Mar 13

Imagine a world. Like this one. Where everything is going as it has. Sure the media regularly bemoans how awful life is in America, but overall, Americans live their lives, free of violence.

Then in one weekend, this changes. Maybe an Iranian boat crashes into a U.S. warship. (Or Iran seizes another U.S. Navy vessel. Or vice versa.) Or ISIS attacks a Special Operations compound in Iraq. Or North Korea fires a missile at Japan. The next events happen in a blur.

American planes take off and bomb pre-determined targets. Cruise missiles fly from battleships. U.S. paratroopers drop from the sky and marines seize beachheads. Tanks load on trains destined for shipping containers destined for some continent half-way across the globe. The nation fighting the U.S. will likely lose hundreds of thousands of people. America could lose thousands as well.

If the war is poorly thought-out or executed, or Murphy’s law comes to the vagaries of war, the initial casualties aren’t the only problems. With some countries, nuclear weapons could come into play. And the casualties would skyrocket or worse. The global economy could freeze up. As a society, we’ve forgotten that, more often than not, wars are terrible for the economy and, more importantly, terrible for people. We’ve forgotten since we’ve gone for so long without a major interstate war.

We wrote last week that Donald Trump is a war hawk. More importantly, despite some sane voices in his administration (McMaster and Mattis), he’s surrounded by other war hawks (Bannon and Miller). So we at On Violence believe the election of Trump makes another U.S. war or “military intervention”, in euphemism speech, more likely. Today, we’re going to run down our completely unscientific ranking of which countries America is mostly likely to go to war in the next four years and why.

Tomorrow we crown the winner, but I’m sure you know who that is...

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress.

“As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”

The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.

3. Yemen or Somalia

I’m lumping these two countries together because both suffer from failed state or near failed state status, and both have offshoots of extremist terrorist groups (AQAP in Yemen; Al-Shabaab in Somalia). In some ways, you could argue that we’re already at war there, if by war, you mean having troops on the ground fighting and launching drone strikes. JSOC is conducting active operations in both countries and indeed we all know the US lost a special operator in Yemen almost a month ago.

Going to war in one of these countries would probably be a slow escalation process, like Vietnam. We put more special operators on the ground to conduct more missions, using the previous failed missions as an excuse. Then we put more troops to support those troops. Then we need more troops to protect more troops and at some point we end up propping up the government. It’s Afghanistan redux.

4. North Korea

Unlike Yemen or Somalia, I see the North Korean situation igniting like a firecracker. North Korea remains intent on building a defensive/offensive military capability and it doesn’t matter how impoverished its people are in the meantime. Again, if Trump’s impulsiveness wins out, we could see a spark ignite this region.

North Korea also seems intent on taking advantage of U.S. dysfunction and poor relations with mainland China immediately. The amount of times North Korea has been in the news since the inauguration feels high. That said, we should caution that it often seems like war with North Korea is imminent every spring. We wrote about the “war that wasn’t” a few years back, based on On The Media’s excellent coverage of the issue. As we wrote about Iran, a war with North Korea could be awful, even without the nuclear weapons.

(As a side note, North Korea really is the argument for free market capitalism and democracy as opposed to agrarianism/trade protectionism and authoritarianism. It’s pretty clearly the least developed/poorest nation in the world, and it has the least amount of trade with the outside world. This is what happens when you try to control an economy completely through the state and your awful leaders can’t be voted out of office.)

5. Eastern Europe

Everything in Eastern Europe/Ukraine points to an unlikely-to-happen, but still possible conflict or escalation. Trump could believe he needs to stand up to Putin, and draws the line in the sand in Ukraine. Putin wants to continue to expand his sphere of influence and his insistent meddling in European elections causes the EU/NATO to stand up against him as well. So a war breaks out.

The gigantic stockpiles of nuclear weapons on each side make this scenario unlikely. As crazy as each side is, I just can’t see a war starting because of that. (Though I would feel safer if neither side had those weapons, actively armed or at all.)

Wild card: Small East Asian nation

I’m thinking Myanmar, Philippines or Thailand, nations with a small Muslim minority population that could draw in America as an excuse. Violence recently flared up in Myanmar, though that country has become more democratic. For a war hawk, the enticing thing about small East Asian nations (Myanmar or Thailand) is they seem small and easy to conquer, er invade, er conduct military operations in...until you get there. The Philippines is large and unwieldy, but we’ve had troops on the ground there throughout the war on terror.

