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Stone Age

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Defence Budgets and Cavemen

8 January 2012

Defence Budgets and Cavemen

By Gwynne Dyer

If you’re not allowed to enslave people any more, or even loot their resources, then what is the point of being a traditional great power?

The United States kept an army of over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq for eight years, at a cost that will probably end up around a trillion dollars. Yet it didn’t enslave a single Iraqi (though it killed quite a lot), and throughout the occupation it paid full market price for Iraqi oil. So what American purpose did the entire enterprise serve?

Oh, silly me. I forgot. It was about “security”. And here it comes again, on an even bigger scale.

Last Friday, at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama unveiled America’s new “defence strategy.” But it wasn’t actually about stopping anybody from invading the United States. That cannot happen. It was about reshaping the US military in a way that “preserves American global leadership, maintains our military superiority,” as Obama put it.

Curiously, President Obama was not wearing animal skins and wielding a stone ax when he made this announcement, although his logic came straight out of the Stone Age. Back when land was the only thing of value, it made sense to go heavily armed, because somebody else might try to take it away from you.

It doesn’t make sense any more. China is not getting rich by sending armies to conquer other Asian countries. It’s getting rich by selling them (and the United States) goods and services that it can produce cheaply at home, and buying things that are made more cheaply elsewhere. It hasn’t actually made economic sense to conquer other countries for at least a century now – but old attitudes die hard.

If you analyse Obama’s rhetoric, he’s clearly torn between the old thinking and the new. The new US strategy is all about China, but is it about China as an emerging trade partner (and rival), or is it about China as the emerging military superpower that threatens the United States just by being strong? A bit of both, actually.

“Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a co-operative bilateral relationship,” said Obama. “But the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by a greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region.”

Would it help if China were to promise that it has no intention of attacking anybody? Of course not; it already does that. “Clarity about its strategic intentions” is code for not developing military capabilities that could challenge the very large US military presence in Asia. After all, the Pentagon implicitly argues, everybody knows that the US forces are there solely for defence and deterrence and would never be used aggressively.

Well, actually, the Chinese do not know that. They see the US maintaining close military ties with practically all the countries on China’s eastern and southern frontiers, from Japan and South Korea to Thailand and India. They see the US 7th Fleet operating right off the Chinese coast on a regular basis. And they do not say to themselves: “That’s ok. The Americans are just deterring us.”

Would Americans say that about China if Chinese troops were based in Canada and Mexico, and if Chinese carrier fleets were operating just off the US west coast all the time? No. They’d be just as paranoid as the Chinese are. Indeed, they are pretty paranoid about the rise of China even though the shoe is on the other foot.

For the first time in history, NO great power is planning to attack any other great power. War between great powers became economic nonsense more than a century ago, and sheer suicide after the invention of nuclear weapons. Yet the military establishments in every major power still have a powerful hold on the popular imagination.

In effect, the new US defence strategy says that for the United States to be safe, everybody else must be weaker. This displays a profound ignorance of human psychology – unless, of course, it is just a cynical device to convince the American public to spend a lot on “defence”.

The armed forces are the biggest single vested interest in the United States, and indeed in most other countries. To keep their budgets large, the generals must frighten the tax-paying public with plausible threats even if they don’t really exist. The Pentagon will accept some cuts in army and Marine Corps manpower, and even a hundred billion dollars or so off the defence budget for a while, but it will defend its core interests to the death.

Obama goes along with this because it would be political suicide not to. Beijing has its own powerful military lobby, which regularly stresses the American “military threat,” and the Chinese regime goes along with that, too. We left the caves some time ago, but in our imaginations and our fears we still live there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 13. (“Would…foot”; and “In effect…defence”)

Lovelock and Warming

26 May 2004

James Lovelock, Nuclear Power and Global Warming

By Gwynne Dyer

“Unless we stop now, we will really doom the lives of our descendants. If we just go on for another 40 or 50 years faffing around, they’ll have no chance at all, it’ll be back to the Stone Age. There’ll be people around still. But civilisation will go.”

