The Duck of Minerva

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Economic interdependence as a facilitator of war?

March 13, 2014

Note: This is a guest post by John Mueller of Ohio State University.

The ongoing crisis/standoff in the Ukraine relates in some ways to a long-standing debate about the potential connection between economic interdependence and war. The debate is over the idea that the decline in interstate war has been caused by the fact that countries closely linked economically are unlikely to go to war with each other.

On the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray in an area of deep economic interdependence doesn’t seem to have been waylaid by potential economic cost considerations. On the other hand, as the value of the ruble tumbles, economic considerations could play a role in keeping the crisis from escalating to a more direct military confrontation. Meanwhile, those contemplating sanctions on Russia, particularly in Western Europe, have been musing about the pain they might themselves might bear if they applied economic punishment to a country they depend on for so much of their energy resources.

Economic interdependence, accordingly, can be looked at in a number of ways, and it can have contradictory effects.

Many have argued, however, that, overall, it doesn’t have much effect at all, noting that the countries of Europe a hundred years ago were developed and well entwined economically before they launched themselves into a catastrophic continental war in 1914.

In gauging this popular comparison, it should be pointed out that there has been one very considerable change from that era. No one today argues that advanced capitalism and economic interdependence facilitate war by reducing its downside thereby permitting it to become even more wonderful.

In a treatise on aesthetics published in 1790, Immanuel Kant groped for examples of the “sublime” and argued not only that war was exactly that but that the institution made the people who carried it out “only the more sublime.” By contrast, continued Kant, “a prolonged peace generally brings about a predominant commercial spirit, and with it low selfishness, cowardice, and effeminacy, which debases the disposition of the people.”

A century later, another Prussian, historian Heinrich von Treitschke, along with many others around the continent, enthusiastically marched to the same banner. Treitschke explained that war’s “sublimity” and “grandeur” lay in the way it brought out “the full magnificence of the sacrifice of fellow countrymen for one another…the love, the friendliness, and the strength of that mutual sentiment.” Thus, “war is both justifiable and moral,” while “the ideal of perpetual peace is not only impossible but immoral as well.”

Treitschke did acknowledge that war had its disagreeable side—all that death and destruction in particular. He argued of course that such defects were overwhelmed by war’s many virtues: “War, with all its brutality and sternness, weaves a bond of love between man and man, linking them together to face death, and causing all class distinctions to disappear. He who knows history knows also that to banish war from the world would be to mutilate human nature.”

Importantly, however, Treitschke also argued that capitalist development and economic interdependence were something of a godsend because they would make the institution of war, which he already considered sacred, to become even more so. They would allow Europeans and other civilized nations to engage in the sublime experience of war while limiting the rather unpleasant downside of the exercise.

He insisted that modern wars were not fought for “booty” or for “material advantage,” but rather for “the high moral ideal of national honor.” However, because of materialist economic advance and interdependence, “wars will become rarer and shorter, but at the same time far more sanguinary.” This was because “Civilized nations suffer far more than savages from the economic ravages of war, especially through the disturbance of the artificially existing credit system, which may have frightful consequences in a modern war.” Accordingly, “wars must become rarer and shorter.” Indeed, he concluded, “it is impossible to see how the burden of a great war could long be borne.”

Europeans entered the Great War of 1914 with such pronouncements ringing in their ears. In its early days, English poet Rupert Brooke eulogized the experience as an escape from the filth of peace:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened powers,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping…

Meanwhile, hopes about the beneficial, war-dampening effects attendant on economic advance and interdependence lingered. Recalls one admirer, economist John Maynard Keynes “was quite certain that the war could not last much more than a year….When all the available wealth had been used up—which, he thought would take about a year—the Powers would have to make peace….These views were stated with extraordinary clarity and absolute conviction and I unhesitatingly believed them…. It was a great relief for us all to have Maynard’s assurance on this point.”

Brooke died in 1915, not in glorious battle, but from an infected mosquito bite. Perhaps war was not quite as clean as he had anticipated.

Keynes did continue on, but some of his economic ideas, like all Treitschke’s, were to suffer considerable revision.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.