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Pax Economica?

August 9, 2010

Patrick Porter at the Offshore Balancer has a great post up critiquing the increasingly popular assertion that economic interdependence is responsible for today’s relatively pacific great power relations and will continue to suppress the outbreak of war in the future. Acknowledging the influence of economics, Porter writes:

But maybe the question still needs to be entertained. Economics don’t monopolise states’ attention but they do claim a large share of it. Western populations for now and possibly some time to come obviously are more concerned about banks than tanks. Western European, American and Japanese populations expect unfettered access to the flow of material goods and luxuries, as probably will the people of the emerging Asian giants.

The mistake many advocates of an economic peace make is to assume these trends are alternatives to, and not associated with, geopolitical competition. The desire to support economic stability and preserve the flow of resources, goods, and information influence large amounts of military spending. Economic desires and interdependence alter the strategic maps for great powers, but they hardly eliminate the use of force. At Foreign Policy, Peter Maass sketches the cost of preserving petroleum flows from the Middle East in military terms.

Often, advocates of economic peace (Thomas Friedman and many, many more) identify oil as a relic of the old era of geopolitical competition, and assume that with America’s energy independence will come a major victory for the progress of peace through interdependence. Oil certainly does play a role in a lot of blundering interventions, but even if industrial society ends its oil addiction, a new vital resource will take its place, even if arguments about the feasibility of oil independence are correct, they will hardly translate into total energy independence, as I have noted before. We are not headed for bright, sunlit uplands with energy geopolitics as a historical relic.

The advance of economic peace requires on stable, consistent economic growth for all stakeholders, and in a geopolitical context that armed parties find acceptable. The myriad cultural-religious factors that can trump economics aside, there is still the classic case of World War One, where economic growth enabled new policies that eroded trust between the great powers. German economic growth presented new, further flung interests and a desire for a German place in the sun, while the possibility of Russian economic reform and growth certainly contributed to Berlin’s interest in preventative war. As Peter Lieberman and others have shown, industrialization and developing economies can raise the benefits of conquest as well as diminish them, and that fear compelled Britain to prevent Germany from harnessing peninsular Europe’s industrial might for a strong fleet.

But we do not need to rely on Great War history to see the shaky ground on which the modern economic order stands. Even if the US liberates itself from oil, it still is the guarantor of the international commons, and while carriers might no longer frequent the Persian Gulf, their services may still be needed in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific rim. The desire for flows of raw materials for remain, including oil (since China and India cannot afford alternatives as easily, and modernizing agriculture and consumer products lend themselves to high petroleum consumption), and the desire for the flows of luxury goods and imports will prompt extensions of naval power and geopolitical influence. Economic growth in China has translated naturally into larger military purchases and the use of economic aid and investment to expand Chinese influence, a trend which may be backfiring as the reactions of many of China’s neighbors demonstrates.

Interdependence can breed intervention and the creation of client states and protectorates, and this can easily trigger the security dilemma and the potential for warfare. It is well and good that the liberal economic experiment has done relatively well so far, but it is really founded on a favorable distribution of power that is ultimately ephemeral. So long as the United States – whether for oil, wealth, or ideology – maintains its interest in supporting the globally interdependent economy with its military resources, it can hopefully deter or dissuade conflict with the system’s great power constituents. The 1990s and 2000s prove that even economic interdependence and great power stability cannot eliminate war entirely, it merely shifts conflict to wars of choice for those great powers with the strength or desire to undertake them. These wars of choice and brush fire conflicts are likely to endure as long as the interdependent system does, and it would be a mistake to treat them as simply the dying gasps of resistance to the new rules of international relations. If economic peace sputters to a violent end, the day may come when we will miss them. Delaying or preventing that day from coming, though, requires we dispel our faith in economic rationalism as the prime mover in a teleological view of international affairs.

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