Currency Wars Are Trade Wars

Paul Krugman is all for currency wars, but not trade wars:

First of all, what people think they know about past currency wars isn’t actually true. Everyone uses some combination phrase like “protectionism and competitive devaluation” to describe the supposed vicious circle of the 1930s, but as Barry Eichengreen has pointed out many times, these really don’t go together. If country A and country B engage in a tit-for-tat of tariffs, the end result is restricted trade; if they each try to push their currency down, the end result is at worst to leave everyone back where they started.

And in reality the stuff that’s now being called “currency wars” is almost surely a net plus for the world economy. In the 1930s this was because countries threw off their golden fetters — they left the gold standard and this freed them to pursue expansionary monetary policies. Today that’s not the issue; but what Japan, the US, and the UK are doing is in fact trying to pursue expansionary monetary policy, with currency depreciation as a byproduct.

There is a serious intellectual error here, typical of much of the recent discussion of this issue. A currency war is by definition a low-level form of a trade war because currencies are internationally traded commodities. The intent (and there is much circumstantial evidence to suggest that Japan at least is acting with mercantilist intent, but that is another story for another day) is not relevant — currency depreciation is currency depreciation and still has the same effects on creditors and trade partners, whatever the claimed intent.

Krugman cites Barry Eichengreen as evidence that competitive devaluation does not necessarily mean a trade war, but Eichengreen does not address the issue of a trade war directly, much less denying the possibility of one.  Indeed, while broadly supportive of competitive devaluation Eichengreen notes that the process was “disorderly and disruptive”.

And the risks of disorder and disruption are still very real today.

As Mark Thoma noted in 2010:

While the positive effects a currency war produced in the 1930s are unlikely to reappear, there is a chance of large negative effects such as a simultaneous trade war or the breakdown of the international monetary system, so let’s hope a currency war can be avoided.

The mechanism here is very simple. Some countries — those with a lower domestic rate of inflation, like Japan — have a natural advantage in a currency war against countries with a higher domestic rate of inflation like Brazil and China. If one side runs out of leverage to debase their currency because of heightened domestic inflation, their next recourse is to resort to direction trade measures like quotas and tariffs.

And actually, the United States and China in particular have been engaging in a low-level trade and currency war for a long time.

As I noted last year:

China and Russia and Brazil have all recently expressed deep unease at America’s can-kicking and money-printing mentality. This is partly because American money printing has exported inflation to the world, as a result of the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency, and partly because these states already own a lot of American debt, and do not want to be paid off in hugely-debased money.

Since I made that statement, there has been a great lot of debasement without any great spiral of damaging trade measures. But with the world locked into ever greater monetary and trade interdependency, and with fiery trade rhetoric continuing to spew forth from the BRIC nations, who by-and-large seem to continue to believe that American money-printing is damaging their interests, and who in the past two years have put together a new global reserve currency framework, it would be deeply complacent to believe that the risks of a severe trade war have gone away.

(Unfortunately, Krugman and Eichengreen both seem to discount the reality that Okun’s law has broken down, and that monetary expansion today is supporting crony industries, and exacerbating income inequality, but those are another story for another day)

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Why Modern Monetary Theory is Wrong About Government Debt

I’ve taken some criticism — particularly from advocates of modern monetary theory and sectoral balances and all that — for using total debt rather than just private debt in my work.

The modern monetary theory line (in one sentence, and also in video form) is that government debt levels are nothing to worry about, because governments are the issuer of the currency, and can always print more.

This evokes the words of Alan Greenspan:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default.

