“When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come and see.” So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.”
– Book of Revelation, Ch. 6 v. 8
Ok so this is the worst year I can think of in my lifetime. But apocalyptopia it ain’t.
There are four horses in the longer passage that herald the apocalypse. You’ll just have to imagine Johnny Cash reading the whole thing. This is the year where a plague, a crisis as big as the Great Depression, a huge global retreat in democracy, and mass riots in the United States all happen simultaneously. Sometimes I’ve wondered what a combination of 1918, 1929, and 1968 would feel like. And it feels like this.
New Zealand stands as ever in its tiny naïve bubble of purposive purity, while most developed countries are in economic freefall and the pandemic is headed for 400,000 dead and 7 million infected. There is no single force trying to organize anything across the world with much effect. A few regional groupings like the WHO supporters continue. There’s not really a functioning WTO, or UN. We are deep into a cold war with China that’s grinding closer to hot.
So what could possibly make things worse than all riders of the apocalypse appearing at once?
As Japan did with Manchuria in 1931, or the Russo-Polish war, or the Russian Civil War, or the Turkish War of Independence, the Great Depression didn’t slow them down. The Depression probably made World War Two more likely. So Covid-19 doesn’t mean people join hands across the world and do happy things. Pandemics won’t slow war down.
This set of multiple overlapping crises makes states really insecure and insular. Usually they need a steamhead of righteous belligerence and overconfidence to really have a crack at the neighbours. We are in pandemic pessimism not cocky cock-fighting.
For the moment at least, even a torturing war-mutt like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman in trying to wind down the pointless and cruel war in Yemen.
And if insularity and internal repair is the order of the day, perhaps there’s a pandemic peace payoff. Trade interdependence between China and the United States has gone further and deeper than the United States can handle, so international trade hasn’t decreased tensions there. Clearly they both want a cooling off period, something like a restraining order after shouting “Leave Hong Kong democracy alone!” and the other retorts with “I can’t breathe!”.
But wars break out in smaller forms when societies start to break down. And breakdown in society is what we are starting to see in a few places. A little winnable U.S. smash-and-grab into Venezuela might be just the electoral Wag The Dog tonic for an ailing President, especially when he’s looking like he’ll lose. And yet there’s no point securing oil when there’s a long term oil glut and your own Bakken shale producers can be rebooted at will.
IMHO that kind of excursion is too big a risk. Stuff goes sideways, and then you’re done. Venezuela isn’t Grenada.
Hell the U.S. even struggled in El Salvador, with a land area smaller then Southland. A nice all-in overpowering smash … but then the bodies mount up and you have to start saluting coffins at the airport, and of course even a sweet successful war won’t put your unemployed back to work or form a vaccine to empty your hospitals and they can’t even stop complaining about how you hold a Bible.
China would not be immune to that logic either.
Another familiar folk theory is “military Keynesianism.” War generates a lot of economic demand, and it can sometimes lift depressed economies out of the doldrums and back toward prosperity and full employment. The obvious case in point here is World War II, which did help many economies escape the quicksand of the Great Depression. Those who are convinced that great powers go to war primarily to keep Big Business (or the arms industry) happy are naturally drawn to this sort of argument, and they might worry that governments looking at bleak economic forecasts will try to restart their economies through some sort of military adventure.
I doubt it.
It takes a really big war to generate a significant stimulus, and it is hard to imagine any country launching a large-scale war—with all its attendant risks—at a moment when debt levels are already soaring. More importantly, there are lots of easier and more direct ways to stimulate the economy—infrastructure spending, unemployment insurance, even “helicopter payments”. Launching a war has to be one of the least efficient methods available. Those who do well are arms manufacturers and the black market. Let slip the dogs of war and all you want to make is dog food.
Now is hardly the time for Russia to try to grab more of Ukraine—if it even wanted to—or for China to make a play for Taiwan, because the costs of doing so would clearly outweigh the economic benefits. Especially when Taiwan is the best U.S. comprador China can ever buy.
But xenophobia is on the rise with rapid declines in globalization – that comes with isolationism. From that usually grows protectionism and hyper-nationalism. That makes it harder to drive common-ground bargains with errant states you want to stand up to. Democratically elected tyrants are on the rise and leave us in a more aggressive and war-prone posture than before the virus struck. The virus has just made all those trends worse.
So depressions aren’t enough themselves to cause war. To paraphrase the economist Paul Samuelson’s famous quip about the stock market, if recessions were a powerful cause of war, they would have predicted “nine out of the last five (or fewer).”
In the last 30 years there have been few wars that were fast, cheap, and certain. National leaders usually need to be convinced that war is worth it when they can get results like that – unless you’re as dumb as George W. Bush .
The fact that leaders miscalculate badly does not alter the main point: No matter what a country’s economic condition might be, its leaders will not go to war unless they think they can do so quickly, cheaply, and with a reasonable probability of success.
Economic depression, plague, authoritarianism, breakdown in global institutions, and societal breakdown all occurring at once are a combination that make at least civil wars more likely. Leaders have been toppled over less. And nor should we wish for civil war to re-start things. All kinds of leftie righteousness were thrown at the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and they got pantsed.
Instead of worrying about war, what states should be spending more time on is how Covid-19 ought to redefine the essence of national security itself. A nation-shaking threat is what defence forces should defend us from, but our little NZDF along with everyone else were just scrambling. A nation-shaking threat we weren’t defended from should alter our concept of defence. Time for a post-Covid Defence White Paper please.
It’s time to re-tool the entire NZDF and MoH together to prepare for more of these kinds of nation-shaking threats. Which are going to happen.
War is only one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse to contend with.