Wild card: Latin America

In the 1980s, we used to adventure down south for military interventions pretty frequently (Panama, Grenada, some stuff in Nicaragua/Costa Rica, UK in Falklands). Venezuela, a popular villain in right-wing media for years, is a the pretty obvious place the United State could intervene, but even countries like Ecuador have tried to stand up to the US in diplomatic terms. The flare up here could be trade, could be immigration or could be drugs.

Feb 17

Sooner or later, I was going to write a post on my complicated relationship with General Mike Flynn. When I went to the Military Intelligence Captains’ Career Course, Flynn had been on a roll, publishing papers critical of Military Intelligence and the IC in general during the War on Terror. Here’s a vaguely positive quote from a very old post:

“The Army needs an AAR at the highest level. General Flynn, the head intelligence officer in Afghanistan, recently published an article at CNAS titled “Fixing Intel.” It reads like an AAR summary. But why did he have to publish a paper in CNAS?”

In person I was even more pro-Flynn. Then he became a crazy person who took payments from Russia and gave speeches in Russia and went on Russia Today...you get the idea. Then he did his speech at Trump’s Republican National Convention, promising to lock up his political opponent, an idea he must have gotten from all his time in Russia. I was even more dismayed to find that he believes ISIS poses an existential threat to America. (Which is absurd.) And that we are in a generational war with Islam. (We aren’t.)

Fortunately, he got fired before we had to dive into his generally war-hawk views and his potential disastrous run as national security adviser. But we have some more thoughts:

1. The NSA position should be approved by the Senate

Some people have pointed out that the scandal isn’t over Flynn’s firing but his hiring. And we agree. But like always, we want to offer solutions.

Here’s one: the National Security Advisor should be a cabinet level position. This should be a policy priority of Democrats. (We would throw in any permanent members of the National Security Council Principals Committee as well.)

2. Flynn had a super low VORP.

We agree with the consensus: we’re happy Flynn is not National Security Advisor anymore. But why?

Due to a notable lack of statistics, it is hard to conduct an “advanced metrics” analysis of politicians. (The analytics revolution hasn’t hit politics. Yet.) Wouldn’t it be great to know the politicians who out-perform their metrics at any given time on a regular basis? Like including efficiency metrics or associating fund-raising with dollar per political vote?

Though we don’t have the data to do that actual analysis, I still think we, as political pundits, can do this “back of the envelope” style. And my preferred self-made statistic is “Value Over Replacement Politician”, a la sports metrics like VORP or WARP.

I developed this “VORP for Everyone” philosophy back in the military and I use it today as a manager. Basically, if you are a manager, your goal should be to manage a team of all-stars. If you do, you’ll be a rock star. If you have a team of replacement-level people, you’ll struggle to achieve results. And if you have below average people, you’ll set the organization back.

In politics, I don’t just mean VORP as in getting things done/effectiveness, I also mean in making good policy decisions. Joe Biden was probably an average VP in that he didn’t screw up much, but he also didn’t really do anything. John Kerry had a higher VORP than Hillary because he really sealed the deal with Iran and the P5+1 and the Paris Climate Change accord. In the Bush Administration, there were definitely some high performers in terms of accomplishing things, but those actions had disastrous consequences. For example, Vice President Cheney’s “replacement politician” probably wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

So that brings us to General Flynn. Flynn both had bad ideas (see above about civilizational war) and seemed to be ineffective. So, by being both ineffective and misguided, Flynn had a truly low VORP. In other words, if every reasonable candidate for National Security Adviser is ranked in their performance, you would have 0% (the worst potential candidate ever!) and 100% (the greatest Nat Sec Adviser ever!). Flynn is somewhere between 1% and 10%. The odds are overwhelming we will find a better (and safer) National Security Adviser.

(Though it looks like a solid candidate just turned Trump down.)

3. Trump is most upset at the leaks, so we’re glad Obama didn’t set attack leakers...oh wait, he did.

This entire scandal, the revelations about Flynn talking to Russia, came out through leaks. Clearly, leaks help keep the government honest by exposing wrongdoing. Presidents hate this.

Like President Obama, who aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers.

