Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


The gathering storm in the Caucasus

The world is looking more and more like the prelude to World War I. (17-Aug-2008)
Summary The recent confrontation between Russia and Georgia has increased nationalistic feelings in numerous countries in the Caucasus and Europe, creating a situation very similar to the prelude to World War I.

Contents - This page
American-Russian relations take a sharp turn
Financial interdependence and war
Zbigniew Brzezinski's argument today
Nuclear war
Choosing sides for world war
Prelude to war

If you need any indication that Americans' world view is changing rapidly, you can use the "Sunday morning news index," which means, just look at what the Sunday morning news shows are talking about.

For years, there's been little of substance on these shows beyond the latest political poll results.

In particular, I've been writing about the Caucasus for years as an extremely dangerous region, and yet whenever I mentioned the word "Caucasus" to anyone, I would only get a blank stare.

Prior to 9/11, few Americans could find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. Now, many can. Prior to last week, few Americans knew that "Caucasus" was not a political convention, and that the capital of Georgia is Tblisi, not Atlanta.

In my first Generational Dynamics book, I quoted American satirist Ambrose Bierce as saying, prior to WW I, "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." Well, Americans have now been taught about Afghanistan, Iraq and Georgia. It's still true that more Americans care about the Edwards sex scandal than about South Ossetia, but the balance has changed a little.

American-Russian relations take a sharp turn

What's really interesting is the rapidity with which US policy toward Russia has been changing in the last ten days, starting with the Georgian crisis:

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, we have a continually increasing level of hostility and confrontation among a collection of countries in a generational Crisis era. In the past, such as in the Soviet's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the West was in a generational Awakening era, and was "attracted away from" war. Today, these same countries are "attracted toward" war, and so everyone is feeling shock and surprise that governments on all sides are becoming more hostile and confrontational, rather than less.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, we're obviously on a trend line toward total war, and that's even more obvious when you consider the total chaos and instability of Pakistan.

Financial interdependence and war

There is an argument that I hear frequently, and I summarize the argument with this phrase: "There won't be any war, because a war is bad for business." I've heard this argument, in one form or another, many times in the six years since I started this web site, and I have difficulty responding to it because my disagreement with it is so deep and profound.

Contents - This page
American-Russian relations take a sharp turn
Financial interdependence and war
Zbigniew Brzezinski's argument today
Nuclear war
Choosing sides for world war
Prelude to war

I've had an off-and-on conversation with BBC correspondent Humphrey Hawksley on the question of whether international trade can prevent a war. On his blog, Hawksley recently posted the following comment:

"You’re not wrong, John. But Europe now discusses these issues instead of fighting over them. If you can identify a stronger beacon than trade and the creation of wealth to coax people away from war, I would love to hear about it. Had Georgia actually been part of the EU, I doubt the conflict with Russia would have got even close to breaking out."

Several days passed as I tried to figure out how to respond to this. I've particularly wanted to relate today's world to the world just prior to WW I. As I was thinking about how to do this, a web site reader came to my rescue by referring me to a column by Paul Krugman titled "The Great Illusion," on precisely this topic.

Krugman is apparently going through some kind of epiphany, where he's realizing that the world may indeed be in danger of war.

The column title refers to a 1910 book, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power in Nations to Their Economic and Social Advantage, by Norman Angell. Angell was what might be called today an "anti-war activist." He claimed that war was no longer necessary, because it is a "great illusion" that any country could gain anything, militarily or economically, by winning a war with another country.

These kinds of arguments are always amusing, because they're obviously right until they turn out to be wrong. In this case, WW I began just three years later, in 1914, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions.

Along the way, Krugman quotes John Maynard Keynes, in his 1920 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, describing the world economy prior to World War I:

"The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth ... he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world....

[He] regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement ... The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion ... appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice."

Krugman's point is that this is exactly the same international atmosphere that we're experiencing today, and that it all came crashing down in 1914, when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serb high school student, triggering the massive war.

This is a point that I've tried to make many times as well on this web site. When events spiral into a generational Crisis war, there is absolutely nothing that can stop it. Trade and military superiority are irrelevant.

