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Will a Global Depression Trigger Another World War?

Author: Stephen Walt

Affiliation: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: May 13, 2020/ USA

Type of Literature: Analysis 

Word Count: 2065


Keywords: War, Peace, COVID-19, Global Depression, Lessons of Theory and History


In this article, Stephen Walt denies the existence of a causal and inevitable relation between the global economic depression and Coronavirus pandemic on the one hand, and the options for peace and war taken by states on the other hand, considering that the global economic depression (which is this time mainly a result of pandemic) is only one of many factors (but rarely the most important one) that may affect the political environment in which war and peace decisions are made. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic had major, lasting, and negative impacts on the global economy, it is unlikely that this would affect the probability of war very much, especially in the short term. Before presenting Walt’s arguments, we point out that this article came in the context of debating his colleague Barry Posen’s arguments, from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote an article a few days ago in which he assesses a causal relationship between the pandemic and the economic depression, and countries’ tendency toward peace, arguing that this situation may be more likely to promote peace opportunities. The pandemic, according to Posen, adversely affects all major powers and does not create tempting opportunities for states to wage wars, as well as states often go to war with a motive sense of excessive confidence, so the pessimism resulting from the pandemic regarding the prospects of these countries must enhance peace opportunities. Moreover, war requires states to gather a lot of people close to each other in training camps, military bases, and mobilization areas, something that no country wants to risk now mainly in light of this infectious pandemic. Also, the pandemic reduces the interaction and commercial competition between countries, and this leads to reducing the negative friction between them (the case of the US and China), thus reducing the tensions and potential for war. For these reasons, Posen believes that the pandemic itself may lead to the promotion of peace. Depending on what lessons of theory and history could offer to us, Walt criticizes here these arguments and the causal relationship that exists between them as presented by Posen, as history proves that the Spanish flu pandemic that followed the First World War in 1918 and did not stop the Russian Civil War or the Russo-Polish War; also, The Great Depression (1929) did not prevent Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931, but helped fuel fascism in the 1930s and made World War II more bearable. The author also criticizes some of the theoretical theses that make recession and economic failure an inevitable cause of war, similar to those who claim that the failure of leaders to prevent economic turmoil at home drives them to fabricate a crisis with a foreign opponent abroad to divert the attention of their citizens, that may even reach to the use of military force against others (as some Americans today fear Trump will do so against Iran or Venezuela before the next presidential election), or that the so-called “Military Keynesianism” theory claims that war generates a lot of economic demand, and it can sometimes drive stricken economies out of stagnation into prosperity. However, he admits that there are special cases in special circumstances in which economic depression encourages war when the state is certain of achieving a quick, immediate, and low-cost victory that benefits it much more than the decision to refrain from war, referring here to the example of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but Walt does not see any other country today in terms of circumstances and contexts similar to this case, including the case of Russia and Ukraine or China and Taiwan. Walt also acknowledges that in the long run, sustained economic depression may make the likelihood of war greater (not as a single and fundamental reason); it reinforces xenophobia, fascism, hyper-nationalism, extreme protectionist tendencies and makes it difficult for states to reach mutually acceptable bargains, citing what happened in Europe in the 1930s. Today’s world knows the rise of such movements already before COVID-19 appeared, so the economic misery that is occurring today could leave us in a situation more vulnerable to war when the virus fades. Finally, Walt asserts that the primary motivation for most wars is the desire for security, not economic gain or failure, so the possibilities of war increase “when states believe the long-term balance of power may be shifting against them, when they are convinced that adversaries are unalterably hostile and cannot be accommodated, and when they are confident they can reverse the unfavorable trends and establish a secure position if they act now.” So, there is no inevitable correlation between economic depression and the decision of waging war as much as the depression was/will be merely one of several reasons which could be more important.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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