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Will a Global Depression Trigger Another World War?

The coronavirus pandemic has already devastated the international economy. Its military fallout remains to be seen.

The bronze sculpture "Depression Bread Line" by George Segal—seen here on March 7, 2009, at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington—shows five men waiting in line near a door during the Great Depression and the inactivity and troubles of everyday citizens then.
The bronze sculpture "Depression Bread Line" by George Segal—seen here on March 7, 2009, at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington—shows five men waiting in line near a door during the Great Depression and the inactivity and troubles of everyday citizens then. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

By many measures, 2020 is looking to be the worst year that humankind has faced in many decades. We’re in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed more than 280,000 lives, sickened millions of people, and is certain to afflict millions more before it ends. The world economy is in free fall, with unemployment rising dramatically, trade and output plummeting, and no hopeful end in sight. A plague of locusts is back for a second time in Africa, and last week we learned about murderous killer wasps threatening the bee population in the United States. Americans have a head-in-the-sand president who prescribes potentially lethal nostrums and ignores the advice of his scientific advisors. Even if all those things magically disappeared tomorrow—and they won’t—we still face the looming long-term danger from climate change.

Given all that, what could possibly make things worse? Here’s one possibility: war. It is therefore worth asking whether the combination of a pandemic and a major economic depression is making war more or less likely. What does history and theory tell us about that question?

For starters, we know neither plague nor depression make war impossible. World War I ended just as the 1918-1919 influenza was beginning to devastate the world, but that pandemic didn’t stop the Russian Civil War, the Russo-Polish War, or several other serious conflicts. The Great Depression that began in 1929 didn’t prevent Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931, and it helped fuel the rise of fascism in the 1930s and made World War II more likely. So if you think major war simply can’t happen during COVID-19 and the accompanying global recession, think again.

But war could still be much less likely. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Barry Posen has already considered the likely impact of the current pandemic on the probability of war, and he believes COVID-19 is more likely to promote peace instead. He argues that the current pandemic is affecting all the major powers adversely, which means it isn’t creating tempting windows of opportunity for unaffected states while leaving others weaker and therefore vulnerable. Instead, it is making all governments more pessimistic about their short- to medium-term prospects. Because states often go to war out of sense of overconfidence (however misplaced it sometimes turns out to be), pandemic-induced pessimism should be conducive to peace.

Moreover, by its very nature war requires states to assemble lots of people in close proximity—at training camps, military bases, mobilization areas, ships at sea, etc.—and that’s not something you want to do in the middle of a pandemic. For the moment at least, beleaguered governments of all types are focusing on convincing their citizens they are doing everything in their power to protect the public from the disease. Taken together, these considerations might explain why even an impulsive and headstrong warmaker like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman has gotten more interested in winding down his brutal and unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen.

Posen adds that COVID-19 is also likely to reduce international trade in the short to medium term. Those who believe economic interdependence is a powerful barrier to war might be alarmed by this development, but he points out that trade issues have been a source of considerable friction in recent years—especially between the United States and China—and a degree of decoupling might reduce tensions somewhat and cause the odds of war to recede.

For these reasons, the pandemic itself may be conducive to peace. But what about the relationship between broader economic conditions and the likelihood of war? Might a few leaders still convince themselves that provoking a crisis and going to war could still advance either long-term national interests or their own political fortunes? Are the other paths by which a deep and sustained economic downturn might make serious global conflict more likely?

One familiar argument is the so-called diversionary (or “scapegoat”) theory of war. It suggests that leaders who are worried about their popularity at home will try to divert attention from their failures by provoking a crisis with a foreign power and maybe even using force against it. Drawing on this logic, some Americans now worry that President Donald Trump will decide to attack a country like Iran or Venezuela in the run-up to the presidential election and especially if he thinks he’s likely to lose.

This outcome strikes me as unlikely, even if one ignores the logical and empirical flaws in the theory itself. War is always a gamble, and should things go badly—even a little bit—it would hammer the last nail in the coffin of Trump’s declining fortunes. Moreover, none of the countries Trump might consider going after pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and even his staunchest supporters may wonder why he is wasting time and money going after Iran or Venezuela at a moment when thousands of Americans are dying preventable deaths at home. Even a successful military action won’t put Americans back to work, create the sort of testing-and-tracing regime that competent governments around the world have been able to implement already, or hasten the development of a vaccine. The same logic is likely to guide the decisions of other world leaders too.

Another familiar folk theory is “military Keynesianism.” War generates a lot of economic demand, and it can sometimes lift depressed economies out of the doldrums and back toward prosperity and full employment. The obvious case in point here is World War II, which did help the U.S economy finally escape the quicksand of the Great Depression. Those who are convinced that great powers go to war primarily to keep Big Business (or the arms industry) happy are naturally drawn to this sort of argument, and they might worry that governments looking at bleak economic forecasts will try to restart their economies through some sort of military adventure.

