“The Internationalists” and making war illegal

At Astral Codex Ten, there’s a great review essay on The Internationalists, a book about “the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact” (I hadn’t heard of it either), which sought to “declare war illegal.” There are some obvious ways in which war has continued, but the thrust of The Internationalists and the essay seems to be that things have overall been moving in the right direction. Even authoritarian countries like Russia work to play down their warfare and conquest aims, particularly to their own populations. Part of the reason countries appear to have historically gone to war is to get rich by stealing things from other people, and to get more “land” for one’s people. These reasons haven’t made sense for many decades, if they ever did; today, the largest companies in the world are tech companies, and you can’t steal Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Amazon through invasion. Even if these companies were in Ukraine, attempting to “steal” them through invasion wouldn’t work because the vast majority of their value is in their people and systems, who would flee (in the case of people) and which would disintegrate (in the case of systems) in the event of invasion.

China has gotten rich in the last few decades by making stuff people want, not by attempting to forcibly steal things through invasion. China might change this strategy through invading Taiwan, and in the process destroy companies like TSMC, but it’s almost certainly not going to get richer in the process, and will likely achieve the opposite. In many countries, including the United States, we could immediately become vastly richer by changing some of our laws, rather than invading other countries: Hsieh and Moretti, for example, “quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009.”

36 percent! That’s a huge amount of growth—imagine making 36% more per year than you are right now. Like a lot of countries (though not Japan), we can dramatically increase aggregate wealth by liberalizing land-use laws. Essentially all countries have plenty of “space” for people—if we choose to let land owners do what they want to with their land. We’ve decided to be collectively poorer by not doing so, which seems unwise to me, but I’m one guy.

In most countries, too, birthrates are now at or below replacement levels. We’re not collectively able to reproduce ourselves, let alone need to somehow go find more “space” for others. Polling consistently shows American women want two or three kids, but most are having one or two, perhaps because they feel they can’t afford to have more. Maybe we should try to make the cost of living lower, so that more people can enjoy it—that is, the “living.” Instead, we’re perversely doing the opposite. “Perversity” may be the theme of this essay.

The anonymous reviewer says that “The US keeps starting or engaging in wars, like in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq,” but he or she doesn’t go further: There’s an interesting counterfactual history of the United States in which we don’t invade Iraq, spending around $2 trillion (“trillion” with a “t”). Let’s say we spend 10% of that, or $200 billion, on other things, such as true energy independence. Although Iraq wasn’t really about “stealing” Iraqi oil, Iraq—like Russia and Iran—wouldn’t have the money to create globally significant mischief without selling oil. What could we have done instead of invading Iraq? We could have invested substantially in battery technology and manufacturing, thus driving the cost of batteries for car applications, five to ten years earlier than actually happened—and we could’ve cut gas and oil usage far faster than we did. We’d get environmental benefits, too, on top of the geopolitical ones.

There are arguments like this around nuclear fusion power plants:

“Fusion is 30 years away and always will be.”

What happened? Why has fusion failed to deliver on its promise in the past?

By the 1970s, it was apparent that making fusion power work is possible, but very hard. Fusion would require Big Science with Significant Support. The total cost would be less than the Apollo Program, similar to the International Space Station, and more than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The Department of Energy put together a request for funding. They proposed several different plans. Depending on how much funding was available, we could get fusion in 15-30 years.

How did that work out?


Along with the plans for fusion in 15-30 years, there was also a reference: ‘fusion never’. This plan would maintain America’s plasma physics facilities, but not try to build anything new.

Actual funding for fusion in the US has been less than the ‘fusion never’ plan.

The reason we don’t have fusion already is because we, as a civilization, never decided that it was a priority. Fusion funding is literally peanuts: In 2016, the US spent twice as much on peanut subsidies as on fusion research.

We’ve been consistently spending less on fusion than we did in the ’70s. The largest fusion project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is now going to cost around $21 billion—or about half of the $40 billion in weapons we’re shipping to Ukraine (Russia is a petro state and, without income from oil and gas sales, it would be unlikely to be able to fund a true war effort). $21 billion is also about 1% of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war. Maybe we’d not have working, commercially viable nuclear fusion here in 2022, but we’d be far closer than we are. Instead of investing in true energy independence, we’ve been investing in warfare, which seems like a bad trade-off. MRNA vaccines have made the world billions if not trillions of dollars richer, apart from saving a million lives in the United States alone. Maybe we should do more of that (I’m using the word “maybe” with some archness).

There’s a world in which we take the long view in an attempt to stop funding authoritarian regimes and stop invading them, and we instead focus on trying to get to the future faster. Most of the wars involving the United States in the last 30 years have been at least partially traceable to oil and gas (Saudi Arabia being the home of 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers, and being a putative ally of the U.S. but not exactly the good guys). Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe we ought to think about this relationship between warfare and gas,” we’ve decided to keep fighting random wars piecemeal. As of this writing, we’re not fighting Russia directly, but we’re not not fighting Russia. Simultaneously, had Germany invested heavily in conventional nuclear fission plants, it would’ve imported billions less in gas from Russia, and it would be poised to switch to electric vehicles. Russia’s warfare capabilities would likely be far worse than they are. Germany’s emissions could be far lower than they are. (France, to its credit, gets most of its electricity from nuclear sources: contrary to stereotype, the country isn’t composed entirely of Houellebecqian bureaucrats, sex workers, and waiters.)

