The Great Pacification

Since the end of the Second World War, the major powers of the world have lived in relative peace. While there have been wars and conflicts  — Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), the Congo, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, the Iran-Iraq war, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Lebanese civil war — these have been localised and at a much smaller scale than the violence that ripped the world apart during the Second World War. The recent downward trend is clear: Many thinkers believe that this trend of pacification is unstoppable. Steven Pinker, for example, claims:

Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

While the relative decline of violence and the growth of global commerce is a cause for celebration, those who want to proclaim that the dawn of the 21st Century is the dawn of a new long-lasting era of global peace may be overly optimistic. It is possible that we are on the edge of a precipice and that this era of relative peace is merely a calm before a new global storm. Militarism and the military-industrial complex never really went away — the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. Weapons contractors are still gorging on multi-trillion dollar military spending. Let’s consider another Great Moderation — the moderation of the financial system previous to the bursting of the bubble in 2008.

One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility. Ben Bernanke (2004)

Bernanke attributed this outgrowth of macroeconomic stability to policy — that through macroeconomic engineering, governments had created a new era of financial and economic stability. Of course, Bernanke was wrong — in fact those tools of macroeconomic stabilisation were at that very moment inflating housing and securitisation bubbles, which burst in 2008 ushering in a new 1930s-style depression. It is more than possible that we are in a similar peace bubble that might soon burst. Pinker highlights some possible underlying causes for this decline in violent conflict:

The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels. We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Really? The state is the pacifying force? This is an astonishing claim. Sixty years ago, states across the world mobilised to engage in mass-killing the like of which the world had never seen — industrial slaughter of astonishing efficiency. The concentration of power in the state has at times led to more violence, not less. World War 2 left sixty million dead. Communist nations slaughtered almost 100 million in the pursuit of communism. Statism has a bloody history, and the power of the state to wage total destruction has only increased in the intervening years. Pinker continues:

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism. For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money. A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Commerce has been an extremely effective incentive toward peace. But commerce may not be enough. Globalisation and mass commerce became a reality a century ago, just prior to the first global war. The world was linked together by new technologies that made it possible to ship products cheaply from one side of the globe to the other, to communicate virtually instantaneously over huge distances, and a new culture of cosmopolitanism. Yet the world still went to war.

It is complacent to assume that interdependency will necessitate peace. The relationship between China and the United States today is superficially similar to that between Great Britain and Germany in 1914. Germany and China — the rising industrial behemoths, fiercely nationalistic and determined to establish themselves and their currencies on the world stage. Great Britain and the United States  — the overstretched global superpowers intent on retaining their primacy and reserve currency status even in spite of huge and growing debt and military overstretch.

In fact, a high degree of interdependency can breed resentment and hatred. Interconnected liabilities between nations can lead to war, as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to renege on their debts. Chinese officials have claimed to have felt that the United States is forcing them to support American deficits by buying treasuries.

Who is to say that China might not view the prize of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as worthy of transforming their giant manufacturing base into a giant war machine and writing down their treasury bonds? Who is to say that the United States might not risk antagonising Russia and China and disrupting global trade by attacking Iran? There are plenty of other potential flash-points too — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Egypt, South Africa, Georgia, Syria and more. Commerce and cosmopolitanism may have provided incentives for peace, but the Great Pacification has been built upon a bedrock of nuclear warheads. Mutually assured destruction is by far the largest force that has kept the nuclear-armed nations at peace for the past sixty seven years.

Yet can it last? Would the United States really have launched a first-strike had the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe during the Cold War, for example? If so, the global economy and population would have been devastated. If not, mutually assured destruction would have lost credibility. Mutually assured destruction can only act as a check on expansionism if it is credible. So far, no nation has really tested this credibility. Nuclear-armed powers have already engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam. How far can the limits be pushed? Would the United States launch a first-strike on China if China were to invade and occupy Taiwan and Japan, for example? Would the United States try to launch a counter-invasion? Or would they back down? Similarly, would Russia and China launch a first-strike on the United States if the United States invades and occupies Iran?

Launching a first-strike is highly unlikely in all cases — mutually assured destruction will remain an effective deterrent to nuclear war. But perhaps not to conventional war and territorial expansionism. With the world mired in the greatest economic depression since the 1930s, it becomes increasingly likely that states — especially those with high unemployment, weak growth, incompetent leadership and angry, disaffected youth —  will (just as they did during the last global depression in the 1930s) turn to expansionism, nationalism, trade war and even physical war. Already, the brittle peace between China and Japan is rupturing, and the old war rhetoric is back. These are the kinds of demonstrations that the Communist Party are now sanctioning:

And already, America and Israel are moving to attack Iran, even in spite of warnings by Chinese and Pakistani officials that this could risk global disruption. Hopefully, the threat of mutually assured destruction and the promise of commerce will continue to be an effective deterrent, and prevent any kind of global war from breaking out. Hopefully, states can work out their differences peacefully. Hopefully nations can keep war profiteers and those who advocate crisis initiation in check. Nothing would be more wonderful than the continuing spread of peace. Yet we must be guarded against complacency. Sixty years of relative peace is not the end of history.