Angell's book, The Great Illusion, can be read for free online, and I suggest that every reader of this web site do that. Krugman suggests reading the first three chapters, but I would recommend particularly focusing on the pages following page 51, where Angell specifically discusses "the complex financial interdependence of the capitals of the world," and how that would make a war impossible:

"How have conditions so changed that terms which were applicable to the ancient world — in one sense at least to the mediaeval world, and. in another sense still to the world of that political renaissance which gave to Great Britain its Empire — are no longer applicable in any sense to the conditions of the world as we find them to-day? How has it become impossible for one nation to take by conquest the wealth of another for the benefit of the people of the conqueror? How is it that we are confronted by the absurdity ( which the facts of our own Empire go to prove) of the conquering people being able to exact from conquered territory rather less than more advantage than it was able to do before the conquest took place ?

The cause of this profound change, largely the work of the last thirty years, is due mainly to the complex financial interdependence of the capitals of the world, a condition in which disturbance in New York involves financial and commercial disturbance in London, and, if sufficiently grave, compels financiers of London to co-operate with those of New York to put an end to the crisis, not as a matter of altruism, but as a matter of commercial self-protection. The complexity of modern finance makes New York dependent on London, London upon Paris, Paris upon Berlin, to a greater degree than has ever yet been the case in history. This interdependence is the result of the daily use of those contrivances of civilization which date from yesterday — the rapid post, the instantaneous dissemination of financial and commercial information by means" of telegraphy, and generally the incredible progress of rapidity in communication which has put the half-dozen chief capitals of Christendom in closer contact financially, and has rendered them more dependent the one upon the other than were the chief cities of Great Britain less than a hundred years ago."

This 1910 argument by Angell, which he expands in great detail on the following pages, proves that trade and financial interdepence make future wars impossible. If it only hadn't been for the two World Wars that followed, Angell would undoubtedly be considered a genius today.

Zbigniew Brzezinski's argument today

If you want to see the same argument being made in today's context, there's no better proponent than President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Unfortunately, Brzezinski appears to have little understanding of what's going on in the world.

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski <font face=Arial size=-2>(Source: NBC)</font>
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (Source: NBC)

Here's a statement that Brzezinski made when he was interviewed on Sunday on CNN:

"Morally, the issue at stake is: How do nations conduct themselves? Do they use force to impose their will, or do they seek accommodation? And that's the principal issue involved with Russia.

Do we have means of pressuring Russia? Well, first of all, no one rational is urging war or a military collision, or even a return to the Cold War.

But the fact of the matter is that Russia is now increasingly a part of the global system. It itself is also vulnerable to consequences that undermine that international system.

And if Russia threatens, for example, to reduce its energy shipments to the West, it loses an enormous amount of income, it loses its credibility as a supplier, and it tempts the West, then, to perhaps react in some fashion.

For example, if the West, on a desperate basis, has to buy its energy elsewhere and pay much more for it, there are now billions, hundreds of billions of dollars from Russia, by Russian oligarchs, deposited in the West. That makes them vulnerable to the consequences of any significant downturn in normal, constructive, economic relationships.

Ostracism also has an impact on the new Russia. The Russian elite sends it children to schools in the West. It likes to travel to the West. It likes to be part of the club.

In brief, we shouldn't really think of this problem in traditional military terms, or in terms of the Cold War."

This argument is almost total gibberish. I would expect a New York Times journalist to make this kind of argument, but Brzezinski is supposed to be an international expert, born in 1924 in Poland, with special expertise in Russia.

To understand why this argument is gibberish, consider the situation in reverse, in the following hypothetical: Suppose that there were some kind of conflict in America with illegal immigrants from Mexico. Suppose someone made the argument that "we can't do anything about the illegal immigrants because the oil companies like to do business with Mexico, and because wealthy élite Americans like to vacation in the posh beach resorts in Acapulco." We can imagine Americans on both sides of the original issue, but can we really imagine any American changing sides because of his concern for oil companies or wealthy élites?

The whole idea is such total nonsense, that no one would ever make this argument with respect to American illegal immigrants, because basically almost no Americans give a damn about the problems of oil companies or wealthy élite.

