The Threat of World War III
As the plans for the Syrian missile strikes unfolded last week, a group of us were sitting in the White House Mess talking about the likelihood of World War III. It was not a happy conversation.
The consensus was that the combination of an unstable President, extraordinary flashpoints around the world and a technology revolution make a war almost inevitable. What is truly terrifying to us all is that we’ve only heard the stories of Omaha Beach or Vietnam and seen the movies of what this could be like: hundreds of millions dead, global devastation and a horrible legacy for the generations to come.
If that all seems too dark and informed more by the exhaustion of the first two and a half months of this madhouse, then consider this:
All those at the table came into the White House as revolutionaries ready to change a sclerotic Congress, transform the bureaucracy and prepare the country for the many challenges that lie ahead. All of us have become incredibly frustrated at the chaos, the backstabbing and the collapse of any real action plans. Instead of action, what we have all seen are a bunch of old guys (and they are nearly all men) talking endlessly about the past: how it once was, how it should be, how useless all they were. There is no talk of possibility, of could or can. No shining light on the hill that is a beacon carrying us forward into the future.
This chapter is going to be a little different than the ones I’ve written earlier. This is, in part, because the talk in the White House, the Pentagon and the intelligence community has become much more alarming in recent days. In part, too, the Syrian strikes are something of a watershed because it gives insight into how such momentous decisions will be made in the future. And I’m driven by the concern of myself and many others that everything that happens, all decisions made seem to be done arbitrarily, based on emotion not logic and without any respect for history or concern for our future. That lack of context seems to me to suggest big trouble ahead. I want to set out some of the landscape as I see it and hopefully encourage debate around the real issues.
What made our conversation in the White House Mess especially difficult is that we had all watched or participated in the decision to launch the cruise missile strikes against Syria. Two weeks ago, we had a President absolutely determined not to intervene overseas. It was not our business and it is only America that matters. Then Assad launches the chemical weapons strike, TFC (That Fucking Child) sees the pictures on Fox and has a tantrum.
“This is terrible, just terrible,” said Trump, a sentiment echoed by anyone who saw the horrific pictures. “I want action and I want it NOW.”
Behind the determination lay three calculations, The first was that this was an opportunity to do something -anything -to differentiate himself from Obama who would always take forever to make a decision. Second, TFC desperately needed an action that would counter the uniformly negative press about the chaos and failures that had so far marked his administration. Third, he was about to leave Washington to meet with China’s premier Xi at his estate in Florida and showing toughness now might help in conversations about North Korea (in fact, the missiles were launched just as the two men were eating their Dover sole at Mar-a- Lago).
Despite Bannon’s pleas that we should do nothing, Trump was determined to “make him pay” and so the missiles are fired. Sure, an airfield was destroyed but now what? There’s no strategy, no follow up, no thinking through of the consequences. Indeed, TFC raged at anyone who suggested that we need to have a plan. Even if he wanted a plan, there are so many empty slots in the State Department that there are not enough people around to produce that plan.
For weeks, the CIA has struggled to produce a President’s Daily Brief, the synthesis of the best intelligence America has, that the President will actually read. It has moved from being nearly all text, which Obama preferred, to little text and lots of pictures and videos with which to engage the child-like brain. It’s not surprising, then, that the President is spurred into action by video showing children dying.
The Lord of the Rings Strategy
Giving the order is the easy part. A general salutes, leaves the room, the command goes down the chain, missiles fly, people die thousands of miles away and the words “mission accomplished” come floating back. But, the mission has not really been accomplished at all. It’s a little like when Frodo leaves the Shire for the first time on what he thinks is going to be a happy journey and Mordor still lies ahead.
Aside from Jeremiah’s (Bannon’s) apparent wish to bring about the end of the world as we know it, there seems to be some intolerable pressures on the international order that are pushing us to war. It’s not just about our ignorant and unstable President — although his role will certainly make a contribution — but there is a uniquely unstable mix right now that is pretty scary.
If we look internally at the dynamics in the administration, the Syria crisis is a perfect illustration of how not to govern. Trump makes decisions based on emotion, not experience or informed discussion. One morning he’s never going to war and the next morning because of an emotional video, he’s declared war.
Jeremiah, his principal advisor, would be happy to go to war with China, which he sees as the principal threat against America, or against any Muslim country but is against everything else.
Jared Kushner, TFC’s son-in-law and the one who gave Bannon the nickname Jeremiah, loves Israel and is in favor of anything that would benefit that country. He thinks Bannon is unhinged and always sees himself as the smartest guy in the room. It’s a strange vanity as his grades were not good enough to get him into Harvard, where he eventually studied, only after his path was smoothed by a generous donation from his father. Those I know who have been in meetings with him, including myself, see him as an inexperienced lightweight whose uninformed views and shallow intellect often defies belief.
Bannon and Kushner are a combustible combination where the President invariably gets conflicting advice and then does what his ignorant instincts tell him to do.
The Triggers for the another War to End All Wars
All of this should give us pause as we look ahead at the uncertain future. There are three big challenges ahead of us, any one of which could provoke another War to End All Wars.
This week, a US Navy strike force is moving closer to North Korea in advance of various demonstrations of military and political power by the regime in Pyongyang. In the view of the CIA and others in the intelligence community, there is absolute certainty that North Korea will develop an effective intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that could strike America. Exactly when this will happen is not known and there is a determination in the national security community to strike first. Such action will not be simple, however. A preemptive strike would likely force the North to invade South Korea and would draw in both the US and China to support their respective allies. A global conventional and nuclear war would follow.
