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Very Close to War: My summary of a Friedman lecture – Arindam Mukherjee

There has never been a century without war; as far as we can trace back. And anything that makes us think that the 21st century might be an exception is probably not a strong enough reason to bank on. If someone was to take a poll back in 1935 in Europe on whether or not they wanted another war, a war, any war – you bet the answer would have been a resounding NO. Yet WWII happened and the entire continent was re-devastated. Trotsky has been known to summarize it most brilliantly: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Wars are ubiquitous; they have been going on for a long time. And they would go on for a long time in the future.

And why do they take place? Wars occur when some nations rise and some fall. WWII started after the rise of Germany, Japan, and crucially, the USA. And today you have nations rising and falling yet again. At the one end you have the relatively stable USA. Yes, Trump may be stupid, but the country is going to survive that, like it did survive many equal or more stupid people and events.

Who all are going down little by little? Germany. It is a nation that exports 50% of its GDP. In effect, half its economy is banking on other nations ‘buying’ from Germany. Right now, it is the US. And given the brilliant relation that Trump has with Merkel, it could be anything in the coming months. What happens then? Well, a 10% loss of Germany’s exports means a 5% loss of its GDP. Non-technically, that means that they are screwed.

Russia. Russia is Saudi Arabia, speaking in Russian. Their economy depends on selling oil and gas. If oil prices fall – the market is behaving more and more unpredictably – then they are in trouble too. Same goes for China. That country is nothing like that thin strip at its eastern periphery that you see. Step out of Shanghai and into the country and you’d realize how incredibly poor the country still is. Do they have what it takes to sustain, like the US did? I guess not. That strip, that survives on exporting to US and EU. And EU has screwed up as you all know. So, they can’t buy like they used to. Rest assured, US would screw up too; US always manages that. And then, all those manufacturers/sellers/exporters that make billions banking on people’s willingness to buy their goods will be gone.  

Who all are emerging? Japan. Poland. Turkey.  

Poland is interesting because it is sandwiched between two falling powers – Russia and Germany. And any reasons that you might have, to think that those two nations would resign to their fates at the end of a fall in growth or rise in unemployment, is not reason – it is wishful thinking. Japan is interesting because it is beside China. Turkey – is squatting in the middle of a lot of interesting things, nations, and events. In a stroke of irony, you have rising regional players in dangerous geographic proximity to the ones that are on their way down. It could mean anything, really.

If all of these seem distant, if they don’t disturb your indifference, it is not surprising. We have been living without a systemic war for the last 70 years. The memories have faded. The survivors have died. The thought that there may not be another 70 years of relative peace and quiet doesn’t hit a nerve. But the interesting thing is that however distant we might think we are from war, we are not.

We are not because our lives are built out of things that came out of WWII. Take two concepts – Multilateralism and Technocracy. Institutions like EU, UN, IMF have come to influence and direct almost every aspect of our lives around the globe. And then there are the technocrats – the ‘Experts’. WWII was won by the biggest technocrat – Eisenhower. And out of the showdown had emerged a clan that got the belief ingrained in us that only they could guide economies and societies towards a more meaningful future. And so, we populated our institutions with these people, who we thought, ‘knew’. Of course, when 2008 came, we realized that they didn’t know much, but that’s another story.

For a more direct example of something that is an interesting sum-total of all the recent global wars is that little device in your pocket – your phone. We have been made to think that that phone there is the culmination of human innovation and the herald to the future. Fact is that this thing leaves a bloody trail at its wake; and we have no idea of what it is capable of achieving in the future. Let us examine that.

The foundation of this machine is a piece of amazement called the microchip. Microchips were invented to guide US ICBM against Soviet targets. It had to be an ultralight and accurate piece of equipment, and the scientists had the chip as a solution. Virtually all the threats of missile guided bombings that were all over the world during Cold War – was the result of this one small thing!

The next interesting thing that has put an entire industry out of business is that inbuilt camera. This gadget was developed by the US National Recon Office to be used in spy satellites. If you took regular pictures – those film rolls – how would you get them to the earth? You could drop them from the satellites but the accuracy of that was a logistical issue. Add to that was the speed of collection. This process was slow. And that’s the time in history the digital camera was born – a gadget to click pictures and beam them back directly to the target people in record time. In effect, you are using a component of spy satellites for your selfies.

GPS. Originally called the NAVSTAR, this was invented by the USAF to guide cruise missiles to their targets. These subsequently got used by the army too, as the soldiers found them helpful during urban/jungle missions in unknown terrains.

Another important thing is the internet. This is where nearly the entire humanity resides these days. Interestingly, this was developed to move classified data from one secret lab to another. And what exactly were these labs doing? They were researching on nuclear war. The internet was designed with just ONE aim – to make their nuclear war research more efficient. And by the way, the main machine – the phone itself – was first deployed by the US Army in 1985 and it was invented to facilitate military communication.

Long story short? There is nothing in this equipment that was not built for war.

An interesting off-shoot to this story: The US government does not hold patents. They are not allowed to have them. The basic rule is, if the government invented it, and it is not a secret, it is for yours to use as you deem appropriate. And when you think about that, then Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – the coolest guys around – come up as two ordinary guys who invented NOTHING. Supercool ‘inventor’ Jobs invented nothing. He just went around collecting different inventions of different people working for the US government and put them together. Bill Gates, invented nothing. MSDOS was a program that he bought from someone; this program was developed originally by the USAF. Zuckerberg – he didn’t even have to play the negotiator that perhaps Gates or Jobs had to. The only thing that these guys were good at is marketing. What Jobs or Gates did was to bring them to you while pretending (and convincing you that) they were geniuses. The real geniuses made 50K a year and retired poor.

So that’s how intimately you are related with war; that’s how deeply war has permeated in you. You all could be self-absorbed and believe that the life you lead is up to you. You might think that you shape your lives. If you could ask your ancestors, they would perhaps tell you that lives are shaped by events. And when they occur – as they sure would – there wouldn’t be many options to choose from.

You may not like war; it really doesn’t matter.

The WWII was won with radio, radar and nuclear weapon. The Cold War thrived on chips and camera. What these people did was to try and decouple these innovations from their legacy and pretend that history has ended.

Like wars, history too doesn’t care about your pretensions or preferences.

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