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Globalisation and war

24 May 2010 08:36

Thanks to the IISS I was able to attend last week's inaugural Bahrain Global Forum, the first IISS Geo-economic Strategy Summit.

The idea of the meeting was to bring together politicians, business people, economists, strategists and others to think about how shifts in international financial and economic conditions were affecting local, regional and international relations, and to analyse the overlap between economic and strategic thinking. I think this is a good idea.


24 May 2010 13:11

Following on from my previous post about the revival of geo-economics, here are five reasons why geo-economics looks like an interesting way to think about the world:

1. The rapid geographic shift in economic weight currently underway. This transformation has been given an additional boost by the GFC and the subsequent multi-speed recovery, which has seen emerging markets significantly out-pacing their developed economy counterparts. 


27 May 2010 13:33

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.


28 May 2010 08:11

I agree with Michael Wesley that interdependence raises the costs of competition and conflict. But unlike him, I'm not sure the threshold is raised far enough to keep the world peaceful over the next few decades.

My pessimism is best explained by looking at one of the key paradoxes of the modern world. On the one hand, the bundle of trends we call 'globalisation' seems to erode the power and significance of states, because it boils down to an exponential expansion in the number and significance of international transactions of all kinds – trade, money, data, and travel. 

It seems natural that, as international transactions become more important to all of us, the nation we happen to live in becomes less important to us, and the cost to each of us of disruptions to international transactions rises sharply. It is, as Michael says, an old argument, going back beyond the Manchester School to the Enlightenment, but it has been given a new lease of life as the density of transactions has increased.


28 May 2010 10:31

Hugh White's reply to Michael Wesley's post is wide-ranging, and you should read the whole thing. But it seems to me that much of the heavy lifting in Hugh's argument is being done by this claim:

...the choices people make on the brink of war are not rational judgements of costs and benefits, but highly emotive impulses reflecting most often their sense of identity.

This sounds more like a description of how violent crime or protest happens rather than how war happens. War takes a great deal of dull and sober preparation, work that tends to dilute emotional impulses. In fairness, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could probably be cited as a counter-argument here — I tend to think emotion played a sustained role in Bush Administration decision-making, as this video illustrates.


31 May 2010 11:30

Sam thinks we might be less willing to go to war in future because we value human life more than we used to. It's a beguiling argument, because it appeals to an instinctive conviction that we are somehow wiser and better people than our ancestors. Actually, I'm a bit surprised that a staunch Oakeshottian like Sam is beguiled by such Whiggish optimism, but the argument deserves to be examined on its merits. Two points, then.

First, I'm not sure the empirical evidence, such as it is, supports the view that we value human life more now than our predecessors did. I keep on being surprised by how willing modern societies are to accept military casualties in marginal causes: consider the Canadians in Afghanistan, now with over 140 KIA. Or indeed how little the loss of 11 of our own people has weighed in thinking here about Afghanistan.


1 Jun 2010 08:36

In response to The Interpreter discussion on whether economic interdependence can lower the chances of war between states, Northeast Asia provides an interesting illustration of the extent to which mainstream security thinking has remained resistant to this perspective.

Indeed, the many realist arguments about how a continuing US military presence is, and will remain, essential to maintaining peace in the region share the common assumption that, without the US around, China, Japan, and one or both of the Koreas would soon be at each others' throats.

But try the following thought experiment...

The influence of China's increasing economic and military power on its relations with Japan, and regional security more broadly, is mostly seen as increasing competition within a shifting balance of power that will lead to military conflict at some point (the past repeats itself, realists observe).


1 Jun 2010 11:26

With regard to Sam and Hugh's exchange: in strictly monetary terms, we do value life more now than in the past, and we do so by a substantial amount. At least, this is answer given by 'value of a statistical life' calculations.

To get an idea why this is so, see this piece by Steven Landsburgh: basically, as incomes rise, so does the calculated value of life. (See also this in the NY Times.)


1 Jun 2010 13:50

Hugh White makes a very good point about the importance of factoring in emotion to our thinking about strategic affairs. In both strategy and economics, we Anglos are blinded by a rationalist bias that will become a greater and greater impediment as the Anglo world order passes.

As an aside, I've been fascinated for a long time by how deep the antipathies and rivalries are in Asia – whereas they seem to moderate with time elsewhere. I think the answer is that Chinese, Japanese, Indian and other Asian societies are fundamentally hierarchic, and their hierarchies are based around culture. The consequence is a tendency to view international affairs hierarchically.


2 Jun 2010 09:58

Like Michael Wesley, I am a great fan of Geoffrey Blainey's work on the causes of war, but I think his idea that people only decide on war when they believe they can win must be subject to two big caveats.