We’ll be writing updates on Wikileaks, Russia hacking, leaking and more in the months to come, but for now we’ll say this: we support responsible leaks in the public interest, shepherded and edited by responsible journalists. But the tools President Obama left for his successor to prosecute leakers should frighten us.

4. The real national security crisis.

A final point on hypocrisy. We’ll be writing about this for months, if not years, to come, but the Republican party's hypocrisy is becoming unbearable. Flynn opened up his convention speech arguing that Hillary Clinton’s email server put our national security at risk:

FLYNN: Yes; I use -- I use #neverHillary; that's what I use. I have called on Hillary Clinton, I have called on Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race because she, she put our nation's security at extremely high risk with her careless use of a private e-mail server.

And yet donald Trump, this weekend, discussed national security on the patio of Mar-a-lago. The hypocrisy of him and Republicans is astounding. Clearly, Republicans only investigated Hillary’s email server for political reasons. In retrospect, this is another argument against the media’s massive coverage of that issue.

Feb 13

When you consider the war on terror, the rough calculus has always been, “To keep Americans safe, the military does things (“direct action” in military jargon) that result in people being killed.” To keep Americans safe from terrorists abroad, America fires missiles from drones, but those drone strikes sometimes kill civilians (foreigners, obviously). To keep Americans safe from Saddam Hussein, we launched the second Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in that war and thousands of Americans, but we “kill them there before they kill us here”, as Senator Tom Cotton has described it. So following this logic, the Navy SEALs on SEAL Team 6 raided a compound in Yemen to find intel to keep Americans safe.

They also killed an eight year-old girl.

So Americans sacrificed the life of an eight year-old girl for our own safety.

Keeping in mind that this real life “trolley carscenario is morally dubious at best and morally bankrupt at worst, this tactic won't help win the "war on terror". We’ll write more about this raid later (and many more like it to come if this mission is a sampling of the future) but it is important to, for now, just point out how stupid it is to kill women and children. But we don’t need a new post to say that, we have a bunch of older ones:

- Killing Civilians Pisses People off: Why Accuracy Matters

- Don’t Burn Korans, Kill Children, or Drop Bomblets That Look Like Candy: An Incomplete List of Counter-Insurgency Do’s and Don’ts

- Let’s Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes

Through all these posts, one thing argument shines through: killing women and children almost always makes you look bad. No matter how skilled someone back at the Pentagon or White House is at justifying why eight year-old kids had to die to keep Americans safe, the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries don’t buy it. Killing children is the worst. This isn't the most original take, but one that can't be repeated enough.

Some other thoughts:

Also, Yemen has withdrawn permission for the U.S. to conduct operations there. This means that, even if you buy the counter-terrorism importance of the U.S. raids, this mission jeopardized that.

Some hot takes, from writers we respect, tried to question how much blame should be put on President Trump for this raid. Well, he halted all immigration from seven nations so he could review vetting procedures of refugees; he could have taken the same step here. Since an American SEAL and many other civilians lost their lives in this raid, we would argue that having a good process to vet potentially risky military operations would be just as wise.

And does anyone think that, had Hillary Clinton become President, Congress wouldn’t be calling for an investigation? Would this not be Hillary’s new Benghazi? So where are the Republicans calling for accountability now? Or was Benghazi more about politics than policy? (Yes.)

Feb 06

Both during the campaign and since he’s taken office, the Trump administration seems to have forgotten one major consequence of its “tough talk” regarding Iran. Putting countries “on notice” can cause war.

Trump--and the media he despises--have failed to mention that a potential war could cost thousands of Americans their lives.

We bring this up because, unfortunately, we have to respond to the President and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn putting Iran “on notice” for both supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen and testing ballistic missiles. Our simple reminder/hot take is this: war with Iran could be disastrous. Five years ago, we wrote 30 blog posts on the subject and then summarized those in a paper for The Small Wars Journal titled “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield”.

Bottom line in the middle/TLDR: Iran is larger--in population and landmass--than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Though their military is a fraction the size of America’s, they possess a lot of asymmetrical responses that could down our ships or planes--like speed boats armed with torpedoes and caches of anti-aircraft missiles--and multiple ways to attack/destabilize other countries in the region, should America try to pursue military options against them. Read the full paper to get a sense of how a war with Iran will not look like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

We can’t predict how a future war could go, so assuming it will be bloodless or painless, as much of the Trump administration/politicians/the media do, puts us all in danger. As the President (recklessly) talks tough about Iran, commentators and reporters need to frame the risks of war accurately.

