Global economy reduces risk of Russia war

A funny thing happened on the way to war. It didn’t break out.

The Russian takeover of Crimea might have led to war in the last century, but it didn’t this time.

After Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, many Americans may be just plain tired of going to war. President Obama has laid out his policy defining when American forces should be deployed. Ukraine does not fit, because the United States is not directly threatened.

At the same time, Europe has been reluctant to retaliate against Russia for its Crimean invasion. Its attitude reflects the prime factor making major wars increasingly unlikely – economic interdependence.

Europe depends for about a third of its energy supply on oil and gas from Russia. If it clamped down hard on Russian interests in Britain or Germany, it might face sharply reduced energy imports from Russia. Protecting Crimea could make this spring in Europe pretty chilly.

But, as we often forget, dependence runs both ways. Russia’s foreign currency earnings, making possible its purchases of essential goods from other countries and it foreign adventures, stem almost completely from its energy sales. A commentator recently asked if anyone had seen any import stamped “Made in Russia.”

Though it has relatively little trade with Russia, even the U.S. is not completely immune. While the tough talk and sanctions have shown American rejection of the Crimea caper, two American astronauts have been in the International Space Station, completely dependent on the Russians to return to Earth.

Probably the main reason the Crimean situation has not led to military confrontation also explains why direct big power conflict – World War III – has become so unlikely. The economies of developed countries and, increasingly, of developing countries are so intertwined the cost of going to war is too high.

Because they can no longer use force without the risk of harming themselves, countries may appear weak by the standards of the past. But, to some degree, their economic interdependence was planned, and otherwise it has seemed to be inevitable. And it was intended to reduce the risk of war.

After two World Wars grew out of European conflicts, especially between France and Germany, leaders in those countries decided to link their economies to the point where they and their neighbors would be unable to go to war against one another.

Starting with the coal and steel industries and only six countries, European integration now includes 28 countries and virtually all sectors of the economy. Working with the European Parliament, an international commission now makes the rules governing the regional economy.

The result is today’s European Union. While Europe is still far from politically unified, with nations retaining sovereignty, the economies of European countries are linked just about as closely as the economy of the United States. A new war in Europe now seems impossible.

In fact, the recognition war is no longer possible has led Europe to limit military spending. That frees public funds for more constructive purposes, but it also makes countries less able to use force and more likely to negotiate.

NATO is almost certainly incapable of really defending all of its member countries.

The world has changed a lot since the days of the two World Wars. A corporation may do business in several countries. Trade agreements have been negotiated to reduce barriers to the flow of goods. Foreigners invest in businesses in countries they may never visit.

All of this has come to be called globalization. It has its opponents, who believe giant corporations end up have more power than governments, resulting in poor labor conditions and few environmental safeguards. They see the benefits flowing to the developed world with poorer countries left out

The creation of bigger markets appears to promote prosperity. As the poor countries adopt the mechanisms of globalization, they are moving out of the cellar.

The proof is that the Group of Eight, a club of major industrial nations, is giving way to the Group of 20, which includes countries climbing into greater prosperity.

Though Russia tried to belittle its exclusion from the Group of Eight and the prospect of losing energy markets in Europe, these economic measures appear may prove more effective than resorting to force.

Globalization and economic interdependence may not stir the blood like going to war, but they work better.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.