Completely separately, Bannon has been dripping poison into Trump’s ear for months about the political, military and economic dangers that China poses to America. That’s why Trump had such strong anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail although the meeting last week with President Xi had none of the bombast of the public Trump but instead was a much more modest affair. As China has promised often in the past, there was agreement about jointly working to curb North Korea’s ambitions, promises to work together on trade and generally to create a harmonious relationship.
What was missing from the conversation was any real substance about North Korea, nothing about fixing the trade imbalance and nothing about China’s ambitions to expand its territory in the South China Sea, all of which are potential flashpoints. China is also illustrative of the split in the White House between the Nationalists led by Bannon and the dealmakers Kushner and Secretary of State Tillerson. The fact that Kushner seems to be the point man with China at the same time as his business is trying to cut deals there must raise ethics concerns and also puts him in the hands of China’s much more experienced dealmakers.
After the heady pre-election days when Trump talked about a reset in relations with Russia, the Syrian strike seems to have restored the more usual dialog. Immediately after the strike, Russian condemned America for an “illegal act” and scrapped the agreement where US and Russian planes flying over Syrian cooperated to avoid accidents.
But, Syria is just an illustration of Putin’s broader ambitions to re-establish Russian control over the countries of the former Soviet Union and to undermine all western democracies through propaganda and cyber attacks.
Given what both Russia and China have observed of Trump’s decision-making in the past week, there must be alarm in Moscow and Beijing. It’s not generally well thought out strategies formulated by sober and sensible people that cause world wars. Instead, it’s the accidents in history caused by the impetuous and the stupid. What we know is that we have both in the Oval Office today. But such pressures pale in comparison with the consequences of the Technology Revolution that engages all of us.
Technology is the Real Challenge for Trump
The technology revolution is unfolding at an exponential pace. This means that in five years we will have 32 times the technology we have today and in ten years we will have 1,000 times the technology. For Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to suggest, as he did the other day, that there will be no impact on jobs for 50–100 years is, literally, laughable.
To give you some idea of how wide is the gulf between the White House and reality, let me take you to a conference of 140 of the country’s top technology experts held at MIT earlier this year. The consensus of the meeting was that by 2032 half the trucks be driverless; two years after that 95 per cent of air traffic will be run by robots; and four years later, most factories will have less than 20 humans working in them.
What happens in America will happen across the developed world and tens of millions of jobs will vanish. As the revolution has already revealed, the first jobs to go are among the middle class where ,before the revolution, a lifetime’s work could involve routine tasks in a plant or a coalmine which might have employed two or three generations of the same family. Millions of those jobs have already gone and the rest will vanish over the next decade.
Even so-called “revolutionary” jobs, which have grown out of the technology such as software coding, will also vanish as Artificial Intelligence will ensure the task is done faster and cheaper. The unemployment and the sense of instability in the workforce will climb the class and economic scale and the impact will be felt everywhere.
In the face of this unstoppable force, our country has three choices: hark back to a vanished yesteryear, stay still and hope the problem will go away or look forward and take action. We have a President who doesn’t know how to use a computer, a chief of staff who wants to see the End of Times, a group of Cabinet officials who have no apparent understanding of the challenges ahead. It is hardly surprising that nostalgia rules the day with talk of a recovery of jobs, the restoration of dying or dead industries and a closing down of international trade in favor of a more nationalist agenda.
None of this makes the slightest economic, political or practical sense. We know from history the consequences of revolution.
In the mid 1700s, the Industrial Revolution began with British inventions to improve the production and manufacture of cotton. This was followed by the invention of the steam engine and then the development of Tarmac for road surfaces and steel to build railways. The result of these developments and many others was a massive dislocation of the agricultural economy with a migration of rural workers, who had lived a stable lifestyle for generations, to better paying work in urban areas. Mass production, which had never existed became routine and spread from Britain to Europe and America and then the rest of the world.
Over the course of the next 150 years, this dislocation at every level of society led to huge wealth for the few, some prosperity in the middle levels of society and great poverty and exploitation for those at the bottom. That in turn led in the mid 19th century to the development of communism in France where all workers were supposed to benefit equally from each other’s work. Karl Marx took that further and his writings formed the foundation of the Russian revolution in 1917 that overthrew the Tsar.
As the Industrial Revolution unfolded, the world powers formed complex alliances to guarantee security and trade. But as the economic and political landscape evolved and the revolution gathered pace, the structures could not change fast enough to provide the stability needed. The First World War, known as “the war to end all Wars” broke out in 1914 where 17 million were killed and 20 million wounded. In the midst of the conflict, the Russian Revolution established the first communist country.
The global peace of 1918 as essentially a botched effort to redraw international borders and punish Germany and set the stage for World War II where 60 million people died.
Fast forward to the present day and what do we have? A global revolution although this time it’s technology that is driving change and it is happening not in 200 years but much, much faster. Global disruption is accelerating with whole industries disappearing. According to the World Economic Forum, around five million jobs will be lost in developed countries over the next three years.
Millions of young men and women at school today will likely never get a job. In all developed countries, there is a growing gap between rich and poor and wages of the working class are either stagnant or declining.
As all this unfolds, we have a President who doesn’t use a computer, a Treasury Secretary who has no conception at all of what the Technology Revolution means and a Congress who insists on passing legislation relevant only to the past. Nobody is looking to our future and yet it is to America that the world turns for leadership.
Ronald Reagan’s shining light on the hill grows dimmer by the day. However our President might wish we were an island in a global sea of tranquility, the truth is that we are the nation that leads the world. We need visionary leadership before it is too late.
More next week…