(As we wrote about last week, the Trump administration creates so much news, we’ve decided to to respond to some headlines, when relevant, with our own unique takes. Last week, we discussed the “Muslim ban”.)

Feb 02

When we started the blog, we made the decision not to “respond to the headlines”. Frankly, there’s plenty of other websites that handle that just fine. We were also mostly non-partisan to start. As we’ll explain in a few weeks, that’s not relevant anymore.

As almost everyone heard, last Friday night, Donald Trump issued an executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, his first steps towards a “Muslim ban”, as Trump called it on the campaign trail. We could point out that the ban is cruel (which it is), could hurt the economy (which it will), will hurt America’s standing across the globe (which it has) or that it is ineffective (in the sense that it is already being used by terrorists for recruitment purposes), but others have already made all those points.

But we’d rather point out the fact that this bill is needless. Other commentators have pointed out the executive order targets refugees, who have largely not been involved in terrorism (you have a 1 in a 3 billion chance, rounded down, of being killed by a refugee). Or that the executive order targets seven specific countries none of whom’s nationals have committed terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

But we’d take this argument a step further: Terrorism itself is exceedingly rare. Only 3,400 Americans have been killed by terrorism in the last forty years on U.S. soil. That’s almost nothing.

But this sort of ban only occurs if the population is deathly afraid of terrorism. Fear is the emotion that drives terrible executives orders like this. Fear is what allows good Americans to support hurting the innocent. Fear is what keeps us from winning the “war on terror”. Politicians and the media need to contextualize violence and stop saying we live in a “dangerous world”. We need to stop overreacting to terrorism.

Or else dangerous policies like this will keep getting enacted.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

Today, we wanted to just out some “quick take” thoughts on our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2016”. These are the ideas that didn’t fill up an entire post, but are still worth sharing.

Quick Take #1: Is this the rise of the autocratic world order? Probably not.

One of the hot takes over the last few years has been the praise for China’s economic growth. China went from one of the poorest countries in the world to an economic juggernaut, and it hasn’t succumbed to democracy in the process. Combined with Russia’s meddling in global elections (definitely supporting far-right candidates in former Soviet bloc nations like Ukraine and Hungary, most likely hacking America’s election, possibly intervening in other democracies we don’t yet know about), this has helped lead to the “autocracies on the rise” narrative. If an illiberal America joins that group, we could have a new world order centered autocracies and dictatorships.

Not so fast. Ignoring that America isn’t an autocracy or illiberal democracy yet, as I wrote about last week, and ignoring that the EU isn’t dead yet, this hypothesis forgets how bad autocrats are at governing. Sure they can consolidate power, but they usually destroy their economy in the process. Example 1: Russia. Example 2: Egypt. Example 3: Cuba. Example 4: Venezuela. I could go on. And for three of those countries I just mentioned, the autocrats held onto control mainly through oil wealth, not good governance.

China is a miracle because it grew without democracy. But democracy is always right around the corner with China (Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong Umbrella Movement). In one election, America could right the ship (left the ship?). So no I don’t see a bright future for autocracy.

Quick Take #2: Free trade drives huge economic inequality.

The one clear problem with free trade is that the gains aren’t distributed evenly throughout the economy. When the free trade movement coalesced in the 1990s, we saw huge economic growth globally and billions were lifted out of poverty. But the upper 1% did even better. In America, despites decades of economic growth, median income growth has stalled. Globalization is a winner take all phenomenon.

Interestingly, the gains of globalization aren’t distributed evenly within the international system either. Or distributed evenly between businesses. Some poor countries just cannot get growth started and fail to benefit from open borders. Some national companies will fail to compete with multinational behemoths.

Inequality is a feature of the system, but fortunately one that could be corrected. The easiest solution is also the hardest: the uber wealthy nations and people of the world should directly transfer their wealth to the poorest. Super simple; super hard. But we’ve done huge wealth transfers before and that investment always pays off in multiples.

Quick Take #3: The "liberal world order" isn't perfect.

A hot counter to my articles last week is, “Yeah, has war really gone down? Is the liberal world order really so good?”

This argument would point to 9/11, then two American wars in Central Asia/Middle East. Then how, following the Arab Spring, the dictatorships were largely successful in crushing democratic uprisings. And that China has provided a model that seems like an alternative to democracy.