Making war illegal is good, but making it uneconomical is also good, and the latter may help encourage the former. War is dumb and people get richer without it—one hopes the Chinese Community Party (CCP) sees this, as we did not during 2001 – 2003. Making war even more uneconomical than it is now requires a civilization that thinks further than a few months into the future. Maybe we should get on that. Things that are illegal and dumb aren’t very enticing.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century — George Friedman

The Next 100 Years is fun because of its contrary, anti-conventional wisdom thinking about the shape of nations: instead of assuming the perpetual rise of China and India, the book sees internal weakness in both, as well as greater problems with a resurgent Russia and a nationalistic Turkey. Rather than focusing on current American battles with what Friedman calls “global jihadist,” which he argues are a passing trend in terms of their overall threat, it examines what a more assertive Russia might look like as it tries to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America is unpopular in the United States today, that immigration might become desired by the late 2020s as industrialized countries age. The United States is a “young” and “barbaric” country using the definitions Friedman gives. And the list goes on.

The problem with The Next 100 Years is that almost every page also contains a wildly implausible assertion or historical reading. To pick one example: after an extended discussion of Russia’s geopolitical interests leading toward 2020, Friedman says that openings in southern Russia combined with a continued American presence in Afghanistan means that “If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.” By conventional metrics, this is true, but it ignores the thousands of nuclear weapons Russia might have. Such an analysis reads like someone planning military adventures in Europe in 1900: it so utterly miscalculates what kind of destruction would occur under its situations that it really doesn’t seem to understand the situation.

Elsewhere, in a specious discussion of the 50-year cycles of American history, Friedman talks about the cycle “From industrial cities to service suburbs,” along with the malaise of the 1970s. He doesn’t mention the Arab oil embargo, energy spikes, or our response to both—instead he focuses on tax policy. Friedman says that in the 1980s, “Reagan’s solution [to economic problems] was maintaing consumption while simultaneously increasing the amount of investment capital. He did so through ‘supply-side economics’: reducing taxes in order to stimulate investment.” But Friedman completely ignores the monetary policy side and Paul Volcker’s efforts to tame inflation (see here, here, and here for more on him). He also ignores the foreign currency issues regarding China, as described, for example, here.

On the war front, the introduction of The Next 100 Years says regarding World War II that “The United States simultaneously conquered and occupied Japan, almost as an afterthought to the European campaigns.” This a) ignores that Japan was the proximate cause of the United States’ entry to the war, b) ignores the enormous strain of fighting World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific, and c) ignores the hundreds of thousands of United States causalities in the Pacific. Calling it an “afterthought” seems wrong. In addition, Friedman writes that:

A country’s grand strategy is so deeply embedded in that nation’s DNA, and appears so natural and obvious, that politicians and generals are not always aware of it.

Funny: I’ve yet to see a country’s “DNA” expressed as a double-helix, and the idea of countries having completely describable characters seems overly limiting and simplistic in this sense.

Still, despite these kinds of problems, Friedman does an admirable if shaky job of refocusing on long-term trends; for example, he says that Vietnam and Iraq were and are, respectively, “merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance—except to the Vietnamese and Iraqis.” In both cases (at least so far), it appears unlikely that the United States has been permanently hurt, and the great strengths the country possesses, like the universities and immigration that James Fallows writes about here, have not been affected in major ways.

Friedman ties together demographic trends, the status of women, the status of families, and international politics in novel, unusual ways, arguing (for example) that, for example, Osama bin Laden’s rants often include comments about family values and the status of women that indicate he, like Pat Robertson, is riled up about women being independent enough to choose partners, divorce, and so forth. Demographics power some of the major social and political tensions of our era, even when they’re masked by surface reasoning, much as the 100 Years’ War was putatively about the souls of Catholics and Protestants while actually being about the distribution of power and resources in Europe.

I haven’t said much about Friedman’s views about China because those views are so easily arguable. He thinks that China is riven by tensions between wealthy coastal cities and the poor interior, which might eventually tear the country apart again, and that China is heading towards major problems with bad debt, economic structural incoherence, and banking problems. Maybe: but it’s also possible that China will knit itself closer together through telecommunications, roads, and railroads, and that its central leadership is aware of the problems Friedman enumerates.

By the same token, Russia could collapse again around 2020, but one could construct an equally attractive alternative scenario. In his defense, Friedman says that he thinks the broad outlines he gives will be followed even if the specifics are wrong, and in the epilogue he says:

It might seem far-fetched to speculate that a rising Mexico will ultimately challenge American power, but I suspect that the world we are living in today would have seemed far-fetched to someone living at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’m sure the world of 2100 will seem “far-fetched” to someone from today, but the real question is, “far-fetched in what way?” The way Friedman describes, or some as-yet unforeseen way? I would bet more the latter, amusing though it is to anticipate the former. Too much is left out, including, notably, the threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility of global climate change. He says, however, that “My mission, as I see it, is to provide you with a sense of what the twenty-first century will look and feel like.” On this account he succeeds, provided that he changes the word “will” to “might.”

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