A way to skip the world war ahead

by | 3 Nov 2023

We stand on the precipice of another global conflict. Why not learn from the last one and just skip it to the bit where we realise we've lost the plot and need to do something better?

First published by Common Weal

Elsewhere I have described what is happening in Israel/Palestine as an ‘Archduke Ferdinand moment’, a single event which reveals clearly the tensions lying underneath significant geopolitical change. Now I would like to propose that we skip the middle part of what comes next.

Tomorrow Common Weal is a partner in the Festival for Survival run by Scottish CND (there are still a few tickets left here). We are leading on one half of the ‘twin threats’ to the world – climate change. What I want to do here is explain how that giant threat is a wonderful opportunity for humanity to pull way, way back from the other great threat – the potential for nuclear annihilation.

To help us navigate from one to the other, from major geopolitical turmoil with the risk of global war to a concerted effort to protect the planet’s environment so it is suitable for human life, let me extend the Archduke Ferdinand analogy a little further. Historical analogies are never neat or accurate because the parallels are never exact. But they can be useful nonetheless.

You know the basic story; the Victorian empires are coming to an end and they can feel it. The longstanding tensions between the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the British empire have been growing. Then the presumed heir to one of them is murdered and it kicks off World War One.

That reaches an appalling technological stalemate that turns the war into a horrible battle of attrition which traumatises an entire generation of young men. They return to civilian life just in time to be hit with a global pandemic which makes Covid look quaint. Britain and much of Europe goes straight into a depression.

This collapse of empires opens the door to a new empire, the ‘American empire’. As Europe lies in rubble, the US does very well out of it (the ‘roaring 20s’) until the global economic conditions and the mad-cap recklessness of corrupt bankers kicks off a terrible depression there too. The next decade is basically everyone trying to keep it together (in the US through FDR’s ‘New Deal’).

But because the First World War was ended with punitive sanctions on the Austro-Hungarians (this is when Germany is becoming Germany) there is crippling economic collapse, leading to resentment, leading to the rise of a populist workers’ movement which transmogrifies horribly into the Nazis – and it all kicks off again.

Then we get the horror of World War Two, a whole new kind of war just like the previous one had been a whole new kind of war. Now there are aerial bombings and, above all, all the militaries resort to using mass civilian casualties from air bombing, siege, holocaust and nuclear strikes. At the end of it, the sheer scale of the horror of the preceding 35 years is too much.

It was, in terms of social progress at least, the best time to be a human

Too much for everyone. Two generations of traumatised young men mourning the loss of those who didn’t live long enough to be traumatised, entire continents of civilians reeling from the kinds of military horrors probably not seen by civilians since the medieval era, Europe in ruins – for a short period of time everybody genuinely meant the ‘never again’ which the cannon fodder had genuinely meant after the first war but which the rulers of nations didn’t.

In not much more than five years, pretty much everything that changed the world for the better had happened. The United Nations was formed, the Geneva Conventions were drawn up, global institutions to temper and moderate conflict were created, a massive rebuilding programme was kicked off (particularly in Europe), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created.

Universal public health services were built, new generations of high-quality public rental housing for working populations were created, abusive parts of the old oligarchs’ economy were nationalised, means of dispute resolution were developed.

The massive investment into war and the military went instead into scientific research and we got the ‘green revolution’ (where food production skyrockets through better production methods) and creation of the elements that now form the modern world come think and fast (the transistor is patented within two years of the armistice, the wartime Turning Machine quickly ushers in the computer age).

It was, in terms of social progress at least, the best time to be a human. Less so if you were in South East Asia (great work America) or Africa (great work white world) or the Soviet Union (great work Stalin). But overall, this is the golden age of humanity.

Right up until the ‘Chicago School’ of economists invents Thatcher and Regan and most of the indicators of human development (those not reliant on scientific advances) go into reverse. The Soviet Union falls and the US becomes global hegemon. Naturally it abuses its position left, right and centre until all but its closest allies are sick of it. Then a group of men from one of the most oppressed peoples on the planet carry out an atrocity in the nation which is oppressing them.

