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Conflict and interdependence

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This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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27 May 2010 13:33


This post is part of the Globalisation and war debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Many thanks to Mark Thirlwell and IISS for bringing geo-economics back to the fore. To Mark's list of five reasons why geoeconomics matters, I'd like to add one more.

I think geo-economics holds the key to one of the big questions about how world politics will unfold in the 21st century. The question is whether current and future levels of economic interdependence will be a significant dampener on strategic competition and conflict.

My view is that current levels and future trends in interdependence make open conflict between industrial economies prohibitively costly. And there are fewer and fewer issues that would justify the self-harm and system-wide harm that would come from the type of conflict that would severely damage the global economy.

I'm aware that this view bears the scars of Norman Angell and the Manchester School. But 2010 isn't 1910, for four reasons:

  1. The past half-century has seen a dramatic increase in the dependence of modern and modernising economies on minerals and energy; and an equally dramatic decline in their self-sufficiency in minerals and energy. These trends will increase in future.
  2. Interdependence reaches deep within national economies and societies as well as across borders and oceans. With each passing decade, our economies and societies specialise, and more and more of what we need to survive is sourced from afar and abroad. As we become richer, we become much more vulnerable to the breakdown of the webs of interdependence we rely on – as a matter of life and death.
  3. The past 30 years has seen a dramatic internationalisation of production systems, first of manufacturing, but now increasingly of the services sector. This has led to a dispersal not only of production processes but of skills that would be costly and difficult to re-concentrate within countries.
  4. Sixty years of rising prosperity has led to a decreasing tolerance for economic pain. Think about the agony and turmoil in Europe and the US over the GFC – an event that made the American economy contract by just 4%. And it's not just the developed world — part of what keeps China together and heading in roughly the same direction is the rising tide of prosperity that's expected to lift all boats eventually.

For these four reasons, the threshold for conflict has been dramatically raised.

Perhaps the calculation of conflict has also changed. In the past, a state waged war if it believed it had a greater capacity to inflict pain than its opponent. In the future, the determinants of conflict may be states' comparative capacity to bear pain.

Photo by Flickr user wallyg, used under a Creative Commons license.

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