The Optimal Dosage of War
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My sense is that, ever since the 2009 Eurozone Crisis, opinions about the long term prospects for Europe have tended to be pessimistic. This pessimism ebbs and flows, but it always seems most acute when people look at really long term trends. If you want an incredibly detailed breakdown of the structural and economic reasons for that pessimism I would suggest reading Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century by Helen Thompson. (Review coming in the next roundup.) If you want a right-wing, immigration-skeptical case for pessimism I’d recommend the Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. And if you don’t want to have to read a whole book, here’s an article from Politico which provides a decent snapshot of Europe’s problems at the beginning of 2020.
The point of this essay is not to get into the specific reasons for this pessimism, though everyone seems to agree that the financial union is a mess, migrant assimilation is not going very smoothly, and even if they figure those two things out, low birthrates will doom Europe eventually regardless.
This was the primary reason given by Richard Hanania for assuming that Ukraine wouldn’t put up much of a fight if Russia did invade:
Even setting aside the geography of the country, there is no instance I’m aware of in which a country or region with a total fertility rate below replacement has fought a serious insurgency. Once you’re the kind of people who can’t inconvenience yourselves enough to have kids, you are not going to risk your lives for a political ideal.
That, along with everything I’ve mentioned thus far was written before the invasion. So where does that sense of pessimism stand now? How are the people who couldn’t inconvenience themselves enough to have kids doing against the might of Russia? Pretty well all things considered, nor did the rest of Europe decide to sit things out. Sure, Germany dragged its feet quite a bit before eventually agreeing to send 14 tanks, and there are certainly pockets of people who think that the war is either a money pit or risks nuclear escalation, but by and large the governments in Europe have done a good job of coming together. Enough so that you almost detect a spirit of optimism, or at least a can-do attitude that appeared to be missing before the invasion.
I’m not saying that level of optimism is huge, or even durable, but after 11 months of fighting people seem to be working together better, and moving towards something. And it always helps to feel like your side is doing well. And whether Ukraine is winning or not, they’re definitely not losing which is what everyone expected. Russia turned out to not be as scary as people thought. Also, the winter has been unusually mild so there hasn’t really been an energy crisis. Lastly, it feels like the financial mess has also receded into the background. For me at least it feels like there’s a vitality which wasn’t there before the invasion.
It’s not just in Europe that we’ve seen this switch. Here in America, we allocated $40 billion in aid, and while federal spending has reached a point where it’s hard to tell what a truly significant sum is anymore, that is still a lot of money. And the biggest miracle of all, basically 85%, in both houses, voted for it. It was that rarest of all things in politics these days, a significant piece of legislation that didn’t boil down to a straight party line vote. Beyond that I have it on reliable authority that Ukrainian flags are flying outside not only homes in upscale urban neighborhoods, but also in trailer parks in the deep south.
You genuinely get the sense that after years of the two sides racing apart and only thinking the worst of their opponents. That a spirit of optimism and cooperation has taken root. To the extent that I’m correct (and I think I am) it’s still very limited — it’s entirely located with things related to the war in Ukraine. We’ve yet to come together on much of anything else. Still maybe it’s a start.
More importantly, from my perspective I think it’s evidence of the thesis I laid out in my post The Solution to Conflict Is More Conflict. For those who aren’t familiar with my entire back catalog, here it is:
The chief reason for the current level of conflict within the nation is the lack of external, unifying threats to the nation.
In the post I spent a lot of time laying a foundation for that thesis, bringing in the book American Carnage by Tim Alberta, and his discussion of the tension between individual liberalism and democratic homogeneity, really it was good stuff, but for our purposes I said that the Long Peace was an undiscussed phenomenon when considering why politics had gotten so nasty. From that post:
[T]he question I started with was how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently? With this [thesis] in hand, the answer boils down to: war. Or to look at it from the other direction, the Long Peace. The lack of wars between the great powers since the end of World War II and the development so beloved by people like Steven Pinker, has, somewhat paradoxically, led to another kind of war, the current internal political war. Just as Pashtun Tribesmen will stop fighting their cousins in order to fight the Americans, Republicans will stop fighting Democrats in order to fight the Nazis. But go back to this fight once those external enemies are defeated.
You may argue that the problems with unity didn’t start in 1946, and that’s a fair point, but even though the Cold War didn’t feature any direct hostilities between great powers, there were lots of proxy wars and as someone who grew up while the Soviet Union still existed, I can tell you it definitely felt like they were a threat. As further evidence of unity I offer up the Cold War policy that politics stops at the water’s edge. Something which definitely is not in effect now, and which can’t all be blamed on Trump either.
With the invasion of Ukraine, war returned, and just as I predicted, when we began to focus on fighting Russia, we focused a little less on fighting each other. But this is a very risky and expensive way to achieve that outcome. And our first question, after noticing the connection, is can we achieve this effect without war?
There have been various progressive attempts to frame things this way; to frame things as a war to get the benefits of unity and mobilization without the downsides of the destruction and death that accompany an actual war. There was Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty and Carter declared that the energy crisis was the “moral equivalent of war”, though the phrase first appeared in a William James speech given in 1906. At the time he was considering the same problem we are: maintaining unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or some other credible threat. I’m not sure if progressives, who now use the language of war and mobilization with respect to global warming, are concerned about the same thing that James, but if the war framing works it won’t matter. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear to. In fact, if anything, these efforts have seemed to deepen the disunity between the parties.
