Monday, November 14, 2016

The real danger

Right now, lots of people are afraid of the wave of racist and sexist harassment incidents that erupted in the wake of Trump's electoral victory. Lots of other people are thinking more long-term, worrying about policy changes (Roe v. Wade, deportations, restrictive immigration laws, health care). Relatively few, as yet, seem to be worried about the further long-term degradation of America's institutions (Daron Acemoglu has a great essay about this).

But there's one danger that dwarfs all of these: the looming specter of great-power war.

Here, via Matthew White, is a visual depiction of deaths from war and genocide during the 20th century. I've annotated it a bit (my explanations are in blue):

As you can see, the vast majority of the war deaths happened as the result of two great-power wars, World War 1 and (especially) World War 2. Major democides during these periods - Stalin's purges and famines, the Nazi genocides, the Armenian genocide, etc. - were generally an outgrowth of regimes that came to power as a result of these wars. The world wars produced the totalitarian states of Russia, China, and Germany. There are exceptions, of course - Japan's militarist state came about despite its light involvement in WW1. But overall, great-power war tends to give birth to extremist regimes who do terrible things, who start more wars, and who use wars as excuses to do terrible things.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steve Pinker uses extensive evidence to document that violence on Earth has declined over time. Both war and violent crime cause less suffering to the average human being than they did before. But he also shows that the decline has not been monotonic. There have been periodic eruptions in which war and crime soared. As Pinker documents, the vast majority of war deaths are caused by great-power wars, which are relatively rare events. So while it's good to be optimistic about the overall decline in violence, it's wrong to take it for granted. When the Big Boys come out to fight, all bets are off.

Why is this true? One theory of violence that Pinker puts forth is the "leviathan" theory. When there is a higher power making sure that everyone plays nice, violence is low. As people gradually learn to appeal to the authority rather than to settle their disputes between themselves - which requires doing preemptive violence to build up a fierce reputation - the culture of violence ebbs. 

But barring the intervention of God or the creation of a world government, there is no authority on Earth more powerful than Great Power countries - currently, the U.S., China, and Russia. Therefore, when these countries fight, there's no one to stop them. And when they focus on fighting each other, they're also unable to police the weaker nations. So "leviathan theory" explains why great-power wars not only cause titanic amounts of destruction, but lead to lasting rises in violence.

The last great-power war ended six decades ago, in 1953. Since then, many people have concluded that nuclear weapons have made great-power war obsolete. The failure of the U.S. and USSR to fight each other during the Cold War lends some credence to this theory. But it's also possible that institutional memory from the World Wars was simply strong enough to make the U.S. and USSR prudent and cautious. 

That institutional memory is probably gone now. Everyone who fought in WW2 or the Korean War is too old to govern. Meanwhile, there are some ominous signs. With the election of Trump, all three of the Great Powers now have a strongman at the helm. Xi Jinping's power is unprecedented since the days of Mao, Putin's since the days of Stalin, and Trump's...well, we'll see.

Strongmen are decisive and can get thing done, but they're also unpredictable. A strongman may be for peace one day and war the next. What's more, strongmen tend to have big egos. Trump is friends with Putin today, but what happens if the two alpha males get into a pissing contest? 

What's more, the number of flashpoints between the Great Powers is increasing. Russia has rattled its saber at the NATO-protected Baltics, and China has steadily ratcheted up its attempts to claim the whole South China Sea. 

A war between two of the Great Powers need not go nuclear, but it would be hard to stop it from doing so. If one strongman leader backed down after a loss in a limited, conventional war, he would have to choose between humiliation and probable loss of power at home, or doubling down and escalating the war. Escalation seems likely. And as for the idea that nuclear weapons are just too horrible and too powerful for anyone to seriously contemplate using - well, they said the same thing about the new artillery weapons that were developed before World War 1. Yet that was no deterrent to war. 

So this is the biggest danger of a Trump presidency. But it's not all about Trump, by any means. U.S. voters didn't put Xi or Putin in power, and those threats would be there even if Clinton were in the White House. But I think it's hard to argue that Trump, with his personalistic style and big ego, doesn't increase the risk.

Great-power war is the huge, terrible danger looming over us all. In the medium term - i.e. over the next couple of decades - it's by far the biggest risk to human life, freedom, security, and quality of life. 


  1. "U.S. voters didn't put Xi or Putin in power, and those threats would be there even if Clinton were in the White House."

    Threats which would be dwarfed in of themselves by the continuation of a Baltic (as opposed to US interest) protecting NATO.

  2. Fred Harrison predicted the last two property bubbles and the recession they caused.

    In 2012, he predicted the same economic forces would lead to WW3 in the coming decades.

    With Brexit, Trump and the return to nationalism around the World, maybe he's not so crazy after all?

  3. Whether you think targeted violence is better than broad-spectrum violence or about the same depends on whether you are among the targets...