Caveat Number One: they do not have to rationally believe they can win. There are plenty of wars in which it is not clear at all that one side or the other rationally thought it could win. Starting with the Greeks against the Persians, via the North Vietnamese against the US, and ending with...well, the Coalition against the Taliban? And who would rationally believe that either the US or China could win a war over Taiwan? What would 'winning' mean?


4 Jun 2010 11:04

Hugh White's discussion of the balance of motivation and material strength, complete with literary flourishes (you can take the boy out of Oxford...), brings our debate back to where it all began: my point that wars of the twenty-first century will be decided not by who's better at inflicting damage, but by who's better at bearing pain.

This debate so far has focused around the question, 'why do states choose war?' It seems to me that an equally crucial question is, 'why do states choose not to go to war?'

I think two examples tell us a great deal about this. The first was China's agreement to the 1858 Treaty of Aigun with Russia, which many see as China's ultimate humiliation at the hands of foreigners. The Qing Court chose not to call Russia's rather far-fetched bluff of uniting with an Anglo-French force to enforce the treaty. The reason? They wanted to get foreigners out of Beijing as soon as they could.


8 Jun 2010 10:21

As the Interpreter has been hosting a debate on the relationship between globalisation and conflict, I thought it might be useful to take a look at what some of the empirical literature has to say on the subject. To keep it manageable, I'll focus on the links between trade and war.

To start, let's look at what conflict means for international trade. Here the empirics confirm the intuition; conflict is bad for trade (although there are exceptions). So, for example, this paper by Reuben Glick and Alan Taylor finds a very strong impact of war on trade volumes. 

It estimates that the costs of war in terms of lost trade are large, and comparable in scale to the other costs of war such loss of human life. Glick and Taylor also find that the damage to trade is persistent, so that even after a conflict ends, trade does not resume its pre-war level for many years. And they find that trade destruction also harms neutrals (a negative externality in econo-speak). 


8 Jun 2010 13:16

Having discussed the effects of conflict on trade in my previous post, what can we say about the implications of international trade for conflict?

The optimistic case for commerce reducing the likelihood of war can be traced back to Montesquieu ('peace is a natural effect of trade'), Kant ('The spirit of commerce, which is incompatible with war, sooner or later gains the upper hand in every state') and JS Mill ('It is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete'). A bit more recently, as Michael mentioned in his initial post, there is Norman Angell, who gave a great diagnosis of the material futility of war in the modern age, but was famously unlucky when he moved from analysis to prediction. 


9 Jun 2010 12:44

Michael Wesley's historical examples show that there are telling cases in which states have chosen not to go to war because the price is just too high. This supports Michael's argument that countries can and do rationally weigh the costs of war, and hence his basic thesis that, in an era of globalisation, as the costs of war increase, the likelihood that states will choose to avoid war increases. 

I completely agree. Globalisation does make war more costly and hence less likely. But does it make war so unlikely that we need do nothing more to avoid it? 

There is a temptation to believe that we don't have to make sacrifices to reduce the risk of future wars, when globalisation makes the risk negligible anyway. That temptation is strong because avoiding war is painful. It requires us to build and maintain an international order that limits strategic competition and reduces the sources of conflict, and that needs compromise on deeply-held national priorities. Such compromises are unpopular, so people will gladly accept the argument that they are unnecessary.


11 Jun 2010 09:19

Ross Buckley is a Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales.

Michael Wesley distinguishes wars of choice from wars of necessity and suggests if one is a betting person, one's money should always be on the nation fighting out of necessity. This is an important distinction (although I am sure we all hope Michael doesn't bring his gambling skills to bear in managing the endowment of the Lowy Institute).

An early and strong example is the American War of Independence.

On July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia a group of very brave men signed the Declaration of Independence. They did so knowing it was treason, knowing they would hang for it if they lost the war, knowing they had no experience in battle, no standing army, almost no gunpowder and almost no money. They did so knowing Britain had 32,000 troops on Staten Island in New York, a force larger than the population of America's largest city.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the others went to war out of necessity, for an idea that was core to their being, the United States of America. Britain chose to fight back, but victory in this war was for them never essential.


17 Jun 2010 17:34

Hugh White's point that we shouldn't be so confident about the reduced likelihood of war in the globalised age that we completely stop thinking about it and even planning for it is well taken.

But thinking seriously about war in the globalised age is important for another reason. There's a fair bit of evidence to show that policy-makers' expectations about the likelihood of war have a powerful shaping effect on the patterns and processes of international affairs from era to era.

For example, the 'cult of the offensive' – the expectation that the state which struck first and hardest would prevail in war – had a major impact on European international alignments and enmities at the turn of the 20th century, and ultimately on the onset of the First World War.