Monday, October 3, 2016

The Wages Of Weakness

     “Wars are caused by undefended wealth.” – Douglas MacArthur.

     Does it seem to you, Gentle Reader, that the whole world is mobilizing? That the large military powers – other than the United States, that is – are flexing their muscles for the rest of the world to see? That the relatively low international tensions of just a decade or two ago are mere memories fading before the threats of an ever more militarized present?

     Yes, even during the Bush I and II years we had some troubles. However, they were not international troubles. I’ve emphasized that word twice now. Perhaps you can see why.

     The correlation of rising international militarism and aggressive gestures by Russia, China, and their proxies with the decline of American military power and assertiveness is so strong that it cannot be overlooked. The lesson is there for anyone with eyes to see and a mind that will accept the verdict.

     Very few persons – surprisingly to some, more than zero, but still very few – actually look forward to war. Soldiers dislike the prospect more than civilians. Of course they do! Theirs are the lives most immediately endangered by warfare. You’d see no acknowledgement of that in the statements of Leftists, of course. To them, the very existence of a capable military is prima facie evidence that someone, somewhere is hoping for a war.

     I’m well acquainted with both human stupidity and the prevalence of wishful thinking. Far too many persons see only what they want to see...even if it isn’t there. But the Left’s habitual condemnation of the military, to say nothing of its hostility to weaponry, reflects so much stupidity (among the rank and file), and expresses so much hypocrisy (among their well-protected “leaders”) that contemplating it brings me near to the point of nausea.

     General MacArthur had the right of it.


     Violence of any sort is fueled by one of two motives:

  • Passion;
  • Profit.

     Now and then these will blend: i.e., the rulers of a nation will succeed in whipping the hoi polloi into a passionate war frenzy from which those rulers and their cronies hope to profit, whether politically, materially, or in some combination. But one or the other motive will always be present.

     Throughout history, the majority of military aggressions have been animated by the profit motive: nation-states’ version of an armed robbery. And really, how plausible would any other motive be? While personal animus could conceivably account for some of the tiny wars that took place between pre-Westphalian nobles, ever since that time warfare has been the province of the nation-state.

     States do not go to war over affronts to “their dignity.” Even in such cases as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, it’s beyond question that the profit motive lurked behind the seeming willingness of the British Parliament to “get angry” at Spanish coast guards’ treatment of Robert Jenkins, an acknowledged smuggler.

     To make the inception of a war appear potentially profitable, there must be loot in prospect. For States, the loot is almost always territory, its inhabitants, and its other resources. If such a prize appears to be inadequately protected by military power, the temptation can become too great to resist.

     When there are a few Great Powers and many lesser ones, all that restrains the Great from preying on the lesser is the possibility that the other Greats will respond. When such a response is deemed unlikely, the probability of military predation rises toward the tipping point. Indeed, the Great Powers might even enter into a quiet alliance for the divvying up of the world into “spheres of influence:” a polite term for a region in which a dominant nation treats the others as de facto clients, if not hostages to its will. That was approximately the case during the Nineteenth Century.

     Such is the geostrategic situation in the world of today.


     From about 1990 to about 2010, the military power and strategic alertness of the United States deterred Russia and Red China from undertaking any military predations. I need not go into gruesome detail about what’s happened since then. Nor should any Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch need a meticulous exegesis of the consequences of our diminution.

     Not being a fan of America’s “world policeman” role, I’ve often been of divided mind about recent developments. On the one hand, we’re less prone to inserting our olfactory apparatus into the troubles of faraway places than ever before. On the other, aggressive militarism, international violence, and the probability of more are more widespread than they’ve been since World War II. That’s not merely because we’ve refrained from flexing our own might.

     The postwar era in which the U.S. did explicitly extend “security guarantees” to many other nations (and implicitly to most of the rest) saw the world’s lesser states draw down their own self-protective capabilities, largely by attrition. This was most visible in Western Europe, where governmental expenditures on military preparedness dwindled year after year in favor of increased funding for ever more lavish welfare states. In effect, the U.S. assumed the burden of Europe’s defense that the European states abandoned. Despite our seemingly relaxed posture in this year of Our Lord 2016, the European states continue to assume that should hostilities break out, “America will take care of it.” That pattern was replicated to a more modest extent among the non-Communist nations of the Western Pacific, despite the steadily growing threat from expansionist Red China.

     That the empire-minded Putin regime over Russia and the territory-and-resources-hungry rulers of Red China have reacted by expanding their ambitions – and acting on them ever more assertively – should surprise no one. Why so many Americans express shock and dismay over these developments indicates that far too many of us have never realized that, among states as among men, “you get what you pay for.”


     This is a subject I dislike to belabor. It seems too obvious – that a detailed expansion on the mechanisms would constitute an insult to my Gentle Readers’ intelligence. However, the correctives are less than obvious – and more imperative than ever before in modern history.