The world isn’t perfect, but the liberal world order doesn’t promise perfection, just progress. (We’ve debated before whether or not America’s actions make the world safer in general.) We’re talking about a broad trend of less war and more democracy. I would have loved to see democracies flourish in the Middle East, but we just haven’t developed the right strategy, tactics and institutions to help that messy transition. America could do much, much more, but we need to re-win the intellectual argument first.

Quick Take #4: This is an opening for China.

We have a theory about how you know if your sports team (Go Bruins!/Lakers!/Niners!) picks the wrong coach: does your rival team’s fans like the hire? Because if your rival team likes your pick, it’s probably because they thinks they’ll do a bad job.

I thought of this listening to Fareed Zakaria’s opening segment a few weeks ago. He made the point that China is cheering the election of Trump, since they feel his anti-trade stances will create an opening for China economically. Unfortunately, we agree with this assessment. Again, if your economic rival likes your pick for President, you probably picked wrong.

(I should caveat that Michael C doesn’t feel that China is a “rival”, certainly not an “enemy” and I agree. Too many countries are labelled negatively. Still, if America boycotts free trade, China stands to gain and they are an economic rival of America.)

Quick Take #5: The return to manufacturing? Why not a return to farming?

That’s really what’s so silly about the promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. The only reason people want the jobs back is because their parents did it. But all our great-great-grandparents were farmers, and we don’t want a “return to farming”. Progress has decreased the need for certain types of manual labor. First farming, and then manufacturing. What we want is good jobs, not specific types of good jobs.

Jan 30

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

One of the most surprising narratives about the 2016 election is that Americans hate trade. Both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the far left blamed free trade agreements for America’s employment issues, focusing their ire on both NAFTA and the doomed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. (Though they largely forgot about TTIP, which could be bigger than the TPP.)

Except, overall, most Americans actually support free trade agreements, at least according to 6 different polls.

Americans probably support free trade agreements because the facts back up that free trade makes the world a better place. Just listen to Fareed Zakaria interview the guy who led the talks for the TPP. Or read these Vox links:

- If you consider all people deserving of good lives, not just Americans, then it’s a good thing that trade lifted 1 billion Chinese people out of poverty.

- NAFTA barely impacted employment in America. (Though it probably affected the Midwest, which is actually just another argument against the electoral college.)

- Overall, trade has decreased the cost of goods for most Americans, especially poorer Americans. (Ironically, ending free trade will probably hurt the poorest Americans, especially red states, while hurting “coastal elites” or the top 1% less.)

- Manufacturing, over the last few years, has actually been increasing in America. This fact seems to undercut every other argument against free trade.

- And even if manufacturing returns to America, automation is a greater threat to blue collar jobs than trade deals.

But I don’t support all trade agreements unconditionally; I support good trade agreements. Some have criticized trade agreements as not doing enough to support workers or protect the environment. Or they give too much power to corporations. And I agree.

However, if the alternative to bad trade deals is no trade deals, that means you still don’t have protection for the environment or workers. Plus, you now have the potential for huge tariffs which could cripple the global economy. Of course, trade deals will still happen, with or without America. From NPR (emphasis mine):

WENDY CUTLER: A lot of other TPP countries...are now actively figuring out their plan B.

NORTHAM: That plan B could involve trade deals with China, says Meredith Sumpter, an Asia specialist at the Eurasia Group...

...China wasn't a part of the TPP. But it is already leading another free-trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, involving 10 Asian countries. About half of the countries involved in the TPP are signaling interest in that deal.

SUMPTER: Moving toward the RCEP would be an easy answer to trying to find something to replace the TPP. However, the RCEP is actually a much lower-quality trade pact than the TPP.

NORTHAM: The TPP was touted as the gold standard of trade pacts because of its stringent rules and protections for things such as labor, the environment and intellectual property - not so with the China-led trade deal, which just focuses on lowering tariffs.

So by pulling out of the TPP, we went from having a trade deal with some (albeit questionable) protections for the environment, workers and IP to none. By not having a seat at the table, it looks like America (and liberal activists) just made things worse for the environment, workers and the global economy.

I doubt that was their intention.

Jan 26

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought-Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2016: Trump, Brexit and Bears, Oh My!", please click here.)