So do we want the whole thing to kick off again? There remains a real chance that what is happening just now could become World War Three. Make no mistake about it, there are people in the US who want this to happen (when people say ‘start WW3’, they really mean ‘the US starts WW3’ because short of a preemptive nuclear strike by China or Russian, no-one else can really turn a regional war into a global one).

This means we stand on the cusp of the whole thing repeating. A whole new kind of war in a whole new kind of world, one we may well not survive as a species. But what if we just skipped the war-depression-war bit? What if we wanted to not have a world war, what might we do?

None of this is mad – what is mad is a rush to a global war when we already know climate change may wipe us all out

Well, the same thing we did last time. If we want to return to a state of positive human development we need to strengthen the rules of war once more, rebuild and strengthen the global institutions of peace and undertake a massive rebuilding programme to give everyone in the world the equity to feel that it is worth working together to save ourselves.

First, the erosion of the rules of war in the last 30 years (this analysis explains it) must be reversed and they need to be strengthened in line with new technologies. We need a renewed focus on globally-negotiated disarmament, along with a new security architecture to make it so people don’t need militarised escalation.

I believe we should move to a continental solution, with each of the main continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Oceania) creating institutions (like the EU and the African Union) which take over responsibility for regional security.

A strengthened United Nations would then help to govern the world. That can only happen when it is very seriously reformed – the veto powers of the permanent members of the Security Council must be brought to an end and the final, binding body must be the General Assembly, where a two-thirds majority must be binding.

The UN’s agencies have been undermined, in particular by the US since the George W Bush era (they were very open about it, though previous US leaders also undermined the UN when it suited), must be strengthened again. In particular we need serious resources to the WHO and the poverty aid agencies of the UN to tackle the worst of the social failures imposed on the developing world.

The International Criminal Court must no longer be an ‘opt-in, opt-out’ body and nation states should no longer be able to seek to put unbearable pressure on it in private to prevent it looking towards allies. It must be truly independent and must pursue all war crimes. The world must commit to enacting the will of the court. If a nation won’t sign up, its leaders must be unable to travel outside their border without arrest.

We could do with something as inspirational as a new Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think I might incline simply to create a new charter to prevent any and all intervention of one nation state on the territory of another – including influencing elections and mass, secret propaganda campaigns.

We could look at what is doing the real economic damage in the world like we did with the coal barons. We should nationalise those parts of the economy at a global scale. I know this sounds radical but the United Nations should take over Amazon, Google and all the rest of the ‘techofeudalists‘ (those not making or creating anything, only monopolising market access and renting it at extortionate rates to the rest of us).

Better still, don’t nationalise them, just agree to replicate them on global public-good basis. That is no more radical in 2023 than nationalising coal and rail was in 1945.

But none of this is enough. Just as more equal societies have less crime, so more equal planets have less conflict. The development aspect of a war-avoiding package is utterly, utterly crucial. And we have a wonderful opportunity – a global Green New Deal.

The rich must pay. Not taxation, massive, massive wealth reclamation from billionaires and corporations worldwide. It is not enough to subsidise those in poverty, we must restrain the greed of those at the top. Quantitative easing is not a solution if it doesn’t change the balance of economic power in the world.

And that should be used to really help Africa skip a development phase and move straight to a post-carbon economy. But it means building up institutions in those countries too, most crucially national health services.

None of this is mad. What is mad is a rush to a global war when we already know climate change may wipe us all out. Right now we’re not in a world of ‘hey, let’s dream big dreams’. We really are looking at a battle for survival for our species.

A global reform programme linked to a global Green New Deal is desperately needed anyway. That it looks so incredibly similar to the package of measures that saved us from a repeating cycle of terrible violence and death the last time might be a coincidence.

On the other hand, it might just help us to understand what an idiotic species we are and why we need to save ourselves from ourselves. For our own survival.

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