That's why Brzezinski's argument is gibberish:

Contents - This page
American-Russian relations take a sharp turn
Financial interdependence and war
Zbigniew Brzezinski's argument today
Nuclear war
Choosing sides for world war
Prelude to war

Brzezinski is making the false argument that I always talk about on this web site: The argument that politicians make major policy decisions. As I've said many times, it's the great masses of people, entire generations of people, who make important decisions, such as whether Russia should go to war over Georgia. If and when the Russian people are so offended and outraged that THEY decide that further military action against Georgia must be taken, then the dreams and desires of the oligarchs and Russian élite won't be worth a single ruble.

Nuclear war

A question from a web site reader:

"In the predicted clash of civilizations war, the participants will be nuclear. If this is to be a genocidal crisis world war, won't there be a global exchange of thermonuclear weapons? The outcome would not be promising. If there is not to be a nuclear war, what would stop it?"

Another reader wrote,

"But let's face it, if US/EU/Japan/Russia/India/Israel all gang up on China plus Bangladesh and Pakistan, they will nuke them into the stone age in 5 minutes."

Unfortunately, nothing will stop it. I would expect every nuclear weapon in the world to be used on someone before it's all over.

I remember reading the novel On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, in the 1960s. According to the Spark notes synopsis, Albania starts an Arab-Israeli War (which is a pretty good trick, since the Albanians are neither Arab nor Jewish), which led to a Russia-NATO war, which led to a Russo-Chinese war. The story is told from the point of view of people in Australia who are waiting for the huge nuclear cloud from the Northern Hemisphere war to reach them. It'll be there within a year. They're the last people on earth, and it will kill them all. It's a "very 60s" message.

A few years ago I did some research and found that even the largest nuclear weapons have kill radiuses of about 5-10 miles -- and that includes the spread of radiation in the period after the explosion. So if there are 10,000 nuclear weapons in the world, then take a map of the world and put 10,000 very tiny little pinpoint dots on it in various places, and you'll see what effect the nuclear weapons will have.

So, nobody is going to be nuked back to the stone age in five minutes. If you put together all the deaths that will be caused by all the nuclear weapons in the world, it will probably be in the tens of millions. In 2004, based on historical demographic trends and the surging worldwide hunger problem, I estimated the about 2 billion people will be killed in the Clash of Civilizations world war. That figure still sounds about right, and it means that the overwhelming majority of the deaths will occur "the old-fashioned way," through conventional warfare.

It also means that this war will take a very long time,

"I disagree about application of nukes being highly dispersed. They are and will be targeted at wiping out urban areas which are highly concentrated."

I'm certainly no expert on military strategy in a nuclear war, but I would think that, while some nuclear weapons would target urban areas, most would target military personnel and installations.

"How long do we have?"

As you know, predicting dates is impossible, since events will unfold because of chaotic events that can't be predicted.

Keep in mind that these wars usually progress slowly at first, and gather speed as they progress. So there may be an initial ground war between two nations that grows and expands to other nations over a period of months. The first nuclear weapon may not be used for a while -- I would guess the most likely first use would be in Asia, Pakistan vs India or China vs Russia. As the months go by, nuclear weapons will be used increasingly, until everyone is throwing out everything they have. In WW II the explosive climax was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This war will also have an explosive crisis, but I hate to imagine what it will be, and it won't occur for several years.

I guess I can't end this discussion without mentioning that there's a huge wild card that could speed things up: Once the conflict starts, many worldwide public health protocols will break down, and the climate will be right for a bird flu pandemic.

Choosing sides for world war

In developing Generational Dynamics theory and applying it to historical and current events on this web site, I've tried to identify who will be the new "allies" and who will be the new "axis" in the coming Clash of Civilizations world war.

When forced to do so, each country that gets involved in the war will have to choose one side or the other. In most cases, it's pretty easy to foresee which side a country will choose. For reasons that I've discussed numerous times on this web site, I expect to see America + Europe + Israel + Russia + India + Japan on the side of the new "allies," and China + Pakistan + Bangladesh + Sunni Muslim countries on the new "axis" side.