The definition of insanity is mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior. It’s not, as far too many people repeat (and as Einstein almost certainly never said) doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. (That’s why you shouldn’t rely on bumper stickers for legal or mental health advice.)

And frankly, is the opposite a better definition of insanity? Couldn’t insanity be “when things are going great, deciding to do something different”. Like say, electing an unqualified failed businessman disrupt international institutions during a time of peace?

Yesterday, I wrote that, contrary to the conventional narrative, democracy was not under threat. Well, to be fair, it is always under threat. Autocrats or dictators or military juntas will always try to seize power. It has been that way since Athens in antiquity. Yet the idea of democracy is NOT under threat. Only the most fringe-y of fringe elements in America and Europe (and the government of China) would honestly make that argument.

But I will make the argument that the “liberal world order”--what I call “liberalism in foreign relations or IR”--is under threat. Others have made this argument, but it is important enough to say again. To prevent future global disasters--like World War II--and to reinforce human rights--in opposition to the Soviet Union--and to spearhead the greatest improvement in quality of life in history, the United States and Europe created a liberal international system, featuring:

- The spread of democracy as the ideal form of government

- The spread of market capitalism as the ideal economic system

- The spread of free trade between states

- The rise of international institutions to prevent war and support free trade

- The spread of human rights as a legal and moral norm

The last 70 years have been the most successful in human history and we’re about to screw it all up.

The liberal world order that defeated the Soviet Union has led to the spread of democracy and free trade around the globe. Yet the democratic underpinnings of the order have now sown its own demise. Despite decades of peace and prosperity in Europe, Britain voted to leave one of the biggest international organizations, the EU, which could affect both defense and free trade. Donald Trump is notably hostile to free trade deals and alliances, like NATO. President Trump has also expressed a disdain for democracies and an admiration for strongmen leaders. Other European countries appear poised to also leave or change their relationship with the EU, and Donald Trump is goading nations into making this disastrous choice.

This threatens all that we have built.

Why is this so dangerous? Yesterday, I referenced Kenneth Waltz' Man the State and War, one of the foundational texts of international relations theory. In it, Waltz describes three “images” to discuss the causes of war. Roughly, they are people (as in individuals), states (as in the type of governments) and the international system (how the states interact with one another). Yesterday, covered the second image, the type of states; in general, the more democracies we have, the less wars are fought.

(We never discussed the first image, the “personal level” or individual leaders. If Al Gore had become President, I doubt America goes to war in Iraq. Since Trump is President instead of Hillary Clinton, we do think war is more likely. We will have an entire series on Trump related to his foreign policy.)

But Waltz argues that the third image is really the most important. The conduct of states towards one another--the concert of states--can either make a beautiful symphony (peace!) or a ruinous cacophony (war). And while realists can argue against this, the run of the liberal world order for the last 70+ years has been the most successful eras at averting international crisis and interstate war in human history.

The previous system hit its high point after the Thirty Years War. By high point, I mean the most number of wars for the most sustained period of time. The “balance of power” so treasured by realists that was created after the Thirty Years War culminated in the second Thirty Years War between WWI and WWII (and too many wars to count in the interim), with regular continental wars (Napoleonic, Seven Years, Franco-Prussian, Spanish Wars of Succession, and more). Yeah, I’m not a realist but even realists have to admit that the global hegemony of the liberal world order during the Cold War has been more successful than their system.

The liberal world order is self-reinforcing: more democracies leads to more free trade which leads to more international organizations to manage it, all of which discourages war, which promotes more free trade, which makes more democracies and makes war less likely and so on. Yet the system can go in reverse as wars cause dictatorships in their aftermath that discourages free trade which removes the need for international institutions and so on.

What worries me about the liberal world order isn’t just the rebukes in the form of Brexit votes, Donald Trump’s election, or far right candidates winning elections across the Western world: it is what is to come. I can see a world where we have two great autocracies--Russia and China--buttressed by a democratically elected leader who allies with them, Donald Trump. I worry that if he erodes the international institutions and global trade system that have undergirded the system, it could take decades to bring them back.

But the biggest worry is war. The best way to relearn our deep appreciation of the liberal world order is in the ashes of war. As the rubble clears from a disastrous inter-state war between first world powers, we will all know why we worked so hard to prevent it.

Let’s not let it come to that.