Of course, the point I am trying to make in worrying about total debt levels is not the danger of mass default (although certainly default cascades a la Lehman are a concern in any interconnective financial system), but that large debt loads can lead to painful spells of deleveraging and economic depression as has occurred in Japan for most of the last twenty years:

Japan-Debt-Hoisington-27

Of course, before the crisis in America (as was the case in Japan at the beginning of their crisis) government debt was not really a great contributor to the total debt level, meaning that the total debt graph looks far more similar to the private debt line than the public debt line, which means that when I talk about the dangers of growing total debt I am talking much more about private debt than public debt:

010212_2140_TheDebtwatc1

But what Japan empirically illustrates is the fact that all debt matters. Japan’s private debt levels have reset to below the pre-crisis norm, yet the economy remains depressed while public debt continues to climb (both in absolute terms, and as a percentage of GDP). If excessive private debt was the sole factor in Japan’s depression, Japan would have recovered long ago. What we have seen in Japan has been the transfer of the debt load from the private sector to the public, with only a relative small level of net deleveraging.

And high and growing public sector deficits often lead to contractionary tax hikes and spending cuts. This happened time and again during Japan’s lost decades. Peter Tasker of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, public finances were in surplus and government debt was a mere 20 per cent of gross domestic product. Twenty years on, the government is running a yawning deficit and gross public debt has swollen to a sumo-sized 200 per cent of GDP.

How did it get from there to here? Not by lavish public spending, as is sometimes assumed. Japan’s experiment with Keynesian-style public works programmes ended in 1997. True, they had failed to trigger durable economic recovery. But the alternative hypothesis – that fiscal and monetary virtue would be enough – proved woefully mistaken. Economic growth had been positive in the first half of the “lost decade”, but after the government raised consumption tax in 1998 any momentum vanished. Today Japan’s nominal GDP is lower than in 1992.

The real cause of fiscal deterioration was the damage done to tax revenues by this protracted slump. Central government outlays as a percentage of GDP are no higher now than in the early 1980s, but the tax take has fallen by 5 per cent of GDP since 1989, the year that consumption taxes were introduced.

A rise in debt relative to income has historically tended to lead to contractionary deleveraging irrespective of whether the debt is public or private.

The notion at the heart of modern monetary theory that governments that control their own currency do not have to engage in contractionary deleveraging remains largely ignored. Just because nations can (in a worst case scenario) always print money to pay their debt, doesn’t mean that they will always print money to pay their debt. They will often choose to adopt an austerity program (as is often mandated by the IMF), or default outright instead (as happened in Russia in the 1990s).

And what governments cannot guarantee is that the money they print will have value. This is determined by market participants. In the real economy people in general and creditors (and Germans) in particular are very afraid of inflation and increases in the money supply. History is littered with currency collapses, where citizens have lost confidence in the currency (although in truth most hyperinflations have occurred after some great shock to the real economy like a war or famine, and not solely as a result of excessive money printing).

And there has always been a significant danger of currency, trade and political retaliations by creditors and creditor nations, as a result of the perception of “money printing”. Many, many wars have been fought over national debts, and over currencies and their devaluation. One only has to look at China’s frustrated rhetoric regarding America’s various monetary expansions, the fact that many Eurasian creditor nations are moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency, as well as the growth of American-Chinese trade measures and retaliations, to see how policy of a far lesser order than the sort of thing advocated in modern monetary theory can exacerbate frictions in the global currency system (although nothing bad has come to pass yet).

Governments controlling their own currencies are likely to continue to defy the prescriptions of the modern monetary theorists for years to come. And that means that expansionary increases in government debt relative to the underlying economy will continue to be a prelude to contractionary deleveraging, just as is the case with the private sector. All debt matters.

Iran’s Imminent Nuclear Weapon

Here’s some context behind the claims that Iran will imminently possess a nuclear weapon.

It started a long time ago (but not, unfortunately, in a galaxy far, far away):

1984: Soon after West German engineers visit the unfinished Bushehr nuclear reactor, Jane’s Defence Weekly quotes West German intelligence sources saying that Iran’s production of a bomb “is entering its final stages.”US Senator Alan Cranston claims Iran is seven years away from making a weapon.

Seven years away? And did they have a bomb in 1991?

1992: Israeli parliamentarian Binyamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the US.”

1992: Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells French TV that Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999. “Iran is the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East,” Peres warned, “because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.”