     First and most immediate, the incoming administration in 2017 must make explicit America’s withdrawal from the “world policeman” role. That would include declaring expiration dates for our security guarantees under the North Atlantic Charter and any other relevant treaties. A Trump Administration would be more amenable to this than a Clinton Administration would be. Nevertheless, the need is unyielding. Strategic and military advisors must press the need upon whoever takes possession of the Oval Office.

     Second, the states of Europe and the Western Pacific must be encouraged to the verge of compulsion to form regional mutual-defense alliances. The states of Europe must revitalize their militaries. Those with nuclear capability must act to ensure their readiness, which has become dubious in recent years. One or two others – Germany comes to mind – must acquire such capabilities, preferably under American supervision.

     The states of the Western Pacific Rim have a harder row to hoe. Japan, Taiwan, and Australia require the protection of a nuclear arsenal. Nothing else will deter Red China. Perhaps they could form a “multi-lateral force” of the sort the U.S. once contemplated forming with our Wester European protectees. The alternative, of course, is for each of those nations to create its own deterrent, once again, under American supervision and with American assistance.

     Those who are reflexively opposed to the “proliferation” of “weapons of mass destruction” will of course bridle at this notion. That’s both pointless and foolish. Proliferation is already a fact – and several of the states that have nukes are no friends of freedom. Indeed, the only thing that’s guaranteed the continued existence of Israel these past five decades has been that nation’s (only recently admitted) nuclear arsenal. Consider how swiftly Ukraine’s sovereignty has been undermined since it ceded its nuclear inventory back to Russia.

     Nuclear weapons serve the cause of peace for a simple reason: aggression-minded rulers and governments know they’re under the nuclear crosshairs. They cannot escape the personal consequences of their decisions. When nukes are part of the equation, it’s not just soldiers, sailors, and airmen whose lives are in jeopardy from a war. No other variety of weapon makes that threat more definite...or more threatening.

     Once such a rebalancing of the international military scales has been accomplished, America could relax its own military readiness somewhat – but not entirely. “Wars are caused by undefended wealth,” and America holds the greatest concentration of wealth the world has ever known. For as long as we’re free and prosperous and determined to remain so, we will need a substantial military and an intercontinental nuclear capability sufficient to deter an “armed robbery writ large.” Consider the situation the late Tom Clancy described in his novel Debt of Honor, and ask yourself how likely his fictional Durling Administration would have been to recapture the islands a freshly nuclear-armed Japan had seized, had an ingenious stratagem not succeeded in destroying those Japanese ICBMs.


     There will always be exceptions to any “rule” about the decisions and actions of armed states, and the above skein of reasoning is no exception. As I wrote in 2002 at the old Palace of Reason:

     Conflict-resolution analysts have always based their approaches on the classic, game-theoretic approaches pioneered by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. These men, themselves mighty geniuses, built atop the economic understandings of David Ricardo and Vilfredo Pareto. The thinking of Ricardo, Pareto, and the rest of the scholium of classical economics took its founding insights from the father of all rational economic reasoning, Adam Smith.

     From Smith to the great thinkers of RAND and Hudson, we can trace an unbroken chain of calm, reasoned analysis, all of which rested on a silent, indispensable postulate: For any given thing a contestant in a contest might want, there is a maximum price he'd be willing to pay, and no more.

     Seems unassailable, doesn't it? The contrary proposition would be that there's someone willing to pay an infinite amount for some good. That would imply that he'd be willing to sacrifice his life, the lives of all his loved ones and friends, and everything else he could manipulate, to achieve some desideratum. Insane! Who would be left to enjoy whatever it was he had purchased?

     Before Black Tuesday, no one would have entertained the notion.

     Somewhere in my time closet, I have a button that says, "If you're willing to die, you can do anything." Perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement, but it points up an unpleasant truth. The sacrifice of one's own life, which has been called "the ultimate price," will buy a lot of things that are available for no other currency. Yet the willingness to make that sacrifice contradicts the unspoken assumption of classical economics. It renders conventional methods of valuation, and the reasoning by which we use them, impotent.

     The line of thought derived from Smith, whose fullest flowering arrived with Schelling, cannot cope with decisions that incorporate a willingness to pay an unbounded price.

     It gets worse when we include the nature of the "purchase" being made by the terror masters of our time: the destruction of innocent others. I mean analytically worse. How do we reproduce, in terms accessible to the non-suicidal mind, the value a terrorist places on carnage dealt to innocent others? The best of us can barely comprehend the possibility of sacrificing our lives to protect a loved one. But to throw away life and all it holds out to us merely to visit horror upon people we don't even know? From whose demise no good can flow?

     That postulate of economic rationality is what makes it possible to think about conflict resolution at all. Once removed, even the brilliance of Thomas Schelling can't cope with the results.

     Economic rationality is indispensable to deterrence theory. Because of that there remain unsolved problems: How to deal with an economically irrational, eschatologically minded state such as Iran, whose rulers are willing to see their nation and all its people destroyed if that would bring about the destruction of Israel and the emergence of the “twelfth imam,” for instance.

     Food for thought.

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