Changes in Society: Generations of Modern War I

(clockwise from top left) Chinese forces in the Battle of Wanjialing Australian 25-pounder guns during the First Battle of El Alamein German Stuka dive bombers on the Eastern Front in December 1943 US naval force in the Lingayen Gulf Wilhelm Keitel signing the German Instrument of Surrender Soviet troops in the Battle of Stalingrad.

We have seen that 3GW or maneuver warfare really started in 1915 and came to maturity in 1940. The previous posts have also shown that major changes in warfare were always preceded by changes in the political, economic, social, and technical segments of society. Given that changes in these areas are apparent precursors to changes in warfare, we have to ask if the changes in society since the evolution of the third generation are sufficient to indicate that it is time for the fourth generation.

We know it took about a hundred years to move from the height of 1GW conflict, as represented by the Napoleonic Wars, to 2GW conflict, as represented by World War I. It required that long for society to develop the industrial, societal, and technical base to support the huge armies during a four-year struggle. We also know that although all the tactical elements of 3GW war were present in World War I, it required the twenty-one years between World War I and World War II for society to develop the base required to generate full-fledged maneuver war (3GW). Therefore, to explore the possibility that 4GW is evolving, the logical period to examine for political, economic, social, and technical changes is the time between the start of World War II and today.

Obviously, a single post cannot begin to provide a definitive list of the enormous societal changes since that time. However, this post provides an abbreviated listing of some of the key changes. It is designed to stimulate thought concerning the breadth and types of changes in society since the 1940s—and lead the reader to consider how those changes have affected warfare during the same period.

Politically, there have been extensive changes since the end of World War II. The most obvious is the exponential increase in the number of players on the international stage. Prior to the war, the nation-state was the only significant player on the international scene. Immediately after the war, both the political and economic spheres begin changing rapidly, and each added numerous and varied players to the political stage.

The most obvious change in the political scene was the creation and growth of international organizations. The first was the United Nations. It provided an international forum that had been lacking and was the precursor for numerous other international organizations. While it had little real power, the United Nations was immediately a part of any international political struggle. Initially, one of its prime functions was to provide an appearance of international approval for action taken in defense of both national and international interests, primarily of Western powers. However, as the United Nations expanded to include an ever-increasing number of Third World nations, it became an effective place for those nations to express their disapproval of the actions of Western powers, in particular the United States. Further, the United Nations was only the first of a series of international organizations that now have significant impact on the negotiations and relations between nations. The United Nations alone has given birth to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund,, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Each of these international agencies infringes on national sovereignty in one way or another. Nations are no longer free to set their own tariffs, their own interest rates, their own safety standards, their own constructions standards, and so on. These basic elements of national sovereignty were considered integral to a nation-state’s power prior to World War II.

Although the enforcement power of these bodies is sharply limited by the nature of the United Nations, we should not underestimate the influence they have through their member nations. Although the United Nations as a whole may not use military force to punish those who transgress, individual states certainly express their disapproval—in the political, economic, social, and even technical realms. A pariah state suffers from reduced contact in all areas. This translates into direct economic harm and may even lead to changed behavior. Although the final causes of South Africa’s transition to a majority black government are varied, its status as an outcast in the international community undoubtedly had significant impact.

In a similar vein, subordinate organizations of the United Nations and other independent international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), have a major impact on the actions of nations. Membership in the WTO or attempts to join it require nations to yield power concerning labor and trade practices. They must meet international standards that prior to World War II were mostly internal matters. Today, the World Bank can demand that nations comply with their “recommendations” on interest rates, internal distribution of funds, and international borrowing if they wish to continue receiving international funds.

Parallel to the growth of worldwide organizations, we have seen the growth of numerous regional organizations that place real limits on the powers of sovereign nations. Even the United States is not immune to their power: witness the impact of the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) on political and economic policies internal to our country. The European Union has an even greater impact on member nations than NAFTA has on its members. Similar regional organizations with varying degrees of power are now present throughout the world.

The second major change in the political structure was the huge increase in the number and diversity of nations. The postwar breakup of the European colonial empires gave birth to dozens of new nations—all theoretically equal partners in the United Nations. As a rough measure of the increase in players, the United Nations had fifty-one members when the Charter was originally signed in 1945. It now has 189 member states.

The proliferation of states and their varying stages of development create a complexity in international relations that did not exist before 1945. In 1945, the fifty-one nations were mostly political entities of long standing—the majority in the developed world. In contrast, the vast majority of the states that have joined since then are new nations, many artificially created by a colonial power. These nations naturally have different needs, concerns, and motivations than do developed nations of long standing.

The third significant change is the number of stateless actors that influence the international scene. These include both transnational and subnational elements.

On the transnational level, the players are numerous. They range from peaceful transnational movements such as Greenpeace to violent, radical Islamic movements such as al-Qaeda to the business-oriented transnational drug traders. The key element these organizations have in common is that they are not controlled by any nation or group of nations. They are literally free agents on the international scene and will interject themselves into international relations where and when they see fit, to meet their goals. They may seek something simple, such as involvement in elections. They may choose to influence elections through money, volunteering to support a candidate, or official endorsements of a candidate or position.