1992: Joseph Alpher, a former official of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, says “Iran has to be identified as Enemy No. 1.” Iran’s nascent nuclear program, he told The New York Times, “really gives Israel the jitters.”

So was there a bomb by the late 1990s?

1995: The New York Times conveys the fears of senior US and Israeli officials that “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought” – about five years away – and that Iran’s nuclear bomb is “at the top of the list” of dangers in the coming decade. The report speaks of an “acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program,” claims that Iran “began an intensive campaign to develop and acquire nuclear weapons” in 1987, and says Iran was “believed” to have recruited scientists from the former Soviet Union and Pakistan to advise them.

1997: The Christian Science Monitor reports that US pressure on Iran’s nuclear suppliers had “forced Iran to adjust its suspected timetable for a bomb. Experts now say Iran is unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons for eight or 10 years.

So now we’re looking at a nuclear-armed Iran by 2007. Scary stuff, right?

2007: President Bush warns that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to “World War III.” Vice President Dick Cheney had previously warned of “serious consequences” if Iran did not give up its nuclear program.

2007: A month later, an unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran is released, which controversially judges with “high confidence” that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons effort in fall 2003.

June 2008: Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicts that Israel will attack Iran before January 2009, taking advantage of a window before the next US president came to office.

May 2009: US Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports states: “There is no sign that Iran’s leaders have ordered up a bomb.”

And Iran still doesn’t have a bomb today — all of those reports, all of that scaremongering and warmongering was wrong. Both the CIA and Mossad agree that there is no specific evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons today. And many experts believe that even if Iran were working on a bomb it could take up to ten to fifteen years.

Yet, it seems that nothing except a war will satisfy Binyamin Netanyahu, who felt the same way about Iraq:

There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is working towards nuclear weapons.

And how did that work out? A hugely expensive war and occupation, American imperial overstretch, thousands of dead soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and no weapons of mass destruction. We should judge people on their predictive record.

On one level, I understand Netanyahu’s paranoia especially in the context of the 20th Century and the holocaust. Iranian Generals have talked about annihilating Israel.

In August 2012, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads Iran’s Passive Defence Organisation, said “No other way exists apart from resolve and strength to completely eliminate the aggressive nature and to destroy Israel.”  And just six days ago in September 2012 Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh threatened to attack Israel and trigger World War III, saying that “it is possible that we will make a pre-emptive attack” which would “turn into World War III.” In the same statement, Hajizadeh threatened to attack American bases in the Middle East as well. Hajizadeh said that as a result of this attack, Israel would “sustain heavy damage and that will be a prelude to its obliteration.”

All disturbing rhetoric, yet almost certainly baseless threats given the context of Iran’s technological and military disadvantage. Iranian missiles fired at Israel would likely be shot down long before they reached Israeli airspace by Israel’s advanced missile defence systems that can intercept even short-range fire from Gaza and Lebanon. And Israel’s nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf would almost certainly retaliate in kind. As Shimon Peres noted in 2006: “The President of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map.” Most importantly, if Iran attacked Israel, it seems far less likely that other powers would come to Iran’s aid.

Yet an attack on Iran by Israel could well trigger a larger conflict, sucking in Iran’s trade partners who do not want to see the flow of oil and resources out of Iran disrupted. Just this week China announced new contracts to provide super-tankers to deliver oil from Iran to China. Would Russia and China sit idly by and see their Iranian investments liquidated while America and Israel invade Iran and destroy its infrastructure? Would they sit idly by and see their ally deposed? China and Pakistan have both hinted that they could defend Iran if Iran were attacked. An attack on or invasion of Iran is an incredibly risky adventure — and in my view the real danger to Israel. And for what? To discover that like Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad is not working on a nuclear weapon, and all the hot air about weapons of mass destruction is once again just bullshit?

Netanyahu’s Red Line

Netanyahu wants a red line on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East:

Where exactly should we draw it?

