28 November 2013

Damn foolish things

Thomas Laqueur reviews The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark:
Many actors (the crowned heads of Europe, military men, diplomats, politicians and others), each with their own objectives, acting as rationally and irrationally as humans are wont to act, made decisions that foreclosed on others and collectively led the world into an unimaginable and un-imaged war. Some damn foolish thing, Thomas Laqueur, 'London Review of Books', dated 5 December

Millions of ordinary people had a vital interest in World War One not happening. Even when multiplied by what might have been thought a very low probability of its actually occurring, this should have represented a strong coalition in favour of peace. But there was no way this overwhelming wish for peace could have expressed itself. In those days the disconnect between policymakers and ordinary people was even wider than it is now. Calamitously, war broke out as the accumulated result of the perceived short-term interests of a tiny group of monarchs, aristocrats and generals.

The situation hasn't changed that much. Short-term goals predominate still amongst politicians and the military. Corporations have more power than monarchs and aristocrats these days, but are at least as adept at ignoring or manipulating public opinion. To paraphrase Otto von Bismarck: it's no stretch to imagine a catastrophic war breaking out nowadays over some damn fool thing in the East China Sea, or the Korean peninsular or the India/Pakistan border or ....

One way of making effective our wish to avoid another calamity would be to issue Conflict Reduction Bonds. Governments, philanthropists, NGOs or ordinary members of the public could all contribute to the funding of such bonds, which would be redeemable only after a sustained period of no major political conflict. In so doing, we would monetise our wish for peace, and act as a counterweight to the forces that, deliberately or not, propel countries into catastrophic wars or civil wars. There's nothing inevitable about war: it happens because people react, if not rationally, at least humanly, to the incentives on offer. Conflict Reduction Bonds, by rewarding people for achieving peace, could tip the scales in the other direction, and lead to what must surely be one of mankind's most noble goals: the ending, for all time, of war.

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