  4. Anonymous12:58 PM

    You'll know that people are taking the threat Trump represents seriously when they talk about moving somewhere in the Southern hemisphere instead of Canada.

  5. If Trump lets Russia and China do whatever they want within their zones of interest (including NATO member countries), then the risk would be reduced. Also, vulnerable countries may react to the Trump presidency by kowtowing to Russia/China because they can't trust Trump.

    This is a bad outcome if you have an ideological belief in the dignity of small countries, but from the point of view of avoiding major war, backing away from security commitments to countries in Russia's and China's zones of interest seems like a good strategy.

    1. I think you're mistaken.

      Wasn't that exactly the strategy that Western powers used in the lead-up to WW2? Allowing Germany and Japan to do whatever they wanted within their zones of interest emboldened them.

    2. on the same idea. what's to stop China from getting Guam, Hawaii, Marshall islands etc? or why should we prevent Russia from taking Puerto Rico, Alaska and other places? how many cities must be turned into Aleppo before you realize that the Russian leaders only understand power? how many countries must be turned into Georgia, Chechnya, Moldavia, Ukraine and Afghanistan before you understand that Russian leaders will never stop until the whole planet is under their boot and the only way to reason with them is to have a bigger stick and use it to keep the dog in his cage?

    3. You have to draw a line someplace, but ideally that line should be a defensible one. Including the Baltics in NATO was probably a mistake in that regard. They make an inviting target because they are the soft underbelly of NATO.

    4. Anonymous12:32 PM

      "Wasn't that exactly the strategy that Western powers used in the lead-up to WW2? Allowing Germany and Japan to do whatever they wanted within their zones of interest emboldened them."

      Yes, and if the Western powers had kept following that strategy instead of trying to confront Japan and Germany, there wouldn't have been a war between them!

      The fact that World War 2 was an aggressive war of choice, not a defensive war of necessity, on the part of the US has been lost on quite a few generations of Americans at this point.

    5. Yeah, we should have given up Hawaii after Pearl Harbor.

    6. Anonymous12:07 AM

      Japan attacked the US because of the oil embargo and its clear desire (which probably would have culminated in war anyway) to interfere with Japanese expansion in East Asia; it didn't want to conquer Hawaii. It would have been very, very easy for FDR to resolve US-Japanese tensions short of war, if he had so desired.

  6. Bill Ellis7:33 PM

    One of these things is not like the other...

    "And as for the idea that nuclear weapons are just too horrible and too powerful for anyone to seriously contemplate using - well, they said the same thing about the new artillery weapons that were developed before World War 1. Yet that was no deterrent to war. "

    WE know that even a fairly limited nuclear war WILL screw up the planet...maybe making civilization immpossible...but more we know that the participants of a nuclear the direct targets...will be completely devastated as a nation would be national suicide.. matter what people might have thought...did not have that potential...

  7. Bill Ellis7:35 PM

    And today the rumor is that Bolton is up for State ! Noooooo

  8. Anonymous2:11 AM

    Your entire idea here is bogus in my view. The idea that Trump poses a greater threat to world stability is based upon a very personalized view of world powers. While it is true that China and Russia have united under single dictators, the US has not. Trump is not a dictator.

    The bigger problem is in the world's most powerful nation believing it is better than these dictatorships. It is in believing that it has the right to aggravate and come close to forcing them into adopting their own views. A much better approach is to understand the reasons for their opponent's views and governing styles, and then to try over time to persuade them (with results rather than rhetoric) of that superiority.

    It is hard to admit, but we have to admit this: the Obama/Clinton approach failed with Russia and China. It was a total failure!

    We're in uncharted territory now. I believe Trump can handle the situation better than they did. It is hard to admit that for me! So some explanation is necessary:

    US capitalism failed in 2007. It failed entirely. We had a chance to uphold justice and prove that our system could correct itself. We proved otherwise, and the world was watching. They didn't care so much about the financial result as the US did, rather they cared about the sociological result. Would this hold?

    It didn't. It failed. The US is currently a failed sociological experiment and the other powers know it. How important is economics if you have just enough to destroy the enemy? Not that much. It was on 60 minutes if you missed it.

    As much as I didn't like Trump's rhetoric, given the result, it might be what we need globally.

    Ultimately, none of us have the answers and so as far as I know, there's some huge asteroid aimed at earth by some anti-trump supporter that will destroy humanity. Pretty unlikely, though.

    Just give him a chance and counter it in the next election, that's all I'm saying!

