crisis was the 30 years war (1619-1648 if you count the English Civil War)?

My own thought is that the existential crises which confront us are:

- proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable states, which may lead to their possession by terorrist groups, and the continued risk of accidental nuclear war between the US and other 'nuclear club' states, due to the known proclivities of complex systems to fail (see Charles Perrow 'Normal Accidents' and also Scott Sagan's book on nuclear weapons safety) and the retained stance of 'launch on warning' ie in advance of physical proof of a nuclear attack. We've just learned, for example, that British Trident nuclear submarine commanders have autonomous permission to fire their missiles.

Interestingly, Frederick Kagan, author of 'the Surge' is now peddling a scenario where the US acts to seize the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and spirit it out of the country. As if the Pakistanis would allow that to take place.

- global warming, where quite deliberately, the known positive feedback loops (declining Arctic Albedo, methane release from permafrost, self perpetuating rainforest die-off etc.) have been deliberately excluded from the IPCC forecasts, because of scientific uncertainty and/ or a political desire to be less alarmist.

Faced with these challenges, both of which require complex international cooperation, trust and tradeoffs to tackle, the neoconservative world view is as relevant as the one that holds that Britain's main enemy, now, is France.


David Kaiser said...

Dear Valuethinker,

You raise a great many interesting questions and provide some interesting data about the financial world. Please email me (the address should be here) and we can continue the discussion. (Perhaps we know each other but I don't recognize your handle.)


David A. Andelman said...

If you are giving a broad lecture on the origins of the Second World War and are mentioning (as you quite rightly point out) Versailles as a critical point of departure, you may be interested in citing my new book, "A Sattered Peace: Versailles 1919 ad the Price We Pay Today" [ ], just published by Wiley !
David A. Andelman

Anonymous said...


Apologies, I am being dense, I can't seem to unearth an email for you either here or via google.

I am at

lbsgrad2003 (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk

I have other incarnations and may indeed have emailed you in my time (I've sung your praises on such diverse places as and the SF blog 'Making Light').

But that's as good a one as any.


HoosierDaddy said...

The Chinese have now refused permission for a resupply flight to the US consulate in Hong Kong. We certainly are living in interesting times.

Really Iraq, if you squint a little, is not too far removed from the conditions that set off both World Wars in Europe. We have "national identities" that do not correspond to national borders. There is a bit of a power vacuum. The US and Israel are both diminished and distracted (though they and we are probably sronger than the Austrian-Hungarians or the Ottomans). Only this time a lot of the big (and not so big) powers are packing nukes.

Boy howdy, between all the different calamities bearing down this looks like an interesting "turning". We've got the twin wars, peak oil, the economy, the worldwide demographic rollover as the boomers and their contemporaries around the world begin to transition from production to consumption.

Anonymous said...

David K.

I read your article with some interest.

My general thoughts:

- I don't know enough about the micro-history of the different nations to say whether an 80 year crisis is the right periodicity.

I am sure from the perspective of say, 1871, with Europe's 2 largest powers in the middle of a brutal war (Prussia and France) that looked like a crisis.

Conversely from our perspective now, Crimea, Franco-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, Balkan wars etc. look like simply a prelude to the 2-phased apocalypse which was WWI and its encore, WWII. Even pushing those latter to together is controversial, but I think will be seen as normal 100 years from now.

In fact, if we had gone on to fight 'the Big One' with the Russians over Western Europe, WWI,II and III would simply have been seen as the American wars in Europe in the 20th century, by whoever survived. And also, probably, the end of Europe-- we'd talk about Europe in the same tone as we talk about the 13th Century West African Empires, or the Incans and the Aztecs.

- I'm cautious about associating generational characteristics into the 4 categorisations. It seems a unifying framework that has to be stretched to make it fit.

