Everybody thinks that the Middle East is different somehow. It’s really not. The real reason it’s a mess isn’t “centuries old hatreds” or the “oil curse”. 30 years ago, much of the rest of the world was just as screwed up. The reason the Middle East is still a mess, is because it remains the subject of competition between regional and world powers. The US and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and Israel against everybody else (supposedly), has kept a “Cold War” dynamic going in the Middle East long after it has faded everywhere else.
China, the only power that may one day rival the United States, is a paid up member of the US system. “Competition” in the rest of the world is about “Trade Wars” not “War Wars”. The US has provided a good enough deal to get everyone on the same page. Donald Trump wants to end that. He has a straightforwardly mercantilist, or even mercenary way of looking at the world. As I put it in the video, he wants to replace a generous deal with “F#*K you, pay me!”. These rough edges might be in the process of being shaved off, but it’s worth looking at what would happen to the world if he got his way.
Trump’s world would be one of renewed competition between the US and regional powers on every continent. It wouldn’t be one of great power war, not during Trump’s term anyway, but it would mean more proxy wars. Likely locations are some you’ve heard of, like Ukraine and Libya, and some you might not have thought of, like Thailand and Azerbaijan. Political tussles that are worked out locally today would quickly attain an international dimension. The Cold War’s ability to turn every local issue into competition between the US and the USSR was extraordinary. In a world of renewed competition between regional powers, this dynamic would resurface. In the words of Thucydides…
“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
Let’s try to avoid that shall we?
I should probably explain what I’m up to with this World War 3 Series I’ve been developing over the past couple months. On one level it’s a shameless bid for views. YouTube loves World War 3. There’s a lot of stuff out there insisting that world war is imminent. One of the most annoying bits of fake news during the 2016 election was the assumption that Hillary Clinton would bring it about if she were elected. My annoyance has now transitioned to the folks who insist that Trump is going to turn the world into a cinder. The chances of that are definitely higher than they would have been under Clinton, but I think they are still pretty trivial. If we’re looking for a partner for World War III, we’ve got the same problem we’ve had since 1989. Nobody’s really interested. In the first episode in this series “Will Trump Start a War With China?” I address China’s inability to challenge us today, and Trump’s possible role in encouraging a conflict down the line. In Part two, “Is Russia Winning?” I laid out why they are pretty clearly not.
So in one sense, the point of this series is to get people to relax. But it’s not that I don’t think World War 3 is possible. In fact I think it’s inevitable. The only question in my mind is when it happens. Will it happen 50 years from now, or 500 years from now? It’s our responsibility to push that day off for as long as possible. That’s the point of this series beyond the clicks. The internet shouldn’t be talking about World War III the way it does, but it’s a good thing to think about nonetheless. We humans are violent folks. Past performance is no indicator of future results, of course, but the every year that goes by without a conflagration is a win for us. We need to think more seriously about how to keep that streak going. Which is exactly what today’s video tries to do.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hello All. Donald Trump wants the world to look like the Middle East. Let me explain…
He has a vision of what the world should look like. It’s built off of some sensible observations. Trump is right to point out that we’ve sacrificed a lot to build the American World System over the past 70 years. We pay to keep trade safe and open. The rest of the world gets a free ride from the over 400 billion dollars we spend on our Navy each year. We definitely pay too much of the bill to keep Europe safe. We sacrificed elements of the US working class to build new middle classes across the world. These are all costs that we’ve paid, and yes, foreign countries should probably contribute more for these services. Trump is also right to think that the US is powerful enough to extort a better deal from our allies. For the next couple decades anyway.
But what Donald Trump doesn’t realize is that the price we’ve paid for the American World System has been worth it. From the early 1990s to 2017, the world has largely been based on cooperation. The world is run by institutions that we put together. Trump wants to change all that.
The world used to look like Trump’s vision. It was based on competition rather than cooperation. For all of human history up until 1945, War was the way that issues got settled. If Trump manages to scrap the American World System, it won’t actually hurt the US in the short term. Great power competition doesn’t hurt great powers, it hurts everybody else. We won’t see a US war with China or Russia during a Trump administration, because those countries know they would lose. But if Trump succeeds in his fight against the international order we will see more proxy wars. We will have ten Syrias instead of just one. Africa, South Eastern Europe, and parts of Southeast Asia will become areas for great power competition again. South America might be safe for a decade or two, but that wouldn’t last. These continents would start to look a lot more like the Middle East. And 20 to 50 years from now, one of these small wars will start a bigger one that would likely end life as we know it. Under a Trump foreign policy, World War III is even more inevitable than it already is.
For the past couple decades we’ve grown comfortable looking at the Middle East as a unique problem. We tell ourselves it’s about “centuries old hatreds” or the “oil curse” as if history and natural resources don’t exist anywhere else. The MIddle East is not an exception, it’s the norm historically speaking. Wide swathes of Africa, South America and Asia looked very similar as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. The rest of the world got better in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War. But the Middle East Region saw the continuation of competition between the US and regional powers. Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey have kept the Middle East unstable for decades. The people of the powerful countries don’t suffer too much, but the people of their chosen battlefields in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, suffer terribly. Dictators in more peaceful countries in the region also profit from this chaos, blocking economic and political development across the region. That’s what competition between great powers looks like. That’s the world that Donald Trump wants to give us. He wants the rest of the world to look like the Middle East.
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