IN the last fortnight, the world was treated to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump calling each other names from rocket man to dotard.
Many of us had to reach out to our Oxford Dictionary to check what “dotard” meant.
Are we on the edge of a nuclear war? How can we be in such a condition when the stock markets are still rising, gold prices hardly moved and Trump is debating with the National Football League on whether footballers who kneel instead of standing for the national anthem should be fired or not?
The reason why there is hardly any mass reaction to the fear of nuclear war is that most people cannot remember the horrors of Hiroshima (when the first atomic bomb was dropped), nor the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US and Russia were on the brink of nuclear war.
Both the antagonists in 1962, President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Krushchev remembered well the Second World War and wisely turned away from using nuclear arms.
During my recent trip to the Middle East where I visited a refugee camp – the collateral damage of conventional warfare – I brought along a book, “More on War” by Martin van Creveld (Oxford University Press 2017), probably the best book on war that I have ever read – short and succinct for the layman.
Van Creveld is an Israeli military historian best known for his 1991 book, The Transformation of War, from conventional warfare to terrorism.
“More on War” is an update of the theories of war by two classical thinkers, 5th century BC Chinese strategist Sunzi and the 19th century Prussian general Clauswitz, both of whom are required reading by both military academies and business schools.
Sunzi’s Art of War is a classic, because he was the first to think through the psychological part of strategy - that to win, one must not only understand your enemy, but most of all, understand and master yourself. Clauswitz’s works on war and strategy became the standard text on Western military thinking, placing war within its political context: “war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.” “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will”.
Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, most of the world have lived in unprecedented peace and prosperity, with the US singularly engaged in several wars, Korea (1951-52), Vietnam (1965-1975) and then the Middle East war on terror (Iraq 2003-2011). There were territorial disputes, but no major outbreaks between states.
Van Creveld’s signal contribution is to explain how war has evolved with the times since Sunzi or Clauswitz in the areas of economics, law, technology (nuclear war and cyberwarfare) and asymmetric warfare. The simplest way to grasp what we are facing today in a complex world is to use Sunzi’s Taoist (Ying-Yang) approach or what Van Creveld calls “paired opposites”. There are crucial differences between conventional warfare and non-conventional warfare.
War is economically expensive – the US has spent more than US$4.5 trillion fighting the war in the Middle East with no end in sight.
The Taliban or ISIL conduct their attacks with comparatively little monetary costs, but huge psychological impact.
As the world becomes more civilised, the law governing warfare becomes more complicated and binding. But how do you fight a war when you are bound by rules and your opponent is bound by no rules?
The Cold War was defused because between two large opponents, the nuclear option was so devastating that both sides realised that it was a weapon that both could not use.
But with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including their delivery systems, to other players (there are nine known nuclear powers today), the game has changed to asymmetric warfare, which is war between very large conventional players and small, non-conventional ones.
In a conventional war, the small cannot defeat the strong. But in a non-conventional war, the small with nuclear or unconventional weapons of mass destruction (made easier with new technology) can inflict huge losses on the strong, including innocent by-standers.
If North Korea has both a hydrogen bomb deliverable with intercontinental missiles, then even the largest aircraft carriers are useless as deterrents.
Paraphrasing Sunzi, van Creveld argues that “war is the most important thing in the world”.
Because war is “rooted in a whole host of political, social and cultural factors and affects those factors in return,..predicting it is enormously complex, often all but impossible.”
What the North Korean crisis has shown is that for all the bluster and military power, there are limits to the unipolar order.
In the end, history from the Egyptian to Roman and even British Empire, has shown that asymmetric wars are fundamentally wars of attrition, in which the weak but numerous simply outlast the patience of the strong. The advance of technology is such that for every advance in technology by the strong, the small finds way to counter in different means.
In a word, it is all about the paired opposite of survival or mutual destruction.
This is why negotiations may be the only way out of a nuclear impasse. A peaceful resolution opens the way to a detente, not favoured by all, but at least buys time to revive economic activity and bring the standards of living of all to more sustainable levels.
The fate of humanity rests today on a 33-year-old and 71-year-old antagonists, both of whose strategic patience are limited.
The rest of us hope that the drums of war can be muffled and that common sense would prevail. As Churchill used to say, “better jaw-jaw, than war-war”.
In this period of bewildering complexity, investors focusing on speculation rather than on the unknowable long-term makes perfect sense.
But speculation, as we know, cannot be forever.
Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.