The reality is each generation meets and faces new challenges. Ours are global warming, non-statal terrorism (hardly new, but the late 19th century anarchists didn't have access to Semtex or airliners or the potential for nuclear weapons), environmental collapse in the Third World, and the perpetual crisis in the Middle East arising from our dependence on oil from those countries, and the rise of the nation state of Israel. (not that without Israel, they wouldn't be killing each other, but without Israel and without oil, the West would care less).

I'm not sure we can generically characterise different generations into the 4 suggested groupings. Each generation throws up radical leaders (FDR, Churchill, Hitler) and conservative ones (Hoover, Chamberlain, the leaders of the Weimar state). Bush I suspect will be seen as a failed radical leader, although if Iraq is somehow stabilised, then, like Harry S. Truman (and domestically, to some extent, Lyndon Johnson), he will be rehabilitated.

- I do think generational learning is important, and the lack of it. The recent book '31 Days' about the first 31 days of Gerry Ford's presidency, makes clear how much Rumsfeld and Cheney were shaped by their experiences there of diminished US and presidential power. Much of the Bush II administration has been about reshaping the Executive role, based on their experiences.

Conversely Colin Powell, stuck executing the bankrupt military and political policies of a morally bankrupt government, on the ground in Vietnam, learned different lessons.

Whereas the previous generation of (largely Democrat) decision makers had the learning from the terrible mistakes made in Vietnam, and the near nuclear catastrophe of the Cuban Missile Crisis, (of which they originally learned the wrong lessons, ie they were emboldened to press the Soviet Union across the world), the Bush Administration didn't have that experience-- they had the triumphalism of the Reagan era (which in turn drew its Cabinet-level experience from WWII, hence Caspar Weinberger's Anglo-Centrism during the Falklands War, and Casey's covert adventurism in Central America, a legacy of his time in the OSS during WWII).

- on a minor point, I would say the Baby Boom, demographically, is dated 1945-1963 in the US. In Canada, 1946-64. The reasons being US troops were shipped back home sooner (enough of them, partly in anticipation of the invasion of Japan) and the Pill went on sale in the US 9 months before it did so in Canada. It was at that moment that the birth rate, which was already falling, staged its most significant drop.

The big split in the Baby Boom is the 1956 pre and post. Those born 1956 and earlier lived in the moment when a very conservative (socially) America flowered into rock music, drugs, hippies, and the active resistance to the Vietnam War. Those born 1956 or later arrived into a much more difficult economic environment, and conversely the social battles had already been won or were being won.

There are distinctly different attitudes between the 2 groups. The post 1956 'rainshadow' Boomers are politically much more conservative, more economically focused, and generally less liberal.


Anonymous said...

On the Baby Boom, the best book I have read (although distorted by its efforts to give 'recommendations' to business and its author's own politico-economic agenda) is

'Boom, Bust and Echo' by David Foot (published in Canada).

Much of what Foot predicted (eg the regeneration of downtowns) when this book first came out has, indeed, come true.


Anonymous said...

Thinking about my comments re 'the American wars in Europe' I was suddenly struck by the fact that the Vietnamese refer to the 'Vietnam War' as 'the American War', pointing out (correctly) that it was merely part of a much longer struggle against France (and indeed against the Chinese).

Maybe future historians will refer to the 20th century as the era of 'the Russo-German wars'. Or the liberation of Poland wars. That would be a fairer balance of what actually happened.

I've always felt the European Union was a creation of French military strategy: a political attempt to prevent Germany from ever threatening France again, as France knew (and knows) that it cannot win a war with Germany: having lost in 1870-71, effectively lost in 1914-18 and lost in 1940.


Anonymous said...

On Valuethinker: Since the end of WW II there have been no issues between France and Germany. Germany gave up Alsace and France long ago gave up its claim on the Rhineland. The EU is the latest avatar of the Common Market that came out of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. It was then felt that opening up the economies of France, W Germany, the Benelux and Italy made sense for business, and politically. The French military at the time was focused not on Germany but on the USSR and the crumbling colonial empire.

France lost to Prussia/Germany in 1814-15, 1871 anD 1940 -- not in WWI, a Pyrrhic win.