Courtesy of Will Baird, I read this post by Martin Skold, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of St. Andrews. The title is “Troubles of our Own: Why 2014 is not like 1914 (but is scary anyway).” He lists six differences:
- We have nuclear weapons now, and we don’t make light of them.
- It is more difficult to hold onto conquered territory, and less useful to try.
- There is no military conscription in most great powers today, and there are demographic and technological reasons why it is unfeasible.
- The great powers are broke.
- Finance is globalized.
- And finally: people are older, richer, more heavily taxed, more heavily subsidized, and more cynical.
The first two points I agree with. The third is incomplete. The penultimate two are incorrect. And the last is irrelevant. Allow me to take them in turn.
Nuclear weapons: Skold’s discussion is excellent. I would only add that it was not clear in 1945 that the taboo on their use would be so universal. The world could have become a far more dangerous place.
The difficulty of conquest: Skold’s discussion is even more excellent and worth reading. Key quote: “This is not to say it is impossible for a state to conquer territory in the modern world and hold it. It is to say that the costs of doing so have gone up and the benefits have gone down. This, rather than anything the international community did, may be the main reason Vladimir Putin chose to overtake parts of Ukraine by fomenting unrest and sending covert thugs rather than by force majeure.”
Conscription: On one level, he is merely stating a fact. The Western powers, China and India do not have conscription. This is different from 1914!
The problem is that he goes on to say that conscription is both impossible and useless, which is an entirely different proposition. An argument about modern mass conscription that ignores Israel, Singapore and South Korea is one that it is hard to take seriously.
In addition, he mentions an interesting point about modern military equipment — “As is readily apparent in observing the procurement process for ships and aircraft, the replacement of lost equipment will be a more complicated matter in any future war than it was in 1914” — without drawing any inferences about what that means for future great power war.
National debts. There are two claims here. The factual one is that debt-to-GDP ratios are high compared to 1914. For the U.S., yes, although there have been many periods like today. For the U.K., not so much. Ditto France: in 1914, it had a debt-to-GDP ratio of 67%, lower but not hugely lower than its current 91%. (The 91% figure is up from 64% in 2008 as a result of the Great Recession.) Moreover, France had a national debt of 101% of GDP in 1890. (See this paper, page 23.) Germany also walked into WW1 with a national debt of 63% of GDP. In short, the factual claim is incorrect.
The implicit theoretical claim is that even if modern countries were more indebted than in 1913, it would somehow interfere with their ability to mobilize for war. That claim simply makes no sense to me. Perhaps it is correct, but anyone claiming that it is needs to make the case. They cannot simply assert it as self-evident, because it is not. After all, debt-to-GDP ratios soared in the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars to levels much much much higher than current ones ... you don’t need any familiarity with the complexities of historical war finance to conclude that modern governments could issue a lot of debt if they needed to fight another world war.
Finance is globalized. This part of the essay should be a little embarrassing, especially in light of the quality of earlier discussions. The worst part: “This [American debts to China] is in stark contrast to the financial world of 1914, in which governments overwhelmingly owed money solely to their own citizens.” No no no no no.
The effect of the globalization of supply chains on the likelihood of interstate war is more interesting to think about. I am skeptical of the claims, but unlike finance we truly are in uncharted territory in that respect.
Older, richer, more taxed, more subsidized, more cynical. All that applied to the citizens of the Yugoslav successor states in 1991. Perhaps that is not a good example, but it makes me wonder if those differences between our world and the world of 1914 matter all that much.
To recap: the discussion at the link of nuclear weapons and nationalism is excellent. The discussions of conscription and culture is incomplete and the discussions of fiscal issues are wrong. That said, the essay is worth a look.