In other cases, I've indicated that it's not so simple to decide. In the case of South Korea, it may depend on the course of events involving North Korea; in the case of Iran, it may depend on the course of events involving Israel. However, these are the exceptions. For most countries, it's really pretty obvious.

A web site reader writes:

"My point is precisely that the alignment will not be the very one-sided one you have presented repeatedly of the big gang up of the most powerful countries all united against China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

And that only if it were the alignment as you have presented - the big gang bang of China - would the war be over in 5 minutes."

You keep talking about "five minutes". I assume that's a metaphor for a short war, but there is no sense in which that concept even makes sense. You seem to be saying that if several countries were to gang up on China, using nuclear weapons, then China would capitulate. That is not true. For one thing, with 1.4 billion people, China is the size of five countries. Even so, China will continue fighting for years, even against all odds. Even in this case, the war would go on for years.

"I agree the war will start slowly and gather momentum; or said differently, there will be numerous phases in different theaters of shifting alliances, borders, governments.

[However,] I think the civil war dimensions in many countries could dramatically exceed the international war dimensions; this is especially true in the various Asian continental theaters.

In general, the two dynamics will be much more intertwined than they were during WW2; China was the poster child for such similar intertwining of the two dynamics during the last crisis; Russia during WW1; US during 1860's; France/US 1789-1815.

Civil wars are often much more soul and infrastructure destroying than international wars, which at least leave a shared sense of loyalty and destiny afterwards for each nation."

I agree with you, and I've simplified the situation when I talk about Russia, India and the West versus China and Pakistan.

I've described many simmering civil wars on this web site. China alone will be riven by massive internal rebellions. So will Russia and India and Pakistan. In fact, so will Europe. In fact, so will North America. Also, there will be a number of African, South American and South Pacific countries siding with China.

When I talk about which countries will form the new "allies" and the new "axis," I'm talking at a very high conceptual level.

It's the same conceptual level that historians use when they say that WW I pitted "the triple entente" vs "the triple alliance," and WW II pitted "the allies" vs "the axis." At that conceptual level, I believe that the lineup I described is correct.

Prelude to war

But when you talk about these world wars, it's a lot more complicated. World War I ended up in a massive civil war in Russia, and also splintered the Ottoman Empire. In World War II, Germany, Italy and Japan formed the major "axis" countries, but other countries joined them. Furthermore, Germany was at war with itself when you consider the Holocaust. China was having a massive civil war (Mao's Communist Revolution), but was also at war with Japan. Furthermore, there were massive wars in the Indian subcontinent and the Mideast, leading to the partitioning of both regions.

Contents - This page
American-Russian relations take a sharp turn
Financial interdependence and war
Zbigniew Brzezinski's argument today
Nuclear war
Choosing sides for world war
Prelude to war

The international atmosphere today is much more like the prelude to WW I than to WW II. World War II could almost have been anticipated by someone watching the murderous Adolf Hitler. But there was no figure like Hitler in WW I. When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serb high school student, the war in Eastern Europe was triggered. Germany was as shocked by the war as anyone, and had no desire to invade France, but was forced to by a treaty with Austria.

Today, once again, there's no figure like Hitler on the scene, and any war will be a shock to everyone. But, as in the prelude to WW I, nationalistic urges today are rising, and there's a huge network of interlocking treaties.

Near the beginning of this article, I quoted Humphrey Hawksley as saying, "Had Georgia actually been part of the EU, I doubt the conflict with Russia would have got even close to breaking out." That's quite possible, but there's another possibility: If Georgia had been part of the EU or Nato, then Russia might still have invaded, and the interlocking treaties would have led to a much larger war.

Nobody reading this web site should ever think for a moment that the Clash of Civilizations world war will end in a snap, or will spare some country or some group of people, or that it will be "simple" in any conceivable way. This will be 5-10 years of seemingly unending absolutely holy hell for everyone in the world, and I sympathize with those who believe that the luckiest people will be the ones who die early. There's absolutely no way to predict who will win, or which countries will survive. After it's over, the world will no longer be recognizable in any sense comparable to today.

Copyright © 2002-2016 by John J. Xenakis.