Rational despair and with the US almost always at war…

Mar 11, 2022
USA flag with soldiers and the Statue of Liberty
Image: Pixabay

It’s hard to know how to respond to a situation in which you have absolutely no confidence in the intelligence, the motivations or the historical understanding of those who lead us.

Given the simultaneous worsening crises revolving around the climate, geopolitics and now the prospect of World War 3, the young may be forgiven for experiencing an entirely rational form of despair.

One of the fundamental assumptions underpinning both the theory and practise of international relations is that policymakers are ultimately rational. In other words, even the most unhinged and self-absorbed leader will not act in ways that threaten his, they are always men, very survival. Vladimir Putin is currently submitting this idea to a searching examination.

Even before Putin launched Russia’s ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine, however, there were plenty of reasons for questioning the conventional wisdom and the strategic rationale to which it has given rise. History is replete with homicidal maniacs who’ve demonstrated a reckless indifference to their own fate, let alone that of humanity more generally.

World War 1 remains an instructive example of the way the foibles of individuals, especially but not only Kaiser Wilhelm and a cult of heroic, widely admired militarism culminated in the entirely pointless deaths of millions. Lest we feel too retrospectively smug about this, it’s worth remembering that thousands of young Australians make the annual pilgrimage, the plague and global geopolitics permitting, to honour the supposed defenders of our liberty who died at Gallipoli.

The fact that most of these no doubt well-intentioned youngsters appear to know next to nothing about that military campaign or the epic horrors of World War 1 more generally is not irrelevant. We can forgive the young and ignorant perhaps, but aren’t the rest of us supposed to be getting older and wiser? As recent events demonstrate, it seems not.

Two points are worth emphasising in this context. First, policymakers and their security advisors the world over seem to have been taken almost entirely by surprise by Putin’s actions, despite earlier conflicts in Georgia and Crimea, not to mention Syria. The perils of ‘group think’ and a reliance on the conventional strategic wisdom seem to be as significant as ever.

Second, and more fundamentally, perhaps, all of the intervening investment in various forms of deterrence have plainly not worked. While some commentators are pleased to see Western European governments committing to spending more on defence, the historical record strongly suggests that no matter how much additional military might states procure, there is absolutely no guarantee that potential aggressors will be deterred. On the contrary, World War 1 is also an instructive reminder that arms races generally end badly.

The great hope at present is that Russians themselves will either persuade or force Putin to change course. Autocratic regimes are especially vulnerable to the ‘bad emperor syndrome’, especially one that is supported by cronies who have profited from their leader’s centralisation of power. Senator Lindsey Graham may not be the only one hoping for the emergence of Russia’s Brutus, or at least a palace coup.

In the meantime, however, those of us with no capacity to influence events ie., everyone in Australia, must be thankful that economic sanctions, rather than all that expensive military hardware, has been the first option for those wishing to deter Russia. Two points are worth making about this, too.

First, there is no doubt that economic warfare can be very effective and cause great domestic plan for aggressors. Whether it’s enough to bring about leadership or even regime change remains to be seen, but at least millions of Russians haven’t been vaporised. Second, the logic of economic interdependence and its possible pacifying effects may yet save the day.

If enough oligarchs can’t access their yachts, send their precious offspring to British public schools or generally conspicuously consume on an international stage, then perhaps they will move against Putin. Whether that will satisfy the understandably unhappy Ukrainians is another question, but establishing a no fly zone is fraught with potentially cataclysmic dangers.

And there’s the rub: it turns out that almost no one is actually deterred by the massive quantities of nuclear and conventional weapons systems that consume scarce resources around the world. The United States, let’s not forget, has been at war with someone or other for 225 of its 243 years as an independent country. No surprise, then, that Russia and China might think double standards and hypocrisy are the only constants in international relations.

Thucydides was someone else who claimed to know something about human nature and the forces that shape the world, which may helped to explain his continuing popularity. One thing Thucydides did get right, though, is that the ‘great powers’ will have more say in determining consequential outcomes than the likes of Australia, despite the latter’s enthusiastic supporting role. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way.

At a time when Australian policymakers and the supportive chorus of strategic commentators in Canberra are talking about yet more spending on exotic and improbable weapons systems, it might seem quixotic in the extreme to urge the complete opposite. Yet no matter how many new submarines or missiles Australia acquires, it’s not going to make any difference to strategic calculations in Beijing, much less Moscow.

If that assumption is correct, why would we want to continue throwing good money after bad, when we might do something useful with it and even provide a much needed example of creative middle power policymaking? Actually doing something about climate change, which is still unambiguously the principal threat to Australia’s security, might be a start.

I have absolutely no expectation that this will happen. On the contrary, addressing conventional security problems is a good excuse to ignore all those limp-wristed environmental types and let ‘serious’ chaps (they’re still overwhelmingly men) get on with determining our collective fates. After all, they’ve done such a good job so far.

It’s hard to know how to respond to a situation in which you have absolutely no confidence in the intelligence, the motivations or the historical understanding of those who lead us. Luckily for me, I’m of an age where I won’t have to worry about it for too much longer. But for younger generations already facing unfolding climate collapse, all the blithe talk about a new round of inter-state warfare, possibly involving nuclear weapons, may be enough to invoke a very rational form of despair.

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