David Rothkopf

New dangers over the horizon

It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a ...

BEN STANSALL/Getty Images
BEN STANSALL/Getty Images

It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a fact and it has several origins.

First, fewer than 20 countries really possess the power to project force beyond their borders in any meaningful way. Further, only about a dozen have nuclear capability, and fewer still have any long-distance missile capability. And only one really has the capability to wage global war from space, land, sea, and air. (And that one seems stretched waging two regional conflicts in the Middle East.)

Further the costs associated with modern warfare are too high. The 20th Century delivered this message in devastatingly clear human terms and the economic costs were also proven to be immense. War went from being an all too regularly used form of diplomacy by other means to being madness.

It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a fact and it has several origins.

First, fewer than 20 countries really possess the power to project force beyond their borders in any meaningful way. Further, only about a dozen have nuclear capability, and fewer still have any long-distance missile capability. And only one really has the capability to wage global war from space, land, sea, and air. (And that one seems stretched waging two regional conflicts in the Middle East.)

Further the costs associated with modern warfare are too high. The 20th Century delivered this message in devastatingly clear human terms and the economic costs were also proven to be immense. War went from being an all too regularly used form of diplomacy by other means to being madness.

Major powers were forced not by goodness but by a rational calculus to find other ways to resolve disputes. Not always…but with greater regularity than in the past. To take just one example, Europe, once addicted to war, effectively swore off the continental conflicts that defined its history. For the most part, war became an affliction of failed or failing states or a very regionalized phenomenon. The big powers for the most part took on much weaker adversaries or engaged in proxy conflicts. And even those engagements have grown intolerably costly as advanced technologies were demonstrated to combine well with unconventional tactics on the part of weaker states engaging stronger ones.

While risks still abound, long term trends have been encouraging…Until now.

Take three news stories from the past week. The first is the piece in today’s Times indicating that U.S. commanders are contemplating increasing drone attacks in Pakistan due to concerns about inaction by the Pakistani military. The second concerns reports of a computer worm targeting the Iranian nuclear program. And the last is associated with the statement by Hugo Chavez that Venezuela, though sitting on an ocean of oil, needed to seriously explore "peaceful" nuclear technologies.

The first two are worrisome because they are harbingers of an era in which bloodless, tech-empowered over-the-horizon projections of force might become more effective and pervasive. The implication might well be that advanced powers would feel enabled to once again "rationally" project force. During the first phases of the industrial era, technology raised the costs of war to prohibitive highs. That, perversely, had a stabilizing effect. But now it may well be that the next generation of technologies have … at least temporarily while distribution of technologies or tech advantages are unequally distributed …a countervailing impact in the opposite direction.

The Chavez statement is worrisome for related reasons. First, it underscores that no one maintains a monopoly on any technology for long and sooner or later all technologies effectively become ubiquitous. Also, it hints that at some point the rational reasons for avoiding nuclear conflict won’t adhere as nuclear capabilities fall into the hands of more irrational actors. Certainly risks rise.

Finally, for the near to medium term, should "bloodless" white collar conflict be seen as the option of only advanced countries and a means by which they can impose their will on the unsettled regions of the emerging world…with very bloody consequences there…not only resentments grow but the poorer nations may feel legitimate in cultivating deterrents of a slightly older but still potent technological vintage. And it is worth considering that a WMD equipped terrorist is a particularly dangerous form of "medium" tech over-the-horizon option.

Which leaves me wondering if the technology revolution that has kept us comparatively safer for a while may now be ushering in a more dangerous world.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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