James Lovelock, ‘The Independent’, 24 May

When James Lovelock calls for a massive expansion in nuclear power generation to ward off the worst effects of climate change, as he did in a front-page article in ‘The Independent’ this week, you have to pay attention. The future may view him as the most important scientist of the twentieth century, and he is revered by the Green movement, which hates nuclear energy. But now he writes: “Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation….I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.”

Lovelock is an independent scientist who grew wealthy by inventing equipment to measure the presence of CFCs, the chemicals used in spray cans and refrigerators that were destroying the ozone layer before they were banned. But his real claim to fame, on a par with Darwin’s and Galileo’s, was his insight that the Earth is a living system.

He often regrets having named that system ‘Gaia’ (after the Greek goddess of the Earth), because the Green movement and various New Agers started using it as a beautiful metaphor, and delayed its acceptance as a valid scientific observation for several decades. But it is finally being accepted by the scientific community worldwide (with a name change to Earth System Science to placate the guardians of academic orthodoxy): last December the scientific journal ‘Nature’ gave Lovelock two pages to summarise recent developments in the field.

Lovelock has always been worried about radical climate change, because the essence of the Gaia hypothesis is that the current composition of the Earth’s air and seas — the global temperature regime, the salinity of the oceans, even the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere — has been shaped over the eons by the activity of living things. Our planet would be radically different, he argues, if living things did not actively maintain the status quo that is so hospitable to life.

The concept of Gaia is no more mystical than the notion that triple-canopy tropical jungles create a local micro-climate under their leafy ceiling. The emerging ‘earth system science’ just studies the hugely more complex system of biological interactions and feedbacks, involving millions of species, that has evolved over several billion years to optimise conditions on Earth for living things. But this system that can lurch into massive change if some major input (like the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is changed.

Recent evidence, including last summer’s unprecedented heat wave in Europe and new data on the speed that the Greenland ice-cap is melting, has persuaded Lovelock that global warming is now moving far faster than most studies anticipated, and will have calamitous effects on key support systems of human civilisation like food production in decades rather than centuries. He doesn’t believe that current efforts to reduce the output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through the Kyoto accord (which has still to be ratified, in any case) and the encouragement of power generation by wind, wave and solar power can possibly cut carbon emissions enough in time.

“I think we should think of ourselves as a bit like we were in 1938,” he said. (He’s 84, so he remembers.) “There was a war looming, and everybody knew it, but nobody really knew what the hell to do about it.” The Kyoto protocol, he said, is “the perfect analogy for the Munich agreement,” because it would solve nothing: the cuts it mandates in greenhouse gases are tiny, while it lets politicians look like they are doing something.” And the Greens’ attachment to renewable energy is “well-intentioned, but misguided, like the left’s attachment to disarmament in 1938.”

So the man who was among the first to warn of climate change says that there should be a massive expansion of nuclear power, which produces hardly any carbon, to deal with the inevitable growth of demand for power without toppling the world into climate change so abrupt and extreme that it would cause a massive human die-off. The problems of radioactive waste and the danger of nuclear accidents are minuscule by comparison, and there is no third alternative.

Only France and Japan among the developed countries get most of their electrical power from nuclear energy. No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States or Britain for over twenty years: the ‘fear factor’ linked to the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed the market dead. But those were local disasters that caused limited local damage, not massive and irreversible changes for the worse in the whole planetary environment, and with better design and more attention to safety they might have been avoided.

Would we be on the brink of massive climate change now if the nuclear power industry had continued to replace fossil-fuel-burning plants at the rate we expected in the late 1950s and early 1960s? Almost certainly not. We’d have a much smaller problem, and more time to deal with it. James Lovelock has done us all a favour: this debate is long overdue.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The concept…changed”; and “I think…1938”)