Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wars of Conquest are Out of Fashion

Professor Harari's latest is filled with those insights that I love and some of my critics disdain. Its subject is the remarkable decline in wars that we have seen in the last several decades and its causes and prospects. Wars of conquest have become remarkably rare, in fact so rare that in many places people cannot even imagine a major war between their country and one of its neighbors. This was essentially unknown in any other period of history.

Why has this happened? Harari gives five major reasons.

1. Wars have become much more expensive, due to the vastly increased destructiveness of modern weapons. He especially singles out nuclear weapons, and adds that the physicists who invented it deserve another one of those ultimate Nobel Peace prizes like the one he awarded to Gorbachov.

2. Wars have become much less profitable. For most of history, wealth consisted mostly of material things like mines and control of other resources. I've been translating an article on the economy of Roman Spain as an exercise in learning Spanish, and one of the things I noticed was that the mines of Spain produced three times as much wealth for Rome as all their other war booty. In some parts of the world, where there is oil, for example, wealth in the ground is still the case. Not coincidentally that's where the potential for violence seems most extreme.

Most of the world's wealth today, though, is in human capital. Just suppose, he says, that China conquered the immensely wealthy State of California. Could they collect on the riches of Hollywood and Silicon Valley? Not hardly, because the people responsible for that wealth would have skipped town.

3. The world's elites have turned decisively against war.

4. Peace is more profitable than ever before. Wealth accumulated through international trade has become a huge part of every economy.

5. States are losing their independence. Germany and France are not likely to go after each other again because they are too dependent on each other and other powers, especially the US.

Of course wars continue, even if on a greatly reduced scale. And the future is unpredictable.

The next lecture, he says, will consider mankind's fate, now balanced on the narrow trail between heaven and hell.