34 thoughts on “The Great Pacification

  1. Aziz,
    Not commenting specifically on the above article but the whole
    If ound your site through max keiser. I read 10 articles this weekend and I can’t get enough. Every article is “on the money” and quite informative with balnced discussions and support to your article. After searching for years i have found a site that “says things as they are!”

    Great work and keep it up.
    And Thank You

  2. Another challenging topic! But — (always those pesky “buts”):

    1. Text omitted Korean war — UN vs. N.Korea/USSR/China.

    2. Does the graphic’s “civil” include post-revolution massacres? Genocides?

    3. Was USSR-US confrontation over Cuba a test of MAD? (USSR’s capability was limited then).

    4. Your “And already, America and Israel are moving to attack Iran” is such an exaggerated speculation that it compromises an otherwise valuable article!

    • 1/ Indeed. I didn’t forget. It falls under the same category as Vietnam.
      2/ Yes.
      3/ It was a test of MAD — and MAD succeeded — but nothing like as big a test as China invading Taiwan would be…
      4/ Not sure about exaggerated. Israel and the United States are in place to attack Iran. US fleet is massing in the Gulf. Israel has clearance to strike through both Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. It’s just a question of whether they will strike or not.

      • I forgot to nominate another confrontation for MAD-class consideration: President-elect Eisenhower secretly advised North Korean negotiators and their Soviet puppet-masters that, if there was no treaty before his inauguration, he would recognize no limits to ending the conflict. The NKs got serious and there was a treaty.

        You are “not sure”, so why the “…already moving to attack” declarative sentence? Is Israel’s deal with Azerbaijan and Saudi to allow “strike through” or over?

        Question: is there more US force in the area than necessary to keep open/reopen Hormuz Straits and provide deterrence (won’t say MAD since Iran can’t assure US destruction).

        • I don’t know whether there is an excess over what would be required to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. That is a matter of opinion. Is two aircraft carriers in the Gulf excessive? That’s a matter of opinion.

          I think they’re in a position to be able to attack, they have plans to attack and occupy, the question is whether those plans are going to be carried out — that still remains up in the air. I assume the same is true of China in regard to Taiwan and Japan.

  3. There has never been more war going on than there is now, only it has changed it’s character.

    The purpose of war is not necessarily to kill people, destroy infrastructure, or project power, but instead, it is to gain control of resources and labor-value produced. If you can do this without going to the trouble of conventional war…

    The transfer of wealth witnessed over the past several decades [since WW2] had been mind-boggling, most of it through banking, privatization, and corporate take-overs, etc. It has been war, but not with guns and bombs, but with political take-over, bribes, extortion, fraud, theft, but most importantly, the rule of law.

    In most cases, it has been perfectly legal for the few to steal trillions from the many.

    Now, this is not to say that you don’t have to back-up this economic and financial war with hard assets, as we can all see what happens to a country when they decide that they do not wish to participate in their own fleecing, but these assets are more for show, and occasional use [as a reminder to others].

    The United States has projected enormous institutional global power on multiple fronts. Although this has come at a great cost [to the entire world] in terms of economic growth and political self-determination, the greatest freedom is still protected, that of speech.

    The idea [in the end] always usurps power.

    • I agree there has been a lot of political necromancy, fraud, theft and financialisation. As you know, I write about that a lot.

      On the other hand, I think it’s a good thing there hasn’t been total war. People forget that in England in the 1940s people had to go to sleep at night knowing that a bomb might fall on their house during the night.

      While I go to sleep at night worrying about derivatives and securitisation and all this shit it’s better than worrying about whether a bomb will fall on my house and kill me and my family. Stopping future wars is just as important, if not more so, than exposing financial criminality.

      • No doubt. Actual war is mass human insanity. In a sense, though, actual war resolves the issues at hand, whereas financial war disguises and draws out the pillage.

        Any way you slice it, people stealing from other people is not such a great thing, but if you had to consider one characteristic that defined human social behavior above all others, it would have to be the obsession with attempting to get something for nothing.

        Imagine if the effort put into above was put in productive human activity.

    • Appreciate the stats — that site needs a lot more hits.

      I can’t believe that anyone would buy into the view that the state is the source of the lack of total war. The state is exactly the thing that creates the organisational capacity for all industrial scale killing. Pinker is worshipping at the altar of statism.

  4. Pingback: The Great Pacification « Hawks5999

  5. Aziz,

    you continue to impress ole janus.
    i’m glad you didn’t bully pinker; he’s a good egg — a certain myopia is endemic of acedemia, and so there are naturally constraints impeding his progress. all the same, i applaud his work.

    but you, aziz, you deserve much more than applause.

    how bout a song?

    just keep truckin on,

  6. John states his above post…

    “Nothing would be more wonderful than the continuing spread of peace.”

    As an casual observer of human history [over the past 5000 years], I believe that it is unreasonable to expect peace anytime soon [spreading, or otherwise]. [Other than on the radio and in fictional literature] the nature of human social inter-action does not seem to hold such in high esteem.

