While both the United States and World economy struggles, new problems and considerations arise. In the arena of national defense, asking whether the economic problems of today will cause security problems tomorrow, is an important question. Below I lay out a model describing four causes of conflict and then show how the current downturn will increase our risk of terrorist attacks at home and significantly increase the chance of civil war and armed conflicts abroad in third world nations.
If we consider any conflict we will see that aggressors generally act as a result of one or more of the following four reasons:
1. an interest in increasing power and influence
2. non-positive change (i.e. neutral or negative change)
These four categories overlap a fair amount; for simplicity sake I will quickly spell out my model and some examples though in the interest of this article I will instead focus more on how the current economic situation will (only) marginally increase the probability of armed conflict.
Why do nations/groups/individuals initiate conflict?
1. From the beginning of time alpha males, tribes, city states, and nations have sought to increase their power and reach. Whether simply evolutionary programming or capitalist pursuit playing out, hunger for status and influence has always been pervasive.
For example: History if filled with aggressors seeking to increase their domain. I wont bother providing an example of this because if you've made it even this far I'm sure you can think of ten...
2. As a group becomes settled and well adapted to their surroundings, change which acts in a non-positive direction disrupts existing structures. Such change can be climate change, leadership change, changes in health, and changes in access to basic necessities. So long as the disruption is non-positive, people must re-adapt. Negative change obviously begets changes in behavior though even neutral change so too requires adaptation. Suppose a new autocrat is installed who is neither better nor worse though differs stylistically from his predecessor; the subjects must adapt to the change. In the realm of climate change--warmer or colder, wetter or drier--the existence is not in itself bad (after all, these permutations exist in varying geographic areas with phenomenal biodiversity); where trouble stems from is the necessary adaptations a population must make in the relatively short time frame of a lifetime.
For example: During the American Indian Wars as the US Federal Government expanded west, the native people often initiated conflict to preserve their established ways of life rather than change.
3. Hopelessness often arises from adverse or neutral conditions in which there is little chance for better. A prisoner with no hope for release or a citizen with no options but to grind out a daily existence and continue suffering indefinitely, are individuals who may resort to violent action to end such tyranny.
For example: Protests mainly by people of African ancestry have been occurring on the French island of Guadeloupe for the past month over low wages and high prices. Driving the protests are a general sentiment among the Afro-Caribbeans, who are largely poor, that they are socio-economically immobile as the (former) white colonialists own most of the wealth and capital.
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4. Personal vendetta, revenge and punishment are all responses to being wronged. Although arguably unnecessary beyond coercing or pushing for compliance, such aggressive acts do serve a function in preventing future wrongdoings.
For example: As militants in the Gaza Strip launch rockets into Israel, the Israelis fire munitions in return.
Before finishing description of my model, I will note that the line between aggressor and defender is often a fine one. The current operations in Afghanistan is a fine example of this. We, as defenders of democracy, have brought the war on terror abroad to preserve out way of life at home. Are we on the offensive or the defensive?
The Economic Downturn and Armed Conflict
As the economy falters the world changes in a number of ways with important ramifications on the chances of military conflict. The biggest change is reduced buying power and a disruption to the usual way of life. The necessary economic parsimony which follows has affects the world over; individuals from the richest Russian oligarch to the poorest destitute refuge must adapt. Being forced to change one's ways will naturally promote conflict. This change is notably felt most acutely in the third world. In such nations, individuals already have limited to no discretionary spending; as incomes decline the basic necessities of life become squeezed and may not be met.
In addition to non-positive change promoting conflict it is growing hopelessness too which will undermine stability. This hopelessness is bred in two important ways. As the ranks of unemployed grow, the jobless individuals have little to hope for in terms of employment opportunities opening up. This is in contrast to job hunting during bullish times when opportunities abound. The second way which hopelessness is bred results from stalling or falling GDP. For countries with that problem, not only are times bad, but they are not getting any better. It is raining now and will be raining tomorrow and the day after. This problem of hopelessness is worst for people who are already suffering. Starving today, starving tomorrow which is far removed from upper middle class today upper middle class tomorrow.
Lastly, those responsible for the economic downturn are more likely to face action against them, though as there is limited consensus if that is Wall Street, predatory sub-prime lenders, the United States or capitalism in general, this particular risk doesn't have a well defined target.
The economic downturn is affecting virtually everyone around the world. The degree with which it will increase the likelihood of armed conflict (e.g. double, triple) and absolute probability thereof (e.g. 2%, 10%, 50% during next three years) varies greatly. If we consider Iceland's financial woes we see a projected decline in GDP of 10% in 2009! Protests in 2008 saw 1%-2% of the countries population protesting. This would be equal to 3 to 6 million Americans protesting a cause! Despite such dire financial straits Iceland is hardly facing civil war or adopting a belligerent attitude. The increased likelihood of armed conflict up to now has probably outstripped most other nations of the world, though the absolute probability of conflict is still far less than most nations of the world. On the other hand, a country like Somalia is perpetually at risk for conflict and any increase in probability will be one or two orders of magnitude greater than Iceland. Empirically and historically, developed nations are at low risk for non-positive change and hopelessness driven conflict. In contrast the third world sees such conflicts regularly with there being 5-10+ civil wars happening at this very moment (depending on how we define civil war). And it is in the third world where conditions are already poor with the most pernicious affects, that hopelessness will be a far more serious matter.
As we look to predict how the downturn will affect conflict, we must first look to the third world. It is in those places where government institutions are weak enough that moderate economic hardship can overcome the existing societal structures causing outbreak of war. On the contrary, in developed nations, national and international institutions and popular sentiment remains opposed to conflict.
This leads us to the last possible cause of conflict which is likely the most difficult to define, that being nations resorting to warfare to increase their power and influence. Although the last 50 years has largely only seen ideological warfare, counter-insurgency operations, and isolated peacekeeping missions, we can not simply write-off aggression which entirely ignores the sovereignty of another nation. After all, we've recently seen Russia in Georgia which isn't entirely that far removed from China in Taiwan or India in Pakistan. If traditional warfare is possible, we then must ask if the economic downturn will increase the probability of such events.
In the past, empires sought to expand for economic reasons. During tight financial times, certainly growing one's nations can seem attractive though if we again look to history and the Great Depression, we did not see warfare following directly from the downturn. If the world economy continues to decline such that the majority of world powers are contracting than we should certainly reconsider this concern, though with such complete economic collapse and highly unlikely and the then tenuous ties to warfare, to take steps now to prepare for such a worry would be far fetched.
Where does this leave us and what must we be worried about?
With third world armed conflict increasing as a result of the economic times we must continue bolstering our counter-insurgency capabilities, as there is good chance US armed forces will find themselves overseas performing stabilization operations. Additionally, as the population of destitute and hopeless individuals grows, terrorist networks will have the opportunity to increase their ranks from this impressionable class. To combat that trend, counter-terrorism capabilities too need to be bolstered. Fortunately, the US Department of Defense is already trending in that direction. That being said, this still leaves us the huge question of how is terrorism best fought? To answer that question you will have to continue looking out for my Department of Peace article and how that is a touchstone on a greater issue of how we must take a more holistic approach to national security which involves not only the State Department and USAID but also issues as disparate as diversifying energy sources, reducing agricultural subsidies and strengthening the EPA.