Friday, July 25, 2014

[book] War! What Is It Good For? by Ian Morris

As with his seminal “Why the West Rules”, Stanford Professor Ian Morris’ new book makes you repeat “Aha!” as he explains the big picture of history with remarkable ease. Instead of simply telling a story, he gives the rules behind the story: how societies naturally evolve, almost inevitably, in fixed directions.  “Maps, not chaps”, as he summarizes it: geography matters more than great people in how history unfolds.

This time Morris presents the history of warfare, and how — bad as it is for the people involved at the time — normal people are better off when larger “Leviathan” states incorporate smaller, weaker political units. The Roman Empire, cruel as it was much of the time, provided law and order, secure trade routes, and long-term stability that ultimately brought more good than bad. The same goes, with rare exceptions, for all great empires, including the modern world’s Pax Americana.  The ironic paradox of history is how, the more swords you have, the more plowshares you get. When you’re strong enough that nobody can challenge you, generally nobody does, and the overall result is peace.

It leads to a cycle that, in Morris' telling, ultimately seems so predictable: for example, Britain’s role as globocop in the late 1800s slowly ended due to its own success in creating vigorous new markets, which later became rivals, especially Germany. Similarly, China’s rise — tied as it is with the US economy — can only weaken America’s undisputed globocop role, especially in strategic southeast Asia. How will it end?

One hint comes from the tectonic shifts identified in the National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030:

  • growth of the global middle class
  • wider access to lethal and disruptive technologies
  • shift of economic power toward the East and South
  • unprecedented and widespread aging
  • urbanization
  • food and water pressures
  • return of American energy independence

Combining these trends, he references Ramez Naam’s books, Nexus and Crux  as examples of how the merging of computers and people may have an affect on the future. We’ll be fine if the US maintains its globocop role till then; not so much otherwise.

Let's hope.