    I believe this is where idealism and pragmatism collide. Human beings are not a peace-loving species, evidenced by the tendency to covet something for nothing as a philosophy of social behavior.

    As an example, it seems perfectly acceptable to those in the present day, that the North American continent was taken from the native peoples [Native Americans excepted].

    Until this tendency is greatly attenuated, only the methodology will change, never the intent.

    So, this is why I advocate a de-institutionalization of society in order to lessen the deleterious effects of leadership on society [those willing to do whatever it takes]; those willing to use whatever tools happen to be in the shed, be it missiles, financial weapons of mass destruction, propaganda, or any other means to achieve similar ends, that is, placating the endless needs and desires of the Elite, those people, who at best, can be defined as raging sociopaths.

    If you observe nature, it will suggest to you, the natural order of things. Peace is not natural nor can we expect peace to widely break-out. Peace occurs nowhere in nature.

    Human compassion, on the other hand, is a gift that people can use to minister to the wounds and injustices foist upon the majority as collateral damage.

    The development of compassion, first as a shield, and then as a salve, can balance the horrors dispensed by the system and its provocateurs in their ever incessant need to deal with life from a position of anger, fear, and ignorance.

    • If you observe nature, it will suggest to you, the natural order of things. Peace is not natural nor can we expect peace to widely break-out. Peace occurs nowhere in nature.

      Depends how you define “peace”.

    • “De-institutionalizing” certainly can help, but I don’t know how you’re going to get MRI machines, energy and enhanced crop yields.

      You comments recall one of my favorite paradoxes: Marx’s “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” has never worked in a society of any size or diversity; but it is the essence of the human* family (and some primitive tribes?).

      * Like all mammals, human parent(s) protect their young. But, of course, humans require far greater and lengthier care after birth.

  7. This is the introducing paragraph of an Essay I am writing at the moment:

    To ask, of what indispensible but definable element(s) does my (legal?) legitimacy spring forth from is to consider an “important role” of the technocratic Universe in the 21st century. Does acquiring a State issued passport recreate a person’s freeborn legitimacy through a politicised and thus more authoritative form, for example, or does as much or even more authority simply stem from already being a valued member of the humane society concerned, and so precede certain formalities? If not, and States do indeed remain absolutely “necessary…to provide a…definition of rights”, then what awaits our political Universe, divided as it is between a plethora of States, who amongst themselves compete through physical exclusion to insulate their most favoured ideologies from differing points of view?

    • I trust you will present and, hopefully, recommend the philosophy of the US founders: that individuals have natural rights and create governments to secure those rights.

    • I like it, but I would rework “To ask, of what indispensible but definable element(s) does my (legal?) legitimacy spring forth from is to consider an “important role” of the technocratic Universe in the 21st century.”

  8. War is part of the human make up. The utopian idea that we can all live in peace and happily ever after under a World State or a nation-states under the UN is foolish rhetoric, ignoring the facts of human life. Wars when not undertaken by nation-states with a central bank and fractional reserve banking…would be small, not lasting years, the equipment used would be low tech (not billion pound fighter jets and weapons), and fewer people would be killed or willing to kill for the state. It is the taxing and banking state that creates Total war with massive standing armies and widespread death. Banking needs wars to create investment opportunities and to keep the money flowing.

      • Now, the conversations turns. [Btw, John, how do you get the quote box to appear?]

        Is not understanding human nature the key? And, John, you hit the nail on the head by suggesting that the this nature is, “uncertain.” I would go further out on your limb and call it, unknowable.

        Since we can not intellectually know human nature, what we can do is observe human action. Although we do not have to understand it, upon seeing this action [with clarity], only then can we react appropriately. This is the very definition of functional human behavior.

        If we allow our desires to construct the reality we perceive, then we are simply hoping for something to be a certain way instead of reacting to what is actually taking place. I believe this defines all ideological [political] behavior.

        Look at what people or institutions do, and worry not why they do them, because you will see the truth in their action, regardless.

        • robc, Aziz, Imp: Check out these time-tested guidelines for understanding human nature.

          The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Never speculate on your enemy’s intentions — act according to his capabilities. What you do speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.

  9. Pingback: GIASTAR – Storie di ordinaria tecnologia » Blog Archive » Let’s Hope Peace Continues Thanks To The Threat Of Mutually Assured Destruction And The Promise Of Commerce

  10. War starts when there are too many 17-25 year old males without adequate work or resources to keep them “idle and occupied”. These testosterone filled men can turn on a dime and attack the 1% very quickly. If you have ever seen a riot, the group mentality takes over, adrenalin clouds the senses and it gets dangerous very quickly.

    How many men enlisted when the 911 event occurred? Many! Because there was an emotional event.

    From family experience young men can turn very very evil very quickly when given a uniform, a gun and some authority.

  11. Pingback: Could America Get Sucked Into a China-Japan Conflict? « azizonomics

  12. Right, Buddy. The more imminent threat is Egypt and Occupy — no uniform necessary, just any “cause”, group emotion and adrenalin. I salute your use of politically INcorrect “dangerous” and “evil”!

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