As Justin Raimondo notes:

Here is a nation which refuses to even admit it acquired nukes long ago, and which disdains the Nonproliferation Treaty, making the case for war against a neighbor that has indeed signed the NPT and is abiding by its requirements.

That treaty gives Tehran the right to develop nuclear power. Furthermore, there is zero evidence Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program: our own intelligence community tells us they gave that up in 2003 and show no signs of resuming it. Their own religious and political leaders have denounced the possession of nuclear weapons as sinful: the Israelis, on the other hand, haven’t bothered reassuring us they would never use the nuke they won’t admit they have.

In a rational world, Israel would be in the dock, answering for its unwillingness to come out of the nuclear closet and admit what the whole world knows by now.

The West has sent out a message that the only way for unpopular regimes to avoid invasion is to obtain nuclear weapons. North Korea sought and obtained nuclear weapons and their vicious and economically-failed regime has stayed in power. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions, and was soon deposed by British, French and American airpower. If Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon — and the CIA and Mossad, as well as the IAEA agree they that they are not currently doing so — perhaps the fact that nuclear-armed Israel and the nuclear-armed United States keep threatening non-nuclear Iran with attack has something to do with it?

And even assuming that they are going for a nuclear weapon, how close is Iran to a nuclear weapon? According to former IAEA consultant Clinton Bastin, possibly as much as ten to fifteen years away:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Iran may be in your red zone, but can not score.

Sure, Iran could divert a few tons of 3.5% or a ton of 20% enriched uranium hexaflouride gas for enrichment to 90+%. But what then?

No one has ever made a nuclear weapon from gas. It must be converted to metal and fabricated into components which are then assembled with high explosives.

Iran lacks experience with and facilities for these processes which are very dangerous because of potential for a criticality accident or nuclear explosion. Iran would not jeopardize its important, fully safeguarded nuclear programs by an attempt to have a deliverable, one kiloton yield nuclear weapon ten to fifteen years later.

IMPORTANT NOTE: North Korea was able to make and test a nuclear explosive soon after withdrawing from safeguards because plutonium for reactor recycle was in a form usable for a weapon.

So let’s be clear about who is threatening who:

How would Americans feel if Iran had stationed troops and aircraft on the Mexican and Canadian borders and conducted military excursions into American territory, including funding and training armed dissidents to overthrow the American government (as happened to Iran in 1953 when America overthrew a democratically-elected Iranian government and imposed a dictatorship there)? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China were blowing up American scientists and using computer viruses to attack American infrastructure? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China imposed sanctions on America that led to hyperinflation of the dollar?  Under those circumstances, would America not seek the means to defend itself?

Iran is not blameless, and continues to provoke Israel through its support for Hamas and Hezbollah and through eliminationist rhetoric. But given the level of provocation from the Israeli and American side, it is astonishing that Iran remains free of nuclear weapons. Yet it is a fact that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons, and it remains a fact that Iran has not attacked nor occupied any foreign lands since World War 2. Iran is not an expansionistic country.

As neocon provocateur Patrick Clawson essentially admitted in advocating for a false flag attack to get America to war, Iran is not likely to attack either the United States or Israel. So when it comes to drawing red lines, we in the West would do well to draw a red line around our behaviour — because right now, we in the West are the ones who are stirring up trouble by threatening to strike first.

Why I Still Fear Inflation

Paul Krugman wonders why others worry about inflation when he sees no evidence of inflationary trends:

Joe Wiesenthal makes the well-known point that aside from certain euro area countries, yields on sovereign debt have plunged since 2007; investors are rushing to buy sovereign debt, not fleeing it. I was a bit surprised by his description of this insight as being non-”mainstream”; I guess it depends on your definition of mainstream. But surely the notion that what we have is largely a process of private-sector deleveraging, with government deficits the consequence of this process, and interest rates low because we have an excess of desired saving, is pretty widespread (and backed by a lot of empirical evidence).

And there’s also a lot of discussion, which I’m ambivalent about, concerning the supposed shortage of safe assets; this is coming from bank research departments as well as academics, it’s a frequent topic on FT Alphaville, and so on. So Joe didn’t seem to me to be saying anything radical.

