How Does This Economic Slide Turn Into A Major War?

I’ve been researching for some time the ways that this worsening economic situation can become a major war.

I don’t mean a non-congressionally-declared police action war, the type we’ve grown used to after decades of political sideshows like Afghanistan and Iraq, but a real geopolitical game changer like World War II. A depression preceded WWII, after all. Might not a great war follow the coming depression?

About the only asset that runaway spending has bought the United States in the past 40 years is the largest, most capable military ever seen on Earth. To default on debt and slide into obscurity without ever cashing in that investment would be folly, would it not? Finding an excuse for, or inciting, a global war that would vanquish sovereign lenders, lock up for the US and its allies what’s left of the planet’s oil, get Americans working again, and restart the global economy with imbalances fixed would be appealing to a country still spending close to $1 trillion per year on “defense,” including budget items that don’t show up as official Pentagon programs.

However, I’m having trouble finding a reasonable catalyst, should one be needed. Per the articles of the past two days at this site, a catatonic populace doesn’t require much in the way of reasonable explanations anymore. Witness the thin gruel that passed as rationale for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The images of 9/11 were shocking, true, but did not justify full-scale invasions of countries not responsible for the attack. Few thoughtful people find strategic value in either war, particularly the farcical idea that it’s a US duty to bring democracy to people in Afghanistan who don’t want it.

Assuming for a moment that a reasonable catalyst will even be needed to spark a great war, what would it be? Obvious choices include another Middle East blow-up, nudging North Korea over the edge, and tricking China into trying to forcibly take Taiwan. The most desirable foe for the US to vanquish would be China, so I lean toward a situation being manufactured in Asia that would enable the US and its allies to face China head-on.

Is a major war like WWII even possible anymore, given that major powers possess nuclear capability? Probably, because the capabilities are not equal. Now we enter a speculative area of this thought process because hardly anybody knows exactly what each nation’s military capabilities are. For example, what type of missile shield exists over the United States and its allies? Here in Japan it’s commonly believed that a nearly impenetrable shield, developed jointly by the United States and Japanese militaries, cloaks the archipelago. Yet, I can find no evidence of that. The response? “Of course you can’t — it’s top secret.” So it goes in this part of the research.

I’d like to throw this topic open to my enviable cadre of smart, informed readers. If you have ideas about how a major war waits at the end of this gathering depression, or reasons you think it doesn’t, please leave a comment below.

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  1. EJ
    Posted July 9, 2010 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Check out Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer. He was on Democracy Now (Thurs, July 8, 2010).

  2. EJ
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    America would not be involved in it’s current land “wars” in Asia if all consumers, I mean – citizens, had to participate in these “national security interests”.

    I know several bright kids who just graduated from both college and high school, these graduates, as well as their parents, seem oblivious that America is at “war.” However, these unattentive parents would be out in the streets rioting if there were a chance that their children might have to “defend” the country.

  3. Posted July 5, 2010 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the next wave of global unrest has already revealed itself to us. Have you noticed the small civil uprisings recently in China last year, Greece this year and the riots in Bangkok? These three incidents all have a common thread. Class warfare. The have-nots protest to convince the government to treat them with more respect (or to commence with the hand-outs) Eventually it gets violent. In the near term, I think we will see more incidents like this that become much more violent and scary. Some may happen in ever more respectable countries like Italy or Spain.

    I don’t forsee any major conflict in the near term, but I wouldn’t rule out an Israeli strike on Iran shortly following the U.S. Election this year. The U.S. navy will be drawn into it in order to secure the Strait or Hormuz. The Isrealis will probably give no warning to us and they hope to make Obama look weak in the process. Paybacks are hell.

    My guess is that WWIII is a conflict over control of the oceans. Major exporters like Japan, China, Germany, and even the U.S. will need to ensure free passage for their economies to survive. You may ask, is not free passage already in place and ensured by international law? The answer is, “so far”. If you have been following the developments in the Artic Ocean between Russia and Canada you may see the first crack in this longstanding norm. With the lopsided naval and satellite capabilities of major world powers, it is truely amazing that the oceans have remained free “so far”.

  4. Brad
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I can tell you exactly when the war will start.
    It will start the day that China forcibly intercepts a supertanker bound
    for a Japanese port

    • Posted July 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      China doesn’t have much of a record on the high seas. A couple of years ago, it tried interfering with the operations of a US mapping vessel by dropping debris in front of it. The mapping vessel called its port for assistance, and a stronger US vessel motored on to the scene, at which point the Chinese ship left immediately. The Japanese media characterized the incident about as well as anybody could: bizarre.

      Thus, I doubt much of a war would ensue if China tried stopping anything on the sea. The US would make short work of that gesture.

