David Warsh: Will the global rich prevent nuclear war?

After I asserted last week that “the stand-off with Russia is more dangerous than you think” – citing Graham Allison’s argument inThe Thucydides Trap and a new warning conveyed by the “doomsday clock” of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – a friend wrote,

“The main difference [between the current situation and Athens-Sparta rivalry in ancient Greece] is that Spartans didn’t send their children to school at Oxford, nor did they have trillions invested in the Turks and Caicos, London, and other hotspots where the Russians like to stash their loot (both human and financial). All these hillbillies with nukes would never risk having the global hooch stash both literally and figuratively blown up. It would interfere too much with the satisfaction of their gross Trumpian tastes.’’

That got me thinking. Twenty years ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed that no two nations in which McDonald’s was operating fast-food restaurants had yet gone to war with one another. “When a country reaches a certain level of economic development, when it has a middle class big enough to support McDonald’s, it becomes a McDonald’s country, and people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars; they like to stand in line for burgers.”

It was the ’90s when Friedman wrote, remember, and Golden Arches doctrine quickly became a truism of The Fabulous Decade: Macroeconomic Lessons From the 1990s, by Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen; The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, and what many called “The Great Moderation.’’

Perhaps it’s time to ask the same question about the upper classes.  As huge fortunes become more concentrated in the hands of relatively few families in the United States, Russia, China and some other nations, does inequality begin to guard against the horrors of deliberate nuclear war? (Accidents, are always possible, of course,)  It may be time to go beyond Golden Arches doctrine to consider the significance of global-asset allocation – not just of commodities, financial assets, and real estate but, as my friend noted, of the families of the rich.

Take Vladimir Putin. He is thought to have accumulated an enormous fortune, but more to the point are the fortunes of his two daughters. Maria Vladimirovna Faassen is said to be married to a Dutch citizen and oil industry executive; they lived for a time in the Netherlands.  Katerina Tikhonova is a fundraiser for Moscow State University and competitive dancer.   Both now live in Moscow. Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev’s holdings are somewhat better understood, thanks to the 50-minute YouTube investigation by presidential aspirant Alexei Navalny that sent thousands of demonstrators into the streets in 80 cities across Russia last month. As Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes, there is no separating wealth and power in Russia. The overlap may be as great or greater in China.

Would the leaders of Russia, China and the United States be as quick to go to war as were, say, German, Russian and British commanders in 1914, despite the fact that the British, German, and Russian royal families were all blood relations.  Only by miscalculation, or so I would like to think. For another key difference between the situation today and the 14 (of 16) episodes in The Thucydides Trap that ended in war — has to do with the technologies of war.  Thermonuclear weapons delivered by missiles to population centers have a degree of finality that make a mockery of the concept of strategic aims, much less victory. True, nukes have become smaller, cleaner, and alliances still matter, but would China wage nuclear war to defend North Korea?  Or the United States to defend Japan?

There is a counterargument of sorts, of course.  It is spelled out in The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality (Princeton 2017), by Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel.  He argues that only violent events have significantly lessened inequality measured in a certain way over time – wars, revolutions, plagues. Scheidel gives short shrift to the process we call economic growth, mostly having to do with the growth of knowledge.  But if you despise inequality intensely enough, I suppose war is an answer. Isn’t that what films such as The Hunger Games and Mad Max are about?

Myself, I spent my spare time last week reading Robert Service's The End of the Cold War 1985-1991 (Public Affairs, 2015), about the remarkable events at the end of the 1980s contrived mostly by Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze.  “The impossible had turned into the probable and finally into the real,” Service writes. “The world of 1945, held in aspic by the chemistry of struggle between two superpowers, dissolved before everyone’s eyes.” The transformation of politics and economics they set in motion was a remarkable accomplishment, not to be squandered.

David Warsh is a veteran financial and political columnist and an economic historian. He’s the proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first commentary first ran.