But those comments! It’s not just that the commenters disagree; they seem to regard Joe as some kind of space alien (or, for those who had the misfortune to see me on Squawk Box, a unicorn); they consider it just crazy and laughable to suggest that we aren’t facing an immense crisis of public deficits with Zimbabwe-style inflation just around the corner.

Krugman, of course, thinks it crazy and laughable that in the face of years of decreasing interest rates that anyone would believe that inflation could still be a menace. In fact, Krugman has made the point multiple times that more inflation would be a good thing, by decreasing the value of debt and thus allowing the private sector to deleverage a little quicker.

I remain convinced — even having watched Peter Schiff and Gonzalo Lira make incorrect inflationary projections — that there is exists the potential of significant inflationary problems in the medium and long term. Indeed, I believe elevated inflation is one of three roads out of where we are right now — the deleveraging trap.

In my worldview, this depression — although a multi-dimensional thing — has one cause above all others: too much total debt. Debt-as-a-percentage of GDP has grown significantly faster than productivity:

The deleveraging trap begins with the boom years: credit is created above and beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Incomes rise and prices rise above the rate of underlying productivity. And as the total debt level increases, more and more income that was once used for investment and consumption goes toward paying down debt and interest. This means that inflated asset prices become less and less sustainable, making the economy more and more susceptible to a downturn — wherein asset prices deflate, and the value of debt (relative to income) increases further. Under a non-interventionist regime, once the downturn occurs, this would result in credit freeze, mass default and liquidation, as occurred in 1907.

However, under an interventionist regime — like the modern Federal Reserve, or the Bank of Japan — the central bank steps in to lower rates and print money to support asset prices and bail out failed companies. This prevents the credit freeze, mass default, drastic deflation and liquidation. Unfortunately, it also sustains the debt load — following 2008, total debt remains over 350% of GDP. The easy money leads to a short cycle of expansion and growth, but the continued existence of the debt load means that consumers and businesses will still have to set aside a large part of their incomes to pay down debt. This means that any expansion will be short lived, and once the easy money begins to dry up, asset prices will again begin to deflate. The downward pressure on prices, spending and investment from the excessive debt load is huge, and requires sustained and significant central bank intervention to support asset prices and credit availability. The economy is put on life-support. Debt-as-a percentage of GDP may gradually fall (although in the Japanese example, this has not been the case) but progress is slow, and the debt load remains unsustainable.

A fundamental mistake is identifying the problem as one of aggregate demand, and not debt. Lowered aggregate demand is a symptom of the deleveraging trap caused by excessive debt and unsustainable asset prices. The Fed — and advocates of greater Fed interventionism to support aggregate demand, like Krugman — are mostly advocating the treatment of symptoms, not causes. And the treatment in this case may make the underlying causes worse — quantitative easing and low-interest rates are debt-additive policies; while supporting assets prices and GDP, they encourage the addition of debt. 

There are three routes out of the deleveraging trap; liquidation (destroying the debt via mass default), debt forgiveness (destroying the debt via systematically cancelling it), and inflating the debt away. Liquidation in a managed economy with a central bank is politically impossible. Debt forgiveness is politically difficult, although perhaps the most realistic effective bet. And inflating the debt away at a moderate rate of inflation would seem to be a slow and laborious process — the widely-advocated suggestion of a 4% inflation target would only eat slowly (if at all) into the 350%+ total debt-as-a-percentage-of-GDP load.

All three exit routes seem blocked. So the reality that we are staring at — and have been staring at for the last four years — has been remaining in the deleveraging trap.

So why in a deflationary environment like the deleveraging trap would I fear high inflation? Surely this is an absurd and unfounded fear?

Well,  Japan shows that nations can remain stuck in a deleveraging trap for a long, long time — although Japan has had to take to increasingly authoritarian measures such as mandating the purchase of treasury debt to keep rates low and so to keep the debt rolling. But eventually nations stuck in a deleveraging trap will have to take one of the routes out. While central banks refuse to consider the possibility of a debt jubilee, and refuse to consider the possibility of allowing markets to liquidate, the only route out remains inflation. 

