The great irony of armed conflict is that few welcome war but it happens anyway through a complex mix of accident, ambition, revenge and escalation.
The world has been a mostly peaceful place since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Yet peace is a relative condition in a war-prone world.
The urgent issue for geopolitical strategists and leaders today is whether a period of relative stability is ending.
Has the potential for a new world war risen materially? The answer is yes.
A basic war hypothesis can be formulated against a backdrop of US weakness, Iranian hegemonic ambition, Chinese and Russian expansionism, Islamic extremism and North Korean recklessness.
What recent information has come our way that strengthens our war hypothesis?
It’s a long list:
• On Nov. 16, President Hollande of France declared “France is at war” in response to the Islamic State attacks on civilian targets in Paris on Nov. 13
• On Nov. 21, Ukrainian saboteurs blew up power lines to Russian-occupied Crimea, causing a power blackout in Crimea
• On Nov. 24, the Islamic State detonated a bomb in Tunis that killed 12 members of the Tunisian presidential bodyguard
• On Nov. 24, Turkish F-16 fighters shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber
• On Nov. 26, Russia retaliated for the Turkish attack by deploying its S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Syria (S-400 is the most advanced system in the world). Russia also imposed a variety of export and travel sanctions intended to damage the Turkish economy
• On Nov. 26, China announced the reorganisation of its military command structure and took steps to build its first overseas military base. The base will be in Djibouti, close to a major US base used for special operations in the Middle East and North Africa
• On Nov. 28, the Donetsk People’s Republic (part of eastern Ukraine) cut off coal exports to Ukraine in retaliation for the Ukrainian-sponsored power outages in Crimea. Russia is considering further financial and trade sanctions.
Unfortunately, we are too well acquainted with a roster of events of this type. Terrorist attacks, tit-for-tat trade sanctions and escalating international tensions are distressingly familiar.
What strikes us as significant about these recent developments?
The tempo (numerous major developments in a two-week period) and the geographic and political breadth (these developments directly involve Russia, China, France, Turkey and Syria).
It’s a mistake to put these stories into the “business as usual” category. The timing, interconnectedness and escalatory dynamic of events look more like a prelude to wider wars than a mere series of setbacks.
We look for connections that others miss due to an overly narrow focus on one region or subject area. In this context, a highly significant event not involving geopolitics took place just two weeks before the Islamic State attacks in Paris.
On Oct. 26, the US Congress and White House agreed on a two-year budget compromise that lifted the ceiling on US debt. It also busted the spending caps agreed to in 2011. The acrimonious budget and debt ceiling debates of the past four years were suddenly over (at least until 2017, after the upcoming presidential election).
You have probably heard enough about the “fiscal cliff” and “shutting down the government” threats from various politicians. Now you can relax; those debates have been neutered for the next two years.
This peace treaty between Democrats and Republicans on budget and deficit issues was not without costs. Both parties had been chafing under budget caps enacted in 2011.
Democrats wanted to spend more on social programmes. Republicans wanted to spend more on defence. What both parties had in common was a desire to spend more. What’s the point of being a politician if you can’t spend more of the taxpayers’ money?
For fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014, the budget caps enacted in 2011 were a taboo subject in Washington. Neither party dared to break them. Republicans did not want to risk tea party anger by busting the caps. Democrats did not want to be painted as the party of big spenders. Both sides kept their heads down.
In late October, in a secret, backroom deal, both parties got together to bust the caps. A new Washington spending spree is about to begin in earnest.
The only way to make such a backroom deal work is to offer something for everyone. The Democrats will get more money for teachers unions, and the Republicans will get more money for defence contractors.
Total US spending for 2015 is approximately $3.8 trillion. Most of that government spending is on autopilot. Entitlement programmes such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid ($2.45 trillion in total) are not affected by annual appropriations. The money is spent according to a formula that politicians do not want to change.
Interest on the national debt ($229 billion) is also automatic. It must be paid or the US Treasury market goes into default. Entitlements and interest on the debt together comprise 71% of federal spending.
The part of the budget politicians fight over ($1.11 trillion) is actually just 29% of federal spending. Of that, slightly more than half is military spending and the remainder is spent on a variety of domestic programmes including education, transportation, science, energy and the environment:
Right now we see the convergence of war drums and war spending. Defence and intelligence contractors have been starved of large, discretionary appropriations for almost a decade (defence spending was being cut even before the 2011 budget caps).
Now the caps are gone and the need is pressing.