  5. Monty
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    What ever happened to insightful articles on investing that used to be on this site? This blog has turned into a diatribe about politics and cynicism. This is one of the most interesting periods for equities in a long time and all you talk about is doom and gloom in the world.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      It’s the doom and gloom of the world that’s making equities so interesting. If you want pure investment discussions, consider the letter.

      That said, I’ll get investment articles up again in the future. On this free site, I just prefer a wider consideration of the world to constant stock talk.

  6. Zack
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    If you had several different kinds of cancer and with each cancer diagnosis the doctors said that that cancer alone would kill you within a short amount of time, then what would you do with your short amount of time left? A wise person faced with this dilemma would try to live. I believe you would’t sit around and think about all the possible ways you would die. You would visit with everyone you loved, or go to see places you wanted to see, or go and do things you wanted to do. Our country is like that person who has several kinds of deadly cancer with no easy cure.

    If the your readers are basically between 25 to 55 years old; then the median age would be 40. And the life expectancy is lets say 90. Therefore your average reader has 50 years or so left on this planet. Even by the most conservative estimates, we will see a major war or catastrophic event some time during the next 50 years. I’d rather not ponder all the ways this could happen. I will be thinking about fireworks and grilling this weekend, and this November I will vote for anyone except for republicans or democrats.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Good for you, Zack! Have a happy fourth of July. Amid our concerns for what’s wrong with the nation, we must not lose sight of our love for it.

  7. Alex Costa
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    I think China would destroy us if we got into a war with them. I hope that doesn’t happen.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      I think we all hope it doesn’t happen. Personally, I doubt China would destroy us. The limited conflicts of the past decade have hidden the real power of the US military, which is immense.

  8. Matt B.
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    In my opinion a major conventional conflict is extremely unlikely. First, the US military is truly undisputed in equipment, training, budget, and (due to recent wars) experience than any other major power. A manufactured event might result in a minor skirmish, but it will be quickly followed by the targeted country (or countries) suing for peace. Even the crazies in North Korea (ranked at #20 in world military power by some sources) recognize that a conventional war with the US would be suicidal, ending the regime they are so desperate to keep in place.

    Second, while there are powerful corporate interests who would greatly benefit from a major war, I believe a there are a greater number of powerful corporate interests who would be hurt by such a conflict. In the modern world we all know that international trade is absolutely key to maintaining profits (for manufacturing and consumer markets). A major regional or global war would be bad for business for a great many companies (what would Walmart do if they couldn’t get manufactured goods out of Asia? A move elsewhere would take time and devastate profitability).

    I believe it is more likely that the coming recession (or depression) will result in the tide turning against the military industrial complex in the US. Politicians who have long called for a reduction in military spending and US presence overseas (e.g. Ron Paul) will make progress against those entrenched interests. The political argument will be: “It is time for other countries to take responsibility for their own defense. We have a responsibility to our people to reduce the deficit, etc”. Of course, any savings from a pullback will probably be siphoned to other powerful interests instead of reducing the deficit, etc. But it is only after such a US pullback that other countries will feel they could win a regional or global war. My estimated timeline (just a guess) is that we won’t see a regional or global war. In my opinion this won’t happen for at least 20 to 30 years.

    In the meantime, expect to see a continuation of low intensity conflicts in relatively remote areas of the globe. This will keep defense contractors relatively happy and won’t infringe on the interests of other corporate interests who can’t afford to see supply chains disrupted by some politician’s regional war.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Excellent comment, Matt. Thank you for it.

      You may be right that the corporate profit motive will keep a major conflict at bay, although some powerful corporate interests would be well served by major war. Defense and oil interests, for example.

      Your point about the continuation of low intensity conflicts continuing is excellent. Sad, but true. Regardless of how the economy goes, constant, meaningless war is probably a permanent fact of American life.

  9. Daniel
    Posted July 3, 2010 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Jason, why so dark, man? How about some happy articles every once in awhile? These are indeed real problems facing the U.S. and world, but how about something on how we can fix the problems?

    • Tom McCowan
      Posted July 3, 2010 at 1:22 am | Permalink
    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      I don’t like groundless optimism, basically.

      In my life, I’ve watched every issue I’ve worked on go from bad to worse to even worse. Overfishing has turned into more overfishing. Environmental destruction has expanded. Moneyed control of government has become more thorough. Wars are now constant. Dependency on government has gone from rare to rampant. Use of oil is not receding, it’s growing. The core cause of all this strife is an out-of-control human population, and the groups of people creating the most population growth aren’t even aware of the issue, much less acceptable ways to curtail it. So, the population will be controlled in far less acceptable ways, and the ignorant will express shock and outrage at that.