Yet the big inflation that would be required to eject the United States from the deleveraging trap makes creditors — the sovereign states from which the US imports huge quantities of resources, energy, components, and finished goods — increasingly jittery.

According to Xinhua:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

And it’s not like America’s Eurasian creditors are doing nothing about this. As I wrote earlier this month:

If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

The Fed is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they inflate, they risk the danger of initiating a damaging and deleterious trade war with creditors who do not want to take an inflationary haircut. If they don’t inflate, they remain stuck in a deleveraging trap resulting in weak fundamentals, and large increases in government debt, also rattling creditors. 

The likeliest route from here remains that the Fed will continue to baffle the Krugmanites by pursuing relatively restrained inflationism (i.e. Operation Twist, restrained QE, no NGDP targeting, no debt jubilee, etc) to keep the economy ticking along while minimising creditor irritation. The problem with this is that the economy remains caught in the deleveraging trap. And while the economy is depressed tax revenues remain depressed, meaning that deficits will grow, further irritating creditors (who unlike bond-flipping hedge funds must eat the very low yields instead of passing off treasuries to a greater fool for a profit) who may pursue trade war and currency war strategies and gradually (or suddenly) desert US treasuries and dollars.

Geopolitical tension would spike commodity prices. And as more dollars end up back in the United States (there are currently $5+ trillion floating around Asia), there will be more inflation still. The reduced global demand for dollar-denominated assets would put pressure on the Fed to print to buy more treasuries.

Amusingly, this kind of scenario was predicted in 2003 by Krugman himself!:

The crisis won’t come immediately. For a few years, America will still be able to borrow freely, simply because lenders assume that things will somehow work out.

But at a certain point we’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment. For those not familiar with the Road Runner cartoons, Mr. Coyote had a habit of running off cliffs and taking several steps on thin air before noticing that there was nothing underneath his feet. Only then would he plunge.

What will that plunge look like? It will certainly involve a sharp fall in the dollar and a sharp rise in interest rates. In the worst-case scenario, the government’s access to borrowing will be cut off, creating a cash crisis that throws the nation into chaos.

This is not a Zimbabwe-style scenario, but it is a potentially unpleasant one involving a sharp depreciation of the dollar, and a significant change in the shape of the American economy (and geopolitical reality). It includes the risk of costly geopolitical escalation, including proxy war or war.

However, American primary and secondary industries would look significantly more competitive, and significant inflation — while penalising savers — would cut down the debt. Such a crisis would be painful and scary, but — so long as there is no escalation — largely beneficial.

The Absurdity of NATO

The whole world knows the name Gavrilo Princip, and that of he man he assassinated, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Princip’s shot triggered the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia that set in motion the chain of events leading to the Great War of 1914.

After Serbia appealed to Russia for help, Russia began moving towards mobilization of its army, believing that Germany was using the crisis as an excuse to launch war in the Balkans. Upon hearing news of Russia’s general mobilization, Germany declared war on Russia. The German army then launched its attack on Russia’s ally, France, through Belgium, violating Belgian neutrality and bringing Great Britain into the war as well.

Is it possible that a similar chain of events may have already begun unfurling with the Syrian downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet? Turkey have already invoked a full meeting of NATO,  claimed that Syria have fired on a second Turkish plane, and vowed that Syria’s actions “won’t go unpunished”.

The vast and sprawling system of national alliances that existed prior to the events 1914 were considered by policy makers of the time to be a counterbalance against excessive tension and the threat of war. The great powers created alliances ostensibly for the purpose of deterring war. The dominant view was that the potential for dragging in allies reduced the chances of an attack. In reality, it just meant that one spark could set the entire world aflame.

