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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Niall Ferguson

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Niall Ferguson

Last Build Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 00:17:10 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

The Next War of the World

Mon, 11 Sep 2006 00:17:10 -0600

In real terms, average per capita gdp roughly quadrupled between 1913 and 1998. By the end of the twentieth century, human beings in many parts of the world enjoyed longer and better lives than had been possible at any time before, thanks mainly to improved nutrition and health care. Rising wealth meant that more and more people were able to flee what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had called "the idiocy of rural life": between 1900 and 1980, the proportion of the world's population that lived in large cities more than doubled. And by working more productively, people had more time available for leisure. Some spent their free time successfully campaigning for political representation and the redistribution of income. As a result, governments ceased to confine themselves to providing only basic public goods, such as national defense and a fair judicial system, but instead became welfare states that sought nothing less than the elimination of poverty. It might have been expected that such prosperity would eliminate the causes of war. But much of the worst violence of the twentieth century involved the relatively wealthy countries at the opposite ends of Eurasia. The chief lesson of the twentieth century is that countries can provide their citizens with wealth, longevity, literacy, and even democracy but still descend into lethal conflict. Leon Trotsky nicely summed up the paradox when reflecting on the First Balkan War of 1912-­13, which he covered as a reporter. The conflict, Trotsky wrote, "shows that we still haven't crawled out on all fours from the barbaric stage of our history. We have learned to wear suspenders, to write clever editorials, and to make chocolate milk, but when we have to decide seriously a question of the coexistence of a few tribes on a rich peninsula of Europe, we are helpless to find a way other than mutual mass slaughter." Trotsky later made his own contribution to the history of mass slaughter as the people's commissar for war and as the commander of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Will the twenty-first century be as bloody as the twentieth? The answer depends partly on whether or not we can understand the causes of the last century's violence. Only if we can will we have a chance of avoiding a repetition of its horrors. If we cannot, there is a real possibility that we will relive the nightmare. BLAME GAME There are many unsatisfactory explanations for why the twentieth century was so destructive. One is the assertion that the availability of more powerful weapons caused bloodier conflicts. But there is no correlation between the sophistication of military technology and the lethality of conflict. Some of the worst violence of the century -- the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s and central Africa in the 1990s, for instance -- was perpetrated with the crudest of weapons: rifles, axes, machetes, and knives. Nor can economic crises explain the bloodshed. What may be the most familiar causal chain in modern historiography links the Great Depression to the rise of fascism and the outbreak of World War II. But that simple story leaves too much out. Nazi Germany started the war in Europe only after its economy had recovered. Not all the countries affected by the Great Depression were taken over by fascist regimes, nor did all such regimes start wars of aggression. In fact, no general relationship between economics and conflict is discernible for the century as a whole. Some wars came after periods of growth, others were the causes rather than the consequences of economic catastrophe, and some severe economic crises were not followed by wars. Many trace responsibility for the butchery to extreme ideologies. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the years between 1914 and 1991 "an era of religious wars" but argues that "the most militant and bloodthirsty religions were secular ideologies." At the other end of the political spectrum, the conservative historian Paul Johnson blames the violence on "the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility [and] the repudi[...]