      Quick example: When more people live on parts of the planet subject to natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, why are we surprised when more people die in the disasters?

      Another: If people live where the land cannot sustain the population, why do we think it’s in their best interest to receive aid that will grow their population? Where once 10 people struggled, our aid creates a place where now 20 people struggle. What does our society conclude? That the people need more aid.

      I believe that humanity will not solve any of the major issues facing it, that they will all reach the catastrophe point, and that people would do well to wipe the ignorant grins off their faces and prepare for that.

      That said, you’re right that a little lighter fare from time to time would be nice. Given this week’s articles, you’d be forgiven for thinking me a dour person. I’m actually pretty cheerful, and will see if I can work that into future articles.

      • CHRIS - DENVER, CO
        Posted July 7, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink

        I agree. When I look at the horrible air quality in Los Angeles, I think it’d be twice as clear if we had 1/2 the population. Everywhere I look I see messages saying to conserve water and I’d rather it be bountiful.

        I would much rather have 1/2 the population and all the water I can drink, water my lawn, and waste. National Parks that aren’t overrun w/ tourists. A Grand Canyon that isn’t filled w/ haze/smog.

        Sure it is selfish, but is it really? I think it’s selfish to create an unsustainable population. I would rather have less people and a higher quality of life left for us to enjoy.

  10. Douglas DeVries
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    I believe War is looming in our future. There are a number of people that have spent time researching cycles that believe it is inevitable. Maybe in the next 5 or so years? What would it take to destroy the U.S.? Would we need to be engaged in an all out slug fest with China or Russia? I propose this possible scenario. A rogue power (maybe some ticked off Islamic regime) sneaks two or three small nuclear devices across our porous southern border and moves them to major population centers. Two or three ocean going cargo ships converted to missile launch platforms head to our shores. In a one two punch, the little nukes are set off by a bunch of nut jobs on the ground and the missiles are fired over the U.S. and detonated at high altitude causing EMP (nuclear high altitude explosion) devastation across much of the country. The results would in my opinion bring an end to the American empire. The country would implode from within after such an event. Just a possible scenario to think about.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Ugh, frighteningly plausible. I read an article a while back — wish I could remember where — that asked this: If America so overreacted to the criminal act of 9/11 that it created two mindless invasions without benefit to the nation, what would it do following a nuclear attack on American soil? The article pondered whether the nation would just lose it and nuclear carpet bomb the Middle East in a frustrated attempt to end the nut jobs once and for all, collateral damage be damned.

      Of course, there’s no guarantee that such an attack would come from the Middle East, but the last attack didn’t come from either Afghanistan or Iraq and that didn’t prevent counterattacks on those places.

  11. Tom McCowan
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if it would be considered “major”, but because I am a subscriber to the position that drugs should be decriminalized in America, I have been closely following the news about Mexico and the escalating violence and civil unrest caused by the now rich and powerful drug cartels. In recent days, candidates for mayor, prosecutors, and police officers and soldiers have been attacked and murdered by cartel members. About 26,000 people in Mexico have been killed in drug-trafficking related violence since President Calderon took office and “declared war.” From my desk, it looks like it is only a matter of time before the cartels attempt to assassinate Calderon, possibly with a result that Mexico will become a failed state. Not really a terrorist state. But a criminal state by our definition, with the cartels in control through bribery and fear. The U.S. has only two choices. Decriminalize drugs, ending the black market profits that fuel the cartels or invade and occupy Mexico in an attempt to control the country and quash the cartels. There is no historical reason to believe the second option can succeed. We are presently failing at that in Afghanistan. The first option does have a historical example of success – the repeal of the first Prohibition regarding alcohol. However, perhaps an invasion of Mexico would be successful in drawing Russia or some other heavy hitter into the fray enough that the U.S. could reap all the “silver linings” you’ve suggested above. Personally, I’d rather we take Option 1. If you should for any reason desire to read the frustrating and horrifying collection of articles (in PDF format) that I have been saving up on the drug war topic over the past year or so, I’d be happy to email them to you.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Yes, please do email them to me. This seems a worthwhile direction to research.

  12. Posted July 2, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    War with the United States would not be as heavily lopsided an endeavor as one might think. Thucydides said almost 2,500 years ago that “War is not so much a matter of weapons as of money”. The United States’ coffers have been running on empty for decades and its credit standing is getting weaker by the day.

    Those with the money will win the war. Who has the money? I’ll give you a hint, for the first time in known history it is not a sovereign nation. We’re in uncharted waters here and history will not be our guide.

    • Posted July 3, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Do you mean that rich multinationals have the money and will “win” the war? That’s a hard-to-follow definition of winning. It could be that corporations in control of politicians don’t want a major war that would interrupt business, a point well argued below by Matt.

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