This is functionally the same as the interconnecting mesh of derivatives and shadow intermediation that foreshadowed the crash of 2008. As financial parties sold each other more and more “hedges“, the consensus of the time was that this made the system safer, as it allowed risk to be dissipated around the system. The theory was — and there were plenty of inaccurate mathematical models to back this up — that spreading risk around the system made the financial system safer. As it turned out, it didn’t. In the wake of MF Global and the London Whale, we know that the financial system has not learned the lessons of 2008. But it seems even more absurd that the diplomatic system has not really learned the lessons of 1914. 

The NATO system — set up to oppose the Warsaw Pact system, which no longer exists — functions the same way — rather than dissipating risk, it allows for the magnification of international tensions into full-on regional and global wars. In the late 20th century the threat of nuclear war proved a highly-effective deterrent which limited the potential for all-out-war between the great powers, offsetting much of the risk of the hyper-fragile treaty system. Yet the potential for magnifying small regional problems into bigger wars will continue to exist for as long as NATO and similar organisations prevail.

We do not know exactly what arrangements Syria has with Russia and China — there is no formal defensive pact in place (although there is one between Syria and Iran) though it is fair to assume that Russia will be keen to maintain its Syrian naval assets, a view which is supported by the fact Russia heavily subsidises the Syrian military, and has blocked all the UN-led efforts toward intervention in Syria.

After the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was allowed to disintegrate. Until NATO is similarly allowed to disintegrate, the threat of magnification will remain large. Could a border skirmish between Syria and Turkey trigger a regional or even global war? Under the status quo, anything is possible.

Does Syria Want a War?

We know for sure that Syria intentionally shot down a Turkish — and thus protected by NATO — warplane in its airspace. We also know that Syria is comfortable enough to admit it.

The AP reports:

Syria said Friday it shot down a Turkish military plane that entered Syrian air space, and Turkey vowed to “determinedly take necessary steps” in response.

It was the most clear and dramatic escalation in tensions between the two countries, which used to be allies before the Syrian revolt began in March 2011. Turkey has become one of the strongest critics of the Syrian regime’s brutal response to the country’s uprising.

Late Friday, Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, said the military spotted an “unidentified aerial target” that was flying at a low altitude and at a high speed.

“The Syrian anti-air defenses counteracted with anti-aircraft artillery, hitting it directly,” SANA said. “The target turned out to be a Turkish military plane that entered Syrian airspace and was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases.”

It seems pretty clear that the Syrians know the consequences of their actions. NATO (including deluded US hawks who are happy to ignore the disastrous consequences of the drug war on the US border while talking up more intervention in the middle east) and the NATO-backed Syrian opposition has been looking for any excuse to get stuck into a new interventionist mission. We know that the NATO-backed opposition were prepared to try and get a British journalist killed in a false flag operation in order to trigger a Western intervention.

So why did Russia-armed Syria do it? And why (given the age of F-4 aircraft, it could easily have crashed of its own accord giving the Syrians a lot of plausible deniability) are they not at least denying that they shot it down?

Is it possible that the wider Eurasian anti-American coalition led by the Russians and the Chinese are confident that NATO will not intervene out of fear of triggering a wider war? After all the Russian naval base has been a great obstacle to NATO intervention. Libya didn’t have any Russian bases, and it took far less internal violence for NATO to intervene there.

Is it even possible that the Eurasians are trying to provoke NATO into another costly and damaging war? After all, the American Empire is much more indebted and militarily overstretched than it was before 9/11. Osama bin Laden’s goal of dragging the United States into the middle eastern quagmire, and thereby bankrupting America has been an unmitigated success. Could the Eurasians be trying to provoke a regional war in order to weaken NATO and draw attention away from their own weakened economic picture?

Or is this just a case of an overzealous Syrian military commander taking a potshot at an unidentified flying object and provoking a diplomatic crisis?

As someone who does not believe that war is in any way an economic stimulus and should be avoided beyond self-preservation, I hope that this crisis — and the wider Syrian situation — can be defused.

Those who want to see a big military-Keynesian stimulus may be hoping for an escalation…