War of the great powers: plausible or inevitable?

RAFAEL M. ALUNAN 3RD Rafael M. Alunan 3rd is a trustee of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a former secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government.



The Manila Times



ARS have been a part of human history for thousands of years, and have become increasingly destructive as industrialization and technology have advanced to achieve an objective through the use of force.” To understand why we go to war, I’ve drawn insights from two subject matter experts. The United States Military Academy, better known as West Point, published a paper written by Christopher Blattman, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. The paper, “Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace,” lists five reasons why the costs of war are overlooked. It’s because society and/or the leader is unaccountable, ideological, uncertain, biased or unreliable. He argues that social scientists have generated five cogent models of when war can be “rational” for both sides of a conflict: 1. Unchecked interests, such as national leaders who bear few of the costs of launching a war 2. Intangible incentives, such as an intrinsic desire for revenge 3. Uncertainty, such as both sides underestimating each other’s resolve to fight 4. Commitment problems, such as the inability to credibly promise not to use your growing military might to attack others in future 5. Misperceptions, such as our inability to see the world through other people’s eyes. Highly centralized power is one of the most dangerous things in the world because it accentuates all five reasons for war. It’s because the basic institutions needed to keep the country stable and peaceful are either nonexistent, crumbling or tightly controlled. Those most prone to waging war based on that description are Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, and non-state actors. The other subject matter expert is Paul Goodman, an American writer and public intellectual who writes that there are, in his view, eight intertwined causes that lead to a war. 1. Economic gain. There is very often an economic motive underlying most conflicts. In modern times, targeted resources are oil, minerals or materials used in manufacturing. And as the world’s population rises and basic resources diminish, wars will be fought more often over fundamental essentials such as water and food. 2. Territorial gain. A country might want more land, either for living space, agricultural use or other purposes. Territory can also be used as “buffer zones,” where proxy wars are fought indirectly between opposing powers in a third country. 3. Religion. Religious conflicts often have very deep roots, dormant for decades, only to re-emerge at a later date for a perceived historical injustice. While different religions fighting against each other can be a cause of war, different sects within a religion battling against one another can also instigate war. 4. Nationalism. Nationalism or spirit, appetite, and reason are fundamental drives with distinct goals. There can be little doubt that the spirit is the principal cause of war across the centuries. Related to nationalism is imperialism, where conquering other countries is glorious and brings honor and esteem to the conqueror. Racism can also be linked to nationalism, when one country sees another as inferior. 5. Revenge. Seeking to punish, redress a grievance or simply strike back for a perceived slight can, unfortunately, lead to an endless chain of retaliatory wars that are difficult to stop. Distinctions between the victim and aggressor blur, with both perceiving themselves as fighting a just war to right historic wrongs. 6. Civil war. A sharp internal disagreement within a country about who rules, how the country should be run or the people’s rights often results in violent conflict among opposing groups or is sparked by separatist groups who want a country of their own. 7. Revolutionary war. Revolutions can begin for a variety of reasons, including economic hardship among certain sections of the population, perceived injustices committed by the ruling group, or unpopular wars with other countries. Revolutionary wars can easily descend into civil wars. 8. Defensive war. Countries will often argue that they’re fighting a purely defensive war against an aggressor. These can become controversial when they’re launched preemptively, with the argument essentially being that a pro-active defense is justified to prevent an attack. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea share many of the characteristics expounded by Blattman and Goodman. China, in particular, has been quite crafty in the gray zone to gain world supremacy, short of a kinetic war. Failing that, it’s entirely plausible that full-spectrum warfare would be the last resort. China’s core interest is to seize the South China Sea to project its military power throughout the Indo-Pacific and its economic power through its massive global Belt and Road Initiative. It claims indisputable sovereignty over the SCS, demarcated by its concocted 10-dash line. It passed illegal laws that contravene international law, allowing its military forces to restrict free movement in the open seas, territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of neighboring countries and apply force if necessary. It’s prepared to go to war in defense of its core interests, while the core interests of the Western powers and their allies are to uphold international law. When core interests clash with no windows for negotiation, the consequence is war. From the looks of it, the plausibility of a world war seems closer than at any time in recent decades. In 1932, Einstein asked Freud, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” Freud answered that war is inevitable because humans have an instinct to self-destroy, a death instinct that we must externalize to survive. Major geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts are taking place today. Countries are being pulled apart by powerful competing forces. Institutions designed to prevent armed conflict are weary. Yet, military and political leaders think that war is still preventable, provided superior preparations are made to deter it. Can reason still prevail? Can the narrative shift to collaboration and cooperation in addressing existential threats posed, for example, by climate change and artificial intelligence? I truly hope that humanity will come to its senses, retreat from the edge of the precipice, and save itself from the jaws of hell.