If we can’t achieve unity in the absence of war through conventional means, perhaps there are more exotic options. I mean basically this is a problem with the way humans are wired right? What if we could change that wiring? We use immunosuppressants to dial down overactive immune systems. Could we do something similar with the humanities overactive threat detection? We’ll call this the transhumanist answer to the problem, and in addition to rewiring humans, we should also toss AI based solutions into this bucket. Perhaps an AI would be able to fine tune the information we receive in the perfect way, allowing us to feel just the right level of threat for just the right reasons, but no more.
Interestingly enough this was the solution offered by the book War What Is It Good For, by Ian Morris (see my review here.) He expects that war will inevitably return once the US Hegemony collapses, which he expects to happen no later than the 2050’s, but as many people are predicting the singularity to arrive in the 2040’s, he hopes that just as the Long Peace ends AI will be ready to take over.
I agree that the possibility of a transhumanist solution is not entirely ridiculous. One of them certainly could happen, but rewiring humans at the scale required would be a gigantic problem with insane logistics that are still mostly in the realm of science fiction. The AI solution seems closer — though I continue to maintain that it’s farther away than people think — but we still have to solve the alignment problem, or the AI could easily be making war against us.
If war is in fact the only potential solution to this problem, we should at least check to see whether it carries any other benefits. I covered this in a previous post, so I’m not going to go too deep here, but many people have theorized that, in addition to political unity, wars turbocharge innovation, act to cull dysfunctional regimes, lessen overall violence, and result in larger nations with greater economies of scale.
One benefit I didn’t cover in that previous post was war’s effect on the aforementioned fertility rate of the belligerents. The most famous bump in fertility, the baby boom, happened in the immediate aftermath of a war. Perhaps we’ll see a similar increase in Ukraine and Russia either after or during the current war? Is it possible the increase will be big enough to replace all the casualties and then some? Most nations experienced a baby boom similar to America’s immediately following WWII, and while I didn’t actually work through the math, if I eyeball things, it looks like the excess births were vastly greater than the deaths caused by the war. You may have noticed I said most nations. Russia was one of the exceptions, but WWII was immediately followed by a famine, and despite this one-two punch, their population had recovered to pre-war levels by 1953. The causal relationship is very speculative, but it should be mentioned that Russia’s population has been flat since the end of the Cold War. It will be interesting to see if the war in Ukraine moves the needle at all. Obviously we’re pretty far into hypotheticals at this point, but if that were the case it would pose an interesting quandary to those whose biggest concern is demographic collapse.
I mentioned innovation and it’s worth going into that a little bit deeper, given that many people have started to worry that our rate of innovation is slowing. And, if you don’t want to regress to a lower level of technology, continued innovation is required to solve the problems innovation has already created. The big example of this for most people is global warming. While there are some who advocate retreating to a less resource intensive lifestyle, the political will simply isn’t there. The only solution that is both effective and politically palatable is to keep pushing forward with new technology. Of course many would argue, myself included, that we already dropped the ball when we stopped building new nuclear reactors. It’s interesting to imagine how that might have played if we’d been involved in an actual great power conflict. You may disagree, but I think we would have never ended up being derailed and eventually consumed by safetyism.
To return to the topic we started with, it seems increasingly likely that wars may be bad for the health of dictatorships, but good for the health of democracies. I mentioned the renewed optimism, but on top of that war is one of the few things that reduces inequality. You may not be worried about inequality as such, but democracies are always vulnerable to being gutted out by an oligarchic elite. Wars serve to prevent that. Not only do they defuse the power of the entrenched interests. (If you don’t prioritize efficiency over connections you eventually lose wars.) They also help to tie groups of selfish individuals into nations. If you have a strong national identity democracies can work, if you don’t they begin to collapse (as we’re starting to see.) War is the best way of creating that identity, and Ukraine is a powerful example of exactly this process.
Finally there’s the question implied by the title of the post. Is there some optimum level of war? We have long imagined that the answer was zero, and I think most people, including myself, would hope that that’s the case. But just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean that it is. There comes a time when you have to deal with the world as it is, not the world as you wish it to be. But if we decide that some level of war above zero is optimal, how would we ever manage that?
A theme I keep returning to (see my last post) is that in the past the world naturally provided all the challenges necessary to keep us healthy, but that’s no longer the case. These days the idea of intentionally starting a war would be considered barbaric, even if we were doing it in order to get our “recommended annual dosage of war”. If we were able to surmount those monumental objections we would need to ensure that these wars didn’t escalate into an out of control exchange of nukes. If we were able to navigate all of these challenges, one final challenge remains, would people react the same to artificial war as they do to actual war? Would it provide the unity, the desired sacrifice, and the necessary innovation? Probably not.
This is one of the reasons why past examples of this effect have been fleeting. Certainly there was a vast amount of unity in the wake of 9/11, but how long did it actually last? A couple of years? We didn’t really get any major boost to unity out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ukraine might be the exception, but how long do you expect the unity generated by the invasion to actually endure? Polling would indicate that we’re already starting to tire of it. Even if we’re not, it’s impossible to imagine that we won’t at some point.
What is to be done? Certainly one tactic would be to hope that I’m overstating things, or entirely wrong. That is one way to bet, but it doesn’t seem to be the way the evidence points. Though, such evidence will always, by necessity, but mostly anecdotal, there are not enough wars and not enough nations for it to be otherwise. Beyond that I’m not sure. It does appear to be a particularly thorny problem, to be added to the vast collection of thorny problems we’re already dealing with.
An example of another thorny problem created by modernity: the issue of getting paid for content when things can be copied trivially and distributed freely. I don’t know that I’m any closer to solving that than I am to solving the problem of unity in the absence of war, but while I’m thinking about it consider donating. Maybe it will help…