    1. US capitalism didn't fail in 2007. Compared to most earlier real failures of capitalism (think Irish potato famine, Weimar Germany) even the much more impactful US Great Depression was a greater fail than the 2007 recession. If you understand that a developed economy operates far from the Thermodynamic limit (sustenance level existence) and is comprised as a series of flows then you know that such shocks are always possible. The bedrock of the US financial economy are US Tsy securities which did extremely well. People didn't lose money in their checking and savings accounts. But for various reasons many people don't recognize the fundamental instability and increase their stock of liquid assets during a time when by all measures the flows are reaching unsustainable levels. The parents of people in my generation lived through the Great Depression. They have always had a much different approach to personal fiscal management (which they mostly passed on to their kids). Families 2 generations removed from the Great Depression instead of 1 generation had very different fiscal world views. I have always calculated what my base level burn rate would be (a place to live, a serviceable vehicle, food, ...) and kept 4 to 10 years in high quality liquid assets, the rest in stocks and my house. It's like buying insurance, you take a lower rate of return in exchange for sleeping comfortably. As it turned out what you think of as a failure in 2007 was a great opportunity. Pretty much all my family and friends (people who lived through the Great Depression and their children) have done very well. Not because we gamed the system, because we lived by reasonable fiscal approaches to capitalism in a developed economy. Perhaps you have noticed that most people from E. Europe and the Baltic states who now live here operate by similar approaches. It wasn't a systemic failure at all. It was a large, but not improbable, shock.

  9. Love the use of MTG art for the main photo.

  10. Don't get me wrong, I really empathise with the horror of having a pussy-grabber for president but what you wrote is just comic. On one hand you have probabilities: Trump is a strongman who *might* get into a pissing contest with Putin even though his election platform was that he wants to make friends, America first and all that. On the other hand you have sheer cold hard fact. Clinton surrounded herself with every single lunatic neocon she could get her hands on. Her biggest idea as secretary was to transplant her jihadi friends from lybia into Syria and we've seen how well that's worked. She was going left right and centre promising no-fly-zones over Syria which every expert agreed was tantamount to WWIII and somehow Trump is the bigger risk to world peace!!! Ok, if you say so.

    1. Anonymous8:14 PM

      Clinton had "every single lunatic neocon," and somehow forgot John Bolton. Curious oversight.

  11. Anonymous4:35 AM

    As a huge nerd, I just wanted to give you props for using an image from a Magic: The Gathering card (Scourge of the Fleets)! Also, nice read!

  12. Anonymous12:28 PM

    I'm not a Trump supporter, but I think this is a seriously incorrect analysis of Trump's views on foreign policy. Firstly, don't you remember when liberal and mainstream conservative pundits were having a two minutes hate directed at Trump because he vaguely implied that he wouldn't go to war with Russia in order to protect Estonia? (Zack Beauchamp of Vox dot com wrote a representative hot take about it.) So which is it: is Trump an unprecedented, horrible, moronic, etc. danger to America because he wouldn't start another great power war, or because he would?

    But more seriously, at a first-principles level, I would say that Trump is a realist who believes that American foreign policy should serve to increase the well-being of people living in the United States. The United States currently has extensive security commitments to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia that drive its foreign policy, literally none of which provides any material benefit to the US, and which Trump has (rather inarticulately) critiqued on this basis. The #NeverTrump neocons want the US to be in a state of perpetual war against Russia, Iran and China, and they hate Trump more than anyone else because he doesn't. On Syria, for example, Trump has made it clear time and time again that he doesn't think that the US should be attempting to oust Assad or hinder Russia---in marked contrast to Clinton's statements on the issue.

    If you think that great power wars are "by far the biggest risk to human life, freedom, security, and quality of life", maybe you should have voted for Trump! The biggest possibility for a great power war is the US attempting to interfere with the attempts of China and Russia to exert influence over their neighbors, and Trump is much less likely to see that as a problem than the vast majority of American politicians.

  13. Not even a mention of global warming?

  14. Anonymous6:38 PM

    "So this is the biggest danger of a Trump presidency. But it's not all about Trump, by any means. U.S. voters didn't put Xi or Putin in power, and those threats would be there even if Clinton were in the White House. But I think it's hard to argue that Trump, with his personalistic style and big ego, doesn't increase the risk."

    If you think Trump is more likely to bring us into serious confrontation with Russia than Hillary would've been you need to put down the libtard crack pipe. Hillary stated many times her intention if elected to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria which would be essentially an act of war against Russia. Trump has supported no such policy.

  15. I don't remember who, but someone expressed concern that under President Hillary Clinton, we had a good chance of a war with Russia, which would have had a good chance of going nuclear.

    I don't really know who is more dangerous, Trump or Clinton. Given the devastation of a potential nuclear war, the appropriate punishment for an unprovoked nuclear attack -- anything other than a prior nuclear launch -- would be to have whoever ordered it tied down to watch and hear his (or her) loved ones, including children, tortured to death.

    I hope this would never have to happen.

    "Fail Safe", a movie from the sixties, had the US accidentally nuking Moscow. The US President ultimately had to nuke NYC to placate the USSR and avoid their all-out retaliation.