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Sunday
Mar222009

The threat of great power war recedes

While difficult to keep in mind amidst today's economic nationalism, a global middle class of unprecedented size rises in the emerging markets of the East and South. This accomplishment logically ensures the continuation of great-power peace, as America's grand strategy of spreading its liberal trade order reaches its global apogee.

Countering this view is a growing cohort of academics and analysts who insist that such rising consumer demand will inevitably trigger "resource wars" among the world's great powers, with climate change as an unforgiving accelerant.

A little secret here: A good portion of America's defense establishment desperately needs the long-term specter of resource wars to continue justifying the big-war-centric structure of our armed forces. It needs to sell this vision of future conflict because, without it, the small-wars community will triumph in a looming budgetary battle that will define the Obama administration's legacy in national security affairs.

Here's where it gets tricky for President Barack Obama: The three conflict scenarios that currently justify our military's big-war focus are China-Taiwan; North Korea and Iran. All three scenarios will effectively disappear over the next half-decade.

With the Kuomintang's return to power in Taipei last year, tranquility broke out between island and mainland, triggering a concerted effort at brokering a peace treaty that matches Taiwan's already profound economic integration with China. If only Nixon could go to China, then only Chiang Kai-shek's party could do the same for Taiwan.

Setting aside political integration, Taipei's leaders follow Hong Kong's example: Separate systems integrating with one another in an expanding economic commonwealth. We're witnessing the first steps toward an Asian economic union with China as its natural anchor. No, it will not be a linear journey, as the current economic crisis demonstrates, but where else can small Asian states turn?

As for Kim Jong Il's North Korea, that fake state won't long survive the Dear Leader's death, made all the more imminent by a recent stroke that Pyongyang strenuously denied. Whatever the timetable, the key point here is that none of the concerned great powers expects North Korea's collapse will trigger war among them. Their long-standing multilateral talks have demystified that dire scenario.

Instead, America fears "loose nukes" while Beijing takes great pains to ensure that any endgame doesn't reflect badly on continued "communist" rule back home - hardly the makings of World War III.

Finally, Iran gets close enough to nuclear capacity that the only way America - or Israel, for that matter - can stop Tehran from getting nuclear is by going nuclear preemptively, something neither will do, even as Israel will likely soon bomb conventionally to delay acquisition. That strategic reality, coupled with Iran's energy ties with China, India and Russia, means Tehran is already in the great-power club, an achievement that eventually triggers strategic dialog with nuclear Israel.

Add it all up, and America's big-war constituency clearly risks losing the majority of budgetary battles that lie ahead, especially as Afghanistan/Pakistan drags on.

Why do I so casually dismiss "resource wars" as a strategic planning principle?

Remember when Cold Warriors predicted we'd fight the Soviets across the "arc of crisis" for precious resources? Well, back then, both sides lived within miniature versions of today's global economy. In that bifurcated world economy, zero-sum resource wars were entirely plausible.

That bifurcated world no longer exists, as evidenced by the recent financial contagion. In globalization, demand determines power more than supply.

Don't believe me? Imagine a world where there's no Chinese demand for U.S. debt or no U.S. demand for Chinese exports.

Dreaming up future "resource wars" to obviate our military's necessary adjustment to this era's security tasks will not render them moot. Indeed, like Somalia's recent pirate epidemic, they invariably attract the collaborative efforts of other great powers, like China and India, which have no choice but to defend their growing economic networks.

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