Globalization and development are making the world increasingly complex, with readjustments coming faster and on a larger scale. In the last century, the world has been dominated successively by Britain, Germany, the USSR, and the United States. Democratic politicians with short time horizons cannot respond even to mid-term challenges, and are continually outsmarted by autocrats like Mubarak, Assad, Putin, and Rafsanjani. As the list suggests, autocrats tend to be aggressive.
Economies may be shaped by the relationship between production forces and property arrangements, but on the international level, societies take shape based on the balance between offense and defense. For all of human history it has been possible to balance them: shields protected against arrows and fortifications protected against artillery. Today, for the first time, defense neared the absolute: a ten-thousand-dollar rocket finishes off a ten-million-dollar tank, and it takes a $250-million fighter jet to evade a half-million-dollar S-400 missile. In line with the marginal utility principle, the skyrocketing ratio of offense-to-defense costs indicate the end of their competition. Armies already hesitate to risk their ultra-expensive tanks and fighter jets.
A no less troubling correlation exists on the human level. Governments once tended to ignore losses among conscripts because states did not have to pay the bereaved families. That has changed. Pensions to families, disability benefits, and medical treatment run into hundreds of thousands of dollars per casualty. King Gustav Adolphus introduced conscript armies because they cost nothing; suddenly, they have become expensive, and their cost will increase to about $5 million, the cost of a typical life insurance payout. The cost of a casualty already runs in the millions of dollars if GDP and tax losses are factored in.
Military endeavors are no longer profitable, as most wealth is liquid, unconquerable, in the form of electronic records on bank accounts or patents.
The trend of offense being unfeasible will continue, with the cost ratio of offense-to-defense increasing still further. Automatic artillery and lasers are potentially cheaper than anti-aircraft missiles.
Three things play in the opposite direction: humanism, utter destruction, and micro-level warfare. There is the possibility of massive armies marching through minefields into the enemy’s population centers—imagine ten million Syrians pouring over the Golan Heights in the expectation that humane Israel would shrink from killing the crowd with chemical weapons. Still, such a tactic is potentially faulty because crowds are indeed vulnerable to WMD.
Nuclear weapons can also penetrate any defenses. A country with only a few nuclear bombs won’t risk one of them in an aerial raid, but will quietly ship it in a lead-lined sea container or truck, and detonate it at ground level in an enemy’s city. That, too, can be countered by dispersing the population—presumably, an aggressor won’t waste an A-bomb on a village. The current urbanization is abnormal. Societies have always collapsed at the peak of urbanization because it breaks a society’s basis, communal connections. When your grandma lives in another city, your next-door neighbor is a queer, and a pub around the corner offers a pleasant alternative to family dinner, attachments are lost and society degenerates into millions of individuals. Societies persist only in small, culturally homogenous communities. Just as nuclear weapons have necessitated the return to such small towns, technology has provided the means to it. Cheap telecommunication and commuting allow people to live far from their offices.
Micro-level warfare plays the same trick on defense that the defense played on offense: it is too cheap to overcome feasibly. Anything from suicide bombers to throngs of toy-quality battlefield drones pass below the radar of existing defenses. Their impact, so far, has been negligible.
It remains to be seen whether the era of technologically advanced wars is nearing its end, or whether science will come up with a defense-proof weapon such as targeted earthquakes or ultra-potent radio waves.
Wartime destruction is increasing, but rebuilding periods are shortening: it took Russia, Germany, and Japan only about a decade to return to their pre-WWII economies. Conceivably, a sufficient degree destruction might preclude rebuilding altogether. Similarly, defense overcomes offense, but a successful offense becomes more destructive. Mutually assured destruction prevents most wars, but some rulers do not care about consequences, or they overestimate their chances.
The world is balanced between a deterrence-based peace and utter destruction, with the later being more probable.