I doubt it. It takes a really big war to generate a significant stimulus, and it is hard to imagine any country launching a large-scale war—with all its attendant risks—at a moment when debt levels are already soaring. More importantly, there are lots of easier and more direct ways to stimulate the economy—infrastructure spending, unemployment insurance, even “helicopter payments”—and launching a war has to be one of the least efficient methods available. The threat of war usually spooks investors too, which any politician with their eye on the stock market would be loath to do.

Economic downturns can encourage war in some special circumstances, especially when a war would enable a country facing severe hardships to capture something of immediate and significant value. Saddam Hussein’s decision to seize Kuwait in 1990 fits this model perfectly: The Iraqi economy was in terrible shape after its long war with Iran; unemployment was threatening Saddam’s domestic position; Kuwait’s vast oil riches were a considerable prize; and seizing the lightly armed emirate was exceedingly easy to do. Iraq also owed Kuwait a lot of money, and a hostile takeover by Baghdad would wipe those debts off the books overnight. In this case, Iraq’s parlous economic condition clearly made war more likely.

Yet I cannot think of any country in similar circumstances today. Now is hardly the time for Russia to try to grab more of Ukraine—if it even wanted to—or for China to make a play for Taiwan, because the costs of doing so would clearly outweigh the economic benefits. Even conquering an oil-rich country—the sort of greedy acquisitiveness that Trump occasionally hints at—doesn’t look attractive when there’s a vast glut on the market. I might be worried if some weak and defenseless country somehow came to possess the entire global stock of a successful coronavirus vaccine, but that scenario is not even remotely possible.

If one takes a longer-term perspective, however, a sustained economic depression could make war more likely by strengthening fascist or xenophobic political movements, fueling protectionism and hypernationalism, and making it more difficult for countries to reach mutually acceptable bargains with each other. The history of the 1930s shows where such trends can lead, although the economic effects of the Depression are hardly the only reason world politics took such a deadly turn in the 1930s. Nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarian rule were making a comeback well before COVID-19 struck, but the economic misery now occurring in every corner of the world could intensify these trends and leave us in a more war-prone condition when fear of the virus has diminished.

On balance, however, I do not think that even the extraordinary economic conditions we are witnessing today are going to have much impact on the likelihood of war. Why? First of all, if depressions were a powerful cause of war, there would be a lot more of the latter. To take one example, the United States has suffered 40 or more recessions since the country was founded, yet it has fought perhaps 20 interstate wars, most of them unrelated to the state of the economy. To paraphrase the economist Paul Samuelson’s famous quip about the stock market, if recessions were a powerful cause of war, they would have predicted “nine out of the last five (or fewer).”

Second, states do not start wars unless they believe they will win a quick and relatively cheap victory. As John Mearsheimer showed in his classic book Conventional Deterrence, national leaders avoid war when they are convinced it will be long, bloody, costly, and uncertain. To choose war, political leaders have to convince themselves they can either win a quick, cheap, and decisive victory or achieve some limited objective at low cost. Europe went to war in 1914 with each side believing it would win a rapid and easy victory, and Nazi Germany developed the strategy of blitzkrieg in order to subdue its foes as quickly and cheaply as possible. Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 because Saddam believed the Islamic Republic was in disarray and would be easy to defeat, and George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 convinced the war would be short, successful, and pay for itself.

The fact that each of these leaders miscalculated badly does not alter the main point: No matter what a country’s economic condition might be, its leaders will not go to war unless they think they can do so quickly, cheaply, and with a reasonable probability of success.

Third, and most important, the primary motivation for most wars is the desire for security, not economic gain. For this reason, the odds of war increase when states believe the long-term balance of power may be shifting against them, when they are convinced that adversaries are unalterably hostile and cannot be accommodated, and when they are confident they can reverse the unfavorable trends and establish a secure position if they act now. The historian A.J.P. Taylor once observed that “every war between Great Powers [between 1848 and 1918] … started as a preventive war, not as a war of conquest,” and that remains true of most wars fought since then.

The bottom line: Economic conditions (i.e., a depression) may affect the broader political environment in which decisions for war or peace are made, but they are only one factor among many and rarely the most significant. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic has large, lasting, and negative effects on the world economy—as seems quite likely—it is not likely to affect the probability of war very much, especially in the short term.

To be sure, I can’t rule out another powerful cause of war—stupidity—especially when it is so much in evidence in some quarters these days. So there is no guarantee that we won’t see misguided leaders stumbling into another foolish bloodletting. But given that it’s hard to find any rays of sunshine at this particular moment in history, I’m going to hope I’m right about this one.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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