At the other end of the spectrum, transnational entities may choose to support an insurgent uprising to gain control of a portion of a country. They may simply choose to assassinate key opponents. Today, these transnational organizations employ a variety of techniques and have an impact on national and international events that simply was not present prior to World War II.

On the subnational level, we have numerous nations that lack states. Many of these groups fall either within a single state or straddle various states as a result of the artificial boundaries that evolved from the colonial era. Although these are not powerful organizations, they can play notable roles on the international scene. One only has to consider the impact of the Kurds, the Serbs, the Croats, the Palestinians, or the Irish Republican Army on recent events to see that, although relatively minor players, these subnational organizations can and do have impact.

Perhaps the most powerful and least controlled new international players are the international financial markets. Although there were markets prior to World War II, their impact was small compared to today’s markets. Then, market transactions took time, and the various nations could control many of these markets’ assets. Today, billions of dollars, pounds, euros, or yen can be moved instantaneously to any of millions of locations. Further, the decision to move those assets is not made in any one place or by any identifiable group of people or organizations. These decisions are made by two networked entities that Thomas Friedman has labeled the “Electronic Herd” and the “Supermarkets”:

The Electronic Herd today consists of two basic groups. One group I call the “short-horn cattle.” This includes all those people involved in the buying and selling of stocks, bonds and currencies around the world, and who can and often do move their money around on a very short-term basis. The short-horn cattle are currency traders, major mutual and pension funds, hedge funds, insurance companies, bank trading rooms and individual investors. They include everyone from Merrill Lynch to Credit Suisse to Fuji Bank to the Charles Schwab web site, where anyone with a PC and a modem can trade on line from his living room.

The other group I call the “long-horn cattle.” These are the multi-nationals—the General Electrics, the General Motorses, the IBMs, the Intels, the Siemenses—which are increasingly involved in foreign direct investment, building factories around the world or striking international long-term production deals or alliances with overseas factories to make or assemble their products. I call them the long-horn cattle because they have to make longer-term commitments when they invest in a country. But even they now move in and out, like a herd, with surprising speed.

This electronic herd monitors international conditions on an hour-by-hour basis. If they determine that a state is creating conditions hostile to profits, they can punish that state severely via the market. Credit will simply not be available for states that fall into disfavor. Whether political leaders admit it or not, their freedom of action is distinctly limited by the herd.

The second set of key economic players Friedman identifies, the “Supermarkets,” are the big stock exchanges in major cities: “According to University of Chicago globalization expert Saskia Sassen, by the end of 1997 twenty-five Supermarkets controlled 83 percent of the world’s equities under institutional management and accounted for roughly half of global market capitalization—around $20 trillion.”

This is ten times the size of the U.S. government’s annual budget—and it moves worldwide based on the independent and essentially uncontrollable decisions of millions of individual decision makers.

Although on the surface the markets seem to be purely economic, their impact is that of a powerful political player. This player can dictate trade policies, influence elections, determine interest rates, place limits on national social policy, decide acceptable banking practices, and drive many other activities of nations.

Even the United States is not immune. Despite the United States’ great size and dominant economy, the herd did not hesitate to rush from the market after the numerous revelations concerning CEO corruption and dishonest accounting practices. The sudden outflow of money from the market during July 2002 resurrected strong new regulatory legislation. Before the sudden descent of the Dow-Jones average below 8,000, the administration and Congress had buried the new regulatory laws. The herd responded by driving the Dow down, and Congress acted swiftly to pass the legislation. Clearly, the international markets themselves are now a major player in all political and economic decisions made by rational governments.

The cumulative effect of this proliferation of players on the international scene is a distinct reduction in the power and freedom of action of nations. Although they remain the primary players in international affairs, the wide variety of new players places restrictions on these states that simply did not exist at the beginning of World War II. The multitude of players also provides additional avenues for our enemies to influence U.S. policy.

As great as the political changes have been, economically the shift has been even more distinct. Just prior to World War II, a nation’s wealth was frequently measured in terms of tons of coal produced, tons of steel rolled, number of automobiles manufactured—all measures of an industrial power, with an emphasis on mechanical power. In fact, the fundamental sources of wealth in an industrial society were the raw materials and the manufacturing facilities that converted them to finished products. Mass production was the key to efficiency and to meeting customer demand. In a world of durable goods with long service lives, low cost and standardization were critical.

Today, the most rapidly growing sector of the international economy is information. Unlike industrial plants, these wealth-generating assets are easily moved—and are often part of geographically distributed networks in their day-to-day operations. Nations can no longer compel compliance from companies by threatening their physical assets—simply because many of a company’s most important assets exist only in cyberspace and can be moved anywhere in the world virtually instantaneously.

Further complicating the allegiance of economic entities is that a fair percentage of wealth today is generated by using knowledge developed in one nation to build factories that exploit resources (people, raw materials, markets) in another—yet all involved know the commitment is not long term. The relationship will continue only as long as it is advantageous economically.

Finally, the stock markets ensure that ownership of any public corporation may well be distributed worldwide, with large and small stockholders having little or no interest in